Sunday, March 1, 2015

YA Guy Talks History

YA Guy's currently reading the bestseller by Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See. It tells the interweaving tales of two young people, one a blind French girl living through the Nazi occupation of her homeland, the other an orphaned German boy who's both an electronics genius and a recruit in one of the Reich's elite paramilitary corps. It's very well written, of course, and tells an intriguing story. I'm about a third done, so I'm not ready for a full review yet. But I'll admit I find one aspect of the book deeply troubling.

Doerr's book distributes sympathy evenly among the suffering French and the (supposedly) equally suffering "ordinary Germans" who are taken advantage of by Hitler's regime. Poor youth like orphaned Werner are abused, terrorized, and victimized by their ruthless Nazi overlords, while back in Werner's home, chronic poverty among the German masses contrasts starkly with the wealth of unscrupulous Nazi officials. To which I say:


Obviously, not every German benefited from Nazism. But most did. While those who were directly persecuted by the Nazis were relocated, incarcerated, or exterminated, the vast majority of "ordinary Germans" saw rising employment, sinking taxes, and a booming economy. It's one reason so very many "ordinary Germans" enthusiastically supported Hitler and the Nazis, even during wartime. The idea that most Germans opposed the Nazis but were afraid to speak their minds is a myth that's been exploded by modern historians. Only when the war started to go badly--that is, only when they started to suffer in ways similar to the human beings their society had persecuted--did significant numbers of Germans begin to grumble about the Party and its leader.

I think it's important to set the record straight on this, because there have now been not one but two massive American bestsellers based on the proposition that Nazism was a terrible trial not only for its millions of victims but for the German people as a whole. The first of these books was The Book Thief; now there's All The Light We Cannot See. Neither of these books is, strictly speaking, YA; but both have young protagonists and appeal to young readers. While there's nothing inherently wrong with books like this, I can't help thinking we're seeing a revisionist strain in young people's understanding of the Holocaust, and I also can't help thinking it's rooted in the tendency of books for young readers to reduce the complexity of how totalitarian societies actually work.

Think about Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the Harry Potter series, or President Snow and the Capitol in The Hunger Games, or any of a number of comparable YA or MG dystopian novels. The understanding of totalitarianism in these books is that a very small, ruling elite reaps all the benefits while everyone else silently suffers. While there are some historical examples where that model more or less applies--Stalin's Soviet Union being the most obvious, and the one George Orwell's 1984 used to set the pattern for dystopian literature--I find it disturbing to see this model creeping into the literary representation of the Holocaust. It's almost as if the tropes of dystopian YA have been read onto the historical record, rather than history being used to inform the tropes of historical YA.

Maybe I'm wrong about all this (hey, it's been known to happen). Maybe my reading of Holocaust literature for young people is too limited (though I've read quite a lot of it over the years); maybe two examples don't a trend make. If so, I'd love to hear some examples of YA novels that tell the true story of Nazi Germany--the story of "ordinary Germans" benefiting from, and for the most part suffering no qualms over, the incalculable suffering of those who were the Reich's true victims.


  1. You pose a very good point. It was always my impression that the great majority of the German populace supported the Nazi regime because they benefited from it. Literature tends to focus on resistance, and sometimes we are given the impression that resistance was more widespread than it really was. If you read The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss -- based on her real life experience -- it becomes clear that even in the occupied countries like Holland, a large portion of the populace took every advantage they could from siding with the Nazis. Poland was even worse. Only Denmark stood up en masse against the Nazis. In the Holocaust Museum, there is a memorial that lists hundreds of individuals who assisted Jews from every European country, but for Denmark it simply says: King Christian X and ALL his citizens.

    Too many to name.

    But then again, history is written by the winners. And re-written by the people in power. (Look at King Richard III.) We can't even be sure of what's happening while it's taking place. History is also written by the news networks ...

    1. I'll have to read The Upstairs Room; it sounds good. In general, I guess I'm just not interested in reading about how bad the poor Germans had it during WWII. Seems to me most of them (and lots of others, as you say) were living quite comfortably off the blood and suffering of others.