‘The past is a moving target’ [book review]

A review of Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how publishing – in the UK, at least – seems to have a bit of a thing for war stories at the moment. Several fine Second World War memoirs and histories have been published in recent months and years, many of them going on to scoop prizes like the Costa Book of the Year, which suggests that the reading public has a pretty strong appetite for books on this particular topic. Published this week by Ebury Press, Svenja O’Donnell’s Inge’s War adds to the collection, but does so in a way that makes it truly stand out from the crowd.

Inge's War Svenja O'Donnell

In a similar vein to The Cut Out Girl, O’Donnell’s powerful debut combines personal memoir with family history as the journalist sets out to reconstruct her grandmother’s experience of the Second World War. Born in the German city of Königsberg (now the Russian exclave Kaliningrad) in 1924, O’Donnell’s maternal grandmother, Inge, was only a child when Hitler seized power in 1933. Over the next twelve years she would not only grow up, fall in love and become a young mother, but would also see the outlying German state of East Prussia transform from a peaceful, prosperous, relatively liberal region into an area that claimed the highest Nazi party membership in Hitler’s entire Reich. Forced to flee by Allied bombing raids and the approaching Red Army, Inge, her baby daughter and her parents left Königsberg as refugees, arriving first in Denmark and then moving back to a different area of occupied Germany. In later life an aloof, often highly strung woman, Inge never spoke of her traumatic experiences, but only began opening up to her granddaughter a few years before her death. Inge’s War is both an attempt to unravel the secrets she held close to her chest for sixty years and a moving portrayal of a newfound family relationship that almost never had the chance to develop.

O’Donnell’s background as a journalist is clearly visible in her book, which is thoroughly researched and strikes just the right balance between a gripping sense of immediacy and considered, objective reflection. ‘It’s strange to think of Germans as refugees,’ writes O’Donnell, who is clearly very aware of her position as a child of Irish and German parents – an in-between standpoint that gives her access to the national psyche of both the war’s winning and losing sides. In describing her own, her mother’s and her grandmother’s relationship with Germany, she sensitively explores the concept of inherited guilt and the way different points of view caused ordinary German citizens – many of whom became refugees like her grandmother – to be variously presented as perpetrators or victims after the war.

It is perhaps little known that around 250,000 civilians fled East Prussia for Denmark in 1945, or that 7,000 children died of easily treatable causes such as malnutrition during the first year of their new lives as refugees. In uncovering this story – unknown to her too – O’Donnell is careful not to judge, presenting simply the facts of her grandmother’s life and the situation as what she believes it to be: ‘a tragedy lost in the enormity of the greater crimes [the German refugees’] country had committed’. Personally, I found it a fascinating angle on a period I thought I had studied fairly well at school and university – there are plenty of astonishing facts within this story that underpin the personal, more emotional aspects of it. The German refugee story is indeed less explored than others – as is the general chaos into which Europe was plunged in the immediate aftermath of the war – and O’Donnell tackles her subject with a journalist’s nose for uncovering new truths and hard facts.

While Inge’s life story is extraordinary in and of itself, happily O’Donnell is a consummate storyteller, knowing exactly how to weave past and present narrative strands together and presenting the ultimate hidden secret – a seemingly essential ingredient of this kind of book – in a way that avoids any kind of unnecessary melodrama. Inges’s War is worth reading for the writing alone, which is flowing, compelling and often beautiful, painting a rich portrait of life in East Prussia in the late 1930s, the hidden jazz clubs of wartime Berlin, the fear-soaked days of 1945, and the ways in which Inge and her family set about rebuilding their lives. The contrast between 1930s Königsberg and modern-day Kaliningrad is a stark one, adding an extra poignancy to O’Donnell’s early description of her Inge as ‘a girl from a vanished land’.

O’Donnell’s late-blossoming relationship with her grandmother, which came about entirely unexpectedly, is also delicately rendered, allowing us to accompany the author on a deeply personal journey into her family history. The more of her grandmother’s past she uncovers – the more she begins to understand – the more she reconsiders her outlook on life, in areas both small and large. ‘No one can take their capacity for heroism for granted,’ she muses, wondering what she would have done in Inge’s family’s position. And still there is no judgement – in fact, we are made to feel such a thing is impossible.

Why impossible? Because, as O’Donnell puts it, ‘the past is a moving target’, too easily judged when it is influenced by all we know – or think we know – now. In writing this sort of personal history it surely isn’t easy to remain clear-sighted, yet this is exactly what O’Donnell has achieved, and Inge’s War is all the stronger for it. A fascinating story, absorbingly personal history and gentle, measured examination of thorny issues such as inherited guilt, this is a work of narrative non-fiction worth adding to any collection.

Inge’s War: A Story of Family, Secrets and Survival under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell is published in hardback by Ebury Press on 6 August 2020. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising an advance review copy and giving me a place on the publication blog tour.

Inge's War Blog Tour Poster
Inge’s War Blog Tour

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