At school, over the years, I learnt a lot about Nazi Germany and World War Two. Our curriculum was sporadic - a smattering of the Incas here, a dash of Norman conquest there, a generous dollop of the Tudors, a respectable amount of Communist Russia, a lot of Hitler. My general knowledge of world history is embarrassingly patchy but I did five years on the Nazis. Despite this we never confronted the guilt. I knew objectively about the policy of appeasement and the Munich Pact but I'd never really considered, not properly, the lag between Hitler declaring himself as Chancellor in 1933 and European intervention in 1939. That is six years. The Night of the Long Knives was only 1934. What were we doing with ourselves? How did we look the other way for so long.
I understand the rational arguments, a world war had crippled a generation only twelve years before, but reading Anna Funder's All That I Am it is hard to hold on to that. The book tells the story of a handful of the intellectual exiles and refugees - communists, socialists, political activists, writers and journalists - who fled Hitler's Germany in the early 1930s. It focuses on cousins Ruth and Dora who manage to escape arrest and execution by the Nazis and make it to Britain and, supposedly, safety. They want to spread the word about Hitler's activities, his ambitions and intentions for Germany, his warmongering and threats to civil liberty, but their refugee visas don't allow them to engage in 'political activity'. They can be sent back to Germany for spreading the word about why they were forced to flee the country in the first place. They can be sent back to Germany for trying to tell the world about his military plans and the brutality he is imposing on his own people. Soon, tragically, it becomes clear that the Reich's power extends well past its national boundaries and, even in London, they can murder those who criticise them with impunity. The English government does nothing.
I don't know how to deal with this. Reading the last quarter of All That I Am at 1am on holiday made me feel almost sick with grief and guilt. Why didn't we stop this? How did we not do anything? The relevant information about Hitler's intentions and capabilities were made available to us so early and we did nothing. We did nothing and we failed to protect those who sought asylum on our shores. People trying to bring down the Nazis were murdered in our city and we did nothing. We didn't even give them justice in death. It's heartbreaking. And it's all true. Although the book is a novel it is based on actual people and actual verifiable events. Everything that happened did happen. Funder is a historian and she is clearly differentiating All That I Am and her previous book, Stasiland (which I also own and will be reading soon). In labeling the book as a novel she has the opportunity to imagine every breath and glance and conversation - all the unverifiable things. It allows you interact with history in a different way. It makes me want to get into theories of history and fiction but I'm sleepy and I couldn't give it my best right now. Suffice to say, it is a powerful combination, the emotional closeness to fictional characters and the awareness that these were real people.
This isn't a great or grand book. In some ways I felt that it was cold and little but that is fitting to the subject matter. Funder met and knew Ruth in Australia before her death in 2001 and the book feels lovingly researched. It is not a sweeping, grandiose novel, there is something quiet about it, but it is a vital story convincingly written. It is also a story that doesn't get told enough. I think everyone should read but I particularly think that Brits should read it. It is a part of our twentieth century heritage that isn't discussed enough. I don't know how to deal with the aftermath of it but it absolutely is something that we should be remembering and thinking about.
Not really light holiday reading but a definite recommendation.