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SPOTLIGHT: Best Books on the German Resistance

Thursday, September 24, 2015

My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm Brothers' version of 'Beauty & the Beast', set in the underground German resistance in Nazi Berlin. I first got the idea in a liminal dream - as I drifted in the shadowlands between sleeping and waking, I saw an image of a young woman, dressed in a 1940s golden gown, singing to a nightclub full of men in black SS uniforms. I knew - I don't know how - that she was German, and a member of an underground resistance movement sworn fight against Hitler.  (You can read the whole story about that first moment of inspiration here).

I had not realised that there was a German resistance movement before.  

had heard about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group, and knew there had been numerous attempts to assassinate Hitler, but that was the extent of my knowledge. 

I got out of bed and went down to my study to see what I could find out.  Within a day or two, I had most of the plot of THE BEAST'S GARDEN roughly planned.

Over the next few years, I read many books about the German Resistance, and I thought I would share some of them with you, if you were interested on going on to read more.

GERMANY'S UNDERGROUND: The Anti-Nazi Resistance - Allan Welsh Dulles

This is the classic account of the German Underground, written by someone who was there on the ground and published in 1947. 

Allen W. Dulles was the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Switzerland during the war. This was the predecessor of the CIA and was formed to conduct espionage behind enemy lines. He concentrates on the 1944 Generals Plot to assassinate Hitler, best known as Operation Valkyrie, but does touch upon many other resistance groups, such as the Kreisau Group. A really good place to start, as I discovered.   

OPERATION VALKYIE: The German Generals' Plot Against Hitler - Pierre Galante
This account of the Generals' Plot looks at the sequence of events from the beginning of the conspiracy to the bitter failure of the end. The Generals' Plot has been immortalised by Tom Cruise in the 2008 movie 'Valkyrie', so most people will know the basic story arc - the madness of Hitler, the growing unease at many in his army command as the Holocaust began its terrible human toll, and the repeated failed attempts to assassinate the dictator.  This is a very readable and persuasive account of the events which led to the July 1944 plot to blow up Hitler at his Wolf's Lair headquarters, and the violent aftermath of its failure. 

ON THE ROAD TO THE WOLF'S LAIR: German Resistance to Hitler - Theodore S. Hamerow
A scholarly examination of the men and women who worked to bring about the Operation Valkyrie, with many references to primary documents such as letters, diaries, and reports. It is particularly concerned with the slow awakening of conscience in the generals and other army personnel, and their individual decisions to risk their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, to kill Hitler. A fascinating but rather heavy read.

COUNTDOWN TO VALKYRIE: the July Plot to Assassinate Hitler - Nigel Jones

A very readable account of Operation Valkyrie, with a close look at the personalities of the men involved, and the chronology of the events. Very useful to me as I built my timeline!

CONFRONT! Resistance in Nazi Germany - ed. John J. Michalczyk 

A more scholarly look at the topic, with a variety of different essays each focusing on a different aspect of resistance within Germany. 

CANARIS: Hitler's Spy Chief - Richard Bassett

A biography of the fascinating and enigmatic man at the centre of the plot to assassinate Hitler - the dictator's own spy chief. Canaries was head of the Abwehr, the German secret intelligence service, yet he worked quietly for years to feed information to the Allies and  misinformation to Hitler. He paid for it with his life, just days before the liberation of the concentration camps by the Allies.  

RESISTING HITLER: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra  - Shareen Blair Brysac

RED ORCHESTRA: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends who Resisted Hitler - Anne Nelson 

At the heart of THE BEAST'S GARDEN is the tragic story of the Red Orchestra, a circle of writers, actors, artists, journalists and academics who played a dangerous double game as they lived and worked in Berlin yet passed on secret information to the Allies. These two books were absolutely crucial to me in building my story, and I studied them again and again.  It is an absolutely fascinating and largely unknown part of German history, and I really encourage anyone interested in the German resistance to read these two books.  

BERLIN GHETTO: Herbert Baum and the Anti-Fascist Resistance - Eric Brothers

A little known circle of resisters were a group of young Jewish couples and friends who tried to blow up Goebbels' anti-Soviet exhibition, smuggling the fuses and gunpowder out of the armaments factories in which they worked as slave labour. The bomb attempt largely failed, and most paid for their defiance with their lives, but its a significant example of Jewish resistance to Hitler. 

SOPHIE SCHOLL: The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler - Frank McDonough 

The story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group of friends is probably the most famous account of resistance in Germany, and - like so many others - it has a tragic ending. This is a really balanced and beautifully written account, and a great place to start if you want to discover more about those courageous Munich students. 

WOMEN HEROES OF WORLD WAR II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue  - Kathryn J. Atwood

A fascinating account of brave young women of many different nationalities, including Germany as well as the Netherlands, Poland, France, Denmark and the UK and US.   


BOOK LIST: Books Read in June 2014

Sunday, August 03, 2014


I came home from the ANZ Festival of Literature & the Arts in London with a whole bag of books and am slowly reading my way through them. Quite a few of them are by Australian writers who were speakers at the festival – it seems ironic that I had to travel 17,000 kilometres to discover books I could have bought at my local bookstore! 

Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy – Karen Foxlee
I really loved Karen’s mysterious and beautiful novel The Midnight Dress, and once I heard Karen speak about her new book Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy I knew at once that it sounded like my kind of book. I bought the gorgeous hard-back in London, and am glad that I did as the production is just exquisite.
The story revolves around eleven-year-old Ophelia who is smart and scientifically minded. She and her sister and father have moved to a city where it never stops snowing, as her father – who is an expert on swords – has taken up a position in a huge, dark, gothic museum filled with secrets and strange things. Ophelia sets out to explore, and finds a locked room hidden away in the depths of the museum. She puts her eyes to the keyhole … and sees a boy’s blue eyes looking out at her. He tells her that he has been a prisoner for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen and her clock is ticking down towards the end of the world. Only he can stop her … but first he must escape.

A gorgeously written and delicate fairy tale, Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy reminded me of some of my favourite children’s writers such as Cassandra Golds and Laura Amy Schlitz, who are themselves inspired by Nicholas Stuart Grey and George Macdonald. (You can read my interview with Karen Foxlee here)

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes – Mary M Talbot & Bryan Talbot 
Another book I bought in London was what I can best describe as a graphic memoir/biography. Told in comic book form, the story compares the life stories of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of the famous writer James Joyce, and that of the book’s author Mary Talbot, daughter of the foremost Joycean scholar, James S. Atherton. Both narratives begin with the girls’ childhood and show their struggles to grow up in the shadows of difficult and demanding fathers. Lucia wants to dance, but is confined by the petty societal rules of her time. She ends up confined in a madhouse.  Mary rebels against her father, and forges a life for herself. The book shows how she fell in love with a young artist and married him – he is, of course, Bryan Talbot, the illustrator whose incredible artwork adorns every page. The book is acutely intelligent but highly readable, illuminating both the heartbreakingly sad story of Lucia James and the work of two exceptional contemporary artists. Not surpisingly, Dotter of My Father’s  Eyes won the 2012 Costa biography award.

The Spare Room – Helen Garner
I heard Helen speak in London and thought she was warm and funny and beautifully articulate, so I was very pleased to have her sign my copy of her first novel in sixteen years, The Spare Room. Published in 2008, the novel won a swathe of awards including the Barbara Jefferis Award. It reads more like a memoir, being told from the first person point of view of a writer named Helen living in Melbourne and being inspired by events that actually happened in Helen Garner’s life. However, no doubt many of the people and incidents have been changed during the writing process. The story is driven by the narrator Helen’s fear and distress, after a dear friend who is dying of cancer comes to stay with her for three weeks while undertaking some kind of quack treatment. The writing is crisp and strong and poised, and the characters spring to life on the page with only a few deft strokes. I loved it. 

Goddess – Kelly Gardiner
I’m been a big admirer of Kelly Gardiner’s gorgeous historical novels for young adults, Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, both of which are set in the mid-17th century, one of my favourite historical periods for fiction. Goddess is Kelly’s first novel for adults, based on the fascinating true life story of Julie d'Aubigny, a woman out of step with her own time (The court of the Sun King, Louise XIV, in Paris during the 1680s) Raised like a boy by her swordsman father, Julie likes to dress like a man and will fight a duel with anyone who crosses her. One night she fights three duels back-to-back, winning them all. She elopes with a young nun and is sentenced to be burned at the stake, but escapes and becomes a famous opera star. The story of her adventures seems too incredible to possibly be true. The book is told in Julie’s voice – witty, intelligent and wry - and the whole is pulled off with wit and flair. 

A Stranger Came Ashore – Mollie Hunter
Mollie Hunter is a wonderful Scottish writer for children who is not nearly as well-known as she deserves to be. I have many of her books – some collected when I was a child and some (including a signed first edition) collected as an adult. I first read A Stranger Came Ashore when I was about eleven, after borrowing it from my school library. I’ve been looking for it ever since, but could not remember its name. Then, a month or so ago, I read a brief review of it on an English book blog and at once remembered how much I had loved it, and orderd a copy straightaway. 
It’s a Selkie tale, set in the Highlands of Scotland sometime in the 19th century. The novel begins with a storm, and a shipwreck, and a handsome, young stranger washed ashore. As his sister begins to fall in love with the stranger, forgetting her childhood sweetheart, 12-year old Robbie Henderson finds himself becoming more and more suspicious. He remembers an old tale his grandfather used to tell him about seals that turn into humans, but cannot believe it could be true. Soon he is caught up in a dark and suspenseful adventure as he tries to save his sister. A Stranger Came Ashore was rightly acclaimed when it was published in 1975, winning many awards including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. 

The Color Purple - Alice Walker
I saw Alice Walker speak at the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and bought The Color Purple which I had read and adored about thirty years ago (it was first published in 1982 – impossible to believe it’s been so long!) I read it all in one gulp and loved it just as much as I did when I was a teenager. I loved the movie too. This book will always be on my list of all-time favourite books.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
I finally had a chance to read this brilliant historical novel by debut author Hannah Kent. Burial Rites been a critical and a commercial success, and deservedly so. The writing is so precise and vivid, and the story so compelling. I found myself stopping to read certain sentences again, just for the pleasure of the words: ‘it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow.’ Burial Rites is set in Iceland in 1830, the last year in the life of a woman condemned to be executed for murder. The use of real historical documents as epigraphs at the beginning of each section adds to the sense of truth and awfulness. A clever and truly beautiful book.  

Meanwhile, my research into Nazi Germany continues. Two stand-out books I read this month: 

Some Girls, Some Hats & Hitler – Trudi Kanter
Sifting through a second-hand bookshop in London, an English editor stumbled upon this self-published memoir of a young Jewish woman in Vienna and – enchanted by her romantic love story and vivid writing style – republished the book.
In 1938 Trudi Kanter was a milliner for the best-dressed women in Vienna. She was beautiful and chic and sophisticated, travelling to Paris to see the latest fashions and selling her hats to some of the most wealthy and aristocratic ladies of Europe. She was madly in love with a charming and wealthy businesseman, and had a loving and close-knit family. Then the Nazis marched into Austria, and everything Trudi knew was in ruins. She and her new husband had to try and find some way to escape and make a new life for themselves … and Trudi would need all her wits and panache just to survive.  

Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of The Woman Who Defied Hitler – Frank McDonough
The heart-breaking story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, a group of young university students who protested against the crimes of the Nazi regime and paid for it with their lives. 


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