Sunday, May 19, 2013

Magda - Meike Ziervogel

I am familiar with Meike Ziervogel in her role as founder of Peirene Press but now I've had the chance to think of her as a novelist. (It's an aside but I find Peirene's progress encouraging and inspiring. People talk about the death of the book and other such nonsense, but the success of small independent publishers shows that the world is a much better, and much more interesting, place than some would have us believe.) Some time in the dim and distant past I watched a documentary about Magda Goebbels and I've found her an interesting character ever since. The idea of mothers who harm their children seems to have a power to shock like nothing else (nothing else I can think of anyway) but when I first watched that documentary it seemed to me quite possible to empathise with Magda's decision to kill her children, uncomfortable, but possible.

I also read somewhere that the British have such an obsession with the second world war that more books are published about it here than anywhere else in the world, I'm still not quite sure what I make of that but I am interested in how Germany has come to terms with it's 20th century history, and more specifically how we, the British, can accept and discuss that changing relationship with the past. The book that started this interest was Bernhard Schlink's 'The Reader', easily the first time I'd seen a Nazi portrayed with any sympathy, it's an excellent book but Schlink chose to make his heroine a victim of circumstance. 'Magda' moves that process along, Magda is hardly a victim but Ziervogel does make her human.

Fiction that uses real people or events isn't always my cup of tea and I must admit that whilst I enjoyed the first half of 'Magda' enough to carry on reading it wasn't until the second half of the book - when the family arrive in the bunker - that it really came alive to me. The bunker is deftly sketched, mentions of the dark, the close air, the impact of bombs falling over head, drunken soldiers gathered in corners, and whispered conversations as Eva Braun and Hitler's wedding preparations are made heighten the sense of tension and claustrophobia as the story winds towards it's inevitable conclusion. 

It's at this point that Magda's eldest daughter, Helga, really makes her impact on the narrative. She's recording her experiences in the bunker - the day to day life, first love, and a growing sense of unease with her mother. For Helga and the children there is the idea that life is the thing, and that the future will take care if itself. They have been shielded from the reality of war, even into the last days the possibility of defeat is inconceivable, the talk of soldiers who say it's so seems iconoclastic to the point of blasphemy. For Magda there is the reality of the situation, she knows what the consequences of defeat are likely to be for the first lady of the Reich. Ziervogal chooses to have Magda believe in Hitler with a religious fervour so that her final act is a blend of loyalty and protectiveness amongst other things.

In truth I've always been inclined to see what Magda did as at least in part an act of compassion. Her children would have had a hard legacy to bear. In a letter to her eldest son from a previous marriage Magda stated that Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvellous that I have known in my life. The world that comes after the Führer and national socialism is not any longer worth living in and therefore I took the children with me (or at least something like it, that quote is lifted from wikipedia). What kind of life can you imagine for those children, and later yet their children? 

'Magda' is a complex portrait of a difficult and emotive situation. It's good to read about these names from history as people rather than monsters, and worthwhile to try and understand what drives a person to do terrible things. The result is something that has lingered in my mind and imagination weeks after reading it and which I wholeheartedly recommend.  


  1. I am always interested to read non-British WW2 novels and this one is no exception. I'm pleased that Ziervogel makes her human,I think it would be too easy to just portray her as a monster. There is always so much going on behind the scenes, particularly in this situation, that it is often counter productive to just fling the label 'monster' around. Very interested to read this because I am definitely one of the Brits who has an obsession with WW2 (although WW1 is more my area)!

    As a fan of Peirene Press I am doubly interested to read this.

  2. I think you'll like it a lot then Ellie. I thought she did an excellent job of showing how things can get out of hand and how circumstance, ego, and belief can make people do monstrous things. I feel she also makes the case that what Magda did was almost an act of love and compassion albeit misdirected. Also I can't praise the bunker section enough, it was nail biting brilliant.