Melanie at Short Books was so kind as to send me Chocolate Cake with Hitler to review after my disappointment with The Diary of Miss Idilia. I was intrigued by the idea of writing a fictionalised version of real events from the point of view of a twelve year old; not a particularly easy task but one Emma Craigie manages excellently. I was totally enthralled by the story and by the angle it takes on Hitler and the Nazi regime. It was much like a fictionalised Anne Frank’s Diary.
The book is told from the point of view of Helga Goebbels, the eldest daughter of Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s right hand man. The story opens as Josef, his wife Magda, and their six children leave their home in the countryside outside war torn Berlin and enter Hitler’s bunker underneath the city. Helga and her siblings, highly protected from the happenings of the war so far, are told that this is for their own safety, and that nothing can happen to them while they are safe underground. The children must go about their usual routine; lessons, playing, rests, mealtimes, all whilst the bombs of the Russian army boom above them and the atmosphere within the bunker becomes more and more tense. Every day they have tea with Hitler, who embarrasses twelve year old Helga by gulping chocolate cake down greedily and spilling his tea with his shaky hands. Hitler’s increasingly morose demeanour is very disturbing for Helga and her younger siblings, as they begin to suspect that all is not well, and that perhaps they are not going to win the war after all.
Helga is a lively and intuitive narrator, understanding far more about her situation than the adults around her realise. Her fear is painful to read about; it is only she out of her siblings that seems to wonder why none of the other high ranking members of the Nazi Party have brought their children with them into the bunker, and a sense of foreboding underlies every hour. Everyone else has sent their children to safety, well outside of Berlin, and as the sounds of bombs and rifle fire come closer and closer, sending clouds of dust down from the ceilings of the bunker, Helga begins to wonder whether they are going to get out alive. Her uncertainty and worry never leave her, and her insights into the behaviour of Hitler and his staff, noting how their conversation, appearance and habits have changed over the course of the past few days, demonstrate how intuitive children can be.
Juxtaposed with each day in the bunker, there is an interesting memory of Helga’s from her childhood, pointing to times when all seemed well, but actually, this end was already on the horizon; friendships with Jews forbidden, forced curtsies to Hitler at rallies, overhearing arguments between her mother and grandmother, a fierce anti Nazi…These memories paint a picture of an intelligent, high spirited and magnanimous child, innocent of her parents’ crimes, who took great joy in life and had many hopes and dreams for the future, which tragically would be destroyed by those who were supposed to love and protect her the most.
This is a short but incredibly emotive and powerful book, and I did have to blink back tears when I read the postscript about how the Goebbels children were murdered by their mother. According to a letter written by Magda to her eldest son Harald (from an earlier marriage) she killed her six children with Goebbels because she and Joseph thought a world not ruled by Hitler was not one worth living in, and if Germany looked like it was going to fall, they felt they were doing their children a kindness by killing them before that became a reality. I find it difficult to understand how intelligent people could become so blinkered by an ideology, so much so that they would be prepared to force cyanide down their own children’s throats. It’s just incomprehensible to me.
It’s a tragic story, but told beautifully and sympathetically by Craigie, who convinces utterly in the voice of 12 year old Helga, wistfully remembering the happy days of her childhood as she lies awake with worry, listening to the sounds of the adults she used to so admire and trust shouting and crying in a bunker miles under the surface of a half destroyed Berlin. I can’t imagine the terror the real Helga must have felt, and I only hope that she suffered no pain as she was murdered. It’s a hard book to read, knowing the outcome before you start, but at the same time, I think it’s important these books are written, and these stories kept alive, to remind us from where we have come, and to what we never want to return. Craigie is sensitive enough not to sensationalise or elaborate, and in Helga she has drawn a realistic and empathetic narrator who draws us into the story of the last days of Hitler’s Reich. It’s a brilliant book, especially of interest for those fascinated by the war or German history, and if you can bear to read it, knowing that everyone in it ends up dead (I don’t feel I’m spoiling the plot by saying that, as it is historical fact!), then you will be richly rewarded. I think I am quickly becoming a convert to historical novels, after all!