Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie

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!

33 comments

  1. Your review alone has brought me to tears. What a lovely, innocent picture. From the book? I did not know of this horrific story that I am sure that I will now read and I am equally sure it will haunt me.

    I appreciate historical novels. They always spur me on to find out more about the era, the people, the politics, etc. depicted.

    Oh my, this will be a tough one that I will soon attempt.

    1. No there’s only one photo in the book so I nabbed this one off the internet – it’s haunting, isn’t it? I hope you get around to reading this – as sad and awful as it is, I think that it’s important these children’s stories get told.

  2. I had no idea that the Goebbelses (well, that just looks silly) had killed their children. I just watched a documentary about Jonestown, and like you, I just can’t imagine how anyone could believe – without some clear, imminent worse fate pounding on the door – that it would be better to kill their kids.

    1. I know – I just don’t understand how you could ever become that committed to any cause to willingly surrender your children’s lives to it. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s really quite chilling.

      1. I would think that it is not surrendering the lives of children, but duty of parents to keep them from harm.

        First – remember what Nazi regime did to Jewish children. Would it not be just human to expect that same would be done to children of Nazis after victory?

        Second – have you read about children in Soviet prisoner camps? And if Soviets had gotten to these children, that would have likely been where they would have ended up.

        Could you leave your children to such fate?

  3. I had not heard of this book before reading your review but it does sound like a fascinating and very moving read. I do enjoy reading books from this time period – particularly those that have a real human element to them so I will definitely keep an eye out for this one.

    1. Yes it really is – I thought it was so interesting to explore life in Hitler’s bunker through the eyes of a child and it is done so well that I totally believed it. It’s so worth reading so I hope you come across it soon.

  4. I minored in German history in University, so this sounds like a particularly appealing read for me. The story of the Goebbels children’s end is one I’ve known for years, since I was probably 12 myself, and though it’s hardly the only example of parents making this decision in difficult times, it does stay with you. There is a particularly affecting scene depicting the murders in the wonderful film “Downfall.”

    1. That’s so interesting – I did a fair amount of German history at school but I’d love to know more. The film Downfall comes highly recommended in the sources listed in the back of the book – I’d really like to see it now. Thanks for the extra recommendation!

  5. Until I read your review I had never heard of this book before. Just from seeing the title I thought ‘oooh no, not for me’ but reading your review it sounds like its a rather incredible, emotional and important novel for many reasons. One to look out for in the library.

    1. I initially thought oh, no, as well, but then I thought I’d give it a go and it really was worth the discomfort of reading such a sad story. I encourage you to try it!

  6. I thought from just the cover this book would be a satire, so I was surprised to see it’s serious! I really want to read it; I’m going to keep a look out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    1. The cover is a bit creepy and not really representative of the subject I don’t think – Helga is 12 not a little toddler as depicted. I suppose it draws the eye to it, though! I hope you get a chance to read it soon!

  7. I’ve been intrigued by this book ever since seeing it on your sidebar and oh my goodness, chocolate cake maybe but sweetness and light…no! Just last week I watched a WWII special and learned of the Goebbels, how horrific. Your thoughts on the subject are mine as well but reading The Pursuit of Love by Mitford shows that this method of escape was pervasive. I don’t take much for granted but I’m feeling quite grateful after reading your review and will definitely be looking up this book!

    1. Absolutely not sweetness and light, no! I think you’d really enjoy it Darlene! An interesting juxtaposition with the Mitfords I think…poor Unity.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it Jennifer! I really liked how different this was to everything I normally read – not an easy or cosy read certainly but sometimes it’s good to be jolted out of your comfort zone!

  8. Just hearing that the children were brought into the bunker doesn’t bode well at all. This sounds like a difficult story to write and pull off well. It’s interesting reading about the war from a totally different perspective–especially innocent victims–children.

    1. Well exactly – it certainly wasn’t safer to take them in there so they must have decided they would kill them if this scenario happened a long time before taking them in. So sad but it really is written well and very sympathetically. Writing from a child’s view isn’t easy but it’s so brilliantly done here.

  9. Thank you for bringing attention to this book and review. I felt emotional just reading your review of this period in German history written from a child’s view – so poignant and chilling because this innocent girl and her siblings were real.

    1. Thank you for reading it, Linda! Exactly – it’s all the more moving because you know it really happened, and as hard as it is to read, it is important that these children’s memories are kept alive.

  10. There’s an incredibly chilling picture–taken, I assume, by the allies after Berlin fell–of the six Goebbels children laying dead in an orderly line. I think this book might be as distressing to read as Anne Frank’s diary–just knowing what the end is going to be.

    1. Yes, I’ve seen it – absolutely awful. It is a distressing read but at the same time I was able to forget and get lost in the story too, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

  11. Wow. This sounds very powerful. I didn’t now the Goebbels killed their children, but that sounds like something that WOULD happen, given the circumstances. Great review of what sounds like a very powerful book.

    1. Yes – people that deluded are capable of anything, clearly. Glad you liked the review – I think this is the sort of book you would like, Aarti!

  12. That was the bit in the film Downfall that really distressed me most – when Magda Goebbels murdered all her children. After that I did get a highly regarded biography of her, but it remains in the TBR pile!

    This book sounds like I will have to read it though.

    1. I should really like to watch that film, and read more about Magda Goebbels now. I’d like to understand her and what is was that led her to believe killing her children would be better than letting them live. From what I gathered from this book alone, she was a fascinating and complex woman.

  13. I’ve recently finished the book and, too, had to blink back the tears at the end. I felt that the angle taken, Helga’s, was a difficult one in that the author had to suggest what the child may have heard or seen, but be careful not to reveal the full background as she, Helga, would not have understood the full meaning of the hints she picks up. The soldier dropping and smashing the glass gave me chills and I have still to find out who he was and what the circumstances leading to that were. You say nobody in the bunker survived but actually that’s not true. I was intrigued to read that Mr Roshus Misch, the telephone operator who they say a silly song about, is still alive today. He is in fact the last survivor of the bunker.

    1. Hi Helen, what an interesting comment and thanks for the information about Mr Roshus, I didn’t realise that.

      Yes, exactly – it had to be a very delicate balance between letting the reader know what had happened, but at the same time, withdrawing certain details in order to accuratelt reflect the limited understanding of a child. Not an easy task but I think Craigie managed it superbly.

      Thanks so much for reading!

  14. Rachel, I finished Chocolate Cake with Hitler yesterday and it left me stunned. I, too, knew the ending, yet it left me feeling the way one feels when having just received terribly bad news and trying to digest it.

    There are so many clues in the book that Helga is sensitive to; the smell of marzipan, the dogs suddenly gone, The aversion of the grown-ups eyes, the sensitivity of Liesle, the young courier who drops the glass who Helga has a crush on. I see he has written a book about the war and think I will try to locate it.

    I found myself wondering who Craigie’s audience is. I can see this as part of a high school curriculum. High school here in the States is usually grades 9 though 12. 13-18 year olds.

    I would probably not have read this had I not read your review. It was a haunting book that will stay with me, much like reading Hersey’s Hiroshima that I read in high school, or QB VII, or Sophie’s Choice. Books that still haunt me today, years after their pages read, their tragic underscore of the most unimaginable circumstances.

    1. I’m so glad you read this and that it moved you so powerfully. Your review is excellent. I think this is definitely a book written forschool children, Anne Frank’s diary style, and I think it is excellent in bringing home the often uncomfortable truths of war and obsessive thinking in an accessible way. It is distressing but it’s essential that children understand the perils of extremism, I suppose. I don’t often read WWII era books about the Holocaust but I am definitely going to check out Sophie’s Choice as I have been meaning to read it for far too long.

      1. What is the narrative technique used in the book chocolate with hitler? i have read the book but just don’t seem to understand the narrative technique used in the book and does anyone know the theme of the book? URGENT HELP NEEDED! thanks so much🙂

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