Though German resistance to Hitler once the Nazis were established in power was difficult, more than difficult, it did exist. The Socialist History Society brought together material on working class political resistance to the Nazis in Anti-Nazi Germans; the Christian resisters based round the Confessing Church especially Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller are well known; the ill-fated assassination attempt by the democratic centre and right under Claud von Stauffenberg, which led to thousands of executions, has been written about, notably in The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg (who came to Nottingham to speak in 1989); the student White Rose Group is also now well known. There were also the Rosenstrasse demonstrations by the German wives of Jewish men which successfully stopped the deportation of their husbands in the spring of 1943.
The one group that has had limited attention is the Edelweiss Pirates. This book will help to give them a profile, not least as Michael Rosen has written a foreword to the British edition.
The Edelweiss Pirates were actually not so much a group as a movement, perhaps not even that, but their activities eventually involved several thousand dissident young people who were increasingly repressed by the Nazis. It was a counter-cultural informal association of like-minded working class teenagers, who played music, grew their hair longer than was considered proper, camped out in the countryside, and held street battles with the Hitler Youth, an organisation which everyone their age was expected to join. Only in relatively recent times has their significance as resistors been recognised, when earlier they were seen as something akin to drop-outs. People finally realised that being a drop-out under the Nazis was being a resistor and some paid with their lives. There are a number of memoirs of former Pirates published in Germany, but little about them here.
But does it work as a novel, and a novel for older children at that? The book starts with a hanging, the brother of the narrator being publicly executed. That chapter, like most of the book, is written in italics, in diary form, the narrator of the diary being a teenager who starts knocking round with a group of Pirates, gradually getting more and more involved, his contempt for the Hitler Youth leading him into direct confrontation and direct resistance. He was fourteen at the start, with only eight years of schooling and he would soon start work in a factory, treated like dirt because of his views. Alongside the diary – printed without italics – is the story of a teenager from this century who is given the diary by an old man. They meet, seemingly for the first time, in a cemetery where the old man is at the grave of his brother and the teenager at the nearby grave of his own grandfather. Why is he picked out at the person to receive the diary? We will learn, but until we do we follow the paths in tandem – the teenager reading the diary slowly, chapter by chapter, wanting to savour it, wanting to know what it has to do with him. He visits the poor care home where the old man is living and is touched by his surroundings, and by the old man’s love for his pet birds.
I was not completely convinced of the links between the two sides of the story though. The circle that you knew would be completed seemed a bit artificial. What was better was the diary itself, where you could feel the excitement of joining a tribe, a group of people who understood you and were like you (it’s not only teenagers who do this!). There was great tension in the battles with Hitler Youth and the illegal acts the Pirates undertook. However, to my surprise, the part that affected me most in the diary was when the war was coming to a close – the Gestapo was even more murderous towards those who were not patriots, but also the city of Cologne, the setting of the book, was so badly bombed that people were starving, living under wave after wave of bombings of civilian areas by the Allies. The Pirates were under attack from all sides.
Verdict? Yes, read, try it on a young adult, but also hope for a good English-language book on the Pirates which is not fiction.
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