The best personal books about German complicity and resistance in WW2

L. Annette Binder Author Of The Vanishing Sky
By L. Annette Binder

Who am I?

I was born in Germany and came to the US as a small child. My parents spoke only German at home but rarely talked with me about their years in Germany. Years after my father had died, I came across a photograph of him wearing a Hitler Youth uniform. What I learned about his childhood and his family inspired much of my novel The Vanishing Sky. Though my novel is finished, I continue to read about the German experience of WW2 because it resonates for me personally and because the lessons it teaches us are still relevant today.

I wrote...

The Vanishing Sky

By L. Annette Binder,

Book cover of The Vanishing Sky

What is my book about?

In 1945, as the war in Germany nears its violent end, the Huber family is not yet free of its dangers or its insidious demands. Etta, a mother from a small, rural town, struggles to protect her son Max, who has returned from the Eastern front suffering from a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, miles away, her younger son Georg has taken his fate into his own hands, deserting his young class of battle-bound soldiers to set off on a long and perilous journey home.

The Vanishing Sky is a World War II novel as seen through a German lens, a story of the irreparable damage of war on the home front, and one family's participation-involuntary, unseen, or direct-in a dangerous regime.

The books I picked & why

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The Collected Stories of Heinrich Boll

By Heinrich Boll, Leila Vennewitz (translator),

Book cover of The Collected Stories of Heinrich Boll

Why this book?

In this devastating collection, Böll explores the emotional aftershocks of war. German soldiers grapple with the desire to flee, to understand what they’ve lost in the fighting, and to make even fleeting connections with each other and the civilians they meet in the bombed out cities and towns. In “Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We…” a wounded soldier only gradually comes to realize the extent of his injuries. The weight of the war works its way through all the stories in one way or another, even when the narrators don’t expressly refer to combat or the regime.

Every Man Dies Alone

By Hans Fallada, Michael Hofmann (translator),

Book cover of Every Man Dies Alone

Why this book?

Based on a true story, this novel focuses on Anna and Otto Quangel, a working-class married couple who begin to resist the Nazis after losing their only son in the fighting. The novel is dense, immersive, and rich with characters, ranging from rabid Nazi members to those opposing the murderous goals of the party and those in the middle trying to survive the regime. “Most people today are afraid, basically everyone, because they’re all up to something forbidden, one way or another, and are worried someone will get wind of it,” Quangel thinks to himself. Fallada wrote the novel in just twenty-four days while in a mental institution, and he died before it was published. A compelling read with characters that linger in the imagination.

We Germans

By Alexander Starritt,

Book cover of We Germans

Why this book?

An epistolary novel written as a letter from an elderly German man explaining his time as a soldier on the Eastern Front to his grandson. The novel has both the immediacy of a wartime narrative and the introspection of a memoir. “Eat now, sleep now, march now, follow your leader — that’s what they’d demanded of us; we’d followed, and they’d led us into disaster,” the narrator says as he describes his own predicament, but it serves to explain the horrors of the regime as a whole. It resonated for me personally, highlighting the silence and shame that surrounds the experiences of so many Germans who were young adults during WW2. Starritt is half-Scottish and half-German, and We Germans was inspired in part by his grandfather’s time on the Eastern Front. The novel was the recipient of the Dayton Peace Prize.

To Zenzi

By Robert L. Shuster,

Book cover of To Zenzi

Why this book?

Another epistolary novel, this time about a Hitler Youth boy who finds himself working as Hitler’s personal artist. Through a strange series of events, young Tobias Koertig must prowl the streets of Berlin, draw pictures of the devastation from the Allied air raids and bring the drawings back to Hitler as he cowers in his bunker. Tobias is desperately in love with Zenzi, a young Jewish girl he’s known since his childhood. Part love story, part war story, the novel is dark, strange, and often funny, affirming the beauty and unpredictability of life under even the most terrible circumstances. I had a hard time putting this book down.

A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika

By Alfons Heck,

Book cover of A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika

Why this book?

Heck’s plain-spoken memoir of his indoctrination into Nazism as a young boy and his time in the Hitler Youth and the German military is powerful and honest. Long after he’d left Germany as an adult, Heck continued to grapple with his own complicity in the regime and his fervent beliefs in its goals. The Hitler Youth was particularly adept at tapping into young boys’ yearning to be heroes. Heck explains the lingering effects of his indoctrination, noting that, “Despite our monstrous sacrifice and the appalling misuse of our idealism, there will always be the memory of unsurpassed power, the intoxication of fanfares and flags proclaiming our new age.” This was a fascinating read for me personally, given the similarities between Heck’s experiences and those of my father, and it was an invaluable resource as I wrote my own novel. 

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