It is one thing to take an interest in history, quite another to immerse oneself in primary sources: the letters; diaries; administrative documents; even shopping lists and newspaper advertisements; that have survived from a particular moment in the past. Many prefer indirect narratives of history, whether in the form of museum exhibitions, documentary programmes on television, or historical novels. For those of us who create those narratives, however, primary sources, where we can find them, are an essential starting point.
Historians are often sceptical about the first-hand testimonies that emerged from Germany in the aftermath of the defeat of the Third Reich. Many of these, especially the "diaries," were actually written up, in their present form, after the event, and and they are frequently at pains to emphasise the anti-Nazi credentials of their authors. Novelists and historians alike must exercise careful judgement in the ways in which we use such documents.
Ursula von Kardorff's "diary" of life in Berlin from 1942 to 1945 was written up for publication in 1947, presumably based on memory and brief, coded notes. A professional journalist, she makes no claim to have been a heroine of the resistance, but her diary does include comments that she is unlikely to have committed to paper during the war, since, if they had come to the attention of the Nazi authorities, they would certainly have brought disaster not only upon herself, but on many others (her social circle included most of those directly implicated in the 1944 plot against Hitler's life, and she was subsequently, questioned about this by the Gestapo).
Von Kardorff's diary is more about survival than about resistance, and most of the key facts can easily be checked. It is the account of daily life that attracted me to it as a key source informing the letters written by my fictional character, Greta, in "The Spirit of the Times," the 20th Century story in my novel, Omphalos. The details of individual hardships, and inevitable gallows humour, certainly have the ring of truth about them.
The following are excerpts from Von Kardorff's diary (the English translation is no longer in print, but used copies are available, and copies are likely to be available in many libraries).
"13th July 1943. A cynical joke is doing the rounds. A man is dug out after being buried in rubble for two days. His wife and child are dead, and he himself has lost his left arm, a leg and an eye, but he raises his remaining arm in salute and says 'Heil Hitler - Danzig is German, and that's the main thing!'"
"25th November 1943. The zoo was badly hit ... Many of the animals were killed, and others escaped. It is odd to think that a tiger might bob up at any moment ... towards morning we lay down and tried to get some sleep. Papa was on his rubble-covered bed ... Today Klaus and I tried to get things in order. We swept and scrubbed and carried piles of broken glass onto the balcony. We carted buckets of water up four flights of stairs, and managed to get at least one room into habitable condition."
"25th January 1944. I went into the zoo shelter when the seven o'clock warning sounded. It was eerie. The ack-ack had already opened fire, and a herd of human animals began to file towards the entrances of the shelter, which are too small, and far too narrow ... The walls of the shelter, made of massive blocks of stone, look like a stage-set for the prison scene in Fidelio. Snarling policemen drive the unwilling crowd slowly up the stairs, in order to divide them out onto the different floors of the shelter."
"12th April 1944. I walked home from the zoo because the weather was so fine ... The oriental buildings, in comically poor taste, stand there half-gutted. I peeped in through the cracks in the walls, but could see only crows. Sheep were grazing in one spot, and there was a smell of horse manure. I felt homesick for the country, but even here there is something beautiful about springtime. The Tiergarten is in full-bloom, in spite of the bomb craters."
"20th September 1945. So this is Berlin. Fascinating and depressing. Everyone is hungry. All the people look half out of their minds, utterly worn out by the struggle for existence. In spite of everything, they are kind. They have been through Hell, whilst we have been living on the fat of the land in Swabia. It is shaming, but none of our friends reproach us. In the evening I went to the Kunfurstendam. Pretty girls with combs in their hair, and handbags slung on their shoulders, were strolling about with British, French and American soldiers ... Hot jazz resounds from bars which only serve hot drinks, and where there is nothing to eat."
It is precisely documents such as these, whether published (as here) or in archives, that provide historical novelists with the details of sights, sounds and smells, the sense of lives disrupted but also of life going on despite everything, that allow us to animate a time and a place that we never experienced, could not have experienced and, in truth, would not want to have experienced for ourselves.
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.