Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 16, 2019

Resistance Women, by Jennifer Chiaverini

I haven’t read many books about the German Resistance under Hitler.  Would it be true to say that when we think of The Resistance, we tend to think of the French Resistance and the brave men and women of the British SOE (Special Operations Group) who worked underground in France?  But there was a German Resistance, and not just the Righteous Among Nations who sheltered Jews and helped them escape.  In a way, everything Hans Fallada wrote in his social realism oeuvre was a form of resistance,  and the Nazis didn’t hesitate to ban it, but his Alone in Berlin (1947) is specifically about the futile resistance campaign of a working-class couple against the Nazis, a couple who believed that once you’ve seen that a cause is right, you’re obliged to fight for it.  (OTOH Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin (1947) is about a man who never actively supported the Nazis but he never did anything to oppose them either.)  Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us is about German Resistance too, but it’s really more of a 21st century exploration of moral culpability and inter-generational guilt.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s historical novel Resistance Women is based on the true story of Mildred Fish Harnack and her circle of friends in the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) resistance group in Berlin.  Mildred was an American woman who fell in love with Arvid Harnack, when he was a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Wisconsin.  They relocated to Germany when his fellowship ended, which coincided with the rise of Hitler.

Three other women form the main focus of the resistance as depicted in the novel: Greta Kuckoff, another American called Martha Dodd who was the flighty daughter of the US Ambassador to Germany, and a fictional character called Sara Weitz who was inspired by the young Jewish women of the Rote Kapelle. Sara was created rather than modelled on a real historical figure because the author needed her characters to interact with each other and (understandably, since members of resistance groups for security reasons often don’t know many other members of the group) Chiaverini couldn’t find a real historical figure to fulfil this role in her story.

At 594 pages, Resistance Women is a real chunkster, but I think it needs to be.  If the audience for a work of historical fiction doesn’t know much about the relevant history, then an author has to supply it.  So, through the impact on these four women and their relationships, the novel traces the interwar period, the rise of Hitler, and the seduction of the German nation into supporting his malevolent crimes against humanity.  The war doesn’t actually come into focus until Chapter 45, ‘August-September 1939’.  (Each chapter is helpfully prefaced by the month and year in which events take place).

By this time, the women’s activities are becoming more and more risky.  Husbands, lovers and friends work in positions of responsibility in the Nazi administration, and at the risk of their lives, the women translate information and then smuggle it out of Germany in the hope of alerting the isolationist US to the prospect of war.  Visas for Jews are expedited.  In 1940-41 the group sends advance notice of the German attack on the USSR, hoping that Stalin will put defences in place to rout the advance, but he ignores these signals.  They illegally monitor the BBC and distribute pamphlets contradicting propaganda about the progress of the war.  And as their hopes diminish that the German people will rise up and overthrow this evil regime, they make the risky decision to widen their circle to include other resistance groups instead of all working independently of each other.

The female characters are fleshed out to make an engaging narrative.  They fall in love, have problems in their relationships, and are torn between wanting to protect their loved ones from risk and wanting a different and more honorable future for Germany.  Martha’s coming-of-age from a silly young woman who flirts with the appeal of smart Nazi uniforms and rousing patriotic music, to a courageous resistance operative is convincing, as is Mildred’s anguish about her infertility and Sara’s anxiety about her baby Ule.

There are flaws in this book: sloppy editing e.g. on page 202 when a sequence about Martha briefly replaces Martha with Mildred, but more egregiously there’s a sentence that should have been picked up by any astute editor doing her job.  When Mildred briefly visits the US and revels in the weight of oppression being lifted from her shoulders, Chiaverini goes too far when she sanitises the state of race relations in the USA in 1939, i.e. pre-dating the pre-civil rights era.  Even an Australian reader knows that this line about ‘mutual respect’ simply isn’t true:

Mildred delighted anew in all the things she had missed about America.  Overheard conversations and jokes in regional accents.  Newspapers free to present the facts as reporters discovered them, with editorials representing a broad political spectrum. Bookstores full of works that uplifted and questions and instructed and challenged.  Baseball.  Jazz.  City blocks where whites and Jews and Negroes [sic] and immigrants lived side by side, if not always in friendship, then at least in mutual respect. (p. 394)

OTOH the veiled allusions to similarities between Nazi demagoguery and contemporary politics are pertinent.  It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who said that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.  Is it drawing too long a bow to note that here in Australia, the provisions of the revised religious discrimination bill have been released as parliament goes into recess and the electorate is preoccupied by the festive season?  To note that journalists are expressing concern that today’s government ministers simply stonewall by repeating their rehearsed mantras whenever they are asked questions that they don’t like?  (Watch Fran Kelly try in vain to get Mathias Cormann to answer a question on the Insiders episode of 8/12/19, starting at 8:20).  To note that ministerial accountability has been jettisoned entirely in the case of someone like Angus Taylor? But it was not drawing a long bow to raise the alarm when John Howard suspended the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act to introduce the NT Intervention.  Those racist provisions remained in place with a change of government and to our shame they remain in place today.  And look how Australians have been de-sensitised over time to our treatment of refugees…

I wonder are we lapsing into being like the Germans who did not approve of the Nazi Party, but did nothing because they were not affected by their activities, until it was too late? In the novel, the characters repeatedly express disbelief that people failed to be vigilant in defence of their freedoms and did not heed the warning signs.  In modern-day Australia it seems melodramatic to draw comparisons, yet demagoguery is entrenched in the US and UK, both bastions of democracy.

I don’t want to think about these things: it’s a fortnight away from Christmas.  But I wish we had a Greta Thunberg with the charisma to make democracy an issue that young people care about.

Author: Jennifer Chiaverini
Title: Resistance Women
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2019, 594 pages
ISBN: 9780062939654
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: Resistance Women: A Novel

 


Responses

  1. As I recollect I read one book by Chiaverini, all over 10 years ago, and wasn’t impressed by her writing, but maybe her historical novels are better. The subject matter is certainly interesting.

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    • I just checked at Goodreads: she certainly is prolific! There’s a whole series about quilters of all things, LOL maybe they are covert detectives or something.

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      • It was one of the Quilt ones. I read it for an internet reading group. Most of the books we read were good, but the few books I have in mind that I’ve read over the last two decades that just don’t cut it for me came from that group, and this was one of them. However, I read a lot with that group that I never would have, and I learnt a lot about discussing books (the good and the bad!) so I wouldn’t have missed the experience.

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        • Yes, I had some good times with internet reading groups, and made some discoveries that I enjoyed reading. But there’s a tipping point: when there’s just too many books that you feel obliged to read and they just aren’t satisfying, it’s time to abandon ship. I don’t mind something that’s not quite to my taste every now and again, but not most of the time.

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          • I never had most of the time, but I didn’t read evrty book either in the two-books-month group. What stopped me was my blog. I just couldn’t keep up with all the reading and writing both required (and I’m not talking reading the actual books here!)

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            • Two books a month is a lot. Many people can only manage reading one book each month. But even if you’re a quick reader, (and I am), two-per-month presupposes that you don’t have any other books you want to read.

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              • It was an active group, but I was working,and had my own reading group to read for, and of course then got tempted by other groups like a non-fiction one and Janine’s Aussie one. I’m a slower reader now than I was partly because I’m writing for the blog. I like to But my main issue is just finding the time – too many commitments. See, I should be reading now!!!

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  2. Sounds interesting. We have a book coming out next year about someone in the Dutch resistance, which you might find interesting too.

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    • The Dutch were amazingly brave. While I was confirming that this story was based on real life events, I looked up the Righteous Among Nations, and the Dutch with nearly 6000 awards are second only to the Poles with 7000. Germany is a long way down with 601 awards.
      Of course, this is not something that can be compared crudely: countries outside Europe, and countries inside the USSR received very few awards. But still, the Poles, Dutch and French are prominent as nations which took the risk of helping, at the risk of their own lives. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Righteous_Among_the_Nations#Number_of_awards_by_country

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  3. Great review and excellent commentary as well.

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  4. One of the greatest acts of bravery in this context was the public protest of thousands of women in Berlin against the deportation of their Jewish husbands in 1943, known as “the Women of Rosenstrasse”: https://jwa.org/blog/women-of-rosenstrasse

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    • Thanks for this, I read the post at JWA, and had a look at the article at Wikipedia too. I had never heard of this, and am awed by it, because the story that all dissent was brutally suppressed is so entrenched, that this act of courage is astonishing. I’ve had a look at the trailer of the film, and am going to see if I can source a copy…

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  5. This does sound interesting, and definitely not an aspect that’s usually covered!

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    • No indeed. The author says in the back of the book, that one of the Nazis involved was successful after the war, in the context of the Cold War, in getting himself off the hook by painting this group as Communist, and so until the fall of the wall, their story was distorted. After reunification, documents and files from East Berlin became available and the truth came out.

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  6. Lisa, I share your frustration/anger with the current government, Their dishonest stance on refugees, religion, economy, free speech and particularly the environment is deeply disappointing. It is very hard to muster any Xmas cheer as we sit in the smoky Sydney air and read that at the Madrid conference Australia was one of the few countries insisting that carry-over carbon credits was reasonable.

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    • There’s a very interesting Twitter thread at the moment,riffing off that infamous tourism campaign designed by our PM in a former life. It has the hashtag #WhereTheBloodyHellAreYou and it’s about Morrison having quietly slipped out of the country while the bushfires are monstering Sydney and causing untold misery in the bush. Tweeters reference former PMS Rudd and Abbott rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty in previous natural disasters. They reference Christine Nixon being crucified for having an hour or so off to have a meal during Victoria’s Black Saturday.
      What interests me is the readiness of the Tweeters to say (yesterday) that he is on holiday on a Trump-owned property in Hawaii and (today) that he’s at some happy-clappers convention in the US. The Australian media, however, has not reported on it at all, which suggests to me that he’s on one of those surprise, surprise Christmas visits to combat troops in Afghanistan. Whatever the truth about where he is, this Twitterfeed points to the utter contempt in which this PM is held, and it goes beyond the usual political hatreds. There is a sense that these Tweeters feel utterly betrayed. On behalf of the exhausted firefighters, they are crying out for leadership and some on-the-ground help.

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