Inge’s War

by Svenja O’Donnell

Ebury Press, £16.99

HITLER and his cronies loathed the swing culture that made Berlin a hub for young German clubbers. Suspicious that those who jived and bopped were concealing subversive tendencies, writes Svenja O’Donnell, this youth culture became “a thorn in the side of the Nazi regime”. Trying to defuse the music’s influence, Goebbels came up with the brilliant idea of rewording popular songs.

The result would be farcical if it weren’t so sinister. Imagine taking to the floor to Bing Crosby’s spun-sugar version of Makin’ Whoopee – “Another bride, another June/ Another sunny honeymoon” – only to find the lyrics had been altered to “Another war, another profit/ Another Jewish business trick”. Their tin ear was the least of the Nazis’ crimes, but such tactics are indicative of the stranglehold the Reich needed to maintain over its people, while at the same time feeding genocidal mania.

The swing clubs of Berlin in this period were the places where Svenja O’Donnell’s grandmother, Inge Wiegandt, fell in love. This led to a series of events that remained hidden until O’Donnell – a half-Irish, half-German foreign correspondent – gradually pieced together her chilly relative’s tale. The result is an illuminating and highly personal family memoir that highlights all too clearly the maxim that for evil to prevail all it needs is for good people to do nothing.

A fleeting visit to Kaliningrad in Russia in 2006 was the spark that ignited Inge’s War. This soulless Soviet city, now a sea of brutalist cement, was formerly Konigsberg, the quaint capital of East Prussia. This was where the Wiegandt family lived a comfortable middle-class existence. Inge’s father was a successful merchant, and he and his wife doted on their only child.

Konigsberg was closer to Warsaw than Berlin, East Prussia being the easternmost of Germany’s territory, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. The roots of this family saga, and the pitiful tragedy at its heart, lie in this region’s devastation after the First World War. In part because of its economic collapse, its populace voted overwhelmingly for the Nazi party. After the Second World War they paid heavily for their part in the country’s collective guilt.

When Inge’s story finally emerges, she and her parents can be seen as emblematic of the hundreds of thousands of East Prussians who became pariahs. An honest writer, who scrupulously avoids glamorising or exculpating her family, O’Donnell writes: “I’m not sure which is harder to process, the depth of the hatred felt towards these Germans, or the fact that, after all it’s not so hard to understand.”

O’Donnell had no idea there were explosive secrets buried in the past until she impulsively rang her grandmother from her now unrecognisably dreary hometown. Normally so reticent, Inge suddenly blurted out: “There is so much I have to tell you.” Before her death in 2017, across a period of years, she illuminated for her granddaughter what happened to her and her family before, during and after the war.

As the Nazis gained power, people like the Wiegandts grew nervous. They were not Hitler supporters but nor did they protest against his party, for fear the Communists would replace it. After Kristallnacht, in 1938, still nothing was said. By 1939 over 250 edicts had been passed against the Jews and it was too late. “It is a textbook example of how the movement seduced all of Germany,” writes O’Donnell. By 1942, the city had been purged of Jews and other “undesirables”, such as the disabled, who had been sent to camps and killed in mobile gas vans.

While all this was happening, Inge enrolled in a girl’s college in Berlin. Delighted to be away from home, she not only learned to dance, but fell in love with an aristocratic young man called Wilhelm. He was her best friend’s brother and had socialist leanings. His step-father, however, was the vice-president of the Reichsbank and Hitler’s minister of the economy. The author’s unease is palpable as she learns how closely allied her grandmother had unthinkingly become to the Nazis. When she falls pregnant, Wilhelm promises to marry her, but his august father forbids this. Instead, he is sent to the eastern front, where he takes part in the siege of Stalingrad. Years later he returns much-changed from a prisoner of war camp.

As the war escalates towards its conclusion, Inge and her little daughter, Beatrice, and her parents, flee the advance of the Red Army upon Konigsberg. Hundreds of others in the same predicament freeze to death as they try to get onto the last ships crossing the Baltic. The story of the Wiegandts’ successful escape, and the harrowing calamities that others suffered making the same journey, would be the stuff of war movies if the moral probity of the East Prussians did not cast such a long shadow.

It is when they find shelter in Denmark, however, that O’Donnell uncovers a little known black hole in European history. Returning to the place where the Wiegandts had found refuge, she learns that when the Danes took in huge numbers of East Prussian refugees in 1945, their seeming charity hid a darker truth. The Germans were kept on starvation rations and refused medical aid. Hundreds of children died as a result of malnutrition and neglect. O’Donnell’s mother was nearly another statistic but thanks to a kindly Danish woman who took the family in, was nursed back to health.

Inge’s story does not end with the family’s dramatic escape to British-controlled Germany onboard a minesweeper. What happened to her in the immediate aftermath of the war, and its impact upon her and her daughter, sends repercussions into our own era. Despite everything she had already been through, it was, she said, the worst time of all. On discovering the full story, the author questions her own actions in digging up the truth: “From the comfort of the next generation, I had thought the past too distant to still hold the power to wound.”

It is one of many similar conceits held by those of us who have never lived through such situations. Library shelves are packed with war stories of outstanding heroism or cruelty, but few tread the path of Inge’s War. In piecing together the way her great-grandparents and her grandmother navigated the war, O’Donnell paints a portrait of millions of unseen, unrecorded citizens: those who tried to keep their heads down, who did no active harm, but whose blinkered view, or eagerness to save their own kin, helped create hell on earth.

It is sobering to reflect that Inge’s reactions are of especial historical interest because, as her clear-eyed but admiring granddaughter writes, “My grandmother’s life was not one of innocence or guilt. It was one of extraordinary events, of the things we do to survive, and how they shape our lives.”