The Madman & His Mistress — History in the Making

Review by

London Art Historian & Critic Beatrice Shoemaker


If you are expecting yet another analysis of the relationship between Hitler and Eva Braun, you will, thankfully, be sorely disappointed. The title is misleading: the mistress in question is not Eva Braun, but the starving and discontented German people, who bowed down to the madman’s will to power. This is a World War II memorial, perhaps a thinly disguised memoir, and a well written, thoughtful, gripping read. The actual subject is the life of a family with young children – a normal, albeit upper middle class family, who steadfastly refused to subscribe to what was presented as “just a formality” – membership of the Nazi Party, and the consequences of that refusal – from gradual expropriation, marginalisation, and finally exile.

This book is not about the perils of warfare, or the horrors of the concentration camps – but it is written from the perspective of children growing up through that era – barely teen-agers at war’s end.  It gives life to Elias Canetti’s immortal, and prescient phrase: “Behold the revenge of the lower middle class”; in the book, the ruling Nazis, or at least the ones who poisoned daily life at every level, were self-seeking, greedy, small-time crooks, thugs and chancers. This is exemplified not only by the figure of the main protagonists’ in-law, who uses his position to his own advantage, but also in the experience of a family friend, who encountered Hitler as a derelict in Vienna, and then found himself a target for the demagogue’s wrathful need to destroy anyone who could tarnish his image of himself.

What happened to normal German citizens who exercised their moral principles, during the 12 years of Hitler’s rule? What was their daily experience, how did they perceive the status quo?  Seen through the children’s eyes, the emphasis is on fear, silence, and increasing deprivation. Obviously, if as a child, all you know is totalitarianism, that way of life represents normality of a kind – it is the universally shared principle.

The strength of this book is its refusal to succumb to the emotional pitfalls of hindsight: the barely perceived, but dreaded horrors of the camps, the disappearance of valued friends, are related in the same kind of fearful half-tones with which these news must have been imparted at the time. Small kindnesses and big acts of courage are also described – in the same low-key, matter-of-fact tone.

If the Nazi regime comes over as a fog of enforced belief mixed with fear and privation, the result of being an unwilling, unwitting member of that nation, the experience of the Russian occupation is recounted with a palpable level of fear. The enemy alien, as opposed to the enemy within; silence, invisibility and self-reliance, which were once the watchwords for relative safety, were replaced by the fear of random retaliation, with danger averted at every corner. Salvation, once again, came from basic human communication, kindness, and the recognition that a man with a gun is also a human being, and just as fearful as you.

The potential somberness of the story is relieved by amusing anecdotes, and by its author’s total embrace of the joys of life. A love of music, and family togetherness, carried them through exile in the mountains of what is now the Czech Republic, and refugee status in the West after 1945. Sad, uplifting, revealing, without sentimentality – this is an enlightening read, about an overlooked aspect of life in that regime.