A surprisingly gripping novel about ordinary Germans during the war

The novel is based on the experiences of the author’s father during World War II when he was an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth and his attempt to escape from it.

 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I must confess to having ambivalent and somewhat cynical feelings about reviewing The Vanishing Sky. This first novel is based on the experiences of the author’s father during World War II when he was an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth and his attempt to escape from it. Initially I thought, “Oh, not another book explaining how the author’s father or grandfather wasn’t a Nazi!”
In fact, I thought if there were so many good Germans who didn’t agree with Hitler and his murderous antisemitic policy, then how come the Holocaust happened? I didn’t expect to be touched and moved by the story which manages to be heartwarming and exciting, but apart from this book being a good read it was salutary to read of the terrible hardships that ordinary German citizens endured during the war.
Perfectly average people leading perfectly ordinary lives were drawn into the spider web of the Nazi world and found themselves trapped in a nightmare situation of fear, near starvation and terrible privation. And this book along with movies such as Hitler’s SS, A Portrait of Evil, and JoJo Rabbit explain how the strands of hatred reached out and entrapped whole families in a web of evil.
Children love to fit in. To be different from anyone else is social death. As a child in Britain with a foreign sounding name and desperate to be accepted as a genuine patriotic Brit, during WWII, I too chanted along with my peers, “The only good German is a dead German.” For me to have said, “But there must be some good Germans” and even to have dared to think such a thing would have labeled me as at best unpatriotic and at worst a Nazi.
But if there were as my infantile mind thought no good Germans, this book – a gripping story of ordinary, regular Germans – provides a counter balance. With memories of the Holocaust and the London Blitz still very vivid for some of us, it is difficult to wonder or care how normal German families coped with the dreadful fear of bombing, the terrible food shortages, and the cold and sheer misery of surviving.
If this book, which in spite of its subject is a page-turner, has a hero, it is the mother. She has to cope with a husband who returned from WW1 changed and embittered by the humiliation the peace treaty imposed upon Germany. With one son a reluctant soldier and another son a very reluctant conscript in the Hitler Youth her life is full of dread. But as is the way of mothers she carries on, stretching food, making do and when her soldier son returns mentally disturbed and traumatized from seeing unimaginable horrors, she does her best to protect him.
The action takes place during the period when the war was already as good as lost and the allies were fast approaching. This was a time when Hitler and his high command threw old men and young boys, untrained and ill-equipped into battle. I’m sure that many like the younger son in this book just wanted to get out of the hell they found themselves in and go home.Unfortunately, all too many, drafted into the Hitler Jugend at 10 and the Hitler Youth at 14, were completely in thrall to Hitler and the cult of the master race. Far too many were prepared to die rather than give up on the ideas and ideals they had been steeped in from infancy.
I’m sure as far back as the Battle of Agincourt little British boys were saying “The only good Frenchie is a dead Frenchie,” and their French contemporaries were no doubt saying the same about the Brits. In our time I’ve heard the same said about Arabs by people old enough to know better, and as we know the PA school text books are steeped in hatred for the Jews. Somehow we have to understand, not condone and never fail to condemn, but understand, how ordinary Germans imbibed hatred combined with patriotic fervor with their mothers’ milk. And this very readable novel shows how one mother did her utmost to protect her sons in such a poisonous environment.
Maybe it is wrong to look for a moral in this book that is, after all, fiction, but the message that I feel it conveys is that we must teach our young to think and make judgments for themselves; that following the herd might not always be the right or even the smartest this to do, and to be careful not to pass on old hatreds and old grudges.
The Vanishing Sky
L. Annette Binder
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020
Hardcover: 288 pages, $18