Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, July 20, 2012

July 20, 1944 and the Conspiracy against Hitler

On the 68th anniversary of the coup attempt by the German Resistance against the Nazi Regime, I’d like to share an excerpt from my novel Hitler’s Demons.

May 1944

Herr v. Rantzow opened the door himself, and Alexandra followed the sound of her mother’s sobbing. In the entryway an obviously distraught and helpless Herr v. Rantzow murmured to Philip, “She hasn’t stopped crying since the news came. Nothing I can say seems to comfort her at all. She’s making herself ill!” For the first time since they had met, Philip and his father-in-law understood one another completely.

Alexandra went down on the floor before her mother and laid her head in her mother’s lap. Her mother bent forward, wrapped her daughter in her arms and sobbed, “Oh, Alix, only you understand. I’ve lost your father all over again. But at least your father had time to marry and have children – they took all that away from Stefan. Stefan’s been killed before he had a chance to live!”

“That’s not true, Mutti,” Alexandra told her gently but firmly. Sitting up, she looked her mother in the eye. “I don’t know anyone who was more alive than Stefan, or who loved life more. That’s why it’s so hard to lose him. But you can’t really believe that so much life and energy and love are really gone? He’s here with us right now – and we’re probably making him feel terribly guilty for causing us so much grief.” Tears were streaming down her face as she spoke, but her voice was steady.

Frau v. Rantzow clutched her daughter’s hands in hers, her lips trembled, and her face glistened with tears as she asked, “Do you really think so?”

Alexandra nodded, “Yes.”

Shortly after dinner, Alexandra took her mother up to bed and stayed with her until she fell asleep. She returned downstairs and joined Philip and her stepfather in his study. They were drinking cognac, and Alexandra asked for sherry. Her stepfather poured, standing in his perfectly tailored suit, even now the elegant diplomat in a winged collar with graying sideburns. “I must thank you, Alexandra,” he admitted as he brought her the sherry. “You’ve been wonderful.”

Alexandra took the sherry in the cut crystal glass and smiled sadly up at her stepfather. “It isn’t me, really. I’m just a bit of Stefan still alive.”

“Nonsense,” her stepfather contradicted, “you’ve been a great help. It’s just all so pointless! This whole stupid war and all the senseless sacrifice!” Herr v. Rantzow’s nerves, kept in check by the need to support his wife, now cracked. His hands clenched around the heavy tumbler until his knuckles were white. “If only the Western Allies would land! Why are they taking so long? Don’t they realize that if they wait too long, the Eastern Front will collapse and the Russians will win the war without them? The sooner they land, the sooner the war will be over!” 

Without giving anyone a chance for comment, Rantzow continued in an angry voice, “You can be sure it’s the damned Americans who are hanging back. They’re so afraid of casualties! Afraid that public support for the war will crumble as soon as the bodies start coming home. You know they ship their dead soldiers home, don’t you?” Herr v. Rantzow asked Philip. Philip hadn’t known; he shook his head. “They’re that rich and that spoiled that they actually collect their dead and send them home all the way across the Atlantic at government expense! What a bizarre people – so spoiled and soft and naïve, and yet so dangerous. Once they land, the war won’t last more than a few weeks. They have more men, armor and ammunition than the Soviet Union, and because they cannot afford a long war, they will throw everything they have at us. I tell you, once the Americans land in France, the war will be over in weeks. If only they had landed months ago!” Herr v. Rantzow’s voice cracked, and it took Alexandra a second to realize he was crying.

She had never seen him cry before, and she hesitated. She cast Philip a helpless glance and then went over and gently laid her arm around her stepfather’s waist. He had dropped his face in his long, elegant hands with the signet ring and he left it there, accepting but not returning Alexandra’s gesture. Between clenched teeth he managed to say, “I’m so sorry, Alix. I’m so sorry Stefan will never know a better Germany than the one he died for.”

Alexandra asked Philip to go for a walk with her around Lake Grunewald in the fading light of the long summer day. They took the bewildered family dog with them. The sky was luminous and the stars were coming out; the forest was black. Alexandra could walk neither fast nor far in her condition, but she needed the fresh air. Soon they found a bench and sat down. Alexandra had her arm through Philip’s. “Philip, don’t be angry with me,” she started timidly, “but I’ve started to wonder if Graf Moltke isn’t right after all. I mean, what if we make our coup and then get blamed for losing the war? Won’t all the Nazis then be stronger than ever? Won’t they destroy whatever government we try to establish? I don’t even know what Moltke and his friends  have thought up, do you?”

“I’ve heard some things. There is no one plan, really – just a lot of ideas. That is, everyone agrees we have to have a government based on the Rule of Law – a constitution that guarantees basic human rights such as equality before the law and freedom of religion, association and movement. Almost everyone agrees that we have to have a state based on the fundamental principles of Christianity, such as respect for life and for our fellow man and responsibility toward the weak and poor. But, as you know, the devil is in the detail. There are some people who argue that we need to restore a monarchy, because Hitler’s success demonstrates that Germans need a ‘leader,’ and if they don’t have a hereditary one, they will follow every megalomaniac that comes along. Others want to see American style democracy, and others favor Socialism. Claus is throwing his weight in with the Socialists at the moment.”

Alexandra actually managed a smile, even if it was a sad, weary smile. “The Revolutionary Count – it suits him. Can’t you picture Claus with Robespierre?” Philip looked at her in astonishment, unable to follow her intuition when she gave it free rein like this. “And where does General Olbricht stand?” she asked.

“As so often, we have much the same opinion.”

“Which is?”

“Olbricht told Claus: first act, then we’ll see who’s left over.”

“But, Philip, if my stepfather’s right – if the war isn’t going to last more than a few weeks after the Americans land in France – then why not let them win the war? Why risk the lives of the very best men Germany has? Beck and Tresckow, Olbricht and Uncle Erich – and you? Why not let Hitler sign this merciless Unconditional Surrender an take the blame for the war he started and lost? Why should Beck or Olbricht – who were always against the aggression – be forced to swallow the bitter pill?”

Philip held her closer to him and kissed the top of her head. He understood her thinking. With Stefan already dead, her compulsion to shorten the war – even if only by a single day – had eased. Instead, she saw that he was in a relatively safe staff position and was at greater risk from a failed coup than a marginally prolonged war. Her logic was impeccable, as usual, but he shook his head nevertheless. “First of all, your stepfather underestimates us. The Americans may have endless material resources, but their troops and officers are inexperienced. I think we may be able to hold both fronts for as long as six to eight months after the Americans land – and they haven’t done that yet. So the war could go on another nine to ten months. In that time, we could have lost another half-million men on the front and maybe half that again to the air raids.” He dropped his voice, “And then there are the Concentration Camps and the Death Camps. We’re systematically slaughtering people, Alix – as if they were animals with an infectious disease….” His voice faded in the darkness.

“You mean the Einsatzkommandos?” Alexandra asked.

“No, I mean we’ve built special slaughterhouses for people. The SS is diverting rolling stock – which we desperately need to keep the Eastern and Italian fronts supplied with ammunition and other war supplies – to transport people to these camps. They transport people in freight cars and herd them into large chambers and gas them.”

Alexandra wanted to say: “That can’t be!” – but it was too horrible for Philip to have made it up. “How do you know?”

“Olbricht told me. I don’t know his source. It doesn’t matter. After what I saw the Einsatzkommandos do, it’s impossible to question this. And we have to stop it. Or at least try to stop it. Or maybe just demonstrate before God and the Allies and history that German officers opposed these measures. The coup isn’t just about stopping the war – at least that’s not what it’s about for Olbricht or Tresckow anymore. It’s about taking a moral stand against a regime that is morally depraved. It’s about – if you like – trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah by finding ten just men, who are willing to stand up and be counted – even if it costs them their lives.”

Alexandra gazed at her husband in frightened awe. It was almost completely dark, and his face was in shadow. She could make out the curve of his dark hairline against his high forehead, the glasses hiding his eyes, and the set of his lips. She was frightened and she shivered, but she could not protest. She had set him on this path. She had supported him at every step. What right did she have to lose heart now?

Philip took her hand and entwined his fingers in hers. “Now do you understand why I’ve been so selfish? So reluctant to let you take our child to safety in Altdorf?”

All her nightmares were true. After she left Berlin, she would never see him again. “When?”

“Just as soon as our current volunteer assassin gets access to Hitler.” 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Creative Writing 101: Importance of Research

Aspiring writers are often told to "write about things they know" and, following this advice, many authors don't think they need to do any research before they sit down to write. While this might be true for a completely autobiographical work, any author interested in writing more than one autobiography will rapidly realize that research is not only necessary but liberating.

After all, for a literate population, knowledge need not be first hand, and good research expands exponentially the topics that we can write about without violating the rule to "write about things you know." The fact is, most of what we “know” we have learned indirectly either formally or informally. We have listened to experts in the classroom, attended lectures and seminars, and taken part in discussions and private conversations. We have read newspapers, magazines, academic journals and books. We’ve seen documentary films and TV programs. If we want to learn about a specific topic and become experts in it, we can. For a novelist, this means that “writing about what you know” need not mean writing about your own experiences, but rather writing about places, periods, professions, and events that you have thoroughly and professionally researched. 

The operative phrase here is "thoroughly and professionally researched." Reading one article, watching one TV program or making a quick check of "the facts" on wikipedia does not qualify.  If you’re going to write a book about a fireman in New York on September 11, 2001, then you better carefully research everything about the New York Fire Department’s organization, equipment, social structure, and internal culture as well as the exact timing, sequence and impact of each terrorist attack. 

Keep in mind that good research does not interfere with a book, but rather enhances it.  It provides the background and context for the story; it lends the book authenticity. If a book reads like a device to lecture the reader on the technology or religion or social structures of a different place or time, then the author has failed. But if a book allegedly set in a different place or time is filled with anachronisms and inaccuracies, then the book is just a much a failure and no amount of brilliance in delivery (style) can save it.  Great fiction must be both authentic and literary.   

The temptation is to write quasi-autobiographical books, but that gets harder with each novel. It can be difficult to handle a wide-range of themes, to develop significantly different plots and populate the book with recognizably different characters, if the setting is always the same.

The more difficult, but more rewarding, route is to do research and learn about different cultures, periods and places. If nothing else, you will be a better educated person, enriched by knowledge of things you could not have imagined so that, even if you write fantasy, you you find your imagination has been stimulated in new ways.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Review of "Chasing the Wind / Where Eagles Never Flew"

Shortly after the release of my Battle of Britain Novel, "Chasing the Wind" the following review was published on Amazon. Last year, the book was released in Kindle format under the title: "Where Eagles Never Flew." Any readers interested in WWII, particularly the Battle of Britain, will appreciate Mr. Rodwell's assessment of this book.

The best novel yet about the Battle of Britain!, 30 Aug 2007
Mr. Simon A. Rodwell (Milton Keynes, UK) - See all my reviews
This is a superb novel about the Battle of Britain and is a must read for anyone interested in that period in our history. It is now 67 years since the Battle of Britain and the summer of 1940 is gradually moving from common memory into a piece of history. So much has been written about the battle from the early factual accounts written within a year or two of the battle, through to a rash of 1950's pilot biographies and memoirs and a host of novels from the 1960's to the present day, that it is hard to imagine that a new novel could be written that would make the conflict seem fresh. Yet this is exactly what `Chasing the Wind' has achieved.

The novel tracks through all the important stages of the battle from the closing stages of the Battle for France through to the early days of October 1940. The historical accuracy is stunning and the historical characters featured in it are faithful to their biographic details. Fictional character development has real depth (and this is something that is sometimes lacking in wartime fiction about flight). The story is also told from both German and British perspectives as well, with the reader's sympathies drawn to several key characters regardless of on which side of the English Channel they happened to be based. The variety of character roles has also been cleverly constructed since the reader is given so many different imaginary camera angles to view the unfolding battle from, as well as building a full picture of the social atmosphere of the times in both Britain and occupied France. Technical detail is similarly superb. The performance characteristics of all aircraft involved, for example, are faithfully represented.

It is often hard when writing a novel about historical events to avoid the judgement of hindsight. The outcome of the Battle of Britain had a result which history judges as being in Britain's favour. What `Chasing the Wind' manages to do, however, is to convey the uncertainty of the times. The outcome was very uncertain for both sides and the fear very real for all concerned. The novel catches this so brilliantly that at times one forgets it is a novel at all and that it is more a documentary memoir of those living at the time.

Note: Next weekend I will be travelling, and the next post to this blog will be on July 14.