Friday, 22 January 2010


There have been several books recently, for children and grown ups, which have looked at WW2 from a new angles.
The Book Thief. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Auslander, by Paul Dowswell, is about a Polish boy of German origins who is repatriated to Berlin after his parents are killed, to live with a Nazi family.
He is recruited by the Hitler Youth movement and told that Jews and Ostlanders are sub-human, but never believes it. When he meets a free thinking, liberally minded family he falls into helping Jewish families hiding from the Gestapo. Eventually he comes under threat himself and has to escape.
I interviewed Paul for the Big Issue. Unfortunately I hadn't read the entire book at the time, though I dont think the piece I've reproduced below would have changed much. At times I felt his style a little lacking in verve: there was a lot of history there, but I could have done with another story strand. Still, there's no doubt that the finale had me gripped, and some of that detail was extraordinary.
The piece appeared a couple of weeks ago in the Big Issue magazine. the magazine is sold by homeless people, the vendors, who are able to take home half the cover price. You should all try to buy a copy every week. Its a great cause and a far better read than you might expect.

Interview with Paul Dowswell

There were many Nazi atrocities during World War Two, but one of the lesser known, in Britain at least, was their treatment of ‘ordinary’, in other words non-Jewish, Poles, and the enforced Germanisation of thousands of Polish children.

Heinrich Himmler’s SS executed the policy of selecting Nordic-looking – blond, blue-eyed – Aryans and having them adopted by ‘good’ German families. Many of these children were taken from orphanages, though there is evidence that some were snatched from the street against their will.

Author Paul Dowswell took this as his starting point for Auslander, a WW2 thriller set not just behind enemy lines but in their living rooms.

It follows ‘Piotr’, a Polish boy from a German stock who is repatriated to the 3rd Reich in 1941 following the death of his parents. His fair hair and good looks sets him apart and he is adopted by a prominent Nazi. However, Peter, as he becomes known, is deeply troubled by the Nazi way of life and befriends a German family working against the regime.

“World War Two was without a doubt the most catastrophic event of the 20th Century – 50 million killed,” says Dowswell.

“I think for that reason alone it will always seem fascinating to us. But I think it was also one war where there was a clear sense that it was a battle between good and evil, that it was a war that had to be fought.

“Hitler’s was probably the vilest regime in history – followed closely by Stalin’s. Other wars since then haven’t been as clear cut – you are often left wondering who was in the right and who was in the wrong.”

Dowswell, who gained a degree in history before pursuing a career in publishing as an editor, took considerable care over researching the book.

“I think the point of a historical fiction is that it be entirely accurate, otherwise it is just fantasy,” he argues.

“I wanted everything in the book to be true so that no one could turn around and highlight anything that hadn’t happened and undermine the story as a whole.”

The details he throws up as a result are fascinating as well as grotesque: from the farmyard style measurement of the children to assess their racial purity to the plastic swastika shaped decorations hanging on the Christmas tree.

In the opening chapters, Peter is plucked from a life of despair and malnourishment and granted a new start with a wealthy family in Berlin. Dowswell artfully gets across his dilemma: he doesn’t like the Germans, but they are granting him a better life.

“I do a lot of talks in schools and I’ve always been surprised at just how interested young children still are in World War Two,” the author says. “It is a period that teaches us different things: what it is like to live in a society where you can’t think for yourself. Its about what happens when you put too much faith in one leader or philosophy. And it is about peer pressure, which is something all children can understand.”

Auslander (Bloomsbury) is out now in paperback, £6.99

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