Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Seventeen year old Gretchen Muller lives in Munich with her mother and her older brother Reinhard. Gretchen and Reinhard have grown up in the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) believing all its ideology. Her father was a member of the party but was killed in the Munich Putsch of 1923. After the failing to take over the city, the National Socialists had marched through Munich with Hitler in the lead. Her father had been in the front, when the city's police officers opened fire and he had jumped in front of Hitler, saving him from the bullets.

After her father's death her family was left impoverished. With the help of  Hitler and the NSDAP her mother was put in charge of running a boarding house, where Gretchen now lives.She's always been a favourite of Adolf Hitler whom she affectionately calls Uncle Dolf.

The novel opens with Gretchen and her friend Eva Braun and Reinhard and his friend Kurt, on their way to meet Adolf Hitler at a cafe. Gretchen is shocked as Kurt tries to run down a Jewish man crossing the road and then stops the car to confront him. Knowing that Reinhard and Kurt are about to beat the man, Gretchen yells at them to stop, fearing a brawl will contribute to the further bad image of the Party. Fortunately, the commotion draws a policeman who tells Reinhard and Kurt to get moving. Left alone, the Jewish man thanks Gretchen, who doesn't know what to think since Uncle Dolf has told her "Gratitude from a Jew was a poisoned gift..." After the man leaves, Gretchen is confronted by a mysterious boy calls her by name and then vanishes.

Eva and Gretchen, now disinvited by Reinhard, walk to Eva's home. Although having grown up in the Party, Eva and Gretchen are very different. Eva wants to get away from her strict father who does not approve of her friendship with Hitler and become an actress, while Gretchen wants to become a doctor.

Gretchen's life is a mixture of confusing opposites. She is haunted by the terrible death of her father during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. He's considered a martyr for the party. At home, Gretchen struggles to deal with her cruel brother, Reinhard, whom she is certain will attempt revenge for her stopping the beating of the Jewish man. She lives in fear of him, sleeping at night with a chair wedged under the door handle and is always on the alert for one of his cruel tricks. Although Gretchen has been brought up with National Socialist ideas, she finds it difficult to follow the Party teachings on Jews. Erika Goldberg is a funny, happy classmate who also happens to be Jewish. Gretchen is supposed to despise Erika but instead she admires Erika's ability to do Latin, and her funny jokes.

The day after the incident with the Jewish man, Gretchen receives a letter from the mysterious boy who briefly spoke with her in the alleyway. The letter contains an enigmatic message; "Your father did not die a martyr to the Nazi cause, and your family's precarious position within Hitler's party is predicated on a lie." She meets him outside her home and learns he is a reporter. Knowing Gretchen is a Nazi party insider, he suggests an exchange of information. He tells her that with Hitler poised to become President of Germany, the truth about Hitler must be revealed to the German people and he hopes that Gretchen as a party insider can provide him with information. In exchange he tells Gretchen that her father did not die saving Hitler but was in fact murdered by a National Socialist comrade. He tells her to meet him at the Golden Phoenix nightclub the next evening.

When Gretchen returns home her mother tells her that she will no longer be able to attend school but must find a job due to their financial situation.  Filled with disbelief and shock, Gretchen decides to seek out Uncle Dolf who is speaking at the Circus Krone that night. At the event is Geli Raubal, Hitler's half niece, whom Gretchen knows very well. Seeing the mysterious boy she questions Geli who tells her that he is Daniel Cohen, a Jewish reporter for the local Socialist newspaper, the Munich Post. Hitler is not sympathetic to Gretchen's desire to continue her studies and instead tells her that she can work for Ernst Hanfstaengl who is the NSDAP foreign-press chief. Outside the Circus Krone, the NSDAP members are confronted by the Communists and a brawl begins. SA chief Ernst Rohm sees to it that Kurt drives Gretchen home. The confrontation between the National Socialists and the Communists brings back memories of her father's death and leads Gretchen to check his old Great War uniform he was wearing at the time of his death. She discovers a bullet hole in the back of his shirt with grey powder around the edges indicating that this bullet was fired at close range. Gretchen realizes that this means someone shot her father in the back and that it must have been another National Socialist because they were the only ones behind her father. She now believes Daniel was right about her father's death.

The next night Gretchen sneaks out to meet Daniel at the Golden Phoenix. Daniel accuses Gretchen of setting the SA thugs on Stefan Dearstyne at the Circus Krone to preserve her family's reputation but Gretchen has no idea what he's talking about. As they dance, Gretchen learns from Daniel that Dearstyne grew curious about the Munich putsch after reading his brother Lars's diary. Unfortunately before she can talk at length with him, Reinhard shows up with Eva Braun looking for her.

The next day when she goes to the Braunes Haus, headquarters of the National Socialist Party, to begin work, Gretchen overhears that Reinhard has been selected for some special assignment. Her work with Hanfstaengl provides Gretchen with the opportunity to question him regarding what happened to her father during the putsch. Hanfstaengl reveals to Gretchen that her father seemed very upset when he arrived at the beer hall. She also realizes that the version she's been told doesn't make sense; her father was at the front of the marching SA with Hitler when he should have been at the back and she wants to know why this was.

Daniel meets Gretchen to show her Stefan Dearstyne's diary but tells her that Dearstyne is planning to kill himself because he believes the SA are after him. Daniel tells Gretchen they must retrieve Stefan's brother's diary before Rohm and his men do so. In Stefan's apartment, Gretchen finds a picture of her father taken just before he was shot dead and they also find Dearstyne's brother, Lars's diary.After barely escaping before Rohm and his men arrive, Gretchen and Daniel head to the Diana Temple where they read the Dearstyne diary entry. This entry notes what Gretchen has already noticed that her father was shot in the back and the force of the shot knocked him in front of Hitler, inadvertently saving Hitler from the bullets that were meant for the Nazi leader. Gretchen tells Daniel that she needs to learn what really happened to her father and he advises her that this may mean her family will lose its privileged status.

When Gretchen returns home she decides to search Reinhard's room hoping to find more clues about her father, but his room is empty with white walls and nothing significant. Startled by her mother coming upstairs, Gretchen doesn't have time to relock his door. The next morning Gretchen attends a picnic on the Chiemsse with Uncle Dolf, Herr Hanfstaegnl, Heinrich Hoffman and his daughter Henny and Geli Raubal. For the first time Gretchen begins to notice that Hitler seems attracted to the very much younger Geli. After the picnic Gretchen returns home to find her cat dead, its neck broken and she is violently assaulted by Reinhard who continues to beat her until she tells him why she was in his room. Badly beaten and finding no help from her mother, Gretchen flees their home and goes to Uncle Dolf's apartment in Munich. However she finds no comfort or support there. Instead, Hitler tells her that Reinhard is the man of the house and is right to discipline her. For the first time, Gretchen begins to see that the image she had of Hitler is false. The next morning she leaves his apartment and is turned away by Herr Braun as well. With no where left to go, Gretchen seeks out Daniel who takes her to a Communist doctor.  Daniel takes her in despite opposition from his cousins Aaron and Ruth. During her short time with Daniel, Gretchen learns about Hitler's real plans for Germany and the Jews. Understanding what Hitler really is Gretchen decides she must return to her home if she is ever to learn what really happened to her father.

The more Gretchen uncovers about the putsch and her father's movements, the more questions she has about her father, his relationship with Adolf Hitler and what really happened on the day he was killed. Gretchen's questions lead her and Daniel to uncover a startling secret about Hitler that places them both in grave danger.


Prisoner of Night and Fog is an ambitious undertaking by author Anne Blankman. Set in 1931, it features Adolf Hitler prominently prior to him coming to power in Germany. Blankman was inspired to write her novel after she learned about Geli Raubal who shared his Munich apartment.

The novel is divided into four parts; Part One A Girl of Wax which is Gretchen who simply follows what she's been told by the adults in her life, Part Two The Great Magician, a reference to the mesmerizing Hitler,  Part Three On Desperate Defiance which tells about Gretchen's defiance of both what she's been taught and the cultural norms of Munich society in the 1931 and Part Four The Infernal Machine which portrays how the National Socialist Party has already become a machine of terror, murdering all who stand in the way of it achieving total control.

Having Hitler as a major character could have easily backfired but Blankman is careful in how he is portrayed and the dialogue she assigns to him. At first Adolf Hitler is portrayed as the doting "uncle" who has taken Gretchen's family under his wing, providing them with a home and lots of perks for Gretchen and Reinhard. At the beginning of the novel Gretchen describes Hitler in positive ways describing him as "No one else had such a lovely voice, dark and warm and rich, like melted chocolate." He is a man who affectionately called her "Gretl", or "sunshine" his pet name for her, and often kissed the back of her hands. He is a man who talks to her about music and painting and Gretchen feels proud that "he had chosen her to mold into that perfect girl" "a golden shining example of womanhood for the other German ladies to emulate."  However, as the story evolves, Gretchen begins to discover the true Adolf Hitler, a complex man who is a psychopath. When she hears him talk at the Osteria Bavaria, Gretchen realizes what Hitler is proposing. "The man she had loved as a father was a fraud. He kissed the backs of her hands and advocated war; he ruffled her hair and preached death; he had played with her on the carpet with toy soldiers, and all along he had been planning the extinction of an entire people."

Underpinning the mystery in this historical fiction novel, is the journey of Gretchen as she comes to discover the lies she's been taught about the Jewish people, her own history and the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP).

In the beginning of the novel when Gretchen tells her brother not to hurt the Jewish man she remembers what she has been taught in the National Socialist Party of Adolf Hitler. "The Jew is my eternal enemy. These words had guided her heart for twelve years, thanks to her honorary "uncle" Dolf." Her motives are not concern for the Jewish man but, for the image of the Party. She notices the man is a young Hasidic Jew and recognizes the fear and pain in his voice. This goes against what she has been taught about the Jewish people. Afterwards she thinks, "What had she been thinking, defending a Jew? She must be going mad." When Reinhard mocks her the next morning, Gretchen recognizes the truth about what she did. "Her original intention had been to prevent an illegal street beating that might reflect poorly on the Party. Once she had seen the Jew lying on the ground, helpless...She had seen a person. Not a monster."

After finding Dearstyne's diary and being in close contact with Daniel on his bike, Gretchen notes that,
"Until she had seen the Hasidic man in the alley, she hadn't looked at a Jewish male, not really looked at him...
They were nothing like she had been taught.
If she and her people were mistaken about the Jews,  then they were mistaken about everything...Uncle Dolf and Papa couldn't be wrong. Could they?"
When Gretchen seeks out Daniel after being badly beaten by Reinhard, he openly welcomes her to his home. She notes "He was nothing like the monster she had been taught about. He was human." Eventually Gretchen falls in love with Daniel and tells him she accepts everything about him including the fact that he is Jewish.

But Gretchen's journey isn't just about her change of heart regarding the Jews, it is also her discovery about the true nature of the National Socialist Party and their plans for Germany, and about Hitler's frightening mental illness. Blankman does refer to Hitler having suffered from hysterical blindness, a claim that continues to be disputed to this day. For further reading please check out Hitler's Hysterical Blindness: Fact or Fiction. as well as Hitler: Diagnosis of a destructive prophet.

Reinhard also undergoes a personal journey but his is one that leads him deeper into mental illness. When Gretchen confronts him in the alleyway as he is about to beat a Jewish man Gretchen is not scared of Reinhard hitting her because he never got his revenge that way but in other subtle ways. The morning after the altercation with the Jewish man, Reinhard places a string across a step on the stairway in an attempt to trip her. Gretchen notices that her brother often has a blank stare and seems unable to feel emotions. His transition is complete when he brutally beats her without emotion in an attempt to learn why she entered his bedroom. This only leads him to more brutal acts of violence including the cold blooded murder of an elderly man.

There are many other characters in Prisoner of Night and Fog who are quite interesting, for example Geli Raubal and Eva Braun. Geli's mysterious death has been the subject of many articles through the years including Hitler's Doomed Angel by Ron Rosenbaum for Vanity Fair while Eva Braun has been the focus of much study as she was Hitler's mistress and wife.

Blankman's emphasis is mostly on her characters and their relationships to each other but she does manage to contrast the ambivalence of most citizens towards Hitler while demonstrating his growing support within the city of Munich and in Germany overall. More than once Gretchen remarks on how oblivious people are to the coming disaster. After she and Daniel overhear two party members discussing how the Jews will lose their businesses and have their families broken apart, Gretchen notes,
"Bluesy jazz music cascaded from a nightclub, and men in fancy suits and women in satin frocks strolled the street, arm in arm, smiling, out for a night on the town. Everywhere the city was alive, all these sweet, simple lives twining together. How blind everyone was, rushing into the restaurants, laughing at the comedians' jokes, smoking and dancing and singing. Without the slightest inkling of what Hitler and his men were planning."

If you love historical fiction, Prisoner of Night and Fog is not to be missed. Blankman so named her novel after Goethe's poem, "Der  Erlkonig", the Alder King in which a young boy attempts to warn his father that he is being attacked, but his father assures him it is only the fog. It is an allegory for what happened to the German people with regards to Hitler.

The sequel to Prisoner of Night and Fog is Conspiracy of Blood & Smoke which is set in 1933.

Book Details:
Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman
New York: Balzer & Bray, An Imprint of HarperCollin Publishers 2014
398 pp.

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