Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke is the sequel to Prisoner of Night and Fog. This novel wraps up the duology about two young teens, one of whom is Jewish, who attempt to warn the world about the danger of Hitler coming to power in Germany in the early 1930s.

Now living in London with Doctor Alfred Whitestone's family, Gretchen Muller is struggling to adjust to life in a new country. She's been living the Whitestones for seventeen months. Alfred considers Gretchen his "daughter in every sense of the word that matters." Gretchen had met Alfred at her mother's boardinghouse in Munich where he had been studying the rise of Adolf Hitler. It was Dr. Whitestone's intention to write about Hitler's strange psychological profile in a medical journal in order to obtain a position at a London hospital. However, in order to protect Gretchen and Daniel, he has forgone this opportunity. He continues to work at the Oxford Psychoanalytical Clinic.

Gretchen and Alfred arrive home to a surprise 18th birthday party for Gretchen. Although she turned eighteen years old seven months earlier, they are staying true to Gretchen's fake identity which changed her birth date. Also there are Alfred's wife, Julia and their three sons, twelve year old Colin, ten year old Andrew and eight year old Jack and Gretchen's friend Mary. The best surprise though is the presence of her friend,  Daniel Cohen who is working as a reporter at the Oxford Mail, writing a society column. It is a job he's not happy with especially after working in Germany at the Munich Post, writing about Hitler's rise to power and the National Socialist Party.  However, Alfred encourages Daniel telling him eventually he will prove himself.

Alfred brings to the attention of Daniel and Gretchen, Winston Churchill's words at a debate at Oxford University. Churchill at a meeting of various unions indicated that Germany was on the threshold of war and that there are rumours about Jewish persecution. However no one seems to be listening to Churchill whose time in English politics seems to be over. Daniel's experience has been that most Members of the English Parliament were also not interested in what he had to say about Hitler.

Unfortunately, Gretchen's birthday party is interrupted by the Whitestone's cook who tells them that Daniel's landlady just called to let him know a telegram from Germany arrived for him. Daniel races home leaving Gretchen very worried. She worries because of what her own family has experienced back in Germany. Her father was killed nine years ago by Hitler because he knew that Hitler had been diagnosed as a psychopath while in a military hospital during World War I.  Hitler shot Gretchen's father during a street fight between the National Socialists and the German police. Despite losing the presidential election, Hitler and the National Socialists continue to be favoured by the German people and just last month President Hindenburg had appointed Hitler as German Chancellor.

When Daniel doesn't contact Gretchen the next day she visits his home on Iffley Road and is given a letter by his landlady. The note informs Gretchen that his cousin, Aaron Pearlman was attacked and is not expected to survive. Aaron was attacked when he refused to salute the National Socialists as they paraded through Munich. Daniel has returned to Germany to see that the men who attacked Aaron are brought to justice. Gretchen is horrified that Daniel has returned to Germany as she believes he is facing certain death if caught. For the next six days Gretchen struggles to go through daily life. Then one night they learn that the previous night, February 27, the Reichstag which is the seat of the German government, was set on fire. The blaze was believed to be the work of either the Nazis or the Communists who are battling for control of Germany. Gretchen and the Whitestones learn that President Hindenberg and Chancellor Hitler have declared a state of emergency and suspended "all major civil liberties including freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom to assemble."  Gretchen knows this means that Daniel will not be able to contact her and that all correspondence will be monitored. The newspapers reveal that twenty-four year old Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested for arson. Five days later, Gretchen receives a note from Daniel's editor at the Oxford Mail telling her that he received a mysterious telegram hinting that Daniel may be in serious trouble in Germany and that he is wanted for murder in Berlin.

Against the advice of the Whitestones, Gretchen decides she must return to Germany as quickly as possible. Alfred drives her to the train station and gives her five hundred pounds to help her in her hunt for Daniel. Gretchen arrives in Munich to find the SA (Sturmabteilung) have stormed the office of Fritz Gerlich's newspaper, the anti-National Socialist, Der Gerade Wag. Gerlich tells Gretchen that he saw Daniel a few days after he arrived in Germany. He had been beaten and his money and false papers taken. Shortly afterwards, the party-sponsored newspapers announced that Daniel was wanted for the murder of a woman named Monika Junge. Daniel has not been seen since and the city is under attack by the SA who have been pillaging businesses. Gerlich informs Gretchen that nothing is done to stop the attacks because the SA have now taken over Munich's police force, with Heinrich Himmler now Munich's acting police chief. As Gretchen is leaving, Max Amann the head of the Eher Verlag, the National Socialist publishing house arrives to arrest Gerlich. Flashing her swastika necklace to Amann, Gretchen is allowed to leave, while Gerlich is heard being beaten.

Her next stop is the office of the Munich Post which she hopes the SA have not yet attacked. However, she's too late. Desperate, Gretchen decides to visit her girlfriend, Eva Braun who is now Hitler's companion. She contacts Herr Hoffman's Photography shop where Eva works and asks her to find out if Daniel Cohen was arrested during the raid on the Munich Post. When Gretchen and Eva meet in Englischer Garten, she learns that Daniel was not arrested. Eva tells Gretchen that Hitler still talks about her and that she is not safe in Munich. Taking Eva's advice, Gretchen travels to the Hauptbahnhof where she plans to take the train to Berlin. Unexpectedly she meets Daniel who is also taking the same express train and they board together staying in a double compartment. Daniel tells Gretchen he cannot leave until he clears his name. Daniel fills Gretchen in on what happened when he arrived in Munich to investigate Aaron's death.  He learned from his friends at the Munich Post that the kind of attacks Aaron succumbed to are happening all over Germany. After leaving the offices of the Post he was assaulted by the SA and his papers stolen. He believes the SA in Berlin learned of his return to Germany and he was framed for the murder of a young woman. Daniel tells her that "If I can get proof that the National Socialists are behind the murder, I'll give it to a foreign correspondent friend I have in Berlin. He'll have the story printed in his paper in England. It'll be an enormous scandal for the National Socialists. All eyes will be on Berlin, and they'll have to let me leave the country." Daniel believes that he might even be able to bring down the National Socialists.

Just how difficult this will be is demonstrated when Gretchen and Daniel barely escape the train at Dachau as it is being searched by the SA. Cold, exhausted and hungry they make their way to Gretchen's grandparent's farm. Gretchen is shocked to discover her mother living in abject poverty and not welcoming towards Daniel. They travel to Daniel's parent's home in Berlin where his parents are not welcoming to her and his mother reveals the depths of Daniel's unhappiness in England. Knowing that both their families do not accept either of them, Gretchen and Daniel set about the task at hand; to determine who killed Monika Junge and why Daniel was framed for her murder. As they dig deeper, they soon uncover a plot that leads them back to the Reichstag and the fire of February 27.


Blankman has crafted a good piece of historical fiction that incorporates one of the most significant events in the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, the burning of the Reichstag which was the seat of the German Republic.  Blankman's story revolves around the mystery that surrounded the fire at the time. The Reichstag was set on fire on February 27, 1933, days before parliamentary elections were to be held on March 5. Chancellor Hitler was determined to see a majority of Nazis elected and anything that would push the German people to vote for the Nazis was encouraged.  A lone person, Marius van der Lubbe, who was an unemployed brick layer with links to the Communist party, was arrested for the arson. When Hitler heard that a communist had been arrested he was furious. He was quoted as saying, "You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch in German history...This fire is the beginning."

The Nazi's used their radio and press to put forth the propaganda that the fire was evidence the Communists were planning to seize control of the government. The fear of a Communist revolution led to the immediate passage, the day after the fire, of the Reichstag Fire Decree. This decree suspended all democratic rights for the German people, including the freedom of the press and the freedom to associate.

However, many people both in Germany and throughout the world, believed that the Nazis were responsible for the burning of the Reichstag. They could then use the fire to gradually pass laws that would restrict the rights of the press and the people, setting the stage for Hitler to eventually become dictator. The Enabling Act, which Blankman mentions in her novel began the process of creating a dictatorship in Germany.  As Blankman writes, "On March 23, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, effectively voting itself out of existence." Within a month almost all Communist deputies were incarcerated.

Although Blankman states in her Author's Note that research after World War II appears to conclude that the fire was the work of only one man, van der Lubbe, controversy still exists as to who really set the Reichstag ablaze.

In her detailed Author's Note at the back of the novel, Blankman writes that while many of the main characters in the novel are fictitious, there are many real historical figures included in the story. These include Adolf Hitler, Marius van der Lubbe, Eva Braun who committed suicide along with Hitler as the Russian army entered Berlin, Ernst Hanfstaengl, Ernst Gennat, Fritz Gerlich, Max Amann, Sefton "Tom" Delmer and of course Winston Churchill. She provides a brief sketch of each of these historical figures.

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke is really a mystery romance with Daniel and Gretchen racing to clear Daniel of murder before the Enabling Act is passed. Blankman does an excellent job of portraying a Germany slowly slipping into brutality and anarchy. People begin disappearing, people on the street murdered or beaten and no one stops to help them out of blind fear. Any newspapers in opposition to the Nazi's are sacked, their reporters intimidated, arrested or murdered. The average person struggles not to stand out so as not to attract the attention of the SA or the dreaded SS. The terror, which could happen at any moment, is well demonstrated when Gretchen and Birgit are walking on the street and a car appears. Ordinarily this would not be a frightening event but life in Germany is anything but ordinary.

"Up and down the avenue, men stopped walking, their shoulders tense, their heads swiveling as they watched the car drive past....
The car doors sprang open. Men scrambled out, about five or six of them. They wore the brown uniforms of the SA. In their hands, they clutched truncheons...
The SA men strode to the nearest shop. As she watched, they raised their truncheons high, then smashed them down on the darkened shop's windows. The glass shattered.
Break everything in sight!" one of the men shouted.
Comprehension flashed through Gretchen's mind. It was a Strafexpedition, an excursion made by National Socialists into a Jewish or Communist neighborhood to punish the people who lived there."

The book takes its title from a conversation that Hitler once had with Gretchen's father, who was a friend of Hitler before he murdered him. "They'll swallow anything if it's repeated often enough, he had said, clapping her father on the shoulder. Like blood and smoke, eh, Muller? The truth doesn't matter. Only the appearance of it." As Gretchen ponders these words she wonders what Hitler meant by them.
"She frowned. Hitler had said that he didn't need to tell the truth; he merely needed to appear as though he did. He had sounded as if he were planning on deliberately misleading others. Like setting fire to Berlin's seat of government, a terrorist attack reported all over the world, and then blaming your strongest political opponents for it."

Overall, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke is a fitting conclusion to the story of Gretchen and Daniel. At times Gretchen's narrative is overwhelmed by her romantic feelings towards Daniel. Blankman even creates a bit of romantic tension between the two when Gretchen learns that he has not been happy in England and she wonders if they have a future together. Perhaps a little less romance and bit more editing would have helped.

Nevertheless, fans of historical fiction will delight in this fine novel about a very interesting and frightening period in world history.

For more information on the Reichstag fire the following websites may be helpful:

The Reichstag Fire of 1933

World War Two Database

Book Details:

Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman
New York: Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers 2015
393 pp.

No comments: