Wednesday, March 2, 2016

My Brother's Secret by Dan Smith

Dan Smith's novel explores the moral dilemma faced by a young boy who is desperate to fit into his nation's ideal of being a patriotic German.

Twelve year old Karl Friedmann is a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk, a group for German boys too young to join the Hitler Youth. They are trained to be fit and fearless so they can eventually fight for the Fuhrer. The novel opens with Karl's group of younger boys participating in a war game which his team wins when Karl captures the opposing team's flag. Karl is praised by the leader, Alex Jung of the Hitler Youth group, training them and given a silver proficiency badge. He is bursting with pride at his accomplishment.

One of the boys on the losing team, Johann Weber, seems upset and unable to participate like he usually does.Karl learns that Johann's father, Oskar, was killed in the war. The other boys mock Johann for crying over his father's death, saying they would be proud if their father had died for the Fuhrer. To punish Johann for crying, Alex has the other boys fight him. The first one he calls up is Karl. Everyone taunts Karl to hit Johann but Karl refuses until Johann screams for him to punch him. Feeling terrible about knocking Johann down, Karl helps him to his feet but is ridiculed by Alex for doing so.

When Karl returns home he is teased by his older brother Stefan, who tells him that he does not have to wear a uniform to be a good German. Karl accuses Stefan of being a coward because he left school so he would not have to join the Hitler Youth. On his twelfth birthday, Karl's family receives a telegram that informs them their father has died in action in Russia. Their mother, Hannah, collapses in shock and Karl expresses his own shock at his father's death. Stefan decides to go get Opa and Oma. When Stefan puts on his jacket, Karl notices a white flower embroidered on the inside pocket. He questions Stefan about it, but Stefan simply tells Karl that it's nothing and to forget about it.

Due to Hannah's fragile condition, Oma and Opa bring everyone to their home on Escherstrasse in Cologne. Karl's mother is completely bedridden. Karl wants to join the local school and the town's Deutsches Jungvolk troop but Stefan tells him that Opa and Oma want to keep him home for some time. They want him to think about his involvement with the Nazi "stuff". Karl balks at this and asks Stefan once again what the white flower means, but Stefan refuses to tell him.

While Stefan works in a local mill, Karl finds himself terribly bored. He feels like he is in prison which makes him remember how Stefan was sent to a camp last year after someone reported him fighting with boys from the Hitler Youth. One day Karl sees a young girl who lives in the house across the street from him. He wonders if she is a "second-degree Mischling", that is a person with one Jewish grandparent. She sees Karl at the window and waves to him before riding off on her bike. Bored and frustrated, Karl sneaks away on his bike and rides through town. While riding he sees walls painted with white graffiti that says "Hitler is killing our fathers." At the end of the slogan is a white flower, the same as the one Karl saw on his brother's inside jacket pocket.

Karl ends up at a school where he spots the dark-haired girl he saw earlier. However Karl is quickly spotted by the teachers who yell after him. Fleeing on his bike, Karl races away only to be struck by a black Mercedes car. That car is driven by a man from the Gestapo, Kriminalinspektor Gerhard Wolff. Wolff is not nice to Karl, despite the fact that he was thrown to the pavement and is scrapped and bruised. He questions Karl about the white paint on his fingers and then asks him why he doesn't know him. Karl explains his situation while Wolff drives him to his Opa and Oma's home.

At his Opa and Oma's home, Wolff is intimidating; he searches their kitchen questioning Karl's grandparents on their full cupboards. They tell him that the get their food from Herr Finkel's shop. Opa is intimidated into wearing his Nazi party badge and must attend more meetings while Karl is ordered back to school and into the Deutsches Jungvolk in a week's time.

Afterwards Karl meets Lisa Herz, the girl across the street. She takes Karl to Herr Finkel's shop where they buy some chocolate. Lisa asks about Stefan and Karl tells her about how he got into trouble with the Gestapo and was sent to boot camp. Lisa asks if someone reported Stefan because this happens all the time. Lisa shows Karl a carving of a flower that she found when some boys were chased by the Hitler Youth. It is the same as the white flower he saw on the wall graffiti. That night when Stefan comes home as he's giving Opa money, the square of black cloth embroidered with white flower falls out of his pocket. Oma and Opa warn Stefan to be careful. When Karl sees the piece of cloth from his brother's jacket and asks what the flower means, no one answers him. Karl realizes that they do not trust him. He knows the flower means something and that his brother is somehow involved. Karl becomes determined to find out. His curiosity endangers Stefan and leads himself and Lisa deeper into a deadly confrontation with Gerhard Wolff and the Gestapo.


In My Brother's Secret, Dan Smith excels at re-creating the historical time period of World War II Germany. On June 22, 1941, Germany began Operation Barbarossa - the invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler proclaimed that the Soviet Union would collapse within three months. His plan was to conquer Russia before their notorious hard winter set in. Initially, the blitzkrieg was very successful, with German troops advancing far into Russian territory and almost completely disabling the Russian war machine. However, for many reasons, the German invasion began to falter and German casualties began to mount.  In this novel, Operation Barbarossa has just began and Karl and Stefan's father has been unwillingly sent to the Russian front.

In the opening chapters which describe Karl's experiences in the Deutsches Jungvolk, Smith ably demonstrates the brutality of the Nazi regime. By describing Karl's indoctrination in Nazi racial theories and his belief that he must be strong as Krupp steel (Krupp was a steel company which made war weapons for Germany during both world wars) the setting and tone of the novel are quickly established. Karl is young and easily won over to the Nazi ideals. Like most young boys, he wants to fit in and he wants to fight for his beloved Germany.  In fact he has so absorbed the Nazi propaganda that he denounced his own brother - something that is hinted at in the first part of the novel and revealed later on.

As part of the Deutsches Jungvolk Karl is told to be "As fast as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp's steel. The words of the Fuhrer himself."  It is something he takes to heart, pushing himself physically. He prides himself on being acknowledged in the group. 

However, a series of events occur that gradually change Karl's mind, opening his eyes to the reality of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. When Karl's father, Oskar is killed in Russia he expresses shock and anger. "It's not fair. The war was supposed to be short," I sobbed. It was supposed to be over. Everyone was supposed to give up when they saw us coming." He also tells Stefan that he expected to feel proud if his father died but instead he feels overwhelming shock and emptiness. Despite this Karl still defends his participation in the Deutsches Jungvolk and his idol, Adolf Hitler.

After his accident with Kriminalinspector Gerhard Wolff,  Karl finds his views on the Nazis beginning to change. Seeing how Wolff treats his beloved grandfather, Karl begins to reconsider.  "When I was at school with Ralf and Martin, the idea of people being punished for not following the rules felt right, but I wasn't so sure now."

Later on Stefan points out to Karl the reality of life under Nazi rule, something he has largely been sheltered from. After the leaflets are dropped, Stefan tells Karl what happens to people who oppose the Nazis. "It's time to stop pretending. He needs to know that you don't have to do anything. You just have to say something, think something. All it takes is for one person to tell the Gestapo and that's the end of it. Some people even report their own family." Stefan tells Karl that people are sent away to die in camps and not as he believes "to learn how to be better Germans." Karl begins to realize that he has been a part of something terrible and is filled with guilt and remorse.

After Karl and his friend Lisa witness Herr Finkel being terrorized and taken away by the Gestapo he is deeply upset. Karl remembers how kindly Herr Finkel, a man with "sparkling blue eyes" had been towards him, how he asked after his mother, offered his condolences over his father's death and deflected the nosy questions of Frau Vogel.
"I felt numb. Seeing someone I knew arrested and manhandled our of his own shop was horrible. I'd heard about these things, I knew it happened, but I had never seen it. And I always thought it happened to the right people, to people who deserved it...Herr Finkel was a shopkeeper. He sold chocolate. What could he have done to deserve this? Had it been like this for Lisa's Papa?"  

Karl begins to understand that Stefan was telling the truth about how the Nazis kill anyone who opposes them. Lisa tells him that her father refused to go to Russia to fight so they placed him in camp. She tells Karl that the back of the leaflet states that thousands of German soldiers have died in Russia. When he sees the boys from the Deutsches Jungvolk and the Hitler Youth on parade and listens to their songs about the Jews, Karl feels shame. "Not so long ago, marching like this had seemed like the best thing in the world, but now I felt a stab of shame that I had shouted such hateful things."

He eventually tells his Opa and Oma that he knows they don't like the Fuhrer and admits to them that he doesn't like him anymore either. When he thinks of Hitler's words, "Germany will be victorious." Karl experiences intense conflict because although he wants Germany to win, he doesn't support the Fuhrer anymore. Karl refuses to confront the idea that the Gestapo may be torturing Herr Finkel. But as he has becomes involved with the Edelweiss Pirates and must deal with the cruel and manipulative Wolff, Karl finally understand the true nature of the Gestapo. This is further revealed to Karl when he learns of Frau Schmidt's betrayal of Jana and Stefan.

Karl is a thoughtful but reckless boy. This makes him a realistic character because he doesn't suddenly turn against the Nazis. He experiences conflict as his eyes are opened and he also experiences shame for how he thought and behaved. Karl's internal struggle as he goes from patriotic German youth to Nazi resistor is reflected in how he views Hitler's autobiography, Mein Kampf which initially he prizes.

Mein Kampf (My Struggle) was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926 and outlined Hitler's plan for Germany. In Mein Kampf among other things, Hitler blames the Jewish people for the world's troubles and especially those of Germany, although for the latter he also includes socialists and Marxists. In it he also proposes the genocide of the Jewish population of Germany by poison gas.

Karl remembers how he begged his parents to purchase him a copy but they refused, telling him he would never read it. It's likely, knowing what it contained, they didn't want him to read it. He saves up money and buys himself a copy only to find it "too complicated. Too boring."

When he takes the British leaflet from Lisa, Karl hides it in his copy of Mein Kampf. Karl's Opa comes into his room and sees him with the book and asks him if he's read it. He tells Karl that he found it "a little dry for my taste" because he can't tell Karl outright what he really thinks. This is because everyone in Karl's family knows he believes in the Nazis, know he reported Stefan and therefore do not trust him. But Karl tells him he believes he will never read it, indirectly indicating to his Opa that he no longer believes in the Fuhrer.

At the end of the novel, now fully realizing how dangerous the Nazis and their ideology is, Karl burns his copy of Mein Kampf. "I placed three brown folders on the grass at the far end of the backyard, and put Mein Kampf on top of them so the Fuhrer was looking at the sky, then I doused him with kerosene from Opa's supplies."

"When I put a match to the book, the flames burned blue and flickered in the wind. The folders went up well, but the book was thick and it took a while for the fire to work through it. The pages blackened and curled as the Fuhrer turned to smoke."

The difficulty with which Mein Kampf burns is representative of how hard it will be to cleanse the Nazis and their ideology from Germany.

My Brother's Secret is another fine historical novel from British author Dan Smith. It's wonderful to see excellent novels written for young boys. Both this novel and Smith's My Friend, the Enemy explore specific moral dilemma's young people experience in times of war.

Further Reading:

The Edelweiss Pirates

Book Details:

My Brother's Secret by Dan Smith
New York: Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.    2015
293 pp.

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