Why I Write About Children In Times Of War, by Monika Schroder
Germany, my home country, has started two World Wars in the last century. Both wars not only brought death and terror to large parts of Europe, but also ended in defeat followed by fundamental changes of the political system. I find it fascinating that a German person born at the beginning of the 20th century could have experienced two wars, a monarchy, a failed democracy, a fascist dictatorship, a socialist totalitarian regime and then again a democracy, all within one life span.
I have always been interested in history and when I became a writer I tried to imagine how regular people dealt with these wars and the turmoil that followed. As a result, my novels Dog in the Wood and My Brother’s Shadow explore how war and political transitions affect regular people and children in particular.
My first novel, The Dog in the Wood, set in a small village in east Germany, is based on my father’s experiences during the arrival of the red Army at the end of World War II. My father had told me that his grandparents had committed suicide a day before the arrival of the Russian Army. Fear of what would happen when the victorious Russians arrive at their farm had driven them to this desperate act. Later, the Soviets established their headquarters in my family’s farmhouse, and my father witnessed Russian soldiers taking his mother to a prison camp. Out of these harrowing family memories grew my book. I wanted to show Fritz’s internal conflicts and pain in the face of great loss and emotional turmoil, and thereby depict a young person’s experience during wartime.
Writing a novel about the end of WWII led me to examine the circumstances that caused this devastating military conflict and this interest in turn brought me to WWI. I began to research WWI shortly after the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day in November 2008. At the time, German television had put together an excellent 4-part series about the war with original footage of the battlefields and the revolution that ended the monarchy. While I was aghast at the details of trench warfare, gas attacks. I also learned about the food shortages that affected the German civilian population that later became a big part of my novel, My Brother’s Shadow. With the defeat of 1918 came the end of the monarchy, ushered in by a socialist revolution. A democratic government followed. But the Weimar Republic was fragile. The military defeat and the stipulations of the Versailles Peace Treaty had left Germany humiliated. A deep political division between right-wing nationalists and social democrats split the nation and provided the seeds for the violent rise of the National Socialists a decade later. My Brother’s Shadow, set in the fall of 1918, explores this important transition time in German history.
I tried to imagine what it might have been like for a young man who had grown up under the Kaiser to see the monarchy disappear and be confronted with socialist ideas and women’s emancipation. The book opens in Berlin, September 1918 and spans three months until December 1918. The main character is Moritz, a 16-year old apprentice in a print shop of a Berlin newspaper. His father has died and his older brother is still fighting in the trenches. The book is about his coming to grips with the changes in society and his struggle to know what to believe in. Moritz has to choose between his mother, sister and aunt, who are engaged in the socialist movement to end the war and bring democracy to Germany, and his brother, who returns disillusioned, as an injured veteran and joins a right wing extremist groups, seeking scapegoats to blame for the loss of the war.
I lived the first 30 years of my life in Germany but for the last 17 years I have been married to an American. By becoming deeply involved in another culture I became aware of the fundamental differences between the way Americans see the world and how I as a European look at it. By writing about times of war and political transitions I also hope to bring the experience of a European youth, or what I imagined it to be, to readers in the English speaking world. I hope I succeeded.
Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com
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