A new book from Giles Milton is always welcome – he is a fine writer of what might be called “narrative non-fiction” – often telling the story of forgotten episodes in history, such as in Nathaniels Nutmeg, about the battle between the Dutch and the English for control of the nutmeg trade, or Paradise Lost, a harrowing account of the the sacking of the Turkish port of Smyrna in 1922. I think if I were a writer I would very much enjoy taking Giles Milton’s approach – selecting an episode which no-one else has written about in recent years, conducting in-depth research in libraries across the world and then compiling a wholly well-written and readable book which is more or less certain to be well-received.
In the case of Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War (Kindle edition here), Giles Milton was able to work closer to home for it tells the story of his father in law, Wolfram Aïchele, who managed to become a successful Paris-based artist after defiantly surviving several years in the German Army during the Russian Campaign and the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Milton based this story on 60 hours of recorded interviews with his father in law (he is still alive at the age of 87). He also had access to various other relatives and also to family letters and diaries from the time of the Third Reich. The list of notes and sources at the end of the book is a tribute to Milton’s thoroughness in extracting the last grain of information about this story while eye-witnesses to these events are still alive, even to the extent of making contact with an American airman, Doug Hicks who flew over Wolfram’s village on a bombing raid (Hicks’ account of the raid can be found here).
I think we need ground-level accounts of the German experience of the Second World War to provide some balance to the way in which British people tend to think that all Germans were enthusiastic supporters of Nazi philosophy and behaviour. Wolfram was brought up in a family of Anthroposophists (followers of the philosopher and theologian Rudolf Steiner) and were members of The Christian Community, a church which was banned very early on after Hitler came to power. The family were peace-loving and found Nazi ideas abhorrent. However, they lived in a remote house in Eutingen, a tiny village near Pforzheim on the edge of the Black Forest and were able to survive the war without being imprisoned or murdered as were so many other non-Nazis.
This is not to say that Wolfram’s family and their friends were wholly consistent in their rejection of the Nazi system – they tried to tread a quiet path of isolating themselves from the excesses of the regime while not becoming visibly dissident. It is easy to criticise non-Nazi Germans who accommodated themselves to living under Nazism but when I read Milton’s thoughtful description of their predicament I could see that not everyone could be the heroes they would like to have been:
There were also large numbers of Germans who found themselves unwillingly ensnared in this Mephistophelian nightmare – one that was not of their making nor within their control. The Aïchele . . . family retained a deep attachment to Germany throughout the twelve long years of the Third Reich, but it was a very different Germany from the one that Hitler was attempting to create. Theirs was the Germany of Goethe and Schumann, Heine and Bach. Overnight (they) discovered that the Nazis had wrapped their beloved Fatherland in a web of darkness.
They despised Hitler for what he had done and they despised his entourage, but they also, naturally enough, wanted to preserve their own lives. They had young children to protect; they were scared of the Gestapo. They did not want to end their days in Dachau. Under the Third Reich, they had precious little room for manoeuvre, being forced to compromise their morals, their ideals and their beliefs. ‘Heil Hitler’ never tripped lightly off their tongues. ‘Meine Ruh’ ist hin,’ wrote Goethe, ‘mein Herz ist schwer.’ My peace is gone, my heart is heavy. They would have given anything to have opted out. Instead, they were impotently sucked into a regime and a war that would lead to the darkest hours of Germany’s history.
As I read this I questioned whether my own humanistic values, would have made me strong enough to protest, knowing that such a stance would lead to destruction of my home, my wife and children? Some took this dissident course and paid with their lives – most found a way closer to that described above by Giles Milton.
Wolfram’s story is remarkable. He was a boy with a unique talent for drawing and wood carving and as a young boy he spent his spare time visiting churches to study mediaeval architecture and ornamentation. He managed to get taken on as an apprentice wood-carver at Oberammagau, but not long into his course, in 1941, he was conscripted into the army: the Germans had invaded Russia and was already finding stiff opposition in the terrible winter.
Compelled to attend military training, he found that life in the camp was physically exhausting with gun training and enforced marches which left him close to collapse each evening. In June 1942 he was sent east and embarked on a 1700 mile journey by train which was to take four weeks of misery on overcrowded transport trains, 40 men to a wagon. While living in a tented barracks near the front line he contracted diptheria and after a life and death fight for survival was eventually sent back to Germany to recuperate. It is difficult to say that he was lucky to get such a serious illness, but in this case, it certainly saved him from being exposed to some of the worst fighting on the Russian Front.
However, when he was again ready to fight, Wolfram was despatched to Normandy, just as the Allied Invasion was about to take place – out of the frying pan into the fire! For Wolfram, the war years were a time of abject misery with constant hunger and fear of death. His artistic nature was not adapted to military life and the story of how he eventually surrendered to the Allies is another tale of deliverance which seems remarkable when you read about the annihilation of human life that was going on around him.
Wolfram’s time as a Prisoner of War in France was spent in hard labour with inadequate food until he was eventually shipped off across the Atlantic to a camp in Texas. When the war ended he was brought back to France, but had to continue to work as a labourer on re-construction work. Eventually he got home to find that the town of Pforzheim had been completely flattened in the RAF bombing raids, but miraculously, his parents were still alive and were housing displaced people in their home.
Among the story of Wolfram, Giles Milton intersperses accounts of life at Wolfram’s home. We read of how the rise of Nazism affected the citizen of the village, particularly in the deeply embedded system of informants who monitored every detail of daily life in their quest to expose dissent. Nazism was a system of terrible oppression which seems like the cultish systems we see today in North Korea. It had many adherents of course, and perhaps people like the Aïcheles were few in number. It is quite an interesting to read this book “from the other side” and to learn what it felt like to be subject to an RAF bombing raid with the ensuing conflagration (17,000 people were killed in the raids on Pforzheim). Despite finding sympathy for Wolfram and his family, a British reader will not be able to help but experience a vicarious thrill in the later pages of the book as the tide turned and the Allies gained the upper hand.
There have been many books recounting the experience of non-Nazi German people, many of whom were able to leave the country before the war started, but not so many from those who lived through the times despising the regime and refusing to give it their support. What makes this book stand out is the quality of the writing and the research behind it – and the descriptions of the dragon’s den that Wolfram and his family found themselves in. Their survival makes for a thrilling if at times uncomfortable story.
Here is a video in which Giles Milton talks about his book.
An interview in the Guardian newspaper with Giles Milton about this book can be found here.
Wolfram Aïchele’s website is here.
Giles Milton’s website is here.
Giles Milton’s wife, artist Alexandra Milton’s website here has photographs of Wolfram on the About page here.
The photograph of a Texan prisoner of war camp comes from this website.