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Nightingale

Two non-fiction books

Two non-fiction books this time. First, Birds, Beasts and Relatives by Gerald Durrell and then On Hitler's Mountain by Irmgard Hunt.




Birds, Beasts and Relatives is actually the second book in Durrell's so called 'Corfu' trilogy and he wrote it because his family, after reading the first book and recovering from their outrage, told him that he'd left out all the best bits. So this book covers the same time period as My Family and other Animals but tells us a bit more. We get a lot more about Gerry's obsession with collecting all kinds of animals and insects and driving his family mad with them; much more about the eccentrics that members of the family, especially Laurence, seem to attract who turn up for a visit at two in the morning completely drunk; and more about the beauty of the island and the locals and their traditions.

For my money though the best chapter is the first where Durrell describes how his sister, Margot, is sent to London to cure her acne. She stays with the two least eccentric (this being relative term in the Durrell family) relations, Cousin Prue and Great Aunt Fan. Unfortunately Margot gets in with the wrong crowd and discovers spiritualism. A medium, Mrs. Haddock, attaches herself to the girl, and so does an Indian spirit guide known as Mawake. Thoroughly alarmed, 'Mother' and Gerald set off for London to save Margot from herself. This whole chapter is extremely funny and makes me think the world of fiction missed something when Gerald Durrell settled for writing mainly non-fiction, natural history books - wonderful as those are.

As always with Durrell, this is a thoroughly charming book, very much of its time and place. Beautiful... and I adore that cover. I must make it a priority this winter to read Douglas Botting's biography.

'Lulled by the wine and the throbbing heart of the boat's engine, lulled by the warm night and the singing, I fell asleep while the boat carried us back across the warm, smooth waters to our island and the brilliant days that were not to be.'

The war loomed of course, which brings me neatly on to, On Hitler's Mountain, by Irmgard Hunt.

At this time of year my thoughts tend to veer towards two things. One is of course, creepy books for the Halloween challenge, but the other is books about the two world wars. Armistice Day in November prompts this but this year it was also prompted by the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2 a couple of weeks ago. The BBC had a weeklong feature of documentaries and news items and long may they continue to do this kind of thing, especially as the last serving British 'Tommy' from WW1 has recently died and there is always the danger that people might now begin to forget.



Anyway, I've had On Hitler's Mountain on my tbr pile for a couple of years and what with the non-fiction challenge and the time of year, it was time to read it.

Irmgard Paul was born on the 28th. May 1934 on Saltberg (Salt Mountain) in the Alpine village of Berchtesgaden in Germany. She was the eldest daughter of parents, Max and Albine Paul, Max a painter and Albine a housewife. Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany and Irmgard's parents were delighted with Hitler's success and pleased with the direction their country was going in. After the years of rampant inflation it seemed like their country was at last a place to be proud of once again.

The first few years of Irmgard's life were idyllic. The family were not well off but village life in the Alps was happy, everyone knew and supported each other, the surroundings were stunning - hiking in the mountains a commonplace activity. And life was made more interesting by one rather startling fact - Hitler's mountain retreat, the Berghof, was on their mountain: they were neighbours.

At three Irmgard earned herself a name by being the child Hitler put on his knee:

'he crouched down, waved to me, and said, "Komm nur her, mein Boppele," (Come here, my little doll). Suddenly I felt scared and shy. I hid behind my mother's skirt until she coaxed me firmly to approach him. He pulled me onto his knee while his photographer prepared to take pictures. The strange man with the sharp, hypnotic eyes and dark mustache held me stiffly, not at all like my father would have, and I wanted to cry and run away. But my parents were waving at me to sit still and smile. Adolf Hitler, the great man they so admired, had singled me out, and in their eyes I was a star. As the crowd applauded, I saw my grandfather turn away and strike the air angrily with his cane.'

Irmgard's grandfather loathed and despised the Nazis and, in future years, had to be protected from himself as he was not backward in coming forward with his opinions. The danger obvious when, while at school temporarily in her grandparents town of Selb in Northern Germany, a teacher tried to get Irmgard to inform on her own grandfather. And this was the problem after war broke out. Max and Apline, although supporters of Hitler and the war, were not fanatical Nazis. And your dealings with neighbours in the village now depended on who was and who wasn't a true Nazi. You could be bullied or informed on for not doing your bit to support the cause. Not only that, Hitler's child euthanasia programme meant that disabled children were at risk. One family had two such children, one, severely disabled, was removed to an asylum and 'died of a cold' as the family were later informed. The second child, who had learning difficulties but was not quite as disabled, became a child protected by the whole village, not attending school or hospitals, to all intents and purposes a 'non-child' and hidden away until the end of the war.

After Irmgard's father, Max, was drafted and sent to France, life became much harder for the family. And as everyone in the village was in the same boat everyone came together to survive. Tragically, Max became of one the early casualties of the war, killed, they suspected, by the French resistance. Once again it gave the family a certain notoriety in the village, the inference being that they should be proud of the sacrifice. Of course what it meant in reality was more hardship, but complaining was not an option, that would make you a traitor to the German cause.

I could go on and on about this book until I've retold the whole thing. Truthfully, it needs to be read for yourself. It's a book that is on the one hand quite frightening - a warning as to how a country can come under the influence of an evil regime without realising it has happened. Or rather, they 'knew' but they just weren't told the full extent, obviously, of the deceit. On the other hand there's an uplifting feel to this story. A feeling that whatever happens, however bad things get, human beings are resourceful and will cope one way or another.

The Jewish question hardly impinged on their lives. They had some idea of what was happening but there were no Jews in the valley and their own lives were so hard that they didn't give it much thought. That part of it I found disquieting, as though somehow they 'should' have known and cared. That's probably unfair of me. What cheered me up was hearing how a minority opposed Hitler. When the bombs were falling and people cursed the Allies, someone, I forget who, shouted that this was not the Allies' fault, it was Hitler's. On another occasion an anti-Nazi neighbour took hold of a globe atlas, pointed out all countries arrayed against Germany and their size, and asked if anyone had shown this to Hitler lately.

It was interesting too, to read about the time after the war. When American cigarettes became the currency of Germany, how the country was partitioned and people were glad not to be in the Russian sector, and how the villagers invaded the Berghof and found the hoarded food, enough to feed a starving village for a year. The full extent of the treachory was then apparent and fanatical Nazis hung themselves rather than face the Nuremburg trials.

I think this is probably the best book I've read about the war years from the German point of view. It's told in a very matter-of-fact and honest manner, which makes it all the more chilling really. At the same time it's also a very beautiful book. The author's love of this part of Bavaria shines out of her words and, despite the awful subject matter, reminded me of every book I've ever read about the Alps and made me want to go there. I hope lots of people will go out and get this book - it should be read for many many reasons but most of all because it's a fantastic read.

There's an interesting website here that shows then (Nazi occupied) and now photos of the village of Berchtesgaden.

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