As a writer of historical fiction, I have a duty to my readers to write accurately about the time period my novels are set in. Much of this, of course, requires in-depth historical research, but the key element for me is to base my characters on the lives of real individuals. This helps anchor my stories to historical truth, hopefully giving readers confidence that what they’re reading is a factual account of the past – albeit nourished by my imagination.
This is how I have approached the writing of my current novel, The German Wife.
The story is mainly set in 1930-45 Germany, and centres on the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich. Here, thousands of prisoners were subjected to a battery of gruesome human experiments, all conducted by properly qualified doctors. The “wife” of the title is married to one of those doctors, and the novel explores how a marriage can possibly survive in such circumstances. I have based my portrait of the woman’s husband on a real-life Dachau medic called Karl Plötner. A fully qualified doctor specialising in homeopathy, Plotner was the first to be employed at Dachau when it opened in the early thirties – he was later joined by twenty more doctors. For over a decade, all of these men were involved in human experimentation – most of it cruel. At war’s end, they were convicted of “crimes against humanity” at Nuremberg, and hanged – all of them bar one. Extraordinarily, Plotner managed to escape the noose. How and why is part of my story. But more importantly, I also explore how and why someone who, as a doctor, had made a solemn oath to ‘cure the sick’ and ‘do no harm’, could have been drawn into the world of such evil medical experimentation.
Apart from getting the facts right, a writer of historical fiction must also try to depict what everyday life was like in the past. Although the Second World War must be one of the most documented events in our recent history, what is far less well known is how the German people lived through it. For example, a real surprise in my research was the level of deprivation during the war: food and clothes rationing was far harsher in Germany than in Britain. How could I imagine what that must have been like?
Well, as a child in 1950s Britain, although rationing had ended by the time I was born, there was a long legacy of relative hardship. Our homes were always chilly – just as they had been during the war. In my parents’ house, the only heat came from a single coal fire. As children we always wore vests and jumpers, except in high summer. We walked everywhere – to school, or to the shops. Entertainment was sparse. There was no television in the evenings: we simply listened to the radio, played cards or read books. So it’s no struggle for me to imagine life in any wartime home. What’s more, as both my parents fought in the war, my childhood was filled with their stories. This means that when I sit down to write a novel set in and around the war, it all feels rather familiar.
This will be my seventh novel – all of them have been historical. I often look back on my education at an all girls’ school, and wonder if my A Level history teacher is still alive and whether she has followed my writing career. If she has, I suspect she may have a wry smile. Her last report before I left school said this: ‘Deborah writes rather well, but she needs to focus her arguments.’
I’m grateful for her first comment, but I hope she would now think I’ve mastered her second!
(c) Debbie Rix
About The German Wife:
Inspired by true events, this is a heart-stopping, unforgettable story of ordinary people fighting for survival in the darkest of times. Fans of Orphan Train, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and My Name is Eva will be utterly gripped by this beautiful, tragic World War Two novel.
Germany, 1939: Annaliese is trapped in a loveless marriage. Her husband Hans has become cold and secretive since starting a new job as a doctor at Dachau. Every morning she watches from her kitchen window as he leaves in his car. The sight of him in the dark uniform of the SS sends shivers of fear down her spine and she longs to escape…
When a tall, handsome Russian prisoner named Alexander is sent from Dachau to work in their garden, lonely Annaliese finds herself drawn to him as they tend to the plants together. In snatched moments and broken whispers, Alexander tells her the shocking truth about the camp. Horrified, Annaliese vows to do everything she can to save him.
But as they grow closer, their feelings for each other put their lives at risk. And Annaliese finds herself in grave danger when she dares to fight for love and freedom…
America, 1989: Turning the pages of the newspaper, Annaliese gasps when she recognizes the face of a man she thought she’d never see again. It makes her heart skip a beat as a rush of wartime memories come flooding back to her. As she reads on, she realizes the past is catching up with her. And she must confront a decades-old secret – or risk losing her only son…
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