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Nazi Lady:
The Confessions of Elisabeth Von S

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Futura, London, 1979
(originally published in Great Britain by Blond & Briggs, 1978)
price: 1.25; 320 pages

The blurb on the back:

In 1933 Elisabeth, an innkeeper's daughter from Bavaria, marries Hugo van Stahlenberg, an aristocrat who works as a film director at the Ministry of Propaganda. For the next twelve years she records in her diary the rise and fall of the Third Reich as well as the daily life of a young wife and mother on the fringes of the Nazi hierarchy.
She attends the Nuremberg rallies; applauds Rommel's early victories in Africa; stay with Goering at Karinhall; entertains Hitler to dinner at her home, and has an affair with Dr Goebbels to help her husband's career. But as the war progresses the mood turns gradually to nightmare. Elisabeth watches as Berlin is pounded to rubble and learns that Hugo is implicated in a plot on Hitler's life...

'Extraordinarily effective ... vastly clever and convincing' - San Francisco Chronicle
'A brilliant, almost uncanny act of imaginative reconstruction' - Brigid Brophy

opening lines:
Heil Hitler!
What a year it's going to be. It can't fail. Heil New Year! Heil New Baby!

First up, you're going to have to forget the title, the subtitle and the cover, which all conspire to suggest something that might frankly be a little tacky. Focus your mind instead on the author, the very wonderful Gillian Freeman, creator of Jack Would Be A Gentleman, The Leader, The Leather Boys, The Undergrowth of Literature, and the screenplay for The Girl on a Motorcycle. Since she's one of Britain's finest post-War writers, you can surely trust that she's not going to let you down.

And indeed she doesn't. More than that, what she does is turn in an absolute solid gold classic piece of work, the best thing I have yet read by her. The sleeve notes set up the story (tell you more than they should, probably), but they don't capture the reality, the multi-faceted splendour of the character that Ms Freeman has created. At one level Elisabeth von Stahlenberg is a self-absorbed social climber, whose words read like a kind of Diary of a Nazi Nobody. Well, look, here she is being propositioned at a party:

I pushed him off, and he said 'Don't reject me, dear Frau von Stahlenberg. Your beautiful body maddens me.'
I couldn't believe my ears. He said 'I want to make love to you. Now. Tonight.' Of course I've heard all the stories.
I said 'Dr Goebbels, I can't, I am happily married...' (p.199)

Then again, there's the bathetic juxtaposition of the global and the local:

The English have turned down Hitler's offer for peace. One good thing. I have a fur coat! Hugo arranged it (left by Jews in Berlin, so we were able to buy it at about a third of its real price.) (p.208)

It's those wild swings between the personal and the political that make the book work. It feels so much like an authentic diary that for once the words 'a novel' on the cover look like a sensible health warning rather than a pretentious pose. And to enhance the feel, Ms Freeman has added footnotes to point out who's who and what's what, along the lines of 'She was quoting from memory. What he actually said was...' and so on.

Elisabeth is preposterous, but ultimately quite endearing in her ability to survive the vicissitudes of her era. Because the macro-story is so intimately familiar, the dramatic irony almost makes you sympathise with her as she plans for the future, and as she and her husband gaze upon their new-born son:

'He might have been born anywhere,' Hugo said. 'An Indian village or in an Italian peasant community. But the lucky little so-and-so has picked a winning ticket, Germany in 1933, with parents who haven't made intellectual mistakes like the Neudeckers.' (p.38)

Ultimately the great strength is the thoroughly convincing depiction of a 'decent' German family in the midst of the Third Reich: she's completely devoted to Hitler, but worries about her son's ever-increasing interest in weapons and the Army and not quite sure why her husband (who works as a propaganda film-maker) has doubts over government policy.

I don't think I have the words to praise this sufficiently. It's a triumphant achievement that has forever coloured my perception of Germany in the '30s (particularly) and the '40s. Apart from anything else, the research is impeccable: you find yourself trying to catch it out and failing. (Though a footnote that mentions Litte From having 'a non-speaking role in the film version of Reinhardt's Sumurun in 1910' seems a tad tautological - weren't they all non-speaking roles?)

Recommended without reservation.


from the maker of:
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The Liberty Man
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Jack Would Be A Gentleman
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The Leather Boys
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The Leader
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The Marriage Machine