It would be easy to make the assumption that Giles Milton’s new book is little more than a vanity project. It is, after all, the story of his own father-in-law and of his experiences growing up in the Weimar Republic and as a soldier in the Second World War.
Yet, such an assumption would be wholly misplaced. Rather than one of the countless wartime memoirs that provide little of any historical or literary worth, Milton’s book offers much of value to the reader.
Wolfram was born in 1924 and spent his formative years under the shadow of the Third Reich, growing up near the town of Pforzheim in the Black Forest. Coming from a rather bohemian, free-thinking background (his father was an artist, and he too would become an artist of some renown), he was little impressed by Hitler and the Nazis.
But the Third Reich swiftly made its presence felt in his life; particularly when he was transported to the eastern front as part of a labour battalion, and then when he was sent to Normandy as a conscript.
Wolfram is an engaging character. Thoughtful and circumspect, he occasionally comes across as an aesthete journeying through the Hades of wartime; savouring what little spiritual nourishment he could find; a beautiful landscape or the mournful chanting of an Orthodox funeral, before being wrenched back to the living death of war.
Of course, aside from such esoteric flourishes, Wolfram’s experiences – and those of his family on the home front – were scarcely extraordinary for Germans of the wartime generation.
Yet, the beauty of Milton’s book is the way that he has woven those experiences not only into a wider narrative, but also into the narratives of those that were close to Wolfram; childhood friends and family members.
The result is a book which deftly juggles the micro and the macro, ably contextualising Wolfram’s life and incorporating it into the broader story. Importantly, Milton’s use of the first-hand material that he has had access to – diaries, letters and interviews – is exemplary. In contrast to some books of this type, one never feels that the raw material is being stretched too thin, and neither does one sense that it is overused, presented clumsily, without sufficient explanation or context.
Milton’s writing, too, is first-rate. Engaging, poignant and vivid, he wrings just the right amount of pathos from his story, and shifts seamlessly between the varying ‘voices’ of his narrative.
Therefore for all its apparently homespun origins, this is a very valid and interesting book, which offers an illuminating insight into the experience of ‘ordinary’ Germans living in ‘small-town’ Germany.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (The Bodley Head, 2010)