This is an unusual, disturbing and powerful book. It is part autobiography of an English schoolboy who grew up in Nazi Germany, and part biography of the mother who left him there. Widowed early, Norah Briscoe sought with great determination to build a career in journalism in the face of much prejudice. Adversity did not improve her. She was the mother from hell, unfeeling, selfish and cold. She never once kissed or embraced her son Paul. The logical culmination of Norah’s personal development was that she became a Nazi. As the authors point out, ‘Nazism did not count a lack of sympathy for other people’s feelings as a weakness; rather, it was seen as a strength.’ Norah travelled to Germany to write articles, and in spring 1936 dumped Paul, not yet six, on the family of a boyfriend in Lower Franconia. Back in England, she interested herself in Fascist politics and her bizarre antics culminated in 1941 in an attempt to supply information about suitable bombing targets to the Nazis. In fact, her contacts were MI5 agents provocateurs and she was sentenced to five years in prison, which at least finally made her more compassionate.
Apart from the short chapter on her treason, the material on Norah Briscoe is of limited interest, as she was only small fry. The authors have little detail on what she actually did and fill out the story with general material on British Fascism. The narrative chapters hop from mother to son and back in a way which breaks the flow of the book. This unevenness is a pity, because the material on the son is very interesting. Paul Briscoe’s experience as an English boy in Hitler’s Reich was exceptional, possibly unique, and he tells his story with startling frankness. He was electrified by the first Hitler Youth parade he saw, and thought the rows of uniformed boys looked like gods. At the age of eight he was an eye-witness to the horror of the Crystal Night pogrom. Although his class was ordered by their teacher to vandalise the local synagogue, he admits that he was old enough to know the wickedness of what they were doing. His kindly German foster parents never criticised the Jews, but neither did they actively criticise the way the Jews were treated. After the outbreak of war they formally adopted Paul. Indoctrinated by the Hitler Youth, he won the sobriquet of ‘the tame Englishman’ and sang that he would ‘march against England’ with particular satisfaction.
Briscoe’s circumstances led to some extraordinary situations which the authors recreate vividly. In 1939 he chased a girl around a fountain as an extra in a German film. After the war he was brought back to England and was present by chance at a showing of this film to German prisoners of war. Suddenly he saw himself on the screen in his earlier and happier life. Briscoe never conceals a nostalgia for his German boyhood. This candour allows the authors to provide a compelling and readable record of his extraordinary youth.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 23, 2007