Writer Giles Milton talks to Daisy Dunn about the relative who inspired both his family’s artistic passions and the narrative of his most recent book, Wolfram: The Boy who went to War, reviewed in the Spectator last month by Hester Vaizey.
You note that the book grew out of many hours of interviews. How long did the process take, and how did the book develop?
It was quite a long process in getting my father-in-law, Wolfram, to talk about the War. He never spoke about his time in the Third Reich and during the whole Hitler period. I always wondered what he did, but that’s not really a question you can ask your father-in-law. But when we had children and they started doing the Second World War at school he suddenly realised he had a story to tell; that he was part of the last generation of people who could give an eyewitness account. I think he also wanted to set a record right – that not all Germans were Nazis and that in fact his family had suffered just from passively resisting. The book was also born out of the fact that my mother was in South East London during the war, and her childhood was completely scarred by memories of the severe bombardment. For her, Germans were always the enemy. So when I met Alexandra (my wife) and she discovered she was German, my mother was horrified at first. But when she met Alexandra’s parents and discovered that they had suffered an almost identical experience, if not actually 10 times worse, because the entire town was completely fire-stormed, she was forced to reassess a lifetime hatred of the Germans.
So did Wolfram dictate much of the direction of the book?
Yes, because he’s quite an eccentric, idiosyncratic person, and I wanted the story to be told through his artistic eye. He had zero interest in Hitler or Hitler’s War, and yet was obliged to take part – he was conscripted and had absolutely no choice. So I suppose the book had to follow his narrative really. It was fortunate for me that he was sent to both the Eastern Front and the Western Front, so I could cover the two major areas of the war in my book.
I wondered how he could possibly begin to talk about the destruction of Pforzheim, his hometown?
Your wife conducted the interviews. Did this not make things harder, especially when it came to stirring up painful memories?
Yes indeed. And a question lots of people ask me is how I can be objective when I’m writing about my father-in-law. Because I know my father-in-law very well I have an implicit belief in the stories he tells, but other people might not. And that is a problem, I think, when you’re doing what I was trying to do. At the same time, Alexandra’s grandparents never joined the Nazi party. When the Americans occupied the town where they lived they were asked to be judges in the courts which tried all those implicated in the local Nazi party. So I can retort that the facts are on record. They had to use devious ways not to join the Nazi party.
If Wolfram and the Aïchele family had been Nazi sympathisers would you still have written the book?
If they had wanted me to, yes. In fact another book came out recently - I’ve done events with the author, Martin Davidson – which explores the activities of the author’s grandfather, a member of the SS, The Perfect Nazi. It was a very painful discovery for him. His grandfather had been involved in all sorts of horrible things, but he’s no longer alive so it was easier to write. No for me, precisely the interest of the book was that Wolfram was from a bohemian family that was very involved with the Rudolf Steiner movement, which of course was banned very early on by Hitler. He ticked all the wrong boxes under the Third Reich.
Is it hard to strike the right balance between conveying the huge sense of uncertainty experienced by people there at the time, and the fact that as a writer/historian with the benefit of hindsight, you know what’s going to happen?
Yes, it’s hard to do. As the narrator of the story, I’m in a completely artificial position. I did a lot of research on the German 77 infantry division, of which Wolfram was a part, and I knew all this stuff that he never knew. So actually, when he read some of that chapter, he said ‘I now know where I was at these times’, but they didn’t know at the time. They were just lost, completely lost. As I recounted in the book, they used to break into houses to try and find the PPT post-telephone maps to find out which village they were in, because all the village signs had been taken down.
The book has been very well received here. But what did Wolfram, perhaps its most important critic, think of the final product?
Well he couldn’t read the actual book because he doesn’t really speak English, but enjoyed it filtered through his wife. What he absolutely hated about the book was the cover, on which there’s a picture of him and a picture of Hitler: he said, ‘I spent my entire childhood trying to escape Hitler and now you put him on the front cover with me!’ But the one thing he did say was that the description I give of D-Day from the German point of view is absolutely as it was. He said the chaos, the fact that no one knew what they were doing, completely represents the reality of the situation.
Has the book not been published in Germany?
No, interestingly it hasn’t. The Germans aren’t interested in personal testimonies from the Second World War at all. I was warned beforehand that it wouldn’t get published there. I think they feel it’s time to move on. It’s very hard to make a living out of writing now, so it is important to sell your books elsewhere, especially in America, as I have with all mine. The French edition of Wolfram is coming out in the Autumn and I’m quite intrigued to see what they make of it.
You say in the book that Wolfram’s current apartment in Paris is full of his art, which, of course, he was forbidden to practice during his four years at war. Did his war experiences influence his later artwork?
Ironically what influenced him massively was when, after the collapse of the Third Reich, he suddenly discovered the works of artists like Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, and the whole Blue Rider Movement. All art had been suppressed during the war, apart from the infamous Munich exhibition. There’s absolutely stunning stuff on his website. In the ‘50s he was part of a group of artists interested in religious art as well as the question of what place there was for religious art in a post Third Reich world. He became an Icon painter for a period, but found that too constraining. I think he was influenced by his time in the Ukraine and seeing all their folk art, particularly when he was recuperating from diphtheria [described in the book]. It’s extraordinary to think that his conversion to Orthodoxy dates back from the time he was serving in Russia.
Generally, throughout your career so far, have you encountered any major problems with accessing sources or archives for your books – for political reasons or otherwise?
Well with this book I decided to tell the unfolding story, wherever possible, through the local newspapers, which Wolfram’s parents were reading at the time. Looking at them now it’s obvious they were completely inaccurate and total propaganda. But I was lucky as the state archives were very good there. I encountered real problems with my previous book, on Smyrna, Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922. In Turkey it’s almost impossible to gain access to the archives, so I had trouble telling the story from a Turkish point of view. I went to Izmir and I tried to meet the curators, but all my interviews were cancelled at the last minute. In general, people are rarely willing to hand over their personal materials from their attics. You have to build up a relationship of trust, which was especially the case with the Levantine families of Smyrna. In particular, there was one old lady, in her 90s, who had all the diaries of her aunt, in whose house Atatürk had made his headquarters. These were fantastic historical sources, which no one knew existed. Eventually I was allowed to photocopy the whole lot.
Is there anyone you’re constantly looking over your shoulder at when you’re going through archival material, to check you’re not working on the same topic?
When I was writing Nathaniel’s Nutmeg there was hardly anyone writing narrative history. And I remember when Waterstones ran a promotion for 3 for 2 every single book in the offer except for two were fiction: mine and Longitude, by Dava Sobel. Basically everyone bought two novels and bought one of those two. But today half the books are non-fiction/popular history/narrative history, whatever you want to call it, so the competition has become considerable. You keep an eye on what people are doing, but I stick to my thing of telling stories of ordinary people who find themselves, often through no fault of their own, in extraordinary situations, and how they survive or how they don’t. That’s a theme that runs through all the books I’ve written.
Do you write by day or night?
I work by day, in the London Library, ‘my office’, and think of it as a 9-5 job, really. If you want to write professionally that’s what you have to do, otherwise you’ll never get through. You can’t just dip into things.
And your reviews?
I know you rarely discuss your future projects, but can you give any clue as to what’s next?
Another history book. It’s a story of espionage.