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.