We introduce the first instalment in our new series, where we invite prominent South Africans to share their most powerful read with us. Writer, columnist and Daily Maverick assistant editor Marianne Thamm opens her book.
What is the title and who’s the author? Berlin The Downfall 1945 by Antony Beevor. How old were you when you discovered it?
I was 41. Who gave it to you or recommended it? I came to the book after having read Beevor’s magnificent account of the battle of Stalingrad. My interest in World War II has been an enduring one. Men from three generations in my family all fought in wars: my grandfather in WWI, my father in WWII and my brother as a conscript in the South African Defence Force. While my brother and father were always absorbed by the technical aspects of war, it is the human cost, both moral and physical, that has consumed my interest. I knew the book would be published and had read reviews. I bought it new and in hardcover. Was there a particular character who grabbed your imagination? The city of Berlin, and the ordinary citizens, including my grandmother and grandfather, who lived there during the liberation of the city by the Allies in 1945.
What emotions did it inspire in you? I was, for the first time, overcome by compassion and a modicum of deeper understanding for a people who had allowed themselves to be led astray by a leader; who, as a result of blind loyalty, found their lives and their country utterly in ruins. Millions died including in the Holocaust because of that one man, Adolf Hitler. I had questioned the moral judgement of my family, hoping and wishing I would find someone who’d had the conscience and the backbone to resist his political tide. After Beevor’s book I understood that it is easy to make judgements in hindsight. What did you think after you’d turned the last page? I began to view my ageing father in a far less harsh light and, instead of constantly arguing with him about WWII, began to engage with him about his thoughts.
It freed me to get to know him better before he died. I was also able to own that these people are my ancestors and that I do not exist outside of them. It made me realise the cruelty and horror of war and that a ˜perpetrator class’ is multi-dimensional complex survivors who offer us lessons for the future if we care to listen. Did it influence your views? It changed my view of my grandparents and what they experienced. My grandfather died on 27 April 1945 just as the city was being shelled. There is a description of that day as the battle raged and I thought about him lying in the rubble, killed by a piece of shrapnel that had pierced his heart. I thought about my grandmother, finding his body and dragging it home on a wooden cart through the devastation to their bombed-out apartment. From then on, they were not just Germans to me but people who flow through me in some way. Is there a fact that left a lasting impression on you? That 55 million people died during WWII. More than are alive in South Africa today. Could you sum it up in a few words? I realised that each of us is trapped in our time and our particular history and that in order to make the right future choices we must know and understand this history. It cannot merely be something we read about but must live out daily in the choices we make, resisting demagogues and warmongers.