Kelly Rimmer was inspired to write The German Wife after a visit to the Parkes Radio Telescope Observatory, New South Wales. In the back of her book she is quoted: ‘I visited an exhibit about the US space program. I saw how there was a line that said how German and US scientists worked together starting in 1950 in Huntsville Alabama to help the space program. I was determined to learn how that could happen and wanted to know about Operation Paperclip.’ Operation Paperclip was a controversial secret US intelligence program that employed former members of the Nazi party (some, members of the SS) at the end of World War II. Instead of going to trial at Nürnberg, Germany, where former Nazi leaders were indicted and tried as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal, these men were quietly transported to the US where their experience and skills could be put to use building the Space Program.
In Germany, these scientists had been working on ‘rocketry’ – the rockets they designed for Hitler were used as weapons. The design of these ‘weapons’ had been possible before the declaration of war because of an omission in the Treaty of Versailles, which forbad the development of weapons, but did not mention ‘rockets’.
Probably the most famous of these Nazi scientists is Wernher von Braun – whom I am ashamed to say, I mainly remember in the comedy Dr Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers.
Kelly Rimmer has developed a character, Jürgen Rhodes, who in some ways resembles von Braun, although the story of his wife and family life is fiction. By using this device, Rimmer can draw us into the situation that may have been faced by Nazi families and can show the degree to which they may have been compelled to carry out the instructions of the Führer.
Records tell us that at the Nürnberg trials, many of the Nazi officials pleaded that, in relation to the abominable crimes they were accused of, they were only carrying out instructions. I have always thought this unspeakably weak. On their shoulders is what is probably the worst genocide known to humanity. They witnessed the killings, the cruelty, the starvation… Kelly Rimmer’s book gives us a moment when we can experience what it may have been like to be under the pressure of the Nazi regime – watching as your children were brainwashed at school, believing that they would be orphaned if you stepped out of line. Indeed, in the last days of the war, Jurgen and Sofie’s son, Georg, an ardent ‘Hitler Youth’ is killed, ‘defending the Fatherland’, at the age of fifteen.
My view, at the end of the book, is that Jürgen and Sofie Rhodes were surely intelligent enough to sense that, given their beliefs were contrary to the Nazi party, they should have left Germany in the mid-1930s. But they didn’t. By 1938 it would have been practically impossible to leave. Sofie was used to an almost aristocratic lifestyle and Jürgen was comfortable only in academia.
I found this book a compelling read. The heading of each short chapter outlines which character’s point-of-view we will have, the year and the place. We move deftly, but not necessarily chronologically, from Berlin in 1930 through to Huntsville Alabama 1951. We learn essential background details of the characters: the 1930s Dustbowl experience of Lizzie and Henry who will become key characters in the Huntsville population that initially detests the Germans who have come to work in their town, particularly Jürgen and Sofie because rumour has it that Jürgen was a member of the SS. Henry does service in World War II and sees evidence of the Nazi atrocities – his experience summed up by the US authorities of the time as ‘combat fatigue’.
Does everything end too happily? Maybe more should be made of the terrible memories that will haunt Jürgen and Sofie all of their lives. Is that sufficient punishment for putting self and family first – going against what one really believes to be right?
When von Braun died in 1977, it seemed that his Nazi background had been forgotten. President Carter eulogised Dr. von Braun as ‘a man of bold vision’ and said:
‘To millions of Americans, Wernher von Braun’s name was inextricably linked to our exploration of space and to the creative application of technology. Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work. We will continue to profit from his example.’ [Wikipedia]
Kelly Rimmer’s book encouraged me to stop and contemplate what it must have been like trapped under the Nazi regime and forced to act against one’s beliefs. I don’t think that my views have changed, but I appreciated being dropped into the lives of Jürgen and Sofie and being put in a position where I had to try to take stock of just what that experience was like.