My Friend the Enemy by Dan Smith
I’m expecting to get flamed for this, but I was so affected by this book I had to tell a bit of a story. I even tracked down the author just to tell him how much his book meant to me and since I went that far, I thought I should share it here too.
For Peter, the war is a jumble of faraway places and a merciless mass of an enemy. Then one day he witnesses a German plane come down as he tends the woods his Dad looked after before he went off to fight. When he and evacuee Kim go over to the crash site and investigate, looking for souvenirs, they instead find the lone survivor – an injured 19 year old Nazi. Face to face with the enemy, the one from all the posters and the one Kim and Peter’s loved ones have gone off to fight, how do they react – is he the enemy, or is he an injured friend?
As you can maybe guess from my pen name, my family is German. Now, I’m willing to bet that for some of you, the first image that pops into your head could well be a swastika. I wouldn’t blame you – it does me and I’m the Jerry!
I’m lucky enough though that I can say my family were definately NOT Nazis, but that hasn’t stopped me being called one or getting the shuttered look from people when I explain that I’m part-German. If you don’t know what I mean, the best way I can explain this look is by describing a scenario. Picture me, short twenty something, wouldn;t stand out too much from the crowd. I’m happily chatting away to someone and, for whatever reason, I mention that ‘oh yeah, my family’s German…’, dropping this snippet into conversation as casually as if we were discussing the weather because for me, it is just a casual comment. As soon as I say it, suddenly there it is, something in my partner’s eyes. The shutters come down and it’s like I’m looking at them through a set of blinds for a moment; they’ve drawn the net curtains quickly to peek through safely and reassess me and my no-doubt horrible ancestral past. This all only lasts a blink of an eye before they’re flinging the curtains back as if they were made of air and acting as if nothing’s happened. However, for a second there, before they reassured themsleves that no, they were being silly, for a second, I was a Nazi.
Perhaps I’m taking this a bit personally, you think. Maybe I’m just reading a wee bit too much into it. Ok, fair enough, I could see how you’d think that, fair do’s. Just bear with me a little longer though and I think you’ll see why I’ve got this big backstory.
So, I’m a Jerry. I get what I think are a number of quick, odd looks. Fair enough, I can see where they’re coming from, I myself spent years at school learning all about the evil Germans in History, I can see why the word ‘German’ conjures up such doubts. Maybe it was just my school and it’s lack of funds for anything other than WW2 textbooks, but I spent a lot of History lessons having to think dually. I learnt about Nazi atrocities whilst having to remind myself that my uncles and cousins and aunts and grandparents weren’t like that (and yes, I have good reason to know they were not like that). I learnt from this double whammy of a History education that war is all about painting the enemy a certain way to ensure you’re all united against a common goal. My History lessons and education was spent mostly having to explain away why the History I was being taught seemed a bit one-dimensional, why entire nations were whitewashed as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ when I knew from home that that wasn’t the full story.
When I finally saw my family’s home town being firestormed in my last History lesson and knew that the family I loved was there at that time and heard the news report voiceover talking about it’s being a great victory, I drew a line and said ‘that’s it, no more’. I was sick of War, sick of having to explain my family away, and sick sick sick of being made to feel like I have something to answer for when I wasn’t even IMAGINED by the time the War ended. I’m in my twenties, why on Earth is it right I should feel I need to apologise for events that happened before my parents were even born? Since that last lesson I’ve avoided all WW2 films, tv shows, books and stories that’ve come my way. When everyone else was desperate to study WW2 History at Uni, I went the complete opposite and learnt about Ancient Aramaic and medieval legends.
Roll on a few years and I get sent a proof of My Friend the Enemy. I was sceptical, I admit. I thought it was going to be another book about the Blitz, uniting against the enemy, good vs evil etc etc etc. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are dozens of fantastic books written about WW2 that are beautifully written and not as simplistic as good vs. evil (I’m even making up a Pinterest board of them), but I’ve found that because it’s still WW2, they’re just not for me. So, I picked up My Friend the Enemy a little warily.
I ended up in tears. It affected me enormously, not just becaus eof events in the story but because for the first time I’ve found a story where someone directly asks that important question of whether the Germans really were all evil. Erik, the German soldier in this story, obviously isn’t and he makes the point I tell everyone who gives me that shuttered look or who assumes too much of me, that not all Germans were Nazis.
Can you imagine that for a moment? Can you imagine how I felt? All my life, my family background has been something to apologise for, to clarify – look how I’ve done it in this post too – and then here comes this book which says something I’ve never read before, whether as an ex-History student or as a regular book reader. It floored me. Finally, a book that doesn’t absolve Germany of the blame and of it’s horrors (because that would, of course, be ludicrous), but also goes beyond the propaganda of war and makes it clear that an entire people cannot be grouped together behind just one image in this day and age. We are not in wartime, we have no excuse. It’s this sort of writing that I believe can truly enhance Literacy and History lessons in schools. Can you imagine the discussions you could have surrounding this book?
- Why did Eric join up, if he wasn’t a Nazi?
- What did German propaganda say about England?
- Why do we use propaganda?
- What does propaganda say?
- Who were the Nazi’s?
- Why did some Germans believe in Nazism then if some like Eric didn’t?
That last question is an especially thorny one that has been troubling and niggling at Historians for some time – could you imagine tackling that with your class? My God, the things you could explore! The discussions you could have, the things to consider and introduce and argue! Now that’s getting stuck into a topic! That’s History teaching children vital skills they’ll find eminently useful outside of a History lesson, as well as giving them a thorough grounding in a subject as well!
Now, shortly after I’d read My Friend the Enemy Mr Gove’s recent remarks to the Daily Mail about WW1 were published, and I took particular notice (as did many others) of what he sees as ‘an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage‘. He argues that current historical ‘Left-wing’ thinking belittles Britain and its leaders during WW1 and that our perception of WW1 relies overly heavily on such plays as Oh! what a lovely war and Blackadder Goes Forth.
Now, this has been debated a lot online, both on Twitter and on various blogs, as well as a spat with a member of the cast of Backadder in response, so I won’t get into it. People far more knowledgable on the causes of WW1 can debate that better than I can. What his comments prompted me to do though was to really write and consider this semi-review. I grew up with the viewpoint of WW1 Gove professes to dislike and I am a product of that era of teaching. In my opinion, Gove has a point in saying that to teach only one version of events is wrong and does your students a disservice. Look at my own History lessons, where everything in WW2 was ‘Allies = good, Germans = bad’. It didn’t give me a full picture and I’m fairly sure it has led to more than a few of those shuttered looks I have received.
I would argue that a more reasoned debate is what is called for and not one that edges too close to the patriotic, which is the impression I get from Mr Gove. To my mind, patriotism belongs to wars only when they are being fought, as it only muddies the waters of unbiased, true historical thinking if it’s clung to later on. I think it’s this sort of thinking, the overemphasised teaching of Britain’s fight during the Blitz and the World Wars in our schools, that has led to me, an innocent twenty something who happens to have German family, being tarred with the Nazi brush. Do not misunderstand me here – I am not by any means saying Britain has nothing to be proud of in it’s stand against Nazi Germany (I come from London – The Blitz is my home’s history, of course it’s stand against the bombings is something to be proud of!), nor am I saying Germany should be absolved and History whitewashed. I am saying History should not be the subject of overly liberal nor overly patriotic thinking but should always be the domain of reasoned, researched, neutral and thoughtful debate.
This is what I see in My Friend the Enemy, with it’s overriding point that War is not made up of two simplified sides but is more complicated than that. I fear Gove’s interpretation and his opponents could vere too much either side, either to the overly patriotic or the overly liberal, with the result being that no one gets a clear picture.
I will be recommending this to any school that asks me about WW2 literature. Author Dan Smith makes no bones that German soldiers are not totally different from English ones, that Germans are not all Nazis, and that sometimes the people on the ‘Good’ side can be just as vicious as those on the ‘Bad’. The book also demonstrates that the bombing was horrific, that loved ones were lost and that yes, Nazi Germany needed to be stopped. I loved Kim, I loved Peter, I loved Peter’s internal debate about the rights and wrongs of Erik’s capture, and I even approved of the bombing descriptions (and there is no good way to say that I’ve found but I’m hoping you understand what I mean). Talk about being right in the middle of the scene alongside the main characters; I found afterwards that I been gripping the book rather hard and had dented the cover slightly on either side.
A word of warning in that My Friend The Enemy can be quite brutal reading sometimes; the plane going down at the start of the book and the gunner in it’s doomed nose will stay with me for a very long time, I’m sure. However, it’s never brutal in it’s treatment of the very real characters Dan Smith has created, including Erik.
So, to Dan Smith I say thank you and here’s the overly emotional review I
threatened promised you, and to everyone else I say if nothing else, pick it up to see what on Earth’s got me typing such an essay.
Find My Friend The Enemy here