Title: The German Wife
Author: Kelly Rimmer
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 27th April 2022
Synopsis: Inspired by real events, the New York Times bestselling author of The Warsaw Orphan returns with an unputdownable novel of a community torn apart when a former Nazi family moves into town to work on NASA’s space program
Berlin, 1934. Sofie Rhodes is the aristocratic wife of a scientist whose post-WWI fortunes change for the better when her husband, Jurgen, is recruited for Hitler’s new rocket project. But too late they realise the Nazis’ plans to weaponise Jurgen’s technology as they begin to wage war against the rest of Europe.
Alabama, 1949 Jurgen is one of hundreds of Nazi scientists offered pardons and taken to the US to work for the CIA’s fledgling space program. Sofie, now the mother of four, misses Germany terribly and struggles to fit in among the other NASA wives.
When news about the Rhodes family’s affiliation with the Nazi party spreads, idle gossip turns to bitter rage, and the act of violence that results will tear apart a community and a family before the truth is finally revealed – but is it murder, revenge, or justice?
In 1934, Sofie and Jürgen Rhodes watch as Hitler takes over Germany, and are caught between their friends who staunchly believe in the Nazi cause. In Texas, Lizzie and her family are struggling with the Depression and losing their farm, forcing Lizzie and her brother Henry to take work wherever they can. As the years go on, and the world plunges into war, Sofie, Jürgen and their children, Georg and Laura are swept into the world of the Nazis, the children brainwashed against Jewish people, and into believing Hitler will win the war. Sofie and Jürgen are caught between doing what is right – standing up against the regime and doing what is safe – going along with things because of Jürgen’s job and connections. This is what in theory, keeps their family safe, despite their inner thoughts and desires to get away from it all, and stop the senseless brainwashing of their children into a dangerous and racist regime. Jürgen’s drawn in to develop rockets to get to space – but his plans are soon weaponised, and he becomes disillusioned yet feels powerless to fight, as he has seen the consequences and realities of the camp labour at Mittelwerk – and he knows what resistance could mean for his family.
In 1950, five years after the war in Alabama, a space program, utilising German scientists like Jürgen have been granted permission – some as prisoners first – to help build America’s space programme with NASA. Their history, what they did – is all hidden and new dossiers created as part of Operation Paperclip. Sofie is reunited with her husband with their two young children, Gisela, and Felix. Her other two children, one deceased in the dying days of the war, and the other still in Germany, still staunchly believing the brainwashing they went through, are still in her heart, as is her Jewish friend, Mayim. Yet when Sofie meets the other NASA wives like Lizzie Miller, she finds that she is unwelcome – amongst American and German families alike in Huntsville as rumours about the links her family had to the Nazi party emerge, and threats are fling about, culminating in an act that will bring the truth out – an act that has been fuelled by idle gossip – and the question is – can everyone move on from these acts and rumours, or has the damage already been done?
It’s always disconcerting when key characters in a novel have links to a regime like the Nazis, but through Sofie’s experience, I could see just how easy it was to brainwash adults and children during the Nazi period and World War Two, and how easily so many people bought into the lies they were told. Another thing that was clear was that it didn’t always seem easy to be rebellious. Aunt Adele had her ways, and I think Sofie was brave for speaking out if she could, and giving money to Aunt Adele for Mayim under the guise of supporting her aunt, it broke my heart that she could not do more, and that she had to – whether by force or by choice, maybe a bit of both – toe the party line, attend rallies and dinners, and allow her children to join the youth organisations that taught German children about their duties and loyalty to the Nazi regime. And Lizzie’s story which ran parallel was just as heartbreaking – what she had to do to survive. Both women did what they had to do in very different conditions to survive.
Something that struck me was the way the American characters like Lizzie seemed to think nothing of segregation in their own country, had no outrage over Whites Only places, but openly accused all the Germans, like Sofie and Jürgen of being standing by and not doing anything to stop the camps, and knowing about it. I found myself wondering why Lizzie was happy to accuse them of that, but never once questioned her own government over their segregation. Both were bad, and both had devastating consequences – it was Lizzie’s outrage that somehow segregation in Alabama wasn’t as bad as the camps that struck me, though. I thought how can she judge Sofie and assume she knew what was going on, based on rumours, but see segregation and racism daily in her own town and not do anything about it? Most of the characters in this book are a bundle of contradictions, none are wholly good, or wholly bad, they’re grey and layered. Perhaps this is where the questions and discomfort come in, because we can sympathise in some ways with them – the losses they have suffered, the fact that they felt lost, and with the events that happen towards the end of the book. Yet at the same time, I felt like I couldn’t reconcile the fact that they seemed to accept certain ways of life – even if under duress to a point. Sofie did try to fight back and save her children. That was what I think redeemed her, even though she was unable to save Georg and Laura, she tried. Sofie’s story didn’t shy away from the horrors in Nazi Germany. The flashbacks to the 1930s and 1940s during the war helped to gain an understanding of her as a person.
Both women were caught in what in those times, would have been unenviable and difficult positions. With Sofie, it seemed as though she was too embroiled in the upper echelons to fully embrace her desire to help thwart the Nazis, as I have read about in other books. With Lizzie, I admired her goals and dedication to her brother, yet she was so determined – at least until the climax – to drive the women like Sofie, against whom she could prove nothing, out of a community when they had nothing else. At times, I wasn’t sure who to empathise with, so in the end, I think it came down to circumstances for me. I felt empathy for Sofie and Lizzie in some scenes, and sometimes, wished they’d made a different decision. But I could see why they did what they did, even if it was unsettling. Novels like this should unsettle us because they question what it is to be human and how war affects us – even those who do not see frontline action. It reflected the realities that two women faced in this period, and how lives can become so fractured and how people can be brainwashed into believing anything by those who have power. It is an interesting novel that examines the human spirit and what people are truly capable of.