From a family with rich cultural heritage, a German mother and Italian father, stories have always been in Tania Blanchard’s blood. Following a career in physiotherapy, it was only when she had her family that Tania decided to return to her passion of writing. Her debut novel is The Girl from Munich, the story she has always wanted to write, inspired by the fascinating stories told by her German grandmother.
What were the challenges of writing from the perspective of a teenage German girl during and immediately following World War 2?
The biggest challenge was making sure that I wrote Lotte’s character in an authentic manner. She had to be well rounded and have depth of character, not become a stereotypical teenage girl or a cardboard cut-out who only reacts to the events around her. Part of the challenge was remembering what it was like to be that age and then transferring those feelings and emotions to the world of 1940s Germany. This was a time when it was dangerous to speak your mind, to act impulsively and to rebel. Another factor to contend with was that Lotte was indoctrinated into the Nazi ideology, so normal teenage behaviour was somewhat altered by this continual reminder of what was expected of this generation. We see this predominantly through the schoolroom teachings about Hitler and his policies and this would have occurred when Lotte was still a young child and through the BDM, ‘The League of German Girls’ which was the girls’ equivalent of the Hitler Youth, where girls were taught traditional German values and roles of women, as wife and mother. Constant propaganda through newspaper, news reels and the radio, as well as the undercurrent of menace that was felt concerning retribution for stepping outside of the rigid structure of government expectation or worse still for speaking out against Nazi policy or Hitler’s handling of the war, ensured that some natural teenage behaviour would not have been observed. Of course, teen enthusiasm and zest for life, along with their belief that they’re invincible couldn’t be totally curtailed. The sense of hope that Lotte holds for the future, at first for Germany winning the war and then to find her own place in the world even with the destruction of the country she loves, the crushing of all she has believed to be true and the personal tragedy and suffering she’s endured, had to shine through. So I think the balancing of all these factors was probably the most challenging thing of all.
There aren’t many English language novels from a German civilian’s point-of-view during the War. Do you think it’s taken the distance of sixty or so years for this to become palatable to readers?
Absolutely! We have long heard stories about World War Two through the eyes of the Allies and most people are familiar with that perspective. For a long time, Germans were seen by many as the enemy and in the 1940s and 50s as they migrated to Australia, as Nazis. Now, there is some distance from the war years and much time has passed, so that people often two and three generations on from that era are now curious about what happened on the German side of the war and the stories associated with the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.
There were many ordinary German citizens who suffered as a result of the Nazi regime and in post war Germany and these stories are now coming to light. Sadly, there are very few remaining that can speak first-hand of what they saw during this time. So, many of these stories come handed down, told by younger generations, maybe children or grandchildren. Perhaps this is the only way we can hear about these stories now. It must have been very difficult to speak of the war years, particularly for Germans. There was enormous national guilt and shame as well as a crushing sense of responsibility for what was done by the Nazis in the name of the German people. Coming to Australia, many Germans wanted to be accepted, become Australian. It was many years before they told their stories to the curious younger generation.
I know my grandmother only spoke about the war sparingly, a few personal stories that she told over and over. She never spoke about those years when my mother was young and it was only when I was a girl did she begin to tell her stories. She didn’t like to go into more detail when she was pressed and only occasionally did she add a few comments more that only intrigued me further. I wanted to know more about those days, how she lived, what she thought about the times she lived in. It was only when she passed away a couple of years ago that I discovered documents, photos, letters and memorabilia that she had kept from her life in Germany. It helped me to piece together the fragments of stories she had told and get a greater sense of those war years. In the process I knew this it was time to tell her story.
We understand this story was inspired by your German grandmother. How much of the story is drawn from her memories?
Most of the main points in the story come from my grandmother’s stories. Documents of my grandmother’s and further research helped me to develop these ideas and scenes more vividly. From these main points which scaffolded the story, I was then able to fill in the blanks with what I imagined might have realistically happened. This was when fact and fiction blurred and the story took on a life of its own.
Lotte and the lives of those around her are torn apart by war. Do you think the sufferings of war are universal and affect innocent people in the same way, on all sides?
Yes, I do think that the sufferings of war are universal. We can transcribe these sufferings to any time or place and they would be essentially the same. It doesn’t change if you’re on the winning or losing side. Families are still ripped apart, loved ones die on the battle field or closer to home in bombings and enemy attacks on innocent civilians. Ordinary soldiers go to war to protect their homes, their country and their family regardless of the ideology of the leadership. Homes are destroyed, people are displaced, cultural heritage taking many years to develop is wiped in an instant and generations of men and often women, die, and with them the future lines of their families. Injustice, starvation and despair all reign during any war and there are prisoners on all sides. Finally there is the universal feeling that war should never happen again; that there’s no cause great enough to justify such destruction of human kind and the horrendous acts that we as humans can do to each other; that there is always another solution other than war.
The novel is evocative of the time and place. How much research was necessary the into factual events happening at this time?
Lots of research went into exploring the events of this time. I was lucky to be able to start with my grandmother’s stories. I’m forever grateful that she left behind such a comprehensive amount of documentation, photos, letters and memorabilia of the war years and after. Linking the stories with the documentation which gave me a factual reference point, I was able to research further. I read lots of history books, first-hand accounts of the war years and after, watched lots of documentaries and researched online as well. I felt it was imperative that I got the factual detail right as historical events are so important in this book and are essential to the backdrop of Lotte’s story, allowing me to realistically weave her journey around these significant moments.
It takes Lotte until after the War to realise what had been happening in Germany and how much the Fuhrer and the Nazi regime was responsible. Do you think that’s how it was for many young Germans who had been indoctrinated in their youth?
From first-hand accounts to documentaries, I realised that many young Germans felt the same way that my grandmother had, that they only realised after the war what had been happening behind the scenes in Germany with the blessing of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Widespread indoctrination of this generation of young Germans began when they were children. Compulsory inclusion of Nazi doctrine and policy into the school curriculum made it impossible for these children to objectively view what was happening around them. The social programme instigated through the ’Hitler Youth’ for boys and the BDM, ‘The League of German Girls’ for girls ensured the school lessons were reinforced on the sporting fields, after school lessons, weekend camps, evening social gatherings and in their ‘land year’. At first, all of these initiatives were voluntary but slowly the pressure was increased to comply to these programmes until by the late 1930s they had all became compulsory and law. By this time, all facets of life for young people were controlled by the Third Reich. War service and constant propaganda blinded many of this generation to the clues that things were not right within the regime, quite possibly more so with those not on the front lines. Not until the Allies showed the German civilians evidence of Nazi atrocities, through newsreels, radio broadcasts, ushering whole villages through concentration camps and finally to the Nuremburg Trials, did many young Germans come to understand the extent of what Hitler and his regime had been responsible for.
What are some of the challenges of writng historical fiction?
Writing historical fiction can be challenging because it’s so important to get the historical detail correct. Not only that, but a sense of time and place is imperative. We want history to come alive. I think that can be best achieved through personal story. Weaving the characters’ stories around the historical events of the day, showing how they’re affected by these events, from the government with laws, rules, regulations, the politics of the day, social expectations, economic repercussions and day to day living, can give us a real sense of how someone might have lived in those times. We can identify with the characters, see their world, immerse ourselves in it and understand how they’ve reacted to the forces around them. Surely that’s what story is all about. Bringing a world to life, making it authentic, allowing the reader to immerse themselves into a time and place that feels real to them and to accompany the characters on their journeys, living and feeling with them, until the end. The challenge of writing historical fiction successfully is to recreate the world of that time and place accurately, to weave in the moments of historical significance, how they impact on the characters’ lives and realistically reflect how those characters would have felt, acted and lived in those times, all while engaging the reader and immersing them into the story.
We understand there might be a sequel to the The Girl from Munich. Can you tell us about that?
The sequel picks up the story of Lotte and her family when they arrive in Australia as immigrants in 1956. Work prospects for her husband beckon them here at a time when Australia is in an economic boom. It’s the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, where she and her husband can give their children the future they have always wanted for them. They hope to extend their family and live the Australian Dream, to finally have a home of their own. But their hopes and plans are not realised in the way that they expect and they struggle to find their place in a country they now call home.
The idea for a sequel was one I had while writing ‘The Girl from Munich’. I realised that Lotte’s story wasn’t complete. I had always known some of my grandparents’ story of when they came to Australia and I found it just as fascinating as the stories of the war days. It was never going to fit into the first book and I felt that as it needed further exploration, a sequel was warranted.