When mothers fail their daughters …

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

The past couple of weeks have seen the publication of not one, but two novels featuring the ‘First Woman of the Third Reich’ Magda Goebbels. The first was Black Roses by Jane Thynne – A spy story set in 1933 Berlin. I loved it and you can read my review here.

The second, simply titled Magda, sees Frau Goebbels move up to take centre stage.  This short novel of 113 pages by Meike Ziervogel, (whom many of you will know as the publisher of the superb Peirene Books), is an ambitious imagining of Magda’s life, as seen through her relationships with her mother and her oldest daughter.

The novel is written in eight vignettes, book-ended by Magda’s preparations before going to Hitler’s bunker, and her murder of her six children there before emerging outside and her own and Joseph’s suicides.

Please note – I found it impossible to discuss this book without being a bit spoilerish below.

Although the facts of Magda’s life are history, Meike has found an unique way of telling her story that really seeks to understand, without condoning, what made her the woman she was.

Magda was illegitimate, born at the turn of the 20th century to a maidservant, who successfully pursued her father, who promptly shipped her off to a strict Belgian convent. Meanwhile Magda’s mother finds herself a new man, a Jew, and they eventually retrieve Magda from the convent.  Magda, instead of going to work, soon gets married, has a son, gets divorced, has many dalliances, and quite poisonous relations with her mother. Her mother, relating her story after the events, comments:

Herr Direktor Quandt proved to be very easy-going over the divorce and settlement. I suspect part of him was quite relieved to be rid of my daughter. And maybe he felt a little bit guilty too. I mean, he wasn’t able to offer everything she was after. On the other hand, my daughter surely had too high standards. I don’t know, it just often seemed that way, especially in her relations with men. That was even the case with Herr Doktor Goebbels – although I’m really not looking to defend him now – and all his women troubles. Him too, somehow she managed to put him under so much pressure that he went off looking elsewhere. Everyone knew. That’s what men do.

Magda, Hitler and Joseph with (l-r) Hilde, Helmet and Helga (1938)

Then Magda discovers ‘him’ – the real number one man in her life. She’s joined the National Socialists and is running a soup kitchen where ‘they queue up to catch a smile from the from the beautiful blonde in her high-heeled shoes with the mink around her shoulders’, when ‘he’ visits, with Goebbels in tow. Invited to dinner, she has found her calling.

Then we jump to 1945 and the bunker. Magda’s oldest daughter Helga takes up the story, writing in her diaries. Magda is ill with constant migraines by this stage, and it is clear that Helga cares for her mother, despite Magda having been remote all her life, and absent for a lot of it. But if Magda had known that Helga was experiencing the first pangs of love, for a young German soldier guarding the bunker, who knows what would have happened.  (I now have a copy of another well-regarded novel written from Helga’s point of view to read too – Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie.)

Then we are onto the endgame, and this is where the author plays her trump cards.  That bunker scene made me cry, again. I can’t think about it, in words or pictures, without a tear forming. Told through Helga’s eyes, it is utterly heart-breaking.  Then Magda tries to imagine life without ‘him’ outside the bunker. Hitler had long replaced God as her personal saviour with Magda as Mary in her warped view of religion and sex.  It is this belief in some kind of hereafter that allows her to coolly murder her children, and then commit suicide herself.

Ziervogel’s vision of a flawed mother raising, or rather not raising, a flawed daughter, who in turn raises a brood of probably flawed puppet children who didn’t have a chance is compelling, and completely plausible in its realisation and language. The structure, in particular, as seen through the three generations of women, is superb. This fictionalised biography, a debut novel, is an absolute gem. (10/10)

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Magda by Meike Ziervogel, Salt Publishing, April 2013. Paperback 128 pages.
Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie
Black Roses by Jane Thynne

17 thoughts on “When mothers fail their daughters …

  1. sakura says:

    I’m already impressed with Meike for making Peirene what it is and now it looks like she’s written a novel which has been steadily gaining lots of praise. I’ll definitely need to read this one.

  2. winstonsdad says:

    this sounds stunning even more so that Meike wrote it in her second language ,,love the way you say she doesn’t judge magda ,not an easy thing to do that ,all the best stu

  3. Alex says:

    I’m not certain I have the strength to cope with this. I might try ‘Black Roses’ first and then think about this later.

    • gaskella says:

      Black Roses is fun being about spies and all that, and the Magda parts are necessarily less biographical, but it was a fab novel too.

    • gaskella says:

      I still struggle with short stories, but I do love a good novella – that extra bit of length gives the satisfaction I don’t always get with the shorter form. Meike is a clever woman.

  4. Alex in Leeds says:

    I’m not a fan of fictionalised biography so I’m going to give this one a miss but I’m delighted that Meike’s first book is so powerful and enjoyable. I wonder what she’ll do next… 😉

  5. Falaise says:

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t heard of either of them and will definitely look out for them as it is a period of history that totally fascinates me.

    • gaskella says:

      Who knows exactly! This author’s premise is that Magda had some warped belief that they’d be reincarnated, she preferred that rather than subject them to enforced poverty and the aftermath of the war.

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