Hi and welcome to FromBelgiumWithBookLove! ‘Tis the season to look back on your favourite books of the year and for me, the entire Sturmtaucher trilogy was the bookish highlight of 2022. I never expected to love these books this much, they felt so far from my comfort zone. I love historical fiction but I always steer clear of books set in war periods, and they are quite big, which is always daunting. Now, almost a year later, I find myself wanting to reread them, experience them again, that is how much I loved them.
It is therefore my absolute pleasure to share an extract from the first book in the trilogy, The Gathering Storm.
As Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists begin their persecution of Germany’s Jews, Ruth, aged 9, the daughter of General Kästner’s domestic staff, and his own daughter Antje are at primary school together in Kiel, Northern Germany, in early 1933.
Ruth’s hand shot up.
The teacher looked at her and smiled.
‘Albert Einstein, miss.’
‘Very good, Ruth. That was an excellent answer.’
Ruth beamed at the teacher.
‘Now, does anyone else know a famous German scientist?’
Miss Brinckmann looked around the class. Another hand was raised.
The boy was called Peter Hauer. He wasn’t the smallest boy in the class but had suffered sporadic bullying because of an unfortunate stammer. Ruth, Antje, and a few of the other girls had tried their best to curtail the taunts and pranks that he was forced to endure, and to a certain degree, they’d succeeded.
It all changed for Peter when he was one of the first in the school to join the Hitlerjugend. His Gebietsführer, the head of Hitlerjugend in Kiel, had seen something of himself in the boy and, over his first year, had steadily advanced him up the ranks until he was a section leader, despite his age.
The first time Rottenführer Hauer wore his uniform into school, the teacher made him change out of it. All the boy had with him was his sports gear, and he was made to sit through the whole day in shorts and a singlet.
Two days later, his Gebietsführer visited the school and spoke with the headmaster. From then on, Peter Hauer, and the classmates who followed him into the ranks of the Hitlerjugend, were permitted to wear their uniforms if they so wished.
Miss Brinckmann never acknowledged the change in the rules, but from that day forward, the bullying stopped, and the boy’s stammer disappeared.
Now, when he spoke, there was a sneering arrogance in his voice.
‘Max Planck, miss, because he is a true German. Not like Einstein.’
‘Max Planck is a great answer, but although Albert Einstein now lives and works in Switzerland, he was born in Württemberg and was educated in Munich.’
‘Miss, Albert Einstein is not a German. He is a Jew.’
For the briefest second, the class fell silent. Then two of the boys snickered.
‘What did you say?’ Her voice was quiet, but it cut through the uneasy shuffling of the class.
‘He is a Jew. Not a true German, miss.’
Her question had been rhetorical. She hadn’t expected him to repeat his statement. A flush spread upwards across her face.
‘Peter, please stand outside and I will come and deal with you.’
She would give the class an exercise to do and decide how to deal with the boy’s outburst.
‘No, miss. It is the Jews who should leave,’ he said, his voice strong and clear, looking at the three girls sitting near the front of the class.
She moved towards him but, out of the corner of her eye, she detected an almost imperceptible movement in the boy sitting next to him, then the boy across from him. She stopped, suddenly nervous.
In front of her, Peter Hauer raised his right arm, and started to sing.
‘Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen!’
Raise the flag! The ranks tightly closed!
Halfway through the first line, another boy joined in, then another, leaving their seats and standing beside their desks with their arms raised, mimicking his. Before long, over half the class were singing the Horst Wessel Song.
‘Stop,’ she shouted, but the sound was drowned out by the boys’ voices, loud and in unison, in a flawless rendition of the National Socialists’ anthem. She looked around. One or two of the girls had also got to their feet and joined with the boys.
‘SA marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt.’
The SA marches with calm, firm pace.
She looked at the three Jewish girls, sitting together, staring towards the front, their bodies rigid with fear. She closed her eyes.
When the song was finished, the boys remained standing.
‘Now you’ve had your little moment,’ the teacher said, her voice cold, ‘sit back down in your seats and act as children should. You will all be reprimanded, you especially, Peter Hauer.’
‘No, we won’t, Miss Brinckmann. Today we are honouring the leader of our country, Adolf Hitler.’
The rest of the class looked towards her, gauging how she would react. She estimated that two-thirds of her pupils were behind Peter Bauer, and she conceded defeat.
‘Ruth, please go to Herr Lehmann’s office and ask him to come immediately.’
She realised her mistake at once.
Peter Hauer nodded, and two boys moved to the door, blocking it.
She cursed herself for choosing one of the Jewish girls. She should have chosen Antje, or one of the boys who wasn’t involved.
She moved to the door and, keeping eye contact with the boys guarding it, she forced them to separate and let her pass.
As she left the room, she heard the strains of the Hitlerjugend anthem rise again behind her. She ran.
If this extract spoke to you, check out my review of The Gathering Storm here and my discussion of the trilogy here. And do consider making an author’s Christmas by ordering this absolutely heart-breaking and heart-warming trilogy here, I swear you won’t regret it.