This section of the website lists the most recent postings on recommendations for books relating to our field of interest.

Brief review by: Laura Gimeno Pahissa

  • BROOK, Rhidian. The Aftermath.
    London: Penguin Books, 2013.
    ISBN: 9780241957486

Rhidian Brook’s novel The Aftermath (2013) takes place in the context of post-war Hamburg, where the British forces are trying to organize and control a completely devastated city. The novel tells the story of Colonel Lewis Morgan, his wife and his son as well as that of the Luberts, the German family they share a house with. Morgan, who is in charge of supervising the process of rebuilding and ‘denazificating’ Hamburg, takes the unusual decision of not evicting the Luberts from their own home and suggests they should all share the same lodgings, a controversial measure that shocks both his wife and his British colleagues. Colonel Morgan appears to be quite an idealistic and sensitive man who often shows a high degree of empathy not only towards Herr Lubert and his daughter Frieda but also towards the defeated in general. As he says to his wife Rachael in chapter 3: “Everyone here—everyone in this house—has experienced loss” (p.56).

The novel provides a detailed description of the devastation of Hamburg and the suffering of those who live there such as the so-called Trümmerkinder, a bunch of orphan kids who roam the city trying to get all kinds of objects they can trade for food and who end up befriending Edmund Morgan, the colonel’s son. Against the disheartening depiction of a desolated post-war city, the author explores the psychological and emotional devastation of these two families who live under the same roof. On the one hand, there are the Morgans, a British couple who has progressively become estranged because of their separation during the war and the death of one of their other sons. On the other hand, the focus of attention is placed on the Luberts, a father and a daughter who have lost track of Claudia (the wife and mother) whom they believe to be dead. Brook provides quite an interesting insight into the depth of the characters’ wounds, their virtues and flaws, and how they struggle with their pain, their loneliness and their isolation.

Of special interest is the writer’s focus on the German experience of the post-war period and how the Allies behave towards the defeated. As Steve Smith highlights in the review he wrote for The Independent, Brook is interested in showing “both sides’ barbarities […] and the dire misunderstanding and complacency on the part of the occupiers” (Smith “‘The Aftermath’, by Rhidian Brook”, The Independent, May 2013). One clear example of such arrogance is the dinner scene in chapter 8 where Burhnam, who is completely drunk, repeatedly bangs Herr Lubert’s cherished piano until he causes a conflict with the owner of the house. The book also depicts the measures taken against the defeated such as the 133-question Fragebogen and the systematic interviews conducted in order to see the “true colour of the German citizenry” (Woodward, “‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook – review”, The Guardian May 2013) and with which British authorities could categorise people and their degree of ‘Naziness’ (they used three colours: ‘black’, ‘grey’ or ‘white’). In this sense, Brook’s novel, which is based on his own grandfather’s experiences in Hamburg during post-war times, is more in favour of all kinds of greys at all levels, since as the writer emphasizes throughout the book, there are victims and villains on both sides of the conflict.

The novel is interesting for its being loosely based on actual events experienced by the writer’s own grandfather and for its focus on the sufferings of the Germans once the war ended. However, often the book seems to promise more than what it actually delivers. There is a lot of potential in Brook’s ideas but the author seems to abandon some engaging plot lines and characters along the way. For example, Morgan’s translator Ursula is quite a powerful female character who is presented as outspoken, learned and attractive but after her stay in Heligoland with the colonel and a conversation where she reveals some of the atrocities committed by the Russians, the character suddenly disappears and readers only know that she might be promoted and sent to London. A similar criticism could be applied to the illicit affair between Rachael Morgan and Stefan Lubert. This specific plot line is a bit too evident right from their very first encounter in the story. Adam Mars-Jones reviewing the book for The Guardian writes that once reached the end of The Aftermath, one feels a “sense of missed opportunity, with a promising situation thinly developed” (The Guardian, 3rd June 2013). Nevertheless, -and despite the fact that I personally agree with Mars-Jones’s take on the book- it is worth giving it a try, mostly for the issues of reconciliation, forgiveness, loyalty and betrayal that The Aftermath raises and, above all, for its focus on Germans and their lives after the war ended.

Brief review by Andrew Monnickendam

  • War Dead: Western Societies and the Casualties of War, by Luc Capdevila and Daniele Voldman. Translated by Richard Veasey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP 2006 (2002).

The title sounds gruesome and, indeed, parts of the book make for difficult reading, particularly the account of atrocities committed in La Mûre-en-Vercors, and for difficult viewing, in the photographs of such terrible acts. Perhaps most graphic of all is that of an atomised victim in Hiroshima: simply a mark on a wall.

I believe this book will be of great help to researchers like ourselves, belonging, as it does, to the realm of cultural history—Jay Winter has written the foreword, after all! Subsequently, on the one hand, we have a detailed account of how customs have developed over time, and, on the other, how different cultures interpret war deaths. As seems to be the case of most contemporary studies of this kind, World War One becomes pivotal, but I found particularly enlightening the account of war dead in the American Civil War.

Let me just point out three interesting discussions.

As we are aware, in contemporary mainstream media, the dead and mutilated are rarely seen, one case mentioned is of bodies being removed from the streets before television cameras arrived, yet Capdevila and Voldman state categorically that ‘until the end of the 1914-18 War, it was legitimate to show whatever violence had been inflicted’. They then go on to explain how and why this change has come about.

Second, different countries have widely divergent customs. For example, in the case of Britain and the Commonwealth, the war dead conjure up images of huge, immaculately kept military cemeteries where they lie buried in mass graves. However, both France and the United States believe the bereaved have the right to have the body sent home, putting in place financial aid to make this possible.

Third, the discussion of war memorials, and who has or does not have the right to figure there, is extremely enlightening.

To conclude, I found the book informative, easy to read, and the account of how different cultures approach the same problem captivating.