One of the things that historical novels do well is putting a human face—and, perhaps more important, human feelings—on difficult issues that plagued the past and often continue to influence the present. One such problem, which changes its superficial characteristics from one setting to another but never really seems to go away, is the tendency for in groups to discriminate against out groups, however those are defined.
Some types of discrimination are, of course, far more toxic than others. When prejudice is used to justify the murder of individuals or entire racial or religious groups, we witness humanity at its worst. This week’s New Books in Historical Fiction conversation with Dana Mack explores trends in late nineteenth-century Germany that in time gave rise to the Holocaust. In particular, she examines the paradox of the Wilhelmine era, when the emperor’s Jewish subjects were assimilating into and welcomed by society even as that same society marked them indelibly as outsiders because of their faith. Through the love story of Lisi and Wilhelm, we see both the factors contributing to and the destructive aspects of this societal conflict.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.
Despite all the attention paid to the two world wars of the twentieth century, not a great deal of historical fiction focuses on the period that preceded them. Dana Mack’s debut novel, All Things That Deserve to Perish, is an exception. Through its depictions of Berlin high society, the Junkers from the agricultural estates of old Prussia, and interfaith marriages, the novel explores the fraught transition to a modern, commercial economy that simultaneously promoted and complicated relations between Germans at all levels of society and their Jewish fellow citizens.
Mack focuses her story on Elisabeth von Schwabacher, the daughter of a successful Jewish financier who has just returned from Vienna to her parents’ home in Berlin when the book opens. Lisi, as she’s known, has been training as a classical pianist, and her great ambition is to perform in concert halls and private soirées.
Or is it? Lisi’s mother pushes the conventional future of wife and mother and rigorously oversees a diet and makeover program to ready Lisi for society, but neither of her parents wants to force their daughter into marriage, especially to a non-Jewish man. It’s Lisi herself who encourages the attentions of two noblemen, both to some extent fortune hunters—the widowed Prince Egon von Senbeck-Wittenbach and the impoverished Junker Count Wilhelm von Boening. And Lisi is also the one who decides, when her parents press her to choose, to start an affair with one of her suitors without considering how that may constrain her future.
The casual antisemitism expressed by many of the characters in this book is almost more jarring than the occasional outbursts of hatred and bigotry. But it is both true to the times and revealing of the fundamental social rifts in Wilhelmine Germany that, less than fifty years later, would explode in the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Images: Narrow-gauge train from a Pomeranian railroad, operating since 1895, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Franz von Lenbach, Bismarck in Retirement (1895), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.