Nazis heroes in romance novels

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to add to the cacophony around the RITA nomination of Kate Breslin’s inspirational historical romance, For Such A Time. This is a book set in 1944, primarily at the Theresienstadt camp, with a love story between the camp Kommandant and a Jewish young woman at its core.

I’ve written and rewritten paragraphs about the book, the controversy, etc., but I don’t think I really have much to add to that part. If you’re on Twitter, if you follow major blogs, or if you read online magazines, you’ve come across the debate. Many of the contributors to the debate have not read the book. There are all kinds of things being stated as fact, sometimes after reading the book, sometimes not. There is also a lot of “well, that’s what inspirational romance is.”

I am almost finished reading the book and will be participating in a joint discussion/review of it at Dear Author. I’ll link to that post when it is published, and for people who don’t read DA, I’ll provide a brief summary here and we can talk about it in comments if people are interested.

In the meantime, I want to talk about where this book fits in the larger historical romance (and historical fiction with romantic elements) category. This book clearly brings together a number of volatile, offensive, and arguably beyond-the-pale factors. However, when we take each of these factors in turn, it appears that they are all fairly well established in the romance genre (or at least the part of the romantic fiction genre that is reviewed and recognized by romance-centric sites and organizations).

I have no desire to defend the book, either in terms of its premise or its execution. I am interested in challenging the idea that this book is a unique specimen. To the extent it is unique, its uniqueness lies in combining elements which have gone relatively unremarked (and often praised) in other romance and romantic novels when they appear individually.

Is the problem that it is an inspirational romance between a Christian man and a Jewish woman (leaving aside the context for a moment and focusing on the spiritual element)?

If that is the problem, then I don’t have much to say, because I don’t read enough Christian inspirational romance to have a baseline. Christianity is a proselytizing religion, and I assume that within that genre, converting someone is fair game (as it is in the real world). I can certainly understand why members of non-proselytizing religions would find any kind of conversion narrative distasteful, but it is central to the religion and to religious practice.

For what it’s worth, I don’t read the book as featuring a conversion narrative, although I know others do. I read it as a ham-handed attempt to portray a Jewish spiritual POV, which succeeds instead in portraying Jewish characters who think like 21stC evangelical Protestants. But I realize people who have read the book differ on this point (reader-response theory strikes again). Ros Clarke has an excellent post which includes a sensitive and insightful discussion of this aspect of the debate, and I encourage you to read it.

Is the biggest problem that the hero is a Nazi officer and the heroine is a Jewish woman?

A quick online search of Nazi-Jewish romance offers me at least two books featuring this plotline. One was written in 1985 and is firmly in the historical romance genre:

Young Renate Rosen, a pretty Jew, works for the underground in Berlin. Under the assumed identity of Kristina Mechler, an Aryan who had recently died, she travels to Munich to deliver a message to her sister and brother-in-law, and then escape to Switzerland. But troubles ensue. Katie and David are captured by the Gestapo and Renate escapes by pretending again to be Kristina, a ruse fraught with danger as she discovers surprises from her character’s past. One of those surprises is SS colonel Hans Kauffmann, who falls in love with her and may be her only protection against exposure and certain death. But can she let herself love him? The title of the book tells it all.

Another novel falls within the historical fiction genre, but has been reviewed by RT and AAR, and it was nominated in the romance category of the short-lived Quills award in 2007. It was published by Harlequin under its MIRA imprint, which is not strictly romance, but MIRA books win RITAs regularly (one won this year in a romance category), so the possibility for confusion arises.

Emma’s relationship with Richwalder is complex and ambiguous, the most interesting part of the novel. Richwalder himself has two sides: a loving and caring one with Anna – although Jenoff never explains what it is about her that he finds so intriguing – and a conscienceless bureaucratic one that facilitates the commission of terrible crimes on the Poles and the Jews. Is he sympathetic? Does she have the right to care for him in any way? Does her mission with the Resistance justify her breaking of her marriage vows? Unfortunately Emma comes to no profound conclusions about Richwalder or her role in all of this, and the book finishes in a strange melodramatic climax that leaves most of the important plot details up in the air.

Is the biggest problem that the hero is a Nazi officer?

In 2007 Montlake Press published a romance between a Nazi SS officer and an English woman. It was warmly received at Dear Author (B), AAR (B+), and Mrs. Giggles’ site (94), and it is regularly recommended to readers looking for WW2 romance.

[T]his romance shines because of the growth of its characters. The story takes place over two months and in that time, much happens as Germany commences war with its neighbors. The main characters’ development tracks these historical events believably. Just as things change rapidly in Germany, Sophie’s eyes are opened in ways that cause her to change deeply and admirably as a person. As readers, we see these changes through Karl’s eyes and see how his views about Sophie change in response. The result is a love story that is not only packed with action, but also believably complex in its emotions.

… readers are transported to the dangerous world of Nazi Germany and treated to a touching romance. The background is as tragic as one would expect and for some it will be difficult to read. However, the story has its hopeful moments and I am glad to have discovered this hidden treasure of a book.

In 2010 Whiskey Wild Rose Press published a historical romance about a Nazi officer (not SS) and an Italian resistance fighter. It ends in an HEA. It received a 4-star review at RT and has a 3.9 rating at Goodreads. From an interview with a blog post by the author:

As an added challenge to my prospective readers, I costumed my hero in a German uniform, casting him as an officer in the dreaded Army of the Third Reich. For the average American romance reader, a character in this role evokes little sympathy. How could a courageous heroine, fighting for her country’s freedom against the invading Nazis, possibly fall in love with such a brute?

I’d like to take full credit for this ingenious plot invention but this is not new ground. Since the end of World War II, books and movies have been released with plots hinging on, or at least hinting at this theme. The poignancy of ‘star-crossed lovers’, thrown together by the vagaries of war, doomed by circumstance to tragedy, fascinates and enthralls the romantically inclined among viewers and readers.

Is the power imbalance between a prisoner and her Nazi jailer the sticking point?

What if we flip the roles and a Nazi soldier is the prisoner? A story with this setup was published in 2013 by a major LGBT press and received glowing reviews at several LGBT and m/m review sites. It has been recommended by regular commenters at DA and has a 4.3 rating at Goodreads.

Allied command has ordered Captain John Nicholls to extract critical intelligence from their new Nazi POW. His secrets could turn the tide of the war, but are they real? John is determined to find out . . . and to shatter the prisoner who killed his lover during the attack on their tiny base. The deeper he digs, though, the more he realizes that the soldier under the SS uniform is just like him: a scared, exhausted young man who’s lost loved ones and just wants to go home.

As captor and captive form an unexpected bond, the lines quickly blur between enemy, friend, and lover. And as horrifying rumors spread from the front lines and American soldiers turn their sights on the SS for vengeance, John may be Hagen’s only hope for survival.

This series of examples is not intended to justify the publication of For Such A Time. I have found the book very difficult to read and I don’t think it succeeds on any of the dimensions I look for in a good novel, romance or otherwise. Even accepting the premise (for the purpose of being able to evaluate the book), the execution is seriously faulty.

But the idea that this is a one-off, that somehow this is an individual, uniquely heinous romance novel because it features a Nazi hero, is wrong. Obviously you can think it’s uniquely heinous for other aspects, but there has been a recurring condemnation of the book for featuring a Nazi officer in an uplifting romantic storyline.

There have been books that sympathize with and romanticize Nazi characters in the romance genre for decades, just as there have been movies that do the same. There are consistently readers who ask for these kinds of romances, so it’s not surprising that authors provide them. Nazis are the limit case for many topics and characters people which find interesting in the genre. In this particular novel the focus seems to be on Christian spiritual redemption. But we’ve been redeeming Nazis in the romance-genre sense of the word for quite a while.

Maybe we need to think about that, not just about this book.

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19 thoughts on “Nazis heroes in romance novels

  1. First, I’d like to say that, I’m always on the side of the reader. I don’t feel any reader has to apologize, justify or explain what he/she are reading to anybody, ever. I realize people are hurt by this book and rightly so and the criticisms are warranted. I’m not diminishing that and no arguments from me on that aspect of it. I just draw the line at telling people what to do: don’t read it, don’t buy it when it’s not your decision to make or tell people how they should feel about a story, premise or character. There are readers who loved the book while there are those who hated it. How can we say which side is right or wrong in how they perceived this or any story? You can’t control that. This world just doesn’t work this way. I think the motto has always been that someone else’s trash is someone else’s treasure? That’s always been understood within the reading community. I don’t find this book to be an exceptional case. The controversy surrounding the book in question is also doing the complete opposite of what they want to see happen to the book when it comes to sales because controversy is the biggest money machine.

    I appreciate this post because it does give a good, overall picture and a good, overall history of Nazi heroes in romance fiction being established before this book came into existence. Kudos to you for that and thanks for taking the time to show that this book is not exceptional in its ideas and premise. However, execution and otherwise is up for debate as usual. Whatever this comment inadvertently does, I apologize in advance.

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    • Thanks, Keishon. I thought it was important for us all to think about how one particular aspect of this book, the hero’s identity, is more common than people may know.

      We are all fans of problematic things, as the saying goes. And one of the core attitudes in romanceland is that we don’t judge each other’s likes and dislikes. We try to be a big tent. Sometimes that tent houses some pretty unsavory things, but it is a rare event when everyone agrees on what is unsavory (and I don’t think this is one of those times).

      I am so glad I am finished reading this book. I didn’t enjoy it. But you know, what I found most unpleasant or difficult about it isn’t what someone else will. We all bring our own experiences to the table. It’s weird to think that even with something like a Holocaust Romance there can be disagreement about the value of a specific book. But there is.

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  2. I agree with Keishon’s comments so far as the reader is concerned – and in this case, the author seems to have been good enough to overcome the natural misgivings of more than a few readers.

    Let me say this before making my point:
    – there are no unthinkable ideas, just bad execution
    – people can write whatever they want, and providing it doesn’t break applicable laws, they shouldn’t be censored.
    – not being censored is not the same thing as being exempt from criticism

    I would also say I haven’t read this novel, will not do so, and am thus reliant on the summaries, reviews and reactions of others (always a dangerous place from which to make a moral argument.)

    What you haven’t mentioned, Sunita – and I don’t expect you to because you’re a reader – is authorial ethics. Good writers have power to persuade, to distort, to plant ideas in people’s heads, to justify what most would consider the unjustifiable. And with that power, comes responsibility. You should not use it to justify rape, child abuse, or the murder of millions of people in Nazi death camps. You should not use to justify bigotry like racism or anti-Semitism. You should not use it to incite hatred, or to mock victims of hatred. And you should not use the feeble excuse of ‘I didn’t mean to offend’ when your writing causes deep and avoidable pain.

    Breslin is far from being alone in using her talent to gild foul history. Clint Eastwood made Confederate soldiers his heroes in The Outlaw Josey Wales (a movie based on a book by an actual KKK leader). Buster Keaton’s The General turned the brave heroes of The Great Locomotive Chase into the villains, and the Confederates into heroes. And of course Birth of a Nation is a paen to the KKK.

    But while neither she nor her premise is unique, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t violated basic artistic ethics, and used her skill to create a horror. She deserves no praise for her ability to make readers believe the unthinkable and the incredible. It’s the very fact she has that ability and used it for perverted ends that makes what she’s done worth of condemnation.

    Should the book have been published? Should it have been written? Should it have been nominated? No law prevents any of this. Free speech says there is nothing wrong with these things happening.

    Decency says that we can allow things to happen which disgust us. Decency does not prevent us expressing our disgust.

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    • I have no personal access to the imagination that produces fiction. It’s not part of my makeup (which is kind of ironic given how much time I spend talking to people for whom it’s integral). So I can’t really talk about the ethics that accompany that imagination and its responsibilities.

      The book absolutely did not work for me despite the fact that I tried to go in with an open mind. I found that the things I thought would bother me weren’t the things that did. Not surprisingly, the things that did fall within my particular bailiwick (and ethical framework, perhaps). And some of the worst offenders (for me) have nothing to do with inspirational romance or conversion issues.

      Writing about highly contested and deeply felt topics is very difficult. You need not only to understand the subtleties, but you have to have the skills to convey them. Those aren’t easy to come by.

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      • I haven’t yet read the book under discussion, but I wonder if it was classified as a romance just because it tells a love story. Your examples of precedents were very interesting. I hope I don’t somehow miss your link to the DA posting.

        You are right about the difficulty in writing about inflammatory topics. The first novel I wrote just turned out that way; I didn’t plan any of it (I’m not that kind of a writer). It grew as I researched the setting, and learned some unpleasant things. But I think it was a story that needed to be told. In the realm of “what if?” that could be something the author of the book you’re talking about also felt.

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        • It meets the RWA definition of a romance: the romantic relationship structures the storyline and the ending is optimistic and uplifting. There is definitely an attempt to depict an HEA.

          As I read the book, and the departures from the historical record became more egregious, I just kept thinking, this book needed an editor or a beta reader or SOMEONE with knowledge of the period, Judaism and the meaning of various events. We’re always telling people who are writing about unfamiliar topics to do that, and this is an example of why it’s so important.

          I also think the author was constrained by the overall structure of the analogy to the story of Esther. This wasn’t the right case to use, in my opinion (as a spiritual outsider but someone who knows something of the case).

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          • Do you think those departures were due to inadequate research, or because the author was trying to take too much artistic liberty with the facts? And Esther is a tough act to follow, whether or not her story is regarded in a spiritual way.

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            • I’ve posted the links to the DA article and I’ve summarized some of my reactions in the post; I think it’s shoehorning an inappropriate message and set of themes. The author clearly did research, and the author’s note demonstrates the difference between the fiction she spun and the facts she knew.

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  3. I’m looking forward to your review at DA.

    As usual I’ve missed a lot of the controversy (by not being on Twitter), but I’ve read some of the pertinent blog posts.

    I’m surprised there are so many Nazi romances, although I guess it’s a tiny percentage given how huge the genre is. I had no idea.

    I’ve read exactly one of them (the m/m) and as you know, I enjoyed it – although it did require a conscious suspension of disbelief and I’ve become a lot more careful about recommending it after our DA discussions about it.

    When I read the review of For Such a Time at SBTB, the fact the hero was the head of the camp, and therefore actively involved/complicit in the Holocaust pushed my personal NOPE button in a way that the other Nazi romance didn’t.

    But if I worked at it, I’m sure I could come up with at least one or two romance heroes who are implicated in mass murder and/or genocide in books not set in WWII. Pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable in a hero is what some romances authors like to do.

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    • Cleo, I’ve gone back and forth on this but I don’t see how we avoid having these books released. Even if publishers shun them, if there’s a demand and an interest, then they’ll show up as self-published. And some of the books are thoughtful and interesting. I trust your judgment on all kinds of books and decide whether I’m going to follow recommendations based on what I know my hard limits are. I went back and forth on that last one many times, because I like other works by the author, and I finally decided I just couldn’t.

      This is sort of the logical extreme (for many of us) of the Problematic Things fan problem.

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  4. I apologize for the length of this response, but I felt compelled to write it all at the time – perhaps I should develop a blog and post it there too.

    The Third Reich in general is a difficult topic to write in fiction. I think this is why so many of the fiction books set during the years of the Third Reich (considered to be 1933-1945) are generally told from the point of view of members of an underground organization or are written from the Allies point of view. In fact, I know of no books – outside the romance genre – which set the members of the Third Reich, active members of the Nazi party or not, as the principal/heroic characters.

    Much of the narrative with regard to fictional depictions of World War II is caught up in the us versus them mentality with the us being the United States/Allied Forces and the them being everyone else. There is a vested interest in continuing to see the Allied side as always on the side of all that is good/heroic/light so we rarely or ever discuss the horrors perpetrated by the Allies, ie. the denial of refugee status to escaping Jews or the firebombing of Dresden. The Allies are the “good guys” and always will be. Conversely, because so many of us who grew up in countries which were on the side of the Allies, especially the United States, are indoctrinated from childhood that everyone, absolutely everyone, in the Third Reich/Axis Powers were “evil”, we tend to not see the people who attempted in whatever small way they could to help their neighbors or passively resisted when they could. Everyone in the Axis is a “bad guy.”

    That said, it’s become an accepted bit of the romance genre to “redeem the bad boy” and who else could be the ultimate in “bad boys” than a Nazi, especially a member of the SS, and thus the best character to be “redeemed through love” which seems to be the heart of that subgenre of romance. Some authors, but not all, like to hand wave away the horrifying and focus on just the romance. Others sprinkle in some historical accuracy but avoid the bits that could prove to complicated for the format. That’s just the nature of romance writing, I think.

    I also think that after this massive, very public outcry over this particular book, there will be few if any books published which place someone who is a Nazi (or a resident of the Third Reich) in a heroic role for some time. If they are published, it will be self-published books by very thick skinned authors who won’t/don’t care about any potential controversy or authors who actively court such controversy to sell their books.

    (Disclaimer: I have for a long time wanted to write a book with a Nazi as a hero, so I’ve done a lot of research into the topics up for discussion though I never read the book in question – I have been told many, many times the book would “never be published” so it languishes on my hard drive to this day.)

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    • You are always welcome to write a long post. It’s my blog and I am wordy, so why shouldn’t my visitors have that same option? 🙂

      That is such a good point about how we make all the Allies wonderful and virtuous and all the Axis people evil. If only that were the case. When I teach immigration I always include the case of the SS St. Louis ship (with Jewish refugees) and I remind my students of how long it took for the US to have a proper refugee policy. And how many people were forcibly resettled after WW2, being moved according to the newly agreed borders.

      As I said to Cleo, this really is the logical extreme of the Bad Boy. Authors and readers both find them fascinating, and sometimes the characters are done very well. One of the reasons I didn’t link to the books in this list is because I didn’t want to call out the authors. These are almost all books that have been well received. If we’re still buying and reading them, we should think about why, not pretend they’re not there.

      The Breslin book turns out not to be a very good case for me, because it didn’t succeed for me on its own terms. Or I should say there wasn’t enough of the kind of thing that I needed, since I’m not the target audience. But there are problematic novels that I do enjoy. So they’re not about Nazis, but they’re still problematic and I still read them.

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  5. An interesting contribution to the discussion, Sunita, but I must add the caveat that there is a difference – one I as a romance reader and a WWII history reader would make – is that many German soldiers joined the Nazi party. They were not, however, all die-hard believers in the Nazi cause (not excusing, just elaborating). And there is a distinct difference in my mind between a soldier, perhaps in battle, or on the front lines, or in an occupied place, and the Kommandant of a concentration camp charged with genocide. There are other novels that have romantic elements, at the very least, including Shining Through by Susan Isaacs, in which her heroine, and undercover American OSS agent does develop romantic feelings for the German officer for whom she is a nanny. One of Danielle Steele’s WWII novels likewise had a tenuous romantic relationship between a British woman and a German officer. Moreover I would like to clarify that the novel you refer to having been published in 2010 (by The Wild Rose Press, not Whiskey Creek Press), was written by someone I know and she specifically clarifies in the book that her hero is not a Nazi. He is a German soldier in the Third Reich – every man, from 60 to 14 ended up in the army whether they wanted to or not – but he is not a Nazi. Agreed, that as the aggressors, Germans were the “enemy”, but I feel that, depending on the author’s portrayal, a given German soldier may be less culpable than, say, the Kommandant of a concentration camp. And the entire set-up that Hadassah is under the Kommandant’s control, and has no free will, puts the novel in an entirely different category in that regard, too. A last comment is that many folks in this discussion have either declined to voice their opinion because they haven’t read the book, or taken to task those who do voice an opinion while admitting they have not read it. However, as a reader, I and I’m sure many of my fellow readers often buy a book, or not, based on the blurb. The blurb for this book would have turned me off just as certainly as these various more in-depth discussions. So I think that I can say most certainly, I would not like, nor would I ever buy, a novel with this premise.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that there were gradations of ideological commitment, of course there were. And there are many books set in this period that explore the lives of Germans that I think are well worth reading (some of which I’ve read).

      I looked at the synopses of each book and the websites/blogs of the authors in the cases where I wasn’t already familiar with the book. You’re right to point out that the hero of the 2010 historical romance is a Germany army officer and not part of the SS. I used “Nazi” in the sense of Nazi Germany, which may have been misleading (although I agree with the book’s blurb that the Germany army was dreaded and the blurb itself conflates Nazi Party members and “invading Nazis”).

      While I appreciate the difference between the SS and the other German military commands, there was a lot of brutal behavior by those other branches. Perhaps it was inevitable given the ideology that sat at the top of this military structure.

      I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion (before this particular book controversy) that I’m just not up for reading a *romance* between a serving German military person (especially an officer) and someone who is under German control. I would also not read a book about a Japanese military officer and a Korean person under his control. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who would read and enjoy books that utilize those scenarios.

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  6. I am the author of the novel you reference as having been published in 2010 by Whiskey Rose Press. (It was actually published by The Wild Rose Press.) In fact, the quote you posed is not from an interview, but from a post I wrote on my own blog. Please go here if you’d like to read it in its entirety: http://www.lisbetheng.blogspot.com/2009/09/romancing-enemy.html.

    My novel, IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY, involves a romance between a German officer (not a Nazi) and a female member of the Italian Resistance. (She is spying on him, unbeknownst to him, of course, and they end up falling in love.) I try to give a nuanced portrayal of a decent man who is drafted into the German army, and the inevitable internal conflicts he faces. I’ve done much research on World War II (at least the European theater where my book is set) including reading numerous memoirs of German soldiers and civilians. As Lise Kim explains, all German men of military age were subject to the draft. As you can imagine, Nazi Germany did not recognize conscientious objection and those who resisted were imprisoned or executed. If you’d like to learn more about the German experience in WWII (besides reading my novel, of course!) you might like to visit my blog, “World War II…with a German accent” at http://www.lisbetheng.blogspot.com. In it, I talk about Germans who resisted the Nazis and those who didn’t, among other topics.

    As far as Ms. Breslin’s book, I have not nor do I plan to read it, for various reasons. Though I hesitate to comment on a book I haven’t read, I would say that the idea of a concentration camp commandant as romantic hero is a bit of a stretch, to say the least.

    By the way, I gave a talk several years ago at Deutsches Haus at New York University on the subject of the Wehrmacht soldier as romantic hero, and discussed various works of fiction and nonfiction on the subject. If you’d like a copy of the text, email me through my website at http://www.lisbetheng.com (contact page) and I’ll send you a copy.

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    • Thank you for your comment, and my apologies for the errors.

      I’ve inserted the correct information into the post. I’ve read several of your blog posts as well parts of your website; I think I may have read that post initially at examiner.com, and I confused it with a blog interview where you also talked about the challenges of making a German WW2 officer a hero.

      20th-century European history is not my area of specialty, but I’ve read a fair amount of scholarly work on it since I teach and research 20thC politics (among other things).

      I have no doubt that skilled writers can make the difficult position of many German military and civilian citizens sympathetic, and there is clearly an audience for such stories. That’s kind of the point of my post. Breslin’s book may be a bad example of how to do this, but there are plenty of examples that readers I know have found compelling.

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