Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s nonfiction study, Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, won a Newbery Honor medal in 2006 for its compilation of accounts of what it was like to grow up in Hitler’s youth organization, Hitler Youth. In The Boy Who Dared Bartoletti returns to the Third Reich to tell the story of a boy who joined the Hitler Youth, but secretly and courageously resisted the Nazi regime until he was caught by the police.
The subtitle to this book is “A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth.” The book reads like a novel in some ways. We get to hear the thoughts and fears of and imprisoned seventeen year old, Helmuth, as he reminisces about his growing up years under the growing shadow of Nazism. However, it’s obvious that the novel is constrained by the facts of the case, so to speak. From the beginning of the story, when the omniscient narrator tells us from Helmuth’s prison cell that “the executioner works on Tuesdays,” we know that that there is no happy ending in store for Helmuth Hubener, the protagonist of the novel.
Then there are various facts that lend interest to the story but that probably wouldn’t have occurred to a novelist writing a story not based on true events. For instance, Helmuth’s family is Mormon. In the author notes at the end of the book, Ms. Bartoletti says that the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints had about one thousand members living in Hamburg during the war. Another set of unlikely facts: Helmuth’s mother marries a Rottenfuhrer in Hitler’s SS, a dedicated Nazi who nevertheless adopts Helmuth and writes a letter in his support after his arrest for espionage.
I have a particular fascination with World War II stories, especially those that take place inside Nazi Germany or in Nazi-occupied territory. I think we’re all still, almost seventy years later, trying to figure out how the Holocaust and the other evils of Nazism could have happened in a “civilized” country. So I look for clues in stories of the times. The clues here are the ones you’ve heard before: the people were economically devastated. They believed Hitler would lead them to prosperity and to dignity for Germany after the ignominious defeat of World War I. When the Jews were persecuted, the bullies joined in the bullying and the good people looked away. When freedoms were taken away one by one, people said it was temporary, that these were emergency measures, that everything would be O.K. eventually.
The problem is that I look at Nazi Germany, and I see ideas and attitudes that are very much alive here and now. No, we in the United States in 2008 are not Nazis. History does not really repeat itself; it echoes. And the echoes I hear now are disturbing. People in a time of economic crisis are looking for a saviour. Innocents are killed daily by abortion, and good people look the other way. Candidates talk about taking away freedom of speech in the name of fairness, and we are oblivious.
I didn’t mean for this to turn into a politicized review, but oh, God, remove our blind spots and have mercy on us.
The Boy Who Dared is a good reminder of what we have to lose and what can happen in a country that loses its moral compass.