Meike Ziervogel is a writer and journalist living in London. She grew up in northern Germany and came to London to study Arabic language and literature. In 2008 she founded Peirene Press, an independent publishing industry dedicated to producing contemporary European novellas in English translation1. In 2012 she was voted as one of the top 100 most innovative and influential people in the UK creative industry.
Her debut novel Magda offers a unique dissection of Magda Goebbels, the female role model of the Third Reich and wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Meike Ziervogel attempts to explain the psychology behind the history of this multifaceted woman using historical research and her own imagination. The result is a fascinating insight into complex mother-daughter relationships that culminated in the murder of the Goebbels children in Hitler’s Bunker in 1945.
What inspired you to write about such a difficult topic?
There are a number of reasons why I was drawn to write about Magda Goebbels. The starting point was a very personal one: 18 years ago, when I gave birth to my first child, a daughter, I struggled for two years to embrace motherhood. Since then I have often wondered what would have happened if I had not made the emotional connection to my role as a mother? What if I had never grasped the idea that my daughter was offering me a chance to grow personally? What if I had never taken responsibility for my desire to be both a mother and a career woman? I looked around for a dramatic story to explore those ‘if’s’. Magda Goebbels caught my attention. I soon realised that I had found a compelling example of a mother-daughter tragedy. The failure of Magda’s mother to connect to her daughter paved the way to a flawed maternal relationship in the next generation. Magda Goebbels was not able to perceive her children’s reality and lives as separate from her own – and acted accordingly.
Furthermore, I hope that with ‘Magda’ I help to correct a bias towards books about Nazi men to the exclusion of Nazi women who officially did not commit crimes but in my view are equally culpable. And thirdly, writing this book also allowed me to look at my own German history critically but with understanding.
What research did you do to create the story?
I went to the British Library and read literature by and about the Nazis, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Ian Kershaw’s Hitler biography and My German Mother by Niklas Frank (a book which hasn’t yet been translated into English). However, I found the literature that came a generation earlier and influenced the Nazi writings far more useful. I have in mind such books as Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s The Foundation of the 19th Century and the German novelist Karl May (Hitler’s favourite writer). I also immersed myself in German philosophy, such as Fichte and Nietzsche, and the German Romantic writers, such as Tieck, Novalis, E.T.A Hoffmann. All these writers proved very useful in understanding the Nazis’ usage of language. I also drew a lot from my experience as a mother and as a German.
How much of the story is non-fiction?
All the scenes, thoughts and feelings of the characters are fiction. However, not merely are Magda, Joseph and their children historical figures, but also her mother and Magda’s first husband and her affair with Zionist Chaim Arlosoroff. Other historical facts: Magda spent some years as a child in a Catholic convent in Belgium, Auguste married a Jewish merchant. Magda wanted to leave Joseph Goebbels and Hitler talked her out of it. Joseph, Magda and their children spent their last days in Hitler’s bunker. At the end of the war Magda was physically sick. Since 1942 she had suffered from heart problems and Trigeminal neuralgia (a nerve disorder that causes a stabbing or electric-shock-like pain in parts of the face) that left half of her face paralysed, in addition to severe depression and heavy consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. Hitler married Eva Braun in the bunker. Furthermore, Magda’s mother was interviewed after the war and I read a few short extracts.
How did you decide to structure the chapters – in terms of each one coming from a different female’s viewpoint?
From the start I knew I didn’t want to create a narrator who analyses or pretends to know the answers. My aim was to create interplay between the characters and the reader without any mediation. I then decided to use different female voices. Each of these voices comes from a different aged woman: Magda as a small child, Helga as a teenager, Magda as a mature woman, Magda’s mother as an elderly woman. All of these different voices could be one woman. I do believe that our experience of the world is very often filtered through the voices of the people closest to us.
What emotions (if any) did you have when researching and also writing about Magda Goebbels?
During my research I wanted to understand why anyone could have followed the Nazi doctrine. I had to allow myself to approach this subject without condemnation. Furthermore, while I wrote Madga, I as the writer had to emphasize with my character, otherwise I couldn’t have written the book. Why? Because I wanted to draw a three dimensional human being. I did not want to portray her as a monster or glamorise her. We can only learn from history if we understand that the Nazis committed their crimes because they were humans. But ultimately, of course, Magda Goebbels does not deserve our sympathy, because she was a grown up woman who not only could have made different choices – and decided not to – but who also failed to respect her children’s rights for life.
Have you always been interested in this area of history?
I grew up with stories about the Red Army ransacking Germany at the end of the War. One of my subjects for Abitur (German A-level equivalent) was History and I chose as a focal point The Third Reich. After school I decided to go to Israel. I thought as a German it is important to see Israel. I lived there for a year.
Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craige
The Girl in the bunker by Tracey Rosenberg