Motherland follows the trials of a German family during World War II, which springs from the experiences of the author Maria Hummel’s grandfather. The story is fiction, with a backbone of palpable truths.
Liesl is a young woman who has married Frank Kappus, a doctor and newly widowed with three boys, the youngest a baby. Before she can even assimilate into her new life and family, apparently days after the newly wed couple have actually found their way to the same bed and consummated their marriage, Frank is drafted into military service and Liesl is left to mother three children she hardly knows. But she has worked with children, is naturally “good” with children, and the reader understands that she regards her wards with deep affection.
But it is December of 1944 and the end of the war is near. Air raids are irregular, but the fear of them, the anticipation of them is constant. Food supplies are dwindling. The large Kappus home is soon regulated for refugees and two families arrive and disrupt whatever sense of normality was being maintained. Meanwhile, Dr. Kappus is separated from his family, dealing with soldiers who have horrific injuries, embarking on experimental surgeries, and trying to work through his feelings for his newly departed wife and the new wife he hardly knows.
Hummel effectively creates the world in which German citizens found themselves toward the end of the war, and it is a view we do not often see with the preponderance of highlighting the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. It is discomfiting when mention is made of these victims, because it is almost made in passing, as if the starvation, torture, and death of six million Jews and up to eleven million others (Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, Roman Catholics, communists, and freemasons) were something not worthy of attention. But Motherland is the story of “regular” Germans who are so caught up in surviving day to day that the greater moral questions of the time are not contemplated, and for these folks taking any sort of action or creating dissent was not even considered.
Adolf Hitler comes across as one to whom the German citizenry could entrust their security without much thought, as one does with a parental figure. Trust is placed in parental figures during times of stress, questions go unasked, at the forefront predominantly the desire for things to improve and be put right, to be settled. Even when the curtain was pulled back to reveal Hitler’s true intentions, the desperate reality of everyday life and surviving took precedence. For adult Germans, this is no excuse for turning a blind eye (though it does make those who did risk their lives by questioning, by fomenting dissent, and by hiding the “enemy,” all the more exemplary), and does not release them from culpability, but Motherland does paint a convincing picture of citizens seized by a formidable voice infused with passion and a purpose—a father figure in the form of Adolf Hitler.
As a reader, I was caught up in the Kappus’ story; the fear, the uncertainty, the heightened emotions and subsequent exhaustion, intensified by the effects of malnutrition. I welcomed seeing this humane side to “normal” German folks; I forgot I was reading about “the enemy”—instead I was reading about a loving family torn apart in a time of war. My discomfit has resumed in the hours since I finished the book as I try to allow in my brain and in my heart the room to see these German people as humane in an inhumane situation, all created by a madman in his quest for das Herrenvolk.