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A German in a Foreign Land - an Editorial Review of "Cruelty: the Daughter of Revenge and Hatred"

Title: "Cruelty: the Daughter of Revenge and Hatred" (A German in a Foreign Land)

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Editorial Review:

Towards the end of ''Cruelty: the Daughter of Revenge and Hatred'' an extract from the newspaper ''Deutsches Volksblatt'' from the very early i920's is quoted: ''We are Swabians [a common term for German speaking colonists] and settled among neighbours of other tongues and of different bloods. Nevertheless, we feel ourselves as foreigners in this land.....since the ground upon which we stand, the landscape through which we pull our ploughs, was wrung from swamps and bogs by our forefathers. And this little spot of everything to us, it is our German Fatherland......We seek to remain loyal to this tiny piece of earth, upon which the sweat clings to our brow, so long as we breathe....'' This particular ''cri du coeur'' is the voice of native German speakers long settled in a land that the accident of history has remoulded into the state of Yugoslavia. The voice is strident, angry and frustrated. The cry of a stranger in his own country. Any casual student of history can find examples and parallels of this - and the tragic consequences.

This, in fact, is one of the major themes running throughout this book - from beginning to end; that of the German speaking colonists and pioneers to the east of their original homelands and now transplanted from earlier times to the east and experiencing prejudice and localised, almost 'tribal', hatreds. This theme, along with that of a family dynasty and an overwhelming fascination for and adoration of music and the great German exponents of it of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

'Banat' is the term for the vast geographical area straddling between central and eastern Europe. In 2022 this large area is comprised of western Romania in the east, north eastern Serbia in the west and a small part of south east Hungary in the north. A basic map of this large area inserted into the text at this stage would greatly simplify the reader's understanding and grasp of very complex subsequent events and their significance. In the piping and optimistic days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the mid eighteenth century and the energetic Empress Marie Theresa [where our story begins] the whole area was a geographical and political vacuum caused by the retreat of Turkish expansionism and it proved to be an irresistible magnet to enthusiastic and land hungry Germans in search of a better life in the precise same way that ''The West'' was to the immigrants of the infant United States of America. It is important to the book that this basic fact is understood and not forgotten by the readership.

It is no small task to attempt to encapsulate and narrate the growth of a vast Empire and to narrate its death and disintegration, its total collapse through its own inherent nationalist contradictions, in the space of one relatively slim volume. It is equally daunting to attempt to chronicle the fortunes of one single immigrant family through the many generations, from a happy young optimist, Stefan Fritz, in the year 1763 to the woman Marta, living in the bombed out ruins of an utterly devastated Berlin after the end of the second world war in 1945; but this is precisely what Lucinda Heck sets out to attempt to achieve in 'The War never ended'. From the optimistic and aspiring start that begins with young Stefan and his pretty young newly wed partner as they set out to create a fine new life, to a young woman amongst the ruins of Berlin and a two centuries old culture that has been all but destroyed and wiped from the face of the earth in the grim aftermath of the second world war.

The early chapters of the book, the fortunes of Stefan and his two sons Johann and Thomas,are relatively light and enjoyable and make for interesting reading. There are optimistic and even lyrical descriptions of places and events and moving dialogues. Here is Stefan, optimistically and joyfully setting out on his long journey to the Promised Land: ''The road was passable, and one could smell new growth, a wonderful scent of nature's regeneration. The fragrance came from deep within the earth. It reminded me of hay freshly cut as well as land that had been recently tilled. The kind of earth you would rub on your face and hands to be closer to it, and revel in being dirty. Proud to be dirty.''

Johann,the first son of Stefan, reveals himself to be a musical prodigy, a genius with the violin. The long journey back to Vienna for study is reluctantly agreed to by his father and there the boy becomes first the protege and then the close friend and confidante of the great and very avuncular Joseph Haydn. He socialises with Mozart and then forms a deep and intimate and lasting friendship with the moody Beethoven himself. In these episodes the writer reveals her truly deep love,affinity and knowledge of the music of the great masters, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and, latterly, Wagner, but also of the great works of German literature and poetry; of Goethe and Schiller. This passion of the writer for these subjects informs the entirety of the Novel. The same is equally true in her depiction of the other son, Thomas, a gifted healer and apothecary. The twin skills of music and medicine run throughout the history of the family.

.As the book develops and moves into its central section a number of very major weaknesses and complications arise. These, unfortunately, remain to the very end. One disconcerting feature is the inclusion of huge chunks of political history which are very difficult to digest. Beyond a shadow of doubt, the very unstable nature of the polyglot and multi-national nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its ultimate and inevitable fragmentation and collapse is complex in the extreme and might possibly have been better tackled [it could be argued] with a separate set of historical footnotes and away from the main text itself, leaving the writer to allow the readership to concentrate more fully on the extraordinary and highly complicated dynastic family account. For this, in fact, the major point of difficulty in the book, at least for this reviewer. is the sheer size of the family and the numerous relatives and kin. A brief lapse in concentration and the reader becomes lost. Who is this new person in the narrative, or that? Again, by the time of 1848 and the Year of Revolutions, an otherwise fascinating description, the unwary reader may well find himself or herself hopelessly adrift A genealogical chart or something similar at the very beginning of the book would be of immense help..

'Cruelty'' may only be a matter of 212 pages, but it certainly covers a great deal of territory in terms of time and space. Occasionally, in all the swirling mists of confusion caused by the points raised above, the fog momentarily lifts and parts and images of stark beauty and clarity emerge. It is similar, perhaps, to finding nuggets of attractive and nourishing food that one recognises in a large, mysterious and unknown stew. There are, in fact, many instances in the book of this. There, are, for example, many perceptive instances of the difficulty of being German, speaking German, in a society surrounded on all sides by alien cultures: ''The ethnic groups grasping for autonomy had no common identity amongst them. There were different religions, different languages and different cultures. Many stayed German because they felt German. They did not trust the government to make it [the situation and life in general] better, no matter what they did. They were a minority, a German in a foreign land.'' The sheer horror of the First World War and its impact is likewise vividly described in the experiences of two of the extended family, Franz and Otto. Franz finds himself on the Western Front throughout the war and Otto in the East: Here is what Fritz experienced throughout the horror of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele, in mid to late 1917:

''During the battle images in Homer's ''Iliad' came to life. In the confusion the voices of men from all the countries mingled together made a din of horror.. Terror, panic and struggle were seen on the faces of the men fighting for their lives. The landscape was one brought up from Hell. Mud, barren trees, horses dying, men screaming, shell holes filled with water, and corpses met the eye wherever you looked....' Equally horrifying,are the descriptions of Otto's post traumatic stress disorder that would remain with him for the rest of his days:

''No matter how Otto tried to occupy himself, he could not shake the war. Images always appeared; normal sounds became screams, rifle reports, shelling; smells permeated the house and instead of bread baking, he smelled gas. He would lie awake at night shivering and sweating, or running to find cover, or hitting some ghost that was only his wife. When he did talk about the war with other veterans, they had similar stories. These conversations always ended in a penetrating silence with each lost in their own hell.''

One of the most powerful sections of the entire book is the very end; of how after the defeat of the First World War and the humiliations and hardships that the Peace and the Treaty of Versailles brought, the erosion of their own liberties and sense of identity, the Banat Germans in the new country of Yugoslavia, began to seek solace in an especially 'ultra German' form of nationalism and of how easy it became to succumb to the charms and the allure of the emerging Nazi Party, resulting in the ultimate destruction of their entire culture and way of life in the wake of the Second World War. A war that brought to an end forever the adventurous spirt of the colonists of Marie Theresa two centuries earlier. It is a chilling and sombre ending to a difficult and sometimes problematic book.


“Cruelty: the Daughter of Revenge and Hatred” by Lucinda Heck receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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