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New Release from Bookouture: "The German Mother" by Debbie Rix

One would imagine that researching a historical novel would be an orderly, disciplined process, but in my experience it’s far from it. Often an idea just arises out of the blue. I can be driven to write a new story by something as simple as a chance discovery. ‘Ah,’ I think to myself, ‘I can do something with that... I can turn that into a good story.’ Once the seed has been planted in my mind, it begins to grow and take root with every new insight into history. Frequently, however, the original idea will change, as I delve deeper into the research, and find characters and episodes from the past that mould and shape my story.

My latest novel “The German Mother” began its life in my mind as a book about journalists in the Second World War. I was originally inspired by the autobiography of a German Jewish journalist called Jella Lepman. She was the women’s editor of a left-of-centre newspaper in Stuttgart in the 1930s. When Hitler became Chancellor, he swiftly closed down any newspaper which did not support Nazism, and journalists like Jella lost their jobs, risking imprisonment and ultimately death. Fortunately, Jella escaped Germany with her two young children and fled to London, where she was employed as a newsreader/announcer for the BBC’s German Service at the outbreak of war. After the Allied victory, the US Army employed her back in Germany to help with their ‘de-Nazification program’ – trying to rid her compatriots of Hitler’s ideology, and replace it with a sense of decency and tolerance. As I read about this brave woman, I knew she would one day feature in one of my novels. In my current book, her life is represented through my character Leila Hoffman.

That in turn got me interested in the whole subject of how journalists can be manipulated by repressive governments, and coerced into writing propaganda. In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s propaganda czar was the (in)famous Joseph Goebbels. He was so besotted by Nazi ideology that at war’s end he and his wife committed suicide - after murdering their six children. History has understandably painted the man as a monster, but he had started life wanting to be playwright and a poet. I was intrigued by the obvious complexity of a man who had once been a cultured liberal and yet became a vicious ideologue, so I decided to feature him as a character in my novel. But I needed to find a way for the reader to get to know him. The solution was via another journalist, but one on the opposite side of the political divide to Leila’s. While researching journalists sympathetic to the Nazi movement, I came upon Ursula von Kardorff, a German aristocrat who worked initially for an anti-semitic newspaper, before abandoning it for a more tolerant paper. She inspired the character I call Minki, and it was through the relationship that I created between her and Goebbels that I was able explore Goebbels’ human side – not least through his insatiable womanising.

Initially I had seen the novel as purely about propaganda, and the difficulties of objective reporting in a totalitarian regime. But I quickly realised I needed to personalise the wider issues of totalitarianism through the lives of my characters. Leila was easy enough: as a Jewish woman in 1930s Germany, she and her family were increasingly under threat as Hitler rose to power. But for Minki, as one of Goebbels’ former lovers and later married to a man close to the seat of power, how could she come to grips with the true horror of Nazism?

I had known about eugenics; in the 1920’s it was a hot topic in both Germany and America. The idea that a society should rid itself of its weaker citizens was actively being discussed among intellectuals, scientists and doctors. But there’s a world of difference between discussion and action. In the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis embraced the idea and turned it into a national policy, murdering literally thousands of people with disabilities - people with congenital illnesses, the deaf, the blind, the epileptic, and even army invalids. All became victims of a brutal death by the German State.

I realised that if my character Minki, whose life was otherwise safe and secure within Nazism, could give birth to a child with a disability, she might come face to face with the evils of the regime, and become disenchanted - and ultimately a dissident.

One of the great privileges of being a historical novelist is that I often get to visit the places I write about. Hadamar was one such place – a charming little semi-medieval town nestling in a valley in rural Hesse. Surrounded by vineyards and meadows dotted with peacefully grazing cattle, it was the sort of place where nothing bad could ever happen – or so you would think. And yet in the 1930s and 40s literally thousands of people, including many children, were murdered in the basement of a large hospital on the edge of the town. That building still exists, and as I walked around its grounds, I tried to understand how anyone could have worked there in the time of Nazism. Doctors and nurses, whose job is surely to protect life, were involved in routine killings of human “burdens on the State “. It was the murder of mere children that was so appalling. Their families believed they were being sent to the hospital so they could be helped, and many willingly handed over their children. But instead, within minutes of their arrival, most children were stripped naked and gassed, and their bodies burnt in an incinerator. Before long, the townspeople complained about the smoke and smell from the crematoria, and the local Bishop investigated, finally speaking out about the terrible goings-on. Perhaps surprisingly, Hitler bowed to public pressure, and forbade any further gassing and incinerations. But the killings of the disabled continued - mainly through starvation and the over-prescribing of opiates. Once dead, the victims were then simply thrown into pits in a quaintly described ‘cemetery’ above the hospital, and covered up with earth.

In 2022, I climbed up steps to the site of cemetery, weeping for the lost children, and the desperate mothers who hadn’t understood why or how their loved ones had died. Some parents had visited the hospital looking for answers, but were lied to, being shown meticulously kept records of death due to ‘natural causes’.

Of course, the cemetery has long been cleared of its many corpses, and is now just a grassy plot of land. It is a peaceful, even charming location, and yet it carries the memory of all those lost souls. As I stood there I vowed to expose this terrible story of inhumanity. And so Hadamar – and the evil cruelty of the Nazis’ eugenics policy - became the final twist in this story of a mother’s love.


1941, Germany: There’s a man in uniform outside my door. They’ve come for her. My beautiful little girl is wrenched from our home and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. But I vow to find Clara… no matter what it takes. Minki Sommer strokes the blonde curls away from her daughter’s face and her heart swells. Clara is the most precious thing to her and each day she whispers a promise to keep her safe… Before the war began, Minki had everything – an attentive husband, three adorable children, and a successful career as journalist. But all that changed in an instant. Her sweet Clara, with her blue eyes and porcelain features, started having fits. Since then, Minki hasn’t been able to sleep properly because she knows children with illnesses like Clara’s are being stolen away in the night. Her husband’s connections high up in the Nazi Party make the situation even more dangerous. Minki tries to escape the city with her children, but finds she is unable to leave. And then the moment she’s feared arrives: her husband has betrayed her. Minki is devastated as her darling girl is ripped from her arms. But she vows she will use every last breath in her body to find her missing child, no matter how dangerous it is to cross a country at war… Inspired by true stories, this is a heart-wrenching and unputdownable novel about a mother’s fight for the survival of her child in World War Two Germany. Fans of Orphan Train, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and My Name is Eva will be utterly gripped by this beautiful, tragic historical novel.

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Author Bio:

Debbie Rix has had a long career in journalism, including working as a presenter for the BBC. Her first novel, The Girl with Emerald Eyes was set around the building of the tower of Pisa and she has since released Daughters of the Silk Road and The Silk Weaver’s Wife. Debbie writes heartbreaking historical novels about love, tragedy and secrets.


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