Researching the Nazis: The Girl in the Bunker


Tracey S. Rosenberg

My own website is Writing (mostly)

Researching the Nazis: The Girl in the Bunker

Publisher’s Website
My novel The Girl in the Bunker, which depicts the final days of the Third Reich from the perspective of Joseph Goebbels’s eldest daughter, was published in July. Since then, I’ve answered plenty of questions about how one researches a novel of this kind, and about the ethics of writing historical fiction at all. In this article, I touch on the research areas I found most useful, and hope my experience will be of interest.

One of the basic questions is essentially chicken-or-egg: which comes first, the research or the story? I gave initial priority to the research, because I couldn’t write within a vacuum populated by vague recollections of Nazi Germany. However, at the same time I was checking library catalogues and compiling lists of possible sources, I also wrote 500-word snippets of fiction – not with the intention of using any of these verbatim, but simply to start pinning down the voice of the narrator, twelve-year-old Helga Goebbels. (At various points in the revision process, I had multiple narrators, but Helga’s voice was always central.) The novel is in the first person, and I knew the book would stand or fall on my ability to create a believable character. I had to know who Helga was, and how she responded to cataclysmic historical events and the dysfunctions of her own family; in terms of narrative, this was even more important than my knowledge of the Third Reich.

Not that this historical knowledge wasn’t vital. I began with the ur-text, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler, and soon read other treatments of the final days as well as biographies of Joseph and Magda Goebbels. I was quite fortunate in that there’s an enormous quantity of material written in, or translated into, English; for a less significant historical period, I might have been scuppered by not being able to read source documents in the original language.

The key documents for my work were – for lack of a better description – bunker memoirs. Pretty much everyone who got out alive shared their experience in some form, and as far as I’m aware, I read them all, with the exception of Rochus Misch’s account, which is only available in German. These eyewitness accounts contain realistic details that are crucial for a writer, who needs to be able to conjure up the feeling of a place. (At times, I felt that the bunker was a character in its own right.) Yet because these individual accounts are all unreliable and self-serving to some extent, I didn’t have to slavishly adhere to any of them.

I did some general research, but I didn’t feel I had to have the entire Second World War at my fingertips. For occasional trivia – i.e. a minor character mentioning a battle in which his brother died – I called on a friend who’s an expert amateur historian, or consulted memoirs of children who were roughly the same age as those I was writing about. I also visited the Kevin Morrison collection of propaganda from both sides of the war (at that time, held at Glasgow Caledonian University), which produced material ranging from postcards of the Goebbels children to a copy of the Third Reich traffic code.

Personal research is often helpful. On a research trip to Berlin, to gain a sense of the city, I took a tour of Third Reich sites and stood at the Brandenburg Gate to try and calculate airplane trajectories. Finding someone who knew Helga Goebbels was far more difficult; one of Albert Speer’s daughters was kind enough to answer my letter, though sadly, she had had very little contact with the Goebbels children. Still, it was exciting to find an actual link to the person whose story I was attempting to create.

Perhaps the most important part of research is knowing what you don’t need to be accurate about. As my historian friend pointed out, no one was standing in a corner taking notes. Everything comes from eyewitnesses. Moreover, in the final days of the war, with the Russians about to bash down the door, no one wore pristine uniforms that looked exactly the way they do in the Osprey guides. Historical accuracy means understanding the overall context, not just the individual details.

For me, historical events were a framework within which to map the narrative. I can’t change history to suit my novel, but I can manipulate it to make Helga’s story the most important element. Most accounts of this episode would give more attention to Martin Bormann than to Hanna Reitsch, but I made the fictional Reitch significantly involved with the children whereas Bormann was scarcely there at all. I can also use the uncertainty of the bunker memoirs to my advantage. One of the known facts is that Reitsch comes in on either the 25th or the 26th of April. I can find at least three memoirs to prove each date, but it actually doesn’t matter. My job, as the author, is to give that event significance within the narrative of the protagonist – using Reitsch’s appearance to influence Helga’s ongoing development.

Which brings me to the final question: what are the ethics of historical fiction? Who am I to start describing real people and manipulating their lives for my own benefit? One of the primary reasons I chose to write about the Goebbels children is because no one, at the time I began the novel, had focused on their experience within this unique, insane situation. They can be seen singing in many a video now found on YouTube, but they themselves have appeared only as macabre footnotes. Ultimately, I wanted to give Helga Goebbels a voice, and to do so as respectfully and honestly as possible. This meant I had to do the same for everyone in her story – including Adolf Hitler himself – which was a challenge, to put it mildly. However, judging from the positive reviews the novel has had so far, both from war buffs and from those who knew nothing about the Goebbels children, I seem to have done a believable job.