Hi, I’m Aleksandr Voinov, and I’m glad to join you today to write a bit about the background of my new release Skybound, freshly out from Riptide Publishing. Thank you very much for the invitation.
Skybound is a short story set in the dying days of the Third Reich and tells the story of two Germans falling in love despite the circumstances. They are at the brink of destruction, at risk to be killed between two titanic forces and the overall chaos and horror of war.
So, why not write a sweet contemporary romance—which sell a great deal more? Why even touch the Third Reich, and then from a German perspective, which a great deal of non-German readers might find unsettling? Why spend so much time and money getting every tiny aspect right? (As “right” as possible, anyway.)
I’ve cursed this story certainly enough. It was hard to write. Harrowing. There were moments when I thought, I can’t do this, I’m simply not good enough a writer. But sometimes, stories choose you and all you can do is try and give your best. And what was taking shape on the page was good. I think that in terms of style and voice and emotion, Skybound is, so far, the best thing I’ve done. All growth hurts, I assume. It certainly does for me.
The Third Reich is a time of extremes, of madness, and yet, with the financial crisis ravaging lives globally, the lessons of the Weimar Republic—how mass unemployment, austerity cuts and credit crisis can combine into a witches’ cauldron and turn normal, decent people into desperate wild animals ready to turn against their fellows—are extremely contemporary and virulent.
The big illusion about Nazi Germany is that it’s over and doesn’t matter anymore. Yet we can never forget that much of what we in Europe enjoy in terms of social security, unemployment benefits, and Germany’s reluctance to “just print money” to get out of the crisis are direct echoes of the Second World War, the Third Reich and the lessons we learnt from them. The lesson that people, once they are desperate and humiliated enough, will listen to anybody who offers them a solution.
That said, all that is still abstract. As a school kid, I was bored by the Third Reich. We were taught Third Reich things in German, Sociology, History, Religion. Every year or so we cycled back to analysing how the Weimar constitution allowed Hitler to come to power. Even as a kid, I rebelled against that and kept thinking that history was so much larger than re-doing those twelve years over and over again. Consequently, when I went to university, I did the absolute minimum of modern German history and was still bored every minute of it.
Teaching the Third Reich focuses on how it could happen, how the Nazis did it. Once that has been discussed to the point where nobody is awake in the classroom, and it had been drilled into us to accept our national shame and responsibility, history lessons usually jumped forward into the fifties. As far as my teachers were concerned, Hitler comes to power, everybody dies, oh look, Germany is now a democracy and the nightmare is over.
Nobody actually managed to explain to me that the picture was more complex than my ancestors and family having been irrational monsters whipped into a killing frenzy by a demagogue until they became good, law-abiding democrats once Hitler was dead. That the picture is much more complex.
Due to how recent German history was taught, Germans’ attitudes to their own country are extremely critical. Even now, living as an expat with the outsider view, part of me still winces when anybody around me is “proud to be British”, or says “America, fuck yeah!” Germans don’t really have that. Anybody who says “I’m proud to be German” is seen as a Neo-Nazi, or, at best, highly suspect. There’s a tenseness about “being German” that still echoes, and that’s an echo of the Third Reich as well (I mean, this blog post is full of my “German unease” as it’s called). The first time I’ve seen a crowd waving German flags without too much wincing was during the Football World Cup held in Germany a few years ago.
That tension extends to the arts. If you go into any German bookshop, there will be books on the Holocaust/the Shoah, books on the officer’s resistance (Operation Valkyrie), the White Rose, another resistance group, and then Anne Frank’s diary. There will be a number of general histories of the Third Reich. There will likely be a book or two on memories of people who fled from Eastern Prussia or other former German-settled territories (these can already be suspect and are sometimes seen as “in love with the past” and “revisionist”). And that’s it. You’ll struggle to find a military history, for example. It’s a stark contrast to any bookshop in the UK or US, where the Third Reich is examined in a huge amount of detail, and, I’d add, with more fairness and honesty. The view in the US/UK is much more balanced, at least among serious historians. For Skybound and my upcoming WWII novels, I’ve relied pretty much exclusively on books published in the UK/US (though I did get my hands on the memories of some high-ranking German officials, usually published in the sixties and very much out of print).
Fiction is worse. When I told my agent, who’s still hopeful to get a historical novel from me one day, about my two WWII novels, his response was: “They sound really good, but there will be no way on earth any publisher is going to buy that.”
And, no, none of these novels feature hardcore Nazis as main characters. The Nazis are actually the evil guys in both.
All this might seem pretty abstract, but it’s been brought home in my own family. My grandfather was an NCO on an anti-aircraft (flak) gun, leading a team of five men, I believe, and he’s seen action in the Balkans, Greece, then Russia, where he received shrapnel in the knee and was flown out as a casualty just before the Sixth Army was encircled and completely crushed at Stalingrad. Out of his unit, he was the only survivor.
It took me decades to work out why my family is emotionally weird—it’s down to the echoes of my grandfather’s survivor’s guilty and PTSD. I’d even argue that my grandmother, a nurse on the medical trains out of Russia at the tender age of 17, was emotionally stunted because seeing hundreds of young men dying and suffering would mess up just about anybody.
The responses in my own family allow me to understand why a WWII novel still cannot be published in Germany (Skybound wouldn’t stand a chance, either, even if there were a paying market for short stories). My grandfather never really talked about his experiences, which is pretty typical of PTSD sufferers. One weird thing about him was that he was a food hoarder, unable to resist the “reduced” shelf in any supermarket. Picture a wizened, bowed-over, limping old man stocking up on sausages that will go out of date tomorrow. He couldn’t throw anything away and contracted food poisoning three or four times when he ate out-of-date meat, putting himself into hospital, even in his late seventies. Just imagining what experiences in wartime programmed that behaviour into him that he never managed to shake it makes me shudder.
His sons were extremely critical. His eldest, George, went so far as to call him and his comrades a murderer, and old Nazi (at Christmas, no less). When my grandfather relayed that story to me, his large brown eyes filled with tears, “how can he say that about my comrades?” Way to trigger that survivor’s guilt, Uncle George.
From what I can tell, the generation of my parents, the “baby boomers” in Germany, are at conflict with their own parents. There’s intergenerational tension, of course, but it’s in the arts, in the media, in publishing houses, too. In an effort to move forward and rebuild, the past was cemented over, people were told to shut up, and the story of many people was never told. They were judged collectively, and many resigned to that. I only have fragments of my grandfather’s story, but I’m fairly certain that he wasn’t a Nazi or a “believer”. He was a soldier; the reason why my grandmother ended up on those trains? She’d “fed Russians” (rather than toss the potato peel to the pigs, she’d given them to Russian forced labourers/POWs) and had been reported to the local Nazi authority, so she was spirited away before she could be punished. Whether correct or not, but she told me she could have ended up in a concentration camp for aiding the enemy.
Even writing about these matters would make me suspect in Germany. I could be seen as a right-winger (I’m actually a humanist/liberal), a Nazi apologist, just for my critical interest in that part of history, which is family history for every German family (and pretty much for every European family, too). The generation of my parents controls how we can write about Nazi Germany, how we think about it, how we interpret it.
All these restrictions make perfect sense to them: It’s to ensure it can never happen again, as if knowing too much and acknowledging individual suffering and sacrifices would turn us all into Nazis, blood-thirsty for revenge of the dead of Hamburg or Dresden.
Personally, I think that’s not true. Acknowledging that the experience of Nazi Germany was more complex, more personal, than what we’re taught at school doesn’t turn us or anybody back in time and into racists, expansionists, or mass murderers. It does not change our conflicted idea of nationhood and nationality. Reading a story won’t turn anybody into a baseball bat-wielding skinhead.
As a writer, I’m interested in people, in the stories of individuals, in experiences. Maybe I’m even attempting a bit to understand my grandparents, their generation and circumstances, and tip my virtual hat to my grandfather, saying, in my own way, I understand you now.
Germany, 1945. The Third Reich is on its knees as Allied forces bomb Berlin to break the last resistance. Yet on an airfield near Berlin, the battle is far from over for a young mechanic, Felix, who’s attached to a squadron of fighter pilots. He’s especially attached to fighter ace Baldur Vogt, a man he admires and secretly loves. But there’s no room for love at the end of the world, never mind in Nazi Germany.
When Baldur narrowly cheats death, Felix pulls him from his plane, and the pilot makes his riskiest move yet. He takes a few days’ leave to recover, and he takes Felix with him. Away from the pressures of the airfield, their bond deepens, and Baldur shows Felix the kind of brotherhood he’d only ever dreamed of before.
But there’s no escaping the war, and when they return, Baldur joins the fray again in the skies over Berlin. As the Allies close in on the airfield where Felix waits for his lover, Baldur must face the truth that he is no longer the only one in mortal danger.
Aleksandr Voinov is an emigrant German author living near London, where he makes his living editing dodgy business English so it makes sense (and doesn’t melt anybody’s brain). He published five novels and many short stories in his native language, then switched to English and hasn’t looked back. His genres range from horror, science fiction, cyberpunk, and fantasy to contemporary, thriller, and historical erotic gay novels.
In his spare time, he goes weightlifting, explores historical sites, and meets other writers. He singlehandedly sustains three London bookstores with his ever-changing research projects and interests. His current interests include World War II, espionage, medieval tournaments, and prisoners of war. He loves traveling, action movies, and spy novels.
Thank you for reading and stopping by! If you have any questions, I’ll be here to respond. To celebrate the launch of Skybound, I’ll be giving away a $25 Amazon gift certificate to one commenter on the tour, with two more receiving book swag (so please leave your email address so I can be in touch).