Catherine Hokin’s latest novel, The Fortunate Ones, tells the story of Felix Thalberg, a young printer’s apprentice, whose life is changed forever when he meets a girl in a crowded Berlin dance hall. Despite his efforts to find her, Hannah vanishes that night without trace and it is two years before Felix sees her again, this time in the terrifying surroundings of Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The novel is set in Berlin and Argentina between 1941 and 1956 and, as Catherine tells Historia, involved her in some fascinating research.
Like most historical fiction writers, I love the research process, sometimes too much – give me a rabbit hole and I will happily jump down it. In addition to the joys of Google, I live in Glasgow and therefore have access not only to excellent public libraries but also to the University collections. I spend a lot of time in Berlin and was lucky enough to be able to visit Buenos Aires while writing this book.
There was no shortage of material to dive into and some of the topics covered in the book – for example the Sachsenhausen counterfeiters and the Nazi ‘ratlines’ into South America – were already known to me; their stories were part of the impetus for writing The Fortunate Ones. As other writers will attest, however, the writing impulse usually comes not so much from the knowledge, as the gaps.
Argentina’s relationship with its history is not the same as Germany’s. Go to Berlin and you are confronted with Third Reich museums and exhibitions at every turn – Germany has been forced, at times more willingly perhaps than others, into a dialogue of what was done by the Nazis in its name. There is no similar impetus in Buenos Aires, where the past is far more carefully curated.
In Argentina, the Nazis do not exist. The National History Museum moves past the Second World War in moments, making no mention of the hundreds of fleeing war-criminals that President Juan Péron’s regime gave shelter to.
The Immigration Museum, sited in the building which was the first point of entry, has no available records for the period – the guide laughed when I asked. Péron’s National Ethnic Institute, where my character Max Eichel works, existed, but it felt like I was venturing into dark web territory when I followed the one tiny link to it.
There are luckily, some excellent resources, including the books Hunting Evil by Guy Walters and The Real Odessa by Uki Goni, and a superb documentary, Bariloche, Pact of Silence by film maker Carlos Echeverría. If you want a neck-prickling research moment (which we all do) discovering the history of Bariloche, for me, was it.
San Carlos de Bariloche is the biggest town in the area of Patagonia known as Argentina’s Lake District. It lies between the Andes and Lake Nahuel Huapi and is now an internationally famous skiing resort. The town looks as pretty with its chocolate shops and bierkellers as if it had stepped off the banks of the Rhine, and the area has been popular with German settlers since the nineteenth century.
From the end of WWII, it was also a favourite residence for a growing number of Nazi fugitives, including: Reinhard Kopps, an SS lieutenant who ran a hotel in the town and was accused of organising ethnic crimes in Albania involving the deportation and murder of thousands of Jews; Frederic Lantschner, a Nazi governor of the Tyrol, whose Bariloche construction company used the letters SS as its symbol; Josef Schwammberger, commander of a number of forced labour camps in Poland; Josef Mengele, who is known to have taken his driving test in Bariloche; Adolf Eichmann; and Erich Priebke, the senior SS commander at the Ardeatine massacre in Italy, who became president of the Bariloche Germano-Argentinian cultural association and was an influential teacher at the local school.
All these men, and many like them, were active in the town’s sporting clubs and cultural associations and frequented still popular locations in Bariloche, where you will no longer find any trace of them – including Club Andino and the luxury Llao Llao Hotel, which stands on the site of hotel which was the Nazis favourite watering hole, where Inge and Max stay in my book.
Many of the fugitives lived undisturbed lives in their new home. Perhaps the best known was Erich Priebke, whose identity was revealed, to the wider world at least, in the early 1990s.
He lived in the town for over fifty years until he was finally extradited to Italy to face trial for crimes against humanity in 1995. Many of his neighbours protested against this because of his good service to the community. His sentence of life imprisonment was changed to house arrest on appeal; requests for his extradition to Germany were refused. Priebke died of natural causes in Rome in 2013, aged 100.
Many countries are very adept at turning away from their past. The wealth brought by slavery remains a difficult subject for many British cities (including my home town of Glasgow) to face. I was never taught about the Irish famine in school and my American husband knew nothing about the imperialistic behaviour of the American fruit companies he watched adverts for until he read Gabriel García Márquez. Argentina, with its history of coups and dictatorships, has a long way to go. Sometimes, however, the devil is in the detail, if you know where to look.
During our visit to Buenos Aires – a city, by the way, which I loved – we visited the Eva Péron Museum. This is run by a family member and is one of the most remarkable places I have ever visited in terms of re-writing history. Tongues were very firmly bitten.
Yet there it was, the link between the Péron regime and their sympathies – one of Eva’s favourite dresses, dating from 1946 and made by Maggy Rouff, the fashion designer beloved of Frau Goebbels and the Nazi wives. But that story is for the next book…
Read more about The Fortunate Ones.
Find out about how Paris fashion houses resisted – or collaborated with – the occupying Nazi regime in Catherine’s Historia feature, An appearance of serenity: the French fashion industry in WWII.