Notes on creating Becker (Taken from Author's notes 'Angel Avenger')
It took me two years to create a detective character that I thought interesting. In researching Max Becker and his colleagues, as well as visiting and reading books about Berlin, I read many biographies of German wartime veterans and was taken with their stories and the impossible circumstances that they found themselves in. Many, particularly regular Wehrmacht troops (who made up the majority of the German forces) once recruited were sent off to face years of the most appalling combat, slogging it out against a foe that seemed to have unlimited human resources backed up by a ruthless regime every bit as depraved and criminal as that of their own.
While they fought and died, the Nazi machine put its extreme theories into practice, and while the plight of the millions of Jewish victims is well documented, other groups targeted by the Nazis are less well known. It is estimated that some 6 million Jews died, but a further 5 million other minority or vulnerable groups were also exterminated: homosexuals, political enemies, Gypsies, the disabled, to name a few, and many of these people were German.
After the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944, Germany began to implode as it crumbled under assault from two fronts, lack of resources – most notably, fuel and war materials. Millions of civilians died or went hungry and homeless as the allies carried out remorseless bombing campaigns, often on soft targets. ‘The End, Hitler’s Germany 1944-45’ by Ian Kershaw (Published by Allen Lane) is a excellent book detailing this time, which sets out to explain why Germany fought on for so long against overwhelming odds.
As the Red Army swept into the Eastern part of Germany and on toward Berlin, some elements carried out terrible atrocities against the civilian – mostly women and children – population. It has often been stated that they did this to take revenge on what had been done to them by German forces, but there are accounts of them slaughtering and raping other nationals, even concentration camp victims. In my research, I came across such an event that took place October 21 1944, in a little village called Nemmersdorf, and it was this that led me to weave my tale about Angelika and her family as innocents caught up in the depravity of war. Interestingly enough, soon after completing this novel I read a war memoir of a machine gunner 'Blood Red Snow - The Memoirs of a German Soldier on the Eastern Front' by Günter K Koschorrek - (A Greenhill book) who was at Nemmersdorf the day after the Soviets had left. The following is a quote from his journal for 22 October 1944, ‘It is impossible for me to describe all the terrible sights we have witnessed in Nemmersdorf. I can’t find the right words, and it is repugnant to have to talk about the horrific acts perpetrated on innocent women, children and old people.’ He was clearly deeply affected by what he saw, and although the primary purpose of my book is to entertain, it also deals with the deep moral issues that war bring and how it affects those that experience it. Another episode from Günter’s outstanding and honest account details a time he was ordered to execute some Italian partisans, which he refused to do. On being ordered, he and a friend took the partisans behind some rocks, shot into the air and then let them go; a scene not dissimilar to Bastian’s story in my book, which at the time I wrote it I wondered whether it was credible. So, it was joyful to find Günter’s account confirming my suspicion that most ordinary German soldiers were incapable of committing such acts. In other memoirs that I have read and studied are numerous examples of the fundamental moral fortitude of the regular German troops. Though parts of my book are dark and the level of violence may seem extreme, I have played down much of what took place and which I thought too shocking and brutal to put in a work of fiction.
Many of the soldiers, men like my characters, Max, Tobi and Bastian, came back from war to find out what had been going on, themselves now reviled and shamed. Many such men kept their peace but happily as they grew old, decided that they should be able to tell their side of the story and it is clear to me that history has not been fair to them.
While my Max Becker stories are exclusive works of my imagination, they are backed up by the countless human stories from that time. While researching the character of Max’s wife, Anna, I came across a Red Cross nurse called Elfrieda Wnuk, on whom I based her. Elfrieda lost her leg during an air raid on the Eastern front and was the second woman to be awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. Despite her wounds, she continued to serve and was, clearly an exceptional person.
I hope one day to find the time to go to Germany and search out her story. If Elfrieda had been British or American, she would probably be better known and held up as an icon of her time, but as a German, few people have ever heard of her, which is wrong.
The role that many women, on all sides played in the war, is breathtaking and when planning Angel Avenger I needed strong female characters to help carry some of those stories and create a balanced narrative. In writing the book, Angelika and Otti, with the roles of Anna and the young Heike supporting them, surprisingly became the core of the story on which the male characters hang, which evolved naturally.
The character August Dehler is entirely fictional, but his name belonged to a real Panzer commander, described in Otto Carius’s war memoir – ‘Tigers in The Mud’ (Stackpole Books). Otto was very fond of him, and I was struck by his character. The real August died in a tragic accident in January 1943. To protect their tanks from the extreme cold they’d dig them in. August had motioned for his driver to back the Panzer III out when he slipped on the frozen ground and was caught by the tank track. Otto writes, ‘…it grabbed him without his driver noticing it. The tank was immediately brought to a stop…he was killed immediately, without ever having uttered a sound.’
I must also thank Otto’s memoir for giving me Max’s ‘saved by a cigarette story’ as he had a similar experience (I adapted the account, but it is clearly Otto’s), and it brought home to me the randomness of war, in that a moment of change could have so drastic an impact. Like Max, when Otto bent down to take a light from someone else, it saved his life, enabling him to tell us his story and to grow to old age. I must stress that Max isn’t based on Otto or any other living person, but as with most invented characters, he is a tapestry of many.
Most of the locations mentioned in the book (though some street names have changed since 1960) are real. The location of Max’s office on the corner of Kurfürsten and Baggranfen Straßen was the location of the headquarters of The 3rd Panzer Division, which is the Division that Max joined just before the war (2 volumes titled ‘Armored Bears’ details their history). If you go to Tegel forest you can find the tallest tree ‘Höchster Baum’ and the massive Oak ‘Dicke Marie’ (Fat Marie), though hopefully not a burnt-out van with a dead Russian inside!
Berlin is a magnificent city full of fascinating history and culture, and I recommend it highly!