Best Non Fiction – Sarah Helm



Best Translation – Fiction & Non-Fiction 2016


WOW! I am so impressed with this book that I desperately need Archer to push for the second and third in this series to be released in English. Beatrice Kaspary is one of my new favourite women in fiction. She is a divorced mother of two children who is actively involved in one of the biggest cases of her career and while others around her might think she isn’t coping with all of the demands placed on her, it is clear in the writing, this is not the case. I think she is fantastic!

The characters in this book are all so familiar from the first page even though the reader has never met them. Bea and her police partner, Florin are identifiable as a well paired team and the only duo I can say they remind me of is Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka and Natalie Kershaw. The reader is enveloped in the novel and it is incredibly hard to pull yourself out of the text to do anything else life demands.

It was also nice to not know who the murderer is and remain fooled right up to the big reveal. I made so many mistakes in guessing before the halfway point, I stopped trying.

Congratulations must also go to Jamie Lee Searle for the fantastic translation.


From the looks and stares and the “what’s a nice girl like you reading a book about him” comments, it would seem that this book is going to make an impact on an immediate, visual level. The cover really is the first challenge a reader faces, especially, if like me, you find only a few other people from history as terrifying as Hitler. The second is fighting your reaction to disbelieve a situation like this could have been a real thing.

Some of the people I’ve discussed this book with have been worried Ohler’s work is an apologists history of the Nazi regime. A few of them, no matter how much I tried to explain, refused to believe that this could be a condemnation of Hitler because “the author’s German.” Honestly, I could unpack that statement but we only need to look at the world we live in to know that this is an enormous conversation. What is abundantly clear from the beginning is that Ohler is not apologising for the crimes of Hitler and Nazi’s. Anyone who reads Blitzed and draws this conclusion has completely missed the point.

What proof can I offer to back up this statement? I can offer the following;

On this tranquillizing painkiller (Eukodal) the Fuhrer was fully in command of himself: this was the true Hitler, and that was how he had always been. The overestimation of his own significance and misjudgement of his opponents were both captured in his blueprint, Mein Kampf, published in 1925. His opioid addiction only cemented an already existing rigidification, a tendency to delegate violence and contributed to the fact that in the last phase of the war and in the genocide of the Jews he never once thought of relenting.

So the goals and motives, and ideological fantasy world, were not the result of drugs, but established much earlier. Hitler did not murder because he was living in a haze – quite the contrary: he remained sane until the end. His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his senses and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane. A classic case of actio libera in causa: he could go on taking as many drugs as he liked to keep himself in a state in which he could commit his crimes. It does not diminish his monstrous guilt (Ohler, 230-231).

I’m not a historian of WWII. In fact, up until very recently, I wasn’t interested in the era and for this I blame incredibly boring high school history teachers. Followers of this blog will also know that this month is being devoted to non-fiction (with one exception) and while Blitzed wasn’t on my original list, the podcast by Dan Snow and Ohler on the History Hit network got my attention. You can listen to the podcast here – and you really should. It’s mind boggling.

This book will re-write what we know and what we accept as fact. Ohler has turned my understanding of the period and Hitler, on its head. Honestly, all of the upper echelons of the Nazi party and the SS, who were popping the same pills as Hitler can be held equally accountable. The whole period seems to have been a perfect storm of horrible people doing obscene things and believing the entire time that they would always get away with it. If you’re looking for a reading challenge, try Blitzed and Sarah Helm’s If this is a woman. They’re a powerful combination and serve as a warning to us still today.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
― Edmund Burke

If This Is A Woman

If This Is A Woman

Publisher: Little Brown
Publication Date: 1 January 2015
Pages: 768

5 Stars

~~Language Warning~~

In May 1939 a Nazi internment camp, specially for women, was opened north of Berlin. The horror that ensued, covered in subtle but powerful and disturbing detail in Helm’s book, defy belief. Astonishingly, the camp, Ravensbrück, seems relatively unknown outside the world of holocaust historians. This is a shameful negation of the the tens of thousands who died here and at sub-camps.

As a woman, an anthropologist, a human, this work has left me speechless, horrified and changed. I want to risk using an escape clause I dislike seeing and that is people far smarter than me have commented and analysed this far better than I can or ever could. I’m not lying. This is true. The study of Nazi / WWII history is a subject many people spend their lives engaging with and only ever scratching the surface.

Some numbers:
– 5-6000 women executed in late 1944 when the SS regime realised they could not win.
– 30-50,000 who died from cold, starvation, beatings, poison and experiments
– 980 German concentration camps
– 30,000 slave labour camps
-500 brothels

Again, this is tip of the iceberg stuff.

If This Is A Woman has taken me two and a half weeks to read.

It has been harrowing and terrible. People watching me on the tube don’t need to think to hard on what it is I’m grimacing or looking angry over. The reactions are involuntary. Every story invokes a reaction. Be it disgust at the “medical procedures” or sympathy pains for the “rabbits”, be it a strange sort of patriotism for the women of the Red Army, be it the revulsion at descriptions of the mountains of bodies waiting to be incinerated, be it the strong feelings of disappointment when, at the last moment, a woman’s freedom is revoked.

Helm has witness testimony that shows the prisoners were wondering if the world knew of their suffering, wondering if anyone cared, wondering if they would ever be saved. Helm also has proof that the truth was suppressed at various levels because they believed civilians wouldn’t believe the reports. The people who decided to hide the truth and decided not to reveal what they knew of Ravensbrück were, in a way, right to do so.

Reading about the plight of these women now, in an environment that is quite sanitised to the horrors, I have to admit that there are moments I couldn’t believe something like this could have been perpetuated. It all seems more suited to a horror movie than real life. The barbarism is mind-blowing.

Even before I was 10 pages in I was wondering what kind of perfect storm occurred that such an enormous clusterfuck was the end result. Hitler, Stalin, Himmler, Gebhardt, Oberheuser, Binz, Suhren, Koegel, Treite – again, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

One thing I do find disappointing from some of the “professional” reviews is the position taken, that If This Is A Woman is a feminist history of the Holocaust. I feel, far to often, a book about women is deemed feminist when there is no legitimate connection. Feminism may have allowed for a woman to write a book about women but this is hardly a text arguing a cause for women. A history book that focuses only on the role of men and excludes women – and we know their are thousands of them, are reviewed for their historical accuracy and the amount of work that has gone into the production of the finished product. Helm’s book, focusing on women, with an astonishing amount of research is now a feminist history. This double standard is ridiculous but it also steals the focus from the women of Ravensbrück.

I can’t help but think we could all learn something from Yevgenia Klemm, leader of the Red Army women – and if you don’t understand what I mean, then I recommend you find a copy of this book and discover just how amazing she is.