Nazis heroes in romance novels

by Sunita

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to add to the cacophony around the RITA nomination of Kate Breslin’s inspirational historical romance, For Such A Time. This is a book set in 1944, primarily at the Theresienstadt camp, with a love story between the camp Kommandant and a Jewish young woman at its core.

I’ve written and rewritten paragraphs about the book, the controversy, etc., but I don’t think I really have much to add to that part. If you’re on Twitter, if you follow major blogs, or if you read online magazines, you’ve come across the debate. Many of the contributors to the debate have not read the book. There are all kinds of things being stated as fact, sometimes after reading the book, sometimes not. There is also a lot of “well, that’s what inspirational romance is.”

I am almost finished reading the book and will be participating in a joint discussion/review of it at Dear Author. I’ll link to that post when it is published, and for people who don’t read DA, I’ll provide a brief summary here and we can talk about it in comments if people are interested.

In the meantime, I want to talk about where this book fits in the larger historical romance (and historical fiction with romantic elements) category. This book clearly brings together a number of volatile, offensive, and arguably beyond-the-pale factors. However, when we take each of these factors in turn, it appears that they are all fairly well established in the romance genre (or at least the part of the romantic fiction genre that is reviewed and recognized by romance-centric sites and organizations).

I have no desire to defend the book, either in terms of its premise or its execution. I am interested in challenging the idea that this book is a unique specimen. To the extent it is unique, its uniqueness lies in combining elements which have gone relatively unremarked (and often praised) in other romance and romantic novels when they appear individually.

Is the problem that it is an inspirational romance between a Christian man and a Jewish woman (leaving aside the context for a moment and focusing on the spiritual element)?

If that is the problem, then I don’t have much to say, because I don’t read enough Christian inspirational romance to have a baseline. Christianity is a proselytizing religion, and I assume that within that genre, converting someone is fair game (as it is in the real world). I can certainly understand why members of non-proselytizing religions would find any kind of conversion narrative distasteful, but it is central to the religion and to religious practice.

For what it’s worth, I don’t read the book as featuring a conversion narrative, although I know others do. I read it as a ham-handed attempt to portray a Jewish spiritual POV, which succeeds instead in portraying Jewish characters who think like 21stC evangelical Protestants. But I realize people who have read the book differ on this point (reader-response theory strikes again). Ros Clarke has an excellent post which includes a sensitive and insightful discussion of this aspect of the debate, and I encourage you to read it.

Is the biggest problem that the hero is a Nazi officer and the heroine is a Jewish woman?

A quick online search of Nazi-Jewish romance offers me at least two books featuring this plotline. One was written in 1985 and is firmly in the historical romance genre:

Young Renate Rosen, a pretty Jew, works for the underground in Berlin. Under the assumed identity of Kristina Mechler, an Aryan who had recently died, she travels to Munich to deliver a message to her sister and brother-in-law, and then escape to Switzerland. But troubles ensue. Katie and David are captured by the Gestapo and Renate escapes by pretending again to be Kristina, a ruse fraught with danger as she discovers surprises from her character’s past. One of those surprises is SS colonel Hans Kauffmann, who falls in love with her and may be her only protection against exposure and certain death. But can she let herself love him? The title of the book tells it all.

Another novel falls within the historical fiction genre, but has been reviewed by RT and AAR, and it was nominated in the romance category of the short-lived Quills award in 2007. It was published by Harlequin under its MIRA imprint, which is not strictly romance, but MIRA books win RITAs regularly (one won this year in a romance category), so the possibility for confusion arises.

Emma’s relationship with Richwalder is complex and ambiguous, the most interesting part of the novel. Richwalder himself has two sides: a loving and caring one with Anna – although Jenoff never explains what it is about her that he finds so intriguing – and a conscienceless bureaucratic one that facilitates the commission of terrible crimes on the Poles and the Jews. Is he sympathetic? Does she have the right to care for him in any way? Does her mission with the Resistance justify her breaking of her marriage vows? Unfortunately Emma comes to no profound conclusions about Richwalder or her role in all of this, and the book finishes in a strange melodramatic climax that leaves most of the important plot details up in the air.

Is the biggest problem that the hero is a Nazi officer?

In 2007 Montlake Press published a romance between a Nazi SS officer and an English woman. It was warmly received at Dear Author (B), AAR (B+), and Mrs. Giggles’ site (94), and it is regularly recommended to readers looking for WW2 romance.

[T]his romance shines because of the growth of its characters. The story takes place over two months and in that time, much happens as Germany commences war with its neighbors. The main characters’ development tracks these historical events believably. Just as things change rapidly in Germany, Sophie’s eyes are opened in ways that cause her to change deeply and admirably as a person. As readers, we see these changes through Karl’s eyes and see how his views about Sophie change in response. The result is a love story that is not only packed with action, but also believably complex in its emotions.

… readers are transported to the dangerous world of Nazi Germany and treated to a touching romance. The background is as tragic as one would expect and for some it will be difficult to read. However, the story has its hopeful moments and I am glad to have discovered this hidden treasure of a book.

In 2010 Whiskey Wild Rose Press published a historical romance about a Nazi officer (not SS) and an Italian resistance fighter. It ends in an HEA. It received a 4-star review at RT and has a 3.9 rating at Goodreads. From an interview with a blog post by the author:

As an added challenge to my prospective readers, I costumed my hero in a German uniform, casting him as an officer in the dreaded Army of the Third Reich. For the average American romance reader, a character in this role evokes little sympathy. How could a courageous heroine, fighting for her country’s freedom against the invading Nazis, possibly fall in love with such a brute?

I’d like to take full credit for this ingenious plot invention but this is not new ground. Since the end of World War II, books and movies have been released with plots hinging on, or at least hinting at this theme. The poignancy of ‘star-crossed lovers’, thrown together by the vagaries of war, doomed by circumstance to tragedy, fascinates and enthralls the romantically inclined among viewers and readers.

Is the power imbalance between a prisoner and her Nazi jailer the sticking point?

What if we flip the roles and a Nazi soldier is the prisoner? A story with this setup was published in 2013 by a major LGBT press and received glowing reviews at several LGBT and m/m review sites. It has been recommended by regular commenters at DA and has a 4.3 rating at Goodreads.

Allied command has ordered Captain John Nicholls to extract critical intelligence from their new Nazi POW. His secrets could turn the tide of the war, but are they real? John is determined to find out . . . and to shatter the prisoner who killed his lover during the attack on their tiny base. The deeper he digs, though, the more he realizes that the soldier under the SS uniform is just like him: a scared, exhausted young man who’s lost loved ones and just wants to go home.

As captor and captive form an unexpected bond, the lines quickly blur between enemy, friend, and lover. And as horrifying rumors spread from the front lines and American soldiers turn their sights on the SS for vengeance, John may be Hagen’s only hope for survival.

This series of examples is not intended to justify the publication of For Such A Time. I have found the book very difficult to read and I don’t think it succeeds on any of the dimensions I look for in a good novel, romance or otherwise. Even accepting the premise (for the purpose of being able to evaluate the book), the execution is seriously faulty.

But the idea that this is a one-off, that somehow this is an individual, uniquely heinous romance novel because it features a Nazi hero, is wrong. Obviously you can think it’s uniquely heinous for other aspects, but there has been a recurring condemnation of the book for featuring a Nazi officer in an uplifting romantic storyline.

There have been books that sympathize with and romanticize Nazi characters in the romance genre for decades, just as there have been movies that do the same. There are consistently readers who ask for these kinds of romances, so it’s not surprising that authors provide them. Nazis are the limit case for many topics and characters people which find interesting in the genre. In this particular novel the focus seems to be on Christian spiritual redemption. But we’ve been redeeming Nazis in the romance-genre sense of the word for quite a while.

Maybe we need to think about that, not just about this book.