Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell

My quest to learn more about 20th century European history inspired me to borrow a library copy of Svenja O’Donnell’s family memoir Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler. Published in 2020, it tells the story of her mother, grandparents’ and great grandparents’ and the lives they lived in the German city of Königsberg (now the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad) and harrowing escape just ahead of the invading Red Army during the final months of World War II leading to their eventual resettlement after the war in West Germany.

Born in Paris to a German mother and an Irish father, the British-educated O’Donnell has served as Bloomberg‘s UK political correspondent covering Brexit and other European developments. In her capacity as a journalist she visited Russian Kaliningrad, where she concluded the fall of Communism “brought heavy job losses” and the city “became a hub of drugs and human trafficking, with a rampant heroin problem and the highest rate of HIV in Europe.” Mindful of her family’s connection to the city from pre-Soviet times, during her assignment in Kaliningrad she phoned her elderly grandmother to let her know she was visiting the former Königsberg. Upon hearing the news her grandmother responded somberly there were deep family secrets she needed to be told. Then, over the next 10 years until her death Inge revealed to her granddaughter the details of a life lived long ago, and a world destroyed years ago by the ravages of war.

Born in Königsberg, as a 16 year old Inge was able to convince her protective Lutheran parents to enroll her in a girls academy in Berlin. Wishing to insulate her from the temptations of a big city, they were more than happy when she eventually moved out the school’s designated boarding house and in with a classmate’s family, knowing they’d keep a close eye on her. But before long the two girls were frequenting Berlin’s underground swing dancing clubs and enjoying all the exciting nightlife Berlin of the early War years was able to offer. But temptations arose closer to home as she fell head over heels in love with her friend’s older brother leading to her pregnancy. Sadly, her boyfriend’s father disapproved of her and to thwart any possibility of marriage used his connections to fast track his conscription into the Wehrmacht. Broken hearted, young and pregnant, in order to give her pregnancy and motherhood a thin veneer of legitimacy Inge had to settle for a wedding ceremony featuring an empty chair as proxy for the absent groom. Making maters worse, the father of her child was taken captive in the Battle of Stalingrad and languished for serval years in a Soviet POW camp.

Later, in the dead of winter, now as a young mother with an infant daughter in tow Inge and her relatives were forced to flee Königsberg as the Red Army juggernaut slammed into East Prussia, laying waste and exacting revenge. Evacuated by ship, her vessel narrowly escaped being torpedoed by Soviet submarines and thus avoided the same fate as the MV Wilhelm GustloffSafely in western Germany they sought refuge in occupied Denmark but left after the end of hostilities, in no small part due to the inhospitality of the local Danes, resentful of their prior treatment at the hands of the Germans. Back in a Germany shattered by years of war and occupied by the victors Inge attempted to build a new life for herself and her infant daughter.

Inge’s War is well written and satisfied my need for a good book on 20th century European history. Through the eyes of O’Donnell’s grandmother I was able to see a central European world long forgotten but with faint echoes that can still be heard today.

5 thoughts on “Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O’Donnell

  1. It’s such an interesting story, isn’t it? I enjoyed this but was a little bothered by O’Donnell very active role in the tale. She is our sleuth, drawing out memories from Inge, but she also has a moral arrogance (can we blame this on her French upbringing?) that I found irritating. I felt it faded somewhat as she tried to understand what her grandmother had gone through, but she seemed particularly challenged to comprehend her grandparents’ relationship and why they never reconciled.

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    • Good points! I had not thought of that. As always I was probably too focused on the historical aspects of the book to notice the human, more personal dynamics.
      Happy reading! Enjoy the Holidays including Boxing Day!

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  2. Pingback: Book Beginnings: This House Is Mine by Dörte Hansen | Maphead's Book Blog

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