When it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I was surprised to realize that over the years I’ve read hardly any books about the Netherlands, novels set in the country or anything by Dutch authors. While I’ve featured a history of Amsterdam, biography by a Dutch author and historical novel based on the life of Johannes Vermeer I’ve kinda neglected the Netherlands. Good thing then I included Alexander Münninghoff’s The Son and Heir as part of my 20 Books of Summer.
The Son and Heir is one of many free books I’ve downloaded over the last couple of years thanks to Amazon’s World Book Day. (Sadly, this year I forgot to take advantage of the annual giveaway.) Münninghoff, a Polish-born dutch journalist, died in 2020, the same year an English version of his family memoir The Son and Heir was released.
Münninghoff’s family history to say the least is a bit, um, complicated. During World War I his paternal grandfather got his start shipping goods (probably gun-running) across Northern Europe. After the War he invested the profits into factories and other commercial operations, setting up shop in the newly independent Baltic nation of Latvia, facilitated by his close relationship with the country’s autocratic leader. Settling in the capital Riga he married a former Russian noblewoman of Germanic ancestry and went on to father several children, including Münninghoff’s father Frans.
Heavily influenced by his Germanic mother and thoroughly immersed in the language and culture of Latvia’s ethnic German population, he strongly identified as German as opposed to Dutch or even Latvian. (Thanks to his mother’s influence, as well as that of his Russian emigre nannies he also developed an admiration of pre-Revolutionary Tsarist Russia and with it, a hatred of the new Soviet government.)
Much against his father’s wishes, this love of Germany and antipathy towards the Communists inspired young Frans to join Germany’s Waffen SS. Serving as an interpreter, he was wounded serving on the Eastern Front and later evacuated West to recuperate. During this downtime his son Alexander, the book’s author, was born in German occupied Poland. In the years following World War II his father’s military service was a little dirty secret his family sought to conceal. But on those few occasions when asked, his father stood proudly by his military record and steadfastly denied any participation in wartime atrocities.
Before the mid-20th century cataclysms of World War II, the Holocaust and Soviet oppression Europe was entirely different world. The Pre-War world described in The Son and Heir is one where individuals could move relatively freely across the Continent unhindered by the closed borders of Communism. Throughout the countries of Eastern European there was a diverse tapestry of ethnic minorities manifested in a cacophony of languages, cultures, religions and allegiances. By the late 1940s however the countries of this region had been thoroughly and forcibly homogenized through genocide, ethnic cleansing and the redrawing of national borders.
Unfortunately, the story of the author’s family is a near endless parade of tragedies, betrayals and infidelities. By the time you get to the end you’re kinda tired of all the drama. Just like you would with any family.