Book Review - Magda by Meike Ziervogel

The debut novel of the founder of Peirene Press, Meike Ziervogel, carries many of the hallmarks of her publishing ethos. It’s short, beautifully packaged by Salt Publishing, and the themes are hard hitting and distinctly European.

Joseph and Magda Goebbels arrive in Hitler’s bunker with their children aware that the end of war is nigh. We already know their fates: Hitler’s propaganda minister and his wife commited suicide after killing their six children, although accounts differ as to who feeds them the cyanide capsules. Ziervogel suggests Magda murders the children alone and focuses on what leads her to this final brutal act.

Combining fact and fiction and knitting together the perspectives of Magda’s embittered mother and her eldest daughter, Helga, Ziervogel creates a multi-layered portrait. Magda’s mother, a former maidservant, reveals how her estranged husband insisted that his daughter receive a convent education. Its harsh environment hardens Magda from a tender age. She is rescued by her mother’s second husband, a kindly Jewish shopkeeper, who brings up Magda like his own and encourages her to pursue an education rather than follow her mother into domestic service.

After meeting Goebbels, Magda realises that her destiny is to serve the Party and dedicates herself to Hitler as though “He” was God, confiding in him her fears and desires. At one point she bemoans her husband’s frequent infidelities and Hitler flatters her into believing that she is an “icon” for the German people and counsels her to “forgive Joseph his trespasses and live like a saint.”

In her afterword, Ziervogel suggests that her intention was “to capture the psychology…of a destructive mother-daughter relationship over three generations.”  Rather than presenting Magda as a monster, Ziervogel gives her a human face. She comes to represent all the ordinary German women who were swept up by Hitler’s abominable vision, refusing to recognise its horrors and absolving themselves with state propaganda.

Helga’s diary entries suggest that her mother is already distancing herself from her children, perhaps preparing herself for the inevitable. Ziervogel dedicates one chapter to Magda’s vision of what might happen should she and her children live under “enemy” occupation. Helga would have to prostitute herself while Magda would have to watch helplessly, terminally afflicted by her migraines. It is too hard for Magda to contemplate this possibility and so she chooses the only alternative left open to her. Even in that, she is deluded; seeing her act of prolicide as heroic rather than cold-blooded murder.

A shorter version was published in Tablet