By the time she was 14 and finally settled with her family in their own house in Totnes, Devon, Katrin FitzHerbert – or Kay Norris, as she was then – had lived in nearly thirty different places and attended no fewer than fourteen schools. To have lived such an itinerant life by such a tender age would be extraordinary in itself but, to make her story even more unusual, the homes and schools were in two countries, Germany and England. And there was a further complication. The Germany where she spent the first years of her life, moving from place to place and school to school, was the Germany of the Third Reich, the Second World War and the Allied occupation. For Katrin FitzHerbert, the author of True to Both My Selves (1997), was born Katrin Olga Ethel Thiele in Berlin on 6 June 1936.
Her story, however, begins neither in Germany nor with Katrin, but in London, in the first years of the twentieth century, with her maternal grandparents. As her book’s subtitle A Family Memoir of Germany and England in Two World Wars indicates, Katrin is not the only person with whom the story is concerned or, indeed, the only person who tells it; through the letters and reminiscences of other family members she is able to widen the scope of her book and its narration beyond her own direct experience.
No figure contributes more to this than her grandmother Ethel, known throughout the book not as Grandma, but its German version, Oma. The counterpart for Grandpa is Opa and it is with the 1905 marriage of the expatriate Richard Druhm to the London-born Ethel Norris that this tangled Anglo-German family saga begins.
We British are accustomed in the history of Anglo-German relations to take the moral high ground, but the circumstances in which Katrin’s Oma and Opa find themselves in 1919, with an 8-year-old English daughter in tow, being deported as enemy aliens and forced to start a new life in Germany, are part of an ugly, and still not widely known, xenophobic episode in British history. Suffice to say that during the First World War the law-abiding, inoffensive, 50,000-strong German minority in London were so ill-treated by both the British government and the British public that Grandma Ethel had few regrets in deciding to follow her cruelly expelled husband back to his German homeland. Settling in the small town of Köpenick on the outskirts of Berlin, and – in stark contrast to the way they had been made to feel in London – given a warm reception by the locals, Richard and Ethel set about laying the foundations of a new family existence in Germany, as Germans, that would last just short of thirty years.
This was how the author of True to Both My Selves came to be born in Germany and how the first of her two selves, the German one, came into being. Her mother Elfreda – so named, back in London in 1910, to allow for both English (Freda) and German (Elfi) variants – adapted readily to her new homeland. Despite knowing no German before arriving in the country, she made a success of her schooling and quickly found work in the publicity section of one of Berlin’s leading department stores.
By 1931, at the age of 21, she had also fallen in love and married a German man, a step which meant finally changing her nationality and becoming German. Two years later the couple’s first child, Udo, was born, followed three years later by Katrin. It was now 1936, and Adolf Hitler had been in power for three years. Katrin was born into a fully fledged National Socialist state, the character, atmosphere and ethos of which would impress themselves indelibly on the malleable personality of the little girl.
In all the voluminous literature about the Third Reich, it’s rare to come across personal accounts that tell, as it were, the other side of the story. In some respects, of course, there is no other side to tell. But it is easy to close our eyes to the fact that, despite its ruthless rejection of democracy and individual freedom, National Socialism generated its own form of idealism, one which, by embracing traditional values dear to the German heart, appealed to large swathes of the population, not least the young. With extraordinary candour, the adult author retraces the experiences and emotions of her 5- and 6-year-old self as she becomes an ardent member of the Nazi equivalent of the Brownies and enthusiastically embraces activities such as writing a letter to Hitler on his birthday and trooping off to a hayfield with hundreds of other children to help form a giant human swastika which, their teachers assured them, would delight the Führer on his flight-path east.
Key to the 6-year-old Katrin’s growing attachment to the National Socialist creed is the fact that she loves her Papa, and her Papa is not just a committed Nazi but is employed by the Party as an official in the Hitler Youth. To ‘Papa’s little girl’, as the author often refers to her former self, her father embodies all the noble virtues of the movement: the sense of duty, loyalty, obedience, of sacrifice of self to a greater cause. As a result, the story of how the maturing Katrin grapples with the Nazi-inspired beliefs of her past self – the real heart of her book – is closely interwoven with her painful attempts to free herself from her idolization of her father.
True to Both My Selves thus becomes, in its way, a model example of a process known to Germans from the late 1950s as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, best rendered in English as ‘coming to terms with the past’. In German, this can apply both to individuals coming to terms, in a psychotherapeutic sense, with troubling events in their past and, more commonly, to postwar German society confronting the events, and specifically the crimes, of its Nazi predecessor. In doing the first, Katrin FitzHerbert’s memoir cannot avoid – and does not seek to avoid – doing the second. It is this which drew praise from readers such as James Callaghan and Mary Wesley when the book was first published twenty-five years ago, the former prime minister admiring its ‘honesty and integrity’, Mary Wesley describing it simply as ‘a very brave book, it should be read by all generations’ – judgements with which new readers of True to Both My Selves will, I’m certain, find themselves in agreement.
The first of the author’s two selves is that of the girl raised in Germany’s Third Reich; the second is that of her English successor, Kay Norris, brought to England in 1946 by her mother, and expected, implicitly if not explicitly, to forget entirely about the first. Before the family reaches English shores, however, the reader is taken, courtesy of Oma and Opa, on a gripping journey through the ruins and chaos of the collapsing Third Reich, through the frightening early stages of the Soviet occupation and then into the more easy-going order of the British-controlled region of western Germany. It is here that the family begin their metamorphosis back into their English selves and Katrin finds herself faced with an impossible dilemma: the ‘straightforward choice’, as she puts it, ‘between England and Papa’. Ultimately she chooses England, her eye-opening experience of the 1950 General Election campaign having kindled a fascination with politics which makes her want to study the subject at university. Papa emigrates to Canada with his new wife, and Katrin, burying her memories of him and her German past, embarks on her own adult life.
But the past, as William Faulkner observed, is ‘never dead. It’s not even past’, a truth Katrin discovers for herself when, well into her fifties, she sets out to explore the history of her family and her ‘two selves’. It is only when she clears up the mystery of her father’s actions in the final days of the Second World War, and confronts the terrible record of the regime she was brought up to idolize, that she reaches some kind of accommodation, uneasy though it may be, with the two elements of her being. It is a fitting and moving conclusion to the voyage of moral discovery which is the ultimate significance of this courageous and skilfully constructed book.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 77 © Anthony Wells 2023
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 62: True to Both My Selves
About the contributor
For many years Nazi Germany, its history and ideology were at the centre of Anthony Well’s working life, when he was a librarian at the Wiener Library in London (now the Wiener Holocaust Library). Though he had left before Katrin FitzHerbert visited, he was not surprised to find that she had made use of the Library’s resources during her research for True to Both My Selves. You can also hear him in Episode 27 of our podcast, discussing Dr Wiener’s Library