Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug
For perspectives not often allowed. Could probably do this with later high school students who can be more balanced and open-minded in discussions
Nora Krug was born decades after the fall of the Nazi regime, but the Second World War cast a long shadow throughout her childhood and youth in the city of Karlsruhe, Germany. For Nora, the simple fact of her German citizenship bound her to the Holocaust and its unspeakable atrocities and left her without a sense of cultural belonging. Yet Nora knew little about her own family’s involvement in the war: though all four grandparents lived through the war, they never spoke of it.
In her late thirties, after twelve years in the US, Krug realizes that living abroad has only intensified her need to ask the questions she didn’t dare to as a child and young adult. Returning to Germany, she visits archives, conducts research, and interviews family members, uncovering in the process the stories of her maternal grandfather, a driving teacher in Karlsruhe during the war, and her father’s brother Franz-Karl, who died as a teenage SS soldier in Italy. Her quest, spanning continents and generations, pieces together her family’s troubling story and reflects on what it means to be a German of her generation.
This was truly an eye opener of a book. It tracks the author’s research into her family to try to determine how involved with the Nazis they were, if at all, during the genocide and war. She deals with a lot of guilt as a German, and especially with her ignorance or how deep that guilt should run. If her grandfather was a party leader, an officer, or just one of the crowd – what would be worse? How does she make reparations for it? She struggles so much with feeling like her family and her heritage make her live her life as an apology. German pride to her seems not just distasteful, but hateful.
My perspective comes from my childhood and life in the United States, but I can say for sure here that we hear lots and lots about World War 2 growing up. Rightfully so, too, as the Haulocaust is… unfathomable, truly. So many lives lost, and so much hatred and pain and resounding consequences across the world. BUT — a lot of those lives were also German lives, lives of citizens just trying to survive. And because they are German, the sense is that they are not allowed to be pitied or empathized with. The idea is that every single German knew what was happening, what would happen — and those who didn’t try to stop it deserved every moment of pain that came their way.
That’s pretty narrow, though. This story present so much of that conflict, of wanting to feel empathy, pride, heritage, while also trying to balance the knowledge of the wrongs that were done. In her own family perhaps, but also by her hometown, by her home country.
The emotions are high in this one, though I’m sure that’s no surprise.
A note on the physical presentation of this, that really enhanced the whole experience. Krug copies documents, photos, letters, and lots of other physical items that were found in extensive researching. They are scanned in on nearly every page, alongside original art of the timelines and stories told. Together they create a really striking and compelling journey. Seeing the handwriting of an eleven year old telling a parable story about Jews being poisonous mushrooms, swastikas doodled in the margins, and corrections by a Hitler Youth teacher… it’s just… it really hit me how children were led right into this.
So many others were too, but damn is it intense to see that and have all the family history alongside it. “Willi learned to drive. Willi married a woman with a milk business. Willi might have been present at an event in town were multiple Jews were drowned.” It’s incredibly dynamic and forces you to reckon with the whole person, instead of the caricatures of evil that are often assigned to Germans of the time.
I really can’t recommend this enough. The family connections and stories; the philosophical and moral struggles the author tries to work through; the art and physical artifacts from so many years; it all is really powerful and intense and starts a conversation I don’t think is often had.
7 thoughts on “Review: Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug”
Wow, this sounds incredibly intense…! I’ve never heard of it until now but it sounds like the kind of impactful read that’ll stay with you for a long time. Great review!
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Same! I found it while wandering around the nonfiction at the library. This one was on the newer releases shelf, so it probably hasn’t been around too long. It’s incredible though, and I definitely had a few other books during when I needed something lighter. I kept itching to go back to it, though.