The Gathering Storm: Book 1 in the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, a powerful and compelling story of two families torn apart by evil.
‘Kiel, Northern Germany, 1933. A naval city, the base for the German Baltic fleet, and the centre for German sailing, the venue for the upcoming Olympic regatta in 1936.
The Kästners, a prominent Military family, are part of the fabric of the city, and its social, naval and yachting circles. The Nussbaums are the second generation of their family to be in service with the Kästners as domestic staff, but the two households have a closer bond than most.
As Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party claw their way to power in 1933, life has never looked better for families like the Kästners. There is only one problem. The Nussbaums are Jews.
The Sturmtaucher Trilogy documents the devastating effect on both families of the Nazis’ hateful ideology and the insidious erosion of the rights of Germany’s Jews.
When Germany descends ever deeper into dictatorship, General Erich Kästner tries desperately to protect his employees, and to spirit them to safety.
As the country tears itself apart, the darkness which envelops a nation threatens not only to destroy two families, but to plunge an entire continent into war.’
Firstly I need to say that I was worried about the effect reading this book would have on me, as I knew it would be personal. My mother was Jewish, born in Bucharest and from the age of 12 living in Vienna. Her family knew about the prejudice and discrimination towards Jews, but were able to get out in 1938, the only incident of note being tear-gassed in an opera house in Vienna. Once in London they were evacuated to Cheltenham, where they remained throughout the war and beyond.
I was not prepared however, for Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the massacre of the Jews, the establishment of ghettos and the carving up of the country with parts of it going to Russia. My father was a Polish Catholic, so while not affected by the treatment of the Jews, he joined the army at 16 and was captured by the Soviets and sent to freeze in a prisoner-of-war camp in Northern Russia.
But enough about me. This book is staggeringly brilliant, the work, the research, the emotions it invokes and the horror. There were times when I gasped at what was perpetrated against not just the Jews, but also the Roma, disabled people, homosexuals and anyone who did not make up the perfect Aryan race. This included the rape and murder of young Jewish girls by drunken SS soldiers (one incident of which will stay in my head for a long time to come) and the burning of the synagogue in Warsaw, killing 200 Jews praying inside. I knew these things happened but it is described here in such terrifying detail, yet without embellishment or glorification. It doesn’t require any. It’s not Hollywood. It’s horror in its own right, a perfect example man’s inhumanity to man.
The story itself is told from the point of view of two families who live in Kiel. General Erich Kästner and his wife Maria and their four children Franz, Johann, Eva and Antje, and the Nussbaums, who are Jews and have worked for the Kästners for many years. Yosef, Erich’s driver, his wife Miriam and their two children, Ruth and Manny, are great friends with their employers. Ruth and Antje in particular, are the best of pals.
But as Hitler and his cohorts – Himmler, Goebbels, Heydrich, Goering and Hess, amongst others, develop their plans to remove all non-Aryans from Germany, while invading and annexing Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland and Poland, life for the Jews becomes harder and harder as they lose their rights, their jobs, their homes and their savings. It is not so bad for the Nussbaums, living with the Kästners, but how long can it last? As their friends escape to Palestine or attempt to go to America or the UK, the Nussbaums prefer to stay put for the moment.
Apart from the main historical figures as mentioned above (whose involvement in the book is factual and forms the background of the fictional story), the only one who is real is Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. We learn a lot about Hitler’s plans and the time-line starting in 1933, through his dated memos to Erich Kästner, as well as newspaper reports in the Kiel Morgenpost. This is a very clever plot device as it seamlessly weaves the facts into the fiction.
You can read about Canaris here: “Wilhelm Franz Canaris was a German admiral and chief of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, from 1935 to 1944. He was initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler but by 1939 had turned against the regime.” Source: Wikipedia
But of everything I read in this wonderful book, I probably found this passage amongst the most upsetting:
28/09/1939 Memo from Wilhelm Canaris to Erich Kästner – “The Fuhrer has signed an authorisation…. that exonerates the Reich’s physicians from prosecution in relation to euthanasia of German citizens living in institutions with mental and physical disabilities whom the physicians deem incurable and thus unworthy of life.”
Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours.
About the Author
Alan Jones is a Scottish author with three gritty crime stories to his name, the first two set in Glasgow, the third one based in London. He has now switched genres, and his WW2 trilogy will be published in August 2021. It is a Holocaust story set in Northern Germany.
He is married with four grown up children and four wonderful grandchildren.
He has recently retired as a mixed-practice vet in a small Scottish coastal town in Ayrshire and is one of the RNLI volunteer coxswains on the local lifeboat. He makes furniture in his spare time, and maintains and sails a 45-year-old yacht in the Irish Sea and on the beautiful west coast of Scotland. He loves reading, watching films and cooking. He still plays football despite being just the wrong side of sixty.
His crime novels are not for the faint-hearted, with some strong language, violence, and various degrees of sexual content. The first two books also contain a fair smattering of Glasgow slang.
He is one of the few self-published authors to be given a panel at Bloody Scotland and has done two pop-up book launches at the festival in Stirling.
He has spent the last five years researching and writing The Sturmtaucher Trilogy.
Q & A
What made you switch genres from gritty crime thrillers to a WW2 trilogy?
A story, or the kernel of one, wormed its way into my mind just as I was finishing my last book, ‘Bloq‘. I should probably have written a few more crime novels on the back of the relative success that Bloq had, but I couldn’t get the story or the characters out of my mind. I’d read a fair bit of historical fiction over the years, but I re-read a few of them, and picked up one of the most successful historical fiction books of all time, The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet, just to get a perspective on the amount of history, and detail, and how many characters went into a book like that. It confirmed what I’d thought – the detail was astounding but it had to be seen through the characters’ eyes, and the characters had to have enough depth and be real enough for the reader to care.
What inspired you to write about the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany? Were you inspired by other writers or films you have seen or by real events?
I’ve been fascinated and horrified by the Holocaust since reading Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank at around ten or eleven years of age. I’ve read widely about it since, both novels and non-fiction, and watched countless films and documentaries about that most terrible time in history, thinking that I knew enough about it, without knowing every detail. I was wrong.
How much research did you have to do?
I did about a year’s research initially, which included a trip to Germany, and to Denmark, just to see the locations I’d chosen for the books for myself. During this time I was also setting out an outline for what was to one book. As I got deeper into my research, I realised that there was so much more to the Holocaust than I’d thought possible, and as I added events that my characters would have lived through, it quickly became evident that one book wouldn’t be enough. Even during the writing process, I found that a great deal of what I call micro-research was needed for each paragraph, and sometimes each sentence or even each word, and I found myself spending half a day looking for evidence or corroboration to back up some fact or other that I wanted to put into the books.
How many of the characters are fictional and how many are actual historical figures?
All the main characters, except for Wilhelm Canaris, are fictional. Most of the political leaders, the NSDAP Hierarchy and senior military figures are real. In between, there is a mish-mash of real characters, fictional ones, and some who are fictional but loosely based on real people. I included a few notable Kiel citizens who made the newspapers of the day – Dr. Friedrich Schumm, Wilhelm Spiegel and Otto Eggerstedt, as they fitted in with the story and with my fictional characters, and I felt that their stories deserved to be told; they were truly brave men. The Gestapo chief towards the end of the war, and a few other senior Gestapo figures were also real, and again they fitted the storyline to perfection.
How important is setting in your books?
Massively so. When the inspiration about the book first came to me, sailing played an important part in the story. When I researched Germany for popular sailing venues, there were some inland lakes that might have been suitable, but when I found out that Kiel was not only the centre for German sailing and the venue of the infamous 1936 Olympic games, but that it was also the most important German Naval base, I knew I’d found the location for my book. The first book largely takes place in and around Kiel, with small cameos in Hamburg, Hanover and Berlin. Once the war begins in 1939, the book follows the path of the German invasion of Poland. There are a number of locations elsewhere in the second and third books, but don’t want to give away any spoilers…
What is your typical day as a writer? Has Covid had an impact on this?
While I was working, I would spend on average five hours a day researching, writing or editing, getting up around 5 – 6 am, getting in a few hours before work, then cramming in an hour or two later in the day. Extra hours at the weekend would make up for any shortfall during the week. I retired from being a vet in December last year which has allowed me to work 10-12 hours a day on the books, mainly editing, but also doing the cover and the trailer video, plus all the promotion and marketing stuff that goes with self-publishing.
Do you listen to music while you write? Or do you prefer total silence?
I usually write in silence – this is a change for me, as I always used to have background music on. I don’t know why it changed.
What sort of books did you read as a child and what is your favourite book ever (as an adult or child)?
I was brought up in a very religious household, and we had no television set, so I filled my time with reading. I read everything as a child from Asterix to Enid Blyton, from Roald Dahl to Robert Louis Stevenson. My favourite kids book was Stig of the Dump, I think, but I moved on to adult books such as Alistair Mclean, Nevile Shute, Nicholas Monsorrat and Hammond Innes at quite an early age. As an adult, I find it impossible to choose a favourite, to be honest, as I read quite a wide range of genres. It would be between Mila 18 by Leon Uris, Shogun by James Clavell, and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being a vet, and a father and a grandfather are all up there, and I became an RNLI coxswain on our local lifeboat a few years ago – I joined fairly late in my life, and that is also in close contention, but I think writing and publishing the Sturmtaucher trilogy will trump everything as my greatest achievement.