Tracey S Rosenberg’s debut novel is a thrilling and emotional re-imagining of the last days of the Third Reich, told through the eyes of Joseph Goebbels’s eldest daughter Helga. Combining first-person narrative with extracts from her endearingly optimistic diary, The Girl In The Bunker charts Helga’s journey from her position as Germany’s most famous teenager to her final moments surrounded by the ruins of a defeated nation.
The novel opens with the Goebbels family packing their belongings in preparation for joining ’Uncle’ Adolf in his bunker. The five girls, Helga and her sisters Hilde, Daisy, Kitten and Princess and their brother Helmut, believe that they are on their way to a celebration of the end of the war, and the triumph of the German Empire. The girls dream of drinking champagne and singing for the Fuhrer in their finest white dresses, with ribbons in their hair. Their father is cold and sarcastic, and their mother’s health is failing.
On arriving at their destination, they encounter only squalor and desperation. Soldiers are ripping the insignia from their uniforms and Hitler himself is morose and withdrawn. In spite of this, Helga continues to believe that victory is only a matter of time – and that they will soon be the most celebrated children in the Empire, feted for their loyalty to the Fuhrer. She is confused and upset that her beloved ‘uncle’ refuses to see the children, so desperate is she to prove her constancy.
As the book progresses, Helga becomes increasingly aware of the gulf between her dreams of a shining post-war future and the reality of an advancing and victorious Russian army. As the true course of the war begins to dawn on her, she hatches a plan to escape from the bunker, and the Russians, with her family. As she explores the darkening and claustrophobic passages, she encounters other witnesses to the downfall: Robert Ritter von Greim, Hanna Reitsch and Eva Braun.
That the fate of these children is known before the first page is turned makes this a harrowing journey – it’s been a long time since I read a novel with such an overwhelming feeling of dread. This atmosphere is intensified by Helga’s sister, Princess, who communicates only in increasingly doom-laden pronouncements. The other children have equally strongly drawn personalities – practical Hilde, playful Kitten, and Daisy, who wants to be a ballet dancer. Helmut wants to be a Werewolf, one of Hitler’s elite fighters.
Rosenberg’s prose is unfussy and describes perfectly the feeling of events overtaking the individual. Helga’s plan to escape is doomed to failure, like all childhood attempts to run away from home. The scene where the children pace around their living quarters, rehearsing their journey west through Berlin, is beautifully written but adds to the feeling of inertia that thwarts their efforts. As the novel reaches its final pages, Helga’s acceptance of her future, any future, is subtle and convincing.
As an evocation of the final days of the Third Reich, this is a fascinating and accessible read. Helga’s voice remains clear and pure throughout, and the innocence of the children remains undiminished. The Girl In The Bunker is a stunning novel, and I’d recommend it to anyone.