Friday, 16 January 2015

The Spring of Kasper Meier Blog Tour: Ben Fergusson Talks Research!

Berlin, 1946. Everything is in short supply. Including the truth. The war is over, but Berlin is a desolate sea of rubble. There is a shortage of everything: food, clothing, tobacco. The local population is scrabbling to get by. Kasper Meier is one of these Germans, and his solution is to trade on the black market to feed himself and his elderly father. He can find anything that people need, for the right price. Even other people. 
When a young woman, Eva, arrives at Kasper's door seeking the whereabouts of a British pilot, he feels a reluctant sympathy for her but won't interfere in military affairs. But Eva is prepared for this. Kasper has secrets, she knows them, and she'll use them to get what she wants. As the threats against him mount, Kasper is drawn into a world of intrigue he could never have anticipated. Why is Eva so insistent that he find the pilot? Who is the shadowy Frau Beckmann and what is her hold over Eva? 
Under constant surveillance, Kasper navigates the dangerous streets and secrets of a city still reeling from the horrors of war and defeat. As a net of deceit, lies and betrayal falls around him, Kasper begins to understand that the seemingly random killings of members of the occupying forces are connected to his own situation. He must work out who is behind Eva's demands, and why - while at the same time trying to save himself, his father and Eva.

The Spring of Kasper Meier is now published in paperback in the UK and it sounds like a great read for anyone interested in post-war. Many thanks to Ben for writing the below post for me - I hope you enjoy reading it. Also, don't forget to enter the Kasper Meier competition!


Researching in the Shadows 
by Ben Fergusson 
I had been fascinated from my very first visit to Berlin by the city’s war-damaged plaster facades and stone buildings filled with chips and holes from bullets, shrapnel and bursting bombs. In East Berlin there was no money to pay for the fancy concrete structures that shot up on bomb-sites in the West; instead the regular grids of nineteenth-century apartment blocks would often end abruptly, followed by gaping voids filled with a car park, a playground, sometimes just scrubland. 
The concurrent absence in the city – just as fascinating to me – was that of personal stories about this time, private experiences of the people who had been in Berlin when it was being bombed and then captured at the end of the war in Europe. Wandering the streets, I started to wonder what sort of people would have been waiting in these buildings – in the cellars perhaps – knowing that the Russians were coming. What did the Russians do when they got there? Kick down the doors? Arrest German citizens? Attack them? Or worse? 
So I started talking to friends about their grandparents. What had they done when the Russians came? What were their wars like? The answer was almost universally the same: a thoughtful frown, bottom lip stuck out, a shrug of the shoulders. No idea. Sometimes there was a vague sense that someone in the family was a pilot, was possibly in Poland, or was it Russia? There were certainly injuries – missing limbs and faculties – and barely hidden prejudices. But stories were few and far between. In Germany, where the war remains endlessly discussed and explored as a historical moment in all of its terrible moral complexity, personal war stories are simply not the stuff of polite conversation. 
This silence made me want to fill in the gaps and made this period instantly fascinating to me. Like many British people (and many Germans, for that matter) I knew about the Third Reich, the war and the Cold War, but I had no idea what came in between. Researching and then writing the book allowed me to fill in this gap in my historical memory and try to better understand the reality of modern Germany’s social foundations.   
I thought, despite this silence among families, that it would be easy to go to Dussmann, the giant book emporium on Friedrichstra├če, and gather together an armful of initial reading about the period. But my spoils were initially just two books: Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (an English book) and the journal A Woman in Berlin, by a then-anonymous German journalist. Both books proved invaluable, but I was astounded that I hadn’t found more. There were a lot of books on Hitler, many on Adenauer and his successors, but where were the books about normal people just trying to scratch together a life in the rubble? 
Further research in libraries, online and in second-hand bookshops brought me a few more gems: an amazing Arte documentary series of home videos from before, during and after the war; Robert Capa’s collected images of post-War Berlin; an excellent little yellow Reclam book called Literature of the Stunde Null (Die Stunde Null, meaning ‘the zero hour’, is the German term for the period directly after the war). Other finds would spark of fresh discoveries: Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, filled with incredible images of Berlin’s sea of rubble, led to the discovery of other German films in the same style, known there as Tr├╝mmerfilme (‘rubble films’). Most electrifying of all were objects from the period – either in the German Historical Museum or found at flea markets around the city – that began to add colour to the imagined world growing in my head: a postcard sent to a friend at Easter in 1946; a storm trooper’s jacket refashioned for a woman’s winter coat; the rubber of American truck tyres sewn onto the bottom of shoes. 
Now that the book has been published, I sadly have to suffer the frustration of the book sparking off memories and connections with friends, family and new readers – thousands of details that I would love to go back and try to cram into the book. Good research and good writing, though, means that you have to cast aside vastly more information than you ever ending up using. So perhaps it is a good thing that I can’t squeeze these last little facts into Kasper Meier’s Berlin. 

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