The English Air by D.E. Stevenson (1940)

The English Air by D.E. Stevenson was published in 1940, and like other authors who wrote during the early years of WWII when the outcome was so uncertain, (e.g. Nevil Shute and Helen Macinnes) it provides a unique perspective. Letters between the author and her publisher included in the Furrowed Middlebrow edition of the book emphasises the unpredictability of the times.

‘It was the spring of 1938 and the tennis season had just begun.’

The Braithwaites were expecting a distant cousin from Germany to visit them. Franz von Heiden was in his early twenties and his Nazi father wanted him to ‘put his finger on the pulse’ of the English people and find out their attitudes to Germany. Franz’s father, Otto, had married Elsie, an English girl who was Sophie Braithwaite’s cousin. She had moved to Germany with her husband and lived there during the First World War. Their marriage was a huge mistake; the war was a miserable time for her and she basically willed herself to die. Franz was six years old at the time. 

Sophie’s daughter Wynne was eighteen, and when she met Franz at the station she found him rigid and formal.

‘She was a little disappointed in her new cousin, though she scarcely knew why. Perhaps she had hoped for too much. Wynne was used to a good deal of attention from the males of her acquaintance and although Franz was polite and pleasant, he had treated her as if she were fifty years old and had a hare lip…’

Franz had trouble understanding English humour and was shocked at the way the English openly criticised their government. He expected to be involved in arguments about World Affairs where he would expound the Nazi doctrines he had imbibed all his life, but Wynne and her friends seemed to have no interest in such things. His father had told him to write and inform him of his progress, but he had nothing to tell.

The Braithwaites were friendly and kind, and over time Franz saw beyond his initial character assessments of the family and their close friends. He was confused by the behaviour of the English people he met; on the surface they seemed indolent and indifferent. He discovered that the young man whom he thought was lazy was actually a soldier on sick leave who had been awarded the Military Cross. Franz was shocked and thought that if a German youth had accomplished anything so spectacular that he would bask in the resulting fuss. Gradually Franz’s defences crumbled to the point that when his father angrily recalled him back to Germany, he decided instead to find work in London.   

‘The world was not quite so secure and comfortable as it used to be. There were all sorts of strange things going on during that summer of 1939: Gas Courses, where they told you about the ghastly effects of phosgene and mustard gas and lewisite, and First Aid courses where they showed you how to bind up broken limbs.’

It was interesting to read about the general reaction to Neville Chamberlain’s attempt at appeasement. No one wanted war and people were elated at his apparent success – Franz included. When Hitler broke his word and marched into Prague in 1939, Franz was devastated and realised he could no longer stay in England. After he had been away a whole year, he returned to Germany.

After Franz’s mother died Tant’ Anna had stepped into her place and brought him up. Arriving back in Germany, he went home and found her there on her own. His father was in Prague and the house was dark and silent; the old servant who had been with the Heiden family so long had gone home to her own people. His aunt was undernourished from living on the ersatz food of the Nazi regime but it was a crime to complain about the food.

“It is worse since you left, it us much worse,” Tant’ Anna whispered, her mouth close to his ear, for even here in this empty apartment she was afraid of being overheard. “There is no safety anywhere…in the shops one dare not complain that the meat is not good or the butter rancid.”

Franz visited Herr Oetzen, a neighbour who had been kind to him when he was growing up. This man, a ‘good Nazi,’ had been sent to Buchenwald for three weeks after a package of food and a warm coat for his wife was confiscated. It was a gift from an English professor who had stayed with them – the Nazi’s believed he must have complained to a foreigner about inadequate food and clothing in Germany.

“Our nation is being kept in a state of fear. It is drilled into uniformity. If this goes on much longer it will destroy Germany’s soul. A man needs a little piece of personal life . . . some happiness and security . . . without this he becomes an animal, a beast of burden, driven here and there at his master’s whim . . . and the masters, Franz!” added Herr Oetzen, “The masters, what are they? Small men scrambling for power and preferment and caring little who is trampled underfoot.”

In Stevenson’s book Spring Magic, her main character was staying in a hotel in the Scottish Highlands and found some Waverley novels to read while she was there. In this book, Dane, one of my favourite characters, also found a set of the Waverley novels in a little hotel ‘and renewed his acquaintance with them with a good deal of pleasure.’

The English Air is a lovely, lovely story with an interesting historical setting. It reminded me a little of a wonderful book I read aloud to my children, Enemy Brothers, (scroll down) which had a similar theme of Nazi ideology being seen for what it really was. 

Highly recommended!

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