Monday, February 23, 2015

Vanished in Berlin by Gry Finses

As a huge fan of anything WWII, I am pleased to welcome Gry Finsnes, the author of Vanished in Berlin. A Norwegian by birth, Gry has lived in Sweden, India, England, Germany and France. After university studies in Oslo in French and English literature, she started her career as a teacher, but had to give it up as she moved out of the country. She has published two thrillers in Swedish but has recently written in English. Vanished in Berlin explores the conflict of ethnic and political loyalties. If you love two countries and they go to war with each other, which one do you choose to fight for?

On racial purity
MJN: Germans viewed Norwegians as equals in the sense of racial supremacy.  They'd never allow themselves to treat Norwegians the same way they treated, say, Russians or Poles.

GJ: That is true. There were Russian prisoners of war in Norway during the war and they were treated almost as slaves by the Germans. Many died. The Norwegians were considered as a "pure" race and marriages between Norwegians and Germans were encouraged.

Beyond Romeo & Juliet
MJN: What gives your novel universal appeal is the timeless subject of conflict of loyalties. The tale of Romeo & Juliet is just one example of that conflict. In sci-fi you deal with hybrid creatures, half-human half-whatever (fill in the blank: vampire, werewolf) who are torn by the same identity conflict.

GJ: In literature a conflict of loyalty has always been a big theme. During the war, however, these conflicts were a horrible reality for many people and had gruesome consequences. Germany was the country where many Scandinavians were sent for their education, just like Ellen and Friedrich, the main characters in my novel Vanished in Berlin. Germany was also an important trade partner, and the politicians in Norway had close contacts with Germany before Hitler attacked. Many Norwegians spoke fluent German and had traveled around in Germany which had a lot to offer at that time. They liked the wine, culture, education and music and not everyone was convinced that it was such a bad idea to unite the two countries in the way that Hitler wanted. The existence of labor camps must have been known, but the mass murder of people who were not wanted was a secret at the beginning of the war. Slowly people began to understand what the Nazis stood for and many changed sides. Those who didn't were severely punished after the war.

Lovers on the run
MJN: Another timeless theme that is sure to appeal to a rather broad readership is the concept of lovers on the run. What girl doesn't fantasize about that? What are some of the novels/films exploring similar themes that may have influenced your writing?

GJ: I cannot really answer that question. I have seen so many films and read so many books that I don't know which ones have influenced me in any particular direction. It was convenient to let the lovers run for two reasons: firstly because it makes the story more exciting and secondly I get to describe several scenes of the invasion in a short time. I could e.g let them be close to Midtskogen where the famous fight took place which stopped the pursuers from catching the fleeing King HÃ¥kon.

The balance between romance and history
MJN: Your novel is labeled as a historical romance.  Which component prevails? Would you say it's a romance with a historical setting, or a historical with a touch of romance?

GJ: The romance is important with its conflicting loyalties as the underlying theme. So is the description of the invasion with a number of details which I have heard from relatives, read in diaries and been told by surviving war veterans. But if I have to choose, the romance has to be less important than the background. This is an important part of Norwegian history and we were not told a lot about these years by our parents. The school history books stopped in 1940. A lid was put on the war and the occupation for a long time, probably to protect the growing generation from the sins of their parents. There were many Nazi sympathizers in Norway. Just now the old archives are being opened and people can write in to ask about their families. 

A Nazi with a heart of gold
MJN: Lately it's been fashionable to feature sensitive, tormented, conflicted Nazi soldiers in films and books.  It's interesting to see this pseudo-apologetic trend.  And it's true that in those ranks there were many decent human beings who were forced to act against their sense of decency. The emphasis is on condemning the movement but not the individual participants, on separating love of Germany from the love of Hitler.

GJ: That is exactly what I have tried to do. I lived ten years in Germany, between 1995 and 2005, and made many friends there. Of course we all know that people are basically the same everywhere, but it was still an eye-opener to discover that my German friends had the same moral values as myself, that they hated the war as much as I did. My tennis friend always said: That Stupid War! when she spoke about it. They took me to the Jewish cemetery and showed me how pretty it was. They told me what a terrible time the war had been for their families, how much they had lost. Hitler was not Germany, it is important to remember that.

When the girl becomes the protector
MJN: Let's talk a bit about gender roles and how values have changed, and how your book would've been received 50 years ago.  Pacifism and evasion of military service was frowned upon.  Friedrich not only refuses to pick sides and fight, he also accepts his girlfriend's assistance in concealing his true identity in pretending to be Dutch.  It's easy to understand why a sensitive artistic man would want to avoid participating in the war.  Still, I imagine some readers would call him a "wimp", even today, for relying on his girlfriend for safety.  Can you talk a little bit about how the expectations have changed?

GJ: Actually there were Germans hiding in Norway from their own kind. Willy Brandt was one of them. He later became Chancellor of Germany and the time his Norwegian wife had hidden him in Norway spoke in his favor. He had not been a Nazi, that was certain. Friedrich may seem like a wimp in the beginning, but he later reacts against his situation and tells Ellen that he is tired of being her marionette, doing what she tells him to. The gender roles have changed a lot since then, there is no question about that. Ellen becomes the protector instead of being protected by her man in the traditional way. But this is not an everyday situation, they have no choice. Since Viking times there have been women left alone who had to take care of their families. I think this would have been understood 50 years ago as well.


  1. As the generations that lived through the WWII years leave the scene, it is essential that authors like Gry Finsnes write about that era. I refer particularly to the Nazis' role in the Holocaust, a very real and tragic chapter that certain reactivists posing as historians try so hard to dispute.

  2. Thank you, Sal. There are so many aspects to the war that were not illuminated properly.