Book Review: The Edelweiss Pirates by Dirk Reinhardt

Dirk Reinhardt’s The Edelweiss Pirates is a thought-provoking fictional account of a real-life group of teenagers who rebelled against the authorities in Germany during the first half of the 1940s.

The book begins with an introduction by Michael Rosen that clearly sets out the historical background to the story and asks why the Edelweiss Pirates have not featured more prominently in popular histories of the Second World War.

Membership of the Hitler Youth (for boys) and the BDM (for girls) was compulsory for German teenagers between the mid-1930s and 40s. These groups enforced strict behaviour and limited the freedoms of their members. Some members began to rebel against these organisations and chose to spend their time with their friends, wearing whatever they wanted, growing their hair long and refusing to participate with the promotion of the Nazi regime. There is nothing new about teenage rebellion and the familiar trope of young adults working out their relationship to the establishment is central to many novels. But when that rebellion is against an authoritarian regime the stakes are dangerously high and many young Germans risked their lives in pursuit of their freedoms.

Split across two timeframes, part of The Edelweiss Pirates is narrated by a modern-day teenager whose seemingly chance meeting with an elderly stranger leads his new-found friend to entrust him with his own teenage diary from the 1940s. It is on the pages of this diary that most of the story takes place and we read the incredible and tragic story of a group of Edelweiss Pirates. What begins as an escape from bullying within the Hitler Youth turns into deliberate activism as the group of friends face increasingly severe threats and punishments from the police, the SS and the Gestapo.

Beautifully translated by Rachel Ward the teenage voice of our main diarist is full of all the emotions of growing up as well as the impact of devastating situation in which he finds himself. Author Dirk Reinhardt has created a character whose experiences of frustration, anger, terror, loss, happiness, love and hope all flow eloquently into his diary. This first-person perspective gives the reader an intimate insight into his actions and allows us to not only sympathise with him but to wonder if we would have done the same things in his position.

The Edelweiss Pirates gives a dramatic and moving view into the lives of some of the ‘ordinary’ people who lived under the rule of the Third Reich. Despite the brutalities to which the book’s characters are subjected, and the losses that they suffer, they refuse to conform and instead begin to actively fight against their oppressors. Their actions provide an important insight for a modern audience and this book is a great starting point for teenage readers who are studying the Second World War to think about the Nazi regime from within Germany.

As fascist politicians rise to powerful positions in many western countries today, the question of who will stand against them and how is just as important now as it was in the 1930s and 40s. This book is a great way to encourage readers to think about how such devastating power can take hold and how anyone, no matter how young, can take a stand against it.

Thank you to Pushkin Press for sending a review copy of The Edelweiss Pirates.

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