'The story of a child created by the Nazis – an insanely clever idea for a book': the class book review
Author: Sarah Cohen-Scali
Publisher: Walker Books
One of the most common questions asked of me by students when learning about Nazi Germany is “Why did people support Hitler?” Covering the propaganda techniques of Goebbels is a good start, but that alone does not provide enough insight into the minds of those convinced by Nazism.
In this sense, Max is a much-needed and welcome addition to the library of literature set in Nazi Germany. It provides a valuable means of helping students to see the impact of Nazi ideas on the German people, especially the young, and helps them to confront the irrationalities inherent in those ideas. I will, without a doubt, be incorporating extracts from the novel into my schemes of work and recommending it to students studying Nazi Germany.
Max – or Konrad, as he is officially named by the Nazi state – is a true believer in Nazi ideology and articulates all the lessons he is taught with relish. He feels pride in being part of the “master race”, scorns those weaker than himself, and hates the enemies of the Führer with a burning passion.
The story progresses through his life, from the moment of his birth, through his education, and eventually into the horrific events surrounding the invasion of Berlin. Through it all we find out more about the Nazi way of life and treatment of the youth, including several incredibly detailed (and therefore incredibly uncomfortable) passages describing their militarisation and medical experimentation. There are some twists further in the story, though the focus is clearly on Max’s experience, and how his viewpoint changes over time.
Max provides an insight into the indoctrination carried out by the Nazi state. Students may find it disturbing the way extreme ideas are presented by the main character as entirely normal. It is therefore important for students to engage with the content in a critical way, and as a result is probably best read with a teacher on hand to clarify, correct, and support the reading process.
I would recommend Max to my own students, as well as to other teachers, as a well-written and thoroughly researched account of youth in Nazi Germany. It should serve as an excellent starting point to answering the question “Why did people support Hitler?” as well as, by the end, “Why did people lose faith in and turn away from the Nazis?”
Vartan Tamizian is a history teacher at Fortismere School in North London
Max, by Sarah Cohen-Scali, is not only a brutal, tragic story about life in Nazi Germany, but is also one of the only novels I've read that is set in this era and not told from the point of view of a Jew.
Max starts with the protagonist still in the womb. His personality is immediately established as he explains how he is desperate to be born on 20 April, just like Adolf Hitler – the Führer himself! Obviously, I was alarmed: how would I read the entire book without crying out in frustration at all the bigoted ideas the child possessed? How would I be able to continue reading when every little thing the narrator said made me want to rip my hair out?
And, yes, the protagonist’s views are obviously corrupted and extreme, but the author still manages to pull together a story with a brilliant plot and interesting (though, more often than not, extremely aggravating, too) characters. Max's character blossoms and develops throughout the book, and I applaud the author in the way his mind is portrayed. His understanding of the world is all statistics and numbers; he is confused by acts of love and expressions of affection. Just as you'd expect from a Nazi child.
The book is uncensored, and handles topics such as rape and death in a very matter-of-fact way. It shows how Max's childhood innocence never even existed – that every horrible thing he witnesses does not shock him, as he was never shielded from them in the beginning.
Max is, overall, an insanely clever idea for a book. When it comes to the narrative voice for a child created by Nazis, the author hits the nail on the head. Although I would admit the beginning is quite slow, once about a third in I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to readers who are looking for something fresh and new.
Tallulah Knowles, Year 9
'Devastating and groundbreaking'
Max, by Sarah Cohen-Scali, was possibly one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. It was a great insight into a topic that has had countless books written about it, and yet it still managed to be fresh and new and original.
From the perspective of a young child, Max, a prototype for Hitler’s “Lebensborn” project, it presents the Nazis' twisted view of the world. Max is initially often delighted by the things that Hitler did that we now view as barbaric and insane, at times making the book difficult to process, but also making it gripping and mesmerising.
It covers a lot of important controversial topics; for example, racial and sexual prejudice, mental-health issues and death, and is bold and confrontational. I think it’s an amazing book and I would definitely recommend it, but probably not to younger readers as it is disturbing and unsettling at times. Heart-wrenching, devastating and groundbreaking, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this book.
Edith Reavley, Year 9
'Difficult to read'
Max is a very thought-provoking book. It contains a lot of information about the Holocaust that people do not generally know, and so is very moving as we, the readers, know that these events actually took place.
Max is a heavy book, and can be difficult to read because it is hard to empathise with the protagonist; it is therefore tricky to connect to the book. I think it is a good book for people aged 13 and over, if they can cope with the content.
Miayla Marcus, Year 9
I found this book an excellent read and I was always eager to turn the page as the context is so unique!
I find that a novel about the "Lebensborn" programme is amazing and introduces to most people a whole part of the war and Hitler’s absurd actions that is not commonly encountered – this is especially what I loved about it!
The story is written in first-person child narrative, meaning that the reader could experience the story from when the first baby was born into the programme, and how he grew up. Although, this means the reader realises things that are shocking and situations that are completely terrible, which the child has not yet understood. Furthermore, it is disturbing for the reader to see how destroyed this boy’s mindset has become, from growing up with no parents or friends. This is shown especially when he gets a working companion and gets attached to her like she is a mum, and falls ill when she is gone.
Romy Monaghan, Year 9
I found this book very interesting and unique in the way that the story was told. Through the first-person narrative, the reader gains an intricate perspective of the shocking lives the Lebensborn prototype children led.
The main character, Max, the perfect specimen of the Aryan race, experiences events that show how the upbringings of these children led to their absolute mindless faith in the Nazi regime, but also bravery and resilience in coping with their lives.
Overall, I think this book, although sometimes disturbing, is a captivating, provocative read that I would recommend to others.
Georgia Aberdeen, Year 9
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