A short story. A bad dream. In a series of connecting nightmares Hannes, a young disabled boy, conceives the course his life might have taken back in the time of the Nazi Third Reich during the Second World War.
What would a disabled German boy have to fear from the Nazis? Well, he would have feared for his life. Hitler's dream was to create a master race of perfect human beings. There was no room in his plans for disabled, mentally ill or other undesirable members of society. All such people were designated 'lives not worth living' and eventually exterminated.
In Hannes' dreams, he drifts back to another life in the Third Reich when his own school recommends that he be referred to a 'home' because of his disabilities. Hannes knows exactly what the real reason is. He has done the arithmetic in class:
According to conservative estimates, there are 300,000 mentally ill patients, epileptics, cripples and so forth in institutional care in Germany.
a) What do these people cost annually, in all, given expenses of 4 Reichsmarks a day per person?
b) How many low-interest government loans of 1,000 Reichsmarks each could be made per year to young married couples with the same sum of money?
And he knows what happens to the people who are sent to a 'home' because he hears his mother asking the question:
'Mrs Keller, if you love your son Hannes then don't sign! No one knows exactly what goes on in those institutions, but there are some nasty rumours going around. Too many people die there. They've even built a crematorium in the institution at Grafeneck. Why would they do that, Mrs Keller, if they didn't know there were going to be deaths there?
Of course, the modern-day Hannes is deeply disturbed by the notion that he should have been considered a 'life not worth living'. He may be disabled, but life is as dear to him as it is to the next person. But in Hannes' terrible dreams about the past, what is also utterly shocking is the sense of betrayal. There are some good people in Hannes' other life who are prepared to stand up for him a little - for example, his own headmaster at school abstains from the vote to recommend him to a 'home' - but no-one will commit themselves wholeheartedly to his cause. They are too frightened.
And the shocked, dreaming Hannes has to confront the ultimate betrayal. Who will sign the 'consent' form to agree to send Hannes to the 'home'? His mother will not. But his father will:
'Interests of the individual have to come second to the interests of the nation as a whole' ...
It's a ghastly scene. We don't have to witness any more in the book because, mercifully, Hannes' dreams come to an end there. But, of course, this was reality for many disabled children who actually lived and died during the Third Reich. Hannes knows that. That is why his dreams make him so ill.
But there is more, because Hannes also has to think about present attitudes to disability. Are we still making judgments about whether Hannes' life is 'worth living'?:
When I think about it, I'm not so sure I could be born today. There's genetic testing now. They can test you for hereditary diseases, and if people who want to be parents have a defective gene they're advised against having children of their own. That way a person like me wouldn't exist. Genetic testing won't let anyone but perfect human beings through.
But then where will the others be?
Back then I'd probably have been killed.
These days I ought not to exist at all.
But since I do exist, I'm a living reproach. A living example of what won't have to happen in the future any more.
Perhaps the dreadful aims of the Third Reich are now being achieved by stealth, much more effectively than Hitler could ever have done. If you are interested in this discussion, I think you will find that this book expresses the ideas very clearly. No more than a short story, it takes no time at all to read but leaves you with plenty to consider afterwards.
What can I read next?
If you are thinking about the Holocaust, you might like to look at this book by Hans Peter Richter:
And Livia Bitton-Jackson has written an account of how she survived a term in the death camp Auschwitz:
If you are not particularly focusing on the Second World War, but like a thought-provoking read, you might like to look at one by David Almond:
Or a glimpse into an unpleasant future from Rachel Anderson:
Or possibly Adeline Yen Mah's excruciating autobiography:
Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:
- Dreaming in Black and White by Reinhardt Jung (Score: 100%)
- I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson (Score: 93%)
- Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter (Score: 96%)
- Tell Me No Lies by Malorie Blackman (Score: 89%)
- Junk by Melvin Burgess (Score: 89%)
Dreaming in Black and White features in these lists: