There are two very clear types of Historical Fiction, those that are merely set against a historical backdrop and the historical events are mere bit players recessed into the color commentary. The second type of book is a much different beast, take a historical event, place it in center stage and weave your tale around it using a combination of factual and fictional characters and events. This type of book is far harder to construct, extreme care to detail must be used, particularly if the historical event is well documented. History buffs will have your head if you get the slightest detail wrong!

An Obsolete Honor most certainly falls into the second category. The events of July, 20 1944 in Berlin are well documented. Known as the Valkyrie Plot and subject of a brand new movie staring Tom Cruise, this attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life has been the subject of many history books. Few stones have been left unturned. The facts are well known, yet the forces that drove the plot are much less well understood.

Helana Schrader has done a great job of accomplishing two things in this book. On one level she walks us through the development of the plot to kill Hitler by using her two main fictitious characters Baron Philip von Feldburg, initially an aide de camp to the very factual General Friedrich Olbricht, a very central figure to the Valkyrie plot, and her other main character is Alexandra von Mollwitz, Phillips future wife, and secretary to General Olbricht. Through these two characters and their family and friends a wide canvas is painted.

The author could have stopped at that point, and I am sure it would have made for an interesting story, instead though, she has opted to look at the assassination attempt in a wider context. Portraying Germany as a country that was becoming rapidly polarized as the war progressed. The early elation of victories in Poland and France, soon give way to frustration on the Russian front, and frustration at home as it becomes harder and harder to maintain any sort of normalcy. Goods are in ever increasing short supply, able bodied men are conscripted and sent to almost certain death under Hitler’s stand and fight doctrine, Germany is winning elsewhere, but rapidly losing at home.

The emergence of the SS as the Nazi’s homeland thugs, and the ‘resettlement’ of the Jews all weigh heavily on the professional soldiers and concerned citizens alike. Of course there were others who saw opportunities in this environment.

Helana Schrader explores both sides of the coin, greed versus grief, fortune versus famine, hope versus hell. One aspect that is touched upon, and is a sore subject still, is how did this entire situation unfold, why did the Germans support the maniacal Hitler? Simple, the terms of the Versailles Treaty following World War One opened the door. Through her use of factual events and fictional characters the reader is treated not only to a riveting novel but also a great history lesson into one of the most unfortunate and painful periods in the history of mankind. An enterprising teacher could certainly use this book as a core for teaching a fascinating course, literature, history and social studies all  rolled into one.

At 550 pages and small print An Obsolete Honor is hardly a quick, light read. It is however a hugely enjoyable and thought provoking book. It is clear that the author has a great understanding of this story, and the social environment of this area in the early and mid 1940’s. A quick Google of Helana Schrader reveals that she has a PhD in history, and has indeed spent a good deal of time in Germany, so you should not be surprised by the high quality of both the writing and the content. It is rare indeed that I can find only one minor typo in 550 pages of a book, and that mistake likely would be missed by 99% of readers, they use of the word ‘that’ when she meant ‘they’.

You can pick up your copy of this very excellent book from Amazon.

Simon Barrett

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