What is it like to live as a child in under fascist dictatorship? As voters in the United States ponder their choices in November, with one candidate setting himself up as a strongman who alone can solve the country’s problems, historical fiction about life under other strongmen has suddenly become timely. Enter Amanda West Lewis’s second young adult historical novel, The Pact, the story of a German boy in Hitler’s Third Reich.
Ten years old in 1939, Peter Gruber had no part in Hitler’s election to leadership in 1933, or to his consolidation of power in subsequent years. He does feel responsible for the drowning death of his friend Eugene in one of Hamburg’s canals while the two were fooling around. Bullied by rival Hermann, Peter questions his strength and latches on to Nazi ideology to fill in what’s missing in his own life.
Shortly afterward, war breaks out. At first Peter celebrates the changed map – the old countries of Europe becoming part of Germany. Then bombs start falling on Hamburg, a major industrial center. When Peter is sent to the countryside, he loses his profitable black market trading business to Hermann. The following year, all the boys in their school have to leave and he worries about his mother, left alone in the burning city. As destruction and defeat come closer, Peter and most of his friends and classmates come to realize they had followed a madman and his ideas to complete annihilation.
Lewis’s novel is based on the real-life experience of Hans Sinn, who grew up in Hamburg, served in the Hitler Youth and trained for the army, and emigrated to Canada at the end of the war, where he has become an activist for peace. The Pact explores the war through the story of an intelligent, ambitious, and resourceful boy who in another time and place could have used his skills for better things. Peter is not a monster. Far from it, he tries to be a good friend and a good son. He learns to forgive Hermann, and both of them mature in the process. Even before the bitter end, he comes to realize the cost of following a despot who turned right into wrong and evil into a virtue. This novel, which deftly spans the six-year period of the war, shows how ordinary people, good people – including the people who never made that choice originally – come to follow a bizarre dictator and his perverse ideology.