We were delighted to welcome Alexander Starritt (History and Mod. Lang, 2004) for an in-conversation event with Sarah Wyles (née Ryle, Modern History, 1987) about his new book, We Germans.
Alex is a novelist, journalist and entrepreneur. His first novel, The Beast, a loving satire of Britain’s tabloid newspapers, was published in 2017. The Spectator named it as a book of the year, calling it “irresistible”, while The Sunday Times said: “He proves that he is not only a very funny writer, but possesses the ruthless unsentimentality of the finest satirists.”
His second novel, We Germans, was published in 2020 to great critical acclaim, Kirkus Reviews remarking it ‘a small masterpiece’. The novel is an intense exploration of the complexities of evil while fighting for the Germans on the Eastern Front – on the wrong side of history. Amongst that acclaim, the novel has won a prestigious literary prize, which can be seen here.
“Starritt’s daring work challenges us to lay bare our histories, to seek answers from the past and to be open to perspectives starkly different from our own,”
The NEw york times
Alex has also translated works by Franz Kafka, Stefan Weig, Arthur Schnitzler and others into English. In particular, he has made a selection and translation of Kafka’s best short stories, The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man.
We Germans was published in 2020 to critical acclaim and subsequently won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. The novel takes the form of a letter written in old age by a German grandfather to his grandson, a German grandfather who was a soldier on the Eastern front, a front on which the UK took no part, yet which looms large in German consciousness (over three quarters of the Wehrmacht fought on the Eastern Front and over three quarters of German casualties happened there).
Drawing on diaries and letters from the time, Starritt uses the voice of a grandfather looking back after most of a lifetime to show the horrific acts mankind visits on mankind, and to examine the tension between individual and collective responsibility provoked by those acts. Seen through the lens of the point in time when German soldiers knew the war was lost – and that it should be lost, a point when it had become unclear who the enemy was (the Red army? the Partisans? German troops themselves?), the novel explores the psychology in that moment.
Alexander’s though-provoking talk reminded us that none of us choose the times in which we live, and that none of us can know how we might have acted in a totalitarian society where choices have to made and a middle ground does not exist.
Alexander has also donated the prize money from the Dayton Peace Prize to support the establishment of a new Sanctuary Scholarship at Somerville, which you can read more about here.