Seminar Paper by Christian Grimm on Chocolate Cake with Hitler


Earlier this year I was delighted to visit Erlangen-Nurnberg University to talk to students about Chocolate Cake with Hitler.  One of the students, Christian Grimm, very kindly sent me a copy of his seminar paper which is published below in full, with his permission.

In the past, as a student myself, I wrote many essays about novels and wondered what the authors (who were usually, in fact, dead) might think of them.  I imagined they would be appalled.  This is the first time I’ve read an academic analysis of Chocolate Cake with Hitler and I started reading with some trepidation – but I quickly realised that here was a really interesting and convincing theory.  Of course what I was primarily concerned about, in writing the book, was the effect of upbringing and the relationships between parents and children (a theme I return to in HUSH due out next year), – but I wasn’t as clearly conscious of that as Christian Grimm is.  

So – feeling very honoured to have my work subjected to such thoughtful attention, I present:

Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik Wintersemester 2013/14 Dr. Patrick Müller PS Exorcising Evil: Hitler in Contemporary British Fiction
Parental Influence on Children’s Identity Formation in Emma Craigie’s Chocolate Cake with Hitler
Christian Grimm, 15.03.2014
1. Introduction and Thesis (p. 3)
2. The Process of Identity Formation of Magda, Helmut, and Helga Goebbels (p. 4)
2.1. Magda Goebbels (p. 4)
2.1.1. Early Childhood and the Brussels Years (p. 4)
2.1.2. Attraction to Extraordinary Men and Opportunism (p. 5)
2.2. Helmut Goebbels (p. 6)
2.2.1. A Sensitive Child Faced with Fatherly Expectations (p. 6)
2.2.2. The ‘Tripping Incident’ and Its Consequences (p. 7)
2.3. Helga Goebbels (p. 8)
2.3.1. Portrayal as an Imaginative, Open-Minded Child (p. 8)
2.3.2. Parental Conditioning, Rejection, and Indoctrination (p. 9)
2.3.3. Longing for Love and Care (p. 11)
2.3.4. The Bunker Days: Surrounded by a Web of Lies (p. 12)
3. Conclusion (p.14)
1. Introduction and Thesis
The last days of Adolf Hitler and his confidants in the leader’s bunker near the end of the Battle of Berlin have been the subject of not only many academic publications but also numerous movies and novels. While the six Goebbels children and their tragic fate have thus become fairly well-known, they usually remained minor characters within stories centred on adults. In Chocolate Cake with Hitler, Emma Craigie breaks with this convention by focusing on the thoughts and inner life of Helga Goebbels, the eldest of the six, who tells the story of the last few days in the bunker as well as the story of her early childhood experiences via flashbacks starting in 1936. This enables the reader to gain a fictional insight into the mind of a child suffering from the circumstances of its time.
However, it is not so much the direct effects of the war Helga and her siblings suffer from, but rather their parents’ frequently uncaring attitude, their overly demanding educational style, and their constant dishonesty, all of which arguably interconnect with the then-ruling National Socialist zeitgeist. The novel explains the impact this behaviour has on the children, how it influences them on a personal level, and to which extent it adds to the shaping of their personality and identity.
The goal of this paper shall therefore be to elaborate on the thesis that the tragic story of the Goebbels children merely functions as the framework for a narrative which fundamentally criticizes an educational style dominated by discipline, indoctrination, and the lack of parental love and sympathy by stressing the negative consequences of such education on children’s identity formation.
Of the various characters mentioned in the novel, the most appropriate ones to be examined in this context are probably Magda, Helmut, and Helga Goebbels. These are the people the reader gets to know most about, particularly with regard to their childhood and upbringing.
2. The Process of Identity Formation of Magda, Helmut, and Helga Goebbels
2.1. Magda Goebbels
2.1.1. Early Childhood and the Brussels Years
Magda Goebbels’ childhood is principally conveyed to the reader through the memories of Granny B., as Helga calls Magda’s mother Auguste Behrend. She explains to Helga that, after having been “very, very happy”1 during the first four years of Magda’s life, she was forced to give her daughter away to Oskar Ritschel, Magda’s father, because of financial reasons. It might seem debatable whether Magda was fully aware of the big change that was going to happen in her life considering that, firstly, she was only five years old at the time and, secondly, Granny B. provides Helga with no details of whether Magda reacted emotionally in the course of being sent away to Brussels. However, the fact that Helga is able to recall events from when she was three years old such as the photo shoot with Hitler in 1936 serves as an indication for the novel’s claim that children at such a young age are already able to experience memorable incidents to a large degree. It is therefore plausible to assume that having to leave her mother and her familiar surroundings left its mark on Magda and meant a first drastic change in life to her.
When mother and daughter met again for the first time after two years, Magda had transformed into an intimidated and insecure person and was barely able to remember her mother tongue. Granny B. describes her as having been “so starved of love […] that she’d forgotten how to hug and be hugged”2, which can be attributed to the strict standards of the catholic convent she had been visiting as well as lacking affection of her father. She apparently found consolation in the person of Grandpa Friedlander, her mother’s new, Jewish, husband, whose surname she eventually took as her own. According to Granny B., Grandpa Friedlander was “more of a father to her than her real father”3, and it was because of him that Magda and her mother were able to spend some peaceful and happy years in Brussels as a family.
It is important to note that the development of Magda’s character during the Brussels years offers the reader an example of a child which had once been traumatised but found its way back to temporary happiness through the help of a loving and caring
1 Emma Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler (Craydon: Short Books, 2010), p. 68.
2 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 72.
3 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 75.
family. This example presumably serves to illustrate that a better life for the six Goebbels children would have been possible, had their parents been more supportive and caring.
2.1.2. Attraction to Extraordinary Men and Opportunism
Since Magda’s childhood was largely dominated by change with regard to family, home, country, language, and surname, it must have been hard for her to find out where she belongs, who she is and what she is supposed to believe in. This might be a reason why, after the family’s flight from Belgium, Magda became increasingly fascinated by men who she could look up to and who she expected to offer her consistency, prestige, and finally identity. Her first boyfriend Victor, for example, is described as being very intelligent, a potentially important figure in the considered Jewish national state, and a “natural leader”4. Gunther Quandt, Magda’s first husband, was a very prosperous businessman who was able to offer Magda financial security. Josef Goebbels, finally, was already an important figure within the then-promising National Socialist movement when Magda got to know him.
What is interesting here is that Magda tended to deny many of her past ideals for the purpose of making her relationships last. In order to marry the anti-Semitic Gunther Quandt, for example, she gave up her Jewish surname Friedlander before the wedding and did no longer care that she considered emigrating to Palestine only a few years earlier. It should be noted that the novel does not give any clear information as to which extent the end of the relationship with Victor can be held accountable for Magda’s later decisions concerning the choice of future husbands, but the fact that both of them were anti-Semites stands out nonetheless.
However, Magda apparently chose to become an opportunist and to adopt the ideals of her current partner as long as she profited from the relationship financially or socially; a behaviour which might be attributed to a void caused by the deprivation and insecurity she suffered during her early childhood and once again after the flight from Belgium. Magda’s development as well as her longing for identity during her years as an adolescent and a young adult are therefore portrayed as direct consequences of the events which took place during her early childhood and can thus at least partly be seen
4 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 101.
as the novel’s criticism of insufficient parental affection and lacking sympathy for the needs of a child.
2.2. Helmut Goebbels
2.2.1. A Sensitive Child Faced with Fatherly Expectations
The character of Helmut Goebbels has an exceptional position within the family. He is Josef’s only biological son and is therefore brought up to become an exemplary National Socialist, but does apparently not meet his father’s expectations. This is illustrated on the basis of several minor remarks by Josef, such as the question of whether Helga “swapped brains with Helmut”5 right after she says something her father considers dull, therefore implying that Helmut is rather unintelligent. Also, Josef pities that he and Helmut are outnumbered by girls after another daughter has been born6, probably because Josef had hoped for a boy who would match his ideal of a perfect son better than Helmut. In addition, his father urges Helmut not to lose against his sisters during a quiz game7, thus trying to make him fit into the ideal of a dominant male person.
One reason for Josef’s negative opinion about his only son probably lies in Helmut’s sensitivities. His emotional nature is mentioned several times throughout the novel, for example when Helga recalls that in 1941, when the children had been left alone by their parents at Upper Salt Mountain, he was sent to stand in the corner by a maid who regularly teased him, which nearly made Helmut cry8. Also, during their time in the bunker, Helga stresses that “he does really mind about things”9. He is quite obviously not the emotionless, soldier-like kind of boy his father wants him to be, and even though there is no information given on whether Josef told his son about his disappointment or made him feel it at any time before 1943, Helmut certainly noticed in one way or another that his father was not as proud of him as Helmut would have liked him to be.
5 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 45.
6 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 91.
7 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 141.
8 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 110.
9 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 153.
2.2.2. The ‘Tripping Incident’ and Its Consequences
The novel describes one particular moment which changed Helmut’s future behaviour radically, namely the ‘tripping incident’ in 1943, in which he caused his father to trip and fall while they were playfully chasing each other around a table. An enraged Josef shouted at Helmut, calling him an idiot and a disappointment and making him burst into tears10. The quality of the insults his father hurled at Helmut on this occasion is noteworthy because apparently Josef unloaded his entire frustration, which seemed to have accumulated over the years, on his son here. Helga describes Helmut as having been deeply hurt afterwards, “his face deep red and smeared with tears”11. After this had happened, the parents arranged for Georg Schertz, a boy from the neighbourhood, to regularly spend time with Helmut as being constantly surrounded by girls was allegedly “turning him into a sissy”12; a remark which stresses the parent’s opinion that something was ‘wrong’ with Helmut and that his behaviour needed to be adjusted. He is thus unable to develop an identity of his own, but is instead indoctrinated with his parents’ beliefs and ideals.
The importance of fatherly love for children has been emphasized frequently, for example in a 2012 study by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology which says that personality development is deeply influenced by a father’s love; even more so if the child perceives the father to have higher prestige and power than the mother13. This is quite obviously the case in the Goebbels family; consequently Josef appears to be the most important person to Helmut. This might explain why, from the ‘tripping incident’ on, Helmut tries very hard to impress Josef at nearly every possible opportunity; a behaviour which expresses Helmut’s desperate longing for the love of his father. He cannot bear being a disappointment to the person he admires most and therefore chooses to make up for it by pretending to be the exemplary Nazi boy his father always wanted him to be. As a result, he starts talking “about Wonder Weapons and German superiority”14; he adopts typical adult slogans such as “All German people have to make sacrifices in the hour of darkness”15; he is excited about being in the
10 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 142.
11 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 142.
12 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 143.
13 cf. “A Father’s Love is One of the Greatest Influences on Personality Development.” Society for Personality and Social Psychology. 14 Mar. 2014. <>
14 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 172.
15 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 13.
bunker and “in the middle of the total war”16, and he even deliberately chooses toys and games which are related to the war, for example toy tanks17 or a game called ‘Stukas Attack’18.
However, Helga provides the reader with certain hints which make clear that no actual shift in Helmut’s sensitive nature has taken place, but that he merely tries to build up a façade, for example when she says that Helmut is “always pretending to be like Papa”19 or that “he’s always pretending to be tough”20. It may therefore be assumed that Helmut’s character is supposed to depict an example of a child which cannot bear the psychological pressure of his father’s expectations weighing on him. He tries to escape this pressure by accepting the parental position that his behaviour and feelings have been wrong and by pretending to be stronger and less caring than he actually is. Helmut’s identity is thus not so much formed by natural development and personal experience but it is rather a product of his father’s indoctrination, which is apparently the novel’s main criticism with regard to Helmut.
2.3. Helga Goebbels
2.3.1. Portrayal as an Imaginative, Open-Minded Child
In contrast to the other aforementioned characters, Helga offers much more information to rely on as she is the narrator of the story and is therefore able to provide the reader with her own thoughts and memories. This fact is used to illustrate that Helga has been unconventional ever since she was a little girl. Her earliest memory, for example, is a photo shoot with Hitler at which she felt very uncomfortable because she was disgusted by Hitler’s appearance and his smell21. This incident can be considered symbolic inasmuch as it marks the first time Helga acts against the will of her parents, which is presumably supposed to distinguish her from the rest of her family and to introduce her as the ‘hero’ of the story.
A trait which further distinguishes her from other people in the novel is Helga’s imagination. She particularly prefers objects and places which are left natural and thus
16 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 19.
17 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 176.
18 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 20.
19 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 13.
20 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 153.
21 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 9.
special to those which are artificially prettified; a stance which can incidentally be applied to children’s character in an analogous way and thus be seen as the novel’s criticism of manipulative education. This attitude of Helga is illustrated when the family visits their new house on Swan Island for the first time and Helga is overwhelmed by its dark, mysterious atmosphere22. Consequently, she is disappointed when the house is freshly painted and the mystery is “decorated away”23.
Another important characteristic is Helga’s open-mindedness, which is evident from her friendship with Reggie, the girl next door. Although Helga was instructed not to talk to the Jewish neighbours, she befriends with Reggie and they spend the summer of 1937 together since apparently none of them can see any reason why they should dislike each other. It is the childlike innocence that is stressed here, perhaps to give an example of how much children can benefit from friends which they are able to choose on their own. This could then be seen as a deliberate contrast to and a criticism of the arranged friendship of Helmut and Georg Schertz.
2.3.2. Parental Conditioning, Rejection, and Indoctrination
As has been explained before on the example of Helmut, Josef and Magda Goebbels want to make sure that their children think and act the way they want them to, which means that the children get punished if they misbehave. The first time this happens to Helga is when she refuses to properly congratulate Hitler on his birthday in 1936, whereupon her father calls her a rude girl and does not allow her to eat cake24. Although this incident might appear rather insignificant, it is still noteworthy as it shows that Josef does not have any understanding for his three-year-old daughter but instead wants her to function at any time. Another punishment, this time much more severe, takes place when Helga goes outside in order to look for Reggie and lies to her father about it afterwards. Josef spanks her five times and tells her to never lie to him or her mother again25. On another occasion, Helga mentions that her younger sister Heide had apparently also been smacked by her father some years later26.
22 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 24.
23 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 24.
24 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, pp. 11-12.
25 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 47.
26 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 126.
However, it is not only this kind of physical punishment that the parents use to condition the children, but it is also rejection of sympathy and comfort; apparently hoping this would ‘harden’ the children. In the bunker, for example, Magda tells Helga, who is obviously terrified by the imminent danger of approaching Russian troops, to hold herself together and to remember that she is German, meaning that she shall not cry27. Here, Magda does not have a single word of comfort for her frightened daughter but leaves Helga alone with her fear and only cares about maintaining the façade of the strong, brave German.
This behavior of Magda can also be seen as indoctrinating her daughter with what she thinks is right. Indoctrination happens frequently in the novel, for example when Josef makes his children watch the movie ‘The Eternal Jew’ in 1941. His aim is clearly to implant the movie’s anti-Semitic images and statements in the children’s heads, in order to make them hate Jews as much as he thinks they should. Helga is even allowed to watch the most brutal scene which depicts the slaughtering of a cow and is utterly disgusted by it28.
Indoctrination, however, does not only happen within the family but also through large propaganda events such as the torchlight procession in 1938. This is a very special occasion as it marks the reunification of Josef and Magda, who had temporarily separated before. The combination of watching a visually impressive spectacle and seeing her reunited parents together again apparently makes Helga think that Germany’s strength and her family’s happiness are closely linked. It can therefore come as no surprise that an overwhelmed Helga considers Germany to be “the greatest country in the world”29 on this occasion. Similarly to the torchlight procession, Helga is fascinated by a speech her father gives at the Sport Palace in 1943 and especially by the reaction of the audience afterwards. She mentions that singing the national anthem “always makes the hair on my arms stand to end”30. This feeling of fascination presumably makes the things her father has just said appear to be even truer, which is why Helga joins the masses in thinking that “no one could defeat us!”31 These examples serve to demonstrate both the dangers posed by propaganda and indoctrination as well as their temptation, which young Helga is occasionally unable to withstand.
27 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 80.
28 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 98.
29 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 50.
30 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 140.
31 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 140.
Despite her parents’ efforts, she is nevertheless able to see through the propaganda now and again. During the screening of ‘The Eternal Jew’, for example, she asks her father whether Grandpa Friedlander, who Granny B. had described to Helga as having been a wonderful and warm-hearted man, had also been just like the Jews in the movie, who are equated with rats, whereupon Josef gets angry and tells her not to talk about Friedlander32. Here, the novel exemplifies that even a child is able to notice the irrationality and illogicality of Nazi propaganda. More generally, one could also argue that the novel claims that a child is able to eventually realize indoctrination as such.
2.3.3. Longing for Love and Care
Helga’s need for her parents’ love and comfort is mentioned several times over the course of the story. For example, when Helga was allowed to see her father again for the first time since the parents had temporarily separated, she did apparently no longer care that he had spanked her only recently. She was simply glad to have him back, which is illustrated when Helga mentions that he “smelled lovely and Papa-like”33. Also, during the time the children are left at Upper Salt Mountain in 1941, Helga expressed that she missed her parents and that she would rather be in the endangered city of Berlin together with them than at a supposedly safe place like Upper Salt Mountain without them34. Her longing becomes most evident when she mentions that it felt like “someone had switched a bright light on”35; describing the feeling she had when her father arrived at home on weekends in 1943.
During the days in the bunker, Helga comes to realize that her parents behave more coldly than ever. Her mother, for example, barely spends time with her and does not even look Helga in the eye when she goes by36. Josef also “doesn’t notice us at all”37 most of the time, which is why Helga apparently seeks replacement to satisfy her emotional needs. She finds solace in the person of Liesl, Eva Braun’s personal maid, whom Helga enjoys talking to and who comforts and hugs her frequently. Helga notes
32 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 99.
33 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 48.
34 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, pp. 111-13.
35 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 141.
36 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 135.
37 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 135
that, as she leans back on Liesl and is rocked in her arms, it is “so nice to be held and feel protected”38; a feeling she certainly wishes to get from her parents as well.
Another person who becomes increasingly important to her in the bunker is the so-called ‘dusty soldier boy’; a young soldier at about Helga’s age who is almost completely covered in dirt and dust when she sees him for the first time. This description of his appearance resembles the initially dark and mysterious atmosphere of the Goebbels’ house on Swan Island, which might be a reason for Helga’s fascination for the young soldier. Telling from the fact that she dreams about him subsequently and imagines the two of them going to Swan Island together, it is plausible to assume that Helga might have fallen in love for the first time39. This interpretation is supported by Helga’s usage of the term “my dusty soldier boy”40. The description of this first awakening of love inside of Helga probably serves as a dramatic build-up before the eventual catastrophe, namely the killing of the six children; even more so as Helga sees the soldier boy one last time and is happy that he noticed her directly before the killing takes place41. Thus, it is made clear to the reader that Josef’s and Magda’s decision does not only end their children’s lives, but also deprives the children of experiencing love and finding happiness of their own.
2.3.4. The Bunker Days: Surrounded by a Web of Lies
The characterization of Helga during the days in the bunker offers a striking contrast to the once light-hearted girl she is described as in the early flashback chapters. She has by now turned into a frightened and insecure person who is woken almost every morning by exploding bombs and is therefore in fear of her possibly imminent death. Also, she shows signs of depression, as illustrated when she says that “all this playing and doing things just seems pointless”42; a behaviour which probably stems from permanent boredom as well as lacking parental care. Helga’s character therefore corresponds with what Karen Sands-O’Connor, an expert on British children’s literature, sees as a typically modern version of a child character. She notes that, in literature after 1970,
38 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 118.
39 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 171.
40 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 171.
41 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 179.
42 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 53.
child characters experiencing parental indifference “often end up fearful or damaged by lack of guidance”43.
Helga also feels that she is permanently being lied to about their situation, which adds to her growing fear. She is disconcerted, for example, when her father tells her that, according to astrologers, Germany would soon win the war as she knows that her father had never believed in astrology before44. She also wonders why, if the bunker is indeed as safe a place as her parents keep telling her, neither Speer’s nor Goering’s children are there45. Telling from her reaction, it can even be assumed that she senses the threat posed by the ‘vaccination’ her mother talks about46. Helga therefore knows that something is wrong, but since nobody is willing to answer her questions, she often breaks down in tears and becomes distressed to the degree that she feels “a weight pressing on my chest which makes me want to run and scream”47. Helga’s declining mental balance is thus portrayed as a result of depriving her of truth and comfort and works as a tragic counterbalance to the light-hearted identity of her earlier self.
43 Karen Sands-O’Connor, “Shackled by Past and Parents: The Child in British Children’s Literature after 1970,” The Child in British Literature, ed. Adrienne E. Gavin (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 227.
44 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 32.
45 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 83.
46 cf. Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 179.
47 Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, p. 79.
3. Conclusion
The examination of the characters of Magda, Helmut and Helga Goebbels reveals one important parallel, namely that all of them suffered from parental decisions or actions which deeply affected their development and identity formation in a, from the respective character’s point of view, unfavourable way. It has therefore become evident that a vein of criticism of parental behaviour runs through Chocolate Cake with Hitler. The novel is obviously not just trying to tell a story centred on war-torn children, since the Goebbels children only rarely witness actual acts of war. It is rather supposed to give an example of the damage that can be done to children if their parents do not show them their support and love and do not let them develop their identities and characters freely but instead choose to shape them according to their ideals and to punish them, either physically or mentally, for misbehaving.
Nazi Germany and the Goebbels family can be seen as providing a tragic historical framework for a story criticizing cruel parental behaviour. The fundamental plot of the novel could therefore theoretically take place in any time and any country and can be considered a plea for letting children live their lives free of parental manipulation and indoctrination.
Emma Craigie, Chocolate Cake with Hitler (Craydon: Short Books, 2010)
Karen Sands-O’Connor, “Shackled by Past and Parents: The Child in British Children’s Literature after 1970,” The Child in British Literature, ed. Adrienne E. Gavin (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 225-37.
“A Father’s Love is One of the Greatest Influences on Personality Development.” Society for Personality and Social Psychology. 14 Mar. 2014. <>


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