When I was sixteen
years old, I was sitting on the toilet in my boarding school long after curfew one
night in 1946, when I heard the main outer door to the washroom sigh closed.
Slippered feet approached my cubicle. A stern male voice said, “Who’s in there?”
It was the
housemaster, Mr Biggar.
“Bacque sir,” I
“Open the door.”
I stood up and
opened the door. He held out his hand. I gave him the big heavy book I had been
reading. He read the title. War and Peace. He handed it back and said, “Do
you like it?
“Oh yes sir. It’s
“Yes it is. Now go
to bed, and don’t stay up after lights out again.”
If I had been
caught with Sunbathing magazine, or Uncanny Tales, I would have been
confined for a weekend alone with the binomial theorem, but literature had saved me.
and Peace I understood and liked peasants, soldiers, aristocrats, men, women and
adolescents in Russia 140 years before. I was seeing life as it was seen by the
truthful Tolstoy and it was fascinating. I was learning stuff I could learn nowhere
else, through a new tool of understanding--literature.
About then I
began to resolve to venture some day on a big book about families in wartime and in
peace. I would carry on the work of that great writer. I was sixteen.
I knew it was
beyond my powers, but if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth doing. But I could not let
go of the idea. I was caught in the paradox--writing requires ego while it enforces
humility. For years, I diverted my ambition into other projects.
publisher, Jack McClelland, one of the twin saints of English language publishing in
this country, encouraged me to write two of the books that gave me the confidence of
humility. These were Just Raoul and Other Losses. In both those books,
I had to enter into foreign languages, minds, lives and experiences, in the one
case, into the life of a hero of the French Resistance. In that book, entitled
Just Raoul, I penetrated the life-history of a man from a different and secret
society so well that he begged me to conceal certain things about him which he had
been hiding from me. That helped to give me the objectivity to do the next book,
which enters into the world of the allied armies of 1945 and the million German
prisoners who suffered and died under them in American and French camps after the
The research for
those books led me to the city we call Cologne and the Germans call Koln. On a warm
summer evening in 1986, I was in the central square gazing up at the mediaeval
buildings with their heads leaning together and their casement windows open when a
British voice beside me said, “They look old to you do they?”
“Yes,” I said.
“They’re all new.
Built since the war they are. Look down.”
I looked down.
My feet were planted firm on words incised into a big bronze plaque that said
something like this, in English and German, “This city was destroyed from the air on
the night of February 22, 1942.”
That it was in
English as well as in German was the only imputation against the good guys of world
war two. Us. And one of Us was my sister, a Squadron Leader in the Royal
Canadian Air Force, who had almost certainly helped to plan the raid. In that raid,
I knew, thousands of people had died during a firestorm that was deliberately set to
I was appalled.
I had known this, and had forgotten. I had known this and approved. Cologne was one
of the black pins stuck in my boyhood map of Germany, a target for my sister’s
bomber crews, for she was in command of hundreds of airwomen at the RCAF’s Number
Six Bomber Group, at Allerton Hall in Yorkshire.
To me she had
always been a hero, like my brothers and my father who all fought the Germans.
Together with my
discovery of the postwar atrocities that the allies committed against Germany, this
forced a complete and dizzying revolution in my thinking. Now, wartime Germany
advanced towards me through smoke and fire until I could smell its stink and feel
its heat and fear its power and pity its suffering and admit its heroes and hate its
crimes. And since to see is also to wish to understand, I wanted to know more about
what had caused that war that crippled a whole nation and cripples it still.
In my late
sixties, having completed my German histories, I had a feeble income from my
writing which had been seriously diminished by the German-haters in Canada and
elsewhere who hated me and my work only because they hated Germans. But I still
had that relentless ambition. I tried to evade the idea by saying that I would
write a potboiler, but Elisabeth said, “Write that big book you have always been
dreaming of.” And suddenly all excuses were off; I had the training necessary to
attempt such a feat. And I was too old to put it off. It was now or never. So we
rented our house in Toronto and moved to a wood-stove cottage in the wilderness.
I was now able
to face the very uncomfortable fact that there were two enemies in that war. Them,
and us. Seeing the Germans as enemies as I had done all my life, I thought that
being objective meant that in order to understand the German mind, I would have to
hate us, and see us as enemies. I couldn’t do that. So there was only one recourse.
Abandon hatred. Present us as I knew we had been. That way, I could rely on reality.
Recount what happened. And accept the consequences. Present the Germans as they had
believed themselves to be
I would have to
make it possible for my readers to see, through the noise of war, the true faces of
the Germans and our own people, to hear in the bedlam of the 1940s their voices, and
despite the propaganda and hatred rotting our minds and infecting our history to
this day, to comprehend their thoughts. I would have to describe the minds and
feelings of Hitler and his generals, to feel as soldiers do in wartime, to leap
across the great barrier of history and culture erected in the 1940s between the
Germans and the Canadians and other allies.
I needed a
vast amount of knowledge. If I were to describe my characters, I had to understand
them, so..... Hitler was a problem. I began to study and to imagine my way into the
mind of Adolf Hitler, trying to decide for instance if he was deceitful or honest
when he offered peace to the British and French in 1939, after the conquest of
Poland. He also offered peace to the British in the spring of 1940, after the
collapse of the French army. This was the man who thought it was very funny when
Joseph Goebbels told him that he had just realized that Germany had broken every
treaty signed by the Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop for ten years. When Hitler
heard this, he laughed so long that he was late for his vegetarian lunch. So, was he
sincere in offering a peace treaty at those crucial moments of the war? If so, the
response of Winston Churchill mattered more than if not, and the advice of his best
friend, the Canadian Lord Beaverbrook would play a crucial role.
Churchill was a
problem. Some thought he was a war-mongering megalomaniac who wanted to go on ruling
most of the world, some thought he was an arrogant racist, some thought he was a
hero who united the British Empire to defeat the forces of darkness and evil.
I needed a
theory of history that accounted for such men. In brief, the theory was that the
Second World War was inevitable but it was not necessary. Which is to say that there
were better alternatives. How to discern those alternatives? By discerning the
self-interest of each nation at all the decision points of the war and of the peace.
For instance, what was Britain’s self-interest in deciding her answer to Hitler’s
peace offer in October, 1939 following the conquest of Poland? Certainly one view in
cabinet was to accept the offer and negotiate, in order to save the empire and
encourage Hitler to attack Russia, which of course he was already planning and soon
I was a
novelist who had also written some history, and thereby discovered one truth about
writing: in history you see the crowd, in art you see the face. Having felt the
malign influence of the war on my brothers and sister, I was particularly eager to
show the people at the top--Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt--issuing the orders that
sent young people into battle knowing that many would die. But there was an
interesting Canadian variation here--all my Canadians were volunteers, as were
virtually all the Canadian soldiers of the war. One such character is Ed Burns, a
professor of history at the University of Toronto in 1939, and a communist. Burns,
nicknamed Red Ed, gets into deep trouble with the university president, a friend of
his. Burns is being disciplined by the president at lunch in the Faculty Club on
June 21, 1941, when the club steward tells them that Hitler has attacked Russia, so
now all communists of whatever stripe are automatically converted from enemy to
friend, just like that. Red Ed’s job is saved between the celery sticks and the
roast beef, but he quits anyway in order to fight the Germans, whom he hates for
Spain. Something I liked about Red Ed Burns was that one evening in September, 1939,
at an isolated boys’ summer camp in northern Ontario, lacking both radio and
telephone, while all the campers were singing Abide with Me, Ed sat alone on
the steps of the lodge and sang the Internationale. At the end of the hymn,
everyone stands still as they listen to a train whistle sounding miles away through
the dark woods, whistling the letter W, a signal which tells the camp director that
war has started. Here’s how it affected them: “The whistle sounded louder, and to
everyone it was no longer the wild shriek of a lighted train rushing through the
forest in the night, but their fate.” So by joining up, they sentenced themselves
according to their beliefs.
How did I
invent these people? From knowing many kinds of people, and a little from
symbolism. Red Ed was born of the conjunction of two forces--world communism, and
the independent spirit that I believe was common in that self-contradictory movement
in 1930s Canada. Red Ed’s fate--early and violent death--symbolizes at once the
wasted violence of world communism and of war.
In order to show
the character of each individual, I had to tell you why each of the Canadians
volunteered. This would also help to avoid creating something I hate, a hollow book
decked in stylish violence. Many joined because everyone else was joining, some
joined to defend the British Empire, some joined to impress a girl, some joined for
the adventure, one joined because he thought a naval officer’s uniform would make
him look handsome; and another to get his senior matric without writing exams, plus
a free university education afterwards.
I also wanted
to show a little of the heroic irony of the German resistance to Hitler. In the ten
years before 1945, there were at least eight assassination plots against Hitler by
various Germans. So my characters Tatiana Miloslavsky and her friend Clara Dunn,
from New Brunswick, who risked their lives in a plot to kill Hitler, stand among the
heroes who believe in a free, peaceful, civilized Germany. Working in the Foreign
Office in Berlin, they carried messages, spied on their seniors, organized meetings,
typed minutes and led persecuted refugees to safety. They were Britain’s secret
allies, but in the end, they are betrayed by the British who had originally
professed not to wish to harm the German people, but only to throw out the Nazis.
Tati and Clara are the hopeful idealistic youth of all countries whose lives are
wrecked by the men at the top who do not know what to but do it anyway.
In my youth,
after reading Tolstoy and Russian history at the university, I made the quip that
Russian fiction reads like history because Russian history reads like fiction. But
much later, as I worked on Our Fathers’ War, I realized that the same is true
of us. Our historians by and large, create pleasing myths that bind us in a society,
often by proving that the enemy is wicked. A wicked example of this is what Winston
Churchill said in 1945, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
And he did, and
he is much believed and admired. Churchill of course intended to win the war, and
let the peace take care of itself. But that’s what I wanted to do, take care of the
peace, which meant, telling the truth in all my books. I wasn’t afraid of the truth,
because I believed in our western Christian virtues, which really only shows that
the historians had done their job on me.
In the 19th
century, Lord Palmerston, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, famously said,
“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”
I wanted to add,
“And it is in their permanent interest to have friends.” This seems to me to be the
simple truth. And I am with Jane Austen on this, who said that when reading her book
of British history you would have to forgive her because “you might bump into some
facts, truth being I think very excusable in an historian.”
Just as history is
very excusable in a novel.
Our Father's War - ISBN 1-55096-635-9
This superbly researched and written book can be purchased through
Our Father's War Readers Comments:
haunting first sentence prefigures, contains, the whole novel....the story rips
along carrying with it the burden of twentieth‑century history. ...Let readers
read and marvel.”--Robert Kroetsch teacher, poet, novelist, winner
of the Governor General’s Award for literature for The Studhorse Man.
wonderful book...I never had any trouble picking it up after I had to put it
down...the story moves very quickly, the writing is taut...beautiful...the war
scenes are so good that they felt as if you had been there.. it must be
published...”John Bemrose, playwright, poet and best-selling novelist,
The Island Walkers.
done it, your new novel is an excellent revision...all the war scenes are
wonderful...it’s very, very good...” Professor Dr David Staines,
author, critic, editor of The New Canadian Library Series, former Dean of Arts,
University of Ottawa.
novel of parallel strands...all well chosen, the world historic ones as well as the
private ones. The author never forgets to surprise the reader, either by turns of
the narrative, or his implicit judgments or by his wit or by downright jokes. He is
throughout wonderful in his treatment of nature and scenery, as in his
treatment of love and sex.
has an expert hand at making characters live, even if their part is short. He
passes just and fair judgment, implicit or explicit, like Tolstoy, on friend
or foe, although having to deal with Hitler instead of Napoleon is a more trying
task.” Prof. Dr. Richard Mueller, former professor of English at the
University of Aachen, was a soldier in the Wehrmacht in 1944-5 and was captured in
“Magnificent. I was moved and disturbed, the book made me weep for all the young men
of the war. I was moved to tears. It brought back terrible memories. I hope
it is published and reaches a broad audience.” Col. Dr. Ernest F. Fisher Jr.,
a highly respected historian of the United States Army and author of Guardians of
the Republic. Fisher was a lieutenant in the US 101st Airborne, and
fought at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
is a very, very good book with an original take and interesting characters and
situations. Bacque’s inclusion of the German side of the war makes the book highly
valuable.” Martha Sharpe, former chief editor, The House of Anansi.
addition, many non-professional readers in Canada, Switzerland, Germany and the USA
have read the manuscript and commented as follows:
couldn’t put it down. I wouldn’t go out for several nights because I wanted to stay
home with a glass of wine and read this book. I was on the edge of my seat. It’s
great.” Howie Rober, real estate agent, Toronto..
wonderful book. Completely fair to the people on both sides of the war. I would
recommend it to everyone......” Edie Gomille, high school teacher,
great important book. You are saying things that many people resist hearing, about
the war. But you have described the war as I knew it when I was in the Wehrmacht.
How can I help you to get it published?” Karl Heinz Wagner,
businessman, Zurich, Switzerland.
is a very, very good book. I was very surprised to find that you knew things that I
did not know about the ship I commanded, HMCS Toronto.” Anthony Griffin,
venture capitalist, Toronto. Griffin actually wrote two lines of dialogue in the
book, for an officer aboard HMS Prince of Wales.
every word, it is fascinating. I think it should be published soon. I will give it
to my friends.” Henry Baessler, engineer, Chateaugay, Canada.