Julie Mayhew is ‘the girl least likely to write a book about Nazis’. But she did. In her series for Standard Issue, she shares what she discovered along the way…
When writing The Big Lie, I spent several days in London’s Wiener Library calling up Nazi-era publications from their extensive archive.
These things were strange to the touch – historically enlightening, yes, but I couldn’t help feeling they were physically, as well as morally, tainted.
I read school science texts instructing students that “quality” families must breed more than “inferior” ones, leafed through picture books that told stories of evil Jews via playful, colour-block illustrations, and I held yearbooks listing Hitler’s birthday and successful battle dates alongside dainty woodcuts and soft-focus photographs of Nazi soldiers feeding birds from their hands.
The book I was most intrigued by was the one in this picture: Mädel von Heute – Mütter von Morgen.
The title roughly translates as Girls of Today, Mothers of Tomorrow, which tells you everything you need to know about the main thrust of this particular volume.
It is written as a helpful, loving conversation between a mum and her daughter and I, naturally, felt disgusted by it – this ideology peppered with terms of endearment. (Mein Herzchen!) But ultimately the reason I spent so much time with this book was because it was familiar territory.
When I was eight years old I was given a copy of The Girls’ Handbook, originally published in 1983, filled with advice on how to care for my non-existent horse, press flowers and stay slim.
“In order to lose weight,” it instructed, “an average girl needs to limit herself to an intake of 1,200–1,300 calories a day.”
It made quite an impression. When I was at university, deeply unhappy and searching for a solution that I thought thinness might provide, I recalled those magic numbers and stuck to them, only making my problems worse.
Books for girls have been publishing gold throughout the decades, and I have become a collector of them in all their guises, both hugely positive and highly questionable.
On my desk right now I have How to Make the Most of What You Have (1945), Twiggy’s Guide to Looking Good (1985), Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All (1982) and Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind Of Girl (2014), written in part as a response to Gurley Brown’s ruthless advice.
In bookshops you’ll find Sheryl Sandberg telling us to Lean In, Arianna Huffington encouraging us to Thrive and be Fearless and Tara Mohr advising Playing Big.
I can’t help wondering about our appetite for books guiding us to do what we were born to do, what we have been experts in all along – books instructing us on how to be a girl. For though these books often come from a place of good heart and can bolster us and help us grow, are we not also making ourselves willing sponges for indoctrination, mein Herzchen?1988 Views
Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.