A village in wartime
The Reprisal is an unforgettable examination in microcosm of the Second World War and everything connected with it: murder and arson, poverty and betrayal, heroic courage and illusions of happiness. Continually deliberating and investigating, Brokken takes us with him into the underworld of a small Dutch village during the German occupation, ultimately raising more questions than he answers.
History is a story only in retrospect; only afterwards can we detect threads and patterns. Those in its midst tend to experience events as a great chaos, a storm in which they struggle to keep their footing, in which good and evil are all too relative and the occasional bright flash illuminates what lies ahead. The central characters in The Reprisal are no exception.
Brokken focuses on a handful of houses now buried under the asphalt of a motorway and examines a specific moment, on the evening of 10 October 1944, when a group of German soldiers walked home with their village sweethearts. One of them tripped over a loose cable and was electrocuted. The reaction of the occupying forces was brutal: seven villagers were summarily executed, their wives and children chased out of their houses, and all their property and possessions set ablaze. It left the village silent and stunned. To this day reproaches smoulder beneath the surface. Who was responsible for the loose cable? Was it indeed an act of sabotage or could it have been simply an accident?
Brokken, who grew up in the village, reconstructs the incident in detail based
on thousands of court documents, witness statements and interviews. He is the best kind of narrator, calm and honest. The book reads like a detective novel with countless unexpected twists and turns, except that everything in it really happened. Brokken reconstructs not only the attack – for that is undoubtedly what it was – but the entire social environment in which everyone was trying to survive the war in his or her own way: farmers sheltering those in hiding, resistance fighters, and village women who entered into relationships with German soldiers, whether of their own initiative or as a result of abject poverty.
In The Reprisal a curtain is drawn aside to allow us a long and intense look at what went on. Nothing is quite how we always imagined. The story is grim, but because Brokken has traced the ordinary life of 1944 so convincingly and in such detail, it is also profoundly human. The book gnaws away at the reader long after it ends.
- In its tone, composition and integrity, and from a historical point of view as well, this is an extraordinary book.
- The kind of historical fieldwork that ought to be undertaken more often.