Nazi Germany: A Growing Theme in YA

Dystopian novels have gained traction in the YA genre in recent years. Huger Games and Divergent have taken the lead in the hype, but less popularized titles like Matched by Ally Condie and Delirium by Lauren Oliver have also had a ripple effect in the genre. The byproduct of their popularity is morphing the YA section of the bookstore into a maze of Big Brothers angsty protagonists defying the status quo. And what’s not to love? It’s the absurdly distorted experience of reading Huxley or George Orwell, refitted with a love triangle or some entanglement of high school style dramas.  

Delirium by Lauren Oliver


Dystopian backdrops are a good setting for the genre because they fit seamlessly into the shifting world of a YA’s 12-18 group and, real talk, into the 18-anything group. Specifically during adolescence, however, there’s a newfound questioning of everything: parents, teachers, authorities, and any regime of sorts. There’s a clear parallel between life stage and dystopian themes in YA. There’s the gained knowledge, the unravelling of prior misconceptions, and the blossoming of new wisdom. This break form the herd requires a notion of an oppressive ‘bad’ force and a freeing ‘good’ force – maybe you’re starting to see why dystopias are the perfect fit.

I bet you’re also starting to see how this trend can set the stage for another: a turn to alternative-historical YA novels. More specifically, alternative historical takes on Nazi Germany. Everyone is Forgiven, Max, and The Big Lie all use the setting. It’s an easy choice of epoch: Nazism represents the most real and terrifying ‘bad’ guy, and the history is full of powerful narratives spanning far beyond Germany itself. It’s a history that can be told globally and one that finds itself in many nation’s histories. It opens a lot of creative doors in YA.

But approaching the topic is difficult. It brings to question of how we should approach writing about alternative histories, such as one in which the Third Reich maintains power. It’s an extremely sensitive topic and, because it is a part of so many nations’s histories, a webbed sensitivity than spans globally. The tricky part of talking about Nazism in YA is avoiding exploiting WWII or the Holocaust for entertainment value. Using an atrocious history as a tool to create a thrill seems reckless and insensitive: it focuses on the deviousness of the history – experiments, torture, etc. – rather than posing ‘what-ifs’ or reinforcing the importance of remembering.

The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew is a great example of how to do it right. It presents a world in which the Nazi Regime still looms large, and a cast of characters spell bound by doublethink and die-hard patriotism.

The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew

Among all the conformists – the protagonist, Jess, is one of them – there is Clementine, the dissenter. As a friendship between Jess and Clementine grows, Jess is exposed to a new way of thought, and able to see the monstrous illusion she’s played into. The regime’s control over bodies, especially women’s bodies, provides commentary on how we operate today and the strictures and exploitations our bodies are subject to. Neither character is painted as good or bad: Jess is in tune with her culture but faithful to an oppressive regime; Clementine although opening Jess’s eyes, inadvertently ruins her life. It tells the story full of the moral ambiguities and questions of truth that marked Nazi Germany, all the while grappling with the biggest ‘what if’ imaginable.

It’s a startling trend in YA, but when done right and written with tact it can make for a compelling and relevant story. When the history is handled delicately but thoroughly, exploring but not exploiting, it can make for a very powerful read.


Featured image courtesy of NatGeo TV.