The good German : a novel

by Joseph Kanon

Hardcover, 2001




New York : Henry Holt & Co., 2001.


Jake Geismar cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent in pre-war Berlin. When he returns in 1945 to cover the Potsdam conference he finds the city unrecognisable - streets have vanished beneath the rubble, familiar landmarks truncated by high explosive. But amongst the ruins Berliners survive, including some he knew and, miraculously, his lost love, Lena. But in the way she would not leave with him before the war, Lena won't join him now without finding her husband and Emil has disappeared from the safe care of the Americans who, turning a blind eye to his links with Hitler, want his expertise as a rocket designer for themselves. Trawling through the shambles of the city, through the illegal night clubs and the thriving black market, Jake discovers that the twilight war of intrigue between west and east has already begun and that he could quite easily be one of its first casualties. This is a novel of war, an action thriller, a tale of raw emotion and survival. Above all it is a tour de force of the triumph of humanity over man's depravity.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member labfs39
Jake Geismar is an American journalist who was stationed in Berlin before WWII and is returning now in post-war 1945 to cover the Potsdam Conference. And to try and find Lena, the married woman he left behind, but has never forgotten. The city is alien to him now: bombed out ruins inhabited by scared poverty-wracked people, mostly women and children, and the sense of despair on every corner. When Jake discovers a dead body at the conference, he begins an investigation that is inconvenient for both the Russians and the Americans. In the process he meets Bernie Teitel, an American Jew whose job is to uncover Nazi’s and collect enough evidence to convict them of war crimes; Gunther Behn, a retired Nazi policeman slowly drinking his way to an early grave over his wife’s death; and Renate Naumann, a former employee of Jake’s, now on trial for abetting the Nazis as a greifer, a Jew who turned in other Jews.

What makes this book more than a murder mystery, or a love story, or an espionage type of thriller, is that the German characters feel like real people making impossible choices. Lena’s sense of duty to her husband, despite knowing he was a Nazi; Bernie chasing former Nazi’s regardless of their personal situations, trying to find justice for the Jews; Gunther’s guilt for not being able to save his wife and testifying against a woman who may have had to make the hardest choices of all: Renate. The author is able to raise philosophical questions in the context of people’s lives. By doing so, he makes it harder to respond with stock answers and a black and white point of view. The American motives in the treatment of Nazi scientists alone are enough to trouble one’s conscience.

When I picked up this novel, I thought I was in for an easy read about a journalist, a love affair, and a mystery. Instead, I found myself wrestling with the ideas of justice, guilt, and reparations. This book has stuck with me, and I would recommend it to all those interested in the war and to book club groups. There is a lot to think about.
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LibraryThing member rocketjk
This is a very good mystery and a very, very good rendering of what life must have been like in Berlin during the weeks and months immediately following the surrender of Nazi Germany. Kanon investigates the nature of guilt, on both a national/cultural and a personal scale as both Allies and Germans alike begin to deal with the aftermath of the war and the pervasive horrors of the Holocaust. Again, the issues drawn are both large-scale and personal. Also crucial to the plot is the manner in which the Americans and Russians immediately launch into "the next war" as they jockey for position and power in divided Berlin. And then there is the divide among the Americans between those intent in bringing Nazis to trial and those who mostly want to pick up the pieces, move on, and get back to business. Not incidentally, this includes making use of German rocket scientists regardless of whatever their Nazi activity might have been. The protagonist is Jake Geismar. An American reporter stationed in Berlin before the war, Geismar has developed a deep regard for Germany and Berlin in particular. After spending the war years as a reporter with Patton, he returns to Berlin on assignment, and, more importantly for him, to try to find his pre-war lover. Having lived in Berlin right up to the beginning of hostilities, he has no illusions about who the Nazis had been, but still, as he begins to understand the true depth of the corruption of a German society and people he thought he had known, the question that comes most frequently to him is, "What happened to everybody?"

Kanon is very, very skillful at exploring these issues. Here are two passages that illuminate what I mean, much longer quotes than I normally feel comfortable including, I'm afraid. The first passage and the beginning of the second, be warned, are pretty unpleasant. The scene is a dinner early on at that includes a visiting U.S. Congressman (one of the "Let's not bother with the small fry; let's just get back to business" crowd) and a young officer, Bernie Teitel, Jewish, involved in investigating individual war crimes.

"'Small fry,' Bernie said again. 'Here's one.' He reached into the pile and pulled out a few buff-colored sheets. 'Otto Klopfer. Wants to drive for us. Experienced. Says he drove a truck during the war. He just didn't say what kind. One of the mobile units, it turns out. The exhaust pipe ran back into the van. They'd load about fifty, sixty people in there, and old Otto would just keep the motor running until they died. We found out because he wrote a letter to his CO.' He held up a sheet. 'The exhaust was taking too long. Recommended they seal the pipes so it would work faster. The people were panicking, trying to get out. He was afraid they'd damage the truck.' Another silence, this time so still that even the air around Bernie seemed to stop."

And then this as Geismer considers later . . .

"Jake lit a cigarette. Had Otto Klopfer smoked in the cab while he ran the motor, listening to the thumps behind him? There must have been screaming, a furious pounding on the van. And he'd sat there, foot on the pedal. How could they do it? All the questions came back to that. He'd seen it on the faces of the GIs, who'd hated France and then, confused, felt at home in Germany. The plumbing, the wide roads, the blond children grateful for candy, their mothers tirelessly sweeping up the mess. Clean. Hardworking. Just like us. Then they'd seen the camps, or at least the newsreels. How could they do it? The answer, the only one that made sense to them, was that they hadn't--somebody else had. But there wasn't anybody else. So they stopped asking. Unless, like Teitel, the hook had gone in too deep. . . . He realized suddenly that . . . what the city had really become was not a bomb site but a vast scene of the crime. Shaken, waiting for someone to bring the stretcher and erase the chalk marks and put the furniture back. Except this crime wouldn't go away, even then. There would always be a body in the middle of the floor. How could they do it? Sealing pipes, locking doors, ignoring the screams? It was the only question. But who could answer it? Not a reporter with four pieces in Collier's. The story was beyond that, a twisted parody of Goebbels' big lie--if you made the crime big enough, nobody did it. All the pieces he might do, full of local color and war stories and Truman's horse-trading, were not even notes for the police blotter."

And this is what I mean by skillful. In addition to the excellent writing itself, Kanon, by presenting us with the story of Otto Klopfer and his truck, personalizes the question, creating a small, manageable scale as a foundation for consideration of the universal horror.

Or, you can just read The Good German as a very fine noir-ish murder mystery, set in and growing out of the very early days of the Cold War. The plot pacing is very good, the characters believable and the mystery itself engaging. Even the romance serves to move the story forward rather than stopping it in its tracks. One last aside: as you can see, the copy of this book I plucked off the shelves of my own bookstore has a movie tie-in cover. I haven't seen the movie, I don't know if I will, but the casting of George Clooney in the lead role I think was perfect.
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LibraryThing member WillyMammoth
I thoroughly enjoyed reading "The Good German", but I have to admit, the first fifty pages were a bit hard to get used to. It was partly because the story was a little slow in starting (as mysteries can be), but also to blame I think was Kanon's style of prose. It can be kind of punchy at times with lots of sentence fragments punctuating the prose. It works well as a stylistic device, and in the end I thought it to be well done, but it took a little getting used. I also admired the narrative and POV he used. The POV is third person limited, focusing solely upon Geismar and his thoughts, but it doesn't delve too deeply. Sure, there are a few flashbacks and much of the imagery is tinged with the main character's thoughts, but Kanon refrains from the internal soliloquies and frenetically changing POVs that populate much of modern literature, and I applaud him for it. As for the other characters in the story, he lets their actions and words speak for them. He doesn't blatantly convey their feelings, but lets the reader observe and infer based upon what his main character observes. It's a more difficult style to pull off, but the result is a tighter, more mentally engaging work.

Kanon presents a multitude of themes in the book, too--the destruction wrought by war, the burgenoing conflict with the USSR that would become the cold war, black market racketeering, the race to extract men and material from Germany, the atrocities committed against the Jews, abhorent actions done in the name of love. But foremost among them speaks to the title of the novel itself. Throughout the novel, almost every one of the Germans Geismar meets falls over themselves explaining why they aren't Nazis, why they are one of the "good Germans." But in every instance, it is a fraud. Kanon's message (in this reader's mind at least) is that the "Good German" is a myth. All of the German people are complicit in the crimes of Hitler's Third Riech, if not for direct participation, then in their tacit silence. For to live in Nazi Germany was to know what was being perpetrated in the name of that country. That knowledge alone, and the tacit silence in response to it, implicates those who would hope to brand themselves "Good Germans"

"The Good German" was stylistically and thematically a complex book, but it was also just a good story. The combination is often times hard to come by, which is perhaps why I enjoyed it so much. That's why this one gets a high rating in my book.
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LibraryThing member picardyrose
I got a little confused at the end, but anyone who climbs out a window in someone else's clothes is a hero to me.
LibraryThing member meegeekai
Read this book when it first came out in paperback. Good novel on life in Berlin at the end of WWII. I think it is now a movie, a spy thriller, but still a good read.
LibraryThing member Cathebrown
An interesting plot, but slow to develop. The reader is not engaged from the start. Recommended for more mature readers who will stay with it as it unfolds.
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
Jake Geismar, a reporter for Collier's magazine, is sent to Berlin right at the time of the Potsdam conference. Berlin was Jake's home once, before the war; it was then he had met and fell in love with Lena, married to Emil Brandt. Upon Jake's return to Berlin, he begins to look for Lena, but before he finds her, he becomes embroiled in the death of an American soldier who washes up near the site of the Potsdam negotiations. It seems the man had been on the plane to Berlin with Jake and his friends; now he's found dead with a lot of money on his person. As Jake gets more into the investigation, he realizes that there are people who do not want him to find any info about the dead soldier and that they would kill to keep the story quiet. Ah, if this were only all of Jake's problems.

What I found intriguing about this book was not so much the mystery and its solution, but that this is a story about ethics, morality and conscience. As Jake was told by various individuals about what they had to do to survive under the Nazis, there was always the justification that he wasn't there during the war and couldn't possibly understand what it was like. The author also describes the hurried attempts at the "de-Nazification" of Germany in order to get it up and running again, and to mine its scientific resources in preparation for the coming showdown with the Soviet Union. Many still connected with the death camps would go free; many, especially scientists who worked under the auspices of such groups as the SS were needed by the allies and their past crimes would simply be overlooked by the military and the government because they were going to be valuable against the USSR in the future. As one character in the US government notes

"The Jews? Well, that was terrible, sure, but what are we supposed to do this winter if we don't get some coal out of the Russians? Freeze? Everybody's got a priority. Except the Jews aren't on anybody's list. We'll deal with that later. If anybody has the time. So I lose a few scientists? I'm still trying to get the camp guards." (463)

I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in immediate post-war Germany as well as to anyone who likes novels that deal with ethical and moral dilemmas. The mystery is not the central focus in this novel -- it is what surrounds the mystery that makes the novel more intriguing.
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LibraryThing member TinkerbellAPixie
Hitler has been defeated and Berlin is divided into zones of occupation. Jake Geismar, an American correspondent who spent time in the city before the war, has returned to write about the Allied triumph while pursuing a more personal quest: his search for Lena, the married woman he left behind. The Good German is a story of espionage, love, and murder, an extraordinary re-creation of a city devastated by war, and a thriller that asks the most profound ethical questions in its exploration of the nature of justice and what we mean by good and evil in times of peace and of war.

I can not say enough about how wonderful Stanley Tucci is at reading this audio CD. Wow, what an actor! I'm not finished with it yet but so far I am really enjoying the story and it is really enhanced by his performance!
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LibraryThing member JackSussek
I read ISTANBUL PASSAGE last month and thoroughly enjoyed it. Someone said I should read THE GOOD GERMAN if I liked that. All I can do is echo the same. I thought THE GOOD GERMAN was a well told story in a setting and time that couldn't have been more real. It's Berlin in the summer of 1945, between the end of was in Europe and the end of war with Japan. As seems to be true now with Joseph Kanon's methid he weaves an intricate plot between historical fact and in this book, as in ISTANBUL PASSAGE, he succeeds quite well. Highly recommend this read to anyone who likes this sort of stuff.… (more)
LibraryThing member richardgarside
" Robert Harris's equal", the review says - Heaven help us, I say! Slow, tedious, little character development. To its credit very sleep inducing! Save your money.

Rarely do I not finish a book, but this was a rare occasion.
LibraryThing member kerns222
First a disclaimer: I like my mysteries with atmosphere, context. Next I like characters. And least-most, a twisty plot or its cousin. fast, page-turning action. I can watch hair-raising chases on TV. With a book, I want to contemplate the words, not race thru them. I want to investigate a new place, or maybe explore some cultural scene (like with my friend Kinky saving Abbie Hoffman in New York--why else would I read the Kinkster except for his smelly atmosphere?) The Good German starts all atmosphere, but quickly gets a Hitchcockian plot going after a strange two-bit murder that feels force fed , especially when the rest of the world is investigating millions killed. The novel plods along, and I must admit explores some interesting alleyways, but then towards the end, all turns Bondian and an action-packed thriller emerges. The endgame hunt for fascist rocketeers did not need a catchy macguffin to carry the plot. I know I am picky-too much action at the end; forced murder at the beginning. But, all in all, the book is worth reading. Its images of Berlin just after WWII, along with US Army recruiting of Nazi's with hot rocket design resumes and only a few mass murder problems, challenge our new post-modern nostalgia.… (more)
LibraryThing member alebel
I definitely thought the plot was intriguing, although it took awhile for me to get into it. It was interesting to compare how things in Iraq now resemble the same plights you see in the book about how it was in Germany directly after the war... the desperate wish for people to go to America, the ravaged building and streets, the lawlessness.… (more)
LibraryThing member AnneliM
Set in Berlin in 1945. Jake Gaisman, former Berlin correspondence for CBS, has wranled a press lot for the Potsdam conference. He wants to find his German (married) mistress. He stumbles on a murder and finds a larger story of corruption and intrigue.
LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
An American reporter who lived in Berlin before WW2, returns in its immediate aftermath, to cover the Postdam conference and to find the woman he left behind.
The portrait of a bomb-ravaged Berlin, the people and the landscape, in the weeks after the Nazi surrender, is quite remarkable.
I watched the movie after reading the book. Skip it. They've changed the story in horrible fashion. It's awful.… (more)
LibraryThing member Elpaca
During the initial occupation of Germany, Russians and the other Allies jockeying for positions, for German brain power, this novel proved to be engaging and intelligent. How could the Germans let all that is WWII happen? All the reasons are intertwined in a very good plot: anti--semitism, fear for their lives, fear for the lives of those they loved, survival, nationalism, fear of communism. On and on. It happened.… (more)
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
I don't generally read spy novels or suspense thrillers these days, but I do have an enduring admiration for the work of John LeCarre, having read several of his books in years past. And Joseph Kanon's work has been justifiably compared to LeCarre's, and also to Graham Greene's, although the latter comparison is, I think, a bit of a stretch. But there is absolutely no doubt that Kanon knows how to grab a reader and spin a yarn and keep you turning pages late into the night. And all these things are certainly true of THE GOOD GERMAN, which I just finished whipping my way through. The characters in Kanon's books are, it seems to me, less important than the plot, in this case a murder mystery, and this was also true of LOS ALAMOS, the only other Kanon book I've read, that one set against the secrets and intrigues of the Manhattan Project. This time Kanon uses the Potsdam Conference as a backdrop, with seasoned journalist and war correspondent Jake Geismar, who has returned to a shattered Berlin after Germany has surrendered to find Lena Brandt, his married lover from before the war. He suddenly finds himself embroiled in a web of intrigue as he attempts to unravel the murder of an American officer. There is much here about the already ongoing competition and mistrust between the Americans and the Russians as both sides scramble to harvest the scientific knowledge of German technology and rocket science. But what comes through strongest of all is the immense suffering endured during the war, by both its innocent victims - the Jews - and also by the German people themselves, and the question that continually emerges is who will bear the responsibility for all the death and misery. Is there, in the awful aftermath of accusations and trials, even such a thing as a "good German."

There is a kind of breakneck pace to the story, as Jake tries to stay one pace ahead of the Russians and maybe some rotten Americans too. One of the more interesting characters is an alcoholic German policeman who Jake enlists to help him solve the ever more complex murder case. There are some rather steamy sex scenes when Jake and Lena reunite, as well as some shoot-em-up gun battles and even car chases and crashes - everything that would contribute to a successful film adaptation. And of course there was a film, which I have not seen, but I'll bet it's a damn good one.

This is a good book. Not great literature, but good solid writing and fine nail-biting, page-turning entertainment. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member cebellol
A touching mystery in the days following the fall of Nazi Germany with just a dash of a love story thrown in. I LOVE the concept. I love the storyline. I love it ALL! A must read for those who enjoy historical mysteries! Save yourself though & skip the movie. It's not just that the book is 10X better, but also that the movie is just plain awful.… (more)
LibraryThing member jimgysin
Kanon can just flat out write. It's that simple. But for better or worse, I put off reading this one after being severely disappointed by the movie version. Bad mistake on my part, and I've finally fixed it after getting enough nudges from friends who know how much I like Kanon's previous work. So now that I've read it? Great story, great narrative, great pacing, great setting. Yes, there is a pattern there. Dialogue is about the only area where he doesn't excel, but it's not as if the lines spoken are all clunkers, or anything. And Kanon can set a scene and evoke a setting as well as anyone writing today. Still, I was disappointed in the end by the ultimate motivations of the murderer (too prosaic for my tastes) and I was hoping for a plot twist involving the female lead.… (more)
LibraryThing member phillipfrey
Reading this book is much better than seeing the movie (George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Toby McGuire). A well-written book that takes place in 1945 Berlin at the end of the war. An American correspondent returns to Berlin to find the woman he had left behind before the war. A story of espionage, love, and murder.
LibraryThing member passion4reading
Two months after the end of the Second World War in Europe, Jake Geismar arrives in Berlin, a correspondent attached to the American army. He's been sent to report on the Potsdam Conference, the meeting of the heads of state of the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia to decide how to administer the defeated Germany. But while everyone gathers for a photo opportunity, a murdered American officer is washed up on the shore of the lake, with a money belt stuffed with occupation marks. What was he selling? Jake decides to investigate, hoping that his searches among the ruins will also lead him to the lover he left years ago, before the war.

Far from being a simple historical murder mystery, the novel deals with very ethically and morally complex themes, throwing up all sorts of uncomfortable questions in the process, and explores issues surrounding the collective German guilt surrounding the Holocaust both sensitively and unflinchingly, while refraining from making any rash judgements; instead, the horrors of the Nazi regime are examined through the experiences and actions of a handful of local characters, and though the mind struggles to comprehend that humans are capable of committing such atrocities against other fellow human beings and wants to condemn and punish them, the author reveals that behind the crimes there is often something worse. I repeatedly had tears in my eyes while reading, and I kept asking myself, what would I have done if the safety of my family had been at stake? As I am German myself and my grandparents, greataunts and -uncles lived and fought through the war, the question went even further: what choices did my relatives have to make, or did they feel there was no choice, either through a belief in the ideology or by adhering to some innate principles? As usual, the war was a topic that wasn't talked about. At the end the reader is left to ask themself: what makes a good German, and who makes this decision, and for what purpose?

Additionally, the Allies are often shown in a morally dubious light, viewing Berlin and the country as a whole as a gigantic business opportunity, so that the entire novel emerges as being coloured in gradations of grey, and that's not just the colour of the city reduced to rubble and dust. Kanon's evocation of time and place is acute and extraordinarily vivid, and it's almost as if I could see the old newsreel films running in front of my eyes. He's got an excellent ear for dialogue and the plotting and pacing are almost flawless, setting up the beginnings of yet another conflict seemlessly. The only bug bear for me is the love story, with its in-your-face, almost pornographic descriptions of sex; was this really necessary to draw in the readers? With such a talented writer the personal conflict at the heart of the novel could have been explored differently.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
I first read this years ago when it first came out, and it was enough to make me a forever-fan of Kanon. Re-reading it this week only reminded me of why I loved the book so much the first time around--and that's coming from someone who almost never re-reads books!

Kanon's work is part mystery, part love story, part historical fiction, part thriller and espionage, and centered in Berlin in 1945 following WWII. Bringing to life the desperation and the destruction of the city, and various factions fighting for control of not just the city, but also its people and the story that history will tell, this is one of those books that has the capability of transporting a reader back in time. Kanon's balance of setting and suspense against character is masterful, and thus the book is incredibly difficult to put down.

Without a doubt, I'd recommend it to nearly anyone who enjoys historical drama, suspense, or mystery, or even simply historical fiction that deals with WWII. It's well worth the read.
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LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
While I found the story interesting, I found the length far to long. I felt like this story could have been wrapped up sooner. I found myself actually getting bored with the story. I also felt that there were too many ancillary characters. They made the story confusing and disjointed at times. That being said, I loved reading about Berlin after the war. That part I found fascinating. How the city looked, how it felt, how people were coping with the destruction-that was so interesting. The characters were all rather unlikable, but I'm sure it had more to do with the situation they were in, a situation I can't quite wrap my mind around.… (more)
LibraryThing member agingcow2345
First, if you have seen the movie, switch off the memories. I liked the movie. Indeed it was one of the two factors that led me to buy the book. That said the movie collapsed characters and severely altered the story line. Different media and all that. What this book is is a good police procedural dressed up as a costume drama and then dolled up further as a questionable morality play. The morality play part is trite, obvious to anyone who knows the period and superfluous. It is part of why 4 stars instead of 5. The other part of the missing star is that the characters are straight out of central casting. Two paragraphs into each of them and you know them from a hundred prior novels and movies. They have no depth and will not stick with you the way say Elizabeth Yager from Rimrunners will. That said, they are serviceable devices to move the plot along. The period costume drama is excellently handled. It gives you the Berlin of Potsdam and the very early occupation without the burden of high politics. The Big Three are there essentially as stage props. I grew up around veterans of that war and the author seems to have nailed the sensibilities. The police procedural works better in the reading than the outline afterwards would indicate. By interweaving two mysteries and a host of loose ends that as in real life never get fully resolved the end is guessable but by no means obvious. The book is well worth the reading time and has sent me off to Amazon to buy another by the author.… (more)


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