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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Rarely do I not finish a book, but this was a rare occasion.
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.
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.
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.
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.