The God of That Summer by Ralf Rothman, translated by Shaun Whiteside (forthcoming)
What is it about the end of World War II that is so morbidly fascinating? We’ve moved on from the high adventure of Where Eagles Dare, Biggles and the tales of Monty v Rommel to a more sombre obsession with the dying days of Nazi Germany. This unfolding armageddon — Hitler in his bunker, the advancing Russians, the refugee columns, the bombing, the ghastly Nazis clinging to power — seems to captivate us. It’s a real-life War of the Worlds.
In recent years, the addition of authentic German voices has given this macabre drama its impetus. Some of them actually experienced the crisis, others have ready access to those who did. For decades, hearing the German point of view in the English-speaking world was rare. Understandably, Germans were wary of portraying the events of the war in a way that was sympathetic to their side. A Woman in Berlin, the account by a German journalist of the sack of Berlin by the Red Army in 1945, was originally shunned on publication in her homeland in the 1950s; it only gained critical acclaim in Germany this century.
Since then, thankfully, the balance has been redressed across the media, from TV series such as the reboot of Das Boot (2018) to translations of the writings of Walter Kempowski and others in both fiction and non-fiction. These take a more nuanced approach than the black-and-white patriotic stories we are used to in which the Axis powers and populations are all “baddies” and the Allied forces the good guys. The shift appeals to modern tastes for a more measured and ambiguous portrayal of events that affected ordinary Germans as they confronted moral dilemmas under the Nazi regime. It is all the more effective from a German perspective, exposed as it was to the awful savagery of the closing stages of the war.
The God of That Summer by Ralf Rothman, originally written in German in 2018 and newly translated to English, is the latest in a growing body of literature that deals with the horrors of World War II from a German point of view.
How do different people react as the impending disaster unfolds?
Rothman certainly pulls no punches when it comes to his description of twelve-year-old Luisa’s day to day life towards the end of the war. In this case, it is not the Russians who are remorselessly approaching, but the British (or English, as they are called here). From flattened and smoking Kiel and the nearby concentration camp, to the detailed descriptions of diseased horses, the picture he paints is simultaneously compelling, repulsive and colourfully vivid throughout.
How do different people react as the impending disaster unfolds? Some despair, like Luisa’s father, who takes to drink in the knowledge of what is to come, gradually sinking into depression as the family’s situation deteriorates. Others are in denial. Luisa’s stepsister, married to a high-ranking Nazi official, lives in a fantasy of the “miracle weapon” saving them all from defeat. She must believe that Germany will win the war, as the alternative is too grim for her to entertain. Luisa’s other sister takes the hedonistic approach, concerning herself with men, parties and intoxicants.
Strangest of all is the reaction of the wicked. As in reality, instead of trying to redeem themselves, Nazi officials in the book double down as the end draws closer, their behaviour becoming ever more monstrous. These characters and their attitudes feed into the impending sense of doom, magnifying realism and the reader’s immersion in the story.
German imagination links the twin disasters of the Thirty Years War and WWII
Ralf Rothman is in his late 60s, a novelist, poet and dramatist from Schleswig (where the book is set). His first dozen or so works were set in contemporary urban Germany, collecting numerous German literary prizes along the way. The God of That Summer, translated into English by Shaun Whiteside, is the second of his books to deal with the trauma of World War II. A loose sequel to the award-winning To Die in Spring, it is a captivatingly bleak and visceral description of German life through the eyes of a young teenager, showing the breakdown of order and the human character under the pressure of approaching catastrophe.
My only question mark hovers over the subplot: a short story of its own wedged between the pages of the more effective primary narrative. It echoes the main plot and is set three hundred years earlier in that other German apocalypse, the Thirty Years War. It begins to grate a little after the first few pages, raising the question: why did Rothman not focus on the main storyline and its plot progression? In German imagination the twin disasters of the Thirty Years War and World War II are much more closely linked — it is very possible that this connection is somewhat lost in translation.
Sub-plot aside, this is a compelling addition to a growing canon of portrayals of a moment in history that is just within living memory.
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