Thursday, November 22, 2018

Book 156: The Good German

"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."

Dates read: June 27- July 1, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Black and white thinking about the world is tempting. It would be easier that way, to separate it into good and bad without overlap or complication. But the world is a complication, and nearly everyone lives inside a shade of gray. Like most people, I like to think about myself as a good person, but of course (also like most people), I've been rude and thoughtless and even occasionally cruel. I mean girled a close friend in high school and made her cry. I stole a sweater that fell off of someone's laundry pile in college. I've said vicious things to my sister. Those aren't things a "good person" does, and the guilt I feel when I think about them inspires me to try to be better moving forward, to try to at least be on the lighter side of gray.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies found themselves trying to figure out how to deal with a whole mess of dark-gray-but-not-quite-black. There were a few obvious evildoers that were put on trial and executed, but what to do with the vast majority of German people who were on some level complicit with Nazi rule but didn't really do anything? And what about people who might have been more directly involved with the machinery of the Nazi state but have something valuable to offer? Joseph Kanon's The Good German is deeply steeped in these hard, serious questions, which serve as background to a complicated romance and a twisty thriller, both centering on American journalist Jake Geismar.

Geismar arrives in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference, but he's not new to the city. He lived and worked there for years, including the early years of the Nazi regime, before the war. His assignment might be to cover Potsdam, but he's really there to find Lena, the beautiful married woman with whom he was having a passionate affair before he left. But before he can find her, he finds something else: a young American soldier, floating dead in a lake with a bullethole through him and thousands of dollars still on him. His investigation of the dead man leads him back to Lena, but along with Lena come questions about her husband, Emil. Emil, a literal rocket scientist, has vanished and both the Americans and the Russians are very, very interested in what might have happened to him.

I've always enjoyed books that go right for the kind of moral relativity that can be very uncomfortable to contemplate, and The Good German is rife with it. Who is the titular good German anyways? Is it Lena and the thousands of others like her who tried to live their lives as normally as possible, pretending they didn't know what was happening, not speaking out or acting out against the regime but not really having done anything affirmatively to participate in it either? Is it someone like Emil, who did have more active participation but has skills that can help the victors achieve great things? Is it Emil's father, an academic who dropped out of public life with the rise of the Nazis but didn't do anything to actively resist? What about the former detective, very much a part of the Nazi state, but who helped his Jewish wife survive until she was spotted by someone else, and providing testimony against the woman who betrayed his wife to her death?

That the betrayer was, in this case, herself Jewish led me down a disturbing Wikipedia deep dive. I knew there was some level of individual Jewish cooperation with the Nazi state in situations like ghetto leadership, but I never knew there were Jewish people who helped "out" Jews that were in hiding to the Nazis. The novel's character seems to be loosely based on Stella Kubler, who initially began her work in order to protect her parents and husband, as well as herself. But even after they were deported to death camps, she continued to catch other Jews for two years! After serving time in Russia, she converted to Christianity and eventually ended up committing suicide but not until the 1990s. So I learned something completely new, which is always interesting.

As for the book itself, I enjoyed it and would recommend it. It sounds like kind of a "dad book" (WWII-era, thriller, older male protagonist) but it's quite good. Kanon draws interesting characters and puts them into difficult situations, and with the thriller elements there's a nice balance of plot and character. I did get a little confused near the end trying to keep track of who was on what side and who was double crossing who, but on the whole the book was involving and prompted a lot of thought. I tend to be a little wary of World War II books because I feel like a lot of them go over the same territory again and again, but this one was a new take (for me, anyways), and is very much worth a read.

Tell me, blog you believe in moral relativity or is it more black and white for you?

One year ago, I was reading: In The Woods

Two years ago, I was reading: The Emigrants

Three years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

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