Author: Len Deighton
Deighton, Len (1987). Winter: A Berlin Family, 1899-1945. London: Hutchinson
PR6054.E37 W56 1987
Date Posted: November 13, 2015
A review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
It is common knowledge that the leadership of the German National Socialist Workers Party, or Nazis, was little more than a gang of crooks, murderers, political opportunists and racists. But Len Deighton sees it a little differently. In his 19th work of fiction, Winter: A Novel of a Berlin Family, he traces the lives of two German brothers, Peter and Paul Winter, from 1899 up to 1945. Peter, the elder, serves as an airship pilot in World War I, goes into his father’s business, marries a Jew and ends up fighting on the Allied side in World War II.
Pauli, as the younger brother is affectionately called, goes to military school, fights in the trenches during World War I, joins the Freikorps, discovers his knack for the law and rises to become the Nazis’ foremost legal adviser. It is Dr. Pauli Winter who figures out how Hitler can consolidate his leadership in 1934. (“Leave the presidency vacant—what a great idea.”) It is Pauli who justifies the practice of “preventive arrest” in 1937. And: “It was Pauli’s long analysis of the concentration-camp accounts that had ended with a suggestion that all the camps eventually become self-financing.”
Yet Pauli is not a thug or a brute. He is not even mean-spirited or anti-Semitic. He is merely a disappointed second son who can’t seem to please his demanding father, and therefore never takes himself very seriously.
This is really the most remarkable thing about Winter—that one can read it all the way through, lay it down and realize one has read the history of a top Nazi figure with engagement and sympathy, or at the very least without being nauseated and repelled. Pauli is ultimately evil because he doesn’t weigh the consequences of his behavior. But viewed up close he seems loyal, courageous, loving, trustworthy and likable – a convincing portrait of a good man gone wrong.
In certain other respects, Mr. Deighton’s novel is not so remarkable. It zips right along, beginning in 1945, circling back to 1899, and working its way forward year by significant year to 1945 again. It encompasses the major events and characters of the eras it covers—Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the war in the trenches, Karl Liebknecht, the beer-hall putsch, Reinhard Heydrich, the fighting on the Russian front, Count von Stauffenberg and the Nuremberg Trials.
But to cover so much ground, Mr. Deighton must devote many pages to exposition. This is achieved through the obvious device of the two-way conversation, which, for all the novel’s potential spectacle, ends up being the main action of the story. As a result, everything happens at a remove from narrative’s immediate focus.
“Your brother won’t come in his uniform, will he?” says Lottie Winter to her husband, Peter.
“Uniform, Pauli? He’s put on too much weight to fit into that these days.”
“You said he’d become a brownshirt.”
“No, darling. I said he’d joined the Nazi Party.” “Isn’t it the same thing?” “No, the S.A., with their brownshirt uniforms, are quite separate. They’re a rabble that that dreadful Captain Rohm recruited from Freikorps riffraff and chronic unemployed. They are closely allied to Hitler’s Nazi Party, but there’s a lot of friction between them.”
Although the cumulative effect of such conversations is a little wooden, it’s also apparent that Mr. Deighton’s overdependence on them is the key to the novel’s success. By avoiding direct descriptions of such obvious spectacles as, say, the Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg, or the landing of Allied forces on Omaha Beach or the discovery of the mass graves at Auschwitz, the author has scaled down their impact sufficiently to fit with the fictional characters who refer to them indirectly in their conversations. Had he reported such earthshaking events directly, it might have been intolerable to switch from them to scenes in which fictional characters carry on their relatively mundane affairs.
After all, if one tries to imagine ex nihilo a historical novel describing Germany in the 20th century, the prospect seems almost absurd. Yet Mr. Deighton’s Winter is anything but absurd. That it works at all—that one reads it with any degree of credulity and then stops to reflect that, yes, there could have been a character like Pauli—is something of a miracle.
So one mustn’t mind the occasionally wooden talk and the sense one gets that history is slipping by beyond one’s reach. It’s a treacherously windy chasm across which Mr. Deighton has strung his narrative tightrope. One is amazed that, for all his stumbling, he never falls off.