Title: The Good German
Author: Joseph Kanon
Kanon, Joseph (2001). The Good German: a novel. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
PS3561.A476 G66 2001
- Berlin (Germany)–Fiction.
Date Posted: November 2, 2017
Review by Neil Gordon
In the midsummer of 1945, Jake Geismar, a journalist made famous—though “not as famous as Murrow”—by his coverage of the war, arrives in Berlin. Ostensibly, he has come to write a series of articles for Collier’s magazine on the Allied occupation. In fact, he is searching for his prewar lover, Lena Brandt, the wife of a prominent German rocket scientist. It is two months after Germany’s surrender, and Geismar finds Berlin shattered, nearly unrecognizable, displaying “the visible fury of the final assault, a destructive madness.” He also finds Lena, sick and miserable and alone. Her husband has disappeared; she has been raped by the invading Russians; her 2-year-old son has been killed in an air raid. And Geismar finds a murder as well: a dead American soldier, his pockets filled with money, floating in a lake outside the mansion housing the Potsdam Conference.
None of this is surprising in postwar Berlin, a place where everything—from hookers to phony testimonials attesting to the bearer’s attempts to help Jews in the camps—is for sale on the black market, where everyone is armed and life is so tenuous as to be utterly disposable. But running through the American and Russian sectors is something that shocks even a cynical war correspondent. As Geismar slowly discovers, the American soldier was murdered while brokering Lena’s husband’s freedom within the world of secretive programs designed to bring Nazis and war criminals to justice. And within this world there is a powerful, efficient and absolutely ruthless corporate and military network that is trying not to capture Nazis but to exonerate scientists like Lena’s husband, to expunge their compromised past.
Why? Because, as it prepares for its former ally the Soviet Union to become its Cold War enemy, our military feels it must have, at any price, the rocketry expertise of the Wehrmacht. “I don’t care if he was Hitler’s best friend,” an American officer says of Lena’s husband, Emil. “We just want to know what’s up here,” he explains, tapping a finger to his head. In such a historical and ethical quagmire, Geismar is faced with three interlocking questions: Who killed the American soldier? Why is the Army trying to prevent Geismar from finding out? And where is Lena’s husband?
A common and often fatal failing of this kind of book—a suspense novel set against epic atrocities like the Holocaust and World War II—is the trivialization of the historical framework with a fictional story. But Joseph Kanon, whose first thriller was set at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and whose second dramatized the issues raised by McCarthyism and Vietnam, has woven his plot seamlessly into the historical background. As the hunt for the missing scientist gathers speed, the moral and emotional dimensions of the story become more complex.
Was the murdered soldier saving Lena’s husband or delivering him to the Russians? Are the Americans, so ready to forgive German war criminals in the interests of military and corporate competition, any better than the Russians, who seem not to care about anyone’s political past? Was Lena’s husband a nominal Nazi or was he more profoundly implicated in the administration of Nordhausen, the rocket works staffed by horrifically abused slave labor? What is the ethical status of those who became Nazis simply to protect themselves and their families? And how will the truth regarding Emil’s complicity affect the fact that Geismar is in love with his wife?
The mystery takes on the weight of the deepest questions of right and wrong as the novel’s action moves through a ravaged Berlin so exactly depicted that one feels Kanon must have traveled in time to witness this landscape himself. At its best, in its articulation of a personal experience of the war and its aftermath, and in the plain power of its prose, The Good German rivals Irwin Shaw’s novel The Young Lions, its history imaginatively accessible, its plot historically inevitable.
No one is innocent in Kanon’s Berlin: the Americans are corrupted by denazification, as are the Russians, whose war heroes are guilty of terrible cruelty. Bystanders are accused of witnessing deportations; military courts try Jews who turned on other Jews. Above all, however, Geismar—who is not Jewish—keeps running up against the subtle, ever-present anti-Semitism not of the Germans or the Russians but of the Americans, a social anti-Semitism that is all the more chilling in this immediate postwar context.
“We don’t want people to think a minority is using this program to get revenge,” says a visiting congressman, discussing the Army’s procedures for identifying war criminals. “We’re an even smaller minority here,” answers an American soldier who happens to be Jewish, one of the few functionaries who actually try to ferret out Nazis and camp guards among the hordes of Germans looking for jobs with the occupying army. “Most of us are dead,” he reminds the congressman. “I didn’t mean you personally, of course,” is the hasty reply. “Save it,” the soldier answers. “I know what you mean. I don’t want to join your country club anyway.”
It is this level of historical insight that goes beyond the current vogue of technical exactitude in movies about World War II and rises to the poetic truth of, say, the filmmaker Axel Corti’s shocking depiction of postwar Vienna. Occupied Berlin is a place where the sentimental triumphs of Spielberg’s World War II pale before the moral depravity of denazification. The Allied victory is rendered hollow on both sides of the fast-dropping Iron Curtain as the good fight against fascism is corrupted by the bad dictates of the emerging cold war and anti-Semitism is, unbelievably, more than tolerated in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
The Good German is by no means a perfect book: there are a few genuine flaws in plot, in motivation, in balance, in voice. At times the gears of the story fail to mesh; some conversations contain more information than communication; sex scenes are neither erotic nor pornographic, just a bit anatomical. These are all details of craftsmanship, however, and no one who has followed the remarkable progress of Kanon’s three politically engaged thrillers can doubt that this new book is a quantum leap toward real mastery of the genre.
Even with its occasional lapses, The Good German is thoroughly captivating, a novel that brings to life the ambiguities at the heart of our country’s moral legacy. It also offers the promise of a writer who is fast approaching the complexity and relevance not just of le Carré and Greene but even of Orwell: provocative, fully realized fiction that explores, as only fiction can, the reality of history as it is lived by individual men and women. Kanon’s vision of postwar Germany is not only enthralling but troubling, suggesting that for Germany, Russia and America alike, compelling questions about guilt and righteousness are the ultimate legacy of the Third Reich.
 Neil Gordon, “Love Among the Ruins,” New York Times (October 14, 2001), accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/14/books/love-among-the-ruins.html