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Documentary fiction of World War II

A young German soldier, a deserter, makes his way to Berlin in April 1945 and finds a friendly face in the owner of a pub.

 

Sean Sheehan

 

This is the beginning of “Berlin finale”, a novel that first appeared in Germany in 1947 and was a bestseller before sinking into undeserved obscurity.

It is an extraordinary novel, written by a German who saw the bombs falling on Berlin and knew that Hitler’s regime was close to collapse even as the Gestapo hunted for anyone opposed to Nazism.

“Berlin finale”, is literary fiction, a thriller and a historical document. Its descriptions of Berlin falling apart have an immediacy grounded in the experience of someone who witnessed it first-hand.

It dissects the nature of the Nazi ideology and shows us that some Germans saw through its falsity and hollowness.

The publican Oskar Klose brings home to the deserter Joachim Lassehn an uncomfortable truth: “Your generation will lose the ground beneath your feet …it will stand there empty-handed and with a disappointed heart, it will recognise the betrayal and seduction to which it has fallen.”

Such guilt and betrayal was the inheritance that prepared the way for the Red Army Faction and the anger of Baader, Meinhof and others that raged across West Germany in the 1970s.

Heinrich Gerlach was another German writer who suffered and survived the European nightmare.

He was a soldier and taken prisoner after the surrender of the German Sixth Army to Russian forces at Stalingrad in 1943.

He began writing in captivity and the astonishing way this finally resulted in “Breakout at Stalingrad”  is told in the appendices to the English translation of his novel.

The ‘breakout’ in the novel’s title is ironic. Its reality is a painfully gruelling wait for Godot, a deliverance that will never arrive.

Its central characters are fictional  but possess the same force of reality that haunt scenes like the one where Göring assures Hitler that his plan for rescuing the surrounded 6th Army will be successful: “ ‘My Führer!’ he barked, his puffy, jowly face turning puce. “My Führer, there is no such thing as ‘impossible’ for us.”

Göring guarantees that the Sixth Army will be supplied and “Breakout at Stalingrad” is the scorchingly heartbreaking and truth-telling story of this failure.

In a book of almost 600 pages, “Berlin” is a graphic novel in monochrome that transports the reader back to the years that would eventually lead to Stalingrad and the collapse of the Nazi capital.

It starts in 1928 and follows various ordinary Germans as their interwoven lives are gradually infected by the spread of fascist politics.

The characters are not real but the underlying narrative structure is firmly based on fact. It’s a scary tale, not least because of the way it echoes the current success of right-wing populism around the world.

“Berlin finale”, by Heinz Rein is published by Penguin Books

“Breakout at Stalingrad” by Heinrich Gerlach is published by Head of Zeus

Berlin by Jason Lutes is published by Drawan and Quarterly

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