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by Harald Gilbers and Alexandra Roesch, trans.
Thomas Dunne, December 2020
359 pages
ISBN: 1250246938

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In English, the late and deeply missed Philip Kerr holds the patent on the brilliant idea of situating his detective protagonist in Nazi Germany. It is a regime and a time period that cries out for a noir approach. But Kerr was British, not German, and his perspective was inevitably coloured by that fact. The German author Harald Gilbers, however, has been producing his Oppenheimer series for almost a decade and now the first entry is appearing in English for the first time.

In this series, Gilbers focuses on a smaller slice of history and a more limited geographical area for his recreation of the Nazi period. His protagonist is, on the face of it, unlikely. Richard Oppenheimer, like Bernie Gunther, an ex-Berlin police detective. Unlike Bernie, Oppenheimer is Jewish and living in Berlin in 1944, his life precariously preserved by the fact that he is married to a non-Jewish woman, one of the group of wives whose famous demonstration in the street outside the building on Rosenstrasse where their husbands were being held prior to being deported to concentration camps and death was ultimately successful.

But Oppenheimer's continued existence is hardly assured. So when he is approached by an SS captain named Vogler and told he was being seconded to aid in the investigation of a murder, he is of course nervous. He cannot refuse, however and thus, yellow star and all, he sets to work to uncover the identity of what rapidly turns out to be the work of a serial killer. Oppenheimer is ostensibly being approached because of his success, in pre-Hitler days, in breaking open a puzzling series of murders. It will transpire that, for various reasons, this case is making the security service and the Gestapo nervous. If it all blows up, then it will be the fault of the Jew.

As a police procedural, GERMANIA is fairly commonplace. What makes it particular is the period and the place that Gilbers has chosen to set his story. The title refers to the elaborate scheme developed by architect Albert Speer at Hitler's behest for the total post-victory reconstruction of Berlin. A plan full of grandiose public buildings, wide boulevards to accommodate military parades, topped by a sculpted eagle clutching the entire globe in its talons. The time was 1939 and victory appeared assured. But curiously some of these buildings were to be constructed so that they would gradually and romantically dissolve into romantic ruins with the passing centuries.

The novel takes place some five years later. Officially, victory is at hand as a marvelous new weapon is about to be deployed that will settle the matter. But Berliners no longer believe in miracles and are rapidly losing faith in the Third Reich itself. Unlike Speer's ideal future construction, the actual city buildings will not decay beautifully over an expanse of time - they are nightly being bombed into rubble by Allied planes.

As always is the case with police procedurals set against a background of war, GERMANIA does raise the question of the necessity to pursue an individual murderer within the context of wholesale killing. More than that, however, is Silbers' interest in exploring the contradictions and tensions arising from the conflict between the reality of failure and the expectation of a triumph in which so many had put their faith. The author was born after the war, so he has no direct experience of the final year of the Nazi regime, but he constructs a telling and compelling picture of what it might well have been like. And his protagonist, Oppenheimer, the Jew who exists only on sufferance and with the tacit permission of men who hate him and believe he should be dead, is the perfect observer of a dying state.

Lately, there seems to be a renewed interest in the rise of Nazism, perhaps in the hope of avoiding a resurgence. GERMANIA describes the other end of the story and should stand as a telling warning about where the politics of hatred can lead. Readers should forgive the rather wooden translation - despite it, the book is both gripping and disturbing.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2020

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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