The Wall Street Journal
In the World of Night and Fog
The 12 years of Hitler's Third Reich are fertile ground for novelists.
Philip Kerr published "March Violets," his first Bernie Gunther novel, in 1989. The obsession with World War II and the Nazi regime was of course long-established, the subject of countless novels, memoirs and films. Mr. Kerr's originality was to write about prewar Berlin from the point of view of a German Nazi-skeptic, an ex-cop turned private detective. The book was an immediate success, and over the past 20 years Mr. Kerr has followed Gunther's career—in which he is drawn against his will into the Nazis' world—through the war, its immediate aftermath and to Argentina, which offered a refuge to so many Nazi criminals. (The new seventh installment, "Field Gray," has Gunther being arrested and sent to West Germany to face genocide charges.) If the novels set in the 1930s are the most compelling, this is because they remain the freshest, assuming that adjective may properly be applied to any depiction of Hitler's repulsive regime. But Mr. Kerr has set a fashion, and now Berlin Noir is a crowded place.
Gunther must surely have bumped into Nikolai Hoffner—the hero of Jonathan Rabb's own Berlin Noir trilogy—in the offices of the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) in the Alexanderplatz. And both may have worked with Gunther Behn, another ex-Kripo turned private detective. Behn is recruited by a journalist named Jake Geismar in Joseph Kanon's 2001 novel of occupied Berlin, "The Good German." Back in the Weimar years any of them might have briefed Hannah Vogel, the crime reporter in Rebecca Cantrell's "A Trace of Smoke" (2009). And Geismar surely knew the Anglo-American journalist John Russell—hero of David Downing's four Berlin novels—in the prewar years and shared a drink with him at the Foreign Press Club, where they could safely join in mockery of Joseph Goebbels's press conferences.
All or any of them must also have exchanged words, nods or glances in the bar of the Adlon, Berlin's most fashionable hotel, where Gunther worked as the house detective between his resignation from the Kripo and his recall and promotion at the command of the terrible Reinhard Heydrich (SS Obergruppenführer, head of the police under Hitler and organizer of the "Final Solution"). There, too, they would have observed some of the foreign correspondents and elegant diplomats who engage in espionage in Alan Furst's novels. And I would like to think that some of them at least may have come across Christopher Isherwood's Mr. Norris, incompetently and fearfully serving the communist cause—for the time being anyway—and may have heard Sally Bowles sing, so badly, at the Lady Windermere Bar.
Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 and killed himself in the ruins of Berlin (and his Thousand-Year Reich) in April 1945. Hitler and his party have become historical figures, utterly rejected by the Germany that succeeded them. The Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring in his cell in Nuremberg declared that in 30 or 40 years time there would be statues of him in every German city. There are no such statues, and it is safe to assert that there never will be any.
Yet the Nazis will not let loose their hold on our imagination. Put a swastika on a book cover and it will sell. History TV channels return time and again to evocations of the regime. Squalid, brutal and murderous as they were, the Nazis retain a sinister and disturbing glamour. The devil had so many of the best tunes, and the SS had the most stylish uniforms. (SS chic has a homoerotic appeal, even though the SS dispatched 600,000 gays to the death camps.) It's really no surprise that there is a flourishing subgenre of mysteries set in Nazi Germany.
At one level, a superficial one, crime novels are mere entertainment. We have prisons filled with criminals, but most of us in the Western world live in a comfort and security without precedent in history. Our misfortunes and tragedies are personal and domestic; they don't call the validity of the social fabric into question. Our time is one in which failed politicians are allowed to retire to cultivate their gardens or make millions of dollars by attaching themselves to banks or foundations and accepting large fees for speaking. Very few of them go to prison. Even fewer are murdered, judicially or otherwise. They are rarely attacked in the streets or insulted in public places.
This is good, but it is also rather dull. So, from our mental Switzerland, we are happy to turn in our reading to a time when political activity was indeed a matter of life and death, to a time of cruelty and danger in which the demarcation of good and evil is evident. For entertainment, who doesn't prefer the Rome of the Borgias to the cuckoo clock? And these Berlin Noir novels are first of all action-packed thrillers with often cleverly complicated plots and with, on the whole, a morality as clear-cut and satisfying as that of a classic western. Evil is powerful, but Good wins through, and the moral order is restored, if still fragile.
These novels are entertainments certainly, but they may be more than that. One of the best books on the crime novel was written by Nicolas Freeling, himself a master of the genre: "Criminal Convictions" (1994). In the introductory chapter, he wrote: "To mature thought, crime is a phenomenon of significance as much metaphysical as material. Inherent is a destruction of mind more frequent than that of body." This last phrase calls to mind the Nazi poster-boy Heydrich, handsome in appearance, foul in deed. Crime has its progression. Messrs. Kerr and Rabb and Ms. Cantrell all show us the Nazis engaged in mere gangsterism before seizing power to create their criminal state. Freeling went on to note: "Crime is the pathology of the human condition, the moment after, it may be, a long-drawn-out disturbance or perversion, at which the delicate balance of metabolism . . . tilts into morbidity."
These sentences go to the heart of the German experience. The shock of defeat in 1918; the refusal to admit that it was defeat rather than betrayal; the great inflation, which overthrew all established ideas of value; the lust for novelty; the feebleness and ineptitude of the democratic politicians; mass unemployment (6 million without work, the number the same, bitter irony, as that of the victims of the Holocaust a decade later)—all this was the "long drawn-out disturbance or perversion" that opened the way to the pathological Nazi regime, the delicate metabolism of society tilting into morbidity. The playful, but also despairing, decadence of Weimar Berlin, captured vividly by Mr. Rabb and Ms. Cantrell in their pre-1933 novels, represented a feverish questioning of inherited values. Artistic experiment, evident for example in the films of Fritz Lang, himself a character in Mr. Rabb's "Shadow and Light" (2009), promised a freedom that was anathema to the Nazis. The destruction of the German mind went hand-in-hand with the destruction of the social body.
The Nazis preached a narrow restrictive morality while making the state a criminal enterprise. They passed laws and subverted the principle of justice. The criminal was no longer an outsider; he was an officer of the state. Consequently the just man or woman became, in the eyes of the state, a criminal. All the heroes and heroines of Berlin Noir novels rebel against the morbid reality imposed on Germany. They are subversives precisely because they are not pathological. They still believe in love, fraternity, sympathy and loyalty to family and friends rather than to the Moloch of the Nazi State.
Yet, because they operate in the shadow of a regime that denies all these, they find themselves committing crimes in their war against criminal power. Mr. Kerr's Bernie Gunther, the most soiled of Galahads, does not hesitate to shoot anyone who stands in his way. Mr. Downing's John Russell, making his fourth appearance in the new "Potsdam Station," is an Anglo-American with divided loyalties—a German lover, a German ex-wife now married to a Nazi, and a German son. He is willing to lie and deceive in his struggle against lies and deceit.
All writers are in debt to their predecessors. Any novel of Nazi Germany or fascist Italy is prefigured in miniature in Stendhal's "Charterhouse of Parma." There too you have an autocracy with its secret police, corrupted law courts, prisons and executions. And the shades of Chandler and Hammett loom over Messrs. Kerr and Rabb. Their heroes wisecrack like Marlowe, and their Berlin is a more vicious and pathological Bay City, one in which the murderous gangsters have discarded the fig leaf of respectability—except when foreigners must be duped, as during the 1936 Olympics, which feature in several of these novels. The cool, laconic novels of Alan Furst are in debt to Eric Ambler and the Graham Greene of "Stamboul Train" and "The Confidential Agent." Charles McCarry—whose servants of "The Outfit" (an idealized version of the CIA) flit in and out of pre- and postwar Berlin (with more cameos by Heydrich)—owes something to John Le Carré; the themes that interest both are betrayal and the clash of public and private loyalties.
Nazi Germany presents us with a drama in black and white. The villains are as obvious as their prime victims, the Jews. Anti-Semitism is for Nazis alone; the propaganda against the Jews is one of the means by which they seek to corrupt the young, like John Russell's son Peter in Mr. Downing's "Station" series. Peter, happily, finds the lessons that he has been taught in the Jungvolk at odds with his experience of the rare Jews he encounters. We have no doubt that the heroes of these novels are on the proper side. They choose good, not evil; right, not might. They are mostly versions of Chandler's lonely man walking down mean streets—even when they are propping up the bar of the Adlon. And they have their loyal helpers, usually the women who love them or, for Mr. Rabb's Nikolai Hoffner, his younger son (the elder is a Nazi).
There is, however, a gray area, only lightly touched on in most Berlin Noir novels because its inhabitants, ordinary Germans, are neither Nazis nor anti-Nazis but rather people who accept the reality of the moment. They fit uncomfortably into the chiaroscuro of these books and are therefore mostly excluded. Their dramas and struggles with conscience were private and personal. Yet there were millions of them, people who gave the Hitler salute because it was dangerous not to. They took no part in resistance because it seemed futile, and they collaborated without enthusiasm because it seemed sensible to do so.
The question of "the good German" lurks in the undergrowth of all these novels. In Mr. Kanon's novel of that title, it is center-stage. Jake Geismar has returned to the ruined city in the summer of 1945, ostensibly to cover the Potsdam Conference, really to search for the woman he loved before the war. There is no doubt about Lena; she is a good German who worked in a hospital during the war and helped to save Jews—as did John Russell's film-star lover Effi in "Stettin Station" (2010). Both are girls whom Hollywood might have found no difficulty in casting—Ingrid Bergman for Lena, Audrey Hepburn for Effi.
Lena's husband, Emil, is more complicated: an unlikable man and a mathematical genius. He is apolitical, careless of his wife—he is unaware of her prewar affair with Geismar—and full of ambition. This makes him easy prey for the Nazis. He is recruited to join Wernher von Braun's team, working on the development of rockets. The work justifies everything for him, even the slave labor on which it depends. He is a great criminal because he does not even recognize that his behavior is criminal, an example of the pathological type—the balance of his metabolism has tipped into morbidity. But being what he is, he will survive. A young Jewish-American officer engaged in the de-Nazification process wants him prosecuted. The officer's superiors have other ideas. The United States needs Emil and his kind. Politics defeats morality.
At the heart of the Berlin Noir novels, even those that seem to set out only to thrill and entertain, lie ethical questions: What is right conduct? How do you survive, your moral integrity and honor intact, in a criminal state? This is why such novels are worth reading, even those that at times sink to blood-and-guts trash. It is not just the seedy glamour of the Nazis that holds one's attention. It is, as Mr. Kanon especially shows, that there is something pathological in the behavior of all states and political action, where time and again the end is held to justify the means. Nazi Germany was the politics of irresponsible power taken to the extreme, but all power politics, even when concealed behind the veil of democracy, "tilt towards morbidity."
Five of the Best Berlin Noirs
The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr (1990)
The second, and perhaps finest, of the Bernie Gunther novels sees him restored to the Kripo to catch a serial killer of blonde girls. Might the sadistic and crazy Gauleiter of Franconia, Julius Streicher, be the guilty man? And why does the developing plot appear to implicate Himmler himself? Written with bravado, invention and terrific verve, it has an irresistible freshness.
Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb (2009)
This is a splendid evocation of Weimar Berlin. The plot dealing with the goings-on at the UFA film studios, the development of sound films and a market in sex-movies, is near impenetrable, but the wonderful cast of gangsters, phonies, politicians and Nazi thugs are compelling. And Nikolai Hoffner, a cop weighed down by bad conscience, is the most engaging of heroes.
Zoo Station by David Downing (2007)
The first of the John Russell novels, less action-packed or full of horrors than the sequels, is one of the most intelligent and persuasive realizations of Germany immediately before the war. Since the "Station" novels—"Silesian Station" (2008), "Stettin Station" (2010) and the new "Potsdam Station"—tell a continuous story, and are, in effect, a single very long book, they should be read in order.
The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst (2006)
He always writes with such authority, and is so consistently good, that it seems absurd to select one novel rather than another. All I can say is that this is one of my favorites. It flits between Spain and Italy, Paris and Berlin in 1938-9 and, grips from the assassination in the first chapter.
The Good German by Joseph Kanon (2001)
A marvelously rich novel. The picture of the ruined Berlin in 1945 is unforgettable, the plot unfolds smoothly. The important ethical questions are asked and the answers are disturbing.
Review by Allan Massie
© The Wall Street Journal April 2011