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October 2002

Conflict of Interest

Three disparate accounts of life during World War II

ADDRESS UNKNOWN** by Kressman Taylor Souvenir Press, 1938/2002

Address Unknown created an instant sensation when it first appeared in Story magazine in 1938. The following year it was published in book form, to critical acclaim and runaway sales. For thousands of Americans, this simple story vividly exposed the horrors of Nazism, long before details of the Holocaust reached an appalled world. This is a story told in letters between an American Jew and his friend and business partner, recently returned to his German homeland. American Max watches with horror as his friend Martin rapidly discards his American liberalism and embraces Nazi philosophy, with deadly consequences. The story is stark, powerful and disturbing. It is also somewhat heavy-handed, lacking subtlety not only in its message, but also in its sometimes clunky prose.

The war prevented publication of this book in Europe, although it still made it on to the Nazis’ list of banned books. Since being “rediscovered” recently, it has been re-released in a beautifully designed little package and is being translated all over Europe. This slender volume is not a literary masterpiece, but nevertheless has a place as a modern classic for its prescient role in bringing home the reality of fascism to the United States.

BERLIN: THE DOWNFALL, 1945*** by Antony Beevor Viking, 2002

Four years ago, Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad swept the literary awards, became a surprise bestseller and helped propel a resurgence of interest in history. Berlin: The Downfall is possibly an even better book, and has created an even bigger stir, thanks to its shocking content. The fall of Berlin has been well documented, but Beevor has accessed many new sources, including Russian ones, that reveal the full extent of the atrocity. His book has opened old wounds in both Germany and Russia, and the resulting publicity has brought this dark chapter of history to a new audience.

The Red Army marched on Berlin with the memory of Nazi atrocities fresh in their minds, and this is the story of vengeance on a terrifying scale. In the last months of the war, around two million women and girls were raped in an orgy of violence and humiliation. Beevor talked to many women who had never before spoken of their ordeal, forming some of the most horrific passages in the book.

Beevor’s great skill is in balancing the political and military machinations with their effect on individuals. A former soldier, Beevor is at heart a military historian. There is much here about troop movements, units, battles—perhaps a little too much for a lay reader. But the political and social dimensions of the fall of Berlin are unavoidable, representing the cause and the effect of military action, and Beevor gives these due measure. He moves from street-by-street fighting, to Hitler issuing increasingly crazed orders from his bunker, to pathetic columns of refugees fleeing the Red Army.

This is an epic, horrifying and moving book, which demonstrates why the war still—rightfully—remains at the forefront of our consciousness.

THE DARK ROOM**** by Rachel Seiffert Viking, 2001

The Dark Room comprises three separate stories that form a patchwork of the German war experience and its aftermath. Helmut, unfit for service owing to a minor birth defect, works in Berlin as a photographer, and watches bemused as his city slowly drains of people. Lore takes her four young siblings on foot from Bavaria to Hamburg when her parents are imprisoned by the Americans. Micha, in modern-day Germany, struggles to come to terms with his beloved grandfather’s role in the SS.

Seiffert is a magical writer. She uses the present tense, connecting us to her characters with a sense of immediacy and intimacy. She wrenches the emotions with rigorously unsentimental prose. Almost reportage, Seiffert’s short, crisp sentences state simply what befalls her characters, with only the occasional telling metaphor. Yet these bare facts are enough to move us. Most heartbreaking is Lore, such desperate responsibility resting on her young, frail shoulders.

Seiffert writes about aspects of the war that we are not used to hearing: the ordinary German with no role to play in the war; the child of Nazi parents who does not yet understand what has happened to her, or to her country. In choosing these characters on the fringes of history, Seiffert brings fresh and startling insights to a topic that may seem worn. Only Micha’s story takes on the more familiar territory of the modern German trying to find his own, and his family’s, place in history. It can be difficult to identify with Micha’s stubborn single-mindedness, at the expense of those around him. Although this story provides an important balance, it is the most challenging, and perhaps the least successful, of the three.

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