Germania: A Novel of Nazi Berlin
“Sadistic, misogynistic murders and politicized police investigations are, unfortunately, universal. They don’t need a dictatorship.”
As a serial murderer prowls Nazi-ruled Berlin, gruesomely mutilating his female victims, the Gestapo pulls a Jewish police detective out of semi-hiding to join the investigation.
This set-up should have all the elements of an edge-of-the-chair thriller. Instead, Harald Gilbers—a German TV editor and theatrical director—makes it boring for the first 250 pages of his debut novel Germania.
The language is wooden. Crucial scenes are rushed through. The investigation plods halfheartedly; the second corpse doesn’t even show up until after page 100. Worst of all, the Nazi impact is so minimal for most of the novel, that it might as well be set in Poughkeepsie.
When the Jewish detective, Richard Oppenheimer, thinks about how the Gestapo aegis is temporarily cushioning him, he muses that “he now lacked any awareness that Jews like him were still being discriminated against.” Discriminated against? The book takes place in May and June of 1944, by which point even the least aware Germans knew that virtually all of their Jewish neighbors had been dragged off to forced labor camps and probably murdered. That’s significantly worse than being “discriminated against.”
In fairness, both the pacing and the Nazi shadow become more intense in the final fourth of the book.
Another strength of this novel is the way it illuminates some little-known aspects of life in Germany during the last year of World War II. For instance, a few thousand German Jews were still living openly in Berlin in 1944 because they were half-Christian or, like Oppenheimer, married to a non-Jewish spouse.
The Gestapo wants Oppenheimer’s assistance because, while he was in the pre-Hitler police force, he had worked on a few murder cases that involved body mutilation disturbingly similar to the newest horrors. In the case for which they summon Oppenheimer, the corpse of a young secretary had been found splayed out at the base of a World War I memorial, her genitals brutally hacked out and nails driven into her ears.
At first, the investigation makes little progress. Then Oppenheimer’s Gestapo partner, Vogel, reveals that there were actually two previous murder-mutilations, and after that a fourth is discovered. Just as Oppenheimer is piecing together some possible connections among the victims, which might include a sensitive link to high-ranking Nazi Party officials, he makes a major mistake.
Throughout all this, Oppenheimer occasionally frets about the Allied bombs pounding Berlin and worries that he will be denounced as a Jew; however, those background fears are so casually mentioned and quickly forgotten that they evoke no tension.
Fellow Germans seem equally—and unbelievably—easygoing about the dictatorship that rules their lives. For instance, after a newsreel about the Normandy invasion, audience members in the movie theater crack cynical anti-Hitler jokes such as:
“Well, our flats will be nice and toasty soon.”
“Why is that?”
“When they take down all the portraits of the Fuhrer, we’ll have plenty of firewood!”
Nor does the book show any more emotion regarding Oppenheimer’s personal life. When Vogel asks about his daughter’s death at age six, Oppenheimer woodenly replies: “There is this mystery. No matter what you do, you’ll never get over it . . . there will always be an emptiness in our lives.” The daughter is never mentioned again.
Presumably, the translator, Alexandra Roesch, was being faithful to the original writing in penning clunkers like these. Yet she commits her own egregious errors, repeatedly saying that something is “complexer.”
In the end, the low-impact Nazism may actually be the best part of this novel. Sadistic, misogynistic murders and politicized police investigations are, unfortunately, universal. They don’t need a dictatorship.