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Customer Review

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Far More Than a Novel, 6 Mar. 2003
This review is from: The Good German (Hardcover)
"The Good German", by Joseph Kanon can be categorized by placement in a variety of genres, Thriller, Mystery, Historical Fiction, Love Story, and more. The work is certainly all of these, however I believe much more important is the study of twelve years of human behavior, presented within the context of events primarily following the close of The European phase of World War Two. I don't know that any other conflict has generated more literature than the one symbolized by the swastika, the word Holocaust, and the unprecedented Crimes Against Humanity Trials at Nuremberg. Superficially, the evil of the war is routinely placed with great ease. Even at this level it is hard to take issue with placing the blame on a man, the party he created, and the nation that joined that party, served in the SS, and made the crimes that took place possible. What happened when the fighting stopped, when the shooting war with The Axis ended, and the Cold War with The Soviet Union began? The latter had really begun prior to the first one ending.

The shades of gray that dominated the conduct of The Allies immediately following the end of hostilities, and the repercussions that would follow for decades, is brilliantly set side by side with conduct during the war. Mr. Kanon never minimizes any of the horror that took place; he questions none of the atrocities that were committed. He does bring post-war reality to his tale that cannot be said to match the actions of The Third Reich; he does however absolutely portray conduct on all sides, which traditional history would rather marginalize. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and while there were episodes of good versus evil, and events that were black and white, inconvenient shades of gray were everywhere.

Without exception all of the players in this book are guilty of some form of aberrant behavior, which outside of the circumstance of war would never be questioned as wrong. However when placed within the context of World War Two, which was unique for the range and intensity of the evil it spread, do the judgments and answers remain so clear?

A person is put on trial at war's end for collaborating with The Nazi SS; let us say the person facilitated the capture of Jews for transportation to death camps. The jury would probably not spend a great deal of time deliberating this example. Same example with a bit more detail, the person is a Jew who was given the option of pointing out other Jews in exchange for their life and the lives of their family. This offer comes after the ritual sadism of a SS interrogation. How many family members would choose death for themselves and their family? What would the readers of this book choose given the alternatives?

It is true that Nuremberg placed on trial and executed or imprisoned what could be referred to as the, "Marquis Players", of The Third Reich. Nice and neat, black and white. At war's end there were brilliant scientists that lead the world in rocketry, aircraft design, and a host of other sciences. If they had been placed on trial persons like Werner Van Braun would not have been working for NASA, he very likely would have been dead, or would have been in Spandau Prison. The Scenario that was viewed with more trepidation was these truly gifted minds would spend years on Soviet soil advancing Soviet capabilities, and that was not viewed as a risk worth taking. The result was each country that could, rounded up as many of these scientists as possible, together with their papers and families, we gathered ours and brought them to the US. Viewed as a strictly pragmatic choice, the decision to utilize these people with disregard for their wartime activities can be defended with ease. The defense also requires that ethics, morality, humanity, call it what you will, must be tossed over the side like so much ballast on a sinking ship. The selective enforcement of justice and the contortions of logic that these decisions demand are the core of this work. The presentation is little short of brilliant.

Replace the word German in the title with person, and you are much closer to the core of this book. Right and wrong is defined on a case-by-case basis, and is infinitely fluid. What Mr. Kanon has done is brought this conduct to bear on every level. Twisted decisions are as much a part of personal relationships as they are at the conference table at Potsdam. Deception is as routine between family members as it is with Stalin and whomever he speaks with. Every decision is reduced to only having to be justified for the moment it is contemplated. Once made, the past is shunted aside, and the future is clean. This expediency is as flawed long-term as it is without justification when made. The love story aspect is riddled with deception, crime, and repugnance. Yet you will likely be hoping for a happy ending for two of the participants. Take the same event out of the context of post World War Two Berlin, and the sympathy dissolves.

Joseph Kanon has written a remarkable book that deals with one of the darkest periods of human behavior. He does this without rancor, without preaching, without offering only two colors to place each decision in. To write such a work not only pays tribute to the mind of the author, but also the adroitness with which he presents very real moral labyrinths. I found myself at once wishing this was a pure scholarly history book, and at the same moments being pleased with the novel form the author chose. His format allows for more dispassionate reasoned contemplation because it is a novel, and not a heavily footnoted documentary. Either method would likely bring the reader to the same end; however Mr. Kanon's is much more user-friendly.
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Initial post: 30 Mar 2010 22:47:42 BDT
Eileen Shaw says:
I was most interested in this review as I have the book on my reading list. Thank you for your informative and useful review.
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