The war that would slash modern history, our contemporary awareness of humanity, into before and after, leaving a gaping void between the two states, seems not to have happened at all in the opening pages of Annette Hess’ ambitious and complex debut novel The German House. It is 1963, the year of Hitchcock’s The Birds, Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and Mankiewicz’ Cleopatra; the year of JFK’s Civil Rights Address and his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, as well as his assassination; a year that brings more carnage in Vietnam, a new Pope, and, in Britain, a double penny-dreadful for the avid news-reading public in the form of the Great Train Robbery and the Profumo Affair. In Hess’ first scenes, Germany (Frankfurt, to be exact) emerges as a thriving world of normality, and of a prosperity that has been earned with the honest sweat of one’s labour and toil. It is a buzzing cluster of industriousness and of timeless family microcosms of the young, the very young, and the older generation.

A series of unexplained and unclaimed arson attacks against baby prams stand out as an incomprehensible, reprehensible, inconceivable and jarring aberration. Violence is clearly something no one envisages or even understands in this new German cosmos of modernity. Equally perplexing is a small number of infant fatalities at a hospital ward where hygiene conditions are impeccable. Elsewhere, the snow falls with powder-dust softness; children have their very own opinions on clothes and the cold, older people ail and ache, the dogs are sprightly, the restaurants “serve up full bellies and happy hearts”; young people fall in love or resign themselves to spinster- or bachelorhood, social classes engage or disengage as naturally as the transition between night and day.

Hess paints this elaborate setting of human continuum and permanence with lush, indulgent strokes. At university she studied fine arts before moving on to scriptwriting, and speaks of her novel as her “artistic work”. In her own country, as well as abroad, she is well known as the dramatist behind such television series as Weissensee, which focused on life in that other Germany behind the Iron Curtain, or Ku’damm 56 and Ku’damm 59, two historical miniseries on 1950s Berlin. She likes history intensely, as keenly for its aesthetic palpability, the dynamics and latent reverberations of its events, as for the human capital that evolves and is generated, or is wasted and spent through the process of historical becoming and erasure. She aims to create characters through whom readers and viewers can “experience history” personally, intimately, by way of a kind of surrogate consciousness. In The German House she reminds us that men and women had their place at the time, and especially that the future mattered more than the present. That the past, perhaps, did not matter at all.

The technicolour tints threaten to bleed and bleach almost any minute – leaving behind a picture no one has dared to look at before.”

The movement throughout is cinematic, expertly orchestrated, captured and framed; the angle is wide and panoramic, the filter resplendently polaroid. Like a phoenix reborn from the ashes, Frankfurt, Germany and the German people feel very much alive. Or at least they would like to appear so. The technicolour tints threaten to bleed and bleach almost any minute – leaving behind a picture no one has dared to look at before. This, at least, is Hess’ central thesis.

1963 was a good year for the German Miracle. Not even twenty years after the war had ended, a brand new stage had been set for characters both new and old, for a story as yet to be written. Allied victory, and especially American influence, brought back a necessary order, even if neither succeeded in implementing the proclaimed objective of denazification. Was the latter deemed unnecessary? Impossible? Inconvenient? Elisabeth Lauffer’s poignant Translator’s Note is stinging on this point: Nazi crimes were “of such magnitude that, indeed, they could never have come to pass, had only a tiny sliver of the population been complicit.” The subtext of such words is that in the predominant majority of cases, to cleanse might have meant leaving very little, even nothing, behind – one of the many hard questions underpinning Hess’ own story. What the Americans did bring, however, was the lulling, empowering, redeeming routine of consumerism – modern conveniences, mail order catalogues, an affluence that had formidable powers over both being and nothingness. Ambition, social, personal, national, is once again the order of the day.

We are given to understand clearly from the start that this bucolic picture is about to unravel when the young brother of Eva Bruhns, the heroine, starts playing combatively with his plastic army of soldier figures and mini tanks, dreaming of air rifles for Christmas. A demobilised and demilitarised Germany this certainly is not. “I always get everything I ask for,” the boy proclaims, in a chillingly uncanny double entendre that resonates as a totalising judgement, passed on a very recent, dark manifestation of the human will to power and desire.

Eva’s perfect world of imperfection will be shattered first by logic and then by the overwhelming sense of an unreason beyond horror or absurdity.”

Eva Bruhns’ family owns ‘The German House’, a congenial traditional restaurant that will eventually be revealed as a perilously compressed time capsule and redoubtable Pandora’s box. It stands for everything that was deemed echt, truly German, wholesomely simple and volk: full of human feelings and failings, embarrassing traits, a certain harmless vulgarity and compulsiveness, hard-earned respectability, efficiency, heartiness and impulse. Its apparent earnestness contrasts dissonantly with the increasingly sharp and polished world of success and progress outside.

Eva’s perfect world of imperfection will be shattered first by logic and then by the overwhelming sense of an unreason beyond horror or absurdity. She is a translator from Polish into German and is summoned to replace an official translator at an upcoming court proceeding. “Hadn’t the statute of limitations expired?” is her first thought when she is told the case dates back to 1941. Legal time vs. human memory, the legislature of moral or immoral acts vs. the laws of humanity, and the ethics of law signal the first rupture with things as she has known them – with the version of history and the past that Germans might have wished to allow for at the time.

Her first translation of a witness deposition as we are given it is a triumph of howling irony. A concentration camp becomes a rather peculiar hostel, prisoners are described as strangely busy guests, interior decor of a grotesquely absurd kind seems to be involved. Eva’s sense of defamiliarisation, her realisation that she does not possess either the words to speak the story of the Holocaust survivor, or the contextual understanding to recognise her own ignorance, shocks the reader into a poignant expectation of what Hess will do with both the historical facts and the skewed, flawed, unsettling perspective she has chosen. Here, and throughout, The German House treads gingerly between historical memory and a realistic human consciousness that cannot deny, yet is also not ready, not able, not informed enough, perhaps even unwilling, to conceive, acknowledge and analyse.

With the First Frankfurt Auschwitz trial as its backdrop, the novel seeks to collapse the distance between factual past and readerly present, and Hess places great (sometimes too elaborate) emphasis on realistic descriptions and life-like details, on reconstructing not just scenes and a historical context, but the psychological make-up and social mentality of an entire people at a single, post factum moment in time. In doing so, she seeks to meticulously weave the necessary thread of a remembrance both public and private almost ex nihilo, perhaps afraid that we have become incapable of engaging with human drama, that we have been numbed against the kind of attachment that allows for an instant transference of experience and the emotions. Or, like Sebald, she may feel that Germans were in fact eager to see defeat and near-annihilating destruction as a blank canvas in this particular case – an opportunity to build a bigger, grander, unremembered virtual reality of things, that would allow them to start anew without a sense of either change or oldness. Through her storyline it emerges that the generation that was young right after the war must acquire memory artificially, due to the process of historical denial or psychological repression. And that the generation to whom the war ‘belongs’ holds keys to memory and truth that they are determined not to relinquish or pass on. There is resistance to any movement backwards, inwards, downwards into what we are led to understand amounts to a national soul. In such a context, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial is a bit of a sore thumb: “The taxpayer may well ask: what is the justification for these efforts and costs?”

Through her storyline it emerges that the generation that was young right after the war must acquire memory artificially, due to the process of historical denial or psychological repression.”

Hess builds hard history, disjunctiveness, conflict and moral ambiguity deeply into her story, creating an accelerated sense of suspense and anticipation. She summons a deliberately controversial set of characters, both real and fictitious, readily sympathetic or highly disturbing, to carry through her questioning, her reflections, the resulting overarching narrative that she suggests ought to be in place. She is equally determined to emphasise the neutrality (or blank canvas) of her central character and voice. The floating, almost stage-designed present and a suppressed past due to denial or trauma or both, allow her to construct a practically new public and private conscience: disjointed and nightmarish memories of children resurface and converge into some form of coherence filtered through a clinically detached, painstaking piecing together of the pieces of a puzzle, accompanied by confused, complex emotions. Eva feels a need to be part of the trial – “she owed it to someone. But who? She could not think of a soul.”

Hess has written a novel that claims a rather unique place among narratives dealing with the legacy and memory of the Nazi era and the Holocaust in Germany itself. Unlike other writers, who write from the point of view of socio-political and ideological causes and brutal, dehumanising effects, Hess is rather interested in delineating the psychological space available to those to whom memory and guilt are now bequeathed – those who were children during the war or who were born after, and for whom this new, restored Germany is (it would seem) their only existential space. ‘Should such a past belong to us and what do we do with it, regardless of the answer?’ is a question that can be incisively radical or paralysing; it is certainly difficult, critical and vital.

Hess offers a rich array of perspectives: hints of humiliation and the burden of total defeat; glimpses of life in a Nazi world where dissent was clearly not welcome; vignettes of life beyond defeat, under the experience of loss and the psychosomatic traumas of Soviet retributions; portraits of survivors making long journeys in order to speak words that may be doubted or not heard; tableaux of legal professionals defining right practice, rights, right and wrong; realistic profiles of those with a past they wish to overcome or just ignore. Cameos of children growing up with residual fears, with thwarted emotional growth, with darkly twisted emotions, principles, needs. She is keen to give us an insight into the ‘lost generation’ that haunted Germany after the war, inviting us to look at Germans not only as perpetrators, but also as the victims, perhaps, of their own crimes. It is an invitation that carries in it a tremendous urgency and certainly resonance and human devastation.

It is, however, undermined by critical flaws that are internal to Hess’ narrative, the direction and intentions of her story. A first difficulty is the trial itself, and the uses to which it is put in the novel. The build-up to a confrontation with the Nazi past – and the present of its agents, which is also the present of Germany itself – struggles to claim prominence of place and significance in the midst of what Hess would like us to see as a life that goes on nonetheless, where tragedy, anyone’s tragedy, gets easily lost in the minutiae of everydayness. The trial causes both ripples and earthquakes, yet ultimately it brings an uneasy sense of sublimation and closure: ‘embarrassing’, ‘esoteric’, squalid and ‘self-contradicting’ witnesses take their own lives; determined Jewish lawyers are proven to be frauds, unlawfully appropriating the trauma of the Holocaust, thus injecting suspicion and doubt regarding the authenticity and reliability of verbal testimonies or even of experiences; the accused are depicted as “excessive offenders”, mere human monsters (Hess uses the terms the Beast, the White Rabbit, the Raptor throughout), with Janus faces and caring wives, patients who adore them, clients who revere them. To an extent, Hess is echoing press characterisations at the time, yet the way she has embedded both antisemitic representations of Holocaust survivors or Jewish characters (the lawyer David Miller in particular), and the ‘excessiveness’ of the ‘few’ who needed to be brought to justice, is deeply unsettling. Eva Bruhns can see that ‘we’ and ‘they’ are highly problematic terms, yet she eventually “suddenly understood why none of the defendants acknowledged their guilt. Why they only admitted to individual crimes, if that. How could one human possibly bear the responsibility of thousands?” It is a pronouncement that will certainly leave readers with many, very serious questions.

The critical feature of the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial was that it created the template for addressing Nazi crimes and the Holocaust in Germany from a judiciary point of view: unlike the first Auschwitz trial in Krakow in 1947, which had enacted the international legal definition of what constitutes a crime against humanity, in the Frankfurt trials Nazi actions were to be judged in contextualised terms of what was endorsed by the system to which they belonged: “what was lawful then cannot be considered unlawful today” are words from the trial quoted verbatim by Hess – yet readers may wonder whether they are also left hanging, as if followed by the question: “what other way is there?”

In Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial, Rebecca Wittmann echoes Fritz Bauer, the state attorney general who led the prosecution (and who had been instrumental in bringing Eichmann to justice in 1960), arguing that “the killing of millions in the gas chambers… became a lesser crime, calling for a lighter sentence [because the guilt was shared and only accessory], than the murder of one person carried out without orders from superiors.” In Bauer’s words, the trial lamentably promoted “the residual wishful fantasy that there were only a few people with responsibility… and the rest were merely terrorised, violated hangers-on… compelled to do things that were completely contrary to their nature.” He would accuse the judges that they had given the impression that Germany during WWII had been itself an occupied nation under Nazi rule. It is a line of narrative that runs latently, pervasively through Hess’ own novel, sometimes provocatively, but most often left sadly unchallenged – a sense that is reinforced by a secondary plot involving Eva’s sister, which establishes a formidable, deeply disturbing mirror pattern full of echoes and ominous shadows.

It is a wrapping up of loose ends that reinforces the sense of detachment between the generations, between the past and the present, and it is alarmingly eerie, distressingly unreconcilable.”

In Hess’ post-war Germany, history is a recurring bad dream to which the instinctive response is to wrap oneself in a blanket that wards off the coldness of memories and culpability “in order to disappear like a child hiding from the world” – another difficult analogy readers might wish to problematise over. German atonement, a key theme in the novel, can only be vicarious, prospective rather than retrospective, a gesture towards the future. Survivors will not accept either amends or acts of penance, something Eva Bruhns tries repeatedly, and to a degree that yet again will raise questions and concerns, as she tries to physically emulate the condition of concentration camp prisoners.

So Herr Bruhns puts out a collection box for an immigrant family who had been victims of a racial hate attack, and Eva will sever relations with her parents. Her sister will move to a different town and begin a new life following her exposure as the person who had been infecting babies with E. coli in order to nurse them back to life – and thus appear as a saviour to whom gratitude was owed, in a Freudian subplot of surrogate guilt and very contorted expiation. It is a wrapping up of loose ends that reinforces the sense of detachment between the generations, between the past and the present, and it is alarmingly eerie, distressingly unreconcilable. In opting for a gesture of authorial and historical openness towards the future, for a sense of ‘let us allow for a new beginning to begin’, Hess perhaps stifles rather than responds to the many questions she has undertaken to address. One cannot turn away from the German story of WWII, nor ignore its inherent, tragic difficulties, yet neither can one gloss over the paralysing task of addressing everything that composes that period in time and humanity. The critical risk otherwise is that human history, the factuality and the personal experience of the Holocaust as part of human memory, the vital necessity for full, unremitting empathy, will become abstract, theoretical points in a debate where a purported academic impartiality conceals in fact yet another form of systematic denial.

 

Annette Hess grew up in Hanover and currently lives in Lower Saxony. She worked as a freelance journalist and assistant director, before launching a successful career as a screenwriter. Her critically acclaimed and popular television series Weissensee, Ku’damm 56 and Ku’damm 59 are credited with revitalising German TV. The German House, translated by Elisabeth Lauffer, is published by HarperVia in paperback and eBook.
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Author portrait © Silvia Medina

Elisabeth Lauffer is a translator of fiction and non-fiction and the recipient of the 2014 Gutekunst Translation Prize. After graduating from Wesleyan University she lived in Berlin where she worked as a commercial translator and then obtained a master’s in education from Harvard. She now lives and works in Vermont.

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

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