The year is 1945 and Berlin – the capital of the Thousand-Year Reich – is a city eviscerated by war. ‘The stumps of their mutilated buildings rise naked and ugly among the heaps of rubble … torn and shredded, the spars of roofs which have been blown away like ribs stripped of skin.’
A few good men (and some good women) seek to resist the poison of National Socialism that has overwhelmed their country, and left the city and the world in flames.
Beautifully translated by Shaun Whiteside, Berlin Finale examines the physical and moral ruin of a city, a nation and a people.
Our hero is music student Joachim Lassehn, a twenty-two-year-old orphaned by the war, who has deserted the German army in disgust, returning to Berlin. There, without papers and in constant fear of arrest, he takes refuge in a pub, where he discovers that Oskar Klose, the pub landlord, is secretly helping a resistance group, including trade unionist Friedrich Wiegand – whose eldest son Robert has become a fanatical Nazi and joined the SS – and the good doctor, Walter Boettcher.
Lassehn joins them, helping with their sabotage missions, even as the Nazis’ intelligence apparatus starts to close in on the saboteurs, and just as the Russian Army is closing in from the east on what remains of the German capital.
The real protagonist of the novel, though, is the city of Berlin, the ‘sea of rubble’ to which total war has reduced it; an ‘inhabited Pompeii’, in which – remarkably – the cinemas still function and people continue to cram into what remains of the overground railway network, the S Bahn, to get to work – when not taking shelter in the bunkers to escape the incessant destruction wrought by RAF and American bombs as the Allies close in from the west.
Heinz Rein wrote and published Berlin Finale in 1947, and it is described by its (re)publishers as a ‘documentary novel’. It is epic in scale, and its descriptions of the city and the destruction are often cinematic. In 661 – sometimes gruelling – pages, Rein seeks to understand why and how it was that his once civilised country had gone collectively insane, and to explain what it felt like to be one of the few who had resisted the madness of National Socialism well before Hitler’s defeat became evident.
Somewhat slowed down by lengthy contemporaneous tracts of Nazi propaganda and radio or newspaper reports about the progress of the war, it’s nonetheless a gripping book for anyone who wonders what it’s like to live in a city being destroyed by war, street by street, house by house, and family by family.
For readers today, the discussions about how love of the Fatherland divided a nation into true believers and traitors to their country may hold an extra layer of resonance, not least when the author’s central theme is that age-old question: what must good people do when asked to do what they know is wrong?
‘You must come to understand,’ says one character, ‘that National Socialism is merely the badge of an unscrupulous gang of criminals.’
Under the Nazis, many Germans chose not to resist, feeling powerless. Others used the war to their advantage, denouncing neighbours, becoming ‘little Hitlers … who boss us and bully us day in and day out’.
The adaptability of the human spirit proves both a curse and, in the end, a saviour, as Russian troops take the city, as savage to their enemy as their enemy was to them. Our heroes realise that what they once were, they must become again: human beings.
While the characters are engaging, they’re not quite real – all too often acting as mouthpieces for lengthy exchanges about all the ideas and ideologies that Rein was keen to examine as he sought to answer his own question: how can humans best lead meaningful lives together in peace?
After 1945, Rein became a literary consultant in the German administration of the Soviet Occupation Zone, and later on a freelance author in communist East Germany. But in the end, even that -ism failed him. After breaking with the ruling Socialist Unity Party in the early 1950s, he moved to West Germany, where he died in 1991.
To his other anguished questions – would Germany, would Berlin and would its people ever recover? – the answer, some eighty years after the beginning of the Second World War, and thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a resounding ‘yes’.
The city of Berlin endured, and rose again, and its people flourished once more in peace. But his Berliners – and we, his readers – know that the veneer of civilisation never runs very deep, and needs constant nourishment if it’s not to be ripped away by the primitive forces that lurk just below the surface of humanity.
Reviewed by Caroline Wyatt
Written by Heinz Rein
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Published by Penguin Classics (2019)
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Caroline Wyatt is a BBC journalist and a presenter of Radio 4’s Saturday PM and World Service’s The World This Week. She covered Germany in the 1990s and Russia in the noughties, and has reported from various war zones including Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Read Caroline Wyatt’s #RivetingReview of KOZŁOWSKI by Jane Rogoyska