RivetingReviews: Paul Burke reviews GINSTER by Siegfried Kracauer

Ginster reflects on German lives on the home front during World War I. Naturally, the off-page conflagration dominates daily life and thought, and this is a lament for a society at war. Though published anonymously in 1928, contemporary readers recognised the work of the Frankfurter Zeitung film critic and Weimar modernist. Kracauer was a devotee of Bauhaus, Irmgard Kuen, Erich Kästner and Franz Kafka, as is clear from this novel. Despite being nearly a century old, it resonates with a contemporary readership, only too aware of the coming Nazism and World War II. 

Ginster is a man who refuses to conform to conventional thought and indulge the communal solidarity of war, at least internally if not outwardly. The third-person narrative lends a little distance, moderating our proximity to his personal sense of the absurdity of war. This is satire, but not farce, so the detachment adds a note of realism to a fabulous tale.

Ginster is twenty-five when war breaks out, living in the (unnamed) provincial capital of M and studying for his doctoral exam. There’s a bright future opening up for him, a life plan. While the crowds gather to cheer in the war, Ginster can’t fathom the mass indignation over the distant assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke. He resents the war becoming the all-consuming passion for everyone as they follow it on makeshift maps. To him, the idea that war is the measure of a man, a notion fostered by the encouragement of teachers and families, is abhorrent. He loses a friend at the front, a young man who epitomised the fervour of youth for action and duty. The episode entrenches his doubts at the same time as he faces criticism for his own rejection from service. He questions the folly of leaders bringing their people to war. This is a central political theme of the novel, with Kafkaesque references to societal control and lack of independent thought.  

Ginster sharply observes the minutiae of the home front, which hint at the realities of people’s lived experience. Over time, the bravado, triumphalism and enthusiasm sink into painful sacrifice, sorrow, angst, gloom and grief as the impacts of war hit home. The tiny corrosions of optimism and patriotism mushroom into loss and deprivation, even starvation. Ginster is forever observing those around him – judging, but mostly keeping his ‘alien’ views to himself. 

This is an anti-war novel that is as subtle as it is modernist in approach. It isn’t an outright condemnation of militarism and conflict; Ginster isn’t a conscientious objector, and in some ways it’s all the more powerful for that. We absorb the pity gently, rather than having it thrust upon us. Ginster hates war, as many who marched off to fight must have done. But he is a complex mix of emotions and prejudices, there’s a dichotomy in his character: he still feels the urge to do the right thing, to join the war effort. This isn’t All Quiet on the Western Front, where the horror of war screams at us. Ginster isn’t against the war per se; he is conflicted, which rings true. Can a person be a patriot, a critic, a peace-lover and a reluctant war enthusiast in one? We carry these contradictions within us, the novel seems to say. Ginster hates the communal enthusiasm for war: it’s not him. Yet while being desperate to stand apart, he still wants to blend in. His tragedy is that the escape of dreams, Mittyesque flights of fancy, never truly free him. However he tries to escape, Ginster cannot leave his own doubts and fears behind. He reverts to peeling potatoes against the enemy.

Ginster is an anti-hero of his time. While he sits and waits – inactive, inert – the world won’t leave him alone. It creeps up on him, impinges on his life as he manoeuvres to stay out of the fighting. The novel’s power is that it speaks to the constant dilemma of society, the sacrifice of the individual to the greater cause: a universal theme. The afterword by Johannes von Moltke is helpful in contextualising this clever alternative narrative of war.

Reviewed by Paul Burke

GINSTER

Written by Siegfried Kracauer 

Translated by Carl Skoggard

Published by New York Review of Books (2024)

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Paul Burke writes reviews, interviews, articles and features for crimefictionlover.com and crimetime.co.uk. He is editor and presenter of the Crime Time FM podcast and is a judge for the CWA Historical Dagger. Paul is a book collector, lover of literature in translation and a crime fiction aficionado. His first book An Encyclopedia of Spy Fiction will be published in 2025.

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