Saturday, April 23, 2011

(No.148) Hitler's pyromancy (the Philip Kerr novels)

I wrote the following review article for two daily newspapers: The Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

It appeared in those newspapers on April 16, 2011 under the heading "A morally ambiguous character".


The Scottish writer Philip Kerr is a favourite of mine. This month sees the publication in Canada of the seventh novel in his Bernie Gunther series, Field Gray (Putnam, 33.50, hardcover). It is the most complex in this series of historical thrillers making use of multiple flashbacks to three time periods: pre-war Berlin, WWII France, Germany and Russia, and post-war Russia, Cuba and Germany.

Kerr has brought life in pre-war Nazi Germany and in post-war occupied Germany alive using as his first person narrator a Berlin detective working for the Kriminpolizei (Kripo) named Bernie Gunther who, refusing to become part of the 1933 National Socialist takeover of the country including its police, soon left the Kripo and became a private detective and for a time a hotel detective at Berlin's upscale Adlon Hotel.

Kerr began the Bernie Gunther series with three novels published in short order: March Violets (1989) the title comes from the deprecating name commonly given in Germany to those 'late comers' who didn't join the National Socialist Party until after Hitler had assumed dictatorial powers on March 23, 1933; The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991) set mainly in occupied 1947 Vienna, the first two novels having been set in Berlin. This superb trilogy was subsequently republished in one volume in 1993 under the title Berlin Noir.

The Bernie Gunther novels have been called by some reviewers "suspense thrillers" and "murder/political mysteries" by others. They have been likened with good reason to the fine novels of the American Alan Furst set in pre-war Europe and to the fascinating "station" series set in pre-war Berlin by David Downing. Another comparison which occurred to me when first reading Berlin Noir was with a lead character in the Robert Harris 1992 bestseller Fatherland, an interesting novel based on an unusual premise: it is set in the 1964 of a victorious Nazi germany whose lead character Xavier March is, like Gunther, a detective in the Kripo.

Kerr's novels with Bernie Gunther, no anti-Semite, as the lead character depict in appropriately dark and ominous tones what everyday life became after 1933 for Germans and -- most darkly -- for Jews in Germany. Indeed the steadily more inhumane treatment of Jews in post-1933, pre-war Germany is one of the key plot lines in the first two novels of the Berlin Noir trilogy.

In 1936 Gunther was sent to Dachau concentration camp by the SS. As he observed in March Violets "Dachau was the model for all later camps; there was even a special school there to train SS men to be more brutal." The portrait Kerr paints of Dachau, speaking through Gunther (who managed to extricate himself -- barely), is stark indeed.

Gunther was assigned to an "Aryan Hut" at Dachau: these housed 150 men while the Jews were assigned huts which "contained three times that number. It was true what they said: there's always somebody else who is worse off than you. That is unless you were unfortunate enough to be Jewish. ... in all respects Jews were the worst off. ... I met a convict who was a Jew. He was also a homosexual. And if that weren't enough he was also a communist. That made three triangles. His luck hadn't so much run out as jumped on a fucking motorcycle."

For many readers I suspect that the first three novels are likely to do more to bring alive pre-war Nazi Germany than would picking up most histories of the post-Weimar Republic period.

Bernie Gunther is, before and after the war (and especially during it, on the eastern front), far from heroic or even all that sympathetic. This harder edge is softened a bit in the next three novels in the series; the first of this trio did not appear for more than a decade after the first three. In talking about his lead character Kerr has described Gunther as "a real democrat. A Republican. He believed in the Weimar republic. ...If he's cynical it's because he learned cynicism in the First World War."

In Field Gray we learn finally about what Gunther did in fighting the partisans in Russia as a member of the SS. Even before the novel was written Kerr admitted that "I like morally ambiguous characters. Yes [Gunther] feels guilty. And as the series progresses I want that guilt to increase as more of what Bernie did comes to light."

In this latest novel Kerr has Gunther say this:

"I commanded a firing squad that executed thirty Russian POWs. At the time I didn't feel bad about this becasue they were all NKVD, and less than twelve hours before they themselves had murdered two or three thousand prisoners at the NKVD prison in Lutsk. They also murdered some German POWs who were with them, which was a miserable sight. I suppose you could say they had every right to do so given that we had invaded their country. You could also say that our executing them in retaliation had considerably less justification, and you'd probably be correct on both counts."

The plots of the 4th, 5th and 6th novels occur chronologically -- in part -- but like Field Gray follow Gunther in different periods within the same volume: The One From The Other (2006) in 1937 Palestine and 1949 Munich; A Quiet Flame (2008) in Berlin 1932 and Buenos Aires 1950; and the 6th novel, the award winning If The Dead Rise Not (2009) finds Gunther in 1934 Berlin and pre-revolution Cuba in 1954.

Bernie Gunther is a hard and perforce a cynical man. Near the beginning of The Pale Criminal he must meet someone at night at the ruins of Germany's parliament building, the Reichstag. As he approaches he observes that the Nazi-organized 1933 Reichstag fire had been "the clearest piece of pyromancy that Germany could have been given as to what Adolf Hitler and his third nipple had in store for us."

Gunther drinks, smokes and womanizes to excess but above all he is a survivor. He has the tired attiude of a man who has already seen too much. He has the words to create pictures, as when he describes smoking American filter cigarettes post-war as "like eating a hot dog after 50 years of bratwurst."

Field Gray illustrates Gunther's survival skills before, after and during World War II even better than any of its predecessors in the series. The novel addresses a particularly dark period in Gunther's life: the war on the Russian front during part of which he was forced into serving in an SS unit. In the previous novels of the series there have been only brief references to that period of his life including his capture by the Soviets near the end of the war and his escape from internment after a year.

I recommend without reservation the Gunther novels including the latest. They are enjoyable and rewarding reading. I suggest that readers new to the series save the reading of the latest, Field Gray, to the end. Read the preceding six novels first and in the order in which they were published.


by Alastair Rickard