This thought-provoking novel set in Germany in 1963 is Eva’s story. The story of a young woman suddenly confronted with her country’s dark past and more vitally the role her parents played in it. Revelations slowly seep into the story as Eva deepens her involvement in a war crimes trial. Everything in The German House pivots around Eva but this novel is about so much more than her personal journey. It deals with the theme of war crimes and personal responsibility in a very broad sense too. Asking interesting questions about what people knew of events, what responsibility they bear for their actions and how they live with the past. What is it legitimate to pass on to the post-war generations and how does guilt become an issue for the innocent? Eva is ignorant of the past, she was a young child in 1945 and her life has returned to ‘normal’ since the end of the war. No one in the family wants to talk about the things that happened under the Nazis but the trial of the “Beast” of Auschwitz will change all that. Things are very different for David Miller, the young prosecutor, he has come from Canada and sought out a role in examining the past and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the atrocities in the camps. He burns with the desire to address the wrongs his family and many others suffered. He despises the generation growing up in ignorance of recent events.
The German House examines the right to judge those who were there for their actions and asks what we would have done in their place – that’s how it is for Eva. She is forced to re-evaluate the relationship with her family, the parents who have only ever been loving for her have secrets that reveal them in a different light. Much of what she thinks about her parents is a lie and so, therefore, the family has been living a lie but what does this really mean for the future? Some issues that arise from the trial are more subtle but nonetheless important. Eva’s involvement as a translator will have consequences for her relationship with her fiancée Jürgen too. As a way of examining a modern marriage and the role of women in society, this is 1963, the trial throws up a number of challenges to the attitudes of Jürgen. He is the son of a communist victim of the Nazis but he is actually very socially conservative. Eva has to consider what kind of life she wants. The reflection on the past that Eva faces over the course of the war crimes trial leads her to question her understanding of herself, the desirability of her marriage to a wealthy man and what she actually wants in life. This is an emotional awakening, a rites of passage for Eva.
The German House is a fascinating portrait of post-war Germany and the encroachment of the past into ordinary lives, told from the perspective of ordinary people. Hess has a written a powerful novel that explores the legacy of Nazism, as I have said, questioning the experience of those who lived through the Third Reich and those innocents who came along afterwards and absorbed a sense of guilt from their parents. It asks questions about choices made under dictatorship, the complex relationship people have with the truth and the difference between lying and forgetting.
The German House opens with Eva waiting for Jürgen, her husband to be (she hopes), he hasn’t popped the question yet. Jürgen is coming for Sunday lunch, it’s the first time. Eva’s father is in the family restaurant, which now only opens in the evening because of his health, her mother and sister, Annagret, are staring at her from the window of their flat in the German House. Annagret is a nurse at the hospital, she is older than Eva but Eva can no longer wait for her sister to marry first. She is now twenty-four, and although she is a catch she fears being left on the shelf. Eventually Jürgen Schoorman arrives, Eva’s mother greets Herr Schorman, Eva corrects her pronunciation and thereafter her mother opts for the exaggerated ‘Herr Schooorman’.
Jürgen lost his mother young, his father returned to collect him from the country at the end of the war. Jürgen is a former theology student, he has run the family business since his father’s health declined. Eva usually values her mother’s opinion but she says:
‘I mean, it’s up to you. His family is certainly above reproach. But I have to be honest, child, I can’t help it. He will not make you happy.’
Eva is called away from the dinner by a phone call from the agency, she is a translator from Polish, and the court requires her services. Eva is picked up by David Miller who doesn’t speak much, at the law offices there are four men waiting, they hardly acknowledge her expecting her to get straight to it. Herr Gabor from Warsaw is here to testify but the official translator has been held up at the border, ‘irregularities’, Eva is required to fill in. They begin with the events of 23rd September, 1941. Eva struggles with Gabor’s regional accent and words she has not heard before, she usually deals with economic matters. Her translation makes little sense; at hostel number 11 the Russian guests were shown into the cellar, where they were lit and all were illuminated. The men are angry but Eva looks up the alternative meaning of words; not hostel but cell block, not guests but prisoners, not light but gas. Gabor explains how ‘they’ gassed the Russians, double dosing when the first attempt left a third of the victims alive. On the drive home Eva tries to explain her failings but David is angry:
‘You all think that the little brown men landed their spaceship here in ’33. Am I right? Then off again they went in ’45, after forcing this fascism thing on you poor Germans.’
Eva’s mother is still on about her marrying a nice ordinary lad, a plumber, or ‘tilers never run out of work.’ Eva reads the indictments in the paper, the trial will be about a camp in Poland, Auschwitz. The commandant is dead but his adjutant is a Hamburg businessman. There will be many witnesses, including Gabor. This trial could take four months, they have no choice but to use Eva for now. When Eva asks David what she should know he advises her to learn every possible term for killing people. Gabor’s testimony is about the first use of Zyklon B.
When Eva’s mother learns of the trial she is against Eva taking part. The past should stay buried. Initially Jürgen seems more supportive, his father was a communist after all, but that changes. As Eva begins to learn more the events of the camp come closer to home and Jürgen begins to assert his authority as her future husband.
There is a beautiful pace to this novel, Eva’s naivety plays well and the balance between the deeply personal and the political is spot on. The collision of history with everyday life is skillfully crafted and plausible. As with all good books that examine the role of ordinary people in terrible events The German House makes the reader question how they would react in a similar situation.
Paul Burke 4/4
The German House by Annette Hess
HarperVia 9780008359867 pbk Dec 2019