Growing up middle class in Nazi Germany

Alun David reviews an account of a wartime childhood


German village children in Eger giving the Nazi salute as Hitler takes over the Sudetenland. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

An Ordinary Youth

By Walter Kempowski

Translated by Michael Lipkin

Granta, £18.99

Reviewed by Alun David

Walter Lempowski was a celebrated author in Germany during the second half of the 20th century. His acclaimed work Tadellöser & Wolff, published in 1971, now has an English translation by Michael Lipkin under the title An Ordinary Youth. It is long overdue.

The book is a novelised memoir of Kempowski’s childhood and adolescence in Nazi Germany. It hews closely to the perspective of a very young person (the author was ten years old at the start of the Second World War). As such, it offers an unusual and, in some ways, drastically foreshortened view of Germany under the Nazi regime. Many major events are mentioned obliquely or not at all (no burning of the Reichstag, no D-Day). Much more time is spent on talk about girls and “hot jazz” than on Operation Barbarossa. We are led to infer that Kristallnacht has happened when a character comes across a burnt-out synagogue, but no context is provided other than an adult observer’s vitriolically antisemitic claims about what supposedly went on in the building’s cellar.

The narrowness of the young narrator’s view throws into a harsh light the constrained moral compass of the grown-up world. For the most part, the brutality of the regime is something that happens “over there” and is not to be discussed. Business as usual is the dominant mood.

The quietly devastating portrait of Kempowski’s father is central to the depiction of middle-class life in Nazi Germany as an ethical vacuum. At the start of the book, he features in a family photograph, wearing his SA uniform. Nostalgic about Germany’s military past and given to unpleasant jokes about Jews, he comes across nonetheless as a curiously ineffectual figure. As the war turns against Germany, he describes himself as a patriot and a conservative, but not a Nazi. (Notably, his death in April 1945 goes unmentioned.)

Yet it is not possible to write off the bourgeoisie in An Ordinary Youth as completely unsympathetic. Part of the novel’s power is its eye for the ordinary. The understanding it has for the details of ordinary life is partly what makes it so seductive. It asks a serious question of the reader – are you so different from these people?

The question becomes especially pointed when we see flickers of resistance. Kempowski’s mother comes across as both thoroughly complicit in what is happening around her and yet also capable of compassion and courage. She is one of the few characters to express sympathy for Jews. Remarkably, when a Danish associate of her husband is arrested by the Gestapo, she defends him to the authorities and, indeed, brings a cake for him to the location where he is being held. A cake! The deadening hand of bourgeois manners turns even genuine heroism into kitsch.

An Ordinary Youth gives the lie to the adage, incorrectly attributed to Edmund Burke, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (words to that effect are instead believed to have been first uttered by John Stuart Mill). Instead, the book shows us an array of personages who may be good, bad, or indifferent, but in all cases lack a meaningful capacity to prevent evil from doing its work. It is a brilliant, subtle account of societal corruption and we are fortunate to have it in English.

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