New York Review of Books
Review by Brian Tanguay
In November 1944 Walter Kempowski was called up for mandatory service by the German government, and detailed to go from house to house in his native Rostock to collect metal, paper, and rags for the war effort. Walter isn’t particularly dedicated to this job and goes about it without much enthusiasm. When he becomes tired, or bored, he returns to his home where his mother is usually waiting. His participation in the Hitler Youth is equally half-hearted, and he spends much of the time goofing off or mocking the unit leaders. Walter is far more interested in hanging out with his mates, smoking cigarettes and listening to jazz records.
What’s fascinating about Kempowski’s autobiographical novel, An Ordinary Youth, is its detached tone and preoccupation with pedestrian aspects of life in Rostock, school and piano lessons, family trips to the nearby coast, jazz and girls. Mixed in with the prose are snatches of poetry, popular songs, and government admonitions, like this one: BICYCLE-RIDING, SINGING AND LOUD NOISE-MAKING ARE PUNISHABLE BY LAW.
Walter was ten years old when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the youngest child in a typical bourgeois family. His father served in the first world war and had a skin ailment from being gassed. His older brother pinned photos of jazz musicians on the wall of his room. His sister had riding lessons. “The wheel is always turning,” summed up his mother’s philosophy of life. News of the war in the east comes mostly from newspapers, but it feels very far away, and aside from ration coupons for certain foodstuffs, the war has minimal impact on daily life. People adapt to the conditions, grow accustomed to ersatz coffee and a scarcity of salt.
The Kempowski’s are proud Germans and never identify themselves with the Nazis. As Walter’s mother explains to the Danish man who will become her son-in-law, “Please don’t think all Germans are bad. Nazis and Germans: there’s a difference.” The same difference, presumably, between Israeli Jews who support the right-wing coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and those who don’t, or Palestinians in Gaza who have never supported Hamas, or Americans who will never vote for Donald Trump. The majority go about their lives, even as social, economic and political conditions align in the right combination to allow a demagogue with a fanatical minority to seize control.
Hitler’s Nazi Party never received more than thirty-seven percent of the popular vote.
As the years pass the war comes closer to home. Rationing now extends to gas and coal as well as food. “Steak” is a euphemism for a mixture of oatmeal and green beans. Rostock is bombed by the Allies and many of its significant buildings are destroyed, including a church very close to Walter’s home. But even then, Walter describes being under bombardment as a game of duck and dodge, hide and seek; each time the air raid siren sounds Walter and his mother move family valuables, food and water, into the basement where they shelter until the danger passes. When they emerge, the nearby streets are strewn with rubble and smoke rises from damaged buildings. Walter surveys the damage with more curiosity than fear, though he understands the deadly capacity of modern warfare to lay waste to an entire city.
Near the end of the novel the Russians are pushing in from the east and streams of refugees and wounded soldiers are seen on the streets in Rostock. All train services have stopped. The Russians are close enough to lob artillery shells into the city. Some of Walter’s mates are unaccounted for as is his brother Robert. All Walter’s maternal grandfather can say is, “Everything is rubble, ash, dust, muck.” His mother comments on the eerie stillness over the city and pines for the days of the Kaiser. A little later, as shots ring out, Walter’s mother waters a houseplant.
An Ordinary Youth was first published in 1971. In 1948, Kempowski, along with his mother and brother, were arrested for espionage and sentenced by a Soviet military tribunal to twenty-five years in prison. Walter served eight years at the “Yellow Misery” prison in Bautzen. Consequently, he didn’t graduate from high school until 1957. His immense project, Echo Soundings, a collection of firsthand accounts, letters, diaries and memoirs of World War II stretched to ten volumes.