Berlin Finale

As with Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, German writer Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale, published in the same year of 1947, was a best-seller in Germany, and was soon translated into to English (in 1952). Like Fallada, however, Rein’s reputation quickly faded in the UK and US, and, only now, with Shaun Whiteside’s new translation, will it hopefully be restored. Berlin Finale (and here, at least, ‘Berlin’ is uncontroversially in the original title) is set during the final days of the Second World War with the capital surrounded and Germany facing a defeat which Hitler and the Nazi High Command refuse to recognise. Over 660 pages Rein describes in painful detail the delusions of those who still believe the Third Reich can survive, and the defiance of those who wish to end the war and begin rebuilding. Amid the rubble, a dangerous atmosphere of suspicion still exists, with those supposed to be opposed to Nazi victory facing summary execution.

The novel opens as Joachim Lassehn, a disillusioned deserter from the Eastern front, arrives in Berlin. He has only the vaguest idea of why he has returned – his parents are dead and he can barely remember his wife, the result of a marriage that took place only days after meeting, and of which he says:

“It’s quite possible that we could walk past each other in the street and not recognise each other.”

Instead he finds himself in a bar talking to the landlord, Oskar Klose. When Klose speculates that Lassehn has deserted – “you’ve done a bunk, you’re on the run, you’ve high-tailed it, you’ve skedaddled” – Lassehn threatens to shoot him, but Klose, luckily, has been long opposed to the Nazi regime. Rein is quick to establish Lassehn’s innocence: this is partly political but also extends to a lack of life experience in general, particularly when it comes to women. (When he later finds a woman he has just met is attracted to him he doesn’t understand it, “he doesn’t know that there is also an animal lust that requires only the body and nothing else.”) His age, twenty-two, partly explains this, but, as Klose points out, so do the circumstances of his youth:

“You didn’t grow up in normal times… But when you started thinking the trouble-makers had already glued up your brain.”

This is a topic Rein will turn to again and again, the question of how Germany can recover from the war when its young men and women have known nothing but National Socialism. Lassehn himself recognises that, though he has rebelled, he has no other political system to recommend:

“He cannot think of an idea that carries his life and forces its way towards a goal, he knows only rejection of the idea that they had tried to force on him with pathos and brute force.”

Klose introduces Lassehn to a small group of like-minded anti-Nazis including Dr Bottcher and Friedrich Wiegand. Wiegand is wanted by the Nazis and living under a false name. Where Lassehn typifies those who have grown disillusioned and disgusted by National Socialism, Wiegand best represents those who have resisted all along. Wiegand has already spent time in a concentration camp as a political prisoner and, in the course of the novel, he will come under suspicion again, placing his wife in danger. His eldest son, Robert, on the other hand, has fully embraced fascism having “willingly allowed the poison of National Socialism to seep into him.” All live with the fear of discovery, as Wiegand explains:

“Experience has taught me that everyone observes everyone, that everybody suspects his neighbour, whether it’s because he fears he’s being spied upon or because he himself is a spy, quite apart from those creature who, without actually being spies, like to make themselves tools of the party, to demonstrate their loyalty and reliability.”

It is this constant sense of danger which makes the novel feel like a thriller at points (and perhaps explains the endorsement of Lee Childs on the cover). Many of the tensest moments take place in the confined space of an air raid shelter. Lassehn is questioned by an air raid warden when he goes to visit his wife and he is forced to take shelter:

“…in a flash, he is… aware of his situation: a deserter with inadequate papers in a city that is keenly searching for soldiers who have fled the battlefield, a deserter surrounded by strangers, any of whom could give him away…”

Wiegand encounters a different problem when he is recognised by an old comrade and has to deny any knowledge of him. There are later encounters, for example when Wiegand, Klose and Bottcher are questioned in the pub, that end more violently, and, overall, the effect is to have the reader permanently on edge.

The novel is not only the story of Lassehn, Wiegand and the resistance, however; Rein seeks to paint a wider picture of life in Berlin during these final days. This is not only done with set-piece descriptions reminiscent of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but with chapters set aside which take us into the offices of the Gestapo, or tell the story of a man whose wife and child do not return after a raid. One chapter is specifically titled ‘Biography of a National Socialist’. Even within chapters, other characters widen the novel’s scope, like the woman who has lost her daughter denouncing Hitler in an air raid shelter: “something has changed in me.”

Thematically, Rein looks both backward and forward: wondering how Germany will reform as previously mentioned, but also questioning how Germany allowed itself to become enthralled to Hitler in the first place:

“It would drive you mad that a handful of crazy demagogues and charlatans have managed to make an entire people obsessed with their idea.”

Berlin Finale is a classic of its kind: not only detailed and documentary (it seems likely that extracts of Nazi propaganda are verbatim) but incisive and insightful (take, for example, the thought that, “The adaptability of the human spirit is one of the most significant, but also one of the most terrible, gifts of man…”). That it is such a riveting, roller-coaster of a read is an added bonus.

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12 Responses to “Berlin Finale”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds marvellous Grant, especially dealing as it does with a time period when the tensions must have been immense. It must have been good for 600 odd pages to grip you like that! 😀

  2. Tredynas Days Says:

    I’ve seen notices of this a few times, and am very tempted by it. I’m fascinated by accounts of this period and the clash between ordinary people and the powers that supposedly govern them (no parallel with today’s sunnier times intended…) Just finished Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, which deals in part with the rise and fall of the Nazis in northern Germany, seen from the viewpoint of an ordinary woman and her family. The Fallada novel was also salutary.

    • 1streading Says:

      I share a similar interest and couldn’t pass this by – it makes an interesting companion piece to Fallada’s work. I must find the time to read Anniversaries!

  3. Jonathan Says:

    A little while ago I tried to compile a list of books set during the Nazi period that I’d like to read but didn’t come up with much. This is one I’d definitely like to read.

    • 1streading Says:

      In capturing the final days of the regime it tells you a lot about what has gone before. It certainly belongs on any list of that period – I had no idea of its existence before this new translation though.

  4. lizzysiddal Says:

    This is on my wishlist, but I am determined that it will not join the TBR until I’ve finished my Weimar Republic Reading Project! Yes, you’ve heard it all before … 😉

  5. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds really excellent – not only fascinating from a historical perspective but highly compelling in its own right too. A little like you, I find myself drawn to stories from this period of our history. It’s the combination of the personal and political, I think – the sense of a story that’s wide in scope yet intimate (or small-scale) in detail. Bravo to Penguin for bringing it back in a fresh translation.

  6. Books of the Year 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] the novel which explained Brexit to me: Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale (translated by Shaun Whiteside). In the final days of the war, with Berlin in ruins, we still find […]

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