Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Auslander by Paul Dowswell
The novel opens with Piotr undergoing a terrifying physical exam in Warsaw where he is singled out because of his ideal Aryan features of blonde hair and blue eyes. In flashback, the reader learns that thirteen year old Piotr lived with his mother and father on their farm outside of Warsaw. For a time after the Germans invaded Poland, they believed they were safe, even though their farm was situated between the Russians and Germans. But when Russian and Germany begin to carve up Poland, his parents were killed and Piotr was driven from his home by German troops. Homeless and hungry, Piotr ends up in an orphanage in Warsaw.
Returning to the present, Piotr is taken from the orphanage along with many other boys and after a physical exam in which his features are measured and examined, he is grouped together boys who are to be sent back to Germany. His blonde hair and blue eyes and his near perfect German mark him as being of German blood -volksdeutsche. He along with others judged to be volkdsdeutsche are taken by Doctor Fischer of the Race and Settlement Office who runs this eugenics program, to be Germanized.
Piotr is sent to the Lebensborn hostel in Landsberg to await adoption by a German family. Meanwhile, Doctor Fischer contacts Professor Franz Kaltenbach who lives in Berlin with his wife, Liese, and their three daughters, twenty year old Elsbeth, thirteen year old Traudl and eight year old Charlotte. He encourages the Kaltenbachs to take Piotr into their home to raise him as a German citizen despite Kaltenbach's reservations about Piotr's Polish ancestry. Kaltenbach's reluctance is based on his work for the Nazi party.
Kaltenbach works at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Dahlem-Dorft, Berlin where he has been nvolved in a number of tasks that dealt with eugenics and racial purity. He had to determine the racial purity of the children from the Ostarbeiters (Eastern workers from Poland) as well as confirm the authenticity of the Ancestral Passports of candidates for the SS. Kaltenbach achieved his post at the Institute after the ethnic cleansing of all Jewish academics.
When Piotr returns home to Berlin with the Kaltenbachs, he is renamed Peter and is expected to hold the same views as his foster family regarding Jews and Slavs as well as politically support the Nazis.Peter is uncertain as to what to believe because his parents were divided on supporting the Nazis. At first it seems that Peter and the Professor will have as good relationship as they share an interest in aircraft. Excited to finally have a safe place to live, Peter joins the Hitler-Jugend, attends school and even begins to see a girl in his neighbourhood, Anna Reiter. Peter even dreams of one day becoming a Luftwaffe pilot.
But Peter's comfort zone is challenged by the reality of life in Berlin when he sees Polish boys, the Ostarbeiters, being overworked and starved, when he finds he cannot accept the German's blind faith in Hitler and when the Nazis ban anything different from what the party deems acceptable. Torn between his disgust at what the Nazis are doing and his fear of working against, Peter must decide make a choice - one that could cost ultimately cost him his life.
Told from the third person omniscient point of view, Auslander provides a unique look a life in Berlin during the Second World War. Although most of the narration is from Peter's point of view, Dowswell also includes the perspectives of many other characters in the novel including Anna, Ula and Otto Reiter, Gerhart Segur and Franz Kaltenbach. It is precisely the use of different narrators that gives this novel its balanced approach. There are German characters who are "one hundred percenters" - those who completely believe in the Nazi propaganda such as Professor Kaltenbach and his wife. The Reiters represent those Germans who did not agree with the Nazi racial policies and who worked to mitigate the suffering of the Jews and those who were part of the resistance. Also portrayed are those such as Elsbeth who originally supported the Nazis but when the learned the truth of what they were doing, tried desperately to extricate themselves. And then of course there were many German citizens such as Segur who were terrorized by the Nazis into betraying neighbours and friends.
The fanaticism of the Nazis is well portrayed in the novel and Dowswell includes parts of speeches and texts used by the Nazis to foment hatred against Jews and other ethnic groups deemed undesirable and to promote war. Dowswell captures the time period brilliantly, showing how beautiful and sophisticated Berlin was in 1941 and yet how poisoned its people were with the rabid ideology of genetics and race. This was initially deceiving to someone like Peter who did not yet recognize the iron grip the Nazis had on life in Germany. As the tide in the war begins to turn, the rationalization of German citizens and their reluctance to doubt the Nazis is demonstrated. Even the bombing of Berlin doesn't seem to sway them.
One of the major themes in the novel is that of identity. Because Peter has lost his parents, he dearly wants to fit into German society. It is a classic search for identity but one which is even more poignant because of his circumstances. Peter is not allowed to be himself, nor to express his own views about what is happening. Instead, whether he agrees or not with Nazi policy, he must conform to the Nazi way of thinking or risk being sent to a work camp or perhaps worse. Gradually, as Peter's eyes are opened to what the Nazis are doing to ordinary people simply because they are different, Peter comes to understand the price of conformity both personally and for the country. Despite being very conflicted he begins to resist in subtle secret ways that lead to him becoming part of the resistance and risking everything.
This novel is well written and thrilling from beginning to end with a likable male protagonist - something not found in many historical fiction novels. The author based the character of Ula Reiter on two German women who heroically defied the Nazi regime in Berlin during the war. He also explains the origins of some of the ideas, speeches and events portrayed in the novel in a note at the back of the novel. This is historical fiction at it's very best - effectively providing readers with a sense of what life was like during this terrible conflict.
Auslander by Paul Dowswell
London: Bloomsbury 2009