Cima 10 novels about postwar Germany

METROy mother, with her wartime childhood, refused to set foot on German soil. Pero en 1975, I was headed to Berlin. At the airport, she took the gold Virgin Mary from her neck and placed it around mine. Till then my life had been enveloped in a “Britain-won-the-war” tale. In time I would become a novelist, and learn to see the novel as a counter-narrative to society’s story. Por ahora, I was picking up material.

How did Germany face its wartime heritage? I lodged with an old man on the Nazi War Crimes Register, found a job, took trips beyond the Berlin Wall and into the communist Eastern Zone. Those experiences fuelled my 1992 debut novel On Bended Knees. And began a lifetime’s investigation of how the guilt and traumas of war are passed down to succeeding generations.

Back then I found few books by Germans examining their recent heritage: this nation that lost two world wars, industrialised genocide and was split in two after 1945. En 1950 Heinrich Böll tried with his first novel The Silent Angel, set in the immediate postwar ruins of Cologne. His publishers deemed the public not yet ready for such self-examination and it remained unpublished until after Böll’s death. Alemania had war trials but no “truth and reconciliation” process, because it exterminated the millions with whom it might have reconciled.

Treinta años después, as On Bended Knees is reissued in its anniversary edition, I’ve reviewed the field. It’s grown. Several books on this list take a child’s perspective, with the question “What did my elders know?". Answers stay hidden. Some elders were complicit in the wartime horrors, others swept west in the tide of refugees fleeing Russian forces. Foreign writers joined the mix, for history provides novelists with no starker terrain to explore. With Britain repositioning itself post-Brexit, and Russia’s war on Ukraine, these novels are as relevant as ever.

1. The One from the Other by Philip Kerr (2006)
En 1949, Bernie Gunther re-establishes himself as a private detective in Munich. In true noir mode, a femme fatale sets him on a manhunt – but Bernie’s got some SS history of his own and soon finds that he’s the hunted one. Who’s an ally in this Germany, who’s an enemyand how do you tell the one from the other?

2. Lost by Hans-Ulrich Treichel (1999)
The narrator’s brother was lost as a baby, thrust into a stranger’s arms during a refugee flight from oncoming Russian troops. The narrator knows his own birth was less than a consolation prize. His parents long for their Arnold, who may have been found. Bureaucracy takes hold. The wryness of the put-upon narrator’s voice holds surprises that shocked laughs out of me.

3. Floating in my Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi (1990)
Born in the last year of the war, Hanna grows up in a small town on the Rhine. A 12 years old she starts a serious exploration of her town through untangling and guessing at the backstories of its inhabitants. War ghosts into this patchwork of lives, but it is memories of the region’s flood and of domestic family dramas that dominate this total charmer.

4. Billiards at Half-Past Nine by Heinrich Böll (1959)
As a September day in 1958 rolls toward an 80th birthday party, the story unfolds through the different characters’ reflections. Three generations of architects and folk in their circle look back on the rise and demolition of a 20th-century abbey, on lives lost, on those enticed by Nazi power and those who resisted. A masterful, detailed novel of reconciliation. Worthy in itself of Böll’s Nobel prize.

5. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
Fifteen-year-old Michael is seduced by Hanna, in her 30s. He succumbs happily. Was he abused? Why does he feel guilt? She disappears, to emerge six years later at a war trial that Michael observes. She was a camp guard culpable in the deaths of hundreds. He resumes a distant relationship when she is in prison, reading books into cassettes for what he now recognises as the illiterate Hanna. Guilt and pleasure entwine generations with their partially examined lives.

6. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (1963)
Alec Leamas is reeled back from running the UK’s spy operations in Berlin, outfoxed by his East German counterpart. “Control”, his UK boss, sets him up to return. In a plot alive with double-crosses, and a city in which all trust is lost, Leamas is wiped of one identity and left to mould a true one. This new model for the espionage novel feels influenced by Albert Camus, examining the absence of meaning in a morally bankrupt world.

7. You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke (2016)
Our narrator is seven. At the age of five her mother snatched her from all she knew of life, in East Germany, and fled west. Home becomes a refugee camp and the girl is happy to find company in its crowds. Her parents’ social climbing means leaving behind the people she loves. Instead she tells stories. Based on the author’s own 1960s childhood.

8. The German House by Annette Hess (2018)
In 1960s Frankfurt, Eva is torn. In her late 20s, her fiance wants her to be the model stay-at-home housewife. She is determined to work as translator for Poles in the ongoing trials of Nazis, now upstanding citizens, who are accountable for the horrors of Auschwitz. Newly alert to atrocities that had been hidden, she finds that culpability spreads to all she knows. This novel adroitly blends examination of a family’s and a nation’s past, a romance, and a woman’s quest for self-identity.

9. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008)
A house on the eastern fringe of Berlin is seen through the tenants and owners who made it their home before fleeing. This includes its Jewish owners and the architect who buys it cut-price when they flee Nazi oppression, who in turn flees the approach of Russian troops. Erpenbeck brings in her own East German heritage in depicting the writer and her family who next move in, tackling the new meaning of property ownership in the communist state. Until even this writer is made to move on.

10. Here in Berlin by Cristina Garcia (2017)
The Visitor, akin to the Cuban-American author, spends months of 2013 in Berlin. She brings questions such as “What did war keep offering that ensured its survival?". Can this 21st-century Germany still be examining its postwar condition? It seems so. She pulls tales from vivid and various survivors in the city. Some are so real they have photos, one is snatched from Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, and all offer up their own versions of honesty.

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