A visitor to today’s Germany is likely to be struck by the country’s continuing preoccupation with the Holocaust and the stain of its Nazi history, evident in bookstores, museums and memorials, films, and television series. There the past, as the novelist William Faulkner once wrote, is not even past.
In fact, Germany’s capacity for self-reflection has fluctuated over the years. After an immediate push by the Allies to “denazify” the government and hold the worst war criminals accountable at Nuremberg, the divided country coped, in part, by willed forgetfulness, cover-up, and the ideological repurposing of history.
Annette Hess’s international bestseller, “The German House,” an intermittently intriguing novel about a naïve young woman working as an interpreter during the 1963-65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, chronicles that key challenge to widespread amnesia. It’s of interest mostly as a 21st-century perspective on the proceedings, as well as a recent entry in the growing catalog of internal reckonings.
Hess, as she explains in an author’s note, drew heavily from actual trial testimony, in which survivors of the Nazi concentration and death camp detailed selections, gassings, torture, starvation, and other abuses. Her emphasis on repression and the complicated relationship between postwar German youth and their complicit elders is reminiscent of Bernhard Schlink’s far more elegant novel, “The Reader.”
By way of the dawning consciousness of her protagonist, Eva Bruhns, Hess underlines two rather obvious points: that Nazi mass murder could not have occurred without the widespread participation of the German populace, and that the seemingly satanic acts involved were committed by human beings. Auschwitz, she writes, was “a hell created and run by humans.”
An award-winning screenwriter, Hess has authored several popular German television series and TV movies. But “The German House” is her first novel, and both her third-person narrative, with its frequently switching points of view, and her prose style (at least in translation) are somewhat clunky. Her symbolism — the recurrent motif of fire and ashes, the berry stains resembling blood, the washing of dirty linens — seems heavy-handed, and her characterizations improbable or sketchy. Still, Hess is sufficiently adept at pacing and plot twists, however unlikely, to persuade readers to turn the page.
Hess’s protagonist, like most of her compatriots, has never really confronted the legacy of the war years. In fact, she’s pushed it entirely from memory. Eva’s denial is so deep that she doesn’t even recall how, as a child, she became sufficiently fluent in Polish to make a living as a translator and interpreter. By the time her parents, owners of the titular German House restaurant urge her, predictably enough, to leave the past alone, we already have a pretty fair idea why.
The restaurant, where her father, Ludwig, cooks and her mother, Edith, waitresses, is the book’s most obvious symbol. Popular and comfortable, a beacon of warmth, good cheer, and heavy traditional specialties, it seems to stand for the country itself, erected on a foundation of secrecy and rot. Eva’s older sister, the nurse Annegret, is another symbol of corruption, if not downright evil. Her reckless propensity for bedding married doctors turns out to be the least of her sins.
Within a novel of what the Germans have long called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past, is nestled a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. Hess initially describes Eva as someone “who most of the time didn’t know what she really wanted” and “had no objection to being led … .” It seems misfortune enough that the interpreter will have to shoulder, or at least confront, the burden of her parents’ — and her country’s — dark past. Hess saddles her, too, with an unpleasant, sexually repressed, and misogynistic fiancé, Jürgen Schoorman, who wants Eva to obey him unhesitatingly and quit her courtroom post.
Thanks to a mail-order business, Jürgen’s family is rich, a clear plus. But his father — during the war, a communist tortured by the Nazis — is in the grip of dementia. The life Eva’s barreling toward seems like a disaster. Will she embrace feminism, or a modicum of self-protectiveness, and cut the Schoormans loose?
Meanwhile, her workplace contains its own perils, embodied by the nameless row of defendants known only by titles such as “the Beast,” “the pharmacist,” and “the medical orderly.” (Hess doesn’t name these mid-level criminals of Auschwitz-Birkenau, or the real-life attorney general, Fritz Bauer, or chief judge, Hans Hofmeyer.) Other characters include the traumatized but brave camp survivors, the attorneys, the defendants’ wives, the secretaries and the stenotypists who become Eva’s lunch companions.
Eva finds herself alternately repelled by and drawn to one prosecutor in particular, David Miller, a Canadian Jew who appears to be hiding his own Auschwitz-related secret. (Here, as elsewhere in “The German House,” appearances are deceptive.) Hess gives Miller a platonic prostitute-friend and a predilection for office canoodling. Nevertheless, we come to expect that he and Eva may stumble toward some sort of happy ending.
Miller’s eventual fate is one of the novel’s more bizarre twists. Equally unsettling is Eva’s subsequent decision about her own future. “The German House” isn’t the most sure-footed of novels. But it’s an interesting artifact of Germany’s ongoing cultural response to the 20th-century’s most heinous criminal enterprise.
THE GERMAN HOUSE
By Annette Hess; translated from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer
HarperVia, 332 pages, $26.99
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.