I’ve said that I am tired of World War II novels, and I am. I am positively allergic to all references to the “Greatest Generation” (if this generation was so great, why didn’t it do more about racism and sexism when it got home from the war?). We Germans is a different take on the war, though, and worth your time (at 197 pages, it won’t take up much of it).
The novel is told in two alternating perspectives: that of an ordinary German soldier, Meissner. who is ultimately captured and spend a couple of years in a Russian prison camp, and then marries and lives out a long life, and that of his British grandson, Callum, who writes of his grandfather as fondly as you might write of yours. (The author’s biography notes that his mother is German, and it’s not hard to imagine that Callum’s perspective might be the author’s, at least to some extent.)
Meissner is harder on himself than his grandson is. “[E]ven if all you did in the war was serve lunches at a quiet rubber factory in the middle of Germany, your meals fed workers whose rubber went into tyres that were fitted to trucks that carried people to their deaths,” Meissner says. ” . . . And I didn’t make lunches; I wore a uniform and fought, to the best of my ability.” But Callum shies away from this: “although you could legalistically tease out varying degrees of culpability, I’ve got no taste for it.” Where Meissner says ruefully that only the heroes — the conscientious objectors — emerged from the war unscathed, Callum concludes that “World history impinges more on some lives than others. Because I was born in the 1980s and not the 1920s, the worst my times have done to me is lose me my first job, in the 2008 financial crisis; they’ve never sent me to Russia to dig holes and kill people.”
As I read this novel I frequently thought of my grandfather, an American soldier who was captured and spent about a year and a half in a German prison camp. What if Grandpa had met Meissner in the 1940s? Each might have tried to kill the other. What makes the German soldier in this book different from my grandfather, of course, is that he fought for Hitler’s Germany while Grandpa fought for Roosevelt’s United States. Meissner notes that even during the war he realized he would someday have to account for his complicity, and yet he remained in uniform, doing his duty. And he comforts himself with the small atrocities, perpetrated by the Russian army, that he was able to prevent. He wasn’t a hero, but he wasn’t a sadist. He fell in love, he raised a family, he adored his wife. Isn’t that enough? he asks. “How can I be an evil man?”
It’s a complicated question, more complicated than we usually pretend. If we hold Meissner responsible for Hitler’s actions, must we also hold American soldiers — both of my grandfathers — responsible for the internment of the Japanese, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? (But the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives by ending the war, I hear you protesting. If Hitler had won, how would we be explaining away the Holocaust?) Can we say that one side’s hands are dirty and the other side’s hands are clean, just because one side was unquestionably worse? If the United States had been gassing millions of people, how can we be so sure that our ancestors would have resisted? Is it fair to judge Meissner’s performance on a test that neither we nor our grandfathers ever had to pass? After all, world history has brought to our generation a pandemic, an authoritarian American president, and desperate refugees, and our response to these things has not covered us in glory.
I feel that I should condemn Meissner, who helped prop up Hitler’s regime. But I find it hard to do so without condemning the whole world. “I just hope that my grandparents’ world wasn’t razed to the ground,” Callum concludes, “but ploughed under, like clover is to enrich the soil.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I am not optimistic. If history teaches us anything, it is that humanity does not learn.