Berlin Finale

Heinz Rein

Penguin Modern Classics, £10.99

After the Second World War a group of German authors began to produce so-called Trümmerliteratur, or “rubble literature”, a form of fiction which centred upon battle-scarred soldiers or shell-shocked home-front survivors trying to pick up the pieces of shattered lives and broken dreams in their devastated homeland.

Writers like the future Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll perfectly encapsulated the mayhem and hardships of the post-war years in his slender novels and stories. But his less well-known compatriot Heinz Rein (1906-1991) wrote an epic work of documentary fiction which searingly dramatised not the desperate aftermath of the war but the brutal last days of the Third Reich.

Originally published in 1947, Berlin Finale became a bestseller during the upheavals of the German rebuilding period, but eventually went out of print. It was translated into English in the 1950s and yet also drifted into oblivion. It was recently rediscovered in Germany to great acclaim, a successful salvage operation similar to that of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. Now it is available again for Anglophone readers, with Shaun Whiteside producing an expert translation and Penguin Books fast-tracking it to their Modern Classics range. Hopefully this time around it is here to stay.

At the outset of the novel we learn the lie of the land and the state of play. It is April 1945 and the downfall of Berlin is imminent: “conflagrations, storms of steel and carpet-bombing have transformed the city’s lively face into the grimace of a death’s head.” British and American Air Forces above and Soviet armies on the ground prepare themselves for the final onslaught. With the scene set, Rein then brings on his key players and tracks their individual fates amid Berlin’s gradual collapse over the course of 19 momentous days.

Joachim Lassehn, a 22-year-old soldier, deserts the German army and returns to Berlin. He has no papers or food coupons and no one to vouch for him: his parents were killed in an air-raid and he is certain the woman he hastily married will either not recognise him or brand him an outlaw. He seeks refuge in a pub, unbeknownst to him a hub for a small yet committed resistance group.

The landlord, Oskar Klose, recognises a kindred spirit and introduces Joachim to his friends from the underground: Walter Böttcher is a doctor who helps refugees; Friedrich Wiegand, a former trade unionist, is a saboteur on the Gestapo wanted list. Joachim joins their cause and finds new purpose, aware that he is playing a dangerous game and alert to the threat of enemies from within and without. But he hasn’t counted on the doggedness and ruthlessness of Stürmbannführer Wellenhöfer, who has tracked Wiegand down and is closing in.

Rein then ups the stakes by bringing to an abrupt close what he terms “the unease before the storm.” The second half of the book comprises a furious endgame in which the resistance group is besieged on all fronts. As the Allies intensify their attacks on Berlin and the SS steps up its reprisals against traitors and defeatists, what was previously a tense battle of wills becomes a thrilling fight for survival.

Weighing in at nearly 700 pages and charting all manner of visceral horrors, Berlin Finale is no light, easy read. However, its driving narrative and emotional heft keep us rapt, and we come to root for Rein’s beleaguered heroes. Some find love among the ruins, all show courage under fire. Around their struggles, separate and shared, Rein blends in state-of-the-nation reportage – radio announcements, news articles, Goebbels’ propaganda speeches, Hitler’s last frenzied orders – and offsets the action and scenes of destruction with illuminating debates and meditations on the novel’s thematic concerns: guilt, honour, loyalty, complicity, cowardice and defiance.

By the end of this compelling and moving book, Rein’s panoramic portrait has turned into an apocalyptic vision. But among the ashes caused by “the flaming torch of war”, there is a flicker of hope for both the city that fell and the people who endured.