An Ordinary Youth

Walter Kempowski

Granta, £18.99

Review by Neil Mackay

IT’S taken 50 years for this extraordinary book to get an English translation. The timing couldn’t be more apt.

Walter Kempowski’s semi-autobiographical novel An Ordinary Youth - about growing up in Nazi Germany - emerges at the same time as Jonathan Glazer’s harrowing movie The Zone of Interest, which tells the true story of the commandant of Auschwitz and his family.

In both book and novel, horror is never front-and-centre, it’s only alluded too, glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Nightmare as trompe-l’oeil.

Could there be a more necessary time for Europe to contemplate these past crimes? Not through the roaring, visceral cruelty of films like Son of Saul or a book like Auschwitz: An Eyewitness Account by Miklos Nyiszli, which take you into the gas chamber itself, but through the prism of domesticity. Through the eyes of children at play, and mothers cooking.

The distance, the reserve, of both Kempowski’s novel and Glazer’s film, makes the horror more unbearable. We’re in worlds of cakes and flowers. Death is never on display. But it’s always there. Waiting. Making us - viewer, reader, citizen - complicit in our passivity. For aren’t dreadful events starting once more in history, whilst we live our domestic lives?

The Herald: German guards at the Belzec concentration campGerman guards at the Belzec concentration camp (Image: free)

In Glazer’s film, we never leave the grounds of the house of Rudolf Höss, the man who ran the death camp. His monstrosity is only ever implied. Fires from chimneys burn in the distance beyond the wall of his pretty garden. His wife sorts through bags of stolen silk underwear and women's fur coats. Ash fertilises flowerbeds.

In Kempowski’s book, subtext is likewise used to stun us. Young Walter happily skips down the street, passing some dilapidated buildings. One was a Synagogue burned on Kristallnact.

Walter’s parents comment on the shape of heads on Aztec figurines and it’s impossible to not think of Nazi doctors and their hellish eugenics. When Walter plays with toy soldiers, there’s an SS parade.

Every sentence is freighted with dreadful, chilling irony. The family talk of how sad it is that buffalo and whales are being exterminated by humans. It isn’t whales or buffalos, though, which fill the reader’s mind.

Walter’s family are depressingly average. They aren’t snarling monsters. They’re ordinary Germans. On holiday, his mother sneers at ‘fat Jews’. His father describes the American music Walter listens to as “n*****-jazz”.

Walter’s father is told that some Russians he sees in the street are going to a ‘concert camp’. He whispers the story to his family. The SS told him not to talk about it.

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Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Nights Dream cannot be played on the gramophone. Mendelssohn was Jewish.

The hate is as oppressive as totalitarianism itself. The Kempowskis are upper-middle class, but that won’t save them.

As the war begins, they’re bombed. Friends and family die. They start to starve. Walter - like all boys - has to join the Hitler Youth. He’s later conscripted into the military as a teen soldier.

Yet there’s some light in this book, and it comes from Walter navigating adolescence. Here he is, a reluctant Nazi facing obliteration from RAF bombers every day, yet all he can think about is his cool haircut, the ‘hot’ girl next-door, dancing, and hip clothes. He's a teenage everyman, and that gives us a precious life-raft to cling onto. We can hate the world Walter lives in, but we can manage to feel empathy for this boy.

Walter is a funny kid, with ideas above his station. When hunger hits, he says “gathering potatoes is anathema to my career as a pianist”. Though the humour is deliberately jarring. Are we meant to laugh or shudder?

Even such obedient Germans as the Kempowskis can’t escape the tyranny. A family friend is arrested by the Gestapo because he’s Danish. This prompts a change in the family. Walter’s mother begins saying: “Nazis and Germans: there’s a difference”.

As the war worsens, the family subtly start turning on Hitler - who they’ve idolised for years. Storm troopers are referred to as “bin men in their shit brown uniforms”.

The Herald: Berlin after Allied bombers struckBerlin after Allied bombers struck (Image: free)

Walter’s father now claims: “I’m a conservative to my bones, that doesn’t make me a Nazi.”

His sister says that being able to sing in munitions factories keeps the workforce together. Without song “they’d just jump the fence and bolt”. But bolt where?

Walter’s father and brother are posted to the front. We hear of the ‘Frozen Meat Medal’, for soldiers killed in the east.

Still, regardless of the fact that this single family is privately rethinking its beliefs, they do nothing to stop the horrors. Like all Germans, they’re powerless.

They idly watch ‘workers from the east’ - slave labourers from countries like Ukraine - clean their friends’ homes, and be marched through city streets. At one point, children even talk of how these ‘ostarbeiter’ are “hard to kill”.

What made this novel so difficult to translate - the reason that it took 50 years to get an English-language edition - is the use of German vernacular, and cultural minutiae from the 1930s and 40s. Translator Michael Lipkin, however, has done a marvellous job.

The book’s German title was so untranslatable it’s appeared in English as An Ordinary Youth. In Germany, where it’s a national literary masterpiece, it was called ‘Tadellöser & Wolff: A Bourgeois Novel'.

That’s a pun on a cigar brand - Loeser & Wolff - which Walter’s father smokes. The brand was ‘aryanised’ by Nazis as the owners were Jewish. To German ears, the father’s pun sounds something like ‘all’s well and wolf’, or ‘impeccable and wolf’. Another dagger of grim irony right to the readers’ heart.

The Herald: Survivors of the Buchenwald death campSurvivors of the Buchenwald death camp (Image: free)

It’s a highly fragmented work, riven with snippets of songs and sayings. The reader is subjected to a kaleidoscopic vision, not just of Germany, but the German soul amid war.

When the end comes for the Kempowskis, as it comes for all of Germany, it’s a pitiful fall. Walter shambles around Berlin as a military courier, while his family hide anything with a swastika on it as the Russians are coming. They even pretend that they never supported Hitler.

On the last pages, the Wehrmacht flee past the Kempowski’s window and the family are left to their fate. I had to continue my research elsewhere to discover what happened to Walter’s family. Like all Germans, none survived unscathed, just as readers will not put this book down unscathed.