Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Ever since the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch in which her father sacrificed his life to save Adolf Hitler from the bullet meant to kill him, Gretchen Müller and her family have enjoyed a special place in Hitler's world.  But now, in 1931, Gretchen, 17, has had the seeds of doubt about her father's sacrifice planted in her mind by none other than a Jewish reporter for the Munich Post, Daniel Cohen.  Handsome and not much older that Gretchen, Daniel claims that Herr Müller's death was intentional and not only that, but was done by a fellow Nazi Party member.

And it looks like Daniel Cohen may be right - the powder burns and bullet hole on the back of her father's shirt certainly seem to support the idea that Herr Müller was shot in the back.  But who and why would someone do such a thing to a man who was always so loyal to Hitler?

That's the mystery that Gretchen needs to solve and the only one who can help her is Daniel Cohen. Now Gretchen must overcome her ingrained aversion to Jews.  She had always believed Hitler when he said that Jews were subhuman, but Daniel seems to be anything but.

Solving the mystery of her father's death won't be easy for Gretchen.  First, there is her older brother Reinhard, a psychopath who has found an outlet for his sadistic behavior as one of Hitler's Brownshirts.   Reinhard loves nothing more than going out "Jew hunting" and delights in torturing his sister.  When Reinhard makes her pay for snooping in his room, Gretchen soon discovers that she has no one she can turn to.  Her mother is terrified of Reinhard, yet lives in a state of denial about what he is.  Then there are Gretchen's best friends, Eva Braun and Hitler's half niece Geli (Angela) Raubel,  both appearing to be as loyal to Hitler as everyone else that surrounds him and neither willing to interfere on Gretchen's behalf.  When even Uncle Dolf, as she has always called Hitler, also turns his back on her, Gretchen begins to question everything she has always believed.

As Gretchen comes to rely on and trust Daniel Cohen, and as Daniel begins to see the real young woman behind the Nazi facade that Gretchen must wear in public, they find themselves attracted more and more to each other.   But Gretchen and Daniel also discover just how ruthless Hitler's quest for power is and why solving the mystery of Herr Müller's death may become a question of life or death for  both of them.

I have been of two minds about Prisoner of Night and Fog ever since I finished it.  It is a tension filled novel, that at times had my heart pounding.  The last days of the Weimar Republic were filled with hunger, inflation, unemployment, and political violence as communists and SA clashes increased.  Anne Blankman spares not punches when it comes to describing this aspect of in the book.  Reinhard and the other Brownshirts who appear in this story are probably the most true to life characters in term of their actions and Blankman even throws in the real-life figure of Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, and every bit as zealous in going after Hitler's enemies as Reinhard.  But…

I found the plot to be weak and unfocused at times, and too often I felt like I was reading a history book instead of a novel.  It was slow going a lot, followed by what should have been nail-biting tension if only I had cared more about Gretchen.

Gretchen has everything going for her as a character.  She is a strong young woman, somewhat independent, or as much as one could be as part of Hitler's inner circle of admirers, and open to changing her ideas about things even if reluctantly at times, but somehow she just didn't cut it.

So, maybe I didn't care about her or anyone else in the book because I felt the characters didn't have much dimension.  It was like I was told admirable or deplorable things about the characters, but I just never felt them to really be there.  Even Hitler spoke more in slogans that dialogue.  It was like a cardboard cutout was substituted for the real character.  Even that fact that he also came across as lusting for Gretchen, Eva Braun and Geli Raubel didn't feel real.  Maybe because most scholars believe he was asexual.  Reinhard was a good picture of a Brownshirts, but also completely lacks depth and personality.

Blankman introduces us to something called Cell G, a kind of early Nazi death squad.  I have never heard of Cell G before, but it was apparently the subject of an exposé that appeared in the real Munich Post in April 1932.  In fact, she seems to have relied heavily on a book by Ron Rosenbaum called Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil published in 1998, especially for information about Cell G.  In her Author's Note, Blankman refers her readers to this book, and even includes a pretty good bibliography.

But the thing that really annoyed me was the term night and fog.'  On pages 175-181, it seems to be equated with the idea of Jewish extermination.  But the term has nothing to do with the fate of German Jews and I thought this too misleading to ignore.  It came into use in 1941 with the passage of the Night and Fog Decree.  Its purpose was the disappearance without a trace of any resisters or saboteurs in the occupied countries.  Blankman is, however, correct in associating the term night and fog with the poem "Der Erlkönig" by Goethe.

Deapite all this, at the end of the day, I would still recommend this book to anyone who really likes historical fiction, if for no other reason than because there are not many books written about these last days of what was called the Kampfzeit, or the Nazi time of struggle to gain power.  You do get a sense of what it was like in 1931 and Blankman includes a number of figures like Rudolf Hess and Ernst Hanfstaengl who really were part of the Hitler entourage.  Nazi headquarters really was in the Braunes Haus, where Gretchen worked for Hanfstaengle.

Braunes Haus
This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was received as an E-ARC

This is book 5 of my Eurpoean Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader
This is book 8 of my 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

1 comment:

  1. I have never heard of this one before. It has a nice cover and the story sounds interesting. Sorry to hear that you didn't feel a strong collection for any of the characters. Your review was very helpful. Glad to hear you still recommend it.