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Books What did you do in the 3rd Reich, Daddy?

JOHN GREEN finds a fragmentary account of bourgeois life in Hitler’s Germany surprisingly dull

An Ordinary Youth — A Bourgeois Novel
Walter Kempowski
Granta, £18.99

WRITTEN in 1971, this is the author’s novelisation of his childhood years growing up in Hitler-Germany and during the war, until the fall of Berlin. By default, it depicts the whole Nazi era and the war as a rather innocuous backdrop.

He uses a fragmentary form, with the incidents, events and observations he recalls laid out on the page in terse sentences or paragraphs, separated from each other, like scattered shards of mirror glass. His was indeed “an ordinary childhood,” if one ignores the fact that he and his family grew up under the Nazis. 

Kempowski was born into a petit-bourgeois family in the eastern German port city of Rostock, where his father owned a small shipping company. His autobiographical novel epitomises the “banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt would so memorably describe it; a slow-working poison that seeps into everyone’s daily life. 

He makes passing references to Hitler and the Nazis and describes his reluctant membership of the Hitler Youth, but otherwise his childhood is unremarkable and undoubtedly not dissimilar to that of most of his compatriots. What does come across, though, is the claustrophobic constraints of such a petit-bourgeois environment: the imposition of “Ordnung” or order in every facet of life, the strictures of a hierarchical and authoritarian system run according to fixed rules. Militarism, racism and intolerance run like a metastasing cancer through the society. 

It makes the reader wonder about how easily horror can settle amid the ordinary and pedestrian. 

This translation is rather unimaginative and includes a number of howlers as well as anachronistic Americanisms, which is a pity, but it can hardly be blamed for the pedestrian narrative itself.

For me, it made for a rather tedious read, but in his translator’s note Michael Lipkin does observe that his version is a bit more like “a bourgeois novel” than the original. Does that perhaps underscore its tediousness?

In a sense Kempowski’s work could be construed as an offensive narrative: how a rather privileged German family led a seemingly unperturbed bourgeois life, unconcerned about what was happening outside their narrow field of view, as communists, Jews, Gypsies and gay people were being herded into concentration camps and maltreated, and all the while millions of Russians were being slaughtered on the Eastern front as Hitler’s armies ravaged the continent.

One wonders why Granta felt the urge to issue a translation of a book that will surely have little resonance outside Germany. 

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