Kirst used his "Gunner Asch" stories and many others such as "Officer Factory", "The Night of the Generals" and "Heroes For Sale" to lambast National Socialism through humour and outright satire. Rein’s sprawling book – 658 pages of it – is also a novel but it seems to us to be a thinly disguised vehicle for his own onslaught on the madness to which the country succumbed from 1933 to 1945. It is as much historical as fictional, and the good news is that it is very readable and we like it a lot.

Rein opens up with a magnificently vivid eight-page description of the almost annihilated Berlin. It is April 1945, allied planes have free rein to carpet-bomb the German capital and soon the rampaging Soviet Red Army will be at the doorstep. As an assemblage of powerful words Rein’s picture is near-cinematic, almost like watching film of the destroyed city on the internet. For example:

"Mutilation has left other districts so disfigured as to be unrecognisable, filling them with wheezing, struggling life. The stumps of their mutilated buildings rise naked and ugly among the heaps of rubble, they loom like islands from the sea of destruction, torn and shredded, the spars of roofs which have been blown away like ribs stripped of skin, the windows as blind as eyes with permanently lowered lids, occasionally blinking ghastly, the walls bare, having shed their plaster, looking like ageing women whose faces have been ruthlessly wiped of foundation and rouge."

Little wonder that the book has been described, not least by Penguin Books, as "rubble literature". The ruined city is preparing for the final storming, which could break out at any moment and will roll in with the force of an avalanche. The monster Hitler is in denial of defeat. The Gestapo is still casting its net for Jews, traitors, resistance fighters and deserters. Berliners distrust each other, being afraid of spies.

Into this hell walks Joachim Lassehn, a German soldier who has deserted on the eastern front after being put in a punishment, or "suicide", unit – digging up and defusing mines, building bridges under enemy fire and so on – after he refused to execute Russian prisoners-of-war. Lassehn has no desire to die a "hero’s" death at the eleventh hour of a lost war.

Luckily, the landlord of the Berlin bar into which he wanders is Oskar Klose, who eventually reveals himself to Lassehn as a member of a resistance cell, trying to bring an early end to the pointless bloodshed. Only by doing so will it be possible to save what there is still to be saved.

Klose’s colleagues include Friedrich Wiegand, a trade unionist tortured in a concentration camp and now planning acts of sabotage to speed up the inevitable defeat and thus save lives. Another is Doctor Walter Böttcher, who helps refugees to survive. Klose offers Lassehn a hiding place and the deserter joins the conspirators, though of immediate concern to him is to renew acquaintance with the wife he married only eight days before being sent to fight, and whom he has not seen for two years. Will they still have feelings for each other? Will they even recognise one another?

The group is hunted at every step by the SS, the Schutzstaffel, or "Protection Squadron", and must live clandestine lives. They are tailed and there are narrow escapes. The occasional shooting death is inevitable. But the action of "Berlin Finale" is secondary to Rein’s observations.

For instance, on uniforms, as he describes some Hitler Youth: "They immediately fill the carriage with their conversations, less concerned with the words than with the volume, and they constantly laugh, but there is no real merriment spilling from their young mouths, only the desire to draw attention at all costs, the awareness that they are allowed to be loud and noisy without being told off. The uniform, which on the one hand commits them to strict discipline, on the other grants them an unhampered coarseness which everyone else has to put up with."

On the national character: "Kiepler is the typical product of a citizen of the Third Reich, a synthesis of personal honour, weak character and unconditional compliance to all the demands of the state. It is the schizophrenic character of the normal German citizen, the negation of the unity between social and individual being, and finally the constraint, imposed from above, of a racial consciousness which makes it possible for an entire population of millions of hardworking, order-loving people to be debased into an army of helots, for technology unleashed against the whole of humanity to move with the even mechanism of a robot."

On nature: "Incomprehensible that nature should remain eternally the same, untouched by human misery. It contains comfort in its spring-like resurrection, but at the same time it fills us with despair that as civilisation develops man moves further and further away from it, pointlessly crushing and stamping out the core of life, tearing open and ploughing up the maternal womb of the earth with bombs and shells, shredding and scorching the forests."

Even though the National Socialist regime is on its last legs, writes Rein, it still holds in its clenched fist the threads of the powerful net that has been cast over the German people and forces everyone to turn their own tiny cog in the infernal machine of the Third Reich.

Hitler and his minions are liars who have perpetrated an enormous abuse and are prepared to sacrifice the whole German people in "glorious" defeat. Rein sees Germany as a country in which freedom, humanity and justice are outmoded concepts but the people have made peace with their new master and their new order long ago, even if it was the order of an enormous prison.

And so Rein continues with his novel-cum-condemnation. His viewpoint is strong but is it apologist? We don’t know enough about him to say. Kirst, for instance, served in the Nazi army as long as it was possible to do so, from 1933 to 1945. He wore the swastika, he attended the rallies and he rose to first lieutenant. After the war he took to saying that his "growing disillusionment" with Nazi Germany gave rise to – and found expression in – his novels.

Fiction allows greater room for personal commentary, and Rein makes the most of it. "Berlin Finale" seems to have become a lost book to English readers but Shaun Whiteside’s new translation has brought it back to literary life decades later. Art has a habit of resurfacing, when it is worthwhile.


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