Catching up with our reading is one of the few positives of this dreadful situation in which we find ourselves. But if you’re going to pick one German book, forget the hefty Buddenbrooks and seminal Faust - make it Irmgard Keun’s compelling novel, Nach Mitternacht.
It’s the story of a girl who is grappling with the decision to support or protest against the Nazi regime, and when a former lover appears, she is suddenly forced to choose. If you’ve ever wondered what daily life was actually like in the Third Reich, this book will provide you with a window into 1930s Germany as the horrific events began to unfold.
Published in 1937, Keun’s novel is not airbrushed by the patronising gloss of hindsight, nor weighed down by the worthy, regimented facts gleaned from a history lesson. Instead it is a fresh, idiosyncratic account of two days in Frankfurt, seen through the eyes of Sanna, a girl who, like me, is nineteen years old.
The narrator shows us the maelstrom of everyday life in the Third Reich, from parties and romances to executions and prisons, all set against the backdrop of Hitler’s visit to Opernplatz. We meet Sanna’s writer brother, Algin, and his bohemian circle, who are no friends of the regime. Although Sanna is apparently apolitical, we become engrossed in her precarious social whirl. Taking a drink with an SA man before flirting with a Jewish doctor, she pulls us along with her into the perilous yet vibrant turmoil of the everyday existence of a young girl. Surprisingly, the apparently apolitical, naive Sanna relays events in a (sometimes unintentionally) hilarious way. Yet Keun does not simply have us laugh at Sanna. The seemingly unthreatening narrator actually makes perceptive, biting comments about the National Socialist regime. Her vivid description of one member of Hitler’s enamoured crowd’s breath as ‘ein fetter stinkender Ball’ poignantly captured the grotesque nature of the regime.
Portrayed in this novel are the ruthless opportunists who thrive in the Reich, including Sanna’s own spiteful Aunt Adelheid. A staunch Nazi supporter, Adelheid denounces others to the Gestapo for her own personal gain. Sanna’s telling remark, ‘Mütter zeigen ihre Schwiegertöchter an, Töchter ihre Schwiegerväter, Brüder ihre Schwestern, Schwestern ihre Brüder, Freunde ihre Freunde, Stammtischgenossen ihre Stammtischgenossen, Nachbarn ihre Nachbarn’, reveals the betrayal which reigned in National Socialist society. Chillingly, we can actually recognise the petty neighbourhood score-settling which, in National Socialist society, had deadly consequences.
It comes as no surprise that Keun could not publish Nach Mitternacht in Nazi Germany, with the book first coming into print in 1937 in Amsterdam, after her exile. Only now is this female perspective of the Third Reich getting the acclaim it deserves, after years of being overlooked in Germany.
You might question why a book about one of the darkest periods in history would be worth reading in these grim times. Indeed, Nazi Germany is certainly portrayed as a place of violence, horror, and betrayal. But with brave individuals risking their lives to save others, then as now, what remains at the end of this novel is true friendship, love and despite everything, hope.