A young boy and his friends grow up in the wild and exciting Berlin of the 1930s and become so captured by the Nazi ideals and goals that they could commit cold‐blooded murder in the name of a new Germany. Slowly, Kurt and his friends are transformed from the average neighborhood kids into the youngsters envisioned by Adolf Hitler. From singing songs around the campfire to exterminating Jews as a member of the Einsatzgruppen, Kurt’s indoctrination is complete. When his granddaughter finds out that he was a Nazi, Kurt is forced to remember the past and in the process offers the reader insight into why he gave himself so completely to Hitler.
I was impressed to see a thick file sitting on the table with my name on it. There were apparently fitness reports from my service with the Jungvolk and the Hitler Youth along with my academic performance reports.
I had to perform some physical exercises and mathematical calculations, write an essay about the scourge of Jewry, and take dictation. This was all done very quickly. I guess the interviewers wanted to see if we could think on our feet.
Once the interviews were over, we were taken by bus to a house on the other side of town. There, we were led
through the house and into the cellar, from the cellar, to the loft and back to the cellar again. Once in the cellar again, all the lights were turned off and we were asked questions
about what we had seen in the house. We were given a compass and asked to point to the school. Guenther and
I were totally unprepared for this and had to act and react quickly. The review officers were looking for the attributes we displayed while trying to make quick decisions in the confusing environment. They transported us all back to school and after they told us we would be informed about how we did by letter, left as abruptly as they came.
We went on with our studies and most forgot aboutthe interviews. About sixty percent of us who started
graduated. We were very proud to be part of the elite!
Guenther and I came back home to Berlin to find bonfires lit in every neighborhood where Jews lived. On them were thrown prayer books, Torah scrolls and countless volumes of
history and poetry. Jews were being chased, loathed and beaten. In the first twenty-four hours of our return home, ninety-one Jews were killed and more than thirty thousand were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
For The Fatherland
A German boy becomes a good Nazi of the most horrifying sort in this riveting historical novel. To young Kurt Schultheiss, growing up in a chaotic Germany between the world wars, the Hitler Youth movement offers everything a growing boy wants. There are cool uniforms, camping trips, torchlight parades, rifle practice and ceremonial daggers. There is also intense camaraderie with his friends and lots of pretty blondes, including his girlfriend Anna, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he’d better become an SS officer if he wants to marry her. There’s further the flattering conviction—constantly reinforced by Nazi propaganda—that his generation is in the vanguard of the effort to build a glorious new Germany under the heroic leadership of Adolph Hitler. In the midst of this idyllic life, Kurt scarcely registers the corruption being worked on him as he internalizes a Nazi worldview that sees life as a Darwinian racial struggle and the Jews as the unseen hand behind every evil.
The lasting effects of his indoctrination surface during World War II, when Kurt joins an SS Einsatzgruppen death squad tasked with executing Jews and other undesirables in German-occupied Ukraine. Troubled and driven to drink by the cold-blooded slaughter of defenseless civilians, he steels himself with dehumanizing Nazi dogmas: “[Jewish] children had to be killed,” he reflects, or “they would grow up and take the place of their infectious parents.” Zapotoczny weaves in a wealth of historical background and period detail in rendering the deranged intellectual climate fostered by the Nazi dictatorship. This is not a story of coercion and terror, but the deep attraction ordinary Germans felt toward Hitler’s regime and the subtle ways it fed and perverted the idealism of the young. The author’s shrewd, empathetic character study shows how this ultimate evil took root in hearts and minds. A compelling portrait of the human face of Nazism.
Kirkus Discoveries Review
For The Fatherland
One of my most personally prized books and which I refer to often is John Toland’s Hitler. When I first read it I was struck by Toland’s attention to historical accuracy and his scrupulous even handedness. He never made a single excuse for the Nazi mass murderer, but his biography put the crazed Austro-German in context. Hitler, Toland showed, was much more than a madmen, a crazed genius and a psychotic – he was surrounded by people who in their haste to curry favor were even crazier. It was groupthink gone wild and bizarre. Hitler came away looking pathetic, his career a lesson for the present as well as an eye into the worst in our natures.
Walter Zapotoczny’s For the Fatherland does much the same for all those Germans who willingly carried out the insane policies of their Leader, putting aside common decency and their own inherent humanity.
Told through the flashback recollection of Kurt Schultheiss, an elderly veteran of the SS, Zapotoczny paints a compelling, frightening picture of a whole society gone mad.
The blonde haired blue-eyed Kurt grew up in the 1930s and was caught up in the maelstrom of Hitler’s Germany. Like many other youth his age he became a member of the Hitler Youth and amidst the simple pleasures and joys of childhood and young teenage years – camping, singing, and learning new physical and mental skills, was indoctrinated into a belief system that portrayed a new Germany the despondent populace could believe in and embrace.
Kurt was only one of millions caught up in this perversion of the truth. Germans, he was taught were a superior race. The rest of the world, especially Jews and blacks were inferior. When Jesse Owens won his storied gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games it was not because he was better than the other competitors, Kurt and his friends assured themselves, it was because he was given drugs to improve his performance – no Schwartzer could possibly defeat a true German.
As the years pass and World War II erupts, Kurt is witness to some of the most dehumanizing and despicable acts in recorded history, and a party to some of them. His ability to rationalize this sort of brutality, hatred and cruelty in the name of the nation is mind-boggling – and is a belief he carries to the very end of the novel.
Zapotoczny has written more than a novel. He has written a cautionary tale of how extremism and a simplistic world view can take otherwise ordinary people and make them commit, overlook and justify extraordinary evil.
When Nobel Prize winning author Sinclair Lewis wrote his frightening novel, It Can’t Happen Here, he was writing about a country in the midst of a national identity crisis, financial meltdown who found solace in a charismatic ideologue whom they allowed to destroy their freedoms in the name of “liberty” and “right thinking.” Truth in Lewis’ America bore no resemblance to the pronouncements of extremists who thought liberty was not universal and that freedom was confined only to those who agreed with them.
Zapotoczny echoes that sentiment in For the Fatherland and makes clear that the lessons of Hitler’s Germany are just as worth learning today as when Lewis wrote. In the epilogue he writes: “We must always be vigilant of extremism and those who would profess to make the next new world.”
If you only read one novel this year, make sure you read For the Fatherland. Then turn on the news and listen to the commentators on the radio. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Review by David W. Tschanz, MWSA Reviewer (February 2010)