For over the first half of Stettin Station, the third book in the John Russell series, author David Downing simply follows his hero through his daily life. That said daily life is Germany in the first years of World War II is all Mr. Russell needs to make his novel fascinating reading. That his novel’s hero is a British journalist with a German movie star for a girlfriend certainly makes Stettin Station even more interesting.
Normally, I like the thriller plot line to take center stage as soon as possible. I am not someone who enjoys reading about the daily lives of detectives with quirky characters for friends while we all wait for the murder to finally take place so the plot can begin. However, I was neither disappointed nor bored with the opening section of Stettin Station.
John Russell’s day to day life in wartime Berlin is all I need to make for good reading.
At this point in the series I know John Russell and the rest of the characters well enough to have become involved in their fate–I care what happens to Effi, Russell’s movie star girl friend, to Paul his son now a member of the Hitlerjugend, even to the extended cast of characters Russell knows through his ex-wife’s family and his girlfriend’s sisters. Since we all know what happened historically, there is reason to worry about everyone in Stettin Station. The book has an automatic, built-in sense of tension that makes every encounter with the authorities a cause for concern.
However, once the actual thriller plot got going, the book became a little less interesting. Russell has been working for both the Soviets and the Americans, sending bits of intelligence to each while trying to keep the Germans convinced that he is really a double agent working for them. He wants to stay in Germany with his girlfriend and his son, but he also wants to get his story about what is happening to Berlin’s Jews out to the American public so they will finally take action against the Nazis.
Things come to a head when the Americans promise safe exile in Switzerland for him and his girlfriend if he can retrieve information from a celebrity radio broadcaster, an American who delivers propaganda to the German speaking public. The broadcaster has seen the writing on the wall as far as the war in Russia is going and wants to escape Germany. He claims to have documents proving certain American companies have plans to continue doing business with Germany once war with the U.S. had begun.
It’s a decent thriller plot for a spy novel and one I enjoyed reading, but I missed the first half of the book when John Russell and his girlfriend Effi were just trying to survive life under the Nazis.
My larger problem with Stettin Station has to do with they way complicity in the Holocaust is handled in so many novels set in wartime Germany. There is this tendency to overload the story line with characters who do not support the Nazis, so much so that it often seems like the Nazis were never more than a very powerful minority political party when they were really a solid majority. We’re only now beginning to deal with the fact that Nazism was so widespread among the general population. Hitler succeeded because just about everyone in Germany supported him.
But it Stettin Station, as in so many other novels, there is the sense that most Germans had very little, if not nothing at all, to do with the Holocaust. Early in the novel Effi has a conversation with one of the nurses at a hospital where she goes to visit wounded soldiers
“I have a friend at in the SS Hospital, and that sounds even worse. One night one of her patients started screaming, ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ and most of the others joined in, until half the ward was screaming and the other half weeping.”
“Do what, I wonder,” Effi murmured.
“Killing people, of course. In their hundreds, thousands even, Jews mostly, but Russians too. They force them to dig huge graves, line them up on the side, and then shoot them. Row after row. Her patients can’t stop talking about it, she says.”
The fact that Effi has made a career in movies making propaganda films portraying the Jews as monstrous does not escape her. She is a good actress, could be a great one, but she is forced to work within a system controlled by Joseph Goebbels. Eventually she is forced to face the fact that she cannot undermine the movies she is acting in, and that the audience watching them is not viewing their plot lines with the same cynical sense of disconnect she is.
Was she being over-sensitive? Surely most of her fellow countrymen would see through this evil nonsense as easily as she did. Her friends would find the story line laughable. But then her memory slipped back to the conversation with Annaliese Huiskes in her office, and the hundreds of Jews being shot by ordinary German men in Russia. Those men must have found the demonization of the Jews believable, or they wouldn’t be able to act the way they did. And movies must have played a part, however small, in that process, in making such terrible crimes not only possible but almost, it seemed, a matter of routine. The cost might come later, chorusing ‘I can’t do it anymore’ in a Berlin hospital ward with your fellow criminals, but by then it was too late for everyone, murderers and victims alike.
Finally, Effi is faced with leaving Germany if she wants to stay with John Russell. He asks her what Goebbels will think when he finds that his favorite actress has gone over to the enemy.
“But I haven’t,” she said instinctively. “I’m not against Germany. I’m against them.”
“I know you are,” Russell admitted. “But they think they are Germany.”
Espionage and murder mysteries set in pre-war and wartime Germany all seem to believe this, that their heros are the true Germans while the Nazis are a politically powerful minority. The truth is much harder. They really were Germany not the heroic journalist and his movie star girlfriend.
But at the end of the day, I enjoyed reading Stettin Station, though I found parts of it problematic, and I will be reading the next book in the John Russell series. Mr. Downing simply has me hooked. I want to know what happens to everyone next and how it all turns out.