ES IST ALBERN, it is silly, that Albert R. G. Solmssen over-larded his novel with German phrases. Often he did not even translate them. Nor did he put them in quotation marks or italics. He serves his salty lard uncooked, presumably in hopes of adding more flavor to his already heavy fare. Readers who are not fully conversant with German, I fear, may find this hard to stomach.
That is eine Schande, a shame, because heavy fare or not, A Princess in Berlin is a most vivid work of animated history that slowly builds into a gripping and enlightening novel.
The history is that of Germany in 1922 and 1923, nightmare years. The anemic, young Weimar Republic barely survived them. It was beset by hunger, unemployment, irrational reparation payments, the French occupation of the Rhineland, urban guerrilla sniping on the Communist left, bloody putsche and murder plots on the nationalist right, drugs and depravity in the cabarets, reckless profiteering and, worst of all, runaway inflation.Government printing presses insanely rolled out more and more bank notes with more and more zeros on them. Before it was over, on November 20, 1923, it took 40,000,000,000,000 Reichsmark to buy one dollar on the black market. Savings accounts, annuities, pensions, life insurance, any semblance of security and middle-class values were wiped out.
Solmssen animates this momentous slice of history with an interesting and plausible cast of characters. A young American Quaker, who drove an ambulance for the French, prefers to stay in Paris to paint after World War I, rather than return to Philadelphia to work in his father's bank. He re-encounters a young German pilot Christoph Keith, whom he had pulled out of a burning airplane at Verdun. Christoph advises Ellis to study painting in Berlin, where his few dollars will make him fleetingly rich.
Ellis' friendship with Christoph gets him deeply involved in the proud, rich and extensive family, the House of Waldstein. Jewish bankers, the Waldsteins are so deeply rooted in the culture, commerce and history of the Prussian kingdom and the German nation that they have almost persuaded themselves they are not Jewish. They have been given aristocratic titles, have married into nobility and enlisted their sons in the best regiments. Like their big industry friends, like Thyssen and Krupp, they fear Communism more than that noisy anti-semite with the Charlie Chaplin moustache. They put their faith in Reichswehr Chief-of-Staff General von Seeckt. The elite of pre-Hitler Germany, in fact, included several such members of the Jewish faith.
Ellis' painting gets him deeply involved in Berlin's left-wing bohemians of the time and their grim, but ach so creative scene of cold attic studios, costume parties, bars, cabarets, whores, pimps and even more hunger for life than plain hunger. This was the world George Grosz painted and Bertolt Brecht sang about.
Solmssen depicts these two sides of Berlin with uncanny authenticity, a king of literary photo-realism. You can hear the heel-clicking in the wealthy Havelsee villas and the hushed transactions in the private bank boardrooms. You can smell the vomit and urine in the Neukoelln workers' tenements and the stale beer and cheap Schnapps in the Friedrichstrasse bars. Few history books explain in such fascinating detail the ins and outs of important events, such as Hitler's abortive Feldherrnhall Putsch or the mechanics of Hjalmar Schacht's currency reform, which ended the inflation.
Along with all those fat German phrases, Solmssen seasons his story with numerous documentary ingredients. He quotes at length from Count Harry Kessler's famous diaries (there is not a book on Berlin in the '20s that doesn't), as well as Brecht poems and such. The book is illustrated with drawings by George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Kaethe Koellwitz and other artists of the time. Historic figures appear under their own names, except George Grosz, who is poorly disguised, presumably because Solmssen found it necessary to depict him as a lecherous drunk.
The plot is wild, but entirely plausible flight of fancy. It draws the hero, Peter Ellis, into the murder plot, by nationalist fanatics, of Walther Rathenau, the foreign minister. A brilliant and wealthy Jew, Rathenau was without doubt the most outstanding statesman Weimar Germany produced.
But in this novel, as in history, the Rathenau murder is only the beginning of even more terrible things to come.
Early in the story, I felt Solmssen worked too hard to make what is essentially an old-fashioned novel fast and strobe lit with capricious flashbacks and narrative acrobatics. But as he moves along, he -- and the readers -- are too absorbed in the story to bother with tricks in the telling of it. The love story is touching. There are some admirable women in this book. And the princess -- surpirse -- is not what you think she is.
But more than heart tugs, suspense, believable heroes and -- much more rare in this genre -- a believable villain, A Princess in Berlin gives us as sharply focused an insight into how and why Germany perpetrated the Holocaust as any I have seen.
That makes it more than a good novel. It makes it an accomplishment, eine Leistung.