Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Honorable German

An Honorable German
384 pages
© 2009 Charles McCain

I saw this book on special display at my university, and decided to read it given my interests in Germany and naval stories. (The latter is not an interest that has surfaced here, although it probably will in the future.)  An Honorable German is the story of Max Brekendorf, who begins as an officer aboard the Admiral Graf Spee, a German battleship operating in the Atlantic in the opening months of World War 2. Germany's naval fortunes being what they were during that war, informed readers will be not be surprised that the Graf Spee is not Brekendorf's only posting during the conflict. Two stories develop here, each running beside the other: the first is Brekendorf's development as a naval officer in a conflict that he and his comrades are destined to lose, and this constitutes the military-driven portion of the story. More fascinating for me was the development of Max's character. His opinions, prejudices, and values are challenged and change throughout the course of the novel -- not only at sea, where the "right" course is often difficult to discern, but with successive visit home to Germany, where he witnesses the consequences of war and the ever-tyrannical totalitarian state.

The book was a splendid read. It never failed to hold my attention, and the narrative filled with little details that gave the story life and made the setting more interesting for the readers, as well: I learned a few things in the novel I may have never encountered elsewhere. Characterization seemed well-thought out:  Brekendorf begins the book as an essentially decent man. He isn't an unrealistic epitome of grace who makes every other character in the book look like a dengerate schmuck by comparison: he's just a man with his own prejudices and values, some shared by his countrymen and some not. Even though the reader may disagree with his opinions, they may still be able to sympathize with why he thinks as he does. What is remarkable about Brekendorf is how he maintains his integrity even his life is put more in peril everyday and rasher decisions would be easier to make. I also got a sense of what Germany was like during this period from the perspective of people living there: the story made me think of the horrors people visit upon one another in war, a meditation imminently appropriate for this Armistice Day.

I enjoyed the book immensely and reccommend it to those interested in German history, naval stories, or the human side of war.

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