Review of “An Ordinary Youth” by Walter Kempowski: Experiencing Life During the Nazi Regime
The debut novel from German writer Walter Kempowski depicts the unconventional upbringing of a young boy. Set in 1938, the story follows nine-year-old Walter and his family in the city of Rostock in Northeast Germany. By the conclusion of the novel in 1945, as the second world war draws to a close, Walter has reached 17 years old and is living amidst the rubble of the aftermath. Told through multiple perspectives, the novel explores how Walter’s once stable middle-class community crumbles under the weight of intolerance, radical political beliefs, and the devastation of war.
The book depicts the juxtaposition of regular family activities and the catastrophic impact of world history, particularly the Germans’ role in it. The underlying tensions between everyday life and the horrors of war give the novel its momentum and unsettling effect. While the Nazis rise to power, young Walter engages in lighthearted activities with his brother, while also avoiding Hitler Youth sessions. Meanwhile, his family tries to maintain their social routines, with his mother complaining about fur coats and his father talking about business. Even in the face of tragedy, the family continues to carry on with their daily lives. Kempowski’s narration presents these events in an impartial manner, showcasing how historical atrocities become intertwined with ordinary life. The family takes a group photo, with Walter’s mother in a fancy dress, his brother sailing, and himself in a suit from Hamburg, while his father stands in his SA uniform under a birch tree.
The author of this book, born in 1929 to a wealthy family in Rostock, draws heavily on his personal experiences. As a schoolboy, he witnessed the rise of the Nazis and even joined the Hitler Youth before briefly serving in the Luftwaffe. After being imprisoned by the Soviets, he was eventually released and started a new life in West Germany in the 1950s. He became a teacher and focused his literary career on understanding Germany’s past. He developed a documentary style that was both serious and ambitious in scope. Before his death in 2007, he completed two large historical projects: a nine-volume series of novels and a series of survey responses to questions about the Nazis’ crimes, known as the German Chronicle. He also created Das Echolot, a 10-volume collage made up of diary entries, letters, and unpublished memoirs from ordinary people during the Nazi era.
In the first part of the German Chronicle, titled An Ordinary Youth, we can already see the filmmaker’s desire to document, despite the ironic subtitle “a bourgeois novel”. The story is told in a semi-fragmented style, with various snippets and scenes that are interconnected. The narrative is often interrupted by the titles of books or household items, advertising slogans, street signs, quotes from music and poetry, and snippets of dialogue without attribution. The main character, Walter, just wants to listen to jazz and play with toy soldiers, but ends up being drafted into the military. The story is framed through the perspective of a child, leaving the reader somewhat confused. Kempowski has a keen eye for peculiar and seemingly insignificant details – a family joke, a disturbing comment from a minor character – which add to the haunting and mesmerizing portrayal of an era. While not exactly a collage in the style of John Dos Passos or Arno Schmidt, or even Das Echolot, this novel successfully captures the wider social world in a disorienting manner, within the context of an autobiographical childhood story.
When the book was initially released in 1971, it sparked controversy due to its portrayal of a typical bourgeois family. During a time when progressives were emphasizing the collective guilt of German society, some critics viewed this seemingly amoral chronicle as a reactionary piece. However, the apparent normalcy and lack of absolute evil within the Kempowski household may have left a conservative impression. Nevertheless, it is precisely this normalcy that gives An Ordinary Youth its moral strength and historical significance. Instead of excusing Walter’s world, the novel highlights the desperation of his family to maintain their hard-earned “normalcy” – a normalcy they are willing to defend at any cost, even if it means complying with a murderous Nazi regime they claim to have never supported.
The child narrator in Kempowski’s book, much like most children, displays traits of anxiety, naivety, blind trust in authority, selfishness, and an inability to translate moments of compassion into a different political perspective. This is a common occurrence among many individuals, including his family, who refuse to face the moral and political consequences of their actions, even as the war effort fails. The victims of Nazism are briefly mentioned in the book, such as a neighbor’s Jewish wife, a Social Democrat imprisoned, and some references to concentration camps, but the lack of interest and avoidance shown by the characters reflects the same attitude. Notably, the word “Auschwitz” is only mentioned once when the main character, Walter, reads about a “bloody marital drama” that took place on the streets of “Kattowitz” in the newspaper’s Miscellaneous section while visiting his Hitler-supporting grandfather.
In the middle of the story, a young person from Denmark visits the family during wartime. The mother pleads, “Please don’t assume that all Germans are bad. There is a difference between Nazis and Germans.” However, despite the Kempowskis’ objections, the book clearly shows the connection between bourgeois Germany and the atrocities committed by the Nazis during this time. In the beginning chapters, there is ample evidence that the family’s prewar environment was filled with anti-Semitism and prejudice against Slavic people, as well as authoritarian social structures, casual intolerance towards those who were different or weak, and a sense of German exceptionalism. There is also evidence that both moderate and extreme forms of these beliefs were accepted by middle-class Germans as long as their personal and business interests were not affected. An Ordinary Youth captures the everyday nature of complicity and compromise, if not quite the “banality of evil”. Today, it is more relevant than ever before.