Book Review: Winter Men

Winter Men

Kold, Jesper, translated by Semmel, K.E.

Amazon Crossing, 2016

Karl and Gerhard are two brothers in Hamburg trying to make use of their positions as sons of a wealthy factory owner to emerge from the shadows of World War One.  Karl inherited the factory, married well socially, and established a prosperous family who live in a villa on the city’s Alster lakefront.  Gerhard opted more toward academic pursuits and is a Mathematics professor at the university; following the loss of his wife and daughter to medical issues he moved into a small apartment across the city, but he is a well liked and regular guest at his brother’s house.

Although neither of them are supporters of the Nazi party and its platform, following its rise to power they both become party members primarily out of practical reasons – Karl is running a clothing factory and party membership is a defacto requirement to get contracts, while Gerhard finds that being in the party was the only path to reach his goal of being a professor. Despite their memberships, both are pragmatic and tolerant men who, within their private spaces, criticize the elements building around them.

Starting with the imagery of an elderly man dying alone in South America, the book uses a very well designed series of changing locations and perspectives to bring out the destruction of humanity which occurred during the Second World War. Gerhard, the more regime critical and liberal of the brothers, finds himself arrested by the Gestapo and, given the options of being sent to Dachau as a political prisoner or turning informant, must wrestle with the decision and aftermath it brings.  Karl, when he tries to step in and help Gerhard, ends up being compelled to enlist in the SS as a condition, and that brings it’s own challenges as he is transferred between the Eastern and Western fronts.  Add in the perspective of Karl’s son, who is drafted in as a young soldier, and a few more scenes from South America and vignettes of other minor characters, and the book presents a compelling story from the perspective of one family of the loss across several generations, regardless of the sides.

Yes, there is the standard set of too-convenient-to-be-true circumstances which are required to make this type of book work, but rather than taking away from the book each segment is built up sufficiently so that it is a non-intrusive structure.

As fate would dictate, I completed reading this book on the 2018 observation of Memorial Day in the United States.  This provided an interesting mental mindset for the day, and I wish that more people across the United States could have the opportunity to experience this holiday from that perspective.  It is far too easy for those who have only experienced the conquests of empire from the winning side to hold up the relative handful of martyred militants as heros to be feted in nationalistic displays of triumphant symbology and honored as revered sacrifice; it takes far more strength to recall all those as individuals, regardless of which flag they happened to be under, who fell victim to the crimes of nationalism.

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