The effects of war on ordinary citizens are illustrated with brutal and beautiful clarity in Class 1902, a biographical novel that found instant popularity when first published in Germany in 1928. The author turns his own memories of adolescence into the story of his protagonist, E., the son of a dutiful but emotionally absent government worker and a doting, courageous mother. E. spurns adulthood and everything to do with it, with one exception: he is obsessed with what he calls “the mystery,” the secret connection between men and women with which he is wholly unfamiliar. E. feels that if he could only learn the truth behind “the mystery,” he would understand the world and the strange behavior of adults. Over the course of four years, the agonies of E.’s puberty run parallel to the social upheaval unfolding around him, with idealization and jubilance followed by disillusionment and despair. These upheavals are mirrored in E.’s disparate group of friends: Ferd, the handsome and heroic son of an aristocrat who opposes the Kaiser’s policies; Leo, the frail and insightful young Jew who benefits from Ferd and E.’s protection; and August, the fiery working-class Socialist who sees war as a chance for equality. At first they all leave the outside world to the adults, but as the realities of war become inescapable, each young man is marked by them forever, and E. struggles to understand what is happening to them and the world.
The 2008 English edition includes an introduction by Horst Kruse, whose translation preserves the sparse, sharp beauty of Ernst Glaeser’s memories. The struggles of growing up are magnified by the horrors of war, illustrating how war affects the innocents of every country. The prose is graceful and controlled, but it pulls no punches and offers no happy endings. Class 1902 is not an easy book to read, but its tragic beauty is not easily forgotten. Highly recommended.