All That I Am

Written by Anna Funder
Review by Kristen Hannum

German anti-fascists in Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s felt the weight of history on their shoulders; it was up to them to expose and stop the Nazis. When they failed, many managed to escape to England, where they desperately warned a deaf world about Hitler. The Gestapo, equally earnest, worked to stop them — by murder if need be.

Funder, author of the bestselling nonfiction Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, based this new book, her first novel, on real people and events, most notably Dora Fabian, a brave, beautiful, and charismatic feminist-socialist. Dora’s memory haunts both Ernst Toller (1893-1939, a German playwright, revolutionary, and poet), and Ruth Wesemann, Dora’s cousin, who became a real-life friend of the author. A fourth important character is Ruth’s husband, Hans Wesemann, a pundit who lampooned Hitler and his thuggish crew.

Its subject matter is both important and meaningful, dealing with injustice and decency, and also life’s unexpected demands for courage, which we may or may not live up to. It’s an ambitious novel that builds upon a compelling drama — but with a dry, documentarian sensibility. I sometimes returned to it out of duty. Part of that may be because of the distancing inherent in telling the story from the remove of Toller and Ruth’s viewpoints, years and decades after Dora’s death. Still, Funder’s writing is often insightful, and the story is gripping. Here’s Toller, shell-shocked in a sanatorium among the physically maimed of World War I. “All is calm, apart from the Christ hanging at the end of the room, naked and dying,” he observes. “He looks familiar — like a relative? So far as I can tell, he and I are the only Jews here.”