To Die in Spring

Written by Ralf Rothman Shaun Whiteside (trans.)
Review by Edward James

Two things to know: this novel is excellent, and it’s no place to be looking for even involuntary laughs. Set in the last days of WWII, when the Third Reich died thrashing and took anyone it could down with it, it’s a story of the author’s father, who “volunteered” to join the Waffen SS in the spring of 1945. “A story,” not “the story,” for Rothmann’s father died without ever telling his young son anything about the war at all. From the few facts he did know, Rothmann weaves a short, powerful, elegiac novel.

Its protagonist, Walter Urban, is 17, working in a protected job as an apprentice dairyman, when he innocently attends a dance—only to find himself forced into the SS as part of the Nazis’ last-ditch attempt to keep fighting. A peaceful young man, Walter is himself desperate to survive and to return home when the war is over. But neither goal is easy to achieve, as Walter endures the horrific last days of the Third Reich on the battlefield… and on the war-ravaged land that is all that’s left of Germany after the war.

Intense and beautifully written (the translator is clearly excellent), this apparently simple story forces the reader to live through a desperate, deadly time rapidly receding out of living memory.