We Germans: A Novel
This novella comprises a long letter written by a German grandfather, Meissner, to his Scottish grandson, Callum. On a visit, seventeen months in the past, Callum asked Meissner to answer a series of questions about his service in World War II on the Eastern Front. At that time, Meissner chose to provide unsatisfactory answers, ones that gave Callum very little detail of his activities or the feelings that went along with them. Upon Meissner’s death, however, his heirs discover a long letter to Callum, describing Meissner’s last few months in the war. The letter constitutes the majority of the book, interrupted from time to time by Callum, who inserts explanations of a phrase or wartime operation that he feels deserves more detail. The story that unfolds is one about the courage it takes a soldier to continue when he knows the war is lost, and his mixed-up feelings of guilt, shame, and responsibility.
We Germans stands out among WWII novels in its focus on the experiences of a German soldier following through on his “duty,” a point-of-view enhanced by the pithy commentary of his British grandson trying to understand the old man. It is also one of the few to describe a piece of the action in Poland and Ukraine in the last months of the war. The letter’s text is like a stream of consciousness, sometimes painting clear pictures of a crisis facing Meissner’s small search party, and at other times suggesting the internal struggle of Meissner himself to figure out what he’s doing there and whether the struggle is worth continuing. It’s a quick and compelling read.