With memorial services marking the First World War’s battle of Passchendaele and the release of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, the horrific and senseless loss of life in war has been playing on my mind. So it seemed timely to turn to Ralf Rothmann’s latest novel Im Frühling sterben, set in Germany at the end of World War Two, and now appearing in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside. I’m a great fan of Ralf Rothmann since reading his novel Junges Licht. Im Frühling sterben is as compelling a read as the earlier novel but very much a war novel, telling the story of Walter Urban, a 17 year old farm hand from North Germany, dragooned into volunteering for the Waffen SS with his friend Fiete only months before Germany’s defeat.
The story starts with his life on the farm. He is coming to the end of his training and there is a feeling of contentment, quiet confidence and ease in his sensitive handling of the animals. He has cordial relations with his boss and fellow workers, including the refugee families from the East who have found temporary shelter on the farm and begins a flirtation with young Liesel. At the same time, the war in its final stages is in the background: the farm has suffered bomb damage, the Russians are at the River Oder and there is an unspoken awareness that the end, and probable defeat, will come soon. A party is held one night by the Reichsnährstand, a kind of Food Committee, to which the Waffen SS turn up. Bragging about their heroic deeds for the Fatherland and puffed up with empty rhetoric about the Endsieg– final victory- it becomes clear that they are out to sign up new recruits. Walter and his friend Fiete find themselves forced to ‘volunteer’ and within hours are on their way to the front.
Walter goes first to Adelsried in Bavaria and then into Hungary. He learns to drive, which saves him from certain death at the front, and is engaged in driving provisions to the front and transporting the wounded back to the field hospital. The narrative offers us many accounts of carnage and destruction and Rothmann’s descriptive powers convey the physical and sensual impact of these on the young 17 year old : in the kitchen and canteen at Adelsried the stench of blood, pus and urine overrides the smell of cooking fat or ersatz coffee. Alongside heartrending accounts of individual suffering and death, Rothmann gives us the bigger picture, well documented elsewhere, of an army on its knees, sent back again and again to the front, when the Russian air superiority was obvious, the Germans had only one quarter of their men on the ground and the troops were so hungry that they would raid the kit bags of fallen Russian soldiers and eat their bloodied provisions.
In this way the narrative weaves a more generalised account of the suffering and pointlessness of war together with an account of events that happened at this particular moment in history. So on the one hand, the treatment of the miller, his wife and servant, seems to be the expression of a ghastly sadistic streak in the perpetrators. Yet the activities of the Waffen SS as a group range from lawless to unspeakably cruel. We have the young Ernst at the call up scene remarking in throw away fashion that they had to decimate villages of civilians in reprisals for partisans attacking their men- was this Tulle? Oradour-sur-Glane? or the Balkans? They are seen by many as an elite troop who are a law unto themselves and the several dangling bodies of deserters seen by Walter testify to the fact that they take no prisoners. And give a forewarning of what is to come in the story, an event which is to traumatise Walter for the rest of his life.
Walter survives the war though spends the last days in a field hospital, sick with his nerves. Many of his friends and comrades have died. He returns to Essen, his home town, to see his mother and sister. Though he has an affectionate relationship with his sister, his mother has no time for him so he heads north to track down Liesel- he’s been offered a job on a farm but it’s for a couple and he needs a wife.
Now you might think readers are left crossing their fingers that Walter and Liesel can make something of their lives after this traumatic period of their youth. But we already know how their lives pan out because of the frame around Walter’s story, narrated by the first person narrator/ Ralf Rothmann. The frame, and the novel, starts with the word Schweigen– silence- and introduces the narrator’s father. He is a silent, serious, melancholy man, who rarely smiles. We are told that his life is darkened by his past and he only mentions the war when telling his children his wiry hair resulted from the birch sap rubbed into it at the front. The epilogue wraps around the story from the other end and has the narrator visiting his parents’ graves one last time before they are given up to make room for the more recent dead. He stumbles through the snow, unable to find the grave, just as Walter was unable to find his father’s grave when searching for it at the front, knowing he had fallen close by.
This novel about war and its terrible impact on young lives covers some similar ground to novels like All Quiet on the Western Front. Yet the framing device, letting us know from the beginning that Walter, the narrator’s father, is a damaged man, gives us a sense of the permanence of that damage- and the mirroring of the father and son both searching in vain for their father’s final resting place leaves us with a sense of loss going across generations. This is a powerful story, rendered more so by Rothmann’s meticulously detailed description of the youth of the protagonists- the young soldiers’s soft skin, their eyelashes- and it may make you weep for their loss. Read it, but be prepared.