Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Austrian: A War Criminal's Story by Ellie Midwood

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 23, 2016

What is going through the mind of a war criminal, tried by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg? Regret for his atrocious actions? Frantic desire to defend himself to the end? Desperate longing to be forgiven by his former enemies or craving of human kindness, even though he knows that he doesn’t deserve any... And the strongest of all, the fear to never again see the one, who he risked everything for, the only woman that he still continues to live for. All this is only the tip of the iceberg in the myriad of emotions for Ernst, former leader of the Austrian SS incarcerated in Nuremberg prison, who already knows what fate awaits him. Day after day he recollects his life, trying to understand where he made that wrong turn that changed his whole life and brought him into service of his new masters, who soon dragged his whole country into the most blood-shedding war in history. With agonizing sincerity he analyzes his past, which made him, a former promising lawyer, into a weapon of mass murder in the hands of his new leaders. Self-loathing and torturous doubts are plaguing Ernst’s mind, which together with unwanted hopes for salvation, terrifying visions of the nearing end, and ghosts from the past turn his incarceration into a never-ending nightmare. And yet, at the very edge of the abyss, he’s still clinging to life, because a woman is waiting for him, a woman, whose secret he’s still carefully guarding, and the one who he still hopes to see...

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View of the defendants in the dock at the International Military
Tribunal trial of war criminals in Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany.
Ellie Midwood's The Austrian is an atypical narrative that exists despite the author's complete disregard for the traditional rules and regulation preached by agents and editors across the country. According to the powers that be, controversial subject matter and lone male protagonists should be avoided at all costs, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret. The market professionals, with all their fancy credentials and inflated sense of superiority, are dead wrong. Stories like this have an audience and they do sell. I know because, quite frankly, I bought the book and greatly enjoyed some of the very aspects that make it too risky for mainstream publishing houses to invest in.

In looking at the content of the novel, I want to start by saying that I found Midwood's exploration of the rise of the Nazi party and the indoctrination of its members absolutely fascinating. I don't mean to gush, but I've never seen these concepts described with such detail outside of nonfiction. Midwood is on point with regard to the politics of the story and her mastery of the subject matter manifests itself in the depth and scope of the narrative. She doesn't excuse the actions of the Nazi party, but she does define the movement through Ernst and in so doing allows her readers to truly understand the bureaucratic climate of the day. Speaking of Ernst, I was also thoroughly impressed by the author's decision to write this book from a male perspective. The novel makes more sense as Ernst is naturally positioned to be involved with the Nazi party, but the gender of Midwood's protagonist allowed her to explore more than just the hows and whys. Midwood balances these concepts against Ernst's relationship with his father, his introduction to sex, and his marriage and I for one enjoyed the intimacy of these moments and how they shed light on the kind masculine emotion that is typically overlooked in the current market.

Having said that I want to make it perfectly clear that while I admire much about this piece, I do not feel it without flaw. First and foremost, it should be understood that The Austrian is not a complete novel. Please don't misunderstand my words as I am not arguing against a cliffhanger here, but the description led me to be believe Ernst was holding on for a woman and I am rather ticked that the story ends just as the lady in question enters his life. Two hundred plus pages and I can't claim to understand even the smallest part of the primary plot. Other readers feel differently, but I found this reality intensely disappointing and I wont deny feeling cheated as well. Forgive me for saying so, but inducing sales this way struck me as cheap and denotes a lack of respect for one's readership. I don't mean to be rude, but I'm known for calling it as I see it and when push comes to shove, I felt misled in my purchase.

Though loosely inspired by women like Edith Hahn and Ilse Stein, I also found Ernst's primary love interest, Annalise, wholly anachronistic. The flawless beauty from a wealthy Jewish family is a talented ballerina who happens to be married to Standartenführer Heinrich Friedmann. Officially her husband is part of the Reich Secret Service, but both moonlight as agents for US Counterintelligence. She's not intimated by Kaltenbrunner and ultimately falls in love with the senior SS officer which subsequently leads to an affair and the birth of an illegitimate child. All this information can be found in the descriptions of Midwood's The Girl from Berlin series, so please refrain from crucifying me over would-be spoilers and understand that I'm only sharing this information because it is impossible to explain my distaste without it. I personally found Annalise's 'Wonder Woman' persona unpalatable and mockingly inappropriate. I felt her that her talent, wealth, privilege, courage, and conviction mocked the position and circumstances of the very women on which she was based and that her exploits minimized the risks her real life counterparts took in marrying Nazi personnel to survive Hitler's brutal regime.

When all is said and done, my feelings are mixed, I loved parts of The Austrian, but feel equal annoyance with others and have to admit that while I'd certainly recommend it other readers, I'd do so with a degree of caution.

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It was so easy to decide their fate, when they were nothing more than numbers on the sheets, presented to us for a signature by our adjutants. Now they were real people, with broken lives, torn families, and memories which would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
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