I discovered Walter Kempowski’s novel, All For Nothing, during a trip to the London Review Bookshop where I spotted it on the LRB Recommends shelf. I hadn’t previously heard of the author but I was attracted to the story as it was described on the outside back cover which begins,
“It is January 1945. The German army is retreating from the Russian advance and refugees are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot”.
I still harbour a deep interest in the war, developed during childhood through playing with Airfix models and Airfix toy soldiers and this was a story I was familiar with through the books of, amongst others, Anthony Beevor.
Walter Kempwski, I learned, was a chronicler of German history throughout the war and All For Nothing was his last book before he died in 2007. It is translated which caused me to baulk slightly due to the last German book I read which was poorly translated from the German, Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada. I noticed the translator of AFN was Anita Bell who, through the power of the internet, I learned is the brother of Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent known as the Man In The White Suit during the time he successfully campaigned to become MP for the Tatton constituency as an Independent MP in 1997. Ms Bell’s credentials are impeccable and I seem to recall reading she has received an OBE or was it an MBE? I can’t remember but she provides an excellent translation.
What a story. By 1945 the tide of the second world war in the East had turned decisively with The Red Army standing at the border of the German Frontier waiting for the order to launch a counter invasion and bring the war to an end. Scores of refugees are already passing through the little town of Mitkau in Eastern Prussia, fleeing from the occupied territories in the face of the Russian onslaught. The story centres on The Georgenhof, a once grand country estate now in semi-ruin where the beautiful but unworldly Katharina von Globig lives with her son Peter while her husband Eberhard has a comfortable desk job in Northern Italy supervising the sequestration of Italian produce to feed the Third Reich. Along with the von Globigs lives a sinewy old spinster, the indomitable housekeeper ‘Auntie’ who keeps everything running, a pair of squabbling Ukrainian women and a former Polish army private. The house is visited upon by a succession of characters who help make up the ensemble cast of the book and whose own stories intertwine with those of the refugees in their great trek west.
The pessimism contained in the book’s title provides an inkling of where the story goes as defeat for Nazi Germany looms and the family face the prospect of joining the refugees or staying to face the Russians. Refugees are temporarily billeted in the house and each have their own stories to tell which pepper the book with interest and intrigue We often meet up with these characters somewhere else as the story progresses as we learn their fate, often seen through the eyes of a child. It’s a story of epic movement and touches on the plight of refugees in the modern world and the human story of those millions of people who give up everything to flee in the face of something cataclysmically worse.
Here’s a great book, written around an extraordinary story from recent history by an author we really deserve to read more of in the English speaking world.