Reviewed by Gregory Graham
This is a novel by an American told from a German actor’s point of view during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. The actor’s military mission is to pose as an American so he can sabotage the Allied effort. Secretly he is trying to find a way out of a brutal war that Germany cannot win. That is a tiny hint of the ironic “Through the Looking Glass” tone that the author maintains throughout the book.
I know a little more than the average person about the Battle of the Bulge. My father was a front line infantryman battling the Germans, the snow, and the cold in Belgium in December of 1944. I knew of the Massacre at Malmedy, and I knew the G.I. response to it. A soldier caught in an SS uniform from that point on died immediately. It never occurred to me what the German soldier’s response to the massacre might be. I see now that they would be equally horrified first because turnabout could be expected, and secondly, the growing realization on both sides that the stupidity of their own officers is what got them killed.
Max, the main character of the novel, is an apolitical failed actor turned reluctant soldier. He has lived in America and has mixed feelings about the broad, muscular, cultureless country. He returns to Germany when he cannot support himself as an actor in New York. While there, he has seen America’s might and its endless resources, and knows that Germany will lose the war. He merely wants to survive. When the chance comes to escape the brutality of the Russian Front for a special mission in the west, he grabs it hoping at some point he will be able to surrender to the Americans or perhaps disappear behind the American lines until the war is over.
The only problem is he is the tip of the spear for Germany’s greatest attack against the west during WWII. They put him in an SS uniform, give him an American uniform on top and send him out ahead of the Panzers to create confusion in the American ranks, and to take a key bridge that the tanks must cross if the attack is to be a success.
Max does not anticipate several problems. American slang is subtle and beyond his skills as an English speaker, his companions are less than helpful, the weather is awful, and the attack is doomed to failure from the start. He manages to handle those problems, but what he does not anticipate is the moral conundrum he finds himself in. Is he a German or an American? What is he willing to do to survive? Once he decides who he is, his path is clear.
There are a bunch of good reasons to read this book. It presents the war as seen from the eyes of a German corporal. It is a nasty, brutal affair that they have been tricked into by Nazis. He is terrified of the Russians, but has a hard time thinking of the Americans as the enemy despite the bullets and the artillery. The book does a marvelous job of showing the ‘fog of war’ wherein no one truly understands what is going on once the attack has begun. Finally, the book is fun. Shakespeare may have said that all the world’s a play, but Max lives it. The difference is that Max’s audience is hostile, and a bad review means death.