Trapped in Shades of Grey
Reviewed by Gregory Graham
As a kid I remember the old World War II movies where the sadistic Japanese officer announces at one point that he graduated from Princeton in the class of '35. It always evoked in me a sense of indignation that someone who had experienced the freedom and the goodwill of America should respond by making war against us. After all, we were the good guys, right?
At that age I knew nothing of the pull of family, culture, or patriotism. I thought I understood why people chose up sides for a war, but this book calls it all into question. In this book, a man who is German by culture, and American by birth chooses to spy for America by joining the German Army and fighting along with it during WWII.
Things go well a first, he is fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front. Inevitably as the war progresses he is thrust into the fighting on the Western Front where he must confront one moral dilemma after another. Can he feed information to the Americans that will result in his own men getting killed? Should he kill Americans in order to protect his secret? The choices only get more difficult as the war rumbles to its conclusion.
If things aren't difficult enough, Ernst, the protagonist, is also dogged by an OSS operative working for the Americans who doubts his loyalty to the Allied side and wants him killed.
All this is a heavy burden for a man who must also figure out a way to stay alive amid the bullets, the bombs and the artillery.
The end to this dilemma is surprising and I will not divulge it here.
While this is truly a war story, it is also the story of a man who must make moral choices in a time and place where morality changes by the moment. Survival for himself and his men becomes far more important than which side is winning. He is truly proud of the bravery and steadfastness his unit has demonstrated in the face of the enemy even if he cannot align himself with the cause they are fighting for. The following passage sums up his quandary:
His actions had almost completely destroyed his division and had allowed 10,000 Germans to escape the Falaise Pocket. This was the second time he had failed as an American spy and as a German officer. He couldn't seem to reconcile the two in theory or in practice. He fell back into a fitful sleep, having nightmares about American soldiers and German soldiers. One held onto each of this arms and were trying to pull him to one side or the other. The American soldier kept yelling, “Remember your duty to your country!” Just as Ernst was about to tear his arm out of the German soldier's grasp, and join the American, he would hear the German scream, “You were supposed to protect your men!”...Then both would start pulling on his arms once again, and Ernest would feel himself begin ripping in half. Just as the pain of being ripped in half became unbearable, he would wake up.
The author relates his tale in a straightforward manner keeping a taut rein on the emotion of the story in a way that mirrors the iron control that the main character, Ernst, must keep on his own thoughts. I would have liked to have seen a little more of the guilt, the fear, and the loneliness Ernst had to live with for the five long years of the war.
The WWII aficionado will love this book. Its story comes from a unique perspective with a unique voice. Ernst may want the Allies to win, but his men must not lose. They have fought bravely and well. They have nurtured him, and protected him. How can he do less for them? On the other hand, America is his country and he has sworn to protect and defend it. How can he not do everything he can to end the war as quickly as possible?
Ernst sees the heroism and the cowardice of both sides. That makes him friendless and dangerous. In the end, neither Allies or Axis can trust him, an uncomfortable situation when gargantuan armies maul each other across the countryside, and life is as cheap as the cost of a single bullet.