Simon & Schuster: 384 pp., $26
This IS an odd but largely engrossing hybrid of a book: part accurately reconstructed historical fiction, part comic romp as literary version of "Springtime for Hitler." It is the spring of 1945 and the Third Reich's endgame.
The protagonists in "Germania" are Albert Speer, Heinrich Himmler and the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers, who had been the toast of pre-war Berlin with an act combining song, dance, acrobatics and hypnotism. Adolf Hitler, German intelligence head Walter Schellenberg, American Gen. Walter Bedell Smith and other real players from this period have cameos.
The Jewish Loerber brothers go underground during the war years, and McNally uses them as flies on the wall, witnessing real historical events. But as fictional actors, he has them participate in a number of wild shenanigans, as when Manni teaches Speer to juggle and Franzi intones karmic nonsense to Himmler to puff up his already outsized self-esteem and keep him from investigating Franzi's secret role as a double agent for Russia and Britain.
Franzi replaces Himmler's real-life masseur, Felix Kersten. Kersten had been sent to Sweden to get its foreign minister, Count Bernadotte, to convince U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower that Himmler would be the ideal postwar leader of Germany by helping the Americans face a new enemy, the Soviet Union (true story). Here Manni becomes an anti-Nazi activist and assassin; Sebastian joins a Zionist terrorist group called the Blood of Israel. Ziggy becomes a U-boat captain and hides the fact that he's Jewish.
While Hitler is still directing failing or wiped-out armies from his bunker and Himmler dreams of ultimate power, Speer realizes the war is lost. Trying to save some of Germany's industrial infrastructure from Hitler's scorched-earth policy, he goes behind the Fuhrer's back, traveling around the Ruhr to beg factory owners and managers not to let their industries be destroyed (also true). He has no luck and is arrested for his trouble. Who should pop up among his captors but Manni, who rescues him and becomes his driver. Manni easily persuades the industrialists to join with Speer by, in effect, hypnotizing them.
The brothers are always one step ahead of capture but save their necks with their psychic powers: telepathy and mind-reading. Sebastian is able to invoke mass nightmares. For months Himmler and several hundred SS men have an identical dream about dead Jews threatening them from behind barbed wire with the taunt, "The Blood of Israel will have its vengeance!"
The novel could have done without these stunts; the brothers are interesting enough without super powers, and I wish McNally had let them rely on their own wits instead of resorting to this over-convenient plotting device. And there are pat coincidences, as when Sebastian pops out from behind a curtain just as a Russian general is aiming a poison dart at Ziggy.
A more serious problem is the tin-eared dialogue. The historical figures talk like actors in a bad play. In addition, McNally has the annoying habit of having them utter the anachronistic jargon of our own day. Talking to Speer in his bunker, Hitler announces his plans for a cathedral in his hometown: "It's just my way of giving back, Speer." Schellenberg asks Himmler, "are we still on the same page on this?" And Franzi, prophesying some New Agey confluence, urges Himmler to confront the cosmic manifestations of time and energy: "You tell them straighten up and fly right and if they don't like it they can stuff it."
There is a scene that has stayed in my mind. It is the incongruously funny moment when Speer, summoned to Hitler's bunker to justify his actions in the Ruhr, doesn't know what to say. So he picks up an ashtray, an eyeglass case, a pocket flask and a steel box and starts juggling. Speer juggles while the Fuhrer burns (I can't resist). Here, as at some other imagined scenes, I was both engrossed and uncomfortable. Speer is a fool, Hitler a whiny, pathetic old man and Himmler a buffoon who meets with a representative of the World Jewish Congress to assure him that some of his best friends were Jews and that he promises not to kill any more of them. These outsized criminals have been not just cut down to size but turned into caricatures. Readers will have to work out for themselves whether they can accept these men, guilty of monstrous acts, as butts of comedy.
Where the novel is most compelling is in its detailed depiction of a little-known period in the last weeks of the war. Shortly before his suicide, Hitler sent a telegram to Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, the head of the German navy, appointing him as the Fuhrer's successor. The sad little interim government he formed on the first of May, in the northern port town of Flensburg, had as its principal task to surrender unconditionally to the Americans. Ziggy, now Donitz's secretary, is present at the ceremony and our eyewitness to the lawless confusion of the early postwar as returning soldiers run amok in the streets and German refugees, fleeing the advancing Soviet army, find themselves under the jurisdiction of the British and Americans.
Donitz holds meetings and makes plans for rebuilding Germany, though he knows full well that the Americans are merely biding their time while they let him play at leadership. "Flensburg was that unrepeatable circumstance where [past and present] merely brushed against each other . . . the future appeared fixed, bright and obvious" and American. As history tells us, Donitz and Speer were tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to prison. Himmler killed himself after being captured by the British.
The exciting climax of the novel is a harrowing stakeout in which three reunited Loerbers attempt to rescue Franzi from Himmler's clutches. What will happen to them after the war? McNally wisely leaves their fates up in the air. Although his writing gets no style points, and the novel lurches between realism and farce, "Germania" is nevertheless an intriguing portrayal of an overlooked period of the doomed Third Reich.