The Good German

The Good German

by Joseph Kanon

Paperback(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312421267
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 09/28/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 180,355
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Joseph Kanon is the author of two previous novels, Los Alamos and The Prodigal Spy. Before becoming a full-time writer, he was a book publishing executive. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


The war had made him famous. Not as famous as Murrow, the voice of London, and not as famous as Quent Reynolds, now the voice of the documentaries, but famous enough to get a promise from Collier's ("four pieces, if you can get there") and then the press pass to Berlin. In the end, it was Hal Reidy who'd made the difference, juggling the press slots like seating arrangements, UP next to ScrippsHoward, down the table from Hearst, who'd assigned too many people anyway.

"I can't get you out till Monday, though. They won't give us another plane, not with the conference on. Unless you've got some pull. "

"Only you."

Hal grinned. "You're in worse shape than I thought. Say hello to Nanny Wendt for me, the prick." Their censor from the old days, before the war, when they'd both been with Columbia, a nervous little man, prim as a governess, who liked to run a pen through their copy just before they went on the air. "The Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment," Hal said, the way he always did. "I wonder what happened to him. Goebbels poisoned his own kids, I hear."

"No, Magda," Jake said. " The gnädige frau. In chocolates. "

"Yeah, sweets to the sweet. Nice people." He handed Jake the traveling orders. "Have a good time."

"You should come too. It's a historic occasion.

"So's this," Hal said, pointing to another set of orders. "Two more weeks and I'm home. Berlin. Christ. I couldn't wait to get out. And you want to go back?"

Jake shrugged. "It's the last big story of the war."

"Sitting around a table, divvying up the pot."

"No. What happens when it's over."

"What happens is, you go home."

"Not yet."

Hal glanced up. "You think she's still there, he said flatly.

Jake put the orders in his pocket, not answering.

"It's been a while, you know. Things happen."

Jake nodded. "She'll be there, Thanks for this. I owe you one."

"More than one," Hal said, letting it go. "Just write pretty. And don't miss the plane."

But the plane was hours late getting into Frankfurt, then hours on the ground unloading and turning around, so it was midafternoon before they took off. The C- 7 was a drafty military transport fitted out with benches along the sides and the passengers, a spillover of journalists who, like Jake, hadn't made the earlier flights, had to shout over the engines. After a while Jake gave up and sat back with his eyes closed, feeling queasy as the plane bumped its way east. There had been drinks while they waited, and Brian Stanley, the Daily Express man who had somehow attached himself to the American group, was already eloquently drunk, with most of the others not far behind. Belser from Gannett, and Cowley, who'd kept tabs on the SHAEF press office from a barstool at the Scribe, and Gimbel, who had traveled with Jake following Patton into Thuringia. They had all been at war forever, in their khakis with the round correspondent patch, even Liz Yeager, the photographer, wearing a heavy pistol on her hip, cowgirl style.

He'd known all of them one way or another, their faces like pins in his own war map. London, where he'd finally left Columbia in '42 because he wanted to see the fighting war. North Africa, where he it and caught a piece of shrapnel. Cairo, where he recovered and drank the nights away with Brian Stanley. Sicily, missing Palermo but managing, improbably, to get on with Patton, so that later, after France, he joined him again for the race east. Across Hesse and Thuringia, everything accelerated, the stop-and-go days of fitful waiting over, finally a war of clear, running adrenaline. Weimar. Then, finally, up to Nordhausen, and Camp Dora, Where everything stopped. Two days of staring, not even able to talk. He wrote down numbers — two hundred a day — and then stopped that too. A newsreel camera filmed the stacks of bodies, jutting bones and floppy genitals. The living, with their striped rags and shaved heads, had no sex.

On the second day, at one of the slave labor camps, a skeleton took his hand and kissed it, then held on to it, an obscene gratitude, gibbering something in Slavic — Polish? Russian? — and Jake froze, trying not to smell, feeling his hand buckle under the weight of the fierce grip. "I'm not a soldier," he said, wanting to run but unable to take his hand away, ashamed, caught now too. The story they'd all missed, the hand you couldn't shake off.

"Old home week for you, boyo, isn't it?" Brian said, cupping his hands to be heard.

"You've been before?" Liz said, curious.

"Lived here. One of Ed's boys, darling, didn't you know?" Brian said. "Till the jerries chucked him out. Of course, they chucked everybody out. Had to, really. Considering."

"So you speak German?" Liz said. "Thank god somebody does.

"Berliner deutsch, " Brian answered for him, a tease.

"I don't care what kind of deutsch it is," she said, "as long as it's deutsch. " She patted Jake's knees. "You stick with me, Jackson, " she said, like Phil Harris on the radio. Then, "What was it like?"

Well, what was it like? A vise slowly closing. In the beginning, the parties and the hot days on the lakes and the fascination of events. He had come to cover the Olympics in '36 and his mother knew somebody who knew the Dodds, so there were embassy cocktails and a special seat in their box at the stadium. Goebbels' big party on the Pfaueninsel, the trees decked out in thousands of lights shaped like butterflies, officers swaggering along the footpaths, drunk on champagne and importance, throwing up in the bushes. The Dodds were appalled. He stayed. The Nazis supplied the headlines, and even a stringer could live on the rumors, watching the war come day by day. By the time he signed on with Columbia, the vise had shut, rumors now just little gasps for air. The city contracted around him, so that at the end it was a closed circle: the Foreign Press Club in Potsdamerplatz, up the gloomy Wilhelmstrasse to the ministry for the twice-daily briefings, on up to the Adlon, where Columbia kept a room for Shirer and they gathered at the raised bar, comparing notes and watching the SS lounging around the fountain below, their shiny boots on the rim while the bronze frog statues spouted jets of water toward the skylight. Then out the East-West Axis to the broadcasting station on Adolf Hitler Platz and the endless wrangling with Nanny Wendt, then a taxi home to the tapped telephone and the watchful eye of Herr Lechter, the blockleiter who lived in the apartment down the hall, snapped up from some hapless Jews. No air. But that had been at the end.

"It was like Chicago," he said. Blunt and gritty and full of itself, a new city trying to be old. Clumsy Wilhelmine palaces that always looked like banks, but also jokes with an edge and the smell of spilled beer. Sharp midwestern air.

"Chicago? It won't look like Chicago now." This, surprisingly, from the bulky civilian in a business suit, introduced at the airport as a congressman from upstate New York,

"No, indeed," Brian said, mischievous. "All banged about now. Still, what isn't? Whole bloody country's one big bomb site. Do you mind my asking? I've never known. What does one call a congressman? I mean, are you The Honorable?"

"Technically. That's what it says on the envelopes, anyway. But we just use Congressman — or Mister.

"Mister. Very democratic."

"Yes, it is," the congressman said, humorless,

"You with the conference or have you just come for a look-in?" Brian said, playing with him.

"I'm not attending the conference, no."

"Just come to see the raj, then."

"Meaning? "

"Oh, no offense. It's very like, though, wouldn't you say? Military Government. Pukkah sahibs, really."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Well, neither do I, half the time," Brian said pleasantly. "Just a little conceit of mine. Never mind. Here, have a drink," he said, taking another, his forehead sweaty.

The congressman ignored him, turning instead to the young soldier wedged next to him, a last-minute arrival, no duffel; maybe a courier. He was wearing a pair of high riding boots, and his hands were gripping the bench like reins, his face white under a sprinkling of freckles.

"First time in Berlin?" the congressman said.

The soldier nodded, holding his seat even tighter as the plane bounced.

"Got a name, son?" Making conversation.

"Lieutenant Tully," he said, then gulped, covering his mouth.

"You all right?" Liz said to him.

The soldier took off his hat. His red hair was damp.

"Here, just in case," she said, handing him a paper bag.

"How much longer?" he said, almost a moan, holding the bag to his chest with one hand.

The congressman looked at him and involuntarily moved his leg in the tight space, out of harm's way, turning his body slightly so that he was forced to face Brian again.

"You're from New York, you said?"

"Utica, New York."

"Utica," Brian said, making a show of trying to place it, "Breweries, yes?" Jake smiled. In fact, Brian knew the States well. "Fair number of Germans there, if I'm not mistaken."

The congressman looked at him in distaste. "My district is one hundred percent American."

But Brian was bored now. "I daresay," he said, looking away.

"How did you get on this plane anyway? I understood it was for American press."

"Well, there's Allied feeling for you," Brian said to Jake.

The plane dropped slightly, not much more than a dip in a road, but evidently enough for the Soldier, who groaned.

"I'm going to be sick," he said, barely opening the bag in time.

"Careful," the congressman said, trapped.

Copyright © 2001 Joseph Kanon

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. What do we learn about Jake Geismar in the opening pages of The Good German? What are his personal and professional reasons for returning to Berlin, now that the war in Europe has ended? And what does he hope to find after his big discovery at the Potsdam Conference?

Also, explain how Jake's personal history—as a somewhat heroic yet exiled American, a cynical but honest journalist, a former citizen of Berlin, and so forth—influences the novel's tone, atmosphere, narrative focus, and plot.

2. Explain the meaning of the novel's title, giving special attention to the ironic connotations of the word "good." How—and where, specifically—does this novel address the difficult issue of morality? Cite several passages from the book that highlight Kanon's thematic engagement with questions of good and evil.

3. Revisit the scene in chapter 9 where Jake takes Lena to the cinema. After the feature, they see a newsreel. What is it about this newsreel that prompts Jake to whisper, "It didn't happen that way," to Lena? Where else in the novel do we see representatives of the press tinkering with—or else blatantly reworking—the stories they are reporting? As a group, explore The

Good German's ongoing suggestion that history is ultimately the product of media spin.

Does this suggestion echo the old dictum that history is written by the winners? Explain why or why not.

4. The guilt of the Holocaust, the bureaucratic and moral perplexities of denazification, the shame of losing the war, the geographic and spiritual wasteland of Berlin itself—the

Berliners in Kanon's novel are depraved souls with serious problems that are personal and political, individual and social. Identify these characters and specify the problems each of them is facing. Also, discuss how each character confronts or denies these problems. More broadly, what links can you establish between historical realities and the emotional truths depicted in The Good German?

5. Who is Renate? How does Jake know her? Why has she been put on trial by the Russians?

And what is the outcome of this trial? How does Renate's story—her particular background and fate—typify the novel's key theme of survival?

6. In chapter 12, Jake and Lena visit Frau Hinkel, the fortune-teller. What does she tell them about their past(s) and future(s)? What does she get right, what does she misread, and how do

Jake and Lena receive her pronouncements? Also, discuss the presence (or absence) of luck as a theme in this narrative—as well as that of destiny.

7. Early in chapter 17, when Sikorsky and Jake briefly discuss the imminent surrender of Japan and the coming of the war's end, Sikorsky asks, "Does it feel over to you?" What does he mean by this? And later, in chapter 18, Jake spots a newspaper item entitled, "WWIII

BEGINS? WHO FIRED FIRST?" Discuss this and other events in this novel—both historical and imaginary—that might also be seen as preludes to the Cold War.

8. Late in the novel, in chapter 20, Jake confers with one of his closest investigative allies,

Bernie Teitel, a former DA who works in the Army's denazification department. As they discuss the horrific enormity of the Holocaust, Bernie says, "There isn't any punishment, you know. How do you punish this?" Jake, as a friend and as a journalist, counters with: "Then why bother?" How does Bernie respond to him? As a group, try to elaborate on Bernie's answer and discuss your own responses to this issue.

9. In terms of its literary genre, The Good German is a thriller, a novel of intrigue meant to engage its readers by way of a plot full of questions, clues, riddles, leads, red herrings, and so forth. Identify the many separate and related mysteries that Jake confronts over the course of this narrative. Which, if any, go unsolved—and why? Were there any particular questions raised in the pages of this novel that weren't answered or addressed to your satisfaction (as a reader)? If so, explain.

10. "What Carol Reed's film, The Third Man, did for Vienna immediately after World War II,"

one reviewer (Bill Ott, Booklist) has laudably noted, "Kanon's thriller does for Berlin during the same period." Compare and contrast The Good German with any other novels or movies

that take place in Europe just after World War II.

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The Good German 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
PatrickZJD More than 1 year ago
I had looked forward to reading this book for a long time, so I was happy when I finally found a space for it in my reading schedule -- so I could get to watch the movie, if for no other reason! I was incredibly surprised at how closely this book tracked, in detail if not in plot, to the classic movie "Berlin Express" starring Robert Ryan and Merle Oberon, down to the parts about providing sufficient calories to the post-war German population, etc. Perhaps Joseph Kanon was channelling this story as well in his look at how Nazi rocket scientists came to be integrated into the American military industrial complex? In any event, I have to agree with just about every other reviewer so far: the story was by far secondary to the setting, and the characterization, prose style, pacing, and last but not least, the ending were all little more than pedestrian. Still, you have to admire Kanon's willingness to explore the fascinating question of how can one find individual fault in postwar German society when the entire country was in some manner complicit in the horrific crimes of the Nazi regime. Furthermore, so much has been written about "the greatest generation" during the war that it is easy to forget that there was an aftermath to this war that this generation did so poorly in addressing, leading to a decades-long, wasteful political struggle that we still feel ramifications of today. (For a quirky, well-done alternate history tale of the von Braun rocket team working for the United Kingdom, check out Warren Ellis' "Ministry of Space." The afterword alone is worth the price of the book.) Overall, read this book not to expect a great mystery or thriller, but instead to get a flavor of a fascinating, poorly-inspected time in 20th Century history. That elevated this cut-by-numbers effort into a four-star novel.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Deeply profound, yet shattering in its illumination of the dark days following the defeat of Germany in 1945. Though at times the story seems to plod, it reflects the reality. Kanon has achieved a similar psychological impact for the reader as befell those living in the times--overwhelming disbelief, scorched ruins, suspended anticipation, denial, relentless stamina, indifference, horror, cut-throat opportunism, contradicting moralities, ugly truths, hidden motives, sacrificial dedication, culpable acts, limitless egos, universal guilt, mazes within mazes of intrigue--and yet infinite hope runs parallel to Jake Geismar's quest to find, first, his lost love, and then to solve the mystery of who killed the American soldier dragged out of the waters in the Russian zone during the Potsdam Conference. How quickly the Holocaust was forgotten in the race to be first in space and to get rich on the spoils of war! A cowardly yet greedy human condition, as sad as that is, that still goes on and existed before the Holocaust began and went on while the Holocaust occurred. Kanon takes the stark truth and creates characters to reflect it--not in paper-thin stereotypes but in real examples, and if they seem to stretch credibility for some readers, it is because they did not experience it and can judge with rosy hindsight. A literary triumph that deserves five stars!
Khuearrah More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the best novels created which highlighted the life of people after the Nazi domination. The wreckage and pain that power has made was evident in this book.
Brad1236 More than 1 year ago
I found the number of characters to be hard to follow sometimes, but enjoyed the plot. There were moments where I found myself getting worried for the character. It does take you to a place and time that aren't spoken of, and shows a very different world. I do have some quibbles, but mostly it was enjoyable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Certainly starts with an interesting premise and the plot line sounds good but the execution is disappointing. The author can't seem to square away the various political forces at work - both US internal and international - with any sort of moral grounding. The characters are not very convincing either. In the whole, it lack realism and displays little thought or wisdom. Maybe it works better as just another mystery but I'm no fan of that genre. If it is any succor, the movie version is much, much worst.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had mixed emotions after finishing this book. I thought it was well written and the main characters were well developed but the plot moved very slowley and by the time the ending payed off, I no longer cared about 'who dunnit'
Anonymous 18 hours ago
The lush prose of his writing paints a picture in your mind, and the story is complex and beautiful and ugly (post war). Did not want to put it down!
kerns222 on LibraryThing 4 days ago
First a disclaimer: I like my mysteries with atmosphere, context. Next I like characters. And least-most, a twisty plot or its cousin. fast, page-turning action. I can watch hair-raising chases on TV. With a book, I want to contemplate the words, not race thru them. I want to investigate a new place, or maybe explore some cultural scene (like with my friend Kinky saving Abbie Hoffman in New York--why else would I read the Kinkster except for his smelly atmosphere?) The Good German starts all atmosphere, but quickly gets a Hitchcockian plot going after a strange two-bit murder that feels force fed , especially when the rest of the world is investigating millions killed. The novel plods along, and I must admit explores some interesting alleyways, but then towards the end, all turns Bondian and an action-packed thriller emerges. The endgame hunt for fascist rocketeers did not need a catchy macguffin to carry the plot. I know I am picky-too much action at the end; forced murder at the beginning. But, all in all, the book is worth reading. Its images of Berlin just after WWII, along with US Army recruiting of Nazi's with hot rocket design resumes and only a few mass murder problems, challenge our new post-modern nostalgia.
richardgarside on LibraryThing 4 days ago
" Robert Harris's equal", the review says - Heaven help us, I say! Slow, tedious, little character development. To its credit very sleep inducing! Save your money.Rarely do I not finish a book, but this was a rare occasion.
labfs39 on LibraryThing 4 days ago
Jake Geismar is an American journalist who was stationed in Berlin before WWII and is returning now in post-war 1945 to cover the Potsdam Conference. And to try and find Lena, the married woman he left behind, but has never forgotten. The city is alien to him now: bombed out ruins inhabited by scared poverty-wracked people, mostly women and children, and the sense of despair on every corner. When Jake discovers a dead body at the conference, he begins an investigation that is inconvenient for both the Russians and the Americans. In the process he meets Bernie Teitel, an American Jew whose job is to uncover Nazi¿s and collect enough evidence to convict them of war crimes; Gunther Behn, a retired Nazi policeman slowly drinking his way to an early grave over his wife¿s death; and Renate Naumann, a former employee of Jake¿s, now on trial for abetting the Nazis as a greifer, a Jew who turned in other Jews.

What makes this book more than a murder mystery, or a love story, or an espionage type of thriller, is that the German characters feel like real people making impossible choices. Lena¿s sense of duty to her husband, despite knowing he was a Nazi; Bernie chasing former Nazi¿s regardless of their personal situations, trying to find justice for the Jews; Gunther¿s guilt for not being able to save his wife and testifying against a woman who may have had to make the hardest choices of all: Renate. The author is able to raise philosophical questions in the context of people¿s lives. By doing so, he makes it harder to respond with stock answers and a black and white point of view. The American motives in the treatment of Nazi scientists alone are enough to trouble one¿s conscience.

When I picked up this novel, I thought I was in for an easy read about a journalist, a love affair, and a mystery. Instead, I found myself wrestling with the ideas of justice, guilt, and reparations. This book has stuck with me, and I would recommend it to all those interested in the war and to book club groups. There is a lot to think about.
Anonymous 5 days ago
Great story line
alebel on LibraryThing 3 months ago
I definitely thought the plot was intriguing, although it took awhile for me to get into it. It was interesting to compare how things in Iraq now resemble the same plights you see in the book about how it was in Germany directly after the war... the desperate wish for people to go to America, the ravaged building and streets, the lawlessness.
picardyrose on LibraryThing 3 months ago
I got a little confused at the end, but anyone who climbs out a window in someone else's clothes is a hero to me.
meegeekai on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Read this book when it first came out in paperback. Good novel on life in Berlin at the end of WWII. I think it is now a movie, a spy thriller, but still a good read.
Cathebrown on LibraryThing 3 months ago
An interesting plot, but slow to develop. The reader is not engaged from the start. Recommended for more mature readers who will stay with it as it unfolds.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Jake Geismar, a reporter for Collier's magazine, is sent to Berlin right at the time of the Potsdam conference. Berlin was Jake's home once, before the war; it was then he had met and fell in love with Lena, married to Emil Brandt. Upon Jake's return to Berlin, he begins to look for Lena, but before he finds her, he becomes embroiled in the death of an American soldier who washes up near the site of the Potsdam negotiations. It seems the man had been on the plane to Berlin with Jake and his friends; now he's found dead with a lot of money on his person. As Jake gets more into the investigation, he realizes that there are people who do not want him to find any info about the dead soldier and that they would kill to keep the story quiet. Ah, if this were only all of Jake's problems. What I found intriguing about this book was not so much the mystery and its solution, but that this is a story about ethics, morality and conscience. As Jake was told by various individuals about what they had to do to survive under the Nazis, there was always the justification that he wasn't there during the war and couldn't possibly understand what it was like. The author also describes the hurried attempts at the "de-Nazification" of Germany in order to get it up and running again, and to mine its scientific resources in preparation for the coming showdown with the Soviet Union. Many still connected with the death camps would go free; many, especially scientists who worked under the auspices of such groups as the SS were needed by the allies and their past crimes would simply be overlooked by the military and the government because they were going to be valuable against the USSR in the future. As one character in the US government notes "The Jews? Well, that was terrible, sure, but what are we supposed to do this winter if we don't get some coal out of the Russians? Freeze? Everybody's got a priority. Except the Jews aren't on anybody's list. We'll deal with that later. If anybody has the time. So I lose a few scientists? I'm still trying to get the camp guards." (463)I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in immediate post-war Germany as well as to anyone who likes novels that deal with ethical and moral dilemmas. The mystery is not the central focus in this novel -- it is what surrounds the mystery that makes the novel more intriguing.
ctahmase on LibraryThing 3 months ago
I admit it. It took me nearly forever to read this book, but that doesn¿t mean I didn¿t enjoy it. Loved the atmosphere, the descriptions of post-war Germany, and the moral dilemmas presented. I read where it¿s being made into a movie with George Clooney. Let¿s see how close Hollywood can come in painting shades of gray.
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