It must be hard to write any kind of book, fiction or non fiction, set in or around Germany during the Second World War and not at some point come up against the situation of whether ‘they’ knew about what was happening to the Jewish population. The ‘hero’ of David Downing’s wonderful ‘Station’ series (you really don’t have to read on any further now, do you? You can guess this is going to be (another) good review, eh?), John Russell has, as in the previous two books, both become aware of something of what is/was happening and has tried to help. That’s not to set him up as an example of being better than ordinary Germans – mainly because he’s English/American – he’s just offering his help, such as it is, to people he knows, in a time of great need. As I’m sure anyone reading these books would hope that they would, were it them in his position. In Stettin Station, it looks like he is going to find out where all those trains full of Jews leaving Berlin railway stations in the dead of night are going and why. It seems fairly certain that a lot of people, ordinary people, knew something was happening, but the ordinary person didn’t/couldn’t see the whole picture/realise the whole horror of what was being done in their name. They knew people were being taken away and didn’t come back. They perhaps didn’t believe they were being killed as the reason for them not being seen again. Indeed a lot of Jewish people thought their friends were being resettled, happily in the east. They often had postcards from them saying how happy they were as evidence.
But how does Russell report what he knows?
Stettin Station begins in November 1941 and John Russell is still clinging on to his journalism job, reporting to various American and English newspapers, on goings on – officially and unofficially – in the German capital. He can’t abide or believe the official announcements he and his fellow reporters are fed by the German propaganda ministry, but he daren’t rock the boat too much or he’d risk being kicked out of Germany (if he’s lucky) and thus losing contact with his girlfriend and his son Paul. German troops have blitzkrieged their way to the gates of Moscow (the ‘Gates of Moscow’ are mentioned so often in the books I read on WWII, I’m guessing there were actually once some gates at the start of Moscow city limits?) and look both imperious and unstoppable. As unstoppable as the United States’ entry into the war looks too – Pearl Harbour happens during the book’s timeline. This will mean Russell must leave, or stay as a ‘guest’ of the Reich. Either eventuality will take him away from those he loves most. Through his film star actress girlfriend Effi, we see how the upper strata of German society functioned. Through his son Paul, a German youth being indoctrinated as all German youth were, we see how the regime worked from the bottom, up. Russell is in an unenviable position. Though as he realises more and more, the people who would envy his position are those Jews on the trains heading east. Those who actually arrive wherever it is they’re going, anyway.
It is almost a waste of time trying to review these John Russell and Effi Koenen books, they’re all uniformly excellent it would seem. ‘Stettin Station’ is absolutely no different. It is an amazingly rich and detailed glimpse back at life in Berlin in the Second World War. Lord only knows how David Downing has amassed such knowledge. History books will tell you what happened and when, but these books tell you what it felt like and how ‘normal’ life sounded, smelled, touched and tasted. It goes far beyond ‘information’, it is the knowledge of someone who was there at the time. Or has invented time travel. It is as if he himself has only recently returned from Berlin in 1941 and is writing the stories whilst the experiences are fresh in his memory. You feel you can almost reach out and touch Nazi riddled Berlin of 1941. But you are also perhaps very glad you can’t.
It’s quite extraordinary and no mistake. Brilliant book, incredibly good series. Buy them. Read them.
(The question of whether the ordinary German in the streets knew what was going on, is looked at here, partly though John Russell’s late night meetings with his contact at the railways. The question has also cropped up in at least one of the pervious ‘Station’ books. It is pretty clear – to me at least – that the books’ position is ‘yes’, they knew more or less what was happening, but chose to look the other way, giving the Nazis prone to the worst excesses, carte blanche. For an idea of how much the Allies knew and when they knew it, you should head in the direction of Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and The Allies or the incredible The Holocaust also by Martin Gilbert).