All David Downing’s books have been excellent. Potsdam Station, book four (of six) in the Station series, continues that trend – and then some.
There did seem to be a bit of a leap between Stettin Station and Potsdam, some four years, in the story-timeline. It was a little unsettling at the start and I had to re-convince myself a few times that I hadn’t missed a book. I hadn’t, I eventually realised – and so relaxed. I couldn’t really make up my mind (totally) why he did that. Perhaps he felt that he’d concentrated so much of the previous three, that if he was to continue at that ‘speed’, he’d need too many books to take it to where he wanted the series to end, some years after the war. I do think he had six books planned from the start and therefore needed to build in a ‘break’ between Stettin and Potsdam. Also, it might be a little unbelievable if Russell got into life-threatening scrapes every couple of months for the whole of the war. And, as a ‘foreign’ journalist, other than going underground, the sensible solution for someone like him, would have been to get out, even if that meant leaving his ‘life’ behind. As he does.
Russell has been ‘forced’ to leave Germany – and leave his girlfriend Effi and son Paul behind to face The End. However, he soon realises he needs to go back – and quickly. He knows what the Red Army are capable of and have begun to do, in their headlong rush to reach the German capital. Partly because they want to, partly because Stalin wants them to and partly to beat the Americans to the big prize. They’re also intent on exacting their own special form for revenge, Russian-style. And it would, one has to admit, take the cheek-turning ability of the Saint of all Saints not to want to exact revenge on the Germans for what they did – and planned on doing – to the Russian people. So Russell’s past as a Russian spy comes in useful (for once) in getting himself on a Russian plane and parachuted in, hopefully ahead of the now rampant Red Army. His son Paul, is 19, and has been put in the firing-line on the eastern front and has had to grow up very quickly, mainly because life-expectancy on the eastern front, is very short. Russell’s girlfriend Effie has, as I say, also remained behind in Berlin and so we see the trials and hardships of the German people, as the rule of law is swept away, as they are abandoned by the Nazis, as they are bombed back to the dark ages and await their fate at the hands – and the women at the loins – of the Soviets.
Potsdam Station, is absolutely perfectly written to show how everything, every emotion, every seemingly ordinary situation, is magnified and changed in wartime. Good and evil, obviously, but the seemingly previously ordinary, suddenly seems suspicious. Why is it ordinary? Why is there no one there? Is there someone? Are they watching, waiting? Why? No one, nothing, is innocent, no remark without another meaning. “It often felt as if all normal life had been consumed by the war.” The book is about the truly desperate situation the people of Berlin found themselves in. If you want to read more about this period, I’ve put some titles at the bottom of this review. You could say ‘well, after what they were doing – still doing until the end – to their Jewish populations, they deseved it.’ But that isn’t the point here. Effi is involved in helping the Jewish people she finds along the way, she is doing something, not to ease her conscience, but just as one person helping another. As we all should do, in or out of wartime. Retribution is, as I know now, to be discussed in the next book in the series, Lehrter Station.
It is, I felt, Effi’s book. Not that she gets significantly more page-time than Russell, but it felt like she got more of the story this time than she has in the past. Previously, with her being an actress, once she’d gone off for the day acting, there wasnt really much of a way he could develop too many stories around her. She does feature, but I’ve felt, more as an accessory to the main story-driving character of John Russell. Here, with him being out of Germany and her having to survive on her wits and instincts in Berlin, she really comes to the fore and develops tremendously as a character. Downing shows how, as I thought Max Hastings did admirably in his (non-fiction history of the Second World War) ‘All Hell Let Loose,’ ordinary people were affected by the decisions taken by all sides in the conflict. We can then draw our own conclusions. The ‘problem’ of, as mentioned above, being understanding of the Russian’s demands for revenge, doesn’t mean we can condone the attacks on the ordinary German people, who weren’t neccessarily responsible for the actions of the Nazi party. But many were, so was it ok to kill and rape lots of them? Clearly not, so where do you draw the line? You can’t. And, why shouldn’t the German people feel the need for revenge for the actions both of the Russians, and the British, for bombing – for instance – civilians in Dresden? No one is right and no one has the right to be right in war. That’s what I take away from ‘Potsdam Station.’
Poignant and nuanced, I fell in love with the series all over again with Potsdam Station. Several times. I felt like this must be the best of the series and the others have been leading to it. The End, of course, was climactic, so it is appropriate enough that this should feel like the story reaching a crescendo. It is a non-judgemental look at how it all fell apart, on a human, ground-level, personal scale. It is on the surface a love story between John Russell and Effi, but also the German people’s love for a Germany that they deserved, the Nazi party smashed and the Russians bombed and raped flat. Was it all worth it?