It goes without saying that this is (another) beautifully written paced and structured, evocative, sometimes provocative, story from David Downing. All his books in the Station series have been. I’m not quite sure how he’s done it – maintain such a high standard of writing and story-telling over six novels (yes, I’ve finished the sixth now, though this is number five). Maybe he wrote them all at one sitting and then divided it all into six parts. Who knows how he’s done it, they’re all uniformly superb and this is (obviously, after all that) no different.
Lehrter Station begins at the end of 1945. The war has ended and John Russell, Effi and John’s son, are holed up in London. Naturally, Effi misses Berlin, but so does John. Then, the bleak, post-war London woodwork squeaks and out comes Russell’s old Soviet contact Shchepkin, with an offer Russell, after some consideration, finds he can’t, or would be stupid to – as in he wouldn’t live very long if he did so – refuse. So, Russell returns to Berlin to work for the Russians. And the Americans. He finds himself essentially, walking a tightrope at the cusp of the old war and the new, cold war. Clearly, as soon as the war was over, peace declared and celebrated, even before that, the parties were working behind the scenes on the next one.
At the heart of it, there’s uncertainty. “I’m beginning to think certainty died with the Nazis” as a Jewish activist puts it. The new future is in many ways more uncertain than it was under the Nazis. Even at the end of the war, even not knowing where the next bomb was going to fall. Before the end, you knew who to avoid, who was the enemy. Now, even though the ‘enemy’ have been defeated, things are more unclear than they were. It’s about the future obviously, but also the past. How to think about it, how to revenge it. Should it be revenged? Is not revenging it, letting those who died, down? Is it revenge, or is it ‘justice’? Even when the Jews do it? Do two wrongs make it alright? About people paying for their past sins. Should they? Should sins be passed down to their children? Should whole nations be held responsible for the actions of their countrymen, when the actual perpetrators can’t be identified? When is enough? Do we turn a blind eye, because they’ve been wronged? No one won. We all lost. No one is behaving properly. Maybe the losers were, of course the Jews. And the Russians sent to their slaughter by Stalin. And the German people, sent to their slaughter, by the Nazis. And the German people, who saw their future destroyed. Twice. And the Jews. Though, basically, everyone thought they had it worse than everyone else (read Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose, you’ll know what I mean).
It’s about expediency and realpolitik – our new enemy’s enemy is now our friend. Even if that means our enemy of five minutes ago, now has to be our friend. It’s about how complicated it was for the ordinary person, not involved in the new Great Game, just to survive. And about mothers and families. Ordinary people doing what they have to do to survive. People looking in from the outside seem to be able to judge and tell those they’re looking at, what is right or wrong. The people doing it think they’re right, that it was right to go to war and what they’re doing now, after that, justifies whatever they do – they must be right, because they ‘won.’
“You end up asking yourself – how much better off are we? Enough to justify 40 million dead?”
David Downing has built up a totally immersive picture and puts you in it. I have not so much feeling I’m reading about it – I’m there. Right there. Finest kind.