Kay Bookshelf logo
Title: An Obsolete Honor
Author: Helena Schrader
Genre: Historical fiction
Main characters: Phillip Baron von Freiburg, Alexandra Mollwitz, Marianne Moldenauer
Time and place: 1938-1944, Germany (mostly)

Summary: The book covers a part of the history of the Nazi Germany, detailing some of the most important events of that time and, most important, showing various people's reactions to them. In 1938 the vast majority of German people was happy about the way things were going in their country and about the changes Hitler has brought. Phillip's mother, Sophia Maria, brother, Christian, and sister, Therese, felt the very same way. Only Phillip himself is worried about the growing nationalism around him and about what he sees as the Fuhrer's appetite for risk.

As years pass, more and more people realize they were wrong -- especially people in the army, people fighting what looks more and more a mindless war. While some do not dare to openly show their opinion, only mumbling about it behind close doors, some openly oppose the regime. From Marianne Moldenauer who, shocked by the atrocities against Jews, begins forging papers for people hiding underground, up until the plans the General Staff people (General Olbricht, Major Tresckow, Count von Stauffenberg, and yes, our Phillip among others) work on: plans to kill Hitler, plans to take over the power and stop the war, plans that will culminate with the July 20 attempt.

The majority of the characters of the book (including the main ones) are fictional, helping us perceive, through their thoughts, some of the feelings and emotions of the times. I have, of course, liked all the "good" characters (Sophia Maria, Phillip and Alexandra being my favorites), and fumed at all the "bad" ones. Thing is, now that the book (and the fictional characters' story) is finished I realize I didn't care that much about them (I did care, only not as much) as I cared about the bits of true history that were part of their lives. Which brings me to the second category of characters: the historical figures (Olbricht, v. Stauffenberg, Tresckow, to name but a few). Needless to say they are very well documented and as such each of their scenes were very interesting for me (in terms of "what more can I find out?").

This is perhaps the very first book about WWII I have read that tells the story from the point of view of the German army. I was used to seeing them a pest, a plague, and it sort of surprised me to see them as normal soldiers, with good and bad, fighting for their country just as the rest of the armies I've been reading about. They loved their Fatherland and their relatives, fought to protect them, and had to obey their superiors' orders, just like the rest. A reasonable thing if one thinks about it but at the same time opposing every single image I had about them.

I have always been interested in knowing about the way non-Jew people under Hitler have reacted to his policies. As such, one of the events in the book that has caught my eye was when Marianne saw for the first time the way Jews were treated in a ghetto: "her understanding of civilization itself" is shattered to pieces. Interestingly enough, I have found the very same idea in Schindler's List (also a very well documented book), also happening when Schindler sees the mistreating (and killing) of some Jewish people -- which makes me think that, perhaps, it had been a very common feeling among people back then.

Speaking of which, in the book (and most likely in real life too) were two main currents of thought: the "Hitler can do no wrong" one:

    I just believe in the Führer. He’s the greatest genius of all time, and I know I can trust him! Whatever he does is right, even if we can’t understand it, because we’re not as intelligent—”

and the "Hitler is the root of all wrong" one:

    It’s as if Hitler and his close associates were carriers of a disease—a disease which eats away at the moral fiber of the individual. The nearer or longer one is in contact with them, the weaker one’s own ethical structure and sense of humanity becomes. Over time, one’s entire system of values is corroded to nothing. In the advanced stages of the disease, not only has one’s normal sense of human decency been destroyed, but criminal values have replaced healthy ones.

(I know, of course, that in real life there rarely is pure black or white; nevertheless I find these very representative quotes).

One of the recurrent themes in the book is the idea of moral choices: hard to make choices, coming with a high price, but necessary for one's "obsolete" code of values. An idea perhaps best explained by the (alleged?) Luther quote mentioned a few times across the novel: "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise." (were I to choose a tagline for this book, a quote summing it up, this particular quote would be it). All the (good) characters know what they are getting into, know the risk of their particular choices, and yet their consciences do not allow them to waver or do anything else but the right thing. And I cannot say how much I admire them all for that.

Related to this last paragraph, a real life quote of Major Tresckow's (quote mentioned also in the book) is one that means perhaps more than a hundred speeches:

    ‘The assassination must take place, come what may. Should it fail, the coup attempt in Berlin must nevertheless be made. It is no longer the practical effect that matters; what matters is that the German Resistance movement demonstrates to the world and to history that it was willing to risk the decisive gesture. Everything else is unimportant.’

What I liked most: The fact that the book is very well documented and it shows. The author has lived for about twenty years in Berlin and has talked to over 100 "survivors of Nazi Germany", as she phrases it, some of them members of German Resistance (plus, the feat that impressed me the most, she interviewed v. Stauffenberg's wife too -- plus Olbricht's Wife and Axel von dem Bussche). According to the author, it can almost be said that she has done too much research:

    That was the hardest part of writing "An Obsolete Honor": cutting out hundreds of events, episodes, characters, insights etc. etc. Throwing out invaluable material for the sake of making a novel that worked—that was coherent and fast-paced enough to retain reader interest.
    So to return to your question: What did I learn? More than I could ever convey in a hundred novels, much less a short interview. "An Obsolete Honor" is only a tiny, almost pathetic, start to telling the whole of what I learned.

What I liked least: This is absolutely my bad: I cannot focus enough when I read about troops movements/strategies. My attention just slips away (one of the reasons I couldn't enjoy War and Peace too). So, despite my overall loving the book, I couldn't quite get the pages where troops-related things were mentioned (although they are probably very interesting for other people, the author has done her lesson well).

Recommend it? I, for one, have loved it and have learned things from it. I absolutely recommend it, especially if you're interested in World War II Germany.

Reprinted from February 14, 2009 blog review "Kay's Bookshelf"  
All copyrights remain with the author of the blog.