A great deal has been written about Germany between the two world wars of the last century. The rise of the Nazis is well documented in history and in literature. One of the seminal works remains The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the magnum opus published in 1960 by William Shirer, the American journalist who reported from Berlin in the 1930s until the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies. In 1941, Shirer published his first-hand observations of Germany’s startling descent into an ugly, military-industrial, genocidal superstructure in A Berlin Diary.
Christopher Isherwood, the British-American author, wrote about the seedy, morally unravelling underside of Berlin society in the 1920s and 1930s. His novel Goodbye to Berlin eventually formed the basis for the famous musical Cabaret, which so painfully portrayed the unique evil of Nazism.
Over the intervening years, many scholars and authors have brought their considerable skills to chronicling and trying to “make sense” of what – at its core – has no explanation in sense or logic: how does brazen hatred acquire such an unbreakable, steel-jawed hold over an entire society?
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And though the question may have no answer, our minds continue to search for one.
In his new novel Carry Me, the Canadian-born, award-winning author Peter Behrens touchingly, tenderly and provocatively asks that question, many compelling variations upon that question, and much more.
The two key characters of Carry Me are Billy Lange and Karin von Weinbrenner, unlikely lovers whose eventual escape from Nazi Germany is the central thread of Behrens’ compelling work. The title of the story derives from a scene in the couple’s younger life when Karin asks Billy to carry her. The memory of that scene stays with Billy forever. He literally and metaphorically carries Karin many more times, especially through the harrowing, dangerous shards of their broken society. Their escape from Germany is the narrative culmination of the story.
Behrens cleverly begins the tale well before Billy and Karin are born, and he deftly develops for us their formative background. Carry Me starts with the stories of Billy and Karin’s parents and transports us across numerous horizons in the Pacific Ocean, the coastline of the British Isles, continental Europe, the United States and even Canada.
He examines the breakdown of German society in the years prior to World War II by first exploring the tensions within civil European society prior to World War I. Just as the main individuals in Behrens’ story are interconnected in myriad profound ways, so, too, are the stormy political and ideological events through which his characters live. His narrative takes the reader through a number of conflicts, including the unfathomable slaughter of World War I, the struggle for Irish independence from British rule, World War II and the first moments of the ultimate genocide of the Jews.
Billy’s father was a German national. British authorities interned him in a camp for suspect foreigners during the long, cruel war. His sorrowful experiences there affect him for the rest of his life. Behrens makes the point that discrimination, oppression and mistreatment of the “other” is not the exclusive domain of one nationality or one people.
The author describes the aftermath of World War I: the emotional distress, emptiness and the constant ache at the heart of those societies that sent their soldiers to die in the war’s bloodied fields. “You could say that in Frankfurt – probably England and France, too – the dead were in charge. Millions were walking about the cities with memories of dead sons, fathers, husbands operating painfully on their minds.”
In Germany’s societal emptiness, the vile worm of anti-Semitism thrived. It twisted and turned its immoral, deathly ideology deep into the body of an increasingly vulnerable society. Scapegoats were sought to explain away the military and other failures of the German volk. “It was the Jews!” the thugs and tyrants screamed. The Jews – both the bankers and the Bolsheviks – became the national hanging rack on which the suffering, the exploited and the willfully murderous pinned their woe.
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For instance, Behrens shows us Billy’s classmate who, in Frankfurt in 1932, explained with full conspiratorial effusion that Germany lost the war because of a bet the Frankfurt Jews made with the Jews of London.
“You see fellows, they each wagered on the other country to win. Each tribe figured they could fix the fight! Yids are utterly ruthless. Our tribe of Jews caused the defeat of Germany and collected millions of pounds in reward. They were able to stab in the back the best army the world had ever seen.”
Behrens’ depiction of the moral crumbling of prewar Germany is narrated from the varied perspective of many individuals with whom we become familiar, the good folk who are caught up in it and the villainous folk who contribute to it.
He is also brutally honest about how villainy eventually triumphed. When marauding Nazi brutes violently close in upon increasing numbers of individuals whom Billy knows, he admits candidly and somewhat shamefully, “I wasn’t going to rock the boat… [M]y generation knew the smart thing was to stay away from other people’s trouble.”
But the troubles of other people inevitably became Billy’s troubles, too.
Behrens brings the reader into the ghastly centre of prewar Nazi Germany, when all morality was turned on its head, when the institutions of the state brutalized its own citizenry. The despairingly dark description of that place and time dominates Carry Me.
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But Carry Me is equally and perhaps even more memorably a lush, beautifully crafted story about the complicated relationships between individuals – friends, parents, children and lovers.
Behrens stunningly, though dolefully, reminds us with a clarity, artistry and poignant punch demonstrated by few writers, that despite the innumerable ways in which love anchors and sustains life, it cannot always keep those whom we love from harm’s way.