Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Germany, Picador, Publisher, Ralf Rothmann, Setting, war

‘To Die in Spring’ by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 208 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside.

Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring tells the tale of two 17-year-old boys enlisted to fight for Germany at the tail end of the Second World War.

Reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War novel All Quiet on the Western Front (first published in 1929), it’s a story that highlights the futility of war — from a German perspective.

Senseless bloodshed

Walter ‘Ata’ Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli are dairy hands forced to “volunteer” in the Waffen-SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS) organisation. It’s 1945 and the war is entering its final stages. Both are reluctant to join. Fiete knows it is all a con:

They didn’t drag us across the whole of the Reich just so that we can peel potatoes behind the front. We’re fresh fodder, and we’ll be fed to the enemy.

After minimal training, the two are split up fairly early: Fiete goes to the front, where he is injured almost immediately, while Walter becomes a driver for a supply unit.

The story is told in the third person but largely from Walter’s perspective. While his role does not involve direct combat, what he witnesses on the road is no less gruesome or confronting — from the field hospital tents, where he could “hear groaning and screaming from behind the tarpaulins” to seeing partisans being tortured by his superiors who laugh while they do it.

Somewhere along the line, he hears that his father, a camp guard at Dachau, has been deployed to the front as a form of punishment because “he gave some cigs away to camp prisoners”. Later, he learns that he has died, and while father and son were not close — “Well, he wasn’t exactly a role model. He drank and hit me and felt up my sister” — Walter feels obliged to find his grave to pay his respects.

He is given a few days’ leave and the loan of a motorbike to carry out his search, which plunges him closer and closer to the front and where, by a great stroke of luck, he comes across his friend Fiete again. But the reunion is a tragic one.

A beautiful and powerful read

To Die in Spring is a gripping read about innocent farm boys having to grow up very quickly in a war that is not of their own making. Or as Fiete tells Walter:

Christ, what am I doing here? I mean, if I had voted for Hitler, like most of them… But I wanted nothing to do with this mess, any more than you did. I have no enemies, at least none that want to kill me. This is a war for cynics, who don’t believe in anything but might makes right… when in fact they’re only mediocrities and weaklings, I found that out in the field. Kick downwards, bow and scrape upwards, and massacre women and children.

It’s poignant and heartbreaking, full of vivid descriptions, whether of peaceful wintry landscapes or bawdy pubs and dancehalls, but its true power lies in the way it depicts a generation raised by men — damaged by a previous war — who are forced to repeat history.

For the contemporary reader, aware of the very many atrocities carried out by the Nazis, To Die in Spring does not overlook the barbarity of those men, nor does it wallow in self-pity or guilt. It simply offers up a haunting, searing — and compassionate — story, and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. The book is short enough to also qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is what you call killing two birds with one stone!

21 thoughts on “‘To Die in Spring’ by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside)”

  1. I think this is a must-read. No, war books per se are not for me, but this sounds a very human account of just how futile it all is, and how the experience of the soldier, whatever side you’re on is a dehumanising and futile one.

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    1. It’s not a cheerful read but a powerful one and despite the fact it’s only 208 pages, it’s not one to race through. This took me a week – normally I’d read a novella in the space of an afternoon.

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  2. The Ogre by Michel Tournier is about three boys in the German Army’s last days. It’s got a hert rending photo on the front cover too.
    It’s not the same, but my father aged 17 was a firewatcher during the Blitz, and today although young people have legal freedoms to drink, drive, marry, enter contracts etc we think they’re too young to make big decisions about their lives, and in those days, when they didn’t have those freedoms, they were able to do dangerous work like fire-watching and in the UK could join the navy at 16. There were many lads who enlisted underage in WW1 too…

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    1. I just looked that one up online… it sounds wonderful… it won the Prix Goncourt, too.

      And yes, teenagers these days are infantilised. But then I work with largely 20-somethings and sometimes I feel like the head mistress in a school yard because the trivial things they argue about astonishes me. How they ever manage to get out of bed and turn up on time, I do not know, much less run any other aspect of their lives. Lol.

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      1. LOL I’ve just been reading a tweet about the Goldsmith nominee Claire Louise Bennett who says: “Reading EM Forster is an experience, and so is looking at an aubergine. ” This reminded me about her musings on the colour of the plate from which she ate her breakfast in ‘Pond’. I wonder when this nonsense about celebrating the banal will end, IMO it’s giving young people a bad reputation.

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    1. In the British edition, the photograph is colourised. I think it looks more effective in black and white. According to the blurb, it’s from Universal History Archive / Getty Images. No other info is included.

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  3. I don’t read historical fiction about any 20th century wars. There’s plenty of contemporary writing, like the incomparable All Quiet on the Western Front, so I just don’t see the need.

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          1. Fair question: My memory is that the novel was written much earlier; that there was a struggle to get published; an early, inadequate translation; and then a much better translation by an Australian author. I wrote a review containing most of this, but I think there is more in Lisa’s review, including a discussion in Comments with the Australian author/translator.

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  4. This sounds excellent. I’ll need to keep it in mind. Since I’m focusing entirely on WWII books for this GLM I’m a bit overdosed. I had no idea Rothmann had even written a book set during the war. I’m more familiar with his earlier books. Decidedly, one for another Lit and War readalong some day.

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    1. Oh it’s wonderful, Caroline. I picked this book up by chance in my local second hand bookstore (I live on the same street as a massive warehouse and love to have a rummage around to see what I might find among the piles of Dan Brown et al.)

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