(Hamish Hamilton, 1993)
Edward West, a retired international civil servant living in a village in the west of England, is the central character in a novel about Alex von Kierich, hero of the failed 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life and now living quietly in northern Germany. For much of the time, von Kierich is ‘the man who isn’t there’, but his presence is rarely far away, rather like one of those planets that astronomers cannot see but know exists because of its effect on other, visible, heavenly bodies.
Sometimes he speaks of the tragedy of 1944, the failure of the plot to kill Hitler, his arrest and incredible good fortune in not being strung up like so many of the others in Plotzensee Prison. That crushed part of his right hand shows the torture he had to endure during interrogation.
After Germany’s defeat, von Kierich was put in charge of a quintessentially worthy post-war institution, an aid/development agency called the Survey, based in Washington with West on his staff, ‘rather like a private secretary or close confidential aide’. West and his wife Jane, along with von Kierich, palled up with two other ex-pats, British military man Martin Riley and his wife Nancy, and enjoyed life in the American capital.
In the present time, West receives, pretty much out of the blue, a letter from von Kierich:
Some days I look at the photographs I have here of our time together when we were in Washington and doing such important work. They remind me of happy times, and this is also why I am writing as it would be tragic to lose oneself in bad memories and forget about so much that was good as well.
The ‘bad memories’ in question refer to the unravelling of von Kierich’s career at the Survey. From old copies of The Times, it emerges that, initially, various governments were rumoured to have threatened to withdraw support from The Survey unless he resigned.
Questions were to be asked in the House of Commons. Was it a plot led by the United States and its allies to get rid of someone who often had harsh words for the way the rich countries ignored the needs of what Dr von Kierich called ‘the South’?
He duly resigned, but matters took a more sinister turn, as the press reported.
The article mentions several strange gaps in the history of von Kierich’s war which may be behind his departure. The report says that friends of von Kierich and members of the Survey’s staff believed these new suspicions were a plot themselves: lies concocted by enemies to get rid of him. His part in the 1944 conspiracy against Hitler was well-known, as was his opposition to the Nazis.
Von Kierich was hired as consultant to an international trading company based in Munich, but his problems did not go away.
On subsequent days, The Times reports further rumours from Washington. Then the question of von Kierich’s involvement in wartime atrocities in eastern Europe is raised openly for the first time.
Jewish investigators turned the case over but found no evidence of von Kierich having been complicit in war crimes. The German magazine Der Spiegel, however, publishes a report written and signed by von Kierich after a visit to the Russian front.
In 1942, von Kierich had apparently travelled by air to a remote district of the Ukraine with an officer of the SS. Der Spiegel had a photograph of his signature on the report of the trip. The place described had been the scene of a series of notorious massacres at that time.
Von Kierich had answered the accusation … He had been sent to the eastern front by his superiors in the Foreign Office, who had wished to find out the truth behind rumours … Von Kierich’s mission was to separate truth from lies. That was why he had gone, to return in disgust and horror.
Spoiler alert – his account of events was accurate and he was probably right to suspect the hand of the US in the spate of allegations. But to no avail – we learn from a later edition of The Times that von Kierich ‘has left his job in Munich, insisting that his resignation is not an admission of guilt. Recent protests and a vicious campaign against him had made work impossible’.
His career destroyed, von Kierich retreated to his small town in northern Germany and worked as a tour guide. In the English village, where West, now widowed, lives alongside Martin and Nancy Riley, von Kierich seems something of an embarrassment, other than to West himself.
‘Alex von Kierich? Oh yes.’
Edward West says the words loudly to defeat any possible interruption.
Martin Riley takes a different view.
‘It is the victims who bring about the downfall of tyranny, Edward; not the survivors, however harrowing their stories. It is the thousands, the millions, of often nameless dead. Von Kierich may have detested the regime. But he survived it! You might call that a victory. To me it is a surrender.’
West flies to Germany to visit von Kierich for what will probably be the last time, taking with him Rose Finch, undergraduate daughter of a local landowner. The visit is far from an unalloyed success, but West and Rose sleep together in what West assumes is a doomed May-to-December fling.
Back in the village, West receives a letter from von Kierich thanking him for the visit and offering advice.
[F]orgive me for saying that you should be careful with Rose … Remember what we used to say: the most important thing is not to hurt people. This lay at the back of our work together, I like to think.
Please go forward now. I have my life, as you have seen … For you there is more time. Use it well. Goodbye.
The narrative ends with West heading off to Scotland to find Rose at her university. We wish him well in his quest for what he hopes will be the second spring of the title.
Haunting but never melancholic, this is a wonderful book, and the perspective of reading it in 2019 adds a layer to its elegiac structure that would not have been apparent in 1993. Nobody uses a mobile phone, although the service had been in operation for eight years, or a computer, although we would have been less than two years away from the madcap flotation of Netscape shares and the launch of Windows 95.
There are times when the day before yesterday can seem more impossibly far back in time than do centuries past. The experience of reading Second Spring is one of them.