An Honorable German by Charles McCain

Title: An Honorable German: A Novel of World War II
Author: Charles McCain
Publisher: NY: Hachette Book Group, 2009
ISBN-13: 978-0446538985
**Mass Market Paperback release: May 31, 2010**
Date read: January 3, 2010

This book caught my eye on the new book display at my town’s public library. An Honorable German is the story of Maximillian (Max) Brekendorf, an officer of the German Navy during WWII. The action of the book begins on September 30, 1939 and ends on September 10, 1944. The story of Max’s war experience shows the slow destruction of the naval traditions that were Max’s passion as well as the repeated bombings of Berlin and the decline of Nazi Germany.   There are some great sea battles, details about life aboard ship and a U-boat, and tensions between true-believer Nazis and those who are not.

I love seafaring books and that’s the main reason I decided to read the book, but I also thought it would be interesting to read a novel from the perspective of a German naval officer. A few years ago I read Shadow Divers and explored the U505 exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, so I had some familiarity with the topic.

The novel gives a glimpse of what it may have been like for a career military man confronted with the political dictatorship of Hitler and National Socialism, which, on the extreme right, wanted to see the eradication of all forms of rank and status. Max had no interest in politics. He’d wanted to serve in the navy since he was a young boy and is trained at the prestigious Marineschule Mürwik.

While McCain makes the point that naval officers were not allowed to join the Nazi Party, through various characters he makes it clear that there were party fanatics in the navy, particularly toward the later years of the war when younger men who were indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth became old enough to serve. Basically, Max is a thinking, moral man, a naval officer who wants to do the right thing and that isn’t always in line with Nazi policy. He is on a mission to sink enemy ships, but he also follows the custom of the sea and ensures survivors are rescued and treated well.

The novel also shows the steady destruction of the city of Berlin and how men who were away fighting the war didn’t necessarily know the reality of the conditions that their loved ones were experiencing or, if they did, didn’t comprehend the nightmare they were living. There is a striking contrast between Max’s life at sea: cruising around for days or weeks trying to find an enemy ship to attack vs. being a civilian in Berlin who experiences regular hours-long, nerve shattering airplane bombings and seeing their loved ones killed and the city turned to rubble. Coming home on leave after a long deployment to see a beautiful city after months/years of bombing was certainly a shock, but it was also a reality check against the official Nazi party propaganda that claimed they were on their way to winning the war.

McCain’s offers a succinct description of the RAF’s bombing method:

“They began with blockbuster high-explosive bombs to blow the roofs off buildings and blow the windows in, exposing wooden beams and interiors, giving fire endless pathways along which to spread and providing through-drafts of air to rush it along. Then came the small incendiary bombs, falling in their hundreds of thousands into buildings; and then the fires began. Fires medieval in their terror; fires that could not be extinguished because they were composed of burning phosphorus; liquid fire that flowed in burning streams down gutters and into the basements where women and children took shelter; fire so terrible, fire so merciless, there was nothing to do but run from it with all the strength God had given you; fire spreading so fast that running with all your strength was never enough. Fire so hot it set the very asphalt in the street ablaze and if your feet became stuck in the liquid tar, you burned like a torch, your screams unheard over the roaring of the firestorm. This was the hell brought down on Hamburg by the Tommies, and now they were bringing it to Berlin” (263). And then when survivors were digging out those who may still be alive, “Occasional explosions sounded in the distance as delayed –fuse bombs went off—designed to take out the rescuers and onlookers who gathered after a raid” (269). It also happened that water mains were shattered during the bombing and people trapped in the shelter drowned (270).

Here are some examples of the “smaller” details McCain includes:

  •  The government prohibited the public expression of mourning for a soldier who died because it was considered unpatriotic. After all, it was an honor for a husband/son/brother to give his life for the Führer (274). 
  •  Returning to Berlin Max notes that someone wrote in chalk on the remaining portion of a building’s wall: “All members of the Schleicher family are dead” (209).
  •  All German naval ships employed Chinese laundrymen (15).
  •  Ship decks were made of teak wood because it doesn’t splinter when hit by shells. In the days before ships were made of steel, most casualties in sea battles came from flying splinters (55).

An Honorable German is McCain’s first novel and although it is a bit uneven—the tension between the fanatical Nazis and Max is simplistic at times and the POW section is lacking in atmosphere and tension that infuses other parts of the book—I highly recommend this novel to readers who like military fiction, thrillers, or German history.

Deborah Grosvenor is McCain’s agent. She’s the agent that discovered Tom Clancy (not that I am a big Clancy fan, but that is saying something), so it’s probably a safe assumption to say we’ll see more naval novels from McCain. I hope so.

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