This earnest historical novel traces an unusual nexus of influential German men behind social and political trends from the late 19th century to the early 1930s.
With his ugly title, scholar’s prose, homiletic dialogue, and dire clichés, Duberman (Hold Tight Gently, 2014, etc.), a professor of history emeritus at the City University of New York, heaps up impedimenta in the way of enjoying what are at bottom some fascinating wrinkles in the belle epoque and the years leading to Hitler’s emergence. It “isn’t quite” a historical novel, as Duberman concedes in an Author’s Note, but a “tapestry of interlocking personalities” in which he has let his period research point him “to presumptively ‘likely’ feelings and opinions” for his main characters. They are Count Harry Kessler, an active diarist and a wealthy player in contemporary art as patron and collector; Walter Rathenau, the head of the AEG industrial powerhouse and rare heterosexual in the narrative; and Magnus Hirschfeld, a leader in the growing field of sexology and in efforts to kill Germany’s Paragraph 175, which criminalizes sex between men. Duberman traces the predominantly gay coterie of noblemen surrounding Kaiser Wilhelm II. A “hard-hitting” muckraking newsman and nasty libel trials spark moral outrage that the German ruler shrugs off, while his bellicose shipbuilding competition with the British lights a fuse to WWI. Kessler seems to know every major artist and most writers in Europe. He collaborates with Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier. A Berlin salon brings him and Rathenau together, and their conversational fencing over politics and culture allows Duberman to pause his heavy chronicle for perfectly theme-serving chats. For a time there is more tolerance of gays than of Jews in Germany, although Rathenau manages to rise high because of his industrial clout and diplomatic skills. As the brown shirts hit the fan, even ham-fisted clichés—“the elephant is now decidedly in the room”—can’t distract from the horror of the rising violence against queers and Jews and other Germans. Duberman distills it nicely in the assassination of Rathenau and the huge funeral that followed, leading for a brief time to a Germany that might not end up embracing Adolf.
There is much good here but much to wade through.