Hegi (The Worst Thing I’ve Done, 2007, etc.) probes the moral dilemmas facing ordinary Germans in the early days of Hitler’s Third Reich.
“No no not now. Away with this.” That’s the refrain of schoolteacher Thekla Jansen whenever she comes across some unpleasant reminder of the new state of things. Prayers addressed to the Führer, German classics banned from the classroom then burned in the streets, Jewish students and teachers barred from school—this is all temporary, Thekla tells herself. Soon people will come to their senses, and Fräulein Siderova, the beloved mentor who inspired Thekla to become a teacher, will get back her fourth-grade class—the class Thekla is now teaching because she was desperate for a job. These are the kinds of choices the new regime forces on people, Hegi shows us. Will Thekla’s initial betrayal, relatively easy to justify, lead to worse? Hegi builds toward the answer by interweaving Thekla’s musings over the course of a single day—Feb. 27, 1934, one year after the Reichstag burned—with the story of her birth in 1899 and her unsuspected paternity, which may put her in danger. But plot is not paramount in a narrative focused on Thekla’s odyssey toward knowledge about herself. She’s a superb teacher, we see in the classroom scenes, which show her gently encouraging her students to love learning and to think for themselves. But the pressures of the outside world cannot be escaped; when one student repeats his antifascist father’s comments about “that damn Austrian,” Thekla is quick to reprimand the boy for swearing, in hopes that the other students will remember that, and not his father’s dangerous remark. Such half-measures will not long suffice, and readers will hope that Hegi’s appealing protagonist does the right thing.
A thoughtful, sidelong approach to the worst moment in Germany’s history that invites us to understand how decent people come to collaborate with evil.