Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
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Len Deighton's Winter Is a Compelling Autumn Read
Thursday, November 9, 2017 -- I've read a lot of fiction and nonfiction about the decade preceding World War II and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. This ugly but intriguing era holds a particular fascination for those of us who lived in Nazi Germany as well as those of us who were around for the war.

In my case, I experienced both periods: In Germany in the 1930s and safely ensconced in New York City by the time the conflict began. I was reminded of this when I stumbled upon Winter: A Novel of a Berlin Family, a 571-page historical thriller written by Len Deighton, the author who has penned many successful and engaging novels about the era.

Sprawling, ambitious and multi-layered, Deighton's basic story appears to be historically accurate for the period (1899 to 1945) it covers. The characters are writ large and Deighton displays an admirable knowledge of the machinations in various strata of German society that permitted the rise of Adolf Hitler. Although you never actually meet the Fuhrer, Himmler and Goebbels, to mention a few infamous Nazis, they form the ominous background that would soon involve an unprepared world in a conflict of unimaginable brutality and genocide.

Which is not to say that Winter is too dry or history-oriented. Deighton, a Brit born in 1929, is a masterful storyteller especially when he weaves in his forte, espionage.

At center stage is the wealthy and powerful Winter family headed by Harald, a tough-minded business tycoon. His multiple interests bring him into close contact with a Nazi government that he despises, but seems to tolerate as long as his companies help to supply the war machine. Harald is married to Veronica, a rich and beautiful American heiress. They have two sons, Paul (Pauli) and Peter.

The story chronicles the family as it faces the challenges of two wars, German's changing society and shifting governments. The novel is told as a series of vignettes that flash back and forth over forty years, beginning and ending with the Nuremberg tribunals.

The two brothers, both of whom have fought in World War I and returned with both physical and psychic wounds, become lawyers. Peter will eventually run his father's empire. Pauli, almost unwittingly and seemingly innocent of everything going on around him, becomes a leading legal policymaker for the Nazis.

Relationships and connections of all types and origin will have repercussions for the Winter family. As young children, for example, Peter and Pauli are rescued from drowning by a teenaged Fritz Esser. He develops lifelong ties with Pauli and will work himself near to the top of the Nazi hierarchy. Esser rewards Pauli's friendship by having an affair with Pauli's wife, Inge. Decades later, however, Esser seeks out Pauli to represent him at Nuremberg.

Interspersed with Deighton's tales of war and politics are romantic liaisons with their own consequences. Harald has numerous affairs, notably a long-standing relationship with his favorite mistress, the Hungarian-born Martha Somlo. Harald has been seeing Martha since she was 16 and has stashed her in Vienna. A Jew, Martha eventually needs the protection offered by Pauli through his connections.

Harald isn't the only one whose beloved will be at risk. Peter's wife, an American Jew named Lottie, is imprisoned by the Nazis for helping to forge identity papers that allow some members of the Jewish community in Berlin to escape Germany. In a key element of the tale, it is Pauli whose actions will determine Lottie's fate.

Peter's path is notably different than Pauli's. With his wife in prison, Peter, with the aid of his mother's brother, goes to the United States, becomes an Army officer and has ties to British intelligence. He will return permanently to Germany after the war as a member of the American war crimes prosecution.

After Harald's death, Veronica, whose circumstances have gone downhill, is once again wooed by Peter's colleague, a high-ranking British intelligence officer. After years with philandering Harald, will Veronica start a new life with a man who truly loves her?

Ever wondered how a dangerous grifter like Hitler could come into power or how Nazism could have appealed to members of different social backgrounds? Deighton's saga of the Winter family offers an insightful, realistic and engrossing view into the "way it was" for many in Berlin in specific and Germany in general.

Two disturbing asides about Winter: Even veteran writers sometimes rely on puzzling plot twists, but I had particular issues with Deighton's unexpectedly convenient conclusion. The other caveat is that Winter integrates characters from Deighton's popular trilogies, including the father of the main spook in the nine-book series. In fact, Winter is the prelude to his so-called Game, Set and Match trilogy.

These reservations in no way diminish Deighton's compelling tale, a story that has even more relevance in these uncertain times.

Winter is available in several formats from Amazon.com.


This column is Copyright 2017 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.