BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Gripping tale of Europe's darkest chapter
, March 2, 2013
by Ben Elton
(Random House Australia)
Paperback: 528 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Growing up is normally far from easy, but for Paulus and Otto Stengel, there are further complications. Born on the same day as Paulus in a Berlin Hospital in 1920, Otto is adopted by Paulus’s parents, Frieda and Wolfgang, minutes after his birth.
Otto is an illegitimate and orphaned baby, his birth mother having died in childbirth, and he replaces one of Frieda’s twin boys who was stillborn.
Although not an issue in 1920, the fact that the Stengels are Jewish, and Otto is not, will cause trauma to the family in subsequent years.
The author of this novel, Ben Elton, is well known as an author, playwright and stand-up comedian on stage and television. In the 1980s he was a scriptwriter on cult comedies such as The Young Ones and Blackadder.
Although Two Brothers is a work of fiction, in the afterword Elton identifies his own family’s remarkable story as the inspiration for the novel.
Ben’s paternal grandparents were the German-born scholars Victor and Eva Ehrenberg, who, in February 1939, fled from Czechoslovakia for Britain. Victor Ehrenberg became author of a still widely-used textbook on ancient Greek history and civilisation, From Solon to Socrates.
One of the Ehrenbergs’ sons born in German (and who is Ben’s uncle) was the late Geoffrey Elton. He went on to become a distinguished British historian of the Tudor period and was knighted in 1986.
Ben Elton’s novel charts the lives of Paulus and Otto Stengel and their families as the two boys come of age. Pivotal to the narrative is their relationship with two girls.
As teenagers they are rivals for the affections of the glamorous Dagmar Fischer, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish department-store owner, who takes music lessons from the boys’ father, Wolfgang.
In love with the boys is Dagmar’s rival, Silke Krause, the non-Jewish working-class daughter of their mother’s maid.
The lives of these characters change radically when the Nazis come to power in 1933. Paulus and Otto are ostracised from their soccer team and have to sit in a separate section of the classroom.
Their father Wolfgang’s health deteriorates after spending time in a Nazi concentration camp, and Frieda gradually finds it harder to practise her profession as a doctor.
However, perhaps the greatest trauma for the parents is the removal of their adopted non-Jewish son, Otto, after the implementation of Hitler’s Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935. According to Nazi doctrine, Otto is a member of the favoured Aryan race.
He is sent against his will to a special secondary boarding-school, the Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalt (NPEA or NaPolA), whose purpose is to indoctrinate and train the future Nazi elite.
Nevertheless he finds a way to communicate with his family and Dagmar via Silke.
In the wake of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938, when the Nazis attacked Jews and destroyed Jewish property, the family make plans for Paulus to be evacuated to England.
The narrative of Two Brothers alternates between recollections of the boys coming of age in the late 1920s and the ’30s, and the postwar life of Paulus Stengel, the brother who survives by leaving Germany on the eve of World War II.
In England he anglicises his name to Paul Stone, serves in the British army and eventually finds employment in Britain’s Foreign Office.
In London, in 1956, he receives a mysterious letter, purportedly written by Dagmar, who he has long presumed was dead.
British secret service authorities suspect that the author, known as Silke, is a communist East German Stasi agent, and they brief Paul on how to deal with her.
While Two Brothers is not high-brow literature, it does provide readers with a vivid insight into the fate of Jewish families in Germany during Hitler’s time. It is a gripping, highly readable and suspenseful novel, with some fascinating and totally unexpected twists as the plot unfolds.