Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Black Orchestra, a Review

I was a little apprehensive about reading a novel set in Nazi Germany. I feared it would be hard to find sympathy for characters serving the Reich in any capacity, even if they weren't directly involved in the subsequent horrors of the Holocaust.
Kurt Müller, the protagonist of The Black Orchestra, is aware of what the Nazi regime is capable of doing, but he cannot yet accept everything that he hears. "Everybody knew of the government’s policy of stripping undesirables of their citizenship and exiling them. Jewish shops had been vandalised on Kristallnacht, and there had been rumours — which I discounted — of a more radical purge of the Jews."

Working as a Morse code signalman in the headquarters of the Abwehr (military intelligence), Kurt begins to doubt the integrity of Germany's war efforts when he discovers the body of a coworker shot in the head. Investigators rule that the death was a suicide, but Kurt is convinced that his colleague was killed after discovering a plot to distort intelligence signals being received from agents stationed in England.

"These were perilous times. People disappeared or turned up dead every day," Kurt thinks to himself, adding, "It was useless speculating on the death... I needed to get back to work and devote all my attention to my duties as a signalman. There was a war to be fought."

Initially, Kurt is drawn along as Germany goes from one military success to the next. As his uncle, a high military commander, states, "Germany is awake again after its long slumber. Germany — the new Fatherland — will put behind it the injustices of the last war, and rise from the ashes.”

Kurt's uncle is the first to alert him of the existence of the Black Orchestra. "The Black Orchestra is a very dangerous organisation of subversives and enemy agents, dedicated to undermining the organs of the state. They may even be planning the complete destruction of the Reich.”

Kurt begins to investigate, his suspicions rising even after he is promoted and put in charge of Germany's secret agents in Ireland. He sees incompetence everywhere, leading him to wonder "if the fate of everyone in the country was in the hands of incompetents or madmen — or British spies."

Kurt is torn between his duty to fight for his country, and his conscience, which is calling on him to fight against what he saw happening around him. "The evil that was the Third Reich must fail, and I yearned to play my part in its downfall," he concludes.

And there is a love interest as well. Is Kurt's girlfriend really on his side, or is she secretly reporting on his activities to the Gestapo? Kurt is being followed everywhere he goes. Who can be trusted? Is there any safety in staying in Germany, or can Kurt escape the Fatherland that is heading toward inevitable self-destruction?

I enjoyed reading The Black Orchestra. Kurt is an average sort of guy caught in very unordinary and dangerous situations. He comes across as a very believable character, as do the members of the wide supporting cast.

This is not a war novel, nor is it a spy story. It is a story of a German officer serving an evil empire at a time when there are spies everywhere.

The Black Orchestra, the latest novel by Irish author JJ Toner, is very readable, offering intimate and occasionally frightening insights into the lives of Germans coping with a very turbulent time in their history.

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