An Honorable GermanAn Honorable German

Author: Charles McCain
Grand Central Publishing
Year: 2009
Reviewer: Neal Stevens

With the war drawing to an end, and the U-boat campaign against allied merchant shipping in shambles, Heinz Schaeffer reevaluated his martial spirit and exercised tactics to maximize his chances for survival. The war was going badly on all fronts and no amount of propaganda could hide it. In the end, he turned his U-977 toward Argentina. First time novelist Charles McCain captures this building sense of desperation and gloom felt by the German military as they tried to persevere against the crushing Allied forces.

An Honorable German introduces the reader to Oberleutnant Max Breckendorf aboard the Graf Spee. The Kriegsmarine is finding success  against the Royal Navy, raiding merchant ships with pocket battleships and a growing U-boat fleet. Max, and his life-long friend, the engineering officer Dieter, are men of duty and discipline, wholly committed to the military goals of the Third Reich. Max holds a formidable store of contempt for the British and gives little thought to the basis for the war. His focus is on his career and his tasks. The Graf Spee employs the tricks established by the Royal Navy, confusing the enemy with false flags, and scooping up merchants at will. Max and Dieter command boarding parties that round up the crews and capture British officers, who are treated with honor and ceremony. The Prizes Rules are closely followed; Germany's grim future is yet to appear.

As history dictates, Max's career aboard the Graf Spee is scuttled in Rio de la Plata, and we next find the opportunistic young officer aboard the German merchant raider Meteor, continuing to wreak mayhem. McCain creates characters that the reader cares about, and this is achieved through the engaging interplay between Max and Dieter. Their camaraderie is genuine with effortless humor and charm.

After a series of ordeals that nearly kill him, Max lands in occupied Paris and is reunited with  his sweetheart, Mareth. Her place in the novel is primarily to serve as the base for Max's concern. Her family is a class above Max and his family, her father one of the early supporters of the Nazis and well-established in the political arena. The City of Light is anything but a friendly place--intrigue and danger are thinly concealed by the stony faces of the populace. Max's luck nearly runs out when he inadvertently crosses up a Gestapo agent.

McCain serves out a strong sense of foreboding with the shadowy hand of the Gestapo and the effect it has on Hitler's dominions. Even decorated war heroes like Max are inconsequential in the face of the Nazi regime. Fear and violence stream from the top of the Nazi power structure to trap the Germans between their own government and the enemy. Max is clearly insulated from the political realities and is notably shocked as Mareth makes it clear that the  Gestapo constitute as much of a threat as the British. Max's self-assuredness is shaken, and doubts arise.

As it happens, Mareth's father, no big supporter of Max, is able to intervene and Max continues his odyssey in the Atlantic as the commander of U-114. He's all business, intent on seeking out the fat convoys that made Prien, Krethscmer, and Schepke top aces. But true to his luck, the "Happy Times" have passed and in one gripping scene his hapless U-boat gets pasted but good by British destroyers.

A terrible exhaustion gripped Max. All night he had twisted and turned the boat, never knowing if he was right or wrong until the depth charges exploded, and always the ping of the British sonar, the creaking of his battered boat, the hoarsely shouted damage reports. Sweat drenched him completely. Before they sailed, Lehmann had told the crew, "The Fuhrer expects you men to be quick as greyhounds, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel." Max liked the sound of that as much as anyone, but after the hours of depth charging it seemed absurd. Half his sailors were terrified and in a handful of moments so was he.

The author builds each scene with precision and economy, his narrative is forceful and direct. The U-boat scenes are strongly reminiscent of Das Boot. Drawing on an obviously impressive amount of research, McCain grounds the novel well, in the technical sense of the machinery of the ships and U-boats, as well as the events and setting of wartime Germany. It is when the scene shifts to Berlin that An Honorable German (the title, remarkable only in its assertion that such a person is unusual and noteworthy) really mines the richest emotional ore of the novel.

Mareth works in a bunker that houses a flak battery. As the RAF bombing barrages inflict appalling damage to the capital, McCain's novel  unveils the brutal events of total war.

The RAF had a method for this, the murder of a city, a method so terrible it was worthy only of Gog and Magog. They began with blockbuster high-explosive bombs to blow the roofs off buildings and blow the windows in, exposing wooden beams and interiors, giving fire endless pathways along which to spread and providing through-drafts of air to rush it along. Then came the small incendiary bombs, falling in their hundreds of thousands into buildings; and then the fires began. Fires medieval in their terror; fires that could not be extinguished because they were composed of burning phosphorus; liquid fire that flowed in burning streams down gutters and into the basements where women and children took shelter; fire so terrible, fire so merciless, there was nothing to do but run from it with all the strength God had given you; fire spreading so fast that running with all your strength was never enough. Fire so hot it set the very asphalt in the street ablaze and if your feet became stuck in the liquid tar, you burned like a torch, your screams unheard over the roaring of the firestorm. This was the hell brought down on Hamburg by the Tommies, and now they were bringing it to Berlin. And Mareth was somewhere in that godforsaken pyre, its columns of poisonous yellow smoke twisting slowly into the heavens.

As Max's  U-boat career progresses and he straddles a stark line between survival and extinction, he finds no glory in his duty. His doubt gives way to fear and when faced with an awful choice between duty and honor, it's with an almost tangible sense of relief he makes his fateful choice. An Honorable German was  great pleasure to read, as much for its straight-forward story as for the residue it leaves in the mind. It's with a thankful nod that this reviewer points out that An Honorable German is not simply a story about a naval officer or a U-boat, as much as it is about the terrible price, psychologically and materially and with loss of life, that the German people paid for succumbing to a megalomaniacal dictatorship.

This book comes out May 28, 2009.


Subsim Father's Day Giveaway, June 16, 2009

The folks at Hachette Book Group have generously offered to give out 5 signed copies of Charles McCain's new novel An Honorable German. If you haven't picked up a copy yet, here's an easy chance to get one. It's a fine novel, well-written and interesting.

To win your copy, simply PM Neal Stevens with the following bits of info from the review of An Honorable German:

The name of Max's friend
Which U-boat Max commanded
The name of Max's sweetheart

That's it! Hurry, this is limited to the first 5 winners.

Good hunting! Neal

The winners:

  • Chad

  • Sailor Steve

  • Meduza

  • cgjimeneza

  • Dowly



2009 SUBSIM Review