The story is framed by a short portrayal of Walter as an old man dying from cancer and his son’s, i.e. the narrator’s, attempts to get his father to talk about what happened during the spring of 1945. Walter is an introvert who never had any friends as an adult and took to alcoholism in his later years. He refuses to talk about the war and he does not mind the fact that he is dying even though he is only 60 years old. In the next scene we are presented with Walter as a young man and it is here that the actual story begins. He is working on a dairy farm as a milker and the signs of the war are ubiquitous: most of the kettle has been requisitioned, most of the workers are dead and instead of them they are housing refugees from the Eastern parts of the Reich. For the evening the Reichsnährstand (government body regulating food production) has organised a party which Walter, tempted by the promise of free beer and music, attends together with his friend Fiete as well as his girlfriend Elisabeth. It soon becomes apparent that it actually is a propaganda evening at the end of which all men (young and old) are forced to join the SS.
The next morning Walter and Fiete are sent to Hamburg for three weeks of training. Fiete is of a rebellious temper, yet Walter prevents him from protesting publicly against the regime. After three weeks, the young recruits receive their signature SS tattoos and are sent to Budapest. Walter learns that his father, previously a concentration camp guard in Dachau, has been moved to a penal battalion because he gave cigarettes to a prisoner. Walter’s father is a violent alcoholic and he had little sympathy for him before. On their way to Hungary, the young men behave like regular teenagers, unaware of what to expect. Fiete is already planning to escape, hoping to become a prisoner of war with the Americans rather than the Russians. Once in Hungary, Fiete has to fight against the Russians whilst Walter is only working in a supply unit, transporting weapons, food and injured soldiers. Fiete soon returns to their camp with a shrapnel injury.
Walter witnesses not only the bombings, but also the Nazis’ sadistic crimes against the local population whom they accuse of being partisans; he always refuses to participate in these crimes. When Walter finds out that his father is likely to have died in a city nearby, he seeks permission to find his father’s grave. Walter drives across the country for three days, without finding his father’s grave, but gets caught up in the sudden exodus of German soldiers following the rapid advances of the Russian army. He comes across orgies of gay Nazis as well as Jewish prisoners who are killed for the gold in their teeth. Back at the camp he finds out that Fiete has been sentenced to death because he tried to desert. Walter desperately tries to save him, but his superiors refuse his request. In a moving scene, Walter parts with his friend without telling him that he will be part of the firing squad that will execute him. Faced with the decision of being shot himself if he refuses, Walter complies and helps to execute his best friend.
Rothmann has written an extraordinary novel, the beginning of what could be called a post-Grass discourse in German literature. For Rothmann has found a way to portray German suffering during the Second World War without giving in to self-pity and without ever forgetting the German guilt. Sixteen years after W.G. Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur , Rothmann carefully re-opens a long needed discourse in German literature about the ways in which we can talk about German loss. Moreover, by framing his narrative with the story of Walter’s son, who wants his father to talk about the past, Rothmann also touches on the wider cultural significance of this prolonged silence and the suppression of a pain that could not be mentioned.
Im Frühling sterben is published in German by Suhrkamp. An English translation will be published by Picador and FSG.