I've read several novels that deal with the last days of World War II: Uwe Timm's Die Entdeckug der Currywurst is a fairy tale about a young Wehrmacht soldier gone AWOL who finds refuge in the arms of war widow who happens to be an excellent cook. Arno Surminski's Winter Fünfundvierzig oder die Frauen von Palmnicken deals with the Holocaust in East Prussia which raged on even as defeat was certain. On the non-fiction side, historian Ian Kershaw in The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944 - 1945 attempts to understand why the fighting and killing continued even though the generals, the soldiers, and the population knew that the Allies would prevail.
Senseless fighting and killing of those final days is also at the center of Ralf Rothmann's new novel Im Frühling sterben ("To Die in the Springtime") - one of the best books of the year. Like Surminski's Winter 1945, Im Frühling sterben is structured as a "frame novel": a son seeks to unlock the secret of his dying father's life. In this case, the father was a coal miner who is emotionally detached from his wife and son but on his deathbed he starts to open up about the horror of his wartime experiences.
The narrative then takes us back to March 1945 as the father - seventeen year-old Walter Urban - and his best friend Fiete Caroli are working as apprentice dairy farm laborers in northern Germany, waiting for the war to end. The Brits and Americans are on the doorstep in the West and Russians are advancing rapidly from the east; everyone knows the Third Reich is doomed. But the boys are lured by the promise of free beer to a dance at the community center where they are ambushed by SS officers and forced to "volunteer" (zwangsrekrutiert) to enlist in the Waffen SS. After a few weeks of "training" the boys are sent off to war: Walter as a driver for supply routes and Fiete to the front.
Im Frühling sterben has some of the best writing about war, perhaps surpassed only by the fiction of Gert Ledig, Novelist of War. Rothmann has a good ear for dialogue. Okay, I wasn't there in 1945, but the dialogue seems pitch-perfect and authentic to me. In one section, Walter is granted a three-day leave to find the grave of his father, who was had been killed on the front. He moves through a surreal landscape of death and total devastation, the Wehrmacht and SS officers he runs across are engaged in drunken orgies, waiting for the inevitable.
Neither Walter nor Fiete believe in the cause, but only Walter has the instinct to survive. Fiete is an impulsive character and goes AWOL, is caught and held for execution. In the pivotal scene in the novel. Walter approaches the commanding officer of his unit - the SS-Sturmbannfuehrer- and makes an impassioned plea for his friend's life. But the officer is more interested in correcting Walter's grammar and orders him to be part of the firing squad for Fiete's execution:
"Aus Menschlichkeit, natürlich. Weil du sein Freund bist, wie du sagst. Da wirst du gut zielen, damit er nicht leidet."
("For humanitarian reasons, of course. Because, as you say, you're his friend. Then you will aim well so that he won't suffer.")
Of course, the penalty for refusing to obey the order to execute Fiete is certain death.
There is an interesting gay subtext to Im Frühling sterben. Walter encounters several homosexuals - euphemistically called 175er - and rebuffs their advances. Fiete is described as a small boy with delicate, feminine features, and Walter's displays of affection toward his friend have homoerotic overtones. Walter goes on to wed his girlfriend Elisabeth, but, as we learn from the narrator at the beginning of the novel, it was apparently a loveless marriage, although it did produce a son - the narrator. FIete was the love of his life, and Walter was forced to live the rest of his life "innocently guilty" (unschuldig schuldig) that he had been forced to kill him. The Walter we encounter at the beginning of Im Frühling sterben is emotionally dead.
Ralf Rothmann has written a powerful novel. I'm sure it will be translated into English and will find an enthusiastic audience also in the US.