Revisiting the banality of evil

If there is a sub-niche of the book blog for novels one should have read twenty-five years ago (call it the mea culpa niche), Len Deighton’s Winter belongs in it.

I suspect I am not the only Deighton enthusiast who, enthralled by his Bernard Samson series, snapped up Winter (1987) after reading Game, Set and Match, then left it on the shelf just long enough to be fatally distracted by Hook, Line, Sinker and the rest of them.

But the truth is, Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1945 is best approached with some further years under one’s belt, and divorced from the spy bug.

There is more than a little spy thriller to this 536-page tome, to be sure, and one will find here some characters from the Samson series (Lisl Hennig is seen sheltering Jewish acquaintances; Rolf Mauser makes a brief but touching appearance; Werner Volkmann’s parents are here; there are Rensselaers good and bad and Bernard Samson’s father demonstrates again how one can be on the side of the angels and remain thoroughly dislikable).

But Winter is primarily a study in Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, something Deighton accomplishes by enlisting the narrative power of the family chronicle.

Peter and Paul, the sons of wealthy German industrialist Harald Winter and American heiress Veronica Rensselaer, are divided by birth order and historical circumstance.

Peter, the eldest and his father’s favourite, is the intended heir to the Winter industrial empire.  As the Nazis rise to power he ultimately finds himself in America, desperately trying to free his Jewish wife from her German prison and working as an American intelligence officer.

Paul, referred to throughout the book by the affectionate little-brother name Pauli, struggles unsuccessfully to win his father’s approval, scrapes together an education as a lawyer and fights his way up to become one of the Nazis’ key legal advisors.

And it is in this capacity, ultimately working under a fictitious deputy to Heinrich Himmler, that Pauli most strikingly illustrates the banality of evil. We are led to sympathise with this undeservedly maligned younger brother, a fundamentally sympathetic fellow scarred by the First World War, who takes personal risks to save Peter’s wife from the concentration camp and seeks nothing more than to please others.

Yet as we feel for this character, we see him shrewdly twisting legal principles to justify Hitler’s consolidation of power (“Leave the presidency vacant, what a great idea”); providing crucial legal justification for the summary executions of the Night of the Long Knives; even assisting, from his desk, in the Holocaust:

“It’s a poison gas: a vermin exterminator called Zyklon-B. Now, there is a very big order for it, but the camps want it supplied without its ‘indicator’ – that’s some kind of noxious smell that warns humans of its presence in the air. Farben won’t supply it until they’re sure that omitting the indicator won’t endanger the company’s rights to the patent. I’ve been in and out of the Patents Office on Gitschiner Strasse so many times, and read so many specifications, that I found myself wondering what the hell it’s all about. I started wondering what the camps are doing with all that odourless poison gas.”

By then, Pauli has already figured out what the gas is for, but like the character of Ernst Janning in Judgment at Nuremberg (a film which really bears watching in concert with this book), he continues with his work, helping the Nazi machine function despite his awareness of its terrible results. Like Janning, Pauli tries to make the best of it, even takes risks to protect family members and individual Jews, but manages to deaden that part of himself that would question the horrible things he does.

Burt Lancaster as Ernst Janning


Earlier in the book there is another disturbingly banal scene in which Pauli and his wife, Inge, are dressing for her birthday dinner, and he shatters his wife’s hopes of an early vacation:

“Speaking to Inge’s reflection, Pauli said, ‘Darling, be reasonable. The Fuhrer’s ordered that all the chronically insane and incurables in Germany must be put to death. And it’s to be done by SS doctors. Can you imagine how much work that’s going to make for me?’”

As the reader is drawn along the current of Pauli’s life and career, Deighton skilfully uses scenes such as these to provide the necessary moral bumps – moments of sudden awareness in which we realize we are watching a little Ernst Janning, if not a little Eichmann.

Of course, by the time he wrote Winter, Deighton had long mastered the spy storyteller’s trade. This historical novel and family chronicle, although pedantic at times in delivering the necessary historical background, and disappointing at other times in the crucial events it chooses to elide, has enough of the thriller’s momentum to keep the reader hooked.

The ending in particular switches back entirely to Deighton’s familiar spy novel mode, providing the kind of gloomy and terrifying denouement one expects from the rest of the Samson series, not to mention dark humour. (In the final pages of the book, in 1945, an American Lieutenant says in frustration: ‘Speaking with these Krauts has convinced me that there were only three Nazis in the whole of Germany, and no one knows who those three are.’)

But I would heartily recommend Winter even to readers unfamiliar with the three Samson trilogies, as a nuanced portrait of the rise of Nazism and a skilful rendition, through fiction, of the banality-of-evil concept.

If it hasn’t been sitting on your shelf for too many decades, this book is worth tracking down.