Literature, Reviews.

Totalitarian Zeitgeist

Book Book Review, Title Europe Central, Author William T. Vollmann, Rating 4.0, Totalitarian Zeitgeist

Europe Central

William T. Vollmann

Book Review

William Vollman's Europe Central is a layered novel that provides various perspectives of World War II through the thoughts and activities of selected historical actors from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, including Käthe Kollwitz, Kurt Gerstein, Dmitri Shostakovich, General Paulus and General Vlasov, among others. Each character carries their particular tragedy forward within the context of the times and the two totalitarian regimes.

-CC-BY-SA 3.0, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0301-503

General Vlasov before the soldiers of the Russian Liberation Army. Attrib: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0301-503, CC-BY-SA 3.0.


A wide spectrum of the German / Soviet relationship is covered, beginning with the mutual suspicion born of long historical emnity prior to the start of WWII, the incredible, and short-lived, non-aggression pact between the two nations, with its apex their mutual attack of Poland (The answer to the question of who started WWII is: Not just Germany, but also their allies the Soviet Union!), the horrors of the Holocaust, the betrayal of the USSR by Germany with their attack on same, the rallying of the Soviets, their ultimate defeat of Germany, and the post-war repatriation of unwilling Soviet soldiers and citizens from conquered territory back to the USSR.

Many of the ironies and difficulties of the relationship between Germany and the USSR and the complex consequences of the Harvest of Sorrow and the Great Terror are explored through the figure of General Vlasov; that is, through Vlasov the impact on the war of Stalin’s pre-war decimation of the military leadership and of nearly every class of Soviet citizen is illuminated by the author. The torment of Vlasov after he is defeated and taken prisoner is vividly rendered, as he chooses to collaborate with the Nazis and build and lead an army of Soviet soldiers against his own country; Vlasov’s dilemma and those of his men centered around deeply ambiguous feelings towards the Soviet government and its massively self-destructive treatment of its own citizens.

The portrayal of Kurt Gerstein is brilliant and difficult to read, as his story is unrelentingly heartbreaking and tragic; Gerstein’s attempts to warn people of the Holocaust while working as an officer within the concentration camp system are predictably unsuccessful, and horribly quixotic.

The author marches the cold and intelligent General Paulus into view to provide some visibility into the rigid world of the Prussian-trained military elite, as their brutal formulas of war began to unravel against the unyielding Soviets while their supreme leader, Hitler, gave them no alternatives: No surrender, and no retreat.

-PD-US, British Museum

Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind. Attrib: British Museum, PD-US.


Käthe Kollwitz was a tortured soul, who’s son lost his life while serving as a soldier in the German Army during World War I; her art reflects the anguish of that loss and that loss of confidence in progressive civilization that European artists and intellectuals felt so stingingly following the brutal Great War. She was one of many artists suppressed and threatened by the Nazis, although her international reputation kept her alive. The author draws a sad and sympathetic portrait of Kollwitz as the artist who suffered greatly through most of her life and expressed that suffering in her art, reflecting the troubled times she lived in.

-CC-BY-2.0, Piano Piano

Dmitri Shostakovich. Attrib: Piano Piano, CC-BY-2.0.


In some contrast, the author brings out in the person of Shostakovich the difficulties of the artist in a morally desiccated world. Most of the time Shostakovich seems to float, not so serenely, in a cocoon both of the Soviet regime’s and his own making. In this portrait the reader gains some sense of what it would be like to be a great artist who is reduced by the pervasive censorship of the Soviet system, and who at some level must compromise himself to survive, sometimes compromising his art.

The book’s occasionally baroque constructs and detours into musical technicalities can weigh the novel down, but those problems are far outweighed by the insights the author brings to the danse macacbre of the two totalitarian regimes, and, through the eyes and minds of well-chosen historical figures, some sense of the impact of the conflict and thereby a sense of the Zeitgeist.

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