The title of this book alone is a hook, at least for me. World War II is, after all, one of the most important events in recent history, filled with some of the greatest atrocities ever committed against our fellow humans.
It’s easy to root for those who were persecuted and the Allies who ended the war, but what about the Axis powers? They were people, too.
After the fall of the Nazi Reich, many of the former leaders were brought to trial and convicted of war crimes. What would be going through a war criminal’s head? Regret for what he’d done to others, regret for getting caught? Anger and hatred toward those judging him? Fear that the end of his own life was coming? Or something more?
The Austrian: A War Criminal’s Story explores such questions with vivid, often heartbreaking detail, so much so that I sympathized with the man who this story is about. In the end, he is still just a man who has known love and hate, happiness and sadness, good times and bad times.
Ellie Midwood’s well researched, well crafted World War II novel follows the life of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a high-ranking SS official from Austria. While based on a real historical figure of this name, the character of Ernst is fictionalized. The story swaps effortlessly back and forth between the novel’s current day of 1946 of his imprisonment while he awaits trial for his war crimes and his past–from his boyhood and first love with a Jewish girl to how he would up serving in the Nazi party.
The novel opens with Ernst in Nuremburg Prison on the day of his execution. We know his life is at the end, so this might seem like a strange place to start, but how did this man wind up in the gallows?
Ernst comes from a family where he’s the oldest son, so the expectation is that he will follow in his father’s footsteps of becoming a lawyer, marrying, and having a family of his own. Ernst is also a big, strong boy for his age, and his father encourages him to beat up those who deserve it. As a young man, Ernst stands up for those who the bullies pick on at school, including Dalia, who is a little older than him and Jewish.
He even has to act as the head of his household when his father is drafted during World War I. He seems to grow up before his time, even proposing to Dalia when he’s not old enough to marry. Dalia, however, knows they could never be together because of their backgrounds. The young Ernst doesn’t understand this, as both of their fathers are lawyers, and if Dalia and he love each other, what’s the problem?
Feeling bitter and heartbroken, Ernst leaves Dalia. He begins attending secret political meetings with his father, where people get together who oppose the current government. He meets a young woman named Melita afterward and begins hanging out with some college students, and from there, Ernst’s connections to the “right people” grow.
As he gets older, he moves up in the ranks of the Austrian SS. He’s a mixture of a man who stands up for the underdog and who can easily beat someone to a pulp, sensitive and aggressive. Before he knows it, he’s the damned leader, all the while wondering how he got into this position.
The story continues in the second book, including how Ernst falls in love with a woman who is the only beckon of hope he has as he awaits his end in prison. I look forward to reading the rest of his story.
Ellie Midwood is an expert of World War II history, and it shows in his book. The historical facts check out, yet flow flawlessly with the fictionalized story of Ernst.
Her writing is lovely and at times heart-wrenching. Ernst is a good man who got caught up in the wrong world. His one true love is what gives him hope during his last days in prison, where he is left wondering if he did right by his life.
For anyone who is a fan of historical fiction and a complicated romance, I recommend this novel. It’s top-notch!
5 of out 5 stars!
Purchase The Austrian (Book 1) here.
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