Book Review: Andrew Nagorski’s Last Stop Vienna

A reminder that history is never more than a sequence of accidents and coincidence

TVR Books | Bernhard Wenzl | September 2009

History Re-imagined

Living in Vienna, the past is a constant presence, an active fellow citizen in ways it isn’t, say, in America, or in other European cities more heavily transformed by war, poverty or communist flat roofs. But with time, the past takes on an authority it may not deserve, a sense of inevitability that makes a claim as the only truth that exists, or that could have existed.

It is to shake us out of this stupor that books like Andrew Nagorski’s Last Stop Vienna are necessary: To remind us that history has never been more than a sequence of accidents and coincidence that could, with just a few small changes, easily have turned out some other way.

But to do this, we must start with history that we know, a familiar backdrop against which characters will come to life and begin to make new choices.

A grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery is the final destination for a young man from inter-war Germany. Karl Naumann, a timid, fatherless 15-year-old boy when the Great War ends and the Weimar Republic is established, is swept up in the nationalist fever of the Free Corps in Berlin. In contact with Nazi activist Otto Strasser, he joins the rising Nazi movement in Munich and begins an initiation into manhood, earning the respect of his tough comrades exploring the mysteries of sexuality with a buxom nurse named Sabine Koch. Instrumental as he is to Hitler, Karl has neither an inkling of his political plans nor an interest in his racial ideology. Instead, he simply contents himself with beating up political opponents and running personal errands for party members.

Years later Karl is given the assignment of showing the sights of Munich to Hitler’s niece, "Geli", recently arrived from Vienna. Struck by her elusive seductiveness, he begins a passionate love affair with her at Thierschstraße 41, the apartment next door to her "Uncle Alf", and gets entangled in a disturbing play of sex and power that soon becomes deadly.

Last Stop Vienna is the first novel of American journalist Andrew Nagorski, now Vice President and Director of Public Policy at the EastWest Institute in Prague. Published in 2003, Last Stop Vienna can be considered a reporter’s imaginative exploration of contemporary German history in fiction. As is common in current works of historical meta-fiction, factual and fictional elements are merged to transform the course of impersonal history into an individual’s story line. The combination of the real and imaginary often results in a new interpretation of old narratives or even in an alternative view of the historical past.

That is precisely what Nagorski undertakes to do in this novel. Heavily influenced by Otto Strasser’s 1940 autobiography Hitler and I, he is most accurate in the depiction of the political and historical events including Hitler’s battles with rival leaders, but shows himself most inventive when it comes to character development and narrative technique. Karl Neumann is not only the central character but also the narrator of the novel. After seven years of imprisonment he recounts his initial fascination and growing frustration with Nazism.

Full of clichés and stereotypes, his retrospective account may appear trite and even tedious at first sight. Yet, the choice of a limited narrative point of view is in the end the novel’s greatest asset, allowing the author to reveal the mindset of a young Nazi supporter in 1920s Germany.

Andrew Nagorski is well-versed in German politics and history. Before 2008, he spent more than three decades as an award-winning foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek in various European countries. As Berlin bureau chief from 1996 to 1999, he provided in-depth reporting about Germany’s efforts to overcome the legacy of division, the immigration debate and German-Jewish relations. From there, he also covered the entire Central European region, taking advantage of his long experience and vast knowledge of its diverse culture.

Apart from Last Stop Vienna, Nagorski is the author of three non-fiction books. Reluctant Farewell: An American Reporter’s Candid Look Inside the Soviet Union, published in 1985, covers his daring reporting and subsequent expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1982. The Birth of Freedom: Shaping Lives and Societies in the New Eastern Europe, released in 1993, provides personal comments on the individuals and issues of the former communist countries as they undergo the transformation into modern democratic states. Most recently, The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, issued in 2007, is about a part of the war usually left out from history books.

Whereas Nagorski’s non-fiction books received much praise for their perceptions and informative analyses, Last Stop Vienna established Andrew Nagorski as a talented writer of historical fiction. Instructive and in places thrilling, the novel deserves to be read by those interested in the beginnings of Nazism, history recreated as literature. Its creative blending of fact and fiction not only illuminates a lesser-known chapter of the past but what might well have happened.

Excellent historical fiction cannot be expected to achieve more.

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