Bantam, 2000, 506 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58138-4
Early 1945. The Third Reich is crumbling, attacked from two fronts: The Allies have been in Europe for six months and the Russians are pitting the might of their war machine against a battered German army. Both sides are rushing towards Berlin. Whoever first captures the capital will get to dictate Europe’s geopolitical history for decades. As high-level talks divvy up lines on a map, it’s up to the soldiers to suffer through the consequences of these decisions.
After writing about the battle of Stalingrad in The War of the Rats, David L. Robbins goes back to World War II with The End of War, a novel about the race for Berlin in the last few weeks of the European front. Not only a story about the end of WW2, The End of War is also a portentous narrative that suggests most of subsequent European history.
It is, naturally enough, a big subject, involving millions of men from more than three nations on two continents. The sweep of the events may be epic, but Robbins carefully restricts his characters to only a few. As he point out in the author’s foreword,
The End of War is constructed along the lines of a Greek tragedy: the gods discuss the affairs of man, then their Olympians intents are played at human level. In this novel, the gods are Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt. Lesser deities include General Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The book’s corresponding mortals are three fictional characters – one Russian soldier, one German civilian, and one American photojournalist.
As the race toward Berlin heats up, the novel describes the high-level negotiations -Malta, Yalta, etc- that led to the Russian takeover of Berlin. Naturally enough, the most interesting storyline is the American one, as photojournalist Charley Bandy is closer to our own viewpoint. As an observer, he witnesses the battlefield as we would, and reacts to the discovery of Nazi atrocities much like we would too. The next most interesting storyline is Lottie’s story: as a female cellist stuck in Berlin as the two armies converge on their ultimate objective, she’s the viewpoint by which we witness the city being bombed in submission. Finally, the third storyline is a young Soviet Soldier’s perspective as he fights his way to Berlin. Some readers will probably find this to be the book’s strongest storyline, but it just seemed dull compared to the more immediate plights of the two others.
Yet, The End of War does a good job at telling the story leading up to the last few days of the European front. The historical credibility of the novel is high thanks to the depth of research demonstrated by the details of the narrative. But what’s even more effective is Robbin’s ability to convey the lassitude of the characters involved in the events. The endgame is as much a matter of endurance as of might, and the fatigue that permeates everyone’s decisions is palpable.
History buffs will undoubtedly devour The End of War as a compelling war story. There is a lot of material packed in those five hundred pages. While not stories here are as equally compelling, they all add up to an impressive historical portrait. It’s another splendid effort by Robbins; maybe not as memorable as the very personal sniper duel in War of the Rats, but impressive in its own right.