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Reviewed by Raanan Geberer for Readers' Favorite
Before the Court of Heaven by Jack Mayer tells the story of Ernst Techow, a young German who, in the years following World War I, gets caught up in what can be called the pre-Nazi movement. As a youngster before the war, he learns, both from his nationalist family and from the Wandervogel, a “back to nature” youth movement, to dislike Jews, socialists, bankers, “decadent” modern culture, and Slavic immigrants. After serving in the Kaiser’s army, he joins the Friekorps, a conglomeration of militia groups that are called into service to fight pro-Bolshevik revolutionaries. Then he joins a secret group and is part of the team that assassinates Walter Rathenau, a Jewish statesman whom Ernst and his colleagues blame for “stabbing Germany in the back.” You would think that with this background, Ernst would be a natural candidate for the emerging Nazi movement. But when he finally does join the Nazis, he’s in for a rude awakening.
Seventy years after it ended, the Nazi period continues to draw the attention of novelists, and Before the Court of Heaven is one of the best. The characters are subtle and three-dimensional. Ernst, for example, has a softer side — he likes the poetry of Heinrich Heine, a Jew, and the paintings of the French impressionists. This side of him gives a clue as to his eventual disillusionment with the Nazis. Another character that is superbly drawn is Hans Gerd Techow, Ernst’s asthmatic, disabled brother, who tries to overcome his disabilities by becoming one of the most militant fascists around. Mayer also does a good job of depicting the subculture of ultra-nationalist youths in the early '20s, and he shows us that anti-Semitism was part of German culture long before the Nazi era. All in all, Before the Court of Heaven is a fascinating historical novel.