Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: April 2017
Vonnegut’s WWII novel comes with not one but two separate intros by the author himself. He even goes so far as to point out the very morals of the story, such as they are, and to dedicate the book to the protagonist, “a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.”
Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is an American caught in Nazi Germany, and one who begins to play roles for his new country. He is a playwright and has a German wife, and he’s soon conscripted to give radio oratories promoting the propaganda of the day. Because of his widespread reach over the airwaves, he becomes known worldwide as a popular Nazi.
Yet he never was.
The book is a nimble intermingling of past and present, with Vonnegut able to turn the scene within the course of paragraphs and somehow not lose the reader in the process. Our Campbell is a grieved and deadened man, both remorseful and clear-eyed. Someone remarks of him:
“You are the only man I ever heard of who has a bad conscience about what he did in the war. Everybody else, no matter what side he was on, no matter what he did, is sure a good man could not have acted in any other way.”
The justification to stay the course is a relevant struggle yet again today. All the lessons learned and not-yet-learned from our great wars are coming back to nudge us. I’m reminded once again of Doremus Jessup of It Can’t Happen Here, who also faces inner turmoil at the “but I have my wife and children to think of” option. There’s no easy answer to that dilemma.
If a small criticism could be made of Vonnegut’s novel, it’s that perhaps his character is a little too understanding and rational, in a big picture kind of way. He can fully process how and why the Nazis did what they did, and that the vast majority of them were normal people. Plus, he was their entertainer, and therefore implicated in the gray areas. This came home to Campbell when his father-in-law spoke of coming to his own peace with the craziness of the day because he was able to listen to the eloquent justifications on the radio: “You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”
So maybe Campbell was a Nazi after all.
Of course, the story is humorous, humane, and humbling, in regular Vonnegut form. It’s a mostly intellectual book about the horrors of war, one that you can get through without committing to feeling the actual horrors. And that’s not a bad thing—there are several facets to the historical tragedies, and this is but another angle. Also: “All people are insane. They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.” But here’s to continuing to figure out the puzzle of persons, even if it’s an impossible goal.