He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again.
With these words begins the novel that describes the friendship of two sixteen-year-old boys who share the same interests and ideals. For the first time, they both find someone of the same age with whom they can talk about everything and whom they can trust with everything.
The author really knows how to let the reader participate in the dreams and ideals of young people:
There was’nt one boy in my class who I believed could live up to my romantic ideal of friendship, not one whom I really admired, for whom I would have been willing to die and who could have understood my demand for complete trust, loyalty and self-sacrifice…
Most of the boys were pleasant and I got on well enough with them. But just as I had no particularly strong feelings for them, so they had none for me. I never visited their homes and they never came to our house. Perhaps another reason for my coolness was that they all appeared to be immensely practical, and already knew what they wanted to be, lawyers, officers, teachers, pastors and bankers. I alone had no idea, only vague dreams and even vaguer desires.
Then comes the new classmate Konradin Graf von Hohenfels and with this like-minded soul a new phase of life begins for Hans.
Politics were the business of grown-up people; we had our problems to solve. And of these we thought the most urgent was to learn how to make the best use of life, quite apart from discovering what purpose, if any, life had and what the human condition would be in this frightening and immeasurable cosmos. These were questions of real and eternal significance, far more important to us than the existence of such ephemeral and ridiculous figures as Hitler and Mussolini. –
The author is writing that “Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.”
The two sixteen-year-olds discuss these key question almost every day:
How should one spend life? To what end? For our own good alone? For the good of mankind? How was one to make the best of this bad job?” —
Like most Jews, Hans’s father, a doctor, underestimates the danger posed by the National Socialist Party and says that Hitler has not shaken his trust in Germany:
Do you really believe the fellow-countrymen of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?
Will Konradin fall for it too? The friendship with his Jewish-German friend Hans is put to the test …
Part II “No Coward Soul”: After Part I is described from Hans’s point of view, the second part consists of a long letter from Konradin to his friend Hans. This contains the missing pieces of the puzzle that the reader can only suspect in the first part.
Part II is written more crudely. Does it have something to do with the fact that the author, Fred Uhlman, published the second part 14 years later?
The words that he puts in Konradin von Hohenfels’s mouth are no longer those of an idealistic youth, but are descriptions of a disillusioned young man whose hopes and dreams have been killed because he fell for Hitler’s words and deceptions.
His relationship with women has also changed. He is no longer the Konradin, for whom, as a sixteen-year-old, “girls were superior beings of Fabulous purity, to be approached only as the troubadours approached them, with chivalrous Fervour and distant adoration.”
Uhlmann, a German-English writer, painter and lawyer of Jewish origin, was born in Stuttgart and left Germany in 1933 at the age of 32. He personally experienced how many of his compatriots failed to notice the darkness that seized power in Germany.
In his book he describes how even the highly respected Jewish head physician misjudged the situation in 1932. That even people who seek ideals like Konradin allow themselves to be misled and follow a false leader. But… Konradin von Hohenfels is one of the few who attempt to make up for their gullibility, for how they went along with it and how they went astray. How he does this is not to be revealed here.
From the introduction to the first edition:
The book’s ending, in a few lines, is a masterpiece within a masterpiece.
What is splendid, what is matchless in Fred Uhlman’s book is that it shows man’s baseness, stupidity and cruelty to be inseparable from his greatness and integrity. The book plunges us into sorrow and horror, and in the last line it restores to us our reasons for hope.
The worst is not always to be counted on, and amid the accursed there are always the just and these, at the last moment, God snatches from the darkness.
Jean d’Ormesson, 1997
From the afterword:
It is a beautiful book, and a painful one, inflected by loss. Not only the narrator’s, but Germany’s too.
It is rare to use the word perfect to describe a book. I don’t hesitate here.
Rachel Seiffert, 2006