Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Father / Land

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

In the prologue to Father/Land: A Personal Search for the New Germany, Frederick Kempe explains his intention:

I decided to entwine a personal odyssey about the significance of my German heritage--what it meant to me to be linked to this tragic and extraordinary country--with a search into the future: a search for the New Germany.

Kempe, an editor at The Wall Street Journal Europe, is the son of Germans who emigrated to America between the world wars. For this book, Kempe interviews a variety of people in Germany in an attempt to illuminate the direction of the younger generations. He also interviews his own relatives and pursues, with journalistic doggedness, his questions about the family members who remained in Germany during the Nazi era.

Among his interviews: a search among German friends for the "normal German"; a mild, thoughtful German officer in Bosnia; the first ethnic Turkish member of the German parliament; a Holocaust survivor who speaks to school groups. Among the issues explored: German personal habits; the peculiar self-hate of Germans; minorities in contemporary Germany; and the ever-present Holocaust guilt.

Kempe presents trends in the unified New Germany of the late 1990s through incidents and the stories of individuals. In the course of this, he incorporates facts about contemporary Germany and his own attempts to puzzle out generalizations.

As the reader, however, I was even less successful at generalizing than he was. How representative were his subjects? Many were high school students, government officials, and members of organizations with specific agendas. Were their quoted opinions typical of conventional wisdom? Were the opinions more naive or more shrewd than those of other Germans? I had no way to answer these questions.

The most compelling chapters detail Kempe's effort to discover whether a great-uncle was a Nazi war criminal; he traces a family story to relatives in Berlin and finally to a former East German archive. It is a vivid story punctuated by Kempe's emotions.

Kempe asks himself, "What causes evil, and what breeds good?" Asking this question invites comparison of this book with Ron Rosenbaum's remarkable Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. Rosenbaum used a similar format of journeys and interviews, but focused on what is known about Hitler himself and the speculations of historians about Hitler and his times. Kempe focuses on his own family, for whom he is the only historian.

Nevertheless, Father/Land is informative and thought-provoking. It ranges from observations on German hospitality and friendship to the German obsession with rules; from how Germans perceive their past to how they conceive, or try to conceive, their role in world politics today.

Copyright © 2004 by Heidi Boudro