In 1915, an iconic recruitment ad appeared in Britain in which a child asks, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” The ad was meant to shame men who didn’t join up and had nothing to tell. In reality, a lot of kids didn’t hear what their fathers did in either of the world wars because it was too horrifying or sad or made their fathers feel guilty. In To Die in Spring, by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside), a son asks his father to write down what he did during the last months of the war, after Walter Urban was forcibly recruited in to the Waffen-SS. Walter never does and his son never knows what his dad did. But we do.
After a short chapter in which Walter’s son describes his father’s post-war life and silence, we are taken back to the last months of World War II. Walter has managed to avoid being conscripted so far because he does essential work on a dairy farm in northwestern Germany. All this changes when, one night at a town party, the commander of a group of Waffen-SS makes it impossible for Walter and the other able-bodied men of the town to sit out the war any longer.
Walter lands a cushy gig after three weeks of basic training. He drives whatever truck they put in front of him so that he delivers injured men to hospitals, new troops to the ever retreating front, or supplies to wherever they’re needed. There’s a stark contrast between Walter, who is barely 17, and the soldiers who have been fighting for years. The soldiers who fought in Russia are brutal; Walter witnesses or hears about them committing more than one atrocity. I don’t think Walter had any illusions about the war, but he was rather isolated on his dairy farm. He still believes—at least at the beginning—in honor and duty. Walter might have been able to talk to his son about those months, if it weren’t for the act that scars him so deeply that he would rather spend most of his life not talking to his family than speak about.
Children who ask their parents or grandparents about their war experiences are never prepared for the rawness of the memories. Even children who’ve read about World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War may not be ready to hear a first person account of killing another human being. And yet, one has to wonder if Walter had written down his experiences, he might have been able to come to terms with what his commanding officers had made him do.
To Die in Spring is one of the better novels I’ve read about World War II. It doesn’t feel as though the author was checking off genre tropes or deliberately trying to write a tearjerker. At times, I was reminded of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front by this novel’s bleak depiction of a defeated army that isn’t allowed to rest yet but desperately wants to stop.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.