Verdict: BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN is a powerful, intensely vivid look at Europe between the World Wars, and one man's attempt to make sense of his life, his deeds, and their meaning, to himself and to others.
A young German nationalist, a collaborator in the assassination of Walter Rathenau, finds healing and redemption in rescuing refugees from the Nazis he once supported.
Ernst Werner Techow was the driver for the assassins who killed Walter Rathenau, hoping to overturn the Weimar Republic by the deed. At the time, he was a committed German nationalist, devoted to rescuing Germany from the Jews, Communists and from the betrayal of Versailles, and to winning the heart of his beloved Lisa, through heroic action. But he is given a letter from Rathenau’s mother at his trial, which speaks to him of forgiveness and redemption, and challenges his certainties – and when he goes to jail, and finds himself with an enigmatic, philosophical Jewish cellmate who teaches him the art of forgery and challenges him further, he begins to change. Released into a Germany in chaos, with his Lisa married to their childhood best friend Fritz, he finds himself questioning everything he’d ever believed in. Eventually, his internal debates become known, and he must flee for his life under an assumed name, joining the French Foreign Legion and working to rescue Jewish refugees. But will he find a way to redeem himself and to fight the madness taking over Europe? Will he ever be reunited with Lisa and able to live a normal, happy life again? What will be required of him to stand absolved before the court of heaven?
A captivating read, BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN is a story based on a possibly-apocryphal history that was attached to a real historical figure by an American journalist, George Herald. Techow really existed, and really participated in the assassination of Rathenau, but his escape to France and his rescue work may or may not be factual. Whether true or not, however, this is a brilliantly-written tale of internal struggle and redemption in a time of great social and political upheaval.
The author does a chillingly good job of illustrating just how seductive the nationalist message was in a beaten and humiliated Germany, how it used and twisted values like patriotism, loyalty and honor to win over people who otherwise might have lived out their lives as ordinary, decent, humane people. Techow, as the author portrays him, is a memorable and sympathetic personality, whose beliefs and actions spring from real, understandable motivations and whose internal struggles are entirely human. Vivid description and careful attention to small details, everything from a toy battleship to the light on the cobblestones outside Techow’s prison window, make the story live and breathe, tangibly real. This is not a book that can be read lightly, without thought or involvement on the reader’s part – it demands one’s full attention, and it is hard to emerge from it untouched.
BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN is a powerful, intensely vivid look at Europe between the World Wars, and one man’s attempt to make sense of his life, his deeds, and their meaning, to himself and to others.