(Nazi occupied Sarajevo, 1943)
If one could turn the clock back to the 1990s when men like Slobodan Milosovic and places like Srebrenica were in the news they would recall the horror that they felt. People could not fathom what the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims hoped to gain from all the violence, particularly since the origins of the conflict go back at least to the 4th century AD with the creation of the Byzantine Empire. The events of World War II are also part of the Balkan puzzle that we still grapple with today that are displayed in a very thoughtful and chilling manner in Luke McCallin’s novel THE MAN FROM BERLIN. The war forms the backdrop for the fight between the Ustase, Serb nationalists, and partisan forces as they struggle for the soul of postwar Yugoslavia.
On his third tour of Yugoslavia during World War II, Abwher Captain Gregor Reinhardt finds himself recovering from a drinking binge the night before when he summoned to report to Major Ulrich Freilinger to investigate the murder of an intelligence colleague, and a woman he was with. A number of problems immediately emerge, one, Reinhardt has not worked a murder case in over four years, and second, the Sarajevo Police Inspector Putkovic claimed his department had jurisdiction in the case, in addition it appeared that the policeman put in charge, Inspector Andro Padelin a member of the Ustase, was a racist and anti-Semite and cared only in solving the crime against Maija Vukic. Vukic was a well-known film maker and journalist who was a fervent supporter of a Croatian state and freedom from the Serbs. The fact she had once danced with Reinhardt at a Nazi Party function did not detract from his main goal of locating the killer of Stefan Hendel, the Abwher agent.
There are numerous candidates for the murderer. Was the individual a Chetnik, a Slavic Nationalistic guerilla force; an Ustase, Croatian fascist; a Yugoslav Royalist; or a member of the partisans under Jozip Broz Tito; or perhaps someone else? Reinhardt not only has to navigate these groups but there are also SS fanatics and some who want to get rid of Hitler on the German side. With so many contending groups fighting for control in the Balkans McCallin does a nice job conveying the contentious atmosphere that existed in Yugoslavia that permeates the novel. What is clear is that the politics of the Balkans throughout the war was byzantine and extreme.
The characters that McCallin creates are unique and at times very difficult to comprehend. They are people with principles or are they confused or in fact traitors. Whatever the truth may be the reader will develop respect for certain individuals and scorn for others. McCallin’s characters are indeed fascinating, among them are Dr. Muamor Begovic, a medical examiner for the Sarajevo police, but also a communist partisan. Major Becker, a nasty and sadistic individual who is second in command of the Feldgendarmerie or military police and a former Berlin Kripo detective with Reinhardt. Captain Hans Thallberg, an officer in the Geheime Feldpolizi (Secret Police) who admires Reinhardt and tries to assist him. Inspector Andro Padelin of the Sarajevo police or Ustase, ordered to work with Reinhardt. General Paul Verhein, the German commander 121st Jager, whose life journey and loyalties are hard to imagine. Among these individuals McCallin introduces many people from Reinhardt’s past. His wife Caroline, son Friedrich, Rudolph Brauer, his best friend, and Colonel Thomas Meissner, his mentor that provide insight into these person Reinhardt will become.
Reinhardt was a man who loved his country, but hated what it had become. He treasured the friends he made in the army, but grew to hate the uniform they wore. After the 1936 Olympics, Kripo, the Berlin police were integrated into the Gestapo and Reinhardt had refused to join. He was posted to Interpol because the Nazis needed his aura of professionalism and his solid reputation. Once it became clear he was working to perpetuate Nazism he became conflicted because he needed the money to pay for his wife’s medical treatments before she died. Colonel Meissner would step in and gets him transferred to the Abwher, German intelligence, which reflects what a flawed and conflicted man he was.
It is as an Abwher agent that McCallin develops Reinhardt’s character and the story that forms the core of the novel. As McCallin spins his tale it is a searing ride with a conclusion that is nuanced and compelling. It is a plot that should rivet the reader to each page, and fortunately the author brings his story to an ending in such a manner that he leaves enough room to create a sequel entitled, THE PALE HOUSE.
(Nazi occupied Sarajevo, 1943)