By Ben Elton, published 2012.
Two Brothers follows the lives of three children born in 1920 Germany. The first, Paulus, is born to a Jewish family, the second, Otto, born the same day to a German woman who died in childbirth, is adopted by them. The third? The Nazi party. Throughout the narrative we follow how each of these children grow, and see the effects of the Nazi’s anti-semitic policies on the boys, leading to their separation. At the same time we follow Stone, one of the boys, in 1956 Britain, as a letter from an old friend brings him back to Germany and rakes up his past.
Two Brothers is a deeply personal novel, and while a work of fiction, has groundings in Elton’s own family, his grandparents, father and uncle all Jews who left Germany prior to the war, their cousin, a German adopted into a Jewish family. Elton’s family connection adds a greater depth to the narrative, we not only get a look into the interwar experience of a Jewish German family, but into their mindset, the anger, the fear, the misunderstanding that they feel, the reader feels just as clearly. The detail in which Elton explores the suffering and anti-Semitism the protagonists encounter makes it clear he has done his research, and when taken in addition with his family experience, gives Two Brothers a deeper level that would have been missing with another author.
Two Brothers unfolds chronologically, split into subheadings, each running from one to five pages, that follow the stories of the eponymous brothers and the Nazi party. This does run the risk of leaving Two Brothers as little more than a history textbook, but luckily the characters and story more than make up for this. The non-linear format, split into two time periods, also helps breaks Two Brothers up, as well as giving the urge to read on, the reader has the beginning and end but the journey is what draws them in.
The characterisation is pretty solid throughout, with a wide variety of different characters. The brothers at the heart of the story are chalk and cheese, where Otto is rash and always ready to fight, Paulus is calm, and always planning – but they always have each other’s backs. The two girls they befriend as youths, and grow up with, each have their own distinct personalities, and the revelation of one characters explanation for their actions at the end will quickly change the way you see them, from a victim of Nazism to a cold and calculating machine that focuses on survival more than anything, and will not let anyone get in the way of it.
The novel is somewhat one-sided in handling the Nazis, with the exception of one SA member, most are somewhat stereotypical jackboot wearing fanatics, but given the subject matter, and the fact the story is told from a Jewish perspective, this is easy to excuse. Where Elton shows considerable skill is in the shift of opinion of the normal German citizens, characters who are friendly with the family at the start of the novel have vastly different opinions by the end – seeing the effectiveness of the Nazi propaganda machine is chilling. A scene shortly after the introduction of more race laws in a football changing room shows this especially well, as boys the brothers have known for years, who just a few weeks ago were their friends, turn on them.
Two Brothers is, then an excellent novel – but can be more than that. It has serious potential as an educational tool, given both its sensitive approach, and the sheer amount of history it covers. For a secondary school class covering this period, Two Brothers is essential reading. Pupils will get both the experience of living under the chaos of the Weimar Republic, and of a Jew in Nazi Germany. It gives them a viewpoint into firsthand experience of the key events, of Munich, the Olympics, and Kristallnacht, and can give them far greater understanding of events. It would be a shame if this potential goes unrealised.
Two Brothers sees Elton take a very sensitive issue, Nazism, and the Holocaust, and deal with it in a sensitive, mature, and engulfing manner. With excellent characterisation, great detail and depth, Two Brothers is an exceptional book, and one I highly recommend. 9/10