Blanton’s (A God Who Believes in Me, 2014, etc.) historical novel follows a German Protestant man from his student days to his command of a Nazi U-boat.
Luther Weitgucker, a boy from a middle-class Lutheran family, is raised in Dresden, Germany, during the interwar years. Although he’s not devoutly religious, he’s firmly rooted in his Christian upbringing and deeply inspired by the Beatitudes. An ambitious young man, he’s also heavily involved in academics and sports. He goes away to college in Bonn where, after a few youthful adventures with women and alcohol, he buckles down and receives a medical degree. Although Luther is opposed to Nazism on ethical and religious grounds, his primary focus is his own future, so he does his best to ignore the growing fascist movement. But when his private medical practice proves insufficient to support his wife and three young sons in the economic and political climate of the late 1930s, he joins the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, and becomes a U-boat officer. The sections that focus on Luther’s personal life ably render the details of his experiences and development, but they often awkwardly toss in historical context using simplistic expository passages. Likewise, Luther’s positive interactions with various token characters, including a disabled neighbor, a Jewish friend, a gay friend, and a Roma lover, display a lack of nuance. However, Blanton does a stronger job of showing how even “good Germans” who weren’t pro-Nazi still contributed to Nazism with their complacency. For example, Luther and his young bride move into their first home as a married couple after their fathers purchase the house cheaply from fleeing Jewish neighbors. At another point, Luther finds himself saying to his wife: “Maybe the Nazis won’t be as bad as we first feared.” As the war progresses, however, Luther’s official duties and growing personal faith—influenced by the contemporary dissident and Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—increasingly come into conflict. It is this personal spiritual journey, more than the portrayal of history, that will connect with readers, making this ultimately a novel about personal faith.
Readable, sometimes-insightful fiction about the conflict between duty and religion.
Jerry Blanton has done his research well and written a powerful historical novel. Like its title, the novel is about both a nightmare and a dream.
Readers are swept along into the rise of National Socialism and the events leading to WWII, through the eyes of a dreamer, a good man trying to be a good German. Luther Weitgucker, a devout Lutheran from Dresden, wishes only to live a Christian life. He becomes a doctor, but is swept up by the times and finds himself without a way to make a living as patients dwindle. Teenagers and young men are either in Hitler Youth camps or military service, which had its own medical staff. And “the Nazis were eliminating those with chronic illnesses and genetic defects–exactly those patients who would come most often to his office,” as well as those with sexually transmitted diseases, Jewish patients, and others.
Desperate, Weitgucker decides to “bend but not break and survive this war and this regime.” He joins the navy, commands a submarine, and struggles to balance his ethics with wartime exigencies, all while keeping his beliefs a close-held secret.
The novel asks: Can one go on a spiritual quest in conditions like this? This amazingly aware protagonist brings books like Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, and of course, the Bible aboard his submarine. He holds fast to his ethics while sinking ships.
Blanton includes biblical quotes and Christian references in the narrative, but the story never proselytizes. Occasionally, the prose is overwritten, such as a flowery description comparing qualities of water to a woman—a minor distraction.
Readers will have a hard time putting the book down. There’s action, drama, a unique view of the Nazi era, and, without preaching, a tale of a man who, like German theologian Bonhoeffer, was a “follower of Christ who eschewed the mysteries of the bible” during the nightmare years.
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The book provides an interesting boots-on-the-ground look at a period that may be very familiar to many, but from a different perspective.
Jerry Blanton’s Nightmare Enemy, Dream Friend richly chronicles the life of a German medical student who becomes a U-boat captain during World War II. The novel offers a less-often-explored perspective on the amply documented war—that of an average German who has deep qualms about being pressed into military service. The author reflects on what it means to serve and do good during troubled times despite being morally compromised, portraying a man who does his best to keep his faith while waging a war he doesn’t believe in.
Blanton’s protagonist, Luther Weitgucker, is a covert Christian who rejects Nazism but who nonetheless serves so he can someday return to his family in Dresden. The first half of the book charts the rise of Nazism in the background as Weitgucker progresses through a middle-class childhood to university. In the second half, the action abruptly moves to a U-boat, where it’s revealed that Weitgucker had to abandon the medical profession to helm an attack submarine, a role at which he’s very proficient. He establishes himself an expert tactician, racking up kill after kill. He strives to be as humane as possible, though, fleeing after torpedo strikes to minimize death and damage. He spares prisoners, returns them to safety, refuses to turn in a gay couple on his U-boat, prays in his cabin, and forbids the Nazi salute on his vessel. Undercover Gestapo agents on the submarine often seem to pose a more grave threat than British planes or American aircraft carriers.
While Weitgucker is a thoroughly developed character, the supporting cast isn’t drawn out as much, with a few memorable exceptions. The story gets filtered through Weitgucker’s perspective as major world events unfurl, giving an idea of what it must have been like for a reluctant German to witness the ascent of the Nazis; the atrocities they perpetrated; and the gradual, then sudden, loss of the war. When on leave, Weitgucker becomes troubled by cattle cars that appear to carry people while civilians keep reading “as if they didn’t notice or didn’t want to notice the phantasmagoric train that flickered by as if part of a newsreel.”
The book provides an interesting boots-on-the-ground look at a period that may be very familiar to many, but from a different perspective. The naval escapades possess a strong element of realism, reflecting Blanton’s research on U-boats and their operations. Occasionally, the author lapses into too much exposition, which is sometimes crammed into the dialogue, but which does advance the plot.
The riveting story is logically divided by mission, breaking it up into digestible chunks and keeping the pacing lively. Action scenes are well crafted, particularly when the submarine narrowly avoids bombs. The prose has memorable flourishes, such as “indeed the army seemed invincible as it swept all opposition away like a large woman sweeping cobwebs from the attic.”
Nightmare Enemy, Dream Friend would appeal to anyone interested in history in general and military history in particular. World War II buffs might appreciate the underrepresented perspective, and veterans likely would enjoy the descriptions of battle and military life. Some may initially balk at the depiction of a Nazi U-boat captain as a sympathetic figure, but the author and protagonist repeatedly make clear their contempt for National Socialism. On the whole, it’s a brisk, compelling read.