Wednesday, November 29, 2023

“Schönwald” by Philipp Oehmke – And what if grandfather was a Nazi?

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This question arises sooner or later in many families. In Philipp Oehmke’s novel, she forces a family to face further unspeakable truths.

As a mother, Ruth Schönwald sets the tone in her family. Although she is (almost) a professor of literary studies, she is still convinced that you don’t have to discuss every little thing down to the last detail.

Basic family attitude: talking things down

It’s better to remain silent about certain things, because that’s what makes us civilized people in the first place. It’s better to downplay problems than take them seriously, to dismiss objections as simply as possible: that’s the basic attitude that the entire Schönwald family learned from Ruth.


What if “one of us” was one of the perpetrators? Many German families avoid this question.

IMAGO Images / Eberhard Thonfeld

At the beginning of the novel, Karolin, the middle of three Schönwald children in her early 40s, opens a queer-feminist bookstore in Berlin. It is the starting signal for a great, cosmopolitan life project to which the whole family travels.

A delicate accusation

The siblings are proud, the parents are a bit strange, but everyone is tolerant. But at the opening there is a scandal. Activists – and of all people on the left – carry out a paint attack on the feminist bookstore. The accusation: Karolin Schönwald financed the business with money from her grandfather’s inheritance. And he was demonstrably an old Nazi.

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Recognizing this as a possibility completely throws the Schönwalds off course in their rehearsed silence. And it threatens to reveal completely different, hidden truths. For example, Ruth’s accusation, which has been unspoken for decades, that she sacrificed her secure career as a professor for the family.

Crazy world

Or that Chris, Karolin’s older brother, has not been a literature professor at the renowned Columbia University in the USA for some time, but was fired after a #MeToo case. Since then he has produced podcasts for the New Right and campaigned for Donald Trump.

Philipp Oehmke has been writing as a reporter for the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” for a long time. He modeled his closely interwoven family novel on the great American novels.

What is a “Great American Novel”?

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Great American Novel is a category in American literary discourse. The term describes the ideal of a novel that is intended to exemplify the nature of the USA.

These often start from the seemingly small: a family or a small provincial town. From there they then explore the innermost parts of society. Philipp Oehmke is now transferring this concept to Germany.

Hypocrites and liars

Because there is no German counterpart to the “American Dream”, a certain flair of size and glamor is of course missing to really stand up to this comparison. Almost without exception, all the characters in “Schönwald” are repulsive in their own way. Because they are hypocritical, because they lie, lack assertiveness, or always take the path of least resistance.

Absurd abysses

True to the American role models, Oehmke allows the narrative perspective to change frequently in his novel and gradually reveals abstruse abysses in all of his characters.

Middle-aged man with black hair and beard, looking blank.


Author Philipp Oehmke transfers the concept of the “Great American Novel” to Germany. Less American dream, more Nazi past.

Piper / Karina Rozwadowska

What is added here – unlike in US novels – is the overshadowing and unavoidable question in Germany about Nazi perpetrators in one’s own family.

The fact that the Schönwalds are unable to finally resolve this question, even after almost 600 pages of the novel and after countless tensions in the characters’ private lives, reads as a rather depressing social diagnosis in the present.

Book reference

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“Schönwald”: Philipp Oehmke. Piper Publishing, 2023.

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