“Never again war.”

Protest in Krefeld against the austerities of Hungerwinter, March 1946: “We want COAL, we want BREAD.”

The Aftermath
by Rhidian Brook.
Penguin Books 2014 (2013).

“On the night of 29 July 1943, 370 persons perished in the air-raid shelter on the Hamburgerstrasse in a bombing raid. Remember these dead. Never again fascism. Never again war.”

Memorial to the victims of the Hamburg bombings, Hamburger Strasse

Hamburg, 1946. Colonel Lewis Morgan is allocated a villa, requisitioned from a local family as part of the denazification process in the British sector of postwar Germany. By the time Lewis’s wife Rachael and surviving son Edmund arrive to take up residence they discover that the colonel, instead of insisting that the widowed German architect and his daughter remove themselves, has allowed them to share the capacious house and its associated grounds with his own family.

Not for nothing is this novel entitled The Aftermath. The port of Hamburg, its factories, refineries and workers in 1943 were targeted under a total war strategy; it resulted in a devastating firestorm at the end of July which killed tens of thousands, one which would now be classified as a war crime. A year after the war ends how can the city be rebuilt amongst the ruins? How will people survive during the extreme cold of the Hungerwinter of 1946-7? And how will occupiers and occupied get on with each other when sharing accommodation?

Rhidian Brook’s novel builds on his own family’s memories as well as the realities of Hamburg’s occupation, melding fiction with history and individual lives with a bigger picture. Bitterness struggles with forgiveness as a lingering antagonism adapts to fraternisation, and we watch as the lives of army personnel, British civilians, shadowy individuals and feral children interact in Brook’s taut story.

© C A Lovegrove

Much of the novel’s action takes place  on the Elbchaussee, a long thoroughfare adjacent to parkland on the north bank of Hamburg’s River Elbe, though we also catch brief glimpses of Lübeck and Buxtehude, for example, and of Narberth in Wales. Here on the Elbchaussee resides Stefan Lubert with his quietly angry teenage daughter Frieda, grieving for his wife Claudia and awaiting his Persilschein or denazification certificate.

Into this ménage comes Rachael who, because her elder son died from a German bomb, finds the living arrangement awkward in the extreme. Lewis, in the meantime, is so taken up with his military duties trying to restore normality within his jurisdiction that he remains distanced from his family’s emotional needs and unconscious of the dangerous situation he’s set up with the house share. When Herr Lubert tells Edmund — though his statement applies equally to women — “Men have to have their secrets,” he expresses the leitmotiv that runs through these pages: secrets that may bedevil any smooth transition to reconciliation and can also lead to betrayal and faithlessness.

Against all the angst of these individuals others are starving, suffering from the extreme cold, storing up resentment and protesting, while continuing to seek missing family. Meanwhile the future generation are in part represented by the youngsters (such as Ozi and Ernst) who have gone wild yet try to survive while admiring the efforts of ‘good Tommy’, and by the yet unborn who will rebuild Germany with a new philosophy.

Rhidian Brook has created a believable story covering a six month period, peopled with figures who feel real, each with their individual needs and desires, their idiosyncrasies and motivations. He deftly conjures up the long bitter winter that affected Northern Europe the year after the war ended, and paints images of destruction balanced by visions of reconstruction; and he offers an accurate representation of manners and habits — such as hard smoking and drinking — that’s hard to credit nowadays when they’re less acceptable.

When Edmund and his father discuss the Big Enders and Little Enders — referring of course to the inhabitants of Lilliput and Blefescu in Gulliver’s Travels, who go to war over how best to break open a boiled egg — it’s difficult not to see the reference to Swift’s satire as a commentary not only on the historic conflict in the novel but to all war. It’s a real pity that dictators and warmongers don’t bear in mind the Hamburg memorial which urges them to “Remember these dead. Never again fascism. Never again war.”

Read for Reading Wales Month. Rhidian Brooks, who was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, is a screenwriter and broadcaster as well as a novelist.

21 thoughts on ““Never again war.”

  1. I find the rise of fascism throughout the world one of the more troubling aspect of our age. From Europe even to New Zealand, these people have found each other through the internet and though their numbers may as yet be small, their presence is very worrying.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Fascism, autocracy, imperialism, totalitarianism, even oligarchy, all profoundly anti-human, anti-humanitarian, careless of individuals, lacking in any compassion. Their diametric opposites may be imperfectly maintained but I know which ones I’d rather be under. At least NZ seems to serve as a shining beacon to what could be attainable in certain countries (I mention no names but you know which ones I’m thinking of) given the politicians and electorate.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This sounds fascinating, Chris, as well as timely. I read Brook’s The Testimony of Taliesin Jones many years ago, which I loved, but then lost sight of Brook as an author. I’ve added The Aftermath to my library wishlist.

    I headed off on a rabbit hunt when I saw ‘persilschein’. I hadn’t encountered that term before and was curious about the possible link with the washing powder. I discovered that it’s an idiom with an interesting history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jan, I’m ashamed to say that I got this at one of the early Crickhowell Literary Festivals half a dozen years ago after stewarding at Brook’s talk but never got round to it until now. It’s certainly apposite to current events.

      ‘Persilschein’ was a new term for me too and I too did a quick mooch online to mug up on it. By the way, did you know that ‘persil’ is French for parsley? I’m guessing that the washing powder was meant to capitalise on the fresh smell of the herb.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have books on my pile that have been there for years, too, Chris – no shame in that!

        I did know about parsley being persil in French. That makes for a more delightful etymology than the prosaic portmanteau of chemical compounds I saw on Wikipedia!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s interesting that, contrary to its apparent French derivation, the product was originally entirely German! Unsurprising then that Persilschein had such a impact as a phrase at the time.


  3. Pingback: Reading Wales 2022 – Book Jotter

    1. I’m glad I thought to read this for Dewithon as it’s been unread on my shelves for far too long. If reminder was ever needed of the miseries war brings: as Edwin Starr sang at the time of the Vietnam war, “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!”


    1. I suspect not, Karen. I also rather think that, if we know a little history, we tend to draw the lessons from the past that chime with our philosophy and ignore what doesn’t. Or to put it a different way, if we know a little history then we just know … a little history.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s distant enough in time to feel historical (as least to me, born a couple of years after this story is set) but also a not so far-off echo of what’s happening now.


  4. I read this last year and like you, found it very believable. The feral children and disbelieving English arriving in a foreign country were very well drawn – there’s a film but I haven’t seen it, have you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I haven’t seen the film, but when I went to the author’s talk about this novel a few years ago it was definitely on the cards then. I’ve a notion that it starred Keira Knightly but I ought to check up imDb.com I suppose. I thought this was excellent at keeping up the tension with menace and discovery and bad faith and so on constantly threatened.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. How the time flies, it wasn’t last year but 2019 I see! I still haven’t seen the film, but do remember the atmosphere created very clearly; so may be not as ‘slight’ as I thought!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I guess what you meant by ‘slight’ was that (as you said in the comments to your review) that the reader ended up wanting to know a little bit more about everyone — their ‘after’ story as it were.

          Liked by 1 person

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