Outside of a certain menacing, oft-shirtless Russian president, the world of Cold War spies, diplomatic plots, and dangerous border crossings is almost forgotten in Europe.
Now, as the fall of the Berlin Wall has its 25th anniversary, there will be countless accounts of the whirlwind of events that led to the demise of the Soviet Union. Few, however, will be as fun as a new spy thriller from Patrick Oster, The German Club, which takes place in the days leading up to the fall of the wall.
The novel centers on a Chicago homicide detective, Matt Ritter, who is flown to Germany to claim the body of a brother he never knew existed. Ritter suddenly finds himself in the thick of international scheming so layered and with such high stakes it would almost be unbelievable if real world events weren’t equally as messy.
Oster has crafted a truly enjoyable thriller. Its straightforward prose and constant action make for a rewarding book, and Oster has managed to keep the temperature rising the longer the book goes on.
In a Q&A with The Daily Beast, Oster, now managing editor for Bloomberg News, talks about his time as a reporter in Europe when the wall came down, what he thought of East Germany, and the people he met who influenced his book’s characters.
What prompted you to pick the fall of the Berlin Wall as the backdrop for your thriller?
I’d been going to Germany a lot covering things like the Intermediate Nuclear Forces talks, and I had interviewed Chancellor Kohl and the foreign minister, and so I knew a lot about the politics and the national security side of Germany, but not much about the people, even though I’m partly German in ancestry. So after doing a lot of that from when I was living in Washington, I moved to Europe in 1988, and I had dinner with a German teacher who was active in politics, and she asked me if I was related to General Hans Oster, who was a guy with my name, but that was all I knew about him other than the fact that he was executed right at the end of the war for his involvement in plots to kill Adolf Hitler. She said, “Well who are your people in Germany?” I had no idea. I’d grown up in Chicago where the Irish-Catholic side was a little more dominant in terms of influences. But it started me thinking.
So I finished a book on Mexico and my editor said I write in a novelistic way, so why don’t I try a novel. So I came up with this idea of a German-American homicide cop who wears his German-Americanness very lightly. The initial plot was he gets dragged into a murder case in West Berlin and learns about his German relatives along the way. I finished that, believe it or not, a couple weeks before the all fell on November 9, 1989. And, well, the wall fell! I’d been talking to my agent about tweaking the case. Now I’m thinking, well, I’m really going to have to change it because the original idea involved a secret plot to unify the two Germanys with or without the U.S. or Soviet help. So this required some major retooling. But then I had to go back to earning real money and went to work for Businessweek and put the book in a drawer for a long time. Two years ago I pulled it back out and had some new thoughts about it. It occurred to me it might be nice to finish for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall.
How did your reporting inform your writing in the novel?
I went in after to report on what happened, to report on why things happened the way they did, and where the surprise came from. I did some pieces on people like the guards who worked at their equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and it was called the Monument for Victims of Fascism and Militarism in that cool way the East Germans had with language. In fact the Berlin Wall was called the Anti-Fascist Rampart, as I recall. There’s a lot of anti-fascist stuff in East Germany. I did a lot of reporting from there. I talked to an Olympic swimmer, a guard from that monument, I talked to this guy who was in the protest movement, and I wound up using some of those characters in the redone version of the book.
In the book, there is a real guy named Gadbeck who was a German Jew who lived in Berlin the whole time during World War II. He managed to hide out—it’s this miraculous story—and after the war he had this professional job as a zeitzeuge, which is basically a storyteller. The East Germans wanted the role of being the anti-fascists, of being against the Holocaust and so on, so he was allowed to come on the East side whenever he wanted to tell the story of the Holocaust to East Germans and anyone else who would listen.
The real-life reporting wound up informing the plot of the novel and some of the characters. To some extent the hero, the Chicago homicide cop who gets dragged into Germany, is a little bit of a stand-in for me, not that I was ever a policeman, but his discovery of what the heck it was to be German at that time.
What was most surprising for you when you went to East Germany?
The biggest surprise was what a piece of crap that country was. I had been to East Germany and East Berlin before the fall of the wall. I went in once with the guy who was our ambassador to East Germany, but we didn’t call him that because we didn’t recognize that as the capital. We went to visit the monument I mentioned. There are these guys, this regiment, and their whole job is to march back and forth with their bayonets in the most uncomfortable position. The whole purpose was to create this idea that there was this Prussian juggernaut. He told me don’t get in front of those guys because they will march right over you, they’re a very scary crowd. Afterwards I went and knocked on the door of the barracks there, and it turns out that this whole idea of Prussian mastery that supposedly made the East German military the best of the Soviet satellites was complete baloney. These guys all came from Saxony, there were no Prussians at all, and it turns out there was this model of this monument outside East Berlin, and they trained at this model on how to do the steps, including the goose steps, even though they were antifascist—and that’s all they knew how to do. One guy told me that if there was ever a war, they would be of no use.
In the novel there seemed to be a grappling, both inside and outside Germany, with a Nazi past, and the potential for a unified Germany. Did that weigh on you?
It didn’t weigh on me so much, it definitely weighed on the people I met there. I didn’t grow up in Germany and it wasn’t my country. Even now I don’t feel massively German in my origins. I know a lot more about it than I did, but I’m still trying to find out whether or not I’m related to Hans Oster. My sister is crazy for ancestry.com, and so we’ve gotten some relatives who are from the same area of the Rhine as him, so I may eventually make that a project.
Any German kind of hopes he or she will be related to a “good” German. To some extent the main character, the Chicago cop, he goes through wondering about his family which has some ties to the Nazis, and he’s got to grapple with that. The people he meets, the younger ones, feel like, “Hey, I wasn’t there during World War II, why am I still carrying the burden? I just want to get on with life. We’re good at what we do, and want to get back to being what we were before the wars.”
And, of course, that scares the bejeezus out of a lot of people at that time, because a unified Germany reminds them of what happened in World War I and World War II when the Germans were very powerful. That’s part of the tone of the book, and that matches what I encountered when I talked to people, depending on the age. Even Chancellor Kohl was a member of the Hitler Youth. But that wasn’t that big of an issue at that point. But unification was. All of the things the West German government did at that time were designed to reunify the country. Officially the Soviets, and particularly the Americans, would say, of course, when that time comes we’ll back you. In the meantime you have all the German politicians working out deals to get the two countries back together. That was the tension in what was happening.
So in the novel, on one level there is the intrigue of the detective trying to figure out if his brother was murdered. On another, more macro level, did you find Europe to be such a cesspool of intrigue?
There was a lot of intrigue going on because there was a coalition government in which Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was foreign minister and vice chancellor and a more left-wing guy, was the necessary voting bloc for Helmut Kohl, and Genscher was very friendly at that time with Soviet leaders.
Of course, in Russia at that time you had just the beginning of Gorbachev, and glasnost and perestroika. Gorbachev came to East Berlin, and gave some speeches, and you would have thought he was like Abraham Lincoln in terms of the reception. He sort of saw the handwriting on the wall, that it was going to be the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. So the whole endgame of the Cold War was being fought.
Gorbachev and other people in eastern Europe were trying to work it so that East Germany would be at least independent or in some sort of coalition, but not necessarily united with West Germany. The whole game was to see how much power they could retain. At that time Erich Honecker, the Communist Party leader in East Germany, didn’t see the handwriting and he didn’t see the wall. He got ousted, partly because Gorbachev told the Soviet troops, Stay in your barracks, and if anything happens in the way of protests, which were increasing, we’re not going to go in there and help Honecker or anybody out, because we’re trying to work out a deal here that’s going to be best for us. If we use tanks the way we did in Hungary, that’s just going to make things worse.
Another factor was that Hungary had already become the first East European Communist country to tear down their wall. It was a barbed wire thing. So if you were an East German, you could go to Hungary and then could go across to Austria, and from Austria into West Germany. So that was just a ticking time bomb until the Germans had to do something.
Even on the day the wall fell, the East Germans were dragging their feet. It was only because of a slip of the tongue by the spokesman of the Communist Party, Günter Schabowski, who didn’t quite get what the new policy was going to be about letting East Germans go West. It was supposed to be a measured thing. When somebody asked him, “Well, when does this new policy go into effect?” he responded, “Well, I guess, right now,” and so people started going to the wall. That kind of triggered things and then once people started coming across, the West Germans started putting them on television, which could be seen in East Germany, and so people started streaming across like crazy. The West Germans started taking their pickaxes and sledgehammers to the wall, and it was the beginning of the end.
Have you been back recently?
I was back for the World Cup in 2006 among other trips. Berlin has completely transformed, it’s become a city of art and culture, and if you go down to the river, in addition to the historic buildings, you see all these new modern steel and glass buildings.
Berlin had been an arty place before reunification, because it wasn’t a part of West Germany. If you went to live in West Berlin, you were exempt from the draft because it wasn’t part of the country, and so you had all these artists and writers who went there. It had a very interesting, creative, tense mood before the wall came down. It was cool, it was an occupied city. I’ve been in some places like that, such as Lebanon, where there is this aura of danger. That creative feeling kind of came alive once the wall came down, and then Germany of course made Berlin the capital again. It had been in Bonn, which is a sleepy little town in the western part where I spent more time than I would have liked—it’s not a very exciting place. Whereas Berlin, it’s just a really exciting place to be.
Now, 25 years later, the world is looking again at Eastern Europe as Russia begins to reassert itself. How do you see the events unfolding there?
People are concerned that Putin is going to usher in a new Soviet-type power even though they’ve got some serious economic and financial problems. But the whole thing with Ukraine and grabbing Crimea has people worried. In Germany you might be particularly worried because when the wall came down, Putin was a KGB officer in Leipzig, so he knows Germany very well. Now we’ve had scary flyovers of Russian air force planes in Latvia, and Putin has a lot of leverage because of natural gas. But, he’s suffering a lot from the sanctions, which are doing serious damage to the ruble, and the economy. And then there are little things like now instead of Roquefort or Brie, you have to settle for Russian cheese, which isn’t exactly world-famous.
Are you working on any more thrillers after your experience with this one?
It’s been an interesting experience, I’ve got a couple more in the pipeline, one about a young hacker, and another one that is sort of a follow-up to The German Club, about a guy in the U.S. who was a sleeper agent when the wall came down and hadn’t really been activated, and hopes that he’s now done and can forget about the whole spying thing, which he didn’t really want to do. But the Soviets have a different idea, since they know he’s there.