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German-American Pride and Prejudice

Review of Bryan Malessa’s new novel The War Room, by Mark Simpson in The Financial Times.

As an Englishman, I’ve always found the US to be a very German-flavoured kind of place. The organisation; the presidential principle; the laws against jaywalking; the love of technology; the Protestantism. But almost nowhere do you find it acknowledged – which is odd, as almost every other ethnicity that went into the famous “melting pot” is celebrated from the rooftops and the floats on the St Patrick’s Day Parade.

But now an American writer has finally outed the US as secretly very German indeed. As Bryan Malessa’s new novel The War Room makes plain, Germans make up by far the largest ethnic group in the US, but are also almost completely invisible. As far back as the 18th century, the Anglo-US establishment worried that the vast numbers of German migrants would sweep them away. They successfully demanded that they stop speaking German. But the demands continued into the 20th century. “They had stopped calling themselves German in favour of German-American, but they acceded to Roosevelt’s demand to drop their hyphen: they underwent a final transformation from German American to American.”

Then, after living through two wars as enemies of the US, “they became America’s first post-ethnic culture: they disappeared into a generic state of tribeless white, the primary stock simmering in the melting pot, from which they never fully emerged.”

The War Room is set, in its opening chapters, in a midwestern village, the American heartland. Sam is a curious young boy who wants to find out where he comes from. His father, a tyrannical, cigar-chomping German émigré from East Prussia, which became part of the Soviet Union at the end of the second world war, doesn’t want his past unearthed. He forbids any German being spoken in the house and refuses to answer Sam’s questions about his grandparents, methodically beating him up instead.
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But the old man is conflicted and in his basement den (a metaphor for the subconscious?) he keeps mementoes from “The Old Country” and lectures his son about the hidden German contribution to America, proudly driving an old Porsche around town like a Panzer. Porsche, he reminds Sam regularly, made the Tiger, the most advanced tank of the second world war.
Eventually his father deserts the family, and Sam, who loved his daddy despite the beatings, spirals, heartbroken, into drug addiction before drifting to California.

Billed as “an epic investigation into America’s underbelly”, The War Room has a Catcher in the Rye quality to it, but without the toxicity. Not least because the stifled homo-erotic undertones of that novel are fully expressed in The War Room, where Sam has a relationship with a man in California.

But this is not another coming-out novel; instead the relationship is just another way for Malessa’s protagonist to explore his identity. It is an identity that resolutely defies definition. As Sam says at the end of the novel: “By the time I was in my mid-forties I had lived in 60 different places, slept in well over a thousand different beds, wandered across 30 countries and called three different continents home – through birth, descent and marriage. I never did learn why, to be considered authentic, you had to belong to a state, nation, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

In his desire to make the case for the German-American contribution, though, Malessa does sometimes overstep the mark: he seems to suggest that German-Americans did more to defeat the Nazis than anyone else (Supreme Commander of European Forces General Dwight Eisenhower was German-American).

The War Room also meanders, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given its theme. This is a very readable road book even if, like Sam, one sometimes finds oneself missing the absent tyrant father: he is drawn so well in the earlier part of the book that he, rather than Sam, is the real star.