In 1993, Berliner Daniel Krauchner was mostly content. An only child of a happy, financially secure family, he excelled at soccer, and thrived at his Christianeum (a private school with difficult entry requirements) – his essay on the treachery of Jews scored the highest mark in his class.
His middle-class parents didn’t like his best friend, Armin, but Daniel didn’t care – Armin was bold and exciting, and though his family was poor, and though his father drank what little money they had, at least his life was interesting. Without Armin Daniel would never have ventured out into the night to paint swastikas on the walls, which was a huge adventure even though they were arrested, or confronted his parents about joining the HJ. For some reason, his parents were virulently opposed to the Hitler Youth.
When his parents reveal that, though his mother’s parents were secular, they were Jewish, meaning his mother is a Jewess and he is a Michling (mongrel of mixed race), Daniel is horrified. The world he had felt so securely a part of began crumbling around him, as Germany inexorably tightens its’ grip on those of ‘lesser’ standing.
Daniel Half Human alternates short sections of first person narrative by Daniel in 1945, revisiting the city after the war, with third person accounts focusing predominantly on Daniel but occasionally on Armin, to give a coherent and comprehensive view of the time. The obstinate confidence of Daniel’s lawyer father Rheinhard, who cannot believe that harm could befall him despite growing evidence to the contrary, is particularly well executed, and Armin’s conflict between loyalty to friend and to country is unappreciated by Daniel but well drawn for the reader. It would have been easy to write Armin as a stereotype but he has depth and, like Daniel, grows through the novel.
I found the suspense of the novel minimised by the knowledge from the beginning that Daniel survived and immigrated to the US, and found those sections contributed little. I suspect they were inserted primarily for the conclusion. I also felt the last section, which concentrated on the fleeing of Germany and the loss of Daniel’s uncle and cousin, rushed and unsatisfactory.
However, the novel is otherwise compelling and articulate. Daniel’s naïve admiration of the adventurousness of Armin’s life, in reality a poverty-stricken and abusive childhood, is convincing, and the technique of educating the reader through glimpses of pseudoscience classroom sessions was subtle but powerful, as were the sections dropped throughout the text (“Sophie had to have a passport photo taken… exposing the left ear, because Nazi research had shown that the shape of the left ear was evidence of racial origin”). Though I have read quite widely about the era, I also learned more detail about the insidious propaganda of the times, something I think it is always valuable to keep in mind – anyone who thinks it couldn’t happen again is as wilfully blind as Rheinhard. - Alex