The principal setting of the book is Bavaria, known for its intense Catholicism and for being the birthplace of Nazism. The only decent character, Alfried, is a passive idealist who cannot convert his beliefs into action but who nevertheless acts as his family’s savior. The Grunewalds and the Waitzmanns and the Hoffbachs, despite their social and personal differences, are one in their opportunism. In a totalitarian, or indeed any other, society, they are cemented by their greed.
The old German ruling classes get considerably more than they bargained for in the leadership of Hitler and are ill-equipped to pit their traditional values against the dynamics of the totalitarian system. Consequently, Nicolas von Hoffbach’s protest is a futile redemption that changes nothing, except that it costs him his life. He dies a guilty man, having betrayed his aristocratic origins. Ruprecht is also troubled, believing that he betrayed his own brother. Alfried, too, feels guilty, believing that he has not suffered sufficiently for his faith.
The Grunewalds have their own reasons for remorse. They have survived the death of their Fuehrer and can find peace of mind only in arranging to join him in death. “My generation knows all about [guilt],” their son tells them, “but your one doesn’t, because you’re the last of the pre-Freudians.” Even Frau Waitzmann is tormented. Waiting for Alfried’s return, she listens to “the speculations of the guilt from which she knew she was not herself free.”
The Waitzmanns encapsulate the Judeo-Christian tradition, but they are hardly its crowning achievement. They cooperate with evil and make money at it, and will go on making money in postwar Germany. Such people are not unique to Nazi Germany. They could well have been English. They are not presented judgmentally, or as monsters; their selfishness is as commonplace as their lives are barren. For such people, guilt seems almost a conceit rather than a first step toward the remission of sins which leads to salvation.