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Europe Central is a complex work of historical fiction that explores war and tyranny in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. As the novel opens, it is 1939. A German general is waiting for his “squat black telephone” to ring. Germany already has begun its takeover of “Europe Central”—first Austria, then Czechoslovakia. The Germans have agreed to an alliance with fascist Italy and have signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact with Soviet Russia. The British and the French have attempted to avert a second world war by appeasing Germany, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has returned to England announcing that there will be “peace in our time.”

Nazi Germany, however, is secretly planning “Case White,” the invasion of Poland. It will be the final straw for the other countries of “Europe Central.” The German general predicts that one day soon, telephones all over “Europe Central” will be announcing that their countries were “obliterated without warning, destroyed, razed, Germanified....” For now, however, “the ever-wakeful sleepwalker in Berlin and the soon-to-be-duped realist in the Kremlin are married.” The “sleepwalker” is Adolf Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany, and the “realist” is Joseph Stalin, leader of Soviet Russia.

Author William T. Vollmann explains that his goal with Europe Central is “to write a series of parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision.” Vollmann draws readers into the fictional portrayals of what might have been taking place in the lives and minds of these “moral actors” as they make decisions that have world-wide consequences. Their decisions create the novel's multiple story lines, “performances” that take place on the dual stages of Germany and Russia. Vollmann has chosen Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as the novel's departure point because, as he explains, “the moral equation of Stalinism with Hitlerism” is the same: they both “demand the entire man.” Europe Central explores how the totalitarian demand for the entire man affects the course of world history and the lives of the individuals who have created that history.

Most of the “moral actors” in Europe Central are based on real people. The “famous” are characters such as German artist Käthe Kollwitz, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and Russian filmmaker Roman Karmen. The “infamous” are characters such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and East German judge Hilde Benjamin. The “anonymous” are lesser known players such as Russian General A. A. Vlasov, German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, Russian partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, and German SS officer Kurt Gerstein. While the war is brewing, these characters recount their personal struggles. Readers experience the terror and uncertainty of life as artists try to create beauty while fearing that they could be whisked away at any moment to a Nazi concentration camp or a Soviet gulag. Readers are also privy to what Vollmann imagines are the innermost thoughts and fears of his characters.

There are thirty-seven plots in the novel that not only recount the history of twentieth-century totalitarianism but also reveal little known heroic acts of resistance to Nazism and Communism. The stories are dated and arranged chronologically from 1914 to 1975 for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the historical events. The narrative begins with pre-World War II political maneuverings, moves to Germany’s surge across Europe and eventual invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa), and ends with the Cold War and a divided East/West Germany (from 1914 to 1975).

Vollmann weaves personal stories into this forward-moving timeline, presenting them in pairs of what he calls “pincer movements” (a military maneuver in which both flanks of an opponent are attacked simultaneously). The parings zoom in on ideas, relationships,...

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or characters and consist of stories, fables, and history. They unfold through dialogue, stream-of-conscious monologues, diary-like memoirs, and journalistic and historical reports. Sometimes one part of the pair is a minor character snippet while the other part is an in-depth story. Other times, one part may be a lengthy ideological discussion while the other presents an opposing viewpoint. Some pairs are complimentary metaphors, and others are storylines of comparable German and Russian characters. The pairings are in the same general time frame, but usually one occurs in Germany and the other in the Soviet Union (with some deviations). For example, in one “pincer movement,” there are two extended metaphors. The first pairing occurs in Germany (“When Parzival Killed the Red Knight”) and compares the hero of a German epic poem to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. The second part of the pair occurs in Soviet Russia (“Opus 40”) and compares Dmitri Shostakovich’s "Opus 40" to his love affair with Elena Konstantinovskaya. Another pairing combines the story of Fanya Kaplan’s failed attempt to assassinate Vladimir Lenin (“The Saviors”) with Adolf Hitler’s successful attempt to replace Kaiser Wilhelm II (“Mobilization”). The stories of SS officer Kurt Gerstein of Germany (“Clean Hands”) and Russian patriot Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya (“Zoya”) illustrate that amid the unfolding evil, there are anonymous brave people who risk their lives to speak out against the cruelty of the German concentration camps and the Soviet gulags.

In the middle of the novel, Vollmann pairs the stories of Russian General A. A. Vlasov (“Breakout”) and German Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus (“The Last Field Marshall”), two patriots who both become so disenchanted with the civilian leadership of their respective countries that they defy their dictators’ demands and expectations. Defying Stalin’s irrational command to continue to “hold the line” at Leningrad, Vlasov orders his troops to escape in small groups to the front lines. The Germans then capture Vlasov and manipulate him into leading an army of dissatisfied Russians against Stalin. At the battle of Stalingrad, Hitler refuses to allow Paulus to surrender or to withdraw his troops in spite of the desperate pleas of Paulus’s officers. To encourage Paulus’s continued loyalty, Hitler promotes him to Field Marshal. Left with no other options, however, Paulus surrenders to the Russians the next day. Hitler expects him to commit suicide because no other Field Marshal has ever surrendered to the enemy. While in Soviet captivity, Paulus, like Vlasov, becomes a vocal critic of the government and joins a group of dissatisfied Germans who oppose Hitler. More like novellas than chapters, these stories demonstrate Vollmann’s major theme: an out-of-control hunger for power and world domination is an evil that manifests itself through inhumane atrocities; such inhumanity respects no boundaries.