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...

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