Adolf Hitler is nicknamed “the sleepwalker” in Europe Central. A sleepwalker walks with assurance because in his reverie, he does not see the perils before him. Hitler ignores many of the obvious perils before him because he is blinded by hatred. His followers are also asleep or pretending to be asleep, denying the atrocities of the “final solution.”
Hitler admires the music of German composer Richard Wagner because the intense nationalism and view of the German people embodied in Wagner’s operas coincides with Hitler’s own views. The Wagner music metaphor also appears throughout the novel to expose Hitler’s racist views.
Nothing historically new is revealed about Hitler in this novel, but the way the story unfolds and the way the other characters interact with Hitler brings his character to life. He is a fanatic who often “appears pale, frowning.” He eats “only fruits, vegetables and little Viennese cakes.” He “clenches his teeth, he strides anxiously to and fro.”
As Germany begins losing ground in World War II, Hitler descends into further madness. The reader sees the events of history unfold through Hitler’s crazed musings as he lives vicariously through Wagner’s music. Hitler and his long-time mistress Eva Braun kill themselves in his secret underground bunker in Berlin on April 30, 1945.
Stalin’s character is not as developed as Hitler’s in Europe Central. He has minimal dialogue and most of what is learned about him is through narrators and other characters. His presence hovers over the Russian chapters like a shadow because unlike with Hitler, no chapters are devoted solely to him. Stalin’s “realist” nickname is an ironic reference to Soviet ideology. Under Stalin, Soviets pride themselves on being realists in every aspect of society. They reject religion because it is supernatural. Interpretative art or music that reflects human imagination is not for the good of the people. Stalin, therefore, is never depicted losing himself in music like Hitler does in Wagner’s operas. In fact, Stalin storms out during one of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s performances, sending his henchman to inform Shostakovich that his music is too interpretive and does not appeal to the masses. Stalin is rational, stern, imposing and dangerous.
The irony of Stalin’s "realism" appears throughout the novel. General Vlasov finds the horrors committed under Stalin hard to believe, “unreal” he says. As Vlasov becomes more convinced that they may be true, however, his wife asks him, “Did you actually SEE Stalin’s men murder all those millions? Can you live with yourself if you’re wrong?” When Vlasov is captured by the Germans, they ask him if Stalin himself is real. Vlasov assures them that he has personally met Comrade Stalin, recalling a time when Stalin demanded Vlasov’s opinions on the protection of Moscow. Stalin had commanded Vlasov to "speak the truth, like a Communist." This is ironic because in Europe Central, Communists never speak the truth and Soviet propaganda is always unrealistic.
Stalin is also unrealistic when it comes to war because as a military leader, he is incompetent. He gives Vlasov “fifteen shopworn tanks” to defend Moscow, but Vlasov needs three times that many to repel the Germans. Later that year, Stalin appoints Vlasov deputy commander in charge of breaking the siege of Leningrad, but Vlasov realizes that this is “an impossible assignment.” As the exhausted and ill-equipped Russian troops lose more and more ground to the Germans, Stalin steadfastly refuses to allow Vlasov to retreat or surrender. Vlasov bravely decides he has no choice but to ignore Stalin’s orders for the good of his men. He instructs the men to escape in small groups and wishes them luck.
Kurt Gerstein is an officer in the German SS (Schutzstaffel or Secret Service), also known as the Gestapo. Along with Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, he is one of the heroes in Europe Central. Assigned to the Department of Hygiene as a delousing expert, it is Gerstein’s job to improve procedures for disinfecting soldiers and prisoners of war. This assignment brings him to the Nazi concentration camps where he is expected to come up with improved methods for disinfecting the areas that have been contaminated by Jewish corpses. He is told that his job will consist of two things: to “develop a procedure for disinfecting clothing” and to come up with “a faster working gas than diesel exhaust.” Gerstein is horrified. His country is asking him to defy his faith.
By his own description, Kurt Gerstein is “an Evangelical” who, as a young boy, loses three teeth defending his faith. A member of The Hitler Youth “insulted our Lord in their performance of Wittekind by Edmund Kiss.” The youth jumps up and yells, “We’ll have no Savior who weeps and laments!” to which Kurt responds, shouting, “We shall not allow our faith to be publicly mocked without protest!” He is kicked to the ground and his teeth are knocked out. His missing teeth are his red badge of courage, something that distinguishes him from the crowd of German people blindly following “the sleepwalker” and shouting “Heil Hitler!” When Gerstein tries to warn the world about Hitler’s “final solution," however, he symbolically has his teeth knocked out all over again. Few people believe him, and those that do are too powerless or too afraid to take action.
Gerstein’s father is a Nazi who claims to be a Christian. He is a hypocrite who can listen to a sermon entitled “Thou shalt not kill” and not apply it to himself. Gerstein has a conversation with his father about the...
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