The author, who introduces, comments on, and ties together developments in Germany at the end of World War I and afterward. Berlin is the focal point, but events in Strasbourg, Paris, the German military headquarters in Kassel, and elsewhere are woven into the intricate story. The story traces the thoughts and actions of political figures, revolutionaries, military officers, financial opportunists, and ordinary individuals in the tense period following the establishment of a shaky, moderately left-wing republic and the armistice through the crushing of the Spartacists. The frustration of President Woodrow Wilson and his hope for a just peace without victors is also described. Finally, through Friedrich Becker, the author berates the postwar Weimar Republic. According to him, there was no real attempt to come to grips with the causes of war, and he predicts the rise of a new paganism, characterized by strength and cunning.
Hilda, a striking twenty-one-year-old blond who serves as a nurse in a German military hospital in Alsace. After the armistice, she is unwilling to renew her relationship with her prewar lover, the artist Bernhard. When she leaves for Berlin to find Friedrich Becker, one of her former patients with whom she had fallen in love, Bernhard hangs himself. She finds Becker improved physically but undergoing a deep mental or spiritual crisis. He, too, had attempted to hang himself. Regarding herself as the source of Friedrich’s torment, she decides that she must leave him and takes a job at a suburban Berlin hospital. The image of Hilda, a devoted Catholic, falling on her knees in Friedrich’s presence and praying becomes for him a redemptive example. Ignored by Friedrich, she responds to the love of Johannes Maus. They become engaged, marry, and eventually settle in Karlsruhe with their child. Becker, during his later wandering, surprises the couple with a short visit. Hilda, who still loves him deeply, is distressed by his appearance but inspired by his somewhat crazed religious intensity and ominous predictions for the future.
Friedrich Becker (FREE-drihkh), a doctor of philology and a former teacher who, as a wounded German officer, was nursed by Hilda. After prolonged hospital treatment, Becker returns to his mother’s apartment in Berlin, where his spinal wound continues to heal. As Becker grows physically stronger, however, he suffers a mental collapse brought on by deep feelings of guilt for having participated in the war as an officer. He goes through a desperate struggle with the Devil, who appears to him in the form of a mysterious Brazilian, a lion, and a rat. Despairing, Becker then attempts suicide. Through a religious vision, prompted by Hilda’s example, Becker finds salvation and peace in the image of the crucified Christ. To the dismay of his friend, Johannes Maus, Becker pleads that peace can be found only through religious transformation. Returning to his teaching post for a trial period, Becker antagonizes the conservatives by asserting, as he discusses Sophocles’ Antigone, that unwritten divine law transcends the law of the state. When he attempts to rescue Heinz Riedel, Becker, inspired by the helplessness and misery of the workers, joins the Spartacists in the defense of the police station. Wounded, he refuses Maus’s attempt to exonerate him, but with the help of Hilda he is rescued from execution at the Moabit Hospital. After three years in prison, he returns to teaching, but his uncompromising idealism creates problems. Unable to satisfy his spiritual hunger and to escape the demands of his personality with women and money, he takes to the road as a wanderer. After years of inciting the poor to revolt and calling Christians to task, he once more falls into the hands of the Devil. The Devil slips the soul of a depraved bargeman into Becker’s breast. Becker finally finds peace from his struggles with the Devil and this corrupt soul. As he lies dying from a gunshot he received while attempting a robbery, he is rescued by Antoniel, his guardian angel.
Becker’s mother, a widow in her fifties. Her Christian commitment and her self-sacrificing concern for others are shared by her son.
Johannes Maus (yoh-HAHN-nehs mows), Becker’s simple and honest fellow officer and friend, who recuperated with him in the Alsatian hospital. Maus had fallen in love with Hilda. He longs for her...
(The entire section is 1876 words.)