Paul E(mil) Erdman Charles Wheeler - Essay

Charles Wheeler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [The Last Days of America], Paul Erdman returns to the theme of an earlier book. The Crash of '79: the decline of America's will to lead the West and the opportunities this presents to its more irresponsible allies to take the world to the brink of disaster….

Mr Erdman's new book takes us into the later 1980s….

West Germany, feeling uniquely vulnerable to Russian attack, has overcome its national guilt complex and is reverting to type. Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt have been discarded. The new saviour is the Bavarian conservative, Franz Joseph Strauss, who, in a comeback as unexpected as Richard Nixon's resurgence in 1968, has been swept into the Chancellorship on a promise to give Germany its own independent nuclear deterrent.

Mr Erdman is a master of timing. His book appears here just as German conservatives have scored their first electoral victory in West Berlin, as Britain considers reducing its forces in Germany, and as Herr Schmidt, following an abortive summit meeting with Mr Reagan in Washington, struggles to head off a revolt among his fellow Social Democrats against the stationing of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe….

West Germany is about to take its rightful place in the world as a superpower. It is a prospect Mr Erdman finds as distasteful as the personality of the unfortunate Herr Strauss, whom he depicts as an uncouth, malevolent demagogue who only escapes identification with Hitler by virtue of the fact that he is not on record as having advocated the slaughter of Jews.

What Erdman's Strauss does have in common with the Nazi leaders is a belief in Germany's unfulfilled destiny, the cultural and intellectual superiority of its people, and their historic duty to avenge past humiliations. Aided by a consortium of Wirtschaftswunderkinder … the Strauss regime acquires the capacity to destroy the Soviet Union in a single nuclear strike … and with that Mr Erdman's drama slithers to an intriguing if improbable close.

What the real Herr Strauss might make of all this can only be guessed at…. Less engaged readers, though, should find Mr Erdman's predictions diverting; he writes with verve and has an admirably sour view of the men who control our destiny.

Charles Wheeler, "Future Shock," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newpapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4080, June 12, 1981, p. 672.