L.S. Bassen’s gripping novel Summer of the Long Knives is intelligent and eminently readable.
Set in Nazi Germany in the early years of Hitler’s rise to power—1933 and 1934—
Summer of the Long Knives deals with well-documented events: for example, Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany in 1933; the burning of the Reichstag; the Nazi book burnings; and the increasing tension between Hitler’s SS and the brown-shirted Storm Troopers, culminating in Hitler’s decision to execute leaders of the Storm Troopers in 1934. What prevents this well-written, suspenseful novel from being completely “historical” is its delineation of the successful assassination of Hitler.Historically there were numerous plots against the Führer, all of them unsuccessful, as indeed there is an abortive assassination attempt in this novel before the successful one occurs.

Bassen is thus a major contributor to an increasingly popular genre, fiction dealing with alternative history, what critic George Steiner has called alternity, and what I and others like to call the fiction of“What if?” Philip Roth’s The War Against America, in which anti-Semite (and Hitler-lover) Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bid for a third term as President of the United States, is among the best-known examples of this genre.

Bassen’s novel, a relatively short one (fewer than 200 pages), contains memorable characters.The dominant point-of-view character is Albert Entrater, a wealthy painter in Berlin (where much of the action takes place) who lost his wife and daughter to the flu epidemic of 1918 and in the same year lost his right hand fighting for Germany in World War One. The son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, he doesn’t have strong ties to either religion, nor does he have strong political convictions, but he nevertheless gives a lavish party for his anti-Nazi friends and acquaintances to celebrate books—a response to the infamous Nazi book burnings.

Another major character is Father Konrad Hoeffer, a Catholic priest and Albert’s best friend since boyhood, whose strong moral sense gets him implicated in the unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler. Ultimately he—and, because of their close ties, Albert—are “ interrogated” by the Gestapo. Through a series of fortunate circumstances Albert is able to escape to the Netherlands and then to America. Konrad is not so lucky. The sections dealing with the Gestapo, complete with torture sessions, armed guards, and rotting corpses in dark hallways, are among the scariest in Bassen’s novel. Without question they have the ring of truth.

A third significant character, and in some ways the most intriguing figure in the book, is Lisel Ganz, an artist’s model of nineteen, who has briefly posed for Albert’s paintings. After a troubling scene in which three Storm Troopers, mistaking her for a Jew—though she appears to be the quintessential “Aryan,” a beautiful blonde—brutally beat her, gang-rape her, and leave her for dead, she becomes an important part of Albert’s life. Presumably as a result of this violent encounter she develops an extraordinary gift, the ability to “see” the future, a gift which comes with its own liabilities: seizures (including nausea, dampness, and chills), psychic trauma, often the inability to stand, and a lapse into unconsciousness. Lisel plays an ever-more-prominent role in the novel, especially through her connection to Albert and to Konrad, whose importance in the unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler she intuits.

Several minor figures also have their part to play in this tightly constructed novel. Ludvik Brezina, an impoverished journalist of Czech origin and another friend of Albert’s, who benefits from Albert’s generosity, takes his affluent friend to task for not being more politically active and for not using his artistic talent in socially advantageous ways. If Ludvik were an artist, he would take a “broad, broad brush, and refashion the whole damn world!” (p.29). Albert’s half brother, Artur, is a second minor figure. Though descended from the same father, they are somewhat estranged from each other, but Artur, a wealthy New York businessman, provides Albert with a home when he comes to America and a chauffeur to drive him around. And finally, there is Corporal Horst Dörner, a Nazi soldier, one of Hitler’s bodyguards, who loves Lisel, berates her for living in the home of a Jew (Albert—who gives her a place to stay after her hospitalization), and eventually marries her.

In a novel full of plot twists and surprises, the violent death of Hitler comes in an unexpected way and through an unlikely assassin.Not only the reader but also Hitler himself and his SS protectors are caught off guard, the latter from a state of overconfidence after having foiled the assassination plot in which Konrad is involved.Besides, “there was about the afternoon the feeling of a festival altogether, following as it did the arrest and elimination of so many Stormtroop leaders. The Führer was in particularly high spirits,…” (p.163).If the event portrayed here had come to pass, the Holocaust would have been almost entirely eliminated, and the lives of about 6 million Jews and about 5 million others would have been spared.

Dealing artistically with the “What if?,” Bassen creates a character, appearing twice in the novel, that, I assume,is a projection of Anne Frank had she survived the war and not succumbed to the Nazi genocide. In 1964, we are told, Dr. Anne Frank-Koestler, a married professor of history at Columbia University, in an academic book, contrasts the journalist, “a maker of accurate two-dimensional reproductions,” with the historian. “For the historian (the true historian),” she continues, “is an artist; his brushstrokes, made from the pigments of life, create specially meaningful pictures of human affairs. … Few, if any, truly understand that history is art”(p.171). (In this respect, perhaps, L. S. Bassen is both historian and artist.)

In her second appearance, Dr. Anne Frank-Koestler, “through mutual expatriate friends,” meets Albert Entrater at an art gallery in New York City, where she admires his painting The Park at Night, which she is able to purchase at an affordable price since he has high regard for one of her books. Thus began a productive “dialogue” between artist and historian (pp.191-192). This projection of Anne Frank as an adult, which relies on the representation of Anne in her famous diary as an exceptionally intelligent and mature teenager who had hoped to become a professional writer, is nothing short of brilliant.

Albert’s painting The Park at Night is part of a series of pastoral motifs of parks, gardens, and peaceful rural communities in the novel that contrast with the violent and terrifying events in Nazi Berlin, on the one hand, and the hubbub and urban chaos of New York City, on the other. It is a major piece of irony that the assassination of Hitler occurs in his Chancellery gardens on a hot, though exquisite, summer day.

Summer of the Long Knives is full of poetic imagery that is both vivid and meaningful. For example, in one scene Hitler is compared to a magnet, and all of those devoted to him are compared to “iron filings magnetized to his will” (p.166). Appropriately, Albert is characterized by images of art. For instance, in dreaming about his late wife, he visualizes her “in the pose of a Renoir bather” (p.126). Konrad, the moralist and theologian, is frequently presented in terms of religious imagery. When Lisel, having one of her seizures, collapses, Konrad helps carry her to her bedroom, “the girl and he forming a kind of cross” (p.92). And innocent, good-hearted Lisel is compared a number of times to a bird. Birds appear throughout the novel both literally and figuratively and come to represent the purity of nature, in stark contrast to the evil of Hitler and his fanatical supporters. Indeed, at a crucial point in the novel, Lisel’s laugh is described as “charming bird-like laughter” (p.165).

L.S. Bassen’s Summer of the Long Knives, which I strongly recommend, is a first-rate novel that is not only compelling but even haunting. With the right director and talented actors, it could be (and probably should be) transformed into a powerful film.