Before the Court of Heaven – by Jack Mayer – book review

A debut and extremely well-written historical novel by a Vermont pediatrician — focused on the years between the two World Wars in Germany — that was one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. And utterly absorbing. Awarded five stars on Goodreads.

The novel centers around a real historical figure, Ernst Werner Techow. He is one of a small group of young activists involved in the 1922 assassination of a leading figure in Germany’s Weimar Republic. They believe killing Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau will trigger a revolution that will bring down the Weimar Republic. Techow and his friends are early adopters of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, more commonly known as the Nazi party.

The book follows Techow for the next 12 years. I don’t want to include spoilers so I will just say that through Techow’s story, author Jack Mayer builds a suspenseful and compelling narrative that helped me better understand Germany’s history. It’s a Germany that:
• Suffered devastating losses during World War I
• Had just eliminated a long-standing monarchy
• Faced staggering reparations debt — leading to widespread unemployment, rampant inflation, and food shortages
• Watched competing movements (Communist, socialist, nationalist) grow increasingly violent in their efforts to steal power away from the Weimar Republic
• Grew increasingly desperate for leadership of any kind that could begin to improve the oppressive reality of everyday life and end the lawlessness.

There is also a wonderful love story. As a teenager, Techow falls in love with Lisa, a camp friend who becomes the central passion of his life. But the two of them are part of a trio of friends that includes Fritz – a rival for Lisa’s affections. Despite lengthy separations and numerous obstacles, Techow never loses his passionate attachment to Lisa. And his is a testament to the power of love since it is Lisa’s love that sustains him in his darkest moments.

As the author explains in both the Author’s Note and Postscript, the book is divided into two parts — though the flow of the narrative is seamless. Part One is based on the author’s extensive examination of primary source material about Techow. Part Two is the author’s fictionalized imaginings of what happens to Techow after the written documentation dries up. And the story Mayer creates feels completely believable and even addresses some lofty philosophical questions about good and evil and the possibility of redemption. And, as you will see, the fictionalized story turns out to be MUCH more interesting than reality.

So, what made this book so unusual for me? Aside from part of it being true to history and part made up?

  1. Though published in 2015 and despite winning numerous independent book awards, the book seems to be little known. It was hard to get ahold of. No public library I could access had a record of it. I had to buy it.
  2. The publisher, Long Trail Press, appears to be a self-publishing vehicle, based in Middlebury Vermont where the author lives.
  3. The concept for the story came to the author after attending a sermon at Middlebury College in which Techow’s story was recounted. Even though the accuracy of the recounting appears to be unreliable.
Author and Pediatrician Jack Mayer

Over the years, I have read many, many historical novels about both World Wars (I am continually trying to understand how they could have happened) but this was the first time I was able to understand the developments that occurred in the years between, that made it possible for the Nazis to come to power with such widespread support. AND, at the same time, it was terrifying to recognize how easily, under the right circumstances, it could all happen again. I confess I think this book is an undiscovered masterpiece.

More about the author.