There is an old saying that states: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. In The Taster, V.S. Alexander shows that it takes many good men doing the right thing to triumph over powerful evil. Unfortunately, Germany at the time of the Second World War did not have many good men.
The Nazis had thought themselves invincible but in early 1943, Berlin gets its first real taste of the war. Allied bombers make it into the center of the city, awakening the citizens of the Reich to their very real danger. While the news services insist that the German army is victorious in all things, it is clear to Magda Ritter’s father that it will only be a matter of time before bombs are replaced with enemy soldiers. Magda is sent to her uncle and aunt in Bavaria, a bucolic area unlikely to be strafed by bombers or attacked by Allied armies.
For most of the war, Magda and her friends simply glided through life. As she puts it:
“My few girlfriends were concerned with their jobs, making money and getting along. We hardly ever talked of the war except to note, with longing, the misfortune of boys being shipped off to battle.”
She knows it is her duty to either marry and have strong sons for the Reich or to work diligently and be a productive citizen, but her parents never pushed her to accomplish much of anything and she lived down to their expectations. Her aunt is not quite so sanguine. Magda is in her home less than a day when she is forced to look for work. Nothing is available in the small town, but her uncle is a party member and police officer with a bit of pull. He tells Magda to apply at the Reichsbund (civil service) and with his help, she begins training for a mysterious position. It is only after weeks of coaching that she learns she will be assigned to the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain retreat, to serve as a taster. She is one of many young women who sample the Führer’s food an hour before he eats to ensure that no one is trying to poison him.
Initially terrified by her job, Magda grows accustomed to the danger and slowly settles into the routine of the chalet. It helps that she is deeply attracted to Captain Karl Weber, a handsome SS officer in charge of the security of the kitchen staff. They rapidly move into a relationship, but it quickly becomes an uncomfortable one for Magda. Karl is determined she know the truth of the war, including the atrocities being perpetuated by the Nazis. With her new awareness of what is actually occurring, Magda becomes increasingly sickened at being a part of the Führer’s staff and is willing to join Karl’s conspiracy to bring an end to Nazi control of Germany. This is a dangerous game, though, and it soon becomes apparent to her that it is a deadly one in which you must be willing to strike hard at your enemies or die at their hands.
Magda is an unlikely heroine by contemporary standards. She does not hate the Nazis at the start of the story and in fact, toys with the idea of joining the party for her own personal betterment. She is not curious or lively, but seems determined to simply live her life as though the war were not happening. She isn’t pleased when the allied bombers pull her from her comfortable, mindless existence. She cares nothing about the plight of the Jewish people and is indifferent to whether or not the rumors regarding what is happening to them are true. She doesn’t believe they are, but she also doesn’t care enough to find out. It isn’t until she reaches the Berghof and meets people who know what is happening and hate it that she changes. I appreciated the way the author handled this. Hitler would not have risen to power if he hadn’t had at least the indifferent support of his people and Magda shows perfectly how someone’s concerns with their own welfare can help them overlook the atrocities happening around them.
The author’s sparse prose lends itself beautifully to the story, which has a decidedly raw feel; told in the first person, it very much seems as though we are experiencing the real thoughts and feelings of a young woman who is for the first time realizing that there are bigger things in life than just herself. The austerity of the writing also serves as emphasis to the austerity of Germany as it fell from power; there is increasingly less to talk about as food, clothing, water to bathe in and other essentials slowly disappear. It also contributes, though, to the book’s only flaw. The information on Magda’s growth and on her romance was too little, making both seem a bit too sudden.
Perhaps the author’s greatest achievement here is the way she captures both the humanity and inhumanity of Adolf Hitler. To Magda and her friends, he is a kindly, grandfatherly figure who takes an interest in their lives and romances. But to anyone he deems a danger he is a brute, a tyrant, a rageaholic who kills and tortures with impunity. The scary part for everyone in the tale, including Magda, is that one’s status could change in an instant, with the person concerned none the wiser as to why.
Then again, perhaps the most important thing the author does is show us that Hitler was not the only Nazi in Germany. While many seem to blame the war solely on him, it is important to remember that not only he and his generals waged that war. It took the cooperation of the nation, some actively participating, some placidly going along. As Roger Ebert stated in a review of the film Downfall:
As we regard this broken and pathetic Hitler, we realize that he did not alone create the Third Reich, but was the focus for a spontaneous uprising by many of the German people, fueled by racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear. He was skilled in the ways he exploited that feeling, and surrounded himself by gifted strategists and propagandists, but he was not a great man, simply one armed by fate to unleash unimaginable evil. It is useful to reflect that racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear are still with us, and the defeat of one of their manifestations does not inoculate us against others.
THAT is what this book reminds us of. That evil may go down to the sound of exploding bombs, but it is born in silence. It is born in cooperation. It is fueled by our fears, and fed by our selfish indifference to anything but our own gain. It is a triumph for the author that she can entertain and also deeply enlighten us through her novel.
The Taster is both a good book and an important one. It tells an intriguing story while taking pains to show that very little separates the people of then and now and that we must stay vigilant if we are to stay triumphant over evil.