national Arts Festival Banner

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Ben Elton moves from comedy to big family saga and Nazi atrocities. (Review by Keith Millar)

Ben Elton’s Two Brothers is a big story. It is in many ways reminiscent of the great family sagas produced by the likes of Jeffery Archer or Wilbur Smith.

However, the background against which Elton’s book is played out is of far weightier matters than is normal for these blockbuster fantasies. The backdrop for the story of the two brothers is the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and the persecution and attempted extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe by the Nazi Party.

By all accounts, Elton’s graphic recounting of these horrendous and shameful times is historically accurate. Reading this book one cannot help at times but recoil in shock and horror at the descriptions of the Nazi’s systematic marginalisation and eventual genocide of a sector of the people of Germany and beyond. How a group of gangsters lead by a madman were able to lead a entire country on an orgy of brutality and blind viciousness of this level, will forever remain a mystery.

With such a serious and very detailed setting, it is a pity that Elton reverts to the formula used by the aforesaid authors of the blockbuster family sagas and creates characters which are a little larger than life. They are stronger, cleverer, more charming and better-looking than anyone we meet in real life. This I felt distracted from the significance of the message.

The story deals with the lives of twin boys, born in Berlin in 1920, to a Jewish couple Frieda and Wolfgang Stengel. One is born dead, but the family is able to adopt an orphan baby boy immediately, almost as a replacement (apparently this how things happened in the 1920’s).

Significantly the adopted baby is of Aryan blood. 

On the same day, The National Social Workers Party was born in Munich. In this case, the voice that screamed and fists that pounded were those of its leader, Adolph Hitler.

Named Otto and Paulus the boys are raised as twins in every sense of the word, in this close and loving family. The lives and loves and relationships of these boys, and their family and friends, are told against the scenario of a Germany marching towards its Nazi Armageddon. Family ties, friendship, love and loyalty are tested to the very limits of endurance as survival becomes a lottery.

Possibly the most complex character in the story is Dagmar, a beautiful Jewish girl who enjoys the love and undying devotion of both the boys. It is this relationship which drives the story and leads to several deceptions and identity changes all aimed at rescuing her from the wrath of the Nazi party.

This is not the style of story one would normally associate with Ben Elton. However, being a comedian he cannot resist the occasional moments of wit and levity. Particularly from the wisecracking, musician, father of the twins, Wolfgang.

Other than that, I found his style in this book fairly ponderous and at times with undue elaboration. Almost as if he was trying to drive home the facts, or underline, the sickening events which were taking place. This is probably forgivable as Elton himself is of German Jewish decent. In fact, in an afterword in the book he reveals that this fictional story is based on a very similar family history. This somehow gives the book more credibility and relevance.

Other than possibly revealing a little too much of the plot, I think prior knowledge of this family link could have added to the enjoyment and understanding of the story.

This is a book which will be appreciated by those who enjoy big family sagas - and for its accurate accounts of the atrocities which took place in Nazi Germany.

Two Brothers is published by Transworld Publishers. ISBN Number 978-0-593-06206-7.
Recommended retail price is R220. – Keith Millar