In the aftermath of World War 2, victorious allied forces occupied Germany. They were simultaneously trying to rebuild a shattered country and prosecute Nazi war criminals. The British housed their officers in the homes of wealthy Germans, evicting the occupants to shoddy camp housing. This is the historically true framework for this novel.
Captain Lewis Morgan is relieved that the war is over. When he finds out his housing will displace an upper-class German named Herr Lubert and his daughter Freda, Captain Morgan proposes an unorthodox solution: he and his family could share the house, moving the Luberts into the servant quarters. This descision will have an unexpected impact on all of them.
Captain Morgan dreams of a happy reunion with his wife Rachael and son Edmund, having not seen them since the funeral for his older son, Michael, who was killed in the bombings. He badly underestimates his wife’s depression and son’s lonliness. He does his best to care for them, but official duties keep him busy, and Rachael and Edmund are left largely to their own devices.
Herr Lubert and Freda are dealing with their own grief; Mrs. Lubert was also killed in the bombings. Now their country has been defeated and their home taken over.
At first, the two families hardly speak to one another. Their communication is complicated and difficult, with each person taking their own approach to the situation. In time the inevitable happens, and they begin to see one another not as enemies or occupiers, but as people. For Herr Lubert and Rachael, left together in the house, that turns out to be a more dangerous thing.
While the Morgan and Lubert families live in relative comfort, thousands of Germans live on the street, literally starving and freezing to death. Ozi is a young boy, leading a band of even younger feral children. He meets Edmund and convinces him to share some of the cigarettes which Captain Morgan recieves as part of his stipend, and which can be spent like cash on the streets.
In The Aftermath, Brooks does an excellent job of telling a big story on a small scale. He is able to portray a wide variety of experiences and responses in wartime through the eyes of just a few characters. He also accurately shows many different ways that people grieve.
One of the central issues of the book is the question of how the Germans, post-war, should be viewed. Many of Captain Morgan’s fellow officers still see them as an enemy, and as complicit with the Nazi regime. Captain Morgan feels that feeding the German people is more important that judging them, and that rebulding the nation will take more understanding. Edmund might have the best perspective of all: he arrives in Germany hating the Germans, with the “us vs them” mindset that war engenders. But he finds that, once you get to know people and speak their language, they are not so different.
I do feel, though, that the author glossed over German support for the Nazis. For example, Herr Lubert says that he only participated in things like sending Freda to join the Hitler Youth because it was mandatory. To me, that sounds like the concentration camp guards who said they were only following orders.
None of the history or issues in The Aftermath are easy. Against that background, Brooks brings his characters to life. He has woven together a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page