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Two Brothers: A Novel

by Ben Elton

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2871470,554 (4.01)9
Berlin 1920 Two babies are born. Two brothers. United and indivisible, sharing everything. Twins in all but blood. As Germany marches into its Nazi Armageddon, the ties of family, friendship and love are tested to the very limits of endurance. And the brothers are faced with an unimaginable choice...… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
(8.5)The story opens with Stone, one of the brothers in the title. It is 1956 and he is living in London working for the Foreign Office. He is being interviewed by MI6 as he has received a letter from his sister-in-law Dagmar Stengel, who purportedly died in 1945. Stone is excited as he had loved her deeply when they were young. However, it is revealed that she is a spy working for the Stasi in east Germany. She wants him to travel to meet her.
The story then goes back to 1920 when his mother gives birth to twin boys, one of whom is stillborn. Freida and Wolfgang, German Jews, are offered another baby boy born the same day whose mother has died and is effectively an orphan. They agree and raise the boys, Paulus and Otto as if they are twins. It is at least two hundred pages before we find out which is their natural son and indeed which one is Stone. The story recounts the gradual rise of the Nazi party and the gradual, increasing degradations inflicted on German Jews. Eventually Freida and Wolfgang are forced to tell the boys that one of them is not Jewish so can be saved from persecution. However this entails turning his back on the family and friends he loves or can he help them.
This is a gripping tale, with twists and turns that kept me coming back to find out how the tale is revolved.
  HelenBaker | Mar 15, 2021 |
Really enjoyed this family saga, brilliant characters and experiences
I don't think I will be the only person who didn't like Dagmar ( )
  karenshann | Dec 31, 2019 |

I know Ben Elton mainly as a left-wing comedian from the 80s and 90s, though I did read his second novel Stark (and wasn't hugely impressed). I had not realised that his uncle was the historian Geoffrey Elton, or that the Elton family, originally Ehrenberg, had fled Nazi Germany to England. In Two Brothers, Elton takes a family situation very loosely based on that of his own father and uncle, and takes us through the brief but horrible history of Nazi Germany, looked at from the point of view of two brothers who it turns out are not biological twins after all, one of them being a non-Jewish kid adopted at birth by a Jewish couple. There is a framing narrative in the 1950s where one of the brothers, having escaped to England and joined the Foreign Office, goes back to East Berlin in search of the girl they both loved. But the core is the story of what life was like for those who were not as fortunate as Elton's own family. it's written from the heart, though I think also with an eye to educating Elton's core audience (young Anglophones) about how a normal society can swiftly degenerate to horror.

I was a bit annoyed by a couple of Elton's presentational quirks. There is a comedy MI6 sequence in the 1950s, which takes away from the seriousness of the theme. And the teenage German protagonists refer to each other by very British nicknames, which I suppose could be allowed as a translation convention, but it grated for me. Still, I give the book a lot of credit for effort and good intentions. ( )
  nwhyte | Dec 28, 2019 |
The time is 1920 in Berlin and Frieda and Wolfgang Stengel are expecting twins but one of the babies dies during Frieda’s labour. However, the single mother of a baby boy dies during childbirth and when it is suggested to Frieda that she could adopt the child she immediately agrees, certain that her husband will give his blessing. They tell no one of what they have done, although they agree they will tell their sons, Paulus and Otto, when they are old enough to understand. Consequently, the two boys grow up in a Jewish family, believing they are twins, although one of them was born to a gentile mother. By coincidence, another “birth” on that same day is that of Hitler’s Socialist German Workers’ Party, an organisation which will have an increasing impact on the family, eventually tearing it, and German society apart.
Switching between Germany in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and London in the mid-1950s this is the story of how a family was affected by the rise of Hitler and the events which led to the Holocaust. Based loosely on events which occurred in his own family, Ben Elton uses his characters to highlight the treatment of Jews under the Nazi regime. There is nothing new in the facts he presents but there were times when I felt that his character development suffered because it felt to me that, at times, his characters became “lost” beneath the weight of history as well as a litany of clichés and stereotypes. The inclusion of significant historical moments, often described in great detail, at times took the focus off the fictional story, to the detriment of the overall development of the novel. As a result I found that not only did it make for rather tedious reading but, at times, the repetition detracted from the horrors of that shameful period in history.
I also found the focus on Paulus’ and Otto’s romantic obsession (which began when they were six years old!) with the rather disagreeable Dagmar, a childhood friend from a very wealthy Jewish family, to be both irritating and barely credible. Both of these factors meant that, for me, the book was over-long. A good editor should have encouraged the author to recognise that “less is more” and to cull his story by at least two hundred pages!
Another irritation throughout the book was the use of language, particularly slang, idiom and swearing which felt inauthentic to the period and which therefore didn’t evoke for me any sense of the Germany of the time. I feel that I should have cared much more consistently about the fate of all the characters but I found it increasingly hard to do so! There are certainly some thought-provoking themes which emerge from the book so it’s a shame that they are overlaid by rather incontinent verbosity! ( )
  linda.a. | Nov 7, 2017 |
This is a gripping story of two brothers born in 1920's Berlin and so growing up with the rise of Nazism. It is rather heavily plotted and I dont want to anticipate any of the plot developments ahead of time. Its a great story and, as it turns out, inforned by some of the author's family's experiences. ( )
  gbelik | Nov 12, 2016 |
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Two Brothers is dedicated to two cousins, my uncles:

Heinz Ehrenberg, who served in the Wehrmacht, 1939 to 1945,
Geoffrey Elton, who served in the British army 1943 to 1946.
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Berlin 1920 Two babies are born. Two brothers. United and indivisible, sharing everything. Twins in all but blood. As Germany marches into its Nazi Armageddon, the ties of family, friendship and love are tested to the very limits of endurance. And the brothers are faced with an unimaginable choice...

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