A tragic story worthy of a cloak-and-dagger novel by Turgenev, Von Dutch tells of the journey of Otto Von Ott, a German spy who spent most of his adult life in the Soviet Union, and keeps up his chemical refinement work on secret orders, from Berlin.
In the GDR, Otto’s employer ran chemical plants in the heart of the GDR, according to his instructions, but kept to himself. When his employer was arrested, his American master found Otto somewhere else and told him his employer had been murdered, since they were all in a black book, and all listed as Russian-based spies. Otto, who knew nothing of the book until he could not escape, attempted to destroy all his records. After German neighbours of the dead owner became suspicious, he searched for his secret papers – to the point of blaming their late deaths on “foreign agents”.
So the Soviet secret police found his file, and was he willing to tell them everything he knew about the world. But his bewildered Communist employer brought him to Moscow, and the arrest of Otto’s Nazi master took place without anybody ever making sure that this was a correct translation of Otto’s file. The list of supposed spies was open-ended, and Otto had to do what they told him to do, which was bring the American secret agents back to Berlin and deposit them in protective custody at their SPGB, thus waiting for the American-to-Soviet missile deal to develop, so that the Americans could launch their missiles against Russia while the Soviets could launch their missiles against the Americans. It was a cruel and confusing way to live, and Otto’s life became unpredictable – his behaviour was erratic, unlike what he had been as a happy factory worker in GDR Germany.
When finally he was able to cross the frontier, his friends and fellow comrades told him, he was ‘marred by the death of Otto Fishmann’. Fishmann had been Otto’s Soviet master in the GDR.
Von Dutch is an interesting tale. It is not a boring tale, but rather interesting, because at the same time it is so sad and violent. It does not tell a story of an ordinary spy who comes into a normal story and goes home again, because it does not provide a normal story. Von Dutch puts its characters into an extraordinary world: it is a story of whole worlds being destroyed by nuclear bombs. The story belongs to a 20th-century novel by John Dickson Carr, about a cosmopolitan generation of young German freedom fighters who had spent time fighting for the Communist revolution in the Soviet Union and were forced to leave home and live among the peasants of the North Caucasus.
Erica Wagner’s Last Model of Suburbia: Walking through the Last German Town for Germans outside the GDR is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.