Dana Mack, "All Things That Deserve to Perish: A Novel of Wilhelmine Germany" (2020)

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Despite all the attention paid to the two world wars of the twentieth century, not a great deal of historical fiction focuses on the period that preceded them. Dana Mack’s debut novel, All Things That Deserve to Perish, is an exception. Through its depictions of Berlin high society, the Junkers from the agricultural estates of old Prussia, and interfaith marriages, the novel explores the fraught transition to a modern, commercial economy that simultaneously promoted and complicated relations between Germans at all levels of society and their Jewish fellow citizens.

Mack focuses her story on Elisabeth von Schwabacher, the daughter of a successful Jewish financier who has just returned from Vienna to her parents’ home in Berlin when the book opens. Lisi, as she’s known, has been training as a classical pianist, and her great ambition is to perform in concert halls and private soirées.

Or is it? Lisi’s mother pushes the conventional future of wife and mother and rigorously oversees a diet and makeover program to ready Lisi for society, but neither of her parents wants to force their daughter into marriage, especially to a non-Jewish man. It’s Lisi herself who encourages the attentions of two noblemen, both to some extent fortune hunters—the widowed Prince Egon von Senbeck-Wittenbach and the impoverished Junker Count Wilhelm von Boening. And Lisi is also the one who chooses, when her parents press her for a decision, to start an affair with one of her suitors without considering how that may affect her ability to perform.

The casual antisemitism expressed by many of the characters in this book is almost more jarring than the occasional outbursts of hatred and bigotry. But it is both true to the times and revealing of the fundamental social rifts in Wilhelmine Germany that, less than fifty years later, would explode in the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

A historian, journalist, and musician, Dana Mack has published two nonfiction books on marriage and parenthood, as well as articles on music, history, culture, family issues, and education in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and many other publications. All Things That Deserve to Perish is her first novel.

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