THE VIENNA WRITERS CIRCLE (HarperCollins Feb 14, 2023) is a historical fiction novel by J.C. Maetis, who is better known as the British thriller writer John Matthews. The Circle consisted of a collection of intellectuals from various fields of endeavor: psychiatry, philosophy, mathematics, journalists, and writers. The year was 1938; it was when Hitler annexed Austria, an event known as the Anschluss. Members of the Circle were not safe, not even its founder and titular leader, Sigmund Freud.
The story reveals the exploits of the ‘hidden Jews’ whose flight from the SS, Gestapo, and Austrian police he describes in gripping prose. The reader learns of the ever-increasing punitive measures launched against Jews and Gypsies by the Third Reich, whose ultimate goal was the extermination of those the Nazis referred to as Untermenchen (inferior people). Interspersed with the acts of inhumanity of man to man, are illuminations of the psychological underpinnings of those heinous edicts and acts, by Sigmund Freud, who remarked, “We are living in a specifically remarkable period. We find to our astonishment that progress has allied itself with barbarism.”
First cousins, Mathias Kraemer and Johannes Namal, both writers, Jewish, and members of the Circle, were members of Freud’s group. They, along with millions of co-religionists, were in the crosshairs of the Gestapo’s relentless search to ferret out Jews for exploitation and extermination. Their literary agent, Julian Reisner, often met with them at Café Mozart, the favorite Viennese coffee shop of musicians and intellectuals. It was there, during pleasant repasts of coffee and cakes, he chose to soften his critique of their literary efforts and assess their marketability.
During those harrowing days, keeping one’s sense of humor was essential to maintaining one’s sanity. Dark jokes were common fare, such as when Julian commented about the Nazis’ practice of torching popular books written by Jews, even if their authors had not yet gained celebrity status. During a rendezvous at their favorite haunt, he noticed copies of his clients’ books burning in a bonfire. He turned to Mathias and Johannes and remarked, “fame at last.” In a strange twist of fate, after landing in the Sobibor death camp, Johannes’ used his writing ability to help the Vice-Commandant of the camp, Obersharfuhrer Dieter Meisel, secretly author a book, Eine Flakernde Kerze, (The Flickering Candle). More importantly, by ghost-writing the book, it served to prolong his life and assuage his guilt feelings for not having done more to protect those he had promised to safeguard.
Maetis’ historical novel contains all the elements of a thriller, where despite the danger, intrigue, disillusionment, and betrayal, the principal characters never lose their will to survive. His story is a riveting rendering of how the most horrific events can spur ordinary people to make choices that lead to living extraordinary lives.