56 pages • 1 hour read
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Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a World War II novel first published in 1961. Vonnegut’s third novel, it garnered little recognition when it was first released, and it wasn’t until Vonnegut’s success with Cat’s Cradle in 1963 and his breakout fifth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), that Mother Night was revaluated as a powerful work of moral exploration by an author who would go on to become America’s leading satirist and who is now recognized as one of the greatest American writers of his age.
The story examines the purported confessions of Howard W. Campbell Jr., a Nazi propagandist and American spy who, in the course of writing his memoirs in an Israeli prison, attempts to detangle the threads of his own guilt amidst the shifting selves inhabiting his mind. In portraying a Nazi propagandist who doesn’t believe in Nazi propaganda, and an American spy who claims to be nationless, Vonnegut questions the fabrication of identity, history, and the deeply moral question of how to reckon with causing unfathomable harm. Yet when Campbell’s narrative carries over to America, and he faces the growing movement of American fascists, Vonnegut’s novel takes on a contemporary resonance that has much to say about the virulent hate that continues to make its home around the world.
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This guide refers to the 2009 Dial Press Trade Paperback edition.
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In an Introduction written in 1966, five years after the original publication of Mother Night, Vonnegut states the moral of the book: “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (v). An Editor’s Note follows, again written by Vonnegut as the opening to the 1961 novel, in which he purports to be the editor of the confessions of Howard W. Campbell Jr., a Nazi war criminal and central propagandist for the Third Reich.
Campbell begins his memoir in a jail in Jerusalem in 1961, where he is awaiting his trail for war crimes. He is composing his memoirs at the request of the Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals, who is eager to add to the archive and has given Campbell a typewriter and various other resources in order to aid him in this pursuit. It is revealed that Campbell was first a playwright and later composed Nazi radio propaganda while living in Germany. He refers to Joseph Goebbels as his boss, and casually mentions the many connections he had to high-ranking Nazi officials, who were the main patrons of his art.
Following a brief description of the prison and the various guards meant to look after him, Campbell launches into his personal autobiography. He was born in Schenectady, New York, in 1912, and his father worked as a technician for General Electric before moving the family to Germany when Howard was 11 years old. However, once the Nazis begin their rise to political power in the late 1930s, Howard’s parents leave Germany, while he decides to remain.
He marries a German actress, Helga, and works relatively successfully as a dramatist until he is confronted by an agent of the US War department, Frank Wirtanen. Wirtanen makes it clear he knows precisely who Howard is and asks Campbell to become an American agent in the coming war. However, Campbell is disinterested in politics and doesn’t consider himself a member of any nation other than the “nation of two,” a phrase he uses to describe his relationship with Helga—signifying not only the depth of their bond but their ability to interact with yet remain apart from the Nazi organization. Helga eventually disappears while performing for the German troops in Crimea, and while Campbell spares no expense in trying to locate her, he is never able to find her.
Campbell rises through the Nazi propaganda machine, producing antisemitic messages for broadcast, and continues doing so until he is arrested by the Americans. He reveals that he was not convicted of high treason because of Wirtanen’s intercession. Campbell maintains that he does not know what information he passed through these messages—which appeared as coughs, dramatic pauses and forced stumbles—because it was all given to him by people he never interacted with in any other way. Even though Campbell is not convicted—Wirtanen sabotages the case against him rather than out Campbell as a spy—he is smuggled to New York, where he must live in relative secrecy.
In New York, life is so lonely that Campbell continues to use his own name, and even though it recalls a famous Nazi propagandist, very few people draw the connection to who he really is. Eventually, Campbell befriends a neighbor, George Kraft, who also happens to be a spy for the Russians. Campbell recounts all of this from the future perspective, where he is aware of Kraft’s lies. In order to further the Russian cause, Kraft deliberately leaks news of Campbell’s existence to Reverend Doctor Lionel J. D. Jones, DDS, the publisher of a white supremacist newspaper, who outs Campbell by celebrating his antisemitic past, initiating calls from Israel for Campbell to be arrested and tried for war crimes.
Jones is eager to involve Campbell in his organization and presents him with a woman he claims is Helga, though she is actually Helga’s younger sister Resi, who had previously confessed to loving Campbell. Together, they plan to escape from Campbell’s unwanted notoriety, until Wirtanen again intercedes on Campbell’s behalf. Although Resi swears she has genuine feelings for Campbell, she has also been working with Kraft to lure Campbell to Moscow. During an FBI raid, Campbell is taken into custody, where he is again freed by Wirtanen, while Resi dies by suicide.
Feeling disconnected from his life, Campbell decides to turn himself in to the Israeli government. Later, in Jerusalem, Wirtanen sends Campbell a letter promising the delivery of evidence that will secure his release, but the thought sickens Campbell. Instead, Campbell renders his own punishment and hangs himself.
By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.