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The Death's Head Chess Club

The Death's Head Chess Club by John Donoghue

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By John Donoghue

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5 reviews

Readers have been blown away by The Death’s Head Chess Club – a deeply poignant and moving debut novel about the extraordinary relationship between an SS officer and a Jewish watchmaker.


26 May 2017


This is a fantastic book. It uses a similar structure to Primo Levi's memoir of Auschwitz, each chapter is given the name of a chess tactic, just as Levi's chapters in 'The Periodic Table' had elements from the Periodic Table, which reflect what is happening in the chapter.

The movement back and forth through time is done well; the characters beautifully written. The novel has energy, pace, angst as well as amazing historical research. All that and the world of chess too. I'm not a chess player, don't have a clue but the chess aspects are drawn so subtly that that is not a problem.

Not an ounce of sentimentality either, which adds to the depth of the book. Donoghue has written an excellent book which deals with the joys of love and friendship, the gross horrors of war and concepts of despair and redemption in such a way that it is almost impossible to put down. Very clever.

09 Dec 2015

Allan Wilkinson

Group meeting notes:
Praise from all group members for this debut novel. A compelling, moving read. Hooked from the start. Discussion about the characters and setting, led inevitably to a broader discussion around WWII and its causes, horrors and legacies. Personal memories and reports from newsreels at the time and since were referred to. The question of 'how could it happen and why it is still happening' were raised. All said they would read another book by the author and high scores were given (7 gave it 5/5, 1 gave it 4/5). One group member had already bought two copies of the book to give as presents.

A good read, giving an insight into the lives of the prisoners in the German concentration camps. However it is quite harrowing and emotional. A roller-coaster ride of emotions, love and forgiveness. With forgiveness came freedom for the main character Emil.
Group Member

This is a gripping novel; it draws the reader in; it shocks; it horrifies. It is not a pleasurable read, but it is compelling and engrossing and the reader is eager, in an almost frozen, mechanical sense, to turn the page. It reminds us of man's inhumanity to man. It is also uplifting, showing that even the worst of experiences can be ameliorated through friendship, forgiveness and redemption.

In 1962, three men meet at a chess tournament in Amsterdam. Two of them have met before. Emil Clement, a Jew, was a prisoner in Auschwitz where Paul Meissner, an SS officer, forced him to play chess for very high stakes: winning would save a prisoner's life; losing would cost Clement his own. The third man in Amsterdam is Wilhelm Schweninger; during the war he was an SS bureaucrat based in Berlin. He is also a chess player and is now due to meet Clement in the tournament.

The novel shifts backwards and forwards between Amsterdam in 1962 and Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945. The wartime narrative pulls no punches. It describes in all its horror the Nazi genocidal concentration camp regime. The post-war episodes explore how three men involved in those dreadful events come to terms with their experiences.

Clement is bitter. Meissner has become a Catholic priest and is dying. Schweninger did not experience the camps at first hand and has much to learn as the three men come to to terms with their past misfortunes. The novel has a strong moral purpose and it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by it. 5/5
Group Member

04 Dec 2015

This book was read by St Regulus book group

Having visited a concentration camp some years ago, this book brought back poignant memories of the horrors endured there. It centres around the Nazi Officer and the Jewish inmate who were brought together through the games of chess, how they came to terms with their personal demons, eventually overcoming their guilt, being able to forgive and hopefully find peace in their lives.

Thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it.

08 Oct 2015

St Regulus AJ

An absorbing read. Sometimes, rarely, you read a book that, although fiction, you wish had been fact. A very well crafted story that gripped, informed and enthralled all at the same time. Would not hesitate to read this author again.

06 Oct 2015

The Death’s Head Chess club by John Donoghue and published by Atlantic books
This book is set in the twin time frames of Auschwitz and Amsterdam in 1962. The central characters of the book are Emil Clement aka the Watchmaker who was an inmate at Auschwitz and also an exceptional chess player, and Paul Meissner a German soldier.

The genre is really historical fiction, the main characters are fictional but the story is set in the environment of real events in the Second World War. Although chess is a constant thread running through the story you don’t need any knowledge of it to understand the main themes. These are themes of loss, pain, suffering, forgiveness.

The book is written from the 3rd person point of view which works well as the reader gets to understand the thoughts of Emil and Paul.

The author John Donoghue has a medical background and I think his writing has a slightly scientific, matter of fact style which I appreciated in the more harrowing sections. For me the horrors of the concentrations camps don’t need additional vivid literary description. I liked this style and found the book very easy to read. The end of the story was good and fitting.

There were a couple of things though which made reading the book a bit difficult at times. The German military titles were very confusing, there is a list in the back which gives the equivalent title in English but as I didn’t understand English army hierarchy this didn’t help me at all. Part way through the book I ignored these titles and generally got in a bit of a muddle as to who was in charge of whom. I liked the footnotes however as they were interesting and explained important points.

I enjoyed this book a lot, I felt emotionally connected to the main characters and I think the author judged very well the level of horror to include. I would recommend this book maybe with a slight caveat that some bits were very difficult to read.

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