It is stunning. Beautifully written, it describes the development of Germany from about 1914 until 1933 when the book breaks off, with the author still in Germany. The wonderful thing about it is that it is told from the point of view of one German who instinctively felt that what the Nazis were doing was wrong but who, like everyone else, was obliged to go along with it all. Incredible horrors become part of everyday life. Evil is re-evaluated:
- "People began to join in - at first mostly from fear. After they had participated, they no longer wanted to do so just from fear. That would have been mean and contemptible. So the necessary ideology was also supplied. That was the spiritual basis of the victory of the National Socialist revolution." (p 129)
It shows how things such as the brutal persecution of the Jews became 'the Jewish question' so that the the status quo became persecution and any deviation from that had to be justified. This put the persecuted minority into the position of having to defend themselves.
This is history from the inside. The First World War is told from a child's perspective, all exciting victories and maps with armies moving around.
Then comes the revolution, as seen by a schoolboy:
- "Our school was the headquarters of the government troops, and the adjacent elementray school was used as a base by the Reds. ... For days the battle raged for possession of these two buildings. Our headmaster, who had remained in his school's quarters, was shot dead. When we saw it again, the facade of the building was pockmarked with bullet holes. A large bloodstain that could not be removed remained under my desk for many weeks." (p 36)
- "There was something not quite right about a revolution when the next day schoolboys were beaten for playing at it." (p 25)
I was fascinated that the hyperinflation of 1923 had winners as well as losers.
- Shares "were the only form of investment that kept pace - not all the time, and not all shares, yet on the whole they managed to keep up, So everyone dealt in shares." (p 55)
- "The old and unworldly had the worst of it. Many were driven to begging, many to suicide. The young and quickwitted did well. Overnight they became free, rich, and independent. It was a situation in which mental inertia and reliance on past experience were punished by starvation and death, but rapid appraisal of new situations and speed of reaction were rewarded with sudden, vast riches. The twenty-one-year-old bank director appeared on the scene, and also the high school senior who earned his living from the stock-market tips of his slightly older friends. He wore Oscar Wilde ties, organized champagne parties, and supported his embarrassed father." (p 56)
- "Unromantic love was the fashion: carefree, restless, light-hearted promiscuity." (p 57)
Then the Nazis take over. Right from the start evil happens. But people live on. Even the narrator has to find a way to accommodate himself to the persecutions. His friends begin to go into exile. One of his girlfriends (he seems to have many) goes abroad, another is a Jewess, another is trapped because she has no nationality having been born in a country that, since the First World War ended, no longer exists.
And then he is called up.
This book did what all great books do: it made me see things from a fresh perspective. This book reversed my own ideas time and time again:
- "One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses." (p 16)
- The shooting of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 "was the origin of 'shooting while attempting to escape'" (p 33)
- "I heard a former member of the Free Corps ... talk about ... the victims who had fallen or been 'shot while attempting to escape' in their hundreds. 'That was the cream of the working-class youth' he observed thoughtfully and sadly. This was simply how his mind had filed away these memories. 'Brave lads, some of them ... I felt really sorry for them. But they were so pigheaded. They left us no choice but to shoot them.'" (p 41)
- "What a wealth of simple joy and what an inexhaustible source of lifelong pleasure the Frenchman finds in eating and drinking, intellectual debate, and the artistic pursuit of love; and the Englishman in the cultivation of gardens, the companionship of animals, and the sports and hobbies he pursues with such childlike gravity." (p 70)
- "conscientious parents always educate their sons for the era that is just over." (p 102)
- "Foreign policy would probably be a matter of banging the table." (p 107)
- "A carnival ball in Berlin is like a large, colorful, well-organized love raffle, with winning tickets and duds. You take your chance, join up with a girl, kiss and cuddle her, and go through all the preparatory stages of a love affair in a single night. The usual end is a taxi drive at daybreak and the exchange of phone numbers. By then you usually know whether it is the start of something you would like to take further, or whether you have just earned yourself a hangover." (p 111)
- "Among the primitive, inarticulate, simpler souls there was a process that might have taken place in mythical times when a beaten tribe abandoned its faithless god and accepted the god of the victorious tribe as its patron. Saint Marx, in whom one had always believed, had not helped. Saint Hitler was obviously more powerful." (p 135)
- "It was as if the ground on which one stood was continually trickling away from under one's feet, or rather as if the air one breathed was steadily, inexorably being sucked away." (p 194)
- He discusses with a Nazi 'friend' an event in which a political enemy resisted arrest and shot two SA men; in retaliation he is hanged and hundreds of other men in the town are also shot by the SA. The Nazi defends the action of the SA in terms of them acting in the course of their duties. He replies: "'And that allows the state the justification of self-defense against any other citizens? Against me and you?' 'Not against me,' he said, 'but perhaps against you.'" (p 216)
- "Nationalism - that is, national self-reflection and self-worship - is certainly a dangerous mental illness wherever it appears, capable of distorting the character of a nation and making it ugly, just as vanity and egoism distort the character of a person and make it ugly." (p 224)
- "The first country to be occupied by the Nazis was not Austria or Czechoslovakia. It was Germany." (p 225)
- "Bankrupt stock ... You lose your value if you become a refugee." (p 231)
- "The more distant of two evils always seems the lesser. It may not be the lesser in reality." (p 234)
- "A man bedded in comradeship is relieved of all personal worries, and of the rigors of the struggle for life. He has his bed in the barracks, his meals, and his uniform. His daily life is prescribed from morning to night. He need nor concern himself with anything. He lives, not under the severe rule of 'each for himself' but in the generous softness of 'one for all and all for one'. It is one of the most unpleasant falsehoods that the laws of comradeship are harder than those of ordinary civilian life. On the contrary, they are of a debilitating softness, and they are justified only for soldiers in the field, for men facing death. ... it is a familiar story that brave soldiers, who have been too long bedded on the soft cushions of comradeship, often find it impossible to cope with the harshness of civilian life." (p 286)
- "It was remarkable how comradeship actively decomposed all the elements of individuality and civilization. The most important part of individual life, which cannot be subsumed in communal life, is love. So comradeship has its special weapon against love: smut." (p 289)
This book made me wonder whether we are on the same trajectory as Germany was in the desperate interwar years.
Read it! January 2017, 309 pages
This was yet another brilliant book loaned to me by my friend Fred whose taste in superb non-fiction seems to be without fault. Others I have read thanks to him include:
- A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
- The Mighty Dead: a superb analysis of the Iliad but an authro who writes like a dream
- Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
- The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I recommend them all.