Posts Tagged ‘Kristallnacht pogrom’

Erika Mann: When the Lights Go Out

May 16, 2017

This novel – a collection of linked stories really – is very grim and depressing, made more so by the fact that we know what came after. It was first published just after the start of the Second World War (though its publishing history is incredibly complicated, as the critical apparatus with this edition made clear), and the author is the daughter of Thomas Mann, the perhaps better-known German writer. She sets her stories in a small town in southern Germany in the years between Hitler’s seizure of power and the start of the war, and bases them on actual events and people she knew.

Although we know about the history of the war, and the debate about how much the average German knew about or participated in various atrocities of the Nazi era, understanding the lives of ordinary people, the choices they made, the silences they kept and the difficulties they faced, is rather harder, partly because of unwillingness to speak or to own up to their own past, and also increasingly because those who lived through those times are dying off. Much has been researched and written in recent years about how the Nazi regime extended its grip throughout society and sustained it for so long, but somehow fiction is able to bring the details and the effects to life and to our understanding in different ways.

Mann uses a small number of characters – perhaps a dozen or so – in the years leading up to the start of the war. Already, then, hindsight suggests how much worse it must have been later on. There are the shortages of food, before the war starts, the gradual prioritisation of re-armament and planning for aggression and its effect on the job market and what consumers could buy; there is the growing craziness of the effects of a tightly planned economy. Smaller shopkeepers are closed down because they are inefficient, workers are increasingly detailed to particular jobs, there are expectations that everyone will take part in extra work at weekends: all of this increasing inefficiency, and the production of inferior goods, may well remind us of what we know about the various problems and eventual failure of the Soviet Union. All of these details, no doubt available in textbooks and history books, (and Mann gives us her sources), are woven into the lives of ordinary people – her characters.

A young couple, planning to marry, overworked and undernourished, are driven to suicide by what a court eventually describes as a ‘regrettable error’ – a careless Nazi doctor accuses the woman of having had an illegal abortion and the concentration camp beckons. A leading doctor who has kept his head down and his nose clean for several years in the vain quest for a quiet life, is appalled by the increasingly poor training and ineptitude of medical staff because of the way the regime has organised their training, prioritising their employability not by their skills but by party loyalty, the number of children they have and their sporting prowess. A factory owner is horrified to discover that his secretary, to whom he has been making advances, is half-Jewish. A local Gestapo leader, unable to stomach the orders for the Kristallnacht pogrom, disobeys orders, enables some Jews to escape, then flees to Switzerland and is returned to his fate in Germany by the Swiss authorities…

I can imagine that in 1940 this book may have shocked many readers; it will probably shock less now, or else in different ways. We often wonder, why did nobody say or do anything, or resist in those early years? The answer is that some did, but it was not enough, the regime’s tentacles spread control very quickly and thoroughly, creating an atmosphere of fear through surveillance and spying. And initially, many did well enough out of the new regime…

At some level, the book remains a warning, to everyone, to be vigilant, and perhaps in our current uncertain times of increasing xenophobia and nationalism, we should heed such warnings.

Note: an English translation of the book exists, but I read the newly-published French paperback.

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