Posts Tagged ‘Nazi Germany’

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.


Travels in the Reich 1933-45

June 20, 2016

41H1vwMh-LL._AC_US160_This is a serious, academic book, originally published in German, with a detailed introduction and full critical apparatus, and now available in English; it’s a collection of travel writing, accounts by a number of writers and journalists describing, either briefly or in depth, their experiences, impressions and opinions as they travelled in Nazi Germany. It’s in two sections: travels before the outbreak of the Second World War, and travels after that date.

It’s travel writing then, the kind of writing that I’ve been enjoying for years, but with a difference. Some of the writers travel voluntarily to the Reich, others are sent there, as journalists, reporters, business travellers. Before the war, almost anyone can go – unless for some reason they are persona non grata to the authorities; after the outbreak of the war, clearly some nationalities cannot go; neutrals like the Swiss or the Swedes still can, as can Americans until 1941, and also collaborators from occupied countries.

What’s also different, of course, is the effect of hindsight. Of course, whatever one reads, travel writing included, from years ago, is read through the light of intervening years. But the hindsight involved here is inevitably so much weightier, particularly when we have the impression that a writer is being deceived, or is deceiving her/himself. ‘How could they be so blind?’ we feel, unreasonably.

I was also led to reflect on the difference between history books, accounts of events written some time after, when a bigger picture has emerged and it is perhaps possible to make value judgements, and contemporary accounts of events, perhaps as published in newspapers of the time itself, when events are still unfolding and the final outcome is not yet clear to the participants, though of course we now know everything. There is an immediacy, and an openness, precisely because of that limited or non-existent perspective, without that hindsight which acts as a corrective and which shapes our judgements; if we really want to know how events, times and places felt to those who lived through them, we cannot do better than read contemporary accounts.

Some years ago – the internet is wonderful – I came across scans of newspapers published in Poland as the Germans invaded in September 1939. As the enemy advanced and the destruction and chaos worsened, the newspapers quickly shrank in size, down to two pages, a single side, and by October vanished completely – conquered Slavs did not need to read. This was a perspective I had never thought about; a line in a history book could have told me this happened, but I saw it briefly, much more clearly and effectively, through contemporary eyes.

Some of the pieces in the book are quite chilling. Sometimes we see a writer’s eyes opened as they travel, the scales falling from their eyes as they finally see through what is really happening. Sometimes we see them deluded; sometimes we come across perspectives we haven’t met before. It really is a fascinating collection; the introduction is excellent and most of the pieces are well worth our time and attention.

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