Wednesday 21 May 2003

Provocation and retribution

“I’ve been in Dresden too,” wrote language hat in a comment on my previous post, “by way of Victor Klemperer’s amazing diaries, translated as I Will Bear Witness. Scary how as soon as Hitler takes over everyone starts falling into line. And every time a cousin emigrates you want to holler ‘Get out while there’s time, dammit!’”

Tonight I saw a brief interview with Antony Beevor—author of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 and, more recently, The Fall of Berlin 1945—who is in Sydney for Writers Week. The interviewer baldly asked him what caused the German descent into depravity. After carefully pointing out that not all Germans were “war criminals,” Beevor mentioned Goebbels’ brilliant manipulation of fear and hatred, of both the Jews and the Slavs, as well as Hitler’s strategy of gradual incremental change. “You only have to read Victor Klemperer’s diaries,” said Antony Beevor, “to see how it happened, a tiny step at a time.”

As I continue to read books and watch films about the persecution and extermination of the Jews and the annihilation of German civilians in the Allied bombing raids, it’s difficult not to imagine one as retribution for the other.

In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the protagonist recounts a conversation with Vera, his nurse in Prague before he was sent to England in the Kindertransport:

But to come back to my story… It was when I had returned from the Schönborn Garden, as we were sitting in Vera’s flat again, that she first told me about my parents at greater length: their origins so far as she knew of them, the course of their lives, and the annihilation, within the space of only a few years, of their entire existence. Despite her dark and rather melancholy appearance, so I think Vera began, said Austerlitz, your mother Agáta was a very genial, on occasion even light-hearted woman. In this she was just like her father, old Austerlitz, who owned a fez and slipper-making factory in Sternberg which he had founded while the country was still under Austrian rule, and who had the ability of simply ignoring any unpleasantness. Once, when he was visiting this house, I heard him speak of the considerable boom in his business since Mussolini’s men had taken to wearing that semi-Oriental item of headgear the fez, saying that he could hardly manufacture and export enough of them to Italy. At the time, Agáta herself, secure as she felt in the recognition she had won much faster than she dared to hope in her career as an opera and operetta singer, thought that everything would turn out all right in the end, whereas Maximilian, in spite of the cheerful disposition which he shared with Agáta, had been convinced ever since I knew him, said Vera, so Austerlitz told me, that the parvenus who had come to power in Germany and the corporate bodies and other human swarms endlessly proliferating under the new regime, a spectacle which inspired him, as he often said, with a sense of positive horror, had abandoned themselves from the first to a blind lust for conquest and destruction, taking its cue from the magic word thousand which the Reichskanzler, as we could all hear on the wireless, repeated constantly in his speeches. A thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty-seven thousand, two hundred and forty thousand, a thousand times a thousand, thousands upon thousands: such was the refrain he barked out in his hoarse voice, drumming into the Germans the notion that the promise of their own greatness was about to be fulfilled. None the less, said Vera, Austerlitz continued, Maximilian did not in any way believe that the German people had been driven into their misfortune; rather, in his view, they had entirely re-created themselves in this perverse form, engendered by every individual’s wishful thinking and bound up with false family sentiment, and had then brought forth, as symbolic exponents of their innermost desires, so to speak, the Nazi grandees, whom Maximilian regarded without exception as muddle-headed and indolent. From time to time, so Vera recollected, said Austerlitz, Maximilian would tell the tale of how once, after a trade-union meeting in Teplitz in the early summer of 1933, he had gone a little way up into the Erzgebirge, where he came upon some day-trippers in a beer garden who had been buying all manner of things in a village on the German side of the border, including a new kind of boiled sweet which had, embedded in its sugary mass, a raspberry-coloured swastika that literally melted in the mouth. At the sight of these Nazi treats, Maximilian had said, he suddenly realized that the Germans had wholly reorganized their production lines, from heavy industry down to the manufacturing of items such as these vulgar sweets, not because they had been ordered to do so but each of his own accord, out of enthusiasm for the national resurgence. Vera went on, said Austerlitz, to tell me that Maximilian visited Austria and Germany several times in the 1930s, to gain a more accurate idea of general developments, and that she remembered precisely how, immediately after returning from Nuremberg, he had described the Führer’s prodigious reception at the Party rally. Hours before his arrival, the entire population of Nuremberg and indeed people from much further afield, crowds flocking in not just from Franconia and Bavaria but from the most remote parts of the country, Holstein and Pomerania, Silesia and the Black Forest, stood shoulder to shoulder all agog with excitement along the predetermined route, until at last, heralded by roars of acclamation, the motorcade of heavy Mercedes limousines came gliding at walking pace down the narrow alley which parted the sea of radiant uplifted faces and the arms outstretched in yearning. Maximilian had told her, said Vera, that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions, he had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted. From where he stood in the square outside the Lorenzkirche, he said, he saw the motorcade making its slow way through the swaying masses down to the Old Town, where the houses with their pointed and crooked gables, their occupants hanging out of the windows like bunches of grapes, resembled a hopelessly over­crowded ghetto into which, so Maximilian had said, the long-awaited saviour was now making his entry. It was in just the same vein, said Vera, that Maximilian later repeatedly described the spectacular film of the Party rally which he had seen in a Munich cinema, and which confirmed his suspicions that, out of the humiliation from which the Germans had never recovered, they were now developing an image of themselves as a people chosen to evangelize the world. Not only did the overawed spectators witness the Führer’s aeroplane descending slowly to earth through towering mountain ranges of cloud; not only was the tragic history they all shared invoked in the ceremony honouring the war dead during which, as Maximilian described it to us, Hitler and Höss and Himmler strode down the broad avenue lined, in straight serried ranks, with columns and companies created by the power of the new state out of a host of immovable German bodies, to the accompaniment of a funeral march which stirred the innermost soul of the entire nation; not only might one see warriors pledging themselves to die for the Fatherland, and the huge forests of flags mysteriously swaying as they moved away by torch­light into the dark—no, said Vera, Maximilian told us that a bird’s-eye view showed a city of white tents extending to the horizon, from which as day broke the Germans emerged singly, in couples or in small groups, forming a silent procession and pressing ever closer together as they all went in the same direction, following, so it seemed, some higher bidding, on their way to the Promised Land at last after long years in the wilderness.

In Alexander McKee’s Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox a young woman, Eva Beyer, who was seventeen years old at the time of the bombing of Dresden, describes her experiences while doing volunteer Red Cross work at the main city rail station:

Once in mid-January I was on duty and the train which drew in had been bombed on the way. What I saw there was worse than horror. Not only were the people squeezed together in a goods train, but they had to suffer hunger and thirst and the bombs, too. There were so many injured on that train that we didn’t know where to start. The screams and cries for help were almost unbearable. We could bandage their wounds and satisfy their thirst and hunger, but not their emotional suffering. Many died from their injuries, because our help came too late.

I bent down to a woman who had a baby at her breast, to see if I could help, for she was smeared with blood. She was dead but the child was alive. Beside her lay an old man. He was her father. He called: “Annie, come and help me!” His arm was torn to pieces. When we told him that Annie was dead, he broke down completely and sat crying: “What is going to happen to us? My son-in-law in the war, my daughter dead, a two-months-old baby, and an eight-year-old boy.” The old man clung to me, asking: “What can we do next? We have lost our homes, our possessions. Oh God, what have we done, that we are being punished like this? Can there really be a God who allows such things?”

I was shocked the first time I read Maximilian’s account of the new kind of boiled sweet with its embedded raspberry-coloured swastika and of his—and, one presumes, Sebald’s—belief that the German people had not been driven into their misfortune but had “entirely re-created themselves in this perverse form, engendered by every individual’s wishful thinking and bound up with false family sentiment” and that Hitler and his henchmen, rather than blindfolding Germany and leading its people into catastrophe, were the “symbolic exponents of their innermost desires.”

W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of DestructionA week ago, Desbladet, commenting on my post about books on the Allied bombing campaign, drew my attention to a Guardian profile of On the Natural History of Destruction, which belongs in my list, of course, as does Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945.

But Der Brand has not yet been translated into English and I’ve put off buying Sebald’s book—partly because I have a policy of not buying hardcover editions unless the book is out of print, mainly because I want to read all the other books first (saving the best till last, one might say).

In that Guardian profile, Sebald is quoted as saying:

If you know in the generation before you that your parents, your uncles and aunts were tacit accomplices, it’s difficult to say you haven’t anything to do with it. I’ve always felt I had to know what happened in detail, and to try to understand why it should have been so.

I looked at On the Natural History of Destruction again in the bookshop tonight, and saw that at the end of his essay Sebald describes Hitler’s enthusiastic response to Goering’s plan for setting densely packed London ablaze with incendiary bombs—just as the British would do to Hamburg, the British and Americans to Dresden, and the Americans to Tokyo and dozens of other Japanese cities. “Most Germans,” Sebald writes, “understand that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived.”

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I have Sebald's book on request at my library. I may not wait, though. I don't have your discipline. I want to read it _now_.

I have to confess that I must have been tired when I read the segment of Austerliz that you quote because I didn't remember about the boiled sweet. And that's tragic because it changes the entire narrative. I must re-read Austerliz again. More slowly.

How odd -- I saw Kellog's Corn Flakes boxes that were completely covered with American eagles and flags in the store this week. Your writing reminded me of it. Small steps.

Posted by Burningbird on 22 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

You might also be interested in reading "Hitler’s Willing Executioners," which I read back in Feb. or March.

I didn't review it in my media diet blog, but I put a quote into a blog entry about women and war:

Posted by Elaine on 22 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour