Bearing witness: If this is a woman

As this turns into a lengthy review, I ponder why I’ve been trying, in an amateurish way, to educate myself about the traumas of modern Europe—beyond the obvious answer, that we all must.

I guess it’s related to my studies of China, and my engagement with the lives of people like Li Manshan; a feeling of duty to report the sufferings of ordinary people I encounter in China—including not just their ritual life but their tribulations under Maoism, with famine, struggle meetings, and labour camps; and my growing awareness of the sufferings of Europeans over a similar period. I don’t want to spoil your holidays (or mine), but as we relish the cultures and scenery of these countries, we shouldn’t forget the ghosts that haunt the landscape.

Among the innumerable studies of the Nazi concentration camp system, Primo Levi is justly famed—actually, I find the sequel The truce just as disturbing as If this is a man, after the camp is finally liberated yet their Odyssey of suffering continues, homecoming ever receding.

But I’ve also been deeply moved by Sarah Helm’s detailed recent account of the female camp of RavensbrückIf this is a woman.

Helm’s account is based on amazingly thorough research and interviews with both victims and perpetrators—much of which was submerged until the end of the Cold War. Of course a historian’s account will give different, more holistic, perspectives from those of an individual inmate, but in a way I find Helm’s work even more moving than that of Levi. At 823 pages, it’s hideously readable—balanced (whatever that might mean) and personal, in a way that ideologically-driven accounts such as those of Dikötter (for the degradations of Maoism in China) can’t achieve. Even the excellent index is harrowing.

I suppose I’m not alone in thinking of the whole catastrophe in terms of a few appalling place-names like Auschwitz and Belsen, but along with the focus on Ravensbrück, over the whole six years of its existence, we see how very extensive was the whole network of camps, subcamps, death camps, work camps, transports and marches, scarring the whole landscape.

At its height, Ravensbrück had a population of about 45,000 women; over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed.

The book opens with an arresting and complex image:

“The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,” writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary… She would pray to God to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into the office her face would fill with hatred…

So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, who she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years, and tries to explain her behaviour. (1)

The book goes on to tell the stories of Langefeld, Buber-Neumann (who also had the terrible distinction of already having been incarcerated in a Russian gulag), and a tragic cast of inmates and their tormentors, with chapters focusing on personalities over the years.

Among them were political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials”, “useless mouths”, “idiots”, and (later) children; in this camp only around 10% were Jewish. Its shifting population was international, including Germans, Poles (the largest group), Gypsies, Russians, Czechs, French, Hungarians, Scandinavians, and Dutch, all transported there at various stages.

In April 1944 recent arrivals included evacuees from Majdanek, including more Red Army doctors and nurses, as well as 473 Gypsies transferred from Auschwitz. There were Italian partisans, Slovenians, Greeks, Spaniards, and Danes, as well as three Egyptians and seven Chinese. (419)

They were often in desperate straits even when they arrived.

Ravensbrück guards rowing on the Schwedtsee.

Helm also delves into the lives of guards, doctors, and Blockovas (prisoners—at first often criminals—coopted to carry out the day-to-day work of running the camp). The twice-daily Appell roll-call was an ordeal that regularly led to death, as did stays in the Revier “hospital”.

As she observes, the “asocials”, such as prostitutes (pp.56, 96–108, 417–19, and index), have gone largely undocumented:

Unlike the political women, they left no memoirs. Speaking out after the war would mean revealing the reason for imprisonment in the first place, and incurring more shame. […] The German associations set up after the war to help camp survivors were dominated by political prisoners. And whether they were based in the Communist East or in the West, these bodies saw no reason to help “asocial” survivors. (98)

Perhaps the most sickening story (how might one concoct a hierarchy of inhumanity?) concerns the 86 “rabbits” (mostly from a group of 195 women from Lidice near Prague, deported after the 1942 assassination of Heydrich and the punitive razing of the village), objects of unthinkable medical experiments. [1] But it’s also moving for the way in which the whole camp later rallied round to protect them from being murdered so that their terrible story could at least be told—miraculously, 63 of them survived. Again, Holm switches tellingly to the present day:

I found Zofia Kawińska in her tenth-floor flat overlooking the cranes of Gdansk shipyard. She was one of the second group of victims of Himmler’s sulphonamide experiments. A tiny, bent figure, she walks with difficulty, and has done since the war. I ask if she still suffers pain from the experiments. “A little,” she says, as she offers tea and biscuits.

She stoops to show the scars on the sides of her legs. “They put the bacteria in, and glass and bits of wood, and they waited.” She looks up and fixes me with deep brown eyes, as if to see if there is any chance that I understand. “But I didn’t suffer as much as some. Everyone in Poland came home with wounds.” (243–4)

Surviving “rabbits”, 1958.

The smuggled letters of the rabbits were among many acts of defiance.

In similar vein, Nikolaus Wachsmann, in KL: a history of the Nazi concentration camps (perhaps the most authoritative study of the whole system), refines the view of “prisoners as blank and apathetic automatons, drained of all free will”, recognizing the heroism of such agency, “however small and constrained”. But he makes an important caveat:

We must resist the temptation to make our encounter with the concentration camps more bearable by sanctifying the prisoners, imagining them as united, unsullied, and unbowed. For the most part, the prisoners’ story is not an uplifting account of the triumph of the human spirit, but a tale of degradation and despair.

For anthropologists, the most extremely disturbing instance of participant observation is Germaine Tillion (1907–2008), an ethnologist who had done fieldwork in Algeria before being arrested while working for the French resistance. In impossible conditions she comprehensively documented the activities of the camp, somehow managing to hide her notebooks from the guards. After the war she continued her research on “the history of the de-civilisation of Europe”, and returned to her work on Algeria; her distinguished career was recognized by many awards.

While in the camp Tillion even composed and staged an operetta, a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, which she said was an attempt to help prisoners “resist by laughing” (567). It has been revived since 2007:

As the camp population grew constantly with prisoners evacuated from camps in the path of the Soviet advance, the 959 French prisoners (known as the “vingt-sept mille” after their camp numbers) who joined Tillion from Paris in February 1944, “jeunes filles biens élevées”, were quite unprepared for what awaited them at Ravensbrück, and adapted badly. Quartered in the “slums” of the camp, soon they were more hated than the Poles; their health quickly failed. Another group of women arrived in August from Warsaw, obliterated after the uprising—reporting to their compatriots, “There is no Warsaw. There is nothing left.” Hungarian Jews were deported to Ravensbrück in October. Babies were soon starved to death.

As it becomes clear that the Nazis are in retreat, the final chapters are just as tense. Desperate to conceal their crimes, with order collapsing, their brutality becomes even more extreme and random. The reader wills the inmates to survive.

By the end of March [1945] the camp was “like a mysterious planet”, said Denise Dufournier, “where the macabre, the ridiculous and the grotesque rubbed shoulders in a fantastic irrational chaos.” Karolina Lanckorońska, watching the crematorium flames shooting higher every night, was reminded of the beginning of the Iliad. She was still giving lectures on Charlemagne and Gothic art as children in Block 27 played a game of selecting for the gas chamber. In the Red Army block the women were making red flags to hang out to welcome their liberators, while the painting gang had been sent to redecorate the maternity block, where, according to Zdenka’s lists, 135 more babies were born in March, of which 130 died. (616)

Despite the shocking complicity of the Red Cross in Geneva, the tireless, heroic work of young Norwegian student Wanda Hjort (1921–2017), using her status to visit the camp and establish contacts, at last achieves results as many prisoners scramble to be taken to safety in the White Buses, with the tense diplomatic negotiations of Folke Bernadotte, Swedish representative of the ICRC, with Himmler.

Wanda Hjort.

But while the buses were being bombed by the Allies, for the majority of women who remained in the camp to await rescue by the Soviet troops, “Liberation” was also horrifying, with widespread rapes perpetrated on women of all nationalities.

***

And so into the whole post-war period. Many survivors returning home found there was no home to return to. The Hamburg trials of 1946–8 (a sideshow to Nuremberg)

achieved a great deal. Within a short time the court […] established in the clearest terms the simple fact that everything about the camp was designed to kill. (706)

But the trials were soon followed by amnesia on both sides of the Iron Curtain—and ignominy for the valiant women in the USSR (pp.287–313, 710–11) and the GDR (339–58, 711–14) who had somehow survived only to descend into a new nightmare, now suspected of being traitors. And until 1950, camps like Buchenwald were adopted by the NKVD as gulags for their own prisoners, with many (not only former Nazis) dying in squalor (MacGregor, Germany, pp.468–72).

By 1948 the Allies had lost their appetite for punishing the Nazis and both the war crimes trials and the process of “de-Nazification”—whereby top Nazi supporters were brought to book and denied top jobs—were shut down. (707)

Wachsmann explores the issue in his fine Prologue:

Survivors … were not stunned into collective silence, as has often been said. On the contrary, a loud, polyphonic voice rose up after liberation. … During the first postwar years, a wave of memoirs hit Europe and beyond, mostly searing testimonies of individual suffering and survival.

But as he notes, popular interest soon waned:

Public memory of the camps was being marginalized by postwar reconstruction and diplomacy. With the front line of the Cold War cutting right through Germany, and turning the two new, opposing German states into strategic allies of the USSR and the United States, talk about Nazi crimes seemed impolitic. … Within ten yearts of liberation, the camps had been sidelined—the result not of survivors unable to speak, but of a wider audience unwilling to listen.

Though popular interest was rekindled to some extent in the 1960s and 70s, more detailed research only took off from the 1990s—with German scholars taking the lead.

By this stage you will be able to decide whether you can face watching this documentary:

***

So only now am I beginning to understand the apparent amnesia that took hold all over Europe during my youth—and which still persists in China for the Maoist era (and other more recent events that it’s prudent to bury). Levi explains it well. His If this is a man was published in 1947, but

fell into oblivion for many years: perhaps also because in all of Europe those were difficult times of mourning and reconstruction and the public did not want to return in memory to the painful years of the war that had just ended.

Republished in 1958, it then became exceptionally successful—although even in the 1970s, as Paul Bailey observes in an Afterword, “Primo Levi wasn’t so much forgotten in Britain as totally unknown.”

Not just Neil MacGregor’s “What would we have done?”, but just our capacity for evil, need to be kept at the forefront of our consciousness.  As MacGregor comments,

How did the great humanizing traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse? (473)

In a Postscript to If this is a man and The truce, Levi gives succinct replies to what have come to be called FAQ, like “Were there prisoners who escaped from the camps? How is it that there were no large-scale revolts?” and “How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?”.

On “ordinary Germans”, I already noted Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin (now also the subject of a film). Levi expands wisely on the topic “Did the Germans know what was happening?” Observing the authoritarian control of the media (not only in Germany, and not only then), he comments:

Under these conditions it becomes possible […] to erase great chunks of reality. […] However, it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was part of the aims of Nazism. It was just as well for the people to know that opposing Hitler was extremely dangerous. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Germans were confined in the camps from the very first months of Nazism: Communists, Social Democrats, Liberals, Jews, Protestants, Catholics; the whole country knew it and knew that in the camps people were suffering and dying.

Nonetheless, it is true that the great mass of Germans remained unaware of the most atrocious details of what happened later on in the camps. […]

He goes on to cite Eugene Kogon’s Der SS staat:

Even many Gestapo functionaries did not know what was happening in the camps to which they were sending prisoners. The greater majority of the prisoners themselves had a very imprecise idea of how their camps functioned and of the methods employed there. […]

And yet there wasn’t even one German who did not know of the camps’ existence or who believed they were sanatoriums. There were very few Germans who did not have a relative or an acquaintance in a camp, or who did not know, at least, that such a one or such another had been sent to a camp. All the Germans had been witnesses to the multi-form anti-Semitic barbarity. Millions of them had been present—with indifference or with curiosity, with contempt or with downright malign joy—at the burning of synagogues or humiliation of Jews and Jewesses forced to kneel in the street mud. Many Germans knew from the foreign radio broadcasts, and a number had contact with prisoners who worked outside the camps. A good many Germans had had the experience of encountering miserable lines of prisoners in the streets or at the railroad stations. In a circular dated November 8, 1941, and addressed by the head of the police and the Security Services to all… Police officials and camp commandants, one reads: “In articular, it must be noted that during the transfers on foot, for example from the station to the camp, a considerable number of prisoners collapse along the way, fainting or dying from exhaustion… It is impossible to keep the population from knowing about such happenings.

Not a single German could have been unaware that the prisons were full to overflowing, and that executions were taking place continually all over the country. Thousands of magistrates and police functionaries, lawyers, priests and social workers knew genetically that the situation was very grave. Many businessmen who dealt with the camp SS men as suppliers, the industrialists who asked the administrative and economic offices of the SS for slave-labourers, the clerks in these offices, all knew perfectly well that many of the big firms were exploiting slave labour. Quite a few workers performed their tasks near concentration camps or actually inside them. Various university professors collaborated with the medical research centres instituted by Himmler, and various State doctors and doctors connected with private institutes collaborated with the professional murderers. A good many members of military aviation had been transferred to SS jurisdiction and must have known what went on there. Many high-ranking army officers knew about the mass murders of Russian prisoners of war in the camps, and even more soldiers and member sof the Military Police must have now exactly what terrifying horrors were being perpetrated in the camps, the ghettos, the cities, and the countryside sof the occupied Eastern territories.

Levi adds:

In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.

Turning to memory, Helm notes:

In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors—east from west—and broke the history of the camp in two.

The abomination wasn’t the only part of the story that was being forgotten; so was the fight for survival.

Even in Britain, where we enjoyed the rare privilege of not enduring occupation, with all its risks and moral compromises, my parents’ generation—even if they hadn’t personally experienced appalling suffering in active service, or in POW and concentration camps—were all scarred by bombed-out buildings, separation and loss, maimings, food shortages, and terrible insecurity. So I shouldn’t wonder that they were relieved to live in peace, unwilling to inflict traumatic memories on children like me, unwittingly blessed to have been born after the war. But there were survivors all around us—like Maria Bielicka, whom Holm visited at her Earls Court flat in 2010:

She said she had rarely spoken of the camp before. When she first came to live in England after the war nobody believed what she had to say. “Nobody here even wanted to know about the camps.” Since then she has “got on with life”, working for Barclays Bank. (175)

How very much more understandable was this amnesia in an utterly devastated continental Europe. So bruised parents retreated to their well-tended gardens and shiny consumer goods, while their children complacently explored the counter-culture of the 60s. For those who cared, politics was about current problems, at home and in the third world. Meanwhile the nightmare continued in East Europe (and China, and the Soviet Union), as the past was buried and distorted even more mendaciously. Victims and tormentors had to coexist.

With all the vast documentation of mid-20th-century abominations that has eventually surfaced, it is hard to comprehend Steven Pinker’s detailed thesis in The better angels of our nature that violence has declined over millenia, and that the two world wars were but minor spikes in the grizzly statistics (see also his website, and FAQ). At least, it seems cruelly irrelevant; of course Pinker himself would be the first to encourage memory of modern trauma.

 

 

[1] See e.g. http://ahrp.org/ravensbruck-young-girls-subjected-to-grotesque-medical-atrocities/
http://www.elizabethwein.com/ravensbrueck-rabbits

Homage to Nina Hagen

I unfairly tucked away the mind-blowing Naturträne in a post setting forth from Viv Albertine and the Slits, but Nina Hagen richly deserves her own homage.

Rather like the leader of the free world shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside in Brussels:

(The only logical explanation is that he somehow mistook the occasion for a beauty queen molestation contest with a prize of unlimited ketchup-drenched steaks),

Nina elbows the competition out of the way. In her case the competition includes Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Sid Vicious, and Lady Gaga. As one youtube BTL comment observes, she could be Klaus Nomi’s sister.

Pre-punk, while still in the GDR, her early song Du hast den farbfilm Vergessen (1974) is nuanced:

With all due respect to free healthcare, she is one of the great things to come out of the GDR—which she did, of course, inevitably. Even if the GDR “didn’t always have enough bananas” (my book, p.147), at least Honecker could pat himself on the back for inadvertently nurturing a superstar.

Whether or not you subscribe to Nina’s Weltanschauung, her vocal technique is, um, breathtaking. Here’s a live version of Naturträne:

Some more BTL comments:

This is what comes out when you stuff highly talented kids with best education and at one point they start to think for themselves.

Please, when I die I want to be reincarnated as her mic.

She gives Sid Vicious a run for his money in My way (this also from 1978):

And listen how she subverts Somewhere over the rainbow:

Good to see the Leipzig Big Band accompanying her instead of Bach for a change. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for her version of Erbarme dich, though. OK, she belongs to a particular moment in time—but expressive culture always does, like Bach.

More useful socialist vocabulary

I’ve mentioned several distinctive terms in the vocabulary of former socialist countries, like China and the GDR. But still more usefully:

It’s good to learn that what is called caffé corretto in Italy (an espresso “corrected”, with grappa, or what the Chinese term with blunt accuracy dub “white spirit”) was known in Communist Albania as a Lumumba. (Garton Ash, The file, p.45). Well, you do need a snifter to get through all those Norman Wisdom films. (Cf. elsewhere in north Europe, where it is a somewhat different beverage).

This is rather in the spirit (sic) of the cubalibre[1] one of my favourite tipples in Spain as a change from my standard G&T. By contrast with the mealy-mouthed measures of English pubs (which should come with a microscope), both are notable because you are presented with a large tumbler into which the waiter pours an unlimited quantity of gin/rum/bacardi, leaving only a token amount of room for a casual dash of tonic/coke.

The cubalibre is quite familiar to our Spanish waiter, but I always enjoy the little ritual we go through whereby he looks enquiringly at the range of spirits behind the bar while I specify, with one of my few fluent phrases,

Con Ron, por favor!

Back in Blighty, the Spanish influence on my own domestic aperitifs is clear in my generous measures from the Azure Cloud Bottle—to which my address on the home page pays fitting homage. I ring the changes by buying the occasional bottle of Tanqueray, purely in homage to Amy.

In China, where the 1957 Anti-Rightist backlash following the Hundred Flowers movement was prompted in no small measure by the recent Hungarian uprising, the threat of liberal agitation was charmingly known as Goulash deviationism. That sounds funny to us now, even if at the time it was a taint that could ruin people’s lives and destroy whole families.

The Lumumba never caught on in China—why ever would you want to dilute white spirit? But they did stage a rally to protest his killing in 1961:

[1] “Free Cuba”—descriptive or prescriptive?! Cf. the British tabloid headline “Free Nelson Mandela”, to which a reader wrote in, “I dunno what a Nelson Mandela is, but if it’s free, can I have one please?”

Lives under the GDR

The experiences of Eastern European countries under “socialism”, not to mention the Soviet Union and China, were all very different.

From a comfortable distance, looking at the GDR can seem voyeuristic, some kind of Stasi porn. But perhaps it’s more like “What would we have done?”—as Neil MacGregor asks in Germany: memories of a nation, full of insights on successive eras.

I guess I’m also trying to atone for my lack of curiosity as a touring muso on trips to East Berlin and Dresden in 1979 (playing Elektra with Welsh National Opera), and to Halle and Leipzig in the 80s (playing Bach with John Eliot Gardiner). My readings are also stimulated by my experience of China.

In Leipzig, I already mentioned the fine Forum of Contemporary History, and the Stasi Museum at the Runde Ecke is suitably disturbing. On the exceptional degree of surveillance under the Stasi, I can’t address the literature in German, but two books in English make useful introductions:

  • Anna Funder, Stasiland, a brilliant piece of writing,

and

Garton Ash notes how Stasi is chasing Hitler fast as “Germany’s best export product”:

Ironically, this worldwide identification of Germany with another version of evil is a result of democratic Germany’s own exemplary commitment to expose all the facts about its second twentieth-century dictatorship, not brushing anything under the carpet. (229)

In 1979, when many Western observers were downplaying or ignoring the Stasi, I felt impelled to insist: this is still a secret police state. Don’t forget the Stasi! In 2009, I want to say: yes, but East Germany was not only the Stasi. (230)

The opening up the Stasi records had enormous consequences:

You must imagine conversations like this talking place every evening, in kitchens and sitting-rooms all over Germany. Painful encounters, truth-telling, friendship-demolishing, life-haunting. (105)

The file ponders the wider problems of writing about people’s lives, and memory:

I must explore not just a file but a life: the life of the person I was then. This, in case you were wondering, is not the same as “my life”. What we call “my life” is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. “My life” is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter. (20)

He notes

the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt. How much easier to do it to other people! (37)

The very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artefacts, like an archaeologist letting in fresh air to a sealed Egyptian tomb. […] There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. (96)

Now the galling thing is to discover how much I have forgotten of my own life.
Even today, when I have this minute documentary record—the file, the diary, the letters—I can still only grope towards an imaginative reconstruction of that past me. For each individual self is built, like Renan’s nations, through this continuous remixing of memory and forgetting. But if I can’t even work out what I myself was like fifteen years ago, what chance have I of writing anyone else’s history? (221)

Indeed, my process of writing about people’s lives in China has made me unpack the blurred lines of my own story.

As Garton Ash comes face to face with the people who had informed on him, he experiences constant moral doubts.

As I leave I can see in her eyes that this will haunt her. Not, I think, because of the mere fact of collaboration—she was, after all, a communist in a communist state—but because working with the secret police, being down in the files as an informer, is low and mean. All this is such a far, far cry from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out, a whole lifetime ago, to fight for a better world. And, of course, there will still be the lingering fear of exposure, if not through me then perhaps through someone else.

I now almost wish I had never confronted her. By what right, for what good purpose, did I deny an old lady, who had suffered so much, the grace of selective forgetting? (129)

He notes the irony in the careers of West German academics:

Cultured, liberal men in their thirties or forties, they are scrupulous pathologists of history, trained on the corpses of the Gestapo and SS. Theirs, too, is a peculiarly German story: to spend the first half of your life professionally analyzing one German dictatorship, and the second half professionally analyzing the next, while all the time living in a peaceful, prosperous German democracy. (196)

West Germans, who never themselves had to make the agonizing choices of those who live in a dictatorship, now sit in easy judgement, dismissing East Germany as a country of Stasi spies. […]
Certainly this operation has not torn East German society apart in the way some feared it would. In an agony of despair at being exposed as a Stasi collaborator, one Professor Heinz Brandt reportedly smashed to pieces his unique collection of garden gnomes, including, we are told, the only known specimen of a female gnome. Somehow a perfect image for the end of East Germany. (199)

Two schools of old wisdom face each other across the valley of the files. On one side, there is the old wisdom of the Jewish tradition: to remember is the secret of redemption. And that of George Santayana, so often quoted in relation to Nazism: those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. On the other hand, there is the profound insight of the historian Ernest Renan that every nation is a community both of shared memory and of shared forgetting. (200)

He recognizes the accident of birth:

I was just so lucky. Lucky in the country of my birth. Lucky in my privileged background, my parents, my education. Lucky in true friends like James and Werner. Lucky in my Juliet. Lucky in my choice of profession. Lucky, too, in my cause. For the Central European struggle against communism was a good cause. Born a few years earlier, and I might have been backing the Khmer Rouge against the Americans. Born in a poor family in Bad Kleinen, East Germany, and I might have been Lieutenant Wendt. […]
What you find here is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness. And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty than our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil. It’s true what people often say: we, who have never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship. So who are we to condemn? But equally: who are we to forgive? “Do not forgive,” writes the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,
Do not forgive, for truly it is not in your power to forgive
In the name of those who were betrayed at dawn.
These Stasi officers and informers had victims. Only their victims have the right to forgive. (223–4)

He notes people’s withdrawal into private lives:

Intelligent, well-educated, well-informed through watching Western television, they nonetheless devoted virtually all their energies to their private lives, and particularly to extending, decorating and maintaining their cottage on a small lake some half-an-hour’s drive from Berlin. […] My friend Andrea too, concentrated on private life, bringing up her small children in the charmed atmosphere of a run-down old villa on the very outskirts of Berlin. There were lazy afternoons in the garden, bicycle-rides, sailing and swimming in the lakes. (66)

The intersection of family and political history is well described in

a microcosm of modern Germany. I’m also most impressed by

—not least by the author’s amazing counter-cultural parents: compared to the lives of my own parents, theirs have been anything but drab.

To return to The file, Garton Ash observes the insidious use of language:

The process for which English has no word but German has two long ones: Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “Treating”, “working through”, “coming to terms with”, or even “overcoming” the past. The second round of German past-beating, refined through the experience of the first round, after Hitler. (194)

And after my citing an over-generous definition of the Chinese term dundian, in German not just words but definitions can be expansive too. Abschöpfung is

laboriously defined in the 1985 Stasi dictionary as “systematic conduct of conversations for the targeted exploitation of the knowledge, information and possibilities of other persons for gaining information”. The nearest English equivalent, I suppose, is “pumping”. (108)

Garton Ash goes on to ponder the surveillance system of his own country:

The domestic spies in a free country live in this professional paradox: they infringe our liberties in order to protect them. But we have another paradox: we support the system by questioning it. That’s where I stand. (220)

And

Thirty years ago, when I went to live in East Germany, I was sure that I was travelling from a free country to an unfree one. I wanted my East German friends to enjoy more of what we had. Now they do. In fact, East Germans today have their individual privacy better protected by the state than we do in Britain. Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken these things for granted. You value health most when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all. (232)

German fictional treatments of the period include

  • Christa Wolf, They divided the sky, and
  • Eugen Ruge, In times of fading light.

And then there are films like Barbara (2012)

and The lives of others, perceptively reviewed by Garton Ash.

Going back a little further, among innumerable portraits of ordinary German lives compromised, warped, under Nazism, I admire

  • Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin.

***

The nuance and detail of studies like those of Garton Ash contrast with Dikötter’s blunt and pitiless agenda in exposing the undeniable iniquities of the Maoist system.

While China and Germany were utterly different, parallels are explored by

  • Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan,

and by Ian Johnson.

But for China, archives, and even memory, remain hard to access. For the Maoist era, the literature on the famine is growing—note especially Wu Wenguang’s memory project. Among fictional treatments, few films are as verismo as The blue kite and To live, or (for the last throes of Maoism) the films of Jia Zhangke. Chinese novels too either tend towards magical realism or over-dramatizing.

A major contribution to civilization

It seems that, like the Bolton Choral Society in their own chosen métier, my goal of Encapsulating the Intricacies of the oeuvre of Flann O’Brien recedes ever further.

Ian Sansom reflected on his mixed success:

Imagine: you’re better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington.

I take the point, but for many fellow-Flanneurs it may seem beside the point. His oeuvre is Sue E. Generis (if Myles didn’t say that, then it must have been me), self-standing—which, allegedly, is more than he was.

How can I have been so remiss as to neglect Timothy O’Keefe’s edited volume Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan (1973)? Fortunately, my old friend Rod (himself an honorable, nay upstanding, member of the Royal Society of Flannologists) has stepped into the unsavoury breach of my Stygian ignorance [Hope we wiped his feet afterwards—Ed.], drawing my attention to a fine reminiscence therein by Niall Sheridan:

His interest soon shifted to a suggestion of mine—the All-Purpose Opening Speech. This was to be one endless sentence, grammatically correct, and so devoid of meaning that it could be used on any conceivable occasion: inaugurating a President, consecrating a Cathedral, laying a foundation-stone, presenting an inscribed watch to a long-standing employee. This notion delighted him, and he decided it must be given to the world, translated into every known language. If nation could speak fluently to nation, without any risk of communicating anything, international tension would decline. The Speech would be a major contribution to civilization, enabling any inarticulate lout who might lever himself into power to emerge (after a brief rehearsal) as a new Demosthenes.

I was to make the original draft in English. Denis Devlin was to undertake the translation in French and Brian himself would do the Irish and German versions.

I can remember only the opening portions of the Speech, which ran (still incomplete) to some 850 words:

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, and reluctant as I am to parade my inability before such a critical and distinguished gathering, comprising—need I say—all that is best in the social, political, and intellectual life of our country, a country, I may add, which has played no inconsiderable part in the furthering of learning and culture, not to speak of religion, throughout all the lands of the known globe, where, although the principles inculcated in that learning and that culture have now become temporarily obfuscated in the pursuit of values as meretricious in seeming as they must prove inadequate in realisation, nevertheless, having regard to the ethnical and moral implications of the contemporary situation, etc, etc, etc.”

When the translations had been completed we had a reading in Devlin’s home. Any rubbish can be made to sound impressive in French, and Denis had produced a superb version, rhythmic, mellifluous and authoritative. It conveyed (to our delight and amazement) even less meaning than the original.

Brian (who delighted in the simplest sleight-of-hand) whipped a walrus moustache from his pocket, fixed it under his nose and read his Irish version, in a wickedly accurate impersonation of our Professor of Irish, Dr Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland.

“What do you think of that?” he asked, looking from one to the other.

Denis told him that he admired his brio but deplored his occasional slurring of consonants. I told him that listening to his delivery was like wading through warm stirabout at one’s feet.

Undeterred by this mixed reception, Brian quickly replaced the walrus moustache with a toothbrush affair and poured out his German translation in imitation of Hitler at a Nuremberg rally. As he ground out the Teutonic gutturals, spitting and snarling in comic menace, he knew that he had made the hit of the evening.

Actually, if the speech wasn’t already in use then, it has since become entirely standard.

Talking of inarticulate louts levering themselves into power, this seems all the more necessary in our own fractured age.

And vis-à-vis my own Catechism of Chinese Cliché, must I now gird my loins for a Chinese version of their fine creation?

Trauma: music, art, objects

Norman Lebrecht has long laid bare the links of celebrated senior conductors (as well as Karajan…) to Nazism: it’s one subtext of his fine book The maestro myth.

I just read his review of Fritz Trümpi, The political orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich.

The book actually takes the story through to our own times. As Lebrecht observes, neither orchestra emerges with any credit—indeed, it’s a shocking story.

For me, as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra (of GB), another inspiring conductor (apart from Boulez) was Rudolf Schwarz (1905–94). Member of the Vienna Philharmonic in his youth, later inmate  of Auschwitz and Belsen, after the liberation of the camps he eventually ended up in Bournemouth, remoulding the orchestra there. His Bruckner 7 with the NYO was wonderful—all the more intense with his laboured conducting style, partly the legacy of a broken shoulder blade in Auschwitz. Never a superstar in the Karajan mould (which was why musicians appreciated him), he was a formative influence on the young Simon Rattle, my contemporary in the NYO.

Bruckner 7 is in the incandescent key of E major, just like the basic scale of the Li family Daoists’ shengguan music—I often think of it while I listen to the shengguan piercing the bright blue sky of rural north China.

Meanwhile, as Rudi was being dragged through the camps, here’s Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Adagio with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942. Like Philippe Sands’ choice of Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 in 1938— and just as with Daoist ritual—we have to personalise such seemingly disembodied works, and place them in time.

Furtwängler’s relationship with Nazism has been much debated. Generally reluctant to collaborate, he did what he could, even helping some Jews escape, and with close ties to the resistence. Yet inevitably people baulk at his participation in events like this Beethoven 9 for Hitler’s birthday, also in 1942:

Lebrecht sums up his legacy (The maestro myth, p.93):

In Furtwängler the Nazis retained an interpreter who performed German music with undiminished conviction while genocide was committed in his name. By opting to remain, he endowed the Nazis with cultural respectability at a  crucial moment in their ascent, and in wartime gave moral sustenance to their cause. In his confrontations with tyranny, Furtwängler proved a feeble adversary who was all too easily manoeuvred into outright collusion. The humanity he expressed in music was was traduced and travestied by his paymasters. His legacy as a performer may well be among the most significant in the annals of conducting, but his conduct under political pressure compromised the very profession on which he wielded so formative an influence.

Still, it’s easy for us to say that. Reflecting on the Nazi era from the perspective of our blessed safety from invasion and  agonising choices, Neil MacGregor poses the disturbing question “What would we have done?” In his brilliant 2014 book Germany: memories of a nation (and no less enchanting are his podcasts—the perfect Radio 4 voice!), using both works of art and everyday material objects, he ponders how we can fit the great humanistic traditions of Germany into the same picture with Nazi barbarism. And having suffered throughout this whole period, people of Central and Eastern Europe would still have to continue making appalling moral choices for decades to come.

Apart from MacGregor’s astute discussions of earlier historical artefacts, one can’t help being drawn into those from more recent history—like the slogan (“to each what they are due”) above the camp gates of Buchenwald—just a few miles outside the Weimar of Goethe and Bach:

MacGregor observes the noble lineage of words that had once signified an ideal of justice—the very words that Bach used as the title of a cantata in 1715 Weimar. Indeed, as a prelude to John Eliot Gardiner’s epoch-making Bach Cantata Pilgrimage all through 2000, I played a modest role in the Christmas oratorio at the Herderkirche in Weimar:

Next day we all visited Buchenwald.

I’m not sure we can derive any encouragement from MacGregor’s idea that the stylish lettering of those words above the gate (designed by an inmate, Communist and former Bauhaus student Franz Ehrlich) might be read by fellow inmates as a subtly subversive message that the SS would eventually get their just deserts. By the way, Ehrlich survived, also disturbingly, to become a Stasi informant under the GDR.

MacGregor gives a fine diachronic survey of Käthe Kollwitz’s work,

as well as the incarnations and migrations of Barlach’s Hovering angel (1926),

along with reflections on Remembrance ceremonies.

But he also discusses movingly the “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen) who rebuilt shattered Germany after the war, and objects such as a little hand-cart pulled by refugees from Eastern Pomerania in late 1945— now reminding us tellingly of the refugee crises of our own day.

The wonderful Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig has a similar exhibit.

But to return to Trümpi’s book, this tale of two orchestras brings us, shamefully, right up to the lives of my generation and later. It was not until 2013 that the Vienna Philharmonic revoked the Ring of Honour it had bestowed on three leading figures in the Nazi genocide—including Richard Strauss’s patron Baldur von Schirach, who (also in 1942) described the deportation he oversaw of 65,000 Viennese Jews to the death camps as a “contribution to European culture”. Indeed, our feelings about those celebrated Viennese New Year’s concerts can’t help being stained by learning that it was Schirach who instigated them.

As an aside, these orchestras haven’t exactly been at the forefront of gender equality either. Competing hotly in the misogyny stakes with “Rear Admiral” Foley, Karl Böhm (a Great Maestro far more flawed than was Furtwängler) is quoted as saying that “the Nazis aren’t that bad—they want to eliminate women from politics.” Digging himself into a deeper hole, he went on, “Of course, not all women are worthless—Rainer Maria Rilke [sic] wrote some good poems.”

And now there are new causes for anxiety, threatening all the liberal values that have been achieved so painfully over several centuries.