Tag Archives: Adolf Hitler

Fatherland

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Counterfactual history, i.e. the question “what would have happened if …” the events would not have taken the well-known historical, but another conceivable path, has become in recent years – at least according to my impression – an increasingly popular narrative vehicle in literary fiction. The Nazi era in particular seems to be a prolific territory for this genre, just think of works as diverse as Philip Roth’s “Conspiracy against America”, Timur Vermes’ “Look Who’s Back” or Robert Harris’ “Fatherland”, the work I am reviewing here.

Harris, until then known as a journalist and non-fiction author, reported in detail for the press in the Anglo-Saxon countries about the “Hitler diaries”, which the German magazine “Stern” had “discovered” in the 80s. (These diaries proved of course to be a hoax, and it is difficult to understand how anyone could in all seriousness believe in the authenticity of these amateurishly made up “diaries”.) In the course of his preoccupation with this period, Harris wondered how Europe would have looked like if the Nazis would have achieved their war goals. The result was his first novel “Fatherland”, published in 1992.

Berlin, 1964: The Nazis have won WWII and have created a Europe dominated by the Greater German Reich. The borders of the Reich extend to the Urals, behind which the remains of the Soviet Union, with which there are still border skirmishes, has withdrawn. While 11 million Jews have been “resettled” and then disappeared without a trace (nobody dares to ask questions about this topic), and the Slavic population has been decimated and turned into slave laborers, millions of Germans have taken over the conquered territories in the framework of a huge resettlement program. In these newly conquered territories however, dissatisfaction is rising and partisan raids have reached an increasingly dangerous level. The European Union, a creation of Nazi Germany and of course dominated by it, has its headquarters in Berlin; its members are independent only by name but de facto satellite states of Nazi Germany; a separate peace was concluded with Great Britain and the USA; the only remaining free country on the European continent is Switzerland. Berlin, which has been fundamentally redesigned by Speer according to Hitler’s megalomanic plans, is preparing for the celebrations of the dictator’s 75th birthday (Harris follows in his novel until about 1942 the actual biographies of the Nazi elite and then switches on his “counterfactual mode”.). While some notable Nazi officials such as Goering or Himmler are already dead in the novel, others such as Goebbels – who still requires attractive actresses to come to him for an “audition” – or Heydrich, Hitler’s potential successor, who controls the Gestapo and SD apparatus, are still in office. 

This is the backdrop in front of which the plot unfolds, and in the beginning the reader seems to be in a classic detective novel. The corpse of an old man is pulled from a lake near Berlin. Both the identity of the man and the cause of death are initially unknown and it looks first like a routine case for the responsible investigator of the criminal police, detective Xavier March.

However, the peculiarities accumulate in the framework of the investigation, and the experienced March smells soon that there is something fishy about this case (I want to avoid spoilers and will therefore not convey too much of the plot). Having established the identity of the dead – it is a Nazi of the first hour – and March, thanks to the conspiratorial assistance of an old friend who now works in the gigantic party archives, discovers a startling parallel with the recent deaths of other prominent Nazis. The traces of all these deaths lead back to the year 1942, to a villa on the Wannsee, where the organization of the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was discussed. Could it be that Heydrich wants to cover up all traces and kill all surviving participants of this conference? And why is March suddenly crossing paths on more than one occasion with Odilo Globocnik, the sadistic and brutal bloodhound of Heydrich? Why is an important eyewitness suddenly dead? Is it all somehow connected with the planned meeting between Hitler and US President Joseph Kennedy (the anti-Semite and father of John F. Kennedy)? After all, since the announcement of a planned pact between Nazi Germany and the United States, the popularity of the US president in the polls has increased so much that his re-election seems certain. (The US Ambassador in Berlin, Charles Lindbergh, also a Nazi sympathizer, certainly is the right man in the right place in Harris’ novel.) Of course, the sudden emergence of documents that prove the full extent of the Holocaust, would be in such a sensitive situation diplomatically more than inconvenient.

The case is withdrawn from March, who is supposed to not uncover the truth; and he becomes a target of the State Police himself; nevertheless, March keeps on investigating in secret and discovers what is at the bottom of all these cases; the situation becomes increasingly dangerous for March, but he has no choice…

The plot is not all that matters in Fatherland. The protagonist of the book who is formally belonging to the SS, but who in the past has been plagued by doubts about the official party line and politics, is increasingly removing himself from the regime he has served for many years. The description of this process is almost as exciting and convincing as the thriller plot itself.

Fatherland is an absolute page turner; after I started reading, I could not put the book down until I had finished it. I do not want to say that this is a literary masterpiece, but it’s a very entertaining and exciting read and for some readers also the documents about the Wannsee conference in the novel may be something new.

The book has some weaknesses: first of all, the absolutely impossible name of the main character and the very clichéd female protagonist and love-interest of March, an American journalist (here Harris seems to have been already too much preoccupied regarding the later movie) are not convincing.

However, the book is really exciting and you can tell that the author has done his homework regarding the Nazi era and its ideology. The strongest part of the book for me is when Harris describes the leaden, nightmarish atmosphere in Berlin in 1964; the mistrust and fear in which people live in this totalitarian society; the instrumentalization of even the closest family ties (exemplified by the betrayal of March by his own son); the suppression of truth and historical facts and the self-censorship of thoughts. There is nothing great about the victorious Greater German Reich, beyond the dimensions of a deeply inhuman architecture, which aims at intimidation, the demonstration of absolute power, and the reduction of the masses to a mere ornament.

All in all, and despite the weaknesses mentioned, a worthwhile and entertaining book that encourages the reader to learn more about the Nazi era and totalitarian dictatorships in general. 

Robert Harris: Fatherland, Arrow Books 2017

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

News from Retardistan (5): The silence of the lambs

Honestly, I cannot understand why most Bulgarian intellectuals don’t say a word about the fact that many of the places where they are usually buying their books are being more and more turned into locations where Nazi publishers are selling pamphlets that are advertising an inhumane ideology, racial hatred and mass murder. No wonder that in this climate, anti-Semitism shows its ugly face also outside the bookstores as this excerpt from the excellent book A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria shows.

It seems to be normal for most Bulgarian intellectuals to see Hitler’s My Struggle, Henry Ford’s The International Jew, and other extremely revolting books that either advertise mass murder, deny the Holocaust, or are apologies of war criminals being prominently advertised and promoted literally almost everywhere, or what is the reason for the silence of most of the Bulgarian intellectual elite in this case?

Do they think that the widespread promotion of such books in their country doesn’t concern them? Do they think someone might be offended when they raise their voice to confront those people who help to distribute extermination manuals? Are they afraid to be physically threatened if they speak out against right-wing extremism and Nazism? (I have to admit that this is unfortunately a very real threat as I learned during my public argument with a revisionist and anti-Semitic so-called “historian” – the “fan mail” by his friends gave me a very interesting insight in the moral scruffiness and deprivation of this part of the extreme right wing of the intellectual lumpenproletariat in Bulgaria; it contrasted rather typically and unfavourably with the almost complete lack of public support for my position by most of my intellectual friends – but do not worry, I have an extremely high frustration tolerance.)

Do they think it is a sign of democracy and freedom of expression when those who either deny the holocaust or who would like to commit mass murder, erect concentration camps, and sterilize by force certain groups of the Bulgarian population if they could are not only allowed to propagate their inhumane ideology without limits, but are even supported by a coalition of silent intellectuals and a public that seems to be completely uninformed about history and uninterested in what is going on in their country, in which revisionists, fascists and openly Nazi groups are taking more and more over the public discourse on certain topics? What kind of “democrats” would have the idea to promote a law that bans the use of certain communist symbols under threat of a prison sentence, but who seem to be fine with the promotion of mass murder under the banner of revisionism, fascism, and Nazism?

Hate speech against minorities is not the exception, but the rule in Bulgaria, and very few people seem to care. A real democracy and pluralist society requires that people raise their voice and set limits to this domination of the public sphere by revisionist, fascist and Nazi propaganda; intellectuals have a particular responsibility to speak out when it comes to these issues. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Bulgarian intellectuals seems to be sound asleep – this intellectual indolence, laziness and cowardice when it comes to confront this pest in Bulgaria is something very sad, disappointing, and depressing. 

Fortunately a few bookstores are consciously not following this trend and a few intellectuals voice their concern. A few bookstores and a few intellectuals, yes. But a real public discussion on a large scale about this problem doesn’t take place, nor seem many people who should know it better even to be aware at all of the issue. As long as it is like this, the enemies of democracy and a pluralist society have a field day in Bulgaria.

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The above mentioned book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Jewish and/or Bulgarian history:

Dimana Trankova, Anthony Georgieff: A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria, Vagabond Media, Sofia 2011

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

News from Retardistan (4)

A bookstore in Sofia – the same about which I reported recently, the one which advertised Hitler’s My Struggle as “Hit” and put it in such a tasteful manner on a table beside á book of holocaust survivor Primo Levi:

To my surprise, Hitler’s book has finally disappeared from the prominently placed table (Primo Levi too). Has someone read my posting and realized that a book that is advertising the extermination of the Jews, published by a Nazi publishing house and with a portrait of Hitler on the cover that was an official portrait supposed to glorify him and that is obviously targeting an audience of raging anti-Semites and Nazis should not be sold in an establishment that is selling books? Unfortunately not!

My Struggle has not disappeared, but has moved to an even more prominent place: now you see this vile rag of a book in several copies almost jumping in your face when you enter this bookstore, placed on a display rack which every person that enters must notice.

And it goes without saying that the place previously occupied by My Struggle has found a “worthy” placeholder: Henry Ford’s The International Jew in Bulgarian edition, one of the main “inspirations” of Hitler and not much less radical regarding the “solution” of the “Jewish problem” as My Struggle.

Let me guess: when I visit this “establishment” (I avoid the word bookshop) next time, I will probably see Ford replaced by the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion“? Or Celine’s “Bagatelles pour un massacre“? Or the “Leuchter Report“? And in the children’s section maybe an edition of pornographic/anti-Semitic pictures from Julius Streicher’s “Der Stürmer”, labeled as usually with “Hit” and maybe in this case with the additional tasteful sticker “great educational value!”, preferably placed beside the The Diary of Anne Frank?.

Retardistan is a place where nice books that spread certain “values” even in the last household are held in great esteem, a place where people of a certain “culture” have it very easy to find what is arousing their interest and honestly, isn’t it great to find books that promote mass murder, systematic extermination of people and extreme racial hatred without any effort? Hail Retardistan! 

(Irony button “off”)


News from Retardistan (3)

A bookstore in Sofia, at the table with the best and most-interesting newly arrived books. And what do I see? Hitler’s My Struggle, marked as a “Hit” – and just beside it a book by Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz.

I am speechless.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Kraus Project

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This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen is a hybrid book.

It contains on the upper part of each page on the left side the original German text of four essays and a poem by the Austrian author Karl Kraus, mirrored by the English translation of the respective text on the opposite right page.

On the lower part of each page are numerous footnotes that are sometimes longer than Kraus’ text itself.  The footnotes are partly by Jonathan Franzen, partly by the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter, partly by the German-Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, like Franzen an admirer of Kraus. Franzen is also the translator of Kraus’ texts.

Since Karl Kraus is almost unknown in the English-speaking world, the publisher obviously thought it a good idea to bring this book on the market with Jonathan Franzen as author on the title page. But again, this book is a translated and annotated collection of some of Kraus’ texts.

A few words about Karl Kraus:

coming from a wealthy assimilated Jewish family, Kraus grew up in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Vienna was at that time a melting pot of people and ideas. Literature and theater (two lifelong passions of Kraus) were at its height, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis that revolutionized later many aspects of our lives, Mahler and Schönberg revolutionized music, Adolf Loos, Kraus closest friend revolutionized architecture, the Vienna school of economists revolutionized economics, the Vienna Circle and Ludwig Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy. All kind of modern ideologies came to light in that period in Vienna, including the “modern” racial Antisemitism and its natural reaction, Zionism, whose main propagandist was the journalist Theodor Herzl, a former colleague of Kraus who would become one of his most hated targets.

“Vienna’s streets are paved with culture; the streets of other capitals are paved with asphalt”,

is a popular aphorism by Kraus.

In this hotbed of culture and ideologies the typical Kaffeehauskultur developed where each faction of intellectuals had their favorite coffeehouses where they met and engaged in group and cartel building, gossiping, writing and reading. Kraus was part of this culture, but never belonged to any group. One of his most remarkable features is that he successfully obtained his absolute independence during all his intellectual life.

Kraus’ main “work” are the roughly 40,000 pages of his journal Die Fackel (The Torch), which he published between 1899 and 1936. In the first years, he admitted every now and then guest authors but from 1912 on, he wrote the journal exclusively by himself.

Die Fackel had a blog-like feel: Kraus’ was publishing whenever he had something to say and about whatever he felt he needed something to say. Although literature and theater were always prominent topics in Die Fackel, Kraus was an avid reader of the Austrian and foreign press – and from here he took most of his inspirations.

Kraus was writing about foreign and local policy, about the situation of workers in the factories, about women’s rights, he was an early advocate of equal rights of homosexuals, and he was an everyday observer of the journalism in Austria, which was in an extremely bad shape according to Kraus.

This opposition to the frequently badly written journalism made Kraus many enemies, especially since he combined it with irony and sarcasm, but also with undeniable truths. His lawyer was for sure a very busy man and it is said that Kraus won almost all his court cases. He knew the rules and acted within these rules very efficiently to expose corruption, nepotism, stupidity and wrong use of language.

He did all this in a unique style, frequently playing with words and creating a richness of aphorisms that may be rivaled only by Lichtenberg. He was also a stage persona: he gave more than 700 performances reading, singing, acting alone on a stage – his audience consisted mainly of addicted Kraus fans; Elias Canetti for example said in his autobiography that he visited more than 300 of Kraus’ unique performances. Kraus must have been a magnetic personality that had many people under his spell.

The two main pieces in The Kraus Project are Kraus’ most famous essays on the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine and on the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy.

Heine is for Kraus on the one hand a great and extremely popular poet. Many of his poems were turned into popular songs and are part of the folk poetry. But Heine’s followers turn his spirit into something superficial. And this is not by accident, it is because of specific virtues in Heine’s works. In Kraus’ times there was a firm belief of many intellectuals that there was a deep difference between Romance and German culture. As Kraus put it:

Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest of materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry? He’d surely still rather live among the Germans. For although they’ve strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they’ve also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren window frames. Just spare me the pretty ribbons!…”

Austria, although linguistically part of German culture, is for Kraus deeply affected by the “French” poet Heine. Even the biggest Anti-semites “forgave” Heine his Jewish origin, just because his verses appeal so much to the tendency of most of the Vienna literati to gloss over everything with patches of jokes and irony. (I owe The Kraus Project the information that young Adolf Hitler in his Vienna years supported an initiative to build a monument for Heine – Heine’s poems were later not removed from the school books in Nazi Germany, just his name; it was all supposed to be “folk poetry” then).

While the Heine essay is very acerbic in it’s evaluation of the poems of this great German writer, the big hater Kraus shows in the other main essay that he can be also a great admirer and lover: he re-discovers the Austrian actor, singer, playwright Johann Nestroy, a popular performer of the first part of the 19th century who fell into oblivion soon after his death.

That Nestroy is nowadays considered to be one of the greatest authors for theater in German  is almost exclusively a result of the decades of Kraus’ efforts to make him again popular. I love Nestroy’s plays, and there is hardly anything (with the exception of Shakespeare, and the obscure play Datterich by Ernst Elias Niebergall, written in Darmstadt dialect) that I enjoy more on a stage than his plays. To me, the Nestroy essay is Kraus’s best essay – the Heine piece, although very interesting, shows also a side of Kraus that is not very appealing: the text is not free from Anti-semitic slurs.

Franzen’s translation is a heroic and brave effort and mostly very decent in my opinion. Kraus is extremely difficult to translate and that he tackled this task deserves a lot of respect.

The footnotes are frequently related directly to the text. Paul Reitter adds a lot of his knowledge about Kraus, much to the profit of the reader. Also many of Franzen’s and Kehlmann’s footnotes are interesting. The one thing that surprised me was that Franzen is dragging the reader a lot into his personal life during the time he lived in Germany and Austria as a student. We learn many details about the person Jonathan Franzen, including the story of his failed first marriage, and a short bout of mental illness when he was in Germany. If you like Jonathan Franzen as an author (I do), you might as well enjoy this part of the annotations, but if not you will have to skip some of them. I am still wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to split the book in two: a translation of Kraus only, and a longer essay with Franzen’s view of Kraus.

Kraus was a larger-than-life author. His play Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) is about 800 pages long. The Kraus Project gives some insight in part of his work, but those who would like to discover the full Kraus and also the Vienna of his times (because most of his work can be only understood from the context) should maybe read in parallel also Carl Schorske’s excellent book Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.

Let me close with a poem by Karl Kraus in which he explains why he kept silent for a long time after the Nazis took power in Germany:

Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke.
I have nothing to say
and won’t say why.
And there’s stillness since the earth broke.
No word was right;
a man speaks only from his sleep at night.
And dreams of a sun that joked.
It passes; and later
it didn’t matter.
The Word went under when that world awoke,

Man frage nicht, was all die Zeit ich machte.
Ich bleibe stumm;
und sage nicht, warum.
Und Stille gibt es, da die Erde krachte.
Kein Wort, das traf;
man spricht nur aus dem Schlaf.
Und träumt von einer Sonne, welche lachte.
Es geht vorbei;
nachher war’s einerlei.
Das Wort entschlief, als jene Welt erwachte.

kraus-project

Jonathan Franzen: The Kraus Project, Fourth Estate, London 2013

Carl Emil Schorske: Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Vintage 1980

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.