A Most English Princess by Clare McHugh

Standard

The idea for this was brilliant, the execution rather less so.  It’s the author’s first novel, so maybe allowances should be made, but do editors just not proof-read the books?  Using “England” and “Britain” interchangeably is a common problem in books by American authors, admittedly, but I’m pretty sure that no-one in the 1860s would have used the expression “golden ticket”!   However, the subject matter, the life of Vicky, the Princess Royal, later the Empress Frederick, is fascinating: there’s an excellent biography of her, but she’s been overlooked by novelists.

The style of writing is more suited to a young adult novel than adult historical fiction – don’t be expecting anything of the calibre of Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Penman – but the characterisation is accurate and the factual information’s all in there … Vicky’s childhood, her early marriage, her rather unhappy life in Berlin, and the tragic story of how the unification of Germany, which Prince Albert mistakenly thought would be a force for good, turned into a triumph for Prussian militarism.

The book rather strangely stops short in 1871, as the Franco-Prussian war ends and Vicky’s father-in-law is proclaimed Emperor of Germany, with Bismarck as Chancellor.  Maybe the author’s planning a sequel?  At that point, things could still have turned differently, if Vicky and her husband Fritz had had their chance … but they never did.  It’s one of the great “What ifs?” of modern history.

The rather childlike style of writing works quite well in the early chapters, when Vicky’s a young girl. However, it does become rather irritating later on, once she’s married.  The actual content is so interesting, though – the hostility she faced in Berlin, the conflict within the Prussian royal family, her son Willy’s disability and the weird and rather horrific treatments he was subjected to (would he have turned out differently if he’d not been put through all that?), the wars against Denmark, Austria and Prussia, and the triumph of reaction and militarism.

It’s historically accurate, which is always a huge plus point, and the characters do come across well.  It’s very biased towards Vicky, and against the Prussian court, but I’d have found it strange if it hadn’t been.  The name “Prussia” was wiped off the map after the Second World War, and survives only, in is Latinised version, in the names of football teams: that’s how negative the view of Prussia was, especially in Anglophone countries, and I think that that feeling still lingers, one way and another.  When you look at what went on, especially the attitude towards Catholics and Jews, it’s hard to find too much to praise in the regime of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I.  The causes of the Great War are more debatable, but that was after Vicky’s time.

We also see a lot of her family life – and it does give quite a positive portrayal of her relationship with Willy, which became so difficult later on.  Her sister Alice features quite a lot too, although it’s very odd that their brother Leopold’s haemophilia isn’t mentioned.  Again, it’s all very accurate, but the style of writing really doesn’t work that well in what’s meant to be a historical novel for adults, and includes so much about political history.

All in all, not a bad first effort, and a brilliant choice of subject, but the style of writing really could have been a lot better.

 

The Keeper

Standard

This was a rather romanticised and Roy-of-the-Rovers-ised version of the Bert Trautmann story, and it certainly wasn’t historically (or geographically) accurate, but it was an entertaining film and all the main points were there. In summary – I always thought everyone knew this story, but I gather not everyone does! – Bert Trautmann, a 22-year-old German soldier, was taken prisoner in 1945 and brought to North West England as a POW. He chose to remain here rather than be repatriated, and began playing for St Helens Town as a goalkeeper. In 1949, he was signed by City, and there was an almighty row: people were genuinely very shocked and distressed that a top-level club, especially one in a city with a large Jewish community, had signed someone who’d fought for the Nazis. There were big protests, a lot of letters of complaint were sent, and season tickets were returned. Rabbi Alexander Altmann, who’d come to Manchester as a refugee and lost both his parents and many other relatives and friends in the Holocaust, wrote a very courageous letter to a local paper, urging people not to blame one man for the war and the atrocities carried out by the Third Reich.

Things calmed down here, although for a while Trautmann continued to be abused at away matches, but eventually he won widespread respect, especially after he famously played the last 17 minutes of the 1956 Cup Final, which City won, with a broken neck. Tragically, a few months later, his 5-year-old son was killed in a car crash. Despite everything, he carried on playing, is regarded with great respect in Manchester by City fans and we United fans alike, is seen as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and was awarded an honorary OBE for his work in improving Anglo-German relations. It’s a hell of a story even without film-makers romanticising it! Very watchable film, and wonderful use of Abide With Me, the Cup Final hymn which means a lot to so many people. I missed this at the pictures, but it’s out on Sky now, and is recommended viewing.

The timescale was all a bit bonkers in this – one minute it was VE Day, then the next minute the prisoners were being repatriated, and a minute after that it was 1949 – but, OK, you can only fit so much into a two-hour film, and I understand that they didn’t want to spend ages showing him in three different camps. It was all very romanticised, though! In this version of events, he was showing off his goalkeeping skills at the POW camp (as you do!) when his future wife and future father-in-law turned up to deliver some goods from their shop, and his future father-in-law talent-spotted him for St Helens Town, and invited him to work at his shop and move in with his family!  Then drove home through miles and miles of stunning open countryside, up hill and down dale … between Ashton-in-Makerfield and St Helens.  The East Lancs Road does not look like that, believe me! It is, however, true that he played for St Helens Town, and married the daughter of the club secretary. And, OK, it was all very Roy of the Rovers this way, especially as they had him saving the club from relegation, so I suppose it made for good viewing.

Then he signed for City. There’d been some unease at St Helens Town, but they, with all due respect, were a small non-league club.  City were a First Division club, and one with thousands of Jewish fans to boot.  The film did show the protests, and it did mention the rabbi’s letter, and show the famous scene in the dressing room in which the club captain said that there was no war there, but … well, whilst we all know what happened during the war, I thought it should still have made it clearer just why people were so upset. Some clips from the radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials would probably have been the best way of doing it, along with some shots of the damage done by the air raids.  It did, to be fair, show flashbacks to him witnessing a young child being shot dead in the Nazis in Ukraine – but, in fact, he saw a full-scale Einsatzgruppen massacre.  Maybe it would have been too much to have shown a re-creation of that in the film.  And yet maybe they should have done – as much to show how much he had to cope with as to show how much City fans and everyone else had to deal with.

They did mention his having won the Iron Cross, and there were some vague references to “war crimes”, but I just didn’t feel that it fully got across the depth of anti-German feeling in the UK at the time and the reasons for it. I don’t know how people at the time came to terms with the Nuremberg Trials, with the details of what the Nazis did. I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be a war documentary, but I thought it could have tried harder to show the effect that that hearing about the Nazi atrocities had on people, and why that made it so difficult for everyone to accept a former Nazi soldier joining a leading club. There was a lot of very 21st-century sounding talk about forgiveness and someone trying to find a new home, but I did feel that some more explanation was needed.

And I think they could also have done with, rather than just going on about how he had no choice, talking more about how he went into the Hitler Youth at the age of 9.  Because of Jojo Rabbit – although obviously this film predates that one – there’s quite a bit of talk at the moment about the indoctrination of children.  Lads like Trautmann joined the junior branch of the Hitler Youth as if it were like joining the Cubs – it was somewhere where they could get involved in sports, have fun with their friends.  So they were indoctrinated from a very early age.  It’s important to understand that.

However, you can only get so much into a film.  And it wasn’t meant to be a documentary.  And, as I’ve said, the main points were there.  It was a difficult time.  It was brave of Trautmann to stand his ground, when he was getting death threats, and being abused at every match.  And braver yet of Rabbi Altmann to get involved, after everything that had happened to him. He really was a hero.

Anyway, after that, we got lots of football, some of it actual film from the time. I think there was a bit of Bertie Magoo-ing going on here, though! Come on, how do you make a football film set in Manchester in the 1950s and not even mention the Busby Babes?! They could at least have shown Trautmann’s testimonial, when he captained a combined United-City XI. Or maybe it was just that the film didn’t have much sense of Manchester at all. Most of it was filmed in Northern Ireland!

I’ve always been quite sad that I was born too late for that era, when many United fans would go to watch City when United were away, and many City fans would go to watch United when City were away, without the unpleasantness that developed in the rivalries between different clubs later on.  We still get that Wider Football Family feeling sometimes, especially in times of trouble, but it’s not like it was then.

Heigh-ho!  But the way they showed the legendary 1956 Cup Final was great. And then … I could hardly watch the bit where the little lad was killed, knowing what was coming. Then … well, there was a strange scene in which Trautmann had a fight in a cemetery with a sergeant from the POW camp, whose wife and children had been killed in the Christmas Blitz, and who persuaded him to carry on playing. And then it showed flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Ukraine, and showed him telling his wife that he felt that their son’s death was his punishment for not intervening to stop the murder of a child there.

I don’t know where the idea that he felt it was karma came from, and I’m assuming it was fictional, but it was very powerful, especially with “Abide With Me” playing in the background, and it was a reminder of how difficult it must have been for those who fought for the Nazis to deal with it all.  There’s a lot of tension over Holocaust remembrance at the moment, and the authorities in some countries seem keen to play down aspects of what happened.  That’s wrong in so many ways.  We need to keep talking about it.  All aspects of it.

The film didn’t tell us that the Trautmanns’ marriage sadly ended as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of one of their children, but it did tell us about all the awards Trautmann received, both for his football and for his work in the community.  His story really is incredible.  Carrying on playing in a Cup Final with a broken neck would be story enough, but the story of the Nazi soldier – and he was initially classified as a Nazi whilst he was a POW – who became a hero in English football is something that you just couldn’t make up.

Football can do that.  It can bring people together.  It’s not always Roy of the Rovers.  It’s often anything but.  But it does throw up some absolutely amazing stories, and this is one of them.  Don’t go expecting historical accuracy, or indeed geographical accuracy, but, if you get chance, this is still a very good film to see.

Clifford’s Blues by John A Williams

Standard

This is another novel about some of the less well-documented victims of the Holocaust.  In this case, the protagonist is a gay black man, imprisoned in Dachau from 1933.  He comes under the protection, of sorts, of a Nazi officer he’s met before, in return for sexual and musical favours.  The book’s in the form of a diary, which I wasn’t sure would work, but which does because it means that a huge amount can be included as notes on what he’s witnessed or heard about.  The horrific medical experiments carried out in the camp, the forced sterilisation of mixed-race people in the Rhineland, individual executions, mass executions, outbreaks of disease, deportations to “the East”, new groups of people arriving.  It also refers to so many different groups of people, many of them groups whose experiences at the hands of the Nazis tend to be overlooked.  That makes it sound really harrowing, but it’s actually very readable.

On a different note, it spends a lot of time comparing Nazi attitudes on race to those in the southern states of the US, which I believe caused a lot of controversy when the book was first published.  And it talks about the Evian Conference of 1938, at which 32 countries failed to agree to take in Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s got messages that’re worth reading, especially in the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Our guy is an African-American called Clifford Pepperidge, and he’s a jazz musician – so I’m wondering if the World on Fire scriptwriter had read this.  He’s been working in Berlin in the “Cabaret” world of the Weimar Republic … but then, in 1933, he’s found in bed with a male American diplomat.  The other guy claims diplomatic immunity and flees the country, leaving Clifford to his fate.  At Dachau, Dieter Lange, a man he knows from the Berlin scene, now a Nazi official, arranges for him to be classified with a green triangle, as a criminal, in there for drug-dealing, rather than with a pink triangle, as a gay man, which would have meant his being treated far worse, and also arranges for him to work in his house.  In return, he’s treated as a sexual plaything by Lange, his wife and her lover.  He’s also expected to play at a Nazi social club.  (Would a Nazi social club have had a black musician playing?  It does in this, anyway.)

There’s a lot in the book about the different concentration camp badges, and the different categories of prisoner which they denote, and the double triangle badges which were used to denote someone falling into more than one category.  It also talks about groups of people coming in and being moved out, and how they interacted with each other, which is quite unusual for a Holocaust novel, and makes you think.

There was no official classification for black prisoners, because, probably due to the very small numbers of black people in Germany at that time, they weren’t rounded up and sent to camps in the way that Jewish or Roma or Sinti people were, so it’s hard to know how many people were affected, but it’s thought that many black people, were arrested as alleged criminals or political prisoners.   Certainly there was a programme of forced sterilisation in the Rhineland, for mixed race children fathered by black French soldiers during the post First World War occupation, and the book does refer to that.   We also see something of how gay men were particularly singled out for ill-treatment, and as the subjects of medical experiments.

As to the comparisons with the US … much of the book’s set in the 1930s, before the very worst of the Nazi atrocities, and there are undeniably some parallels in terms of banning mixed marriages, and classifying people according to what percentage of particular ancestry they have.  It’s a very controversial area, though, and I’m not comfortable with people drawing parallels between the Nazis and any other regime.  But the author has got a point, in some respects.  And what’s said about the Evian Conference is most certainly valid.  I’m not entirely sure that a concentration camp prisoner would have heard quite so much war news, but, for the purpose of the book, the reader needs to accept that he hears rumours from newly-arrived prisoners and that he’s sometimes able to listen to the radio.

There are a few bits which readers might need to Google. I’d assume most people are familiar with the names of top black musicians and sportsmen of the 1930s, but maybe younger readers might not be. There are couple of sentences in pig Latin, which I haven’t read for years – thank you, Beverly Cleary, for teaching me pig Latin! And references to Haitian voodoo.

It’s not particularly well-written.  Although the book’s written in the form of a diary, is there really any need for quite so much swearing and crude language?  Also, the author repeatedly uses “English” for “British” and “Russian” for “Soviet”, which is very annoying.  However, it packs a lot into 300 pages, especially as regards groups of Nazi victims who do not always receive that much attention, and it gets better as it goes along.

Towards the end, when he hears about the liberation of Auschwitz and what the Soviets found there, Clifford (who, despite being in the home of a Nazi official, manages to listen to the BBC World Service in the radio, which doesn’t seem very likely but you just have to accept that, or else the book won’t work) says that now he can think about how big and how evil everything that’s happened is, and how he heard all about evil from preachers in church but none of that could ever have prepared him for this.  Maybe that’s why the focus is on the death camps, because mass shootings and mass imprisonments, even if not on that scale, had happened before, so people could get their heads round them.  But there are other stories to be told too. 75 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, there are still many Holocaust stories to be told, and the experiences of black people and gay people, and indeed black, gay people – this book did make a lot of reference to people with more than one “badge” – are amongst those which we still need hear more about.

And, at the end, it mentions a man who Joseph Nassy, who really existed – a Surinam-born mixed race American, working as an artist in Belgium at the start of the Second World War, who had Jewish heritage.  He was held in internment camps which were close to Dachau geographically but where the rules of the Geneva Convention were honoured, and drew many pictures of life there.  It’s a unique story.  So is everyone’s.

 

The Aftermath

Standard

Oh dear.  This was dire!   Keira Knightley wore some very glamorous frocks, although someone really should have mentioned the words “clothes rationing” to the costume department, and whichever one of the Skarsgards it was (how many of them are there?!) has nice piercing blue eyes, but, other than that, it was grim.   It sounded like such a good idea, a British woman and a German man who’d both lost loved ones in the war coming together in an illicit romance, but the said romance was utterly unconvincing and the writer seemed to want to draw a veil over the Nazi atrocities.  If you haven’t seen this one already, give it a miss.  But, if you know how to get a wardrobe like Krystle Carrington’s on a 1945 clothing coupon allowance, please do share.

We don’t hear that much about the situation in Germany after the war – the Displaced Persons Camps and the de-Nazification programme.  The Women in the Castle covers it, but it’s not the world’s greatest book and it’s not very well-known.  Maybe the author of the book on which this film’s based genuinely meant well by showing how much German civilians suffered during the war, and, yes, the wartime bombings caused terrible suffering on all sides, not to mention (although that wasn’t really relevant to this film, set in Hamburg) the atrocities carried out by Red Army soldiers against women in particular, and, yes, it’s important that we’re aware of that.

But why on earth did he (or the scriptwriter?)  suggest that British/Allied soldiers (other than the betrayed husband) were indifferent to it, shot civilians at random and used skulls as footballs?  And, whilst there were various mentions of “the Fuhrer”, virtually nothing was said about what the Nazis had done, to explain why some of the characters were so uncomfortable about being in Germany, even though the Nuremberg trials opened during the period in which the film was set.  It gave the distinct impression that the script had been written by a some sneering so-called “liberal” Britain-hater, the sort of person who thinks Churchill should be vilified rather than lauded and conveniently ignores the fact that the Nazis murdered millions of innocent people, and that just put me off – not that I needed much putting off, because the plot was weak as well.

As for the plot, it should have worked.  Keira Knightley’s character was joining her husband in Hamburg, where he was part of the British forces working to rebuild the city and keep an eye on Nazi insurgents, but their relationship had never recovered from the loss of their son in an air raid.  She thought he blamed her, he’d been distant, etc etc.  They’d requisitioned a large house, but allowed the owner and his daughter, the wife and mother having been killed in an air raid, to stay on.  The daughter had a Nazi boyfriend –  think Liesl von Trapp, but without any singing and dancing, just sulking and stealing.  At least Rolfe did all that I-am-17-going-on-18 thing: this boyfriend was just a miserable git.  Mind you, so was the daughter, so they were probably well-suited.  The said boyfriend tried to kill the British guy, but, having killed his chauffeur by mistake, fell through the ice in a frozen lake which had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and, unlike Jo Bettany and Amy March, died.

Rachael/Keira actually was pleased that the Allies had won the war (it was a relief that somebody was), and wasn’t very pleased about being in Germany.  She was snotty with the German guy and his annoying daughter … but then she suddenly changed her mind about him whilst her husband had nipped out for a few minutes, and they started having a passionate affair.  Then she changed her mind back again, and stayed with her husband.  It was just totally unconvincing, despite all the clichéd eyes meeting across rooms and gazing longingly out of windows stuff.  The idea was that they’d bonded because they’d both lost loved ones, but that didn’t come across at all.

Oh dear.  Oh well, at least I watched it on a plane, rather than forking out good money for a cinema ticket!   But what a shame, because the idea was good.  But, whilst I don’t know that the book’s like and shan’t be bothering to find out, the film really wasn’t!

Rise of the Nazis – BBC 2

Standard

I’ve had the strange privilege of visiting Auschwitz, Babi Yar, the sites of the Vilnius and Warsaw ghettoes, and a number of other places – and there are so many of them – associated with Nazi atrocities.  What the Nazis did once they’d gained control within Germany and beyond is so horrific that we inevitably focus on that rather than on how they rose to power in the first place.  But how that rise came about is something that we need to understand, so thank you to BBC 2 for this three-part series, being shown to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.

Please don’t ever use the word “Nazi” to describe present-day politicians: however unsavoury some of them may be, they aren’t going to order mass executions or send people to gas chambers, and comparing them to those who did is an insult to the memory of the millions of people murdered by the Nazis because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or politics.  A row’s already broken out over the choice of presenters for this series.  But please be aware of how quickly democracy in Germany was destroyed, and of what that led to; and please don’t ever let anything like this happen again.  I thought that the focus of this first episode was very narrow, though.  It was all about political manoeuvring, and said hardly anything about how the Nazis actually gained the support that enabled them to become part of that.

In 1928, the Nazi Party won just 2.6% of the vote and 12 seats in the Reichstag.  In 1930, it became the second largest party, with 18% of the vote, and in 1932 the largest party, with 37% of the vote.  In 1933, non-Nazi parties were banned.  In 1934, Hitler was confirmed as sole leader of Germany, combining the positions of chancellor and president.  How could the Nazis, a fringe extremist party led by an “Austrian corporal”, seize power and impose a dictatorship, in so short a space of time?   And then cause a war which led to the deaths of eighty million people, many of them by genocide?

This was about the destruction of democracy, the rise of the Nazis, not about war or genocide – which I don’t think anyone could have foreseen even in 1934.  It had a very narrow focus: I was expecting it to start by talking about the Treaty of Versailles, the issues over reparations, and the Great Depression, but it started off with the events of 1930, with virtually no background information.  And it was all about political manoeuvring and machinations: next to nothing was said about how the Nazis won the votes that got them the parliamentary seats that got them into a position to be part of that.  Maybe that’s coming in later episodes?

It was shown as a docu-drama, with interviews with various different experts interspersed with actual film of the time but also with a lot of dramatisation.  It’s a very emotive subject, and I did wonder if a docu-drama might not seem a bit flippant – especially when, early on, they showed what was supposed to be Hitler’s apartment, featuring cushions with little swastikas on them, like something out of ‘Allo ‘Allo . But I think the format did work OK.

The argument that the programme was making was that the Nazis were able to come to power because two right-wing Establishment politicians, Kurt von Schleicher and Franz von Papen, both thought that they could use the Nazis’ popularity and numbers in parliament to gain power for their own blocs.  Nothing much was said about economic issues, reparations or rearmament, and next to nothing was said about how and why the Nazis’ share of the vote increased so much.  It was all about the political machinations.

It wasn’t that any of it was inaccurate.  It was just so … narrow.  The BBC presenters did at least have the decency not to compare any present-day politicians to the Nazis.  I’m disgusted that so many people haven’t.  Do people seriously think it’s appropriate to compare any politician or political party with whose views they happen to disagree with the people who perpetrated the worst genocide the world has ever seen?  It’s also unfortunate that next week’s episode is going to feature a political commentator who’s expressed support for the spraying of graffiti on the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Everything seems to turn into a row these days.  That sounds worryingly like the “Everybody’s cross these days,” line from The Sound of Music.  It wasn’t intended to.

In 1930, there were 14 parties represented in the Reichstag. As often happens, the major parties, rather than even thinking about forming a grand coalition, looked to the extremist parties for support. Karl von Schleicher, a close ally of President von Hindenburg, concerned about the growth in support for the Communists, wanted to use the Nazis for support against the Left. But the Nazis were not a fringe party by this stage. They’d won 18% of the vote in the 1930 election. The programme just didn’t explain the social, economic and political factors which led to the growth in support for both the Nazis and the Communists. There was a brief mention of “hearts and minds”, and there were a few shots of Hitler shaking hands with people during the 1932 election campaign, but that was about it. And the stormtroopers were mentioned, but more in the context of von Hindenburg wanting to use their brutality to achieve his own ends than in the context of what they were actually doing.

Anyway. Von Hindenburg wasn’t at all impressed with Hitler. Hitler wasn’t very impressed with von Schleicher. And the programme’s insistence that the rise of the Nazis was all about political machinations wasn’t very impressive at all, at this stage. On to the 1932 election, in which the Nazis’ share of the vote rose from 18% to 37%. Where were the explanations of why this happened? Maybe they are coming in a later episode?

The focus then switched to Hans Litten. The BBC described him as a Jewish lawyer. To be accurate, he had links with both Judaism and Christianity, being the son of a Lutheran mother and a father who’d converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, and showing interest in both religions. He successfully prosecuted a number of stormtroopers, and cross-examined Hitler for three hours in court, showing that the Nazis were indeed using violent, illegal methods against their opponents. He eventually committed suicide after five years of imprisonment and torture in Dachau. The programme returned to him later, talking about how he’d uncovered evidence that the Nazis had infiltrated the police and the judiciary – but didn’t go into how they’d infiltrated the police and the judiciary, because all the focus was on political game-playing.

Von Schleicher persuaded von Hindenburg to appoint his mate Franz von Papen (there were an awful lot of “vons” here, showing the extent to which German politics was still dominated by aristocrats) as chancellor. The Nazis, by now the largest party in the Reichstag, were entitled to appoint the speaker/president of the Reichstag, and chose Goring. At this stage, von Papen persuaded von Hindenburg to agree to the dissolution of Parliament and the suspending of elections. This wasn’t the doing of the Nazis: it was the doing of von Papen, with all sorts going on in terms of reparations, rearmament, the economy, and clashes between von Papen and the Social Democrats in Prussia. None of this was explained – instead, all we heard about was how it was stopped by parliamentary procedure, with von Papen bizarrely unable to get a word in edgeways to get Parliament dissolved before Goring had called a vote of no confidence.

At this point, November 1932, it was all about von Papen. The Nazis lost seats in the election, the second Reichstag election in six months, and were also struggling financially. Yet, in January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor – because von Papen, who’d had a big falling out with von Schleicher, needed coalition partners. The programme rather strangely claimed that von Papen was hoping to ruin the Nazis by giving them power in the hope that they’d make a mess of it and ruin themselves. It was more a case of a political bloc without a working majority needing support, and thinking that it could control its coalition partners.

Von Schleicher had been appointed chancellor, but, unable to form a government which could command control of the Reichstag, resigned after only a couple of months – and was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 … and this was as far as this episode took us.

The point of the programme was apparently to show that politicians’ desire for power for themselves and their allies meant that they were willing to work with extremists. That’s a fair point, and something that we often see – not so much here, where the voting system, whilst far from ideal, means that fringe parties are unlikely to win many, if any seats. But we’re not talking about a fringe party. Even in 1930, the Nazis won 18% of the vote. By 1932, they were the largest party in the Reichstag. Whatever von Schleicher and von Papen were doing, the Nazis would never have come into it had they not been able to get that amount of representation in the Reichstag in the first place… and the programme just said next to nothing about how and why they were able to do that.

So the whole thing felt a bit wide of the mark, really.  It was supposed to show how Nazism took control of a nation, but practically the entire programme was about just four people – von Hindenburg, von Schleicher, von Papen and Hitler.  And the whole point was that, in 1930, Germany was a democracy.  So what happened was about 67 million people, or at least those of voting age.  Showing pictures of cushions with little swastikas on them does not explain why 37% of the electorate voted for the Nazis.  Could have done better, BBC 2.  Could have done better.

Jews Queers Germans by Martin Duberman

Standard

This book, which can’t decide whether it’s a novel or an academic work, traces prejudices in Germany from the Harden-Eulenburg affair, which brought down the Kaiser’s inner circle and sparked a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash which those involved in the associated trial naively hadn’t seen coming, through the First World War and the “Cabaret era” of the Weimar Republic, and on to the rise of the Nazis.  There’s not as much about the royal family as I was expecting, but all sorts of well-known figures from the arts world of the time – Degas, Nijinsky, Colette, Josephine Baker, Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw and numerous others – make appearances.  It’s not particularly well-written: I can just about live with the lack of commas in the title, because I think it’s the author’s way of showing that many key figures at the time were Jewish and gay and German; but having a 334-page book which isn’t divided into chapters is not ideal, books being written in the present tense can be irritating, the dialogue’s very clunky and it jumps around too much!   However, it’s an interesting take on a pivotal period in world history, and how people manipulate old prejudices in order to further their own political ends.  Also, one of the key figures in it has some sort of Manchester connection, but I can’t get to the bottom of it and it’s really annoying me!

It’s supposed to be a novel, written around three main characters – Graf Harry von Kessler, son of a German banker father and an Anglo-Irish mother, a diplomat and patron of the arts, on whose diaries much of it’s based, Walther Rathenau, businessman and liberal politician, and Magnus Hirschfeld, doctor and gay rights campaigner whose work was mentioned a lot in A Terrible Splendor. However, it would really have worked better as an academic book.  There are pages and pages of information about history, law, politics, scientific theories and philosophy, and much of the dialogue is just the characters repeating factual information to each other.  I never felt that I got to know any of them: there was no plot and no characterisation.

It’s quite bitty, as well – all the more reason why it would have benefited from being broken down into chapters.  It’s split into six parts, to be fair, but couldn’t half do with being split into chapters within those.  Also, whilst I’m moaning, it annoyingly refers to “England” and “Austria” rather than “Britain” and “Austria-Hungary”, doesn’t seem to realise that Disraeli converted to Anglicanism, and spells “principle” as “principal”!

Having said all that, the actual information is quite interesting.  It was the Harden-Eulenberg affair that I was really after, and about a quarter of the book covers that – with the Kaiser, who was portrayed sympathetically in The Summer Queen, coming across here as the very nasty piece of work that he really was.  The book opens with a conversation between the Kaiser and the Grafin von Moltke. To cut a long story short-ish, she claimed that her estranged husband, a general in the German army, was having an affair with the Kaiser’s best friend, Philipp von Eulenburg-Hertefeld, the Kaiser’s best mate and the leader of their so-called “Liebenberg Round Table” group of close male friends. Eulenburg & co came into conflict with another political clique, led by Friedrich von Holstein. There was a lot of tension over foreign policy, and over the Kaiser’s rather absolutist style of rule. At the same time, a number of military officers were tried by courts-martial for being gay, and six of them sadly committed suicide.

Journalist Maximilian Harden, a supporter of the Holstein clique, decided to bring von Eulenburg down by publishing reports about him and von Moltke. Moltke sued him for libel, and various other names were brought into it.  Strangely, the book suggests that Harden actually admired von Eulenburg and thought he was a good influence on the Kaiser, which makes no sense and completely contradicts what everyone else says about the whole affair!  Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent doctor who’d long been campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the German Empire, especially after observing how many of his gay patients had tried to commit suicide, was one of the key witnesses in the trial, naively thinking that proving that senior army officers were gay would do away with negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, it backfired badly, with the far-right claiming that Hirschfeld, who was gay and Jewish, and Harden, who was a Lutheran convert but had previously been Jewish, were conspiring against straight, “Aryan” German men. There was a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash. Von Eulenburg’s influence was ended, but, however unpleasant he and his cronies may have been – they’re known to have held strong racist and anti-Semitic views – they’re also now seen as having had a moderating influence on the Kaiser.

Did the trial and its aftermath lead to a culture of what would now be called “toxic masculinity” in the upper echelons of Berlin society?  What was its personal and political effect on the Kaiser?   That was what I was hoping the book would discuss, but, instead, it jumped on to Harry Kessler’s travels in Britain, France and Greece!   All sorts of well-known arty figures, and a few obscure ones, get mentioned in this section, and then we jump back to politics with the introduction of Kessler’s friend Walther Rathenau, who would later play an important role at the German War Ministry during the Great War, and then become Foreign Minister. Wikipedia says he had business interests in Manchester, but I can’t find any more information about that and it’s really, really annoying me!!

So we go from arts to politics, and then, just as we’re getting into the build-up to the Great War, Kessler and Rathenau fade into the background and there’s a section about Magnus Hirschfeld, his theories about sexuality and gender identity, and his campaign, backed by many others, for gay rights.   Whilst it’s probably quite well-known that the Code Napoleon gave civil rights to religious minorities, it’s not very well-known that it also decriminalised homosexuality … but that didn’t apply in the German Empire, or, obviously, the British Empire.  Some of Hirschfeld’s theories read rather strangely now, but he really was a pioneer in his field.  Sadly, being gay, Jewish and what would now be called a gay rights activist made him a target for the far right – but he himself was a strong German nationalist, as was Rathenau (who was Jewish but not gay) and Kessler (who was gay but not Jewish), which I think is what the lack of commas in the title’s getting at, and the far right don’t get at all.  There’s also some interesting commentary on the differences between attitudes in Germany, France and Britain.  But this is not historical novel stuff: it’s stuff that belongs in an academic book.  I do not know why the author tried to present it as a novel!

Then Hirschfeld fades back into the background, and Kessler and Rathenau take centre stage again, having long discussions about Martin Buber and anti-Semitism.  Kessler’s presented as quite a liberal figure until this point, but, once the Great War starts, the book shows him developing more right-wing views.  Hirschfeld, by contrast, adopts more radical views.  We also see him defending the rights of gay men to serve in the Armed Forces.  It does feel a bit more like a novel at this point, but we’re still very detached from the characters … which is a shame, because they all seem rather interesting.

We then move on to the political and social chaos after Germany’s defeat.  It’s particularly unfortunate that we don’t really get to know Kessler, because he seems to have known everyone!   He was pals with the leader of the German delegation at the Versailles peace talks, as well as knowing anyone who’s anyone in the arts world.   This bit’s well-known – the war guilt clause, and the attempts to blame Germany’s defeat on Jews.  I honestly hadn’t realised just how much violence there was in Germany at this stage, though.  Over 350 political figures were murdered by right-wing extremist group Organisation Consul.  I’d have expected the book to focus on Rathenau’s role in the Treaty of Rapallo, in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to renounce all territorial claims and claims to war reparations against each other, but, instead, we get Rathenau talking to Kessler about Zionism.

Maybe this is the author’s way of saying that Rathenau’s assassination, in 1922, was because he was Jewish?  Was it?  Or was it because he was seen as a liberal?  Or accused of having links with communism?  Probably all three.  We do see that trade union leaders call on their members to down tools for a day and stage demos in honour of Rathenau.  He’s seen now as some sort of martyr to democracy … but he’s not very well-known in Anglophone countries, so it’s nice to see him playing a big part here.  Still can’t sort out the Manchester connection.  Apparently it was something to do with an electrical power station.  Could it have been the one at Radcliffe?

Hirschfeld isn’t killed, but he is badly beaten up.  This is the “Cabaret” era, and Hirschfeld does actually get involved in that: he promotes various films, and he’s friendly with figures from the arts world.  Max Harden also reappears at this point, having not been mentioned all through the war.  It’s all just so bitty!

Then, with the rise of the Nazis, another character enters the fray – Ernst Rohm, one of Hitler’s closest friends and allies and leader of the Stormtroopers.  There’s a strange parallel between the Harden-Eulenburg affair and the Night of the Long Knives, and it’s never usually picked up on.  I was going to say that I suppose it’s because what the Nazis did later was so horrific that it seems inappropriate to compare the rise of the Nazis to anything else, but some people seem to throw the word “Nazi” around strangely casually these days.  Anyway.  The views of Rohm and his circle on political and military affairs brought them into conflict with other members of the Nazi party, and, just as had happened with Eulenburg, his homosexuality was used against him by the faction who wanted to bring him down … although the author rather overlooks the fact that this was more of a common or garden power struggle than anything else.

Strangely, the author doesn’t actually draw the parallel.  There’s a lot of talk about about homophobic attitudes within the Nazi party and within German society in general.  We see how the Social Democrats attack the Nazis by associating them with homosexuality.  We see how the Nazi party tries to make a link between being Jewish and being gay.  This happens throughout history – people exploit hatreds and prejudices against different groups by making links.  It can be anything.  Sometimes there’s some sort of logic to it, e.g. linking Catholics and Jacobitism.  Sometimes there’s none at all. e.g. linking Jews and Communism.

But, as I’ve said, the author doesn’t link this back to events at the start of the book – and that says a lot about how bitty it is, and how there’s no real plot.  We see Hirschfeld travelling the world, before eventually settling in France.  We see Kessler also settling in France.  But there’s no real conclusion, and no bringing together of the different aspects of the book.  It was an interesting idea, and the author, himself both gay and Jewish, obviously feels incredibly strongly about both anti-Semitism and homophobia and is trying to raise awareness of where they can lead.  There’s a huge amount of information in this: he’s obviously done a lot of research.  But it does read as if someone’s bursting to tell you something and they just want to get it all out there, without making it particularly clear or easy to take in.  Good idea, not particularly good execution!

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

Standard

I feel vaguely guilty for having enjoyed this, because it was mostly just a lot of historical royal gossip. Maybe I’m being a bit of an academic snob here, because I never feel guilty about reading historical royal gossip when it’s in academic book format – Theo Aronson’s written loads of books like that, and so have Carolly Erickson and various other people, and I assume that Margaret Pemberton’s been reading some of them!  Or maybe it’s because I feel vaguely uncomfortable about reading fictionalised accounts of the lives of people who seem so close: the book runs from 1879 to 1918, but some of the main characters were still around as recently as the 1950s. I haven’t got Netflix, so I didn’t watch The Crown!  Anyway, I did enjoy it – and I suppose it wasn’t all fluffy stuff, because it covered the build-up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focusing mainly on Princess May of Teck, later Queen Mary, Princess Alix of Hesse, later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There are an awful lot of cousins, who have relationships with and marry each other. If you’re used to royal family trees, it will make perfect sense. If not, you might get confused! It’s all been said umpteen times before, but it’s still entertaining. I’m not sure what the King of Norway would make of the suggestion that his grandmother, the then Princess Maud, had a full-blown affair with Prince Francis of Teck: it’s known that she was interested in him, but I’m not sure about the rest. And I’m not convinced that Princess May had always been in love with the Duke of Clarence. He comes across as a very romantic figure here, but, whilst the rumours that he was Jack the Ripper are more than a bit OTT, a romantic figure he was not! But I quite like the idea that Ella of Hesse went into her marriage with Grand Duke Sergei knowing full well that it was a lavender marriage, and actively chose that because it was the nearest she could, at that point, get to being a nun … rather than finding out after the ring was on the finger, as her sister-in-law Victoria Melita of Edinburgh did.

I’ve heard it all a million times before, but it’s still quite fascinating how there were all these cousins and second cousins marrying each other. Or not marrying each other, in the cases of Maud and Francis, “Eddy” (the Duke of Clarence) and Alix, Wilhelm and Ella, etc etc.

What about the three main figures? The book revolves around the fictional and possibly rather silly idea that May, Wilhelm and Alix recognised each other as “Kindred Spirits”, all being outsiders for one reason or another, and swore an oath of friendship. The blurb on the front cover says “Her broken oath would cast an empire into turmoil” … and I don’t actually know to what that’s supposed to refer! It makes no sense whatsoever. Does it mean something to do with Alix and Wilhelm’s supposed childhood friendship? And who’s “The Summer Queen”? Queen Victoria? May? That doesn’t make much sense either. Anyway, I think all the “oath” stuff is best ignored: it just seems to be there to try to justify the focus on three different people, and link them together.

Alix’s story has been told in both academic books and fiction umpteen times, and is therefore very well-known, but she seems remote in this book. We don’t really get a sense of her concerns about changing her religion, her fears for her haemophiliac son’s health, or what was going on with Rasputin. The book also suggests that it was Wilhelm who convinced her to marry Nicholas, which doesn’t make much sense either but is presumably to tie in with the “kindred spirit” idea.

Queen Mary’s story, on the other hand, has rarely been told. She’s usually seen as the epitome of dignity, and, because of that, as being a bit cold, so it was nice to see a book reminding us of her difficult childhood, as the descendant of a morganatic marriage, and the time her family spent living in Italy and the freedom she enjoyed there, as well as how difficult it must have been for her when the Duke of Clarence died. She comes across really well here.  I’m glad about that.  She’s an admirable figure who coped well with some very difficult times.

“Willy” comes across well too. He’s such a hate figure in the English-speaking world, because of the First World War, and also the appalling way in which he treated his mother. If Queen Mary is seen as the epitome of dignity, he’s seen as the epitome of Prussian militarism – but the author is quite sympathetic to him, reminding the reader of all the horrific treatments he was subjected to in order to try to cure the damage done to his arm by a difficult birth. He certainly didn’t have it easy, but I’m not sure why the author’s quite so sympathetic towards someone who was undoubtedly very militaristic, and had some very unpleasant attitudes. She shows him as being an Anglophile, when he was anything but, and ignores some of his extremist views. On a more positive note, she touches on the interesting Harden-Eulenberg affair, when his closest friend and advisor fell from power amid a lot of talk about homosexuality, then a taboo subject in the German Empire.  It’s something that’s increasingly attracting attention from historians of the period, many of whom link its effect on the Kaiser to an increase in militarism.

There’s the odd blunder – notably saying that the previous Queen Mary had been Mary Tudor! – and the author annoying refers to “England” rather than “Britain” all the way through, but it’s generally accurate.  In fact, it generally reads as if it most of it was taken from books by Theo Aronson or Justin Vovk, and fictionalised, but maybe I’m doing the author a disservice there.  Even though a lot of the subject matter is pretty “heavy”, especially that relating to Russia, the story’s fairly light, and it’s not a bad choice for holiday reading.  Something about it vaguely annoyed me, but I think that was just because it felt weird that the lives of people who lived so recently, and whose lives, at least in the cases of May and Wilhelm, are well within living memory, had been turned into easy reading.  And, as I’ve said, that’s probably just me being an academic snob!   Given that I knew all the factual royal gossip in this already, I am clearly a total hypocrite … 😉 .  And I did really enjoy it!

 

 

The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler

Standard

This is an uncomfortable book to read, but so are most of Richard Zimler’s books. It shows how a circle of friends in 1930s Berlin are targeted by the Nazis because one is severely autistic, one has giantism, two have dwarfism and some are Jewish.  We also see former communists rushing to cover up their political pasts and present themselves and their families as Nazis.  Quite a lot of the plot is centred on the Nazi policy of forced sterilisation, and it does focus the reader’s mind on the persecution of groups of people whose treatment has not always been given as much attention as it should have been.

It’s supposed to be the fourth (and final) book in the Zarco series, but, although one of the main characters is a descendant of the other Zarcos and there are various references to the Kabbalistic mysticism of the other books, there isn’t really much of a link. The Zarco books are essentially connected with Portugal, and Portugal doesn’t feature in this one at all.  It also involves a relationship between a teenage girl and an elderly man, and there’s a murder mystery mixed up in it all as well.

Richard Zimler’s books are quite weird generally, and this one’s actually considerably less weird than the second and third Zarco books!   Part of it reads a bit like a Judy Blume book about a girl’s issues with school and boyfriends and hairstyles, and then there’s all this absolutely horrific stuff about what the Nazis did to her friends.  It does a good job of portraying the huge contrast between the culture of Berlin in the early 1930s – think Cabaret – and what came next, as seen through the eyes of Sophie, who links all the other characters together, and of the horrors of the Nazi era and how it tore apart the lives of people who were just minding their own business.

I have to say that I preferred the three earlier books in the series, but that’s probably just because Nazi Germany isn’t particularly “my” subject. This one’s worth reading because there are very few novels, or books in general, about the groups of people represented by some of the characters in this book – Hansi, the boy taken to hospital for TB treatment and gassed to death because he was classed as mentally disabled, Heidi, the female dwarf who was forcibly sterilised without her knowledge whilst being treated for a miscarriage, and Vera, the giantess who was forced to attend a medical appointment where an abortion was performed on her and she was then forcibly sterilised. There were also many other groups of people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and their stories need to be told.  It’s happening, but, even now, it’s only happening gradually.

WWI: The Final Hours – BBC 2

Standard

This was an interesting programme, but it was focused entirely on the Armistice and eventual peace deal between the Western Allies and Germany. Obviously it is that Armistice of which we’ll be marking the centenary this weekend, but we’re still dealing with the fallout from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and it was a shame that none of that even got a mention.  It was also a bit too ready to criticise the Allies.  Horrendous mistakes were made in the agreements that ended the Great War, but a bit more understanding of why that was could perhaps have been shown.  And it completely missed the point that the events of 1918-1919 were deliberately misinterpreted in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s – fake news is hardly anything new.

Incidentally, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to call a programme “WWI”. It’s bad enough when people refer to “World War I” rather than “the First World War” – it makes it sound like a film – but “WWI” is just ridiculous.  Show a bit more respect, please, BBC 2!

The programme was largely about the negotiations which took place between Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss of the United Kingdom, Marechal Jean Marie Foch of France, and Herr Matthias Erzberger of Germany.  The titles say a lot – the British representative was a naval man, the French representative an army man, and the German representative a civilian.

I don’t think it was mentioned that it was Wemyss who made the decision that the ceasefire should come into force at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – partly because it sounded poetic, but also because, had it been delayed until the afternoon as Lloyd George wanted, even more men would have been killed. Lloyd George was apparently rather narked about it, because it meant he missed the chance to make a big announcement in the House of Commons.  Pretty much all the politicians were given short shrift in this: it was suggested that they were all more concerned about their own images and, to use the modern term, legacies, than in anything else.  A bit harsh, maybe.

The only ones who came in for any real praise were Woodrow Wilson – a progressive American president who wanted to promote peace and understanding between nations, free trade and a reduction in armaments, and showed respect for all nationalities (those were the days!) – and the German representative at the Armistice talks, Matthias Erzberger. It was hard not to feel sorry for Erzberger, who was in an impossible position, especially with all hell breaking loose in Berlin.  He eventually became a victim of the false theory that Germany didn’t really lose the war but was betrayed by internal factions, and was assassinated.

Going back to the subject of what wasn’t mentioned, the decisions made regarding the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires are, as I’ve said above, still causing issues today.  The South Tyrol question’s reared its head again of late.  Every so often, there’s a row over the linguistic rights of all the ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia.  As for the mess in the Middle East, don’t even go there.

This was all about Germany, and I assume that the idea of the programme was to show that the excessively harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious powers played a large part in the rise of Nazism. It’s a fair point.  Well, it’s more than a fair point – there isn’t really any arguing with it.  Right from the start, the attitude of the Allies was very harsh.  They refused the German request that a ceasefire be put in place whilst negotiations were taking place.  And the naval blockade of Germany was not fully lifted until July 1919: thousands of German civilians died of malnutrition between the Armistice and the lifting of the blockade.  It’s not in any way disrespectful to those who fought on the Allied side to say that that was completely inappropriate.  Shameful, in fact.

Then there were the reparations. Germany would have been paying reparations until 1988 if things had gone ahead as originally agreed.   There’s an ongoing argument about this: some economic historians claim that Germany could have afforded the repayments, whilst others say that, had the reparations been made in accordance with the original schedule, the German economy would have been destroyed.  Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria were all supposed to pay reparations as well, but that wasn’t mentioned.  The programme did make the point that demanding reparations of the defeated sides was an established principle of warfare at that time.  It also pointed out that France (although it didn’t mention poor Belgium) had suffered severe damage, and that all the countries involved had large numbers of wounded service personnel and the dependants of the fallen who were in need of financial support.

It is generally agreed that the terms were harsh, though. As well as being economically harsh, they were seen as a humiliation – along with the occupation of the Rhineland, which was intended both to make sure that reparations were made, much of Germany’s heavy industry being concentrated in that area, and to stop Germany from invading France again.  The programme laid the blame for all this very much on France.

Just to go on to something else for a moment, the programme said that, and it was a reasonable enough point, Britain was more concerned with what might happen on sea than what might happen on land. Germany was made to agree to disarming its battle fleet and sailing many of its ships to Scapa Flow – where the German Admiral von Reuter decided to scuttle the fleet rather than hand it over to the Allies.  British ships managed to save some of the ships, but most of them sank.  The fact that the German sailors scuttled their own ships just shows how humiliated they felt.

Back to the issue of the programme blaming France over the question of reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland. It was another a fair point.  Marshal Foch was all for France occupying the Rhineland permanently; and the French – along with the Belgians, it should be said – occupied the Ruhr in 1923, despite British opposition.  Then again, France had been humiliated by Prussia in 1871, and French territory had been ravaged during the Great War.

You can go on and on with this, tracing things backwards and forwards. The Second World War.  The Franco-Prussian War.  The Napoleonic Wars.  But the humiliation of Germany … that was something that hadn’t really happened before, not to that effect. Austria and Hungary both came off far worse, really, losing so much territory, but it was Germany that had to sign the war guilt clause.  The infamous Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles.

OK. It had been arguably the most terrible war in human history. Everyone wanted someone to blame. But making Germany accept full responsibility for the war?  Arguments about who and what was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War will probably go on for ever, but no one country was to blame.  The general view is that the war guilt clause was seen by Germany as a national humiliation.  Well, that is how it was seen by Germany.  But it didn’t actually use the word “guilt”.  It didn’t even say that Germany had started the war.  It said that Germany accepted responsibility for the damage caused by herself and her allies.  It was the way it was represented in Germany that caused such a mood of anger.

And, as much as the Allies behaved badly towards defeated Germany, the anger of the inter-war period wasn’t really directed at the Allies. It was directed at the mythical forces within Germany who were supposed to have stabbed the German army in the back.  Basically, it was fake news.  There was an awful lot of it about in the inter-war period.  The Zinoviev Letter springs to mind.  There was an awful lot of it about during the First World War, come to that.   And I don’t feel that this programme got that at all, other than saying that Erzberger was very badly treated.

I’m not entirely sure what this programme was actually getting at. Well, it had an agenda: it wasn’t just presenting the facts relating to the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, it was making the point that the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped to create the environment that led to the Second World War.   But, then, why call it “the Final Hours”, which made it sound as if it was going to be about the last elements of the fighting?  That was probably a bit of deliberate misleading as well: BBC 2 probably didn’t want to sound too negative, at such a sensitive time.  Some good points were made.  But a lot of important points were missed.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Standard

This is an awkward book. There isn’t really a plot as such, it jumps backwards and forwards between different years and different characters, and it doesn’t go into much depth about anything.  However, set mainly in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it raises a lot of very challenging issues about the experiences of German women during the war, and the extent of complicity and collective guilt about the Nazi atrocities and how people did and didn’t deal with that.  It also makes the reader think about the general chaos in post-war Europe, about the differing attitudes of the Allies towards the German people – ranging from the American Quakers who sent Christmas presents for German children to the Soviet soldiers who brutally abused German and Austrian women – and about how the Nazis were able to win control in the first place.  It even mentions Salem school, briefly attended by Prince Philip.  Then it seems to come to the rather impractical conclusion that the best answer is to get away from Germany and move to the United States, the country where – don’t start discussing this bit with Donald Trump – everyone can start again.

There’s the odd horrendous historical blunder, notably referring to Namibia as “a former Habsburg colony”, but it seems to be accurate otherwise. The author, who’s American but has one German parent, is very familiar with Germany, and says that she wrote the book after finding out that her German grandparents were both committed Nazis.  I don’t know how you’d deal with that, and I don’t know how Germany’s dealt with it.  I think Germany’s tried, though.  It doesn’t try to make out that it was a victim.  And it doesn’t refuse to discuss what happened during the war – whereas Osaka has just broken off its twinning agreement with San Francisco, because San Francisco’s put up a statue honouring the women forced into brothels by wartime Japan.  Somehow, societies move on.  The states of the former Yugoslavia have done that, more recently.  Somehow.

There are three main characters in the book. Marianne, a Prussian aristocrat, is probably the central character.  The Bavarian castle in the title belonged to her late husband.  He, and her childhood friend Constantine – known as Connie, which really annoyed me, because he was supposed to be this very handsome, dashing, Alpha Male, and I’m not sure what was the idea of giving him such a feminine-sounding name! – were involved in the von Stauffenberg plot, and were executed as a result.  The book’s very vague on exactly what Marianne’s involvement was, and how come she and her children weren’t punished.  It’s also vague on how she came to marry a Bavarian, and the impression’s given that she always thought she and Connie would end up together, but it’s never really gone into.

Marianne had promised the two men that she’d try to take care of any other women whose husbands had been executed due to their role in the resistance. Maybe she’s the person the author wishes her grandmother had been – always vehemently opposed to the Nazis, unable to understand how everyone didn’t realise how evil they were, and unwilling to try to forgive anyone who’d played any sort of role in carrying out Nazi atrocities.  She can’t cope with living in Germany, and, in the end, she moves to America.  In old age, she publishes her memoirs of being a heroine of the Resistance.  Presumably her readers hear all about her role in the von Stauffenberg plot: it’s very irritating that we don’t!   And it’s then, eventually, that she accepts that maybe things weren’t as black and white as she thought.

Early on in the book, she traces Connie’s widow, Benita, and young son, Martin. Martin had been taken to a home for the children of “traitors”.  He copes well with the post-war world, but he ends up in America as well.  But Benita really suffers.  Like so many women in Germany and Austria, she was repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers.  All credit to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the decision it made about this year’s awards.  Rape was used as a weapon of war throughout the war in the former Yugoslavia, and is being used now this minute in Rakhine province in Burma/Myanmar, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The incredible Nadia Murad’s highlighted what IS did to Yazidi women.  The violence during Partition in the Indian sub-continent’s another example.  It’s thought that up to two million women were raped by Red Army soldiers in 1944-45.   Even some concentration camp survivors were attacked.  It hasn’t really been spoken about until recently.  It wasn’t only the Soviet troops, but it was particularly the Soviet troops.  Annoyingly, the book repeatedly uses the word “Russian” for “Soviet”, but that’s not unusual.

The Soviet attitude, insofar as there was one, seems to have been that the Germans and Austrians deserved everything they got, and that their troops were entitled to do what they liked after their part in defeating the Nazis. No. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

We learn that Benita was part of the League of German Girls, as a teenager. She had no great interest in politics, and regarded it as something like the Girl Guides.  She struggles, not surprisingly, to cope with what happened to her, but eventually forms a relationship with a former Nazi.  Marianne, who can’t understand this, persuades the man that it would be wrong for him to marry the widow of a former resistance hero.  He breaks off the engagement.  Benita eventually kills herself.

The most interesting of the women is Ania. Marianne brings her to the castle on the understanding that she’s the widow of someone Connie had worked with.  She manages the best of any of them, eventually remarrying and making a new life for herself on a farm.  But then it turns out that she isn’t who she says she is: she’d taken someone else’s papers.  She’d actually been deeply involved with the Nazis for years.  She’d bought into all the ideology: she’d been committed to it.  But she had, eventually, realised that she was wrong.

Ania’s story makes it frighteningly easy to see how an ordinary person could have been complicit in the Nazi atrocities. Her family and community had suffered badly as a result of the Great War.  They were then embittered further by the harshness of the post-war settlement, and by the occupation of the Rhineland by British and French troops, and the reparations demanded of Germany.  What a mess that settlement was: I saw on the BBC website earlier this week that the South Tyrol question’s reared its head again.  The Nazi youth groups seemed like good fun. They organised trips out into the countryside, and sports matches.  Everyone else belonged to them.  And the Nazis promised to make Germany great again.  Ania and her husband ran Nazi camps for young men.  She saw herself as a sort of housemistress.

She had some idea of what was going on, but she didn’t think about it much. It seemed distant, like something happening a long way away.  What do you do?  We have 24/7 news these days.  We know all about the Rohingya crisis, about Yemen, about Syria, about the Democratic Republic of Congo … what do we do about any of it?  Maybe share an article about it on Facebook.  Press the “sad” emoticon if one of our friends shares an article about it on Facebook.  I did sign a petition asking the Government to do something when news of the IS treatment of the Yazidi women first emerged, but I’m not sure what good I expected it to do.  Send the odd tenner to the Red Cross.  That’s all.

But at least you accept what’s going on. You don’t try to kid yourself that it isn’t happening.  You acknowledge that, and you hate it.  Ania can’t forgive herself for being complicit, and she also can’t forgive herself for her self-deception, for letting herself believe that people were just being “resettled”.  When babies and toddlers arrived at her camp, and were then taken away, she’d told herself that they were going to foster homes or orphanages.  It was when she’d accepted that they were being taken away to be killed that she’d left.

She makes a new life for herself, but never forgives herself. But her daughter, another one who ends up in America, working for a human rights organisation, does forgive her.  Ania reflects on the modern culture of baring your soul on TV chat shows and feeling that you’ve earned forgiveness that way, but knows that no amount of talking or soul-baring can ever put right what happened in Nazi Germany.

The book ends with a very minor character, the daughter of the man to whom Benita was briefly engaged, reflecting on how Nazism permeated everywhere in Germany, and how everyone’ll have old photos somewhere of parents or grandparents in Nazi uniform and or making the Nazi salute. Most of us will have photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts or great-uncles during the war, and hopefully we’re all very proud of them.  It’s hard to understand how Germany deals with that.  I’ve been to Germany several times, and will hopefully be going again next month.  I’ve got absolutely no problem with modern Germany, or with today’s Germans.  But is it always there?  When Angela Merkel said that all Syrian refugees were welcome in Germany, people said that she, someone who wasn’t even born until nine years after the end of the war, was still trying to make up for what the Nazis did.

The idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility was certainly very much to the fore in 1945. The book touches on the de-Nazification programme but, frustratingly, only touches on it.  We’re told that there are leaflets and posters showing concentration camp victims, as part of the de-Nazification programme – that the Americans are trying to make the Germans face up to what happened.  But that most of the locals try to ignore them.  There were films too, although the book didn’t really mention them.

In the American zone, everyone had to fill in a form, and they were then all categorised as either Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers or Exonerated Persons. The idea was to implement a full, detailed, de-Nazification programme.  But there just wasn’t the administrative manpower for it, especially once attention turned to the Cold War.  In the British zone, only those applying for official jobs had to fill in the forms.  In the French zone, they didn’t really bother at all.  As early as 1946, “de-Nazification” was handed over to the German authorities.  Not much happened – lack of time, lack of manpower, too much paperwork, other things to do – and it was abandoned as a bad job in 1951.

The book says too little about it, only that most people hoped to get away with being classed as Followers. It also touches on the vast numbers of people in Displaced Persons Camps, and on the post-war food crisis, but it doesn’t really explain any of it.  There’s too much it doesn’t explain, but what it does do is make you think.

Final thought. All the characters agree that they can start anew in America, where there’s openness, and where there’s no guilt.  The people who emigrate seem to have no trouble being allowed into America.  There was a ship called the St Louis, which took nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees to Cuba in 1939.  Cuba wouldn’t let them in.  The United States wouldn’t let them in.  Canada wouldn’t let them in.  I’m not having a go at those three countries:  there are all sorts of stories about people desperately pleading at every foreign embassy in Germany and Austria to be granted a visa, and being turned down.  Eventually, the ship had to sail back across the Atlantic.  I’m pleased to say that Britain agreed to take a third of those on board.  The others were eventually admitted to France, Belgium and the Netherlands: 254 of them were murdered after those countries were occupied by the Nazis.  In a couple of weeks’ time, Justin Trudeau will be issuing a formal apology for Canada’s refusal to take the refugees.  A lot of apologising goes on these days.  No guilt?

I’m not sure what I wanted from this book. I was hoping for more of a sense of Bavaria, but it said almost nothing about Bavaria: the castle could have been anywhere.  The idea of a castle being returned to a family who’d opposed the Nazis reminded me of Marie von und zu Wertheim, nee Marie von Eschenau, a favourite character in the Chalet School books; but there wasn’t much about the castle either.  It was a very unsatisfying book all round, but it certainly contained a lot of food for thought.