Tag Archives: Nazis

Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Goebbels confides in his diary on 7 August.” Then there will be some shooting.”

Berlin 1936: Sixteeen Days in August from Oliver Hilmes offers a kaleidoscope view of the Olympic games through the stories of a range of people: Nazi leaders, diplomats, socialites, writers, journalists, spies, nightclub owners, and, of course, the athletes. All this is set against the city of Berlin: a city in flux with the glories and decadence of Weimar culture fading fast–although some people were slower than others to catch on to the new reality and the horrific future.

The book, which contains some marvelous photographs from the period, begins on August 1, 1936 with the president of the International Olympic committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, who according to Goebbels’ diary entry is one of “the Olympians [who] look like the directors of a flea circus.” This comment sets the tone for the book: appearance vs reality. For while the Olympics are solemnly held with respect for tradition, to Hitler, the games were a wonderful opportunity for propaganda. Already, on page 16 when the games open, Hitler is presented with a “symbolic Olive branch” which is followed by the athletes, who “represented by the German weightlifter, Rudolf Ismayr–take the Olympic oath.” Then in a break from protocol “after taking the vow, he waves  a Swastika flag instead of the Olympic one.”

Parties and receptions: the Olympics are swathed with glittering events. As journalist Bella Fromm notes, “The propaganda machinery is trying to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.”

But behind the scenes of the Olympics, interesting events are taking place. Interior Minister, Wilhem Frick ordered a “gypsy manhunt day,” and two weeks before the Olympic games opened, around 600 people are rounded up and dumped in a camp on the outskirts of Berlin. The publication of the Nazi hate-rag Der Stürmer is suspended while all these important foreign visitors are in town.

There’s a ‘while Rome burns’ feel to the book. Berlin’s famous nightclubs are still operating, but “the Quartier Latin is a volcano, and patrons dance on its edge.” Similarly, The Ciro Bar and The Sherbini bar are thriving, but time is running out…

Underneath the idea that life in Berlin is ‘normal’ we see glimpses of the seemingly innocuous ‘Travel Union Club’ otherwise known as Legion Condor, well armed, heading to Spain. And then there’s the “free German press in exile” who publish and smuggle into Germany a 16 page pamphlet.

“Get to Know Beautiful Germany: An Indispensable Guide For Every Visitor to the Olympic Games in Berlin.” The cover featured an idyllic German landscape, but inside a map pinpoints almost all of the then-existing concentration camps, penal facilities and court prisons. ‘SA torture chambers have not been included,” a footnote read. “They are too many in number.”

In Berlin, American Author Thomas Wolfe who “doesn’t like Jews” mouths off about how “people are free to speak and write and think some things in Germany that they are not free to speak and write in America. For example, in Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America, you are not free to say this.” But Wolfe expresses this naive opinion to the wrong person: Mildred Harnack, and it’s from her that for the first time, Wolfe hears the term, “concentration camp.

Since arriving in Berlin, Wolfe has never seen any public evidence of the tyranny she described. But what if Germany is putting on a show to fool him and the other Olympic visitors? What if the Games are just a gigantic piece of propaganda? And what if the Germans Wolfe meets every day are just extras in an exceedingly horrible play?

Berlin 1936 is initially a dizzying read, but then the central idea of appearance vs reality takes over. The author’s original approach to a slice of history is compelling and effective. Each chapter is prefaced with the report of the weather (there’s great irony here) and police reports are scattered through the text. At the end of the book, there’s a section ‘what became of.’ and in this chapter, the author traces the lives of some of the characters mentioned.

Review copy

Translated by Jefferson Chase

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Filed under Hilmes Oliver, Non Fiction

Children of Nazis: The Sons and Daughters of Himmler, Göring, Höss, Mengele and Others. Living with a Father’s Legacy: Tania Crasnianski

A few years ago I watched Hitler’s Children, a documentary which explored the lives of some of the offspring of the Nazi elite. It was a fascinating film, and so when I saw Tania Crasnianski’s Children of Nazis, I knew I wanted to read it.

Under scrutiny here are:

Gudren Himmler

Edda Göring

Wolf R. Hess

Niklas Frank

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr.

The Höss children

The Speer Children

Rolf Mengele

One of the many things I carried away from Hitler’s Children was the range of reactions experienced by the younger relatives of the Nazi elite. Some were in total denial, while others were horrified when they finally learned the truth, and the same is true in the book. Children of Nazis presents each chapter with a brief history of exactly what each father did, followed by a description of the child’s upbringing, what happened after the war, and the child’s opinion of the father’s actions. These children had very different upbringings: Gudren Himmler had a secluded, claustrophobia “provincial bourgeois” upbringing while Edda Göring was treated like a Nazi princess, growing up in a castle with an actress mother and a flamboyant father who wore full make up and was addicted to morphine. Some of the children had excellent loving, relationships with their fathers, while others did not. Some of the children saw Jews from the concentration camps, while others were removed from that aspect of the war. Some children had happy home lives while others did not. Is it more difficult for a child of a leading Nazi to accept the father’s guilt if the child were removed from all signs of the war? If a Nazi father is a cold, remote man, is it easier to accept his responsibility in the genocide? How could the children brought up at Auschwitz deny their father’s responsibility?

Children of Nazis

But there are commonalities in these childhoods. After the war, many of the mothers were arrested and the children were isolated from broader society. As social pariahs, they were barred from schools, housing, and employment. And since, post 1945,  the mothers of the children remained faithful to the ideals of the Third Reich, this often threw the children exclusively into Nazi circles. There are also stories here of kindness shown to the children and this seemed to pay off in a big way. Pastor Lohmann, for example, “who made it his mission to open his doors to the children of the Nazi party, showing them it was possible for people who were not like them to love them.” Or the Jewish owners of Saks Jandel who kept Brigitte Höss’s secret that her father was the commandant of Auschwitz.

All these case studies cause the reader to question how we would have reacted in such cases. If these men were “good” fathers, and by that I mean kind and attentive to their children, how would a child put their father’s monstrous behavior out-of-the-house into any sort of context?

“There must have been two sides to him. The one that I knew and then another…. She also questioned the official number of Jews sent to their deaths: “How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed.” (Birgitte Höss)

I particularly liked the chapters on Niklas Frank, the son of “the Butcher of Poland,” and Martin Adolf Bormann Jr. The chapter on Frank details how, as a child, he would go with his mother to the Warsaw ghetto. They arrived in a chauffeur driven limousine and Frank recalls as how as a young child, he noted corpses on the pavement, thin children dressed in rags staring at the car. Frank says his mother used the ghettos “as if they were discount stores especially designed for the Frank family.”

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr was sent, as a punishment, to a Nazi Party academy at age 10 and when the death of Hitler was announced, the news stunned the students:

For me, that was the end. I remember the moment vividly, but I cannot describe the silence that greeted the news … it must have lasted four hours. No one said a word, but eventually people began to go outside, and almost immediately, there was a gunshot, then another, and another. Inside, no one spoke, there was no sound, only the gunshots outside. We thought we were all going to die…. I saw no future for myself. Suddenly, behind the bodies that covered the courtyard, another boy, who was eighteen, appeared. He invited me to come sit next to him. The air smelled fresh, birds were singing, we were still alive. I know that, if we hadn’t been there for each other in that precise moment, neither of us would still be here. I know it. 

The author mentioned that while she intended to meet all of her subjects, “in the end,” she only interviewed one, Niklas Frank. Many of the subjects were dead, while others did not wish to be interviewed for a range of reasons. The author says something that really stuck “It is also true that some of these sons and daughters feel it is easier to be the ‘child of’ certain of these men rather than others.”

And this brings me to Dr Mengele. I can’t rate the Nazis listed in the book from 1-10 from best to worst. That’s not a job I want, but I can say that there’s something particularly repugnant about Mengele. The chapter on Mengele details the meeting between The Angel of Death and his son.

Children Of Nazis is a sobering read. These children were raised in the cult of the Third Reich, and were indoctrinated in those Aryan philosophies. Some managed to break free, but some did not.

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translated by Molly Grogan

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Filed under Crasnianski Tania, Non Fiction

Goebbels: Peter Longerich

“We have absolutely no intention of allowing ideas that have been totally eradicated from the new Germany to be reintroduced by film, whether openly or in disguise.”

I came to the new Goebbels biography from Peter Longerich mainly due to my interest in the German film industry during the WWII period. I’ve also seen the film that included excerpts of Goebbels’s diaries (The Goebbels Experiment) and seen various films which depict Goebbels–I’m thinking in particular of Downfall which concentrated on Hitler’s last days in the Bunker and also showed how Goebbels and his wife decided to kill their six children by poisoning before committing suicide themselves.  All this is to say that I had a certain impression of Goebbels rather than solid, intense knowledge. I’m not terribly interested in broad readings of military history, but I am interested in character, and of all the figures in the Third Reich, Goebbels, for his film and propaganda connections, was the one who interested me the most. Now after finishing Peter Longerich’s almost 1000 page biography, I can say that my impression of Goebbels has been altered.

GoebbelsIn this intense, highly readable biography, Goebbels comes across foremost as an empty human being–destined to be a follower of a stronger personality and “given the lack of balance in his personality,” throwing his fate in with Hitler’s “was in a certain sense the logical outcome.” The book certainly presents a solid argument for that. Politics and the Nazi Party gave Goebbels the power and celebrity he craved, and also, equally importantly, gave him a raison d’être. The book charts the unremarkable early life of Goebbels, his first relationships with women, his failed literary ambitions, and his growing anti-Semitism. In 1923, he worked in a bank–a job he loathed and from which he was subsequently fired. He returned home and began keeping those famous diaries. Clearly a “man lacking direction,” he turned to politics and found his niche. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of Goebbels rise to power and his growing anti-Semitism–for that, read the book, but I will say that Longerich, in charting Goebbels’ career, makes it clear that Goebbels had to make some seismic shifts in his opinions in order to mesh with the Nazi party. While Goebbels initially admired Lenin, “called himself a German Communist, and had seen Russia as a natural ally,” he’s quick to drop that admiration on favour of expediency and eventually “fully internalized Hitler’s arguments.”

His enthusiasm for Hitler as a political “führer” corresponded to messianic sentiments common on the right (we shall return to this theme). His political worldview therefore already bore many of the hallmarks of the “New Right” after the Great War. Accordingly, it is highly improbably that if a political leader of the left had happened to cross his path in the spring of 1924, he would have attached himself so enthusiastically to him and to his ideas. In his burgeoning enthusiasm for National Socialism Goebbels was not alone in the middle-class milieu to which he belonged. Referring to the Reichstag elections scheduled for May 4, he remarked, “All the young people I know are going to vote National Socialist.” His maxim of a few months earlier, that it “does not matter what we believe in, as long as we believe,” cannot therefore be read as proof that Goebbels was a throughgoing relativist or opportunist at this time.

I read one professional review that made the book sound as though it’s packed with Goebbels’s love affairs. This gives a false impression, and while the book initially discusses various love affairs, this focus shifts. While Goebbels always seemed to be in love–“often sustaining two or three affairs at a time,” it’s clear that Goebbels with his gigantic ego and immense self-love, primarily had a love affair with himself.

Full of self-pity, in all these complications he once again saw himself in the role of someone who simply loved everybody and was the victim to the end:

“Little Else, when am I going to see you again? Alma, you lovely minx! Anka, I’ll never forget you! And yet now I’m utterly alone!”

At one point “standing before a portrait of Schiller, he thought he could see physical similarities between himself and the writer,” but then after reading Richard Wagner’s autobiography, he “contemplate[d] the similarities between himself and the composer.” Longerich points out that for Goebbels, “his self-loving reflection .. only had value when it was confirmed by a third person.”

But he had finally reached the conclusion that it was for someone else to be the savior-leader and that his destiny was to be the latter’s first disciple.

This transfer of the role of savior to another person, somebody greater, and the desire for the most perfect possible symbiotic fusion with this idol played to Goebbels’s narcissistic disorder. He himself could only feel great if he had constant confirmation from an idol he had chosen. Hitler was this idol

Longerich argues that Goebbels’s underdog devotion to Hitler was slavish and without limits–as evidenced by his decision to pledge his entire family in the joint suicide–despite the fact that even Magda, at the end, attempted to persuade Hitler to flee.

One of the most intriguing elements to the book is its examination of Goebbels’s weird marriage to Magda with its “triangular relationship” which included Hitler. Before the marriage, Goebbels expresses jealousy regarding the relations between Magda and Hitler, and even questions her “faithfulness.” Some of this could certainly be attributed to Goebbels’s love of drama starring himself, but then again, exactly who was he jealous of? There are too many instances of peculiarity between Magda and Hitler to dismiss entirely any possibly of a love affair.

It is also worth investigating a different version of the marriage plan. A devotee of Hitler’s Otto Wagener, wrote that the plan of a Goebbels-Quandt marriage was conceived in Hitler’s entourage as a way of providing the Party leader with a respectable female partner. According to Wagener, Hitler already had his eye on Magda before he learned to his disappointment that the one he adored was already spoken for by Goebbels. Hitler then developed the notion of building an intimate relationship with Magda who he regarded as the ideal “female opposite pole to my purely masculine instincts.” Hitler believed that a precondition for this was that Magda should be married. Wagener claims that he presented this idea to Magda shortly afterward, simultaneously proposing Goebbels as the candidate for marriage; after some time for reflection both accepted the idea.

Longerich presents the evidence, noting that Wagener’s report “contains one or two chronological inconsistencies” and then lets us decide for ourselves. Given the further information on the marriage with Hitler’s intervention on several occasions, Hitler’s refusal to allow an operation on Magda due to the “bad effects on her face,” and that Magda often “spent days, sometimes weeks, alone with Hitler as his guest,” my money is on Wagener’s version of the Goebbels marriage of convenience.

Longerich juxtaposes and balances excerpts from the diaries, sometimes delusional, with the realities of the war. Goebbels is not completely honest with himself in his diaries; he thought he was writing for posterity–and he was–just not with the magnificent role he’d imagined for himself, but nonetheless it’s made clear, repeatedly by the author through diary entries, that Goebbels was not the intimate confidante of Hitler that he thought he was. Throughout his career and growing role in the Third Reich, Goebbels struggled with party in-fighting, had “to fight for control of propaganda, and also repeatedly, we see Hitler parceling it out.” Goebbels was not privy to Hitler’s war plans and constantly had to play catch up in order to align his ideas with those of Hitler. For example, “it was only on April 8, the day before the invasion of Norway and Denmark, that Hitler considered it fit to inform his propaganda minister about the impending invasion.”  As Longerich notes: “these entries demonstrate yet again how cut off Goebbels was from decision-making in central political matters however hard he might try to maintain the impression that he enjoyed Hitler’s full confidence.” Conversely there is an absence of any “concrete plans for an attack on the Soviet Union” in the diaries until Goebbels was made aware of Operation Barbarossa just a few months before it happened. And here’s a quote to remember:

The whole thing poses certain psychological problems. Parallels with Napoleon etc. But we’ll easily get over them with anti-Bolshevism

And here’s another of my favourites–Goebbels illogically arguing for the Russian invasion when it’s obvious that he’s having to talk himself into it:

But Russia would attack us if we became weak and then we would have  a two-front war, which we shall avoid through this preventive action. Only then shall we have our backs free.

Finally, there was another reason for the attack: “we must also attack Russian in order to free up manpower.”

And:

“It’s rather worrying seeing these piles of snow now even in east Prussia: What will it be like on the eastern front?!”

I’ve always considered Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union insane, and presented here, even with the arguments for invasion, we see the Nazi war machine crumbling and yet even as it deteriorates, the propaganda increases and extermination of the jews increases in its desperate ferocity–almost as if while the Third Reich was being beaten, the puppetmasters hastened their plans in an attempt to accomplish some grotesque manifestation of their sick world vision.

The book charts Hitler’s withdrawal from public view as the war began to look hopeless, and how Goebbels took “on the role of being the regime’s main state orator.” My impression of Goebbels as one of the masterminds of the Third Reich has been eviscerated–although Longerich makes it clear that as it became perfectly obvious that Germany was losing the war, Hitler withdrew from public life, and Goebbels stepped up his role, really exulting in the power and the fact that, finally, he had the role with Hitler he’d craved all those years.

When it comes to books written about some of the more monstrous figures in history–Adolf Hitler, Stalin etc, there’s an enormous difficulty to be overcome by any writer. When you write about the monsters of history, there has to be a very strong interest emanating from the author for a project this size to even get off the ground.  While Goebbels committed horrendous crimes against humanity, the author’s job is to steer the book in an honest, evaluative direction and avoid clichés and easy shots, so the common pitfalls of disgust must be avoided. Peter Longerich does a tremendous job here of uncovering the very flawed, very mediocre man who managed to soar in Germany due to extraordinary times. Goebbels had a very good grasp of some aspects of human nature–especially population control. For example, the way he called a one-day boycott of all jewish businesses to curb the “atrocity propaganda abroad” was most effective in its execution. Goebbels’s used thuggery early on for population suppression tactics, and he modelled propaganda on advertising techniques. Longerich paints a portrait of a man who was not Hitler’s most intimate confidant–even though he desperately longed to be: “Hitler, who had quickly recognized Goebbels’s psychological dependence on him, systematically exploited it during the two decades of their relationship.” As others in Hitler’s circle dropped out, fled, were expelled, Goebbels remained, and the dogged devotion he’d always shown to Hitler initially had its twisted reward:

Thus Goebbels had indulged his narcissistic needs to the limit. By following Hitler’s example and committing suicide with his family, he had confirmed for all time the special relationship he believed he had with his idol

This is a marvelous biography, so beautifully in-depth, and it’s recommended to anyone interested in the subject matter. Finally, and here’s something I never knew: “Goebbels simply disliked crime films.”

Translated by Alan Bance, Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe.

Review copy

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The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik

“Stefan Zweig–affluent Austrian citizen, restless wandering Jew, stupendously prolific author, tireless advocate for pan-European humanism, relentless networker, impeccable host, domestic hysteric, noble pacifist, cheap populist, squeamish sensualist, dog lover, cat hater, book collector, alligator shoe wearer, dandy depressive, café enthusiast, sympathizer with lonely hearts, casual womanizer, man ogler, suspected flasher, convicted fabulist, fawner over the powerful, champion of the powerless, abject coward before the ravages of old age, unblinking stoic before the mysteries of the grave–Stefan Zweig falls into the category of those who incarnate the enchantments and corruptions of their environment.”

That’s one of my favourite quotes from The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World because it illustrates the complexities and paradoxes of the subject.  Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a best-selling author in his lifetime lived to see “his own plunge from glory to darkness,” but currently his work is in revival. My first encounter with a book by Zweig included a brief intro which mentioned his death by suicide, and my impression from other pieces was that Zweig committed suicide in Brazil due to the continued successes of the Nazis. The New York Review Book’s edition of Confusionincluded an introduction written by George Prochnik which gave a much more complex explanation of Zweig’s suicide, so when I saw that Prochnik had written a non-fiction book concerning Zweig’s exile. I knew I had to read it.

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World is a fascinating title which can be read two ways. Is the exile of the title the many journeys Zweig took all over the globe when he left Austria and attempted to find a new home? Or is the Impossible Exile Zweig himself? 

The Impossible exileThe book’s introduction opens with scenes of Zweig in 1941 living in the Brazilian village of Petropolis. Immediately, there’s a central paradox–a paradox that haunts both the book and Zweig’s life. On one hand, Zweig in a letter “asserted ‘we feel extremely happy here,’ “ and yet simultaneously he “burst out in astonishment: ‘I would not have believed that in my sixtieth year I would sit in a Brazilian village, served by a barefoot black girl and miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends, conversation.’ “  This was, of course, just a few months before Zweig killed himself by poison in February 1942, joined in death by his second wife, Lotte, a woman 27 years his junior. 

Why did Zweig, who successfully fled the Nazis, and who was living in the safety of Brazil chose to kill himself? It’s a haunting question–especially when we try to tally how many other Jews (most did not have Zweig’s privileges–wealth, fame and influence) could not escape and were exterminated. Zweig didn’t flee with only a battered suitcase; he left his home and his much-loved library in Salzburg, going into self-imposed exile in 1933; “the book burnings and the banning of his work in Germany had begun to push him toward” the idea. He was fortunate, famous and wealthy, and yet, in spite of having a distinct advantage over fellow exiles, he did not thrive. This was a man who could have lived anywhere he wanted in North America, South America, Canada or England, but he never fit in, and each restless move seemed to erode a little more of Zweig’s psyche.

The Viennese grandparents of George Prochnik were on a “Gestapo  list” scheduled to be rounded up the following day when they were “tipped off” and managed to escape to Switzerland in 1938. A series of extremely lucky occurrences saved Prochnik’s family, and, after many nearly fatal events, the family sailed to New York. Family stories and experiences gave Prochnik the insight to write this book about Zweig with empathy and with the exception of views of Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, non-judgment. I mention the issue of ‘judgment’ because Zweig was the target of criticism. He continued to work with Richard Strauss “even after Strauss had been officially named the chief musical ambassador for Hitler’s regime,” and Zweig was “accused of cowardice for his continued unwillingness to demand international action to save Germany’s Jews.” At the same time, the author cites “abundant evidence” that Zweig, who loathed and avoided conflict, helped innumerable exiles to the point that he’d become a “one-man welfare office.” Snippets from some of Zweig’s letters reveal a man whose sympathy was vanishing as he bemoaned pleas from  “the latest flood of refugees [as] mostly second-rate beggars who’d delayed their escape too long.”

Discussing his own heritage, Prochnik ruminates on the difficulties of adjustment faced by exiles in a new country, “the sudden, radical disequilibrium in their social worlds,”  and that  exiles “move through their new world, [and] scatter around them the aura of past lives like powder from beating wings–in this case, the splendor and toxins, the black iridescence of pre-Anschluss Vienna.” Prochnik makes this comment about Zweig: “His story is particularly revealing for what it says about the predicaments of exile that aren’t resolved when freedom is regained.”  So for Zweig, escaping the Nazis wasn’t enough to give him the buoyancy to survive, and this reminded me of Anna Seghers’ wonderful novel Transita story about refugees stuck in Marseille desperate to get passage on a ship.  The narrator says that the refugees seem to expect that all their problems will be solved if they can just get to their destination “exchanging one burning city for another burning city, switching from one lifeboat to another in the middle of the bottomless sea.” 

The non-linear book follows Zweig through various periods of his life, his youth, the “honeymoon phase of his exile,” designation as an “enemy alien” in Bath, his move to America, the incongruity of the cosmopolitan Zweig marooned in small town America, and throughout it all, his continuing battle with pessimism and despair.  At one point, Zweig contemplated moving to San Francisco, but then flipped his thoughts to Salt Lake City, but these non-decisions only serve to argue that the destination was superfluous–just another stop on an endless journey. Included are some amazing photographs which underscore Zweig’s diminishment and alienation in the American landscape.  

Gradually through the author’s steady, thoughtful and measured words, a picture emerges of a man who lost his celebrity status, and who felt increasingly out-of-place with the outside world much “less accessible.” While other exiles saw an opportunity for “self re-invention,” Zweig, while materially all options were open to him, mentally he seemed boxed into a corner.  Plagued by his fear of aging (which he attempted to battle with hormone shots), and all-too aware that the Viennese society he’d known and loved had vanished forever, Zweig lost his identity and his world narrowed even as his travels expanded across the globe, fleeing from the ever encroaching arm of Nazi Germany. He “never ceased to be amazed by his own ejection from the Olympus of European artistic celebrity into a miserable, nomadic existence over the course of a handful of years.” The suicide was clearly a measured decision staged and planned, and there’s the sense it was just a final gesture of disappearing from a world in which Zweig had already faded from view

Zweig’s life illuminates abiding questions of the artist’s responsibility in times of crisis: the debt owed one’s fellow sufferers relative to the debt owed one’s muse; the role of politics in the arts; and the place of art in education. His tale also raises questions of how we come to belong anywhere–of responsibility to family and ethnic roots relative to ideals of cosmopolitanism

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Death in Paris: A Sobering Thought

I recently read Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King. Since writing the post, I’ve been dwelling on a passage that I didn’t add to the review. It’s a sobering section of the book that gives a sense of the desperation of the times, and it’s important enough to merit a post of its own. In the chapter, German Night, David King describes the atmosphere in Paris when the Germans arrived:

For years before, many of Paris’s richest and most privileged residents began fleeing the capital. The Duke of Windsor; Prince George of Greece, Princess Winnie de Polignac and her niece, Daisy Fellowes, the heiress to the Singer sewing fortune, had all departed. The Aga Khan set out for Switzerland. Peggy Guggenheim stored her art collection in a friend’s barn and drove away in her Talbot, in the direction of the Haute Savioe ski resort of Megève.

Not far behind were a number of writers, painters, and artists who had turned the City of Light into what the New York Times art critic Harold Rosenberg called “the laboratory of the twentieth century.” James Joyce left for a village outside Vichy before continuing into Zurich. Alice B. Toklas departed for Culoz, near Annecy. Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Réne Magritte, and Wassily Kandinsky headed south. Vladimir Nabokov secured the last ocean liner to New York. Walter Benjamin hiked across a mountain passageway into Spain, but made it no further than Portbou, where he committed suicide at age forty-eight.

A mass exodus started in May 1940, and King tells us that “of France’s forty million people, an estimated six to ten million inhabitants clogged the roads” in a futile attempt to escape from the ever-advancing German army. On June 14, 1940 the German army was  “goosestepping … down an otherwise silent Champs-Elysées.”

At least sixteen people in Paris took their own lives that day. The neurosurgeon and head of the American hospital, Comte Thierry de Martel, stuck his arm with a syringe filled with strychnine. Novelist Ernest Weiss, Franz Kafka’s best friend, swallowed a large dose of barbiturates, but when this overdose failed to have its intended effect, he slashed his wrists, dying twenty-four hours later. The sixty-four-year-old concierge at the Pasteur Institute, Joseph Meister, shot himself in the head rather than obey the German invaders–he had been the first person cured of rabies by Louis Pasteur.

King’s powerful, amazingly visual, chilling  descriptions capture the desperation of those who understood the consequences of the German army’s arrival.

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Lumen by Ben Pastor

When it comes to crime novels with an international flair, I’ve found some really interesting titles from Bitter Lemon Press. Recently I received a copy of Lumen by Ben Pastor for review. I had a scornful reaction to the words on the cover: A case for WEHRMACHT CAPTAIN MARTIN BORA.

Pleeze…..

Part of my initial distrust in the novel arose from my skepticism surrounding the meteor shower of Scandinavian crime titles currently hitting North America. Thanks to the success of  the series: The Girl Who Shoved the Hornet’s Nest up Someone’s Bottom, publishers are scrambling for the next big series detective hit. Picking over some of the titles, I wonder if they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Reminds me of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Anyway, who in the hell would write a detective series about a friggin’ Nazi officer? Who in their right minds would read it?

Well sign me up, baby. Lumen is fresh, original and a compulsive read.

So what’s it about?

It’s October 1939, just days after the Nazi army invasion of Poland. Army Intelligence Officer, Captain Martin Bora is stationed in Cracow. It’s been a successful invasion, and now the German army and the SS are ferreting out pockets of resistance, rounding up jews and feeling smug about the ease of conquest so far:

Bora walked back to the army car trying to remind himself that this was war also, killing the livestock of those who harboured Polish army stragglers and deserters. A far cry from the excitement of winning towns house by house, door by door. It seemed to him that the glorious days were already past, and now the business of war–another month at most, no doubt–would go downhill from the exhilaration of the first three weeks. He even wondered what he’d do with himself for the remainder of his life.

This is an interesting passage as it illustrates Bora’s naiveté about the Nazi mission, and it also places the reader in the spot of knowing more than Bora about what lies ahead.

Bora is shortly assigned to investigate the murder of a popular abbess, Mother Kazimierza. She was known for prophecies and also for “the phenomenon of the stigmata.” Although most of her utterances seemed apolitical, there are rumours that she was involved with the Resistance. This makes her a political issue, and since the bullet which killed her was Polish, the Germans are eager to place themselves well away from any blame. An American priest, Father Malecki is in Cracow by order of the pope to investigate the powers of the abbess, and Malecki becomes Bora’s contact in the convent.

Bora is an interesting character, and I’m impressed with how author Ben Pastor fashioned him. She certainly didn’t go overboard and make him too sympathetic, and logically that makes sense. Make him too sympathetic and he becomes a victim who’d be gobbled up by the Nazis. Instead, he’s idealistic, pragmatic, and strait-laced. So for example, driven by duty, he understands orders such as clearing the library of so-called anti-German texts and slaughtering the livestock to punish Polish farmers who’ve hidden deserters. To him that makes sense, but he doesn’t understand taking the farmer’s women, raping and then murdering them.

It’s as if Bora hasn’t “got it” yet. As he investigates the murder of the abbess, he uncovers an alarming number of atrocities (the systematic murder of Polish officers, for example–a foreshadowing of Katyn), he reports to his superiors honestly thinking that those responsible will be punished. Instead he finds himself on the slippery moral slope. He can continue to complain and take the consequences or shut up and get on with his job. These a definite hierarchy afoot which is determined by rank, of course, but there appears to be another silent system with those who weaken replaced with harder characters.

Pastor, wisely I think, does not make Bora squeamish about grabbing the confiscated property of Jews. Bora is assigned a splendid Cracow apartment which he must share with the libidinous Major Retz. The apartment comes complete with a piano and an impressive library, but neither man cares where the occupant is. Booty is a given. At one point Bora runs into his old piano teacher, a Jew named Weiss, who’s now forced nighttime labour and about to be “relocated.” We can imagine where:

The truth was that Bora didn’t want to be kind to Weiss, didn’t want to feel sorry for him. Right then he didn’t want to feel anything. Anger and shame made him egotistical. Two blocks away there was a dead nun whose murder he was expected to solve, and this little man, his old piano teacher, asked for more light. What about the light he needed?

“I can’t stay,” he said, even though he could have stayed because he had nothing to do for the next two hours. But he couldn’t, he couldn’t. He didn’t want to stay. 

At another point, Bora and Retz make a chilling foray into the Cracow ghetto with Retz operating with “the manner of a carefree tourist guide.”

Bora is a character I wanted to read more about–a Prussian aristocrat who’s married to some horribly selfish Nazi-Amazon-Equestrian-Bitch whose father is big in the party. Bora’s stepfather, a general, isn’t impressed by the marriage as he realises that it signals an alliance with the new Germany. Bora’s superiors sense his conscience is troubled by some of the things he sees and as readers it’s obvious that there’s trouble ahead for Bora–even if he does tow the line. He’s already had to make a choice between his conscience and orders, and while he may obey, there’s no sadist gusto, and his superiors know this:

“If you start feeling sorry so early on, Bora, you’re screwed. What should you care? We have our orders and the SD have theirs. It was only an accident that you didn’t happen to have similar orders. And these Polack farmers–they aren’t even people, they’re not even worth reproducing. I can see you’re perturbed, but believe me, don’t start caring.” Bora said something, and Schenck interrupted. “We’re all in it. If it’s guilt, we’re all guilty. This is the way it is.”

“I cannot accept this is the way it is, Colonel. We also have laws.”

“So early on, and you’re already talking about laws? You yourself have come tearing down through Polish villages like a cyclone in your first days here. What laws? Leave things very well alone. First you report to me about the hanged Ukrainians, and now it’s Polack farmers. Harden your heart, as the advice was given to us at the beginning of this campaign. It’ll do you good in life. You’re just a young captain with scruples, not a relevant or even useful position at all.”

One of those most significant relationships in the novel takes place between Father Malecki and Bora, and perhaps this is because the two men have some common issues. Just as Bora isn’t free to punish men for rape and murder, Malecki is forced to obey orders from the Vatican. Neither man is free to take independent action, and both men wrestle with their conscience at several points. I particularly enjoyed the way the author showed how morality is so easily eroded in time of war, and the extraordinary courage required by those who step up and refuse to carry out orders that cross the line.

Apparently there’s a sequel on the way, and I’ll be reading it.

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