Showing posts with label Adolf Hitler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adolf Hitler. Show all posts

08 August 2018

Munich 1938

David Edgerley Gates

Robert Harris has written a dozen compelling and thoughtful thrillers, beginning with Fatherland, in 1992. The first novel was alternative history. Then he went with the real thing in Enigma, about WWII code-breaking at Bletchley Park, and Archangel was a little of both, Stalin's ghost as metaphor, but with an all-too-physical legacy.

Further along, we've had the Cicero trilogy - ancient Rome - and An Officer and a Spy, the Dreyfus affair. Not to mention an acid take-down of Tony Blair. Mostly the books take place at a safe remove from the present, not that they lose any of their ominous immediacy.  



What lies now in the past once lay in the future. This is the epigraph, slightly paraphrased, from his most recent book, Munich. In late September of 1938, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with Adolf Hitler, and try one last time to prevent the outbreak of a general European war. The price agreed to would be the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the repatriation of the ethnic Germans in the Sudeten. Chamberlain has been much ridiculed since (thanks in no small part to the writings of his longtime political rival, Churchill, and the benefits of hindsight), but it's worth remembering that he was much honored at the time.



We might remember too that in 1938, the Armistice had only been signed twenty years before. Everybody in political office had direct experience of the Great War, and so did the voters. Chamberlain's dread of another generation going to slaughter wasn't stage piety, and his peace policy ("appeasement") had significant support - and not just in Great Britain. He was widely admired on the Continent, as well. A second point, not so well-recognized, is that Chamberlain was playing for time. Britain had its Navy, but the air forces and ground defense were completely underequipped. If they'd gone to war with Germany in 1938, they'd almost surely have gone down in defeat.



This is where the Robert Harris method pays off bigtime, with the What-Ifs. We know the world went to war. We know Hitler wasn't to be trusted. But we didn't know it then. Chamberlain isn't a fool, some doddering fuddy-duddy. He's got a misplaced hope that Hitler might feel the slightest sense of shame, but he's pretty clear-headed, and certainly cold-blooded. You could ask the Czechs.

The device Harris uses is to represent the larger canvas in small. The major actors all take the stage in turn, but the attributes of national character are on display in the brick-and-mortar of the fictional cast. Two (invented) lower-ranking foreign service guys, Legat on the British side, Hartmann on the German, were classmates at Oxford in the 1930's, and meet again at Munich. More to the point, Hartmann arranges for them to meet, so he can pass Legat a stolen document. In the event, the former friends can only talk past each other, which mirrors the larger context. Hartmann, a conspirator in the still-scattered Hitler resistance, is frustrated by Legat's obstinate insistence on matters of form. Legat thinks Hartmann is being too operatic and emotional. The doomed Romantic can't dent the stiff upper lip.



The point of all this is something I've spoken about in previous pieces, namely, what's now in the past was once in the future. This is an active dynamic in Robert Harris' books, as it is with Alan Furst or Joseph Kanon, or anybody else who writes about a shared recent history, just barely past the horizon of personal memory. WWII vets are dying off, and people who were simply alive at the time are falling by the wayside. In other words, we're losing a window into their experience. A novelist can reimagine it, or allow us to reimagine it, and a large part of that is inhabiting the time those people lived in. To us, it's old news. To them, it was the present.

Chamberlain at Munich was trying to stave off - or at best, delay - a huge, devouring calamity. Nobody actually realized how huge it would be, how calamitous, but Chamberlain was haunted by the diplomatic collapses of August 1914. He felt an enormous responsibility. In the end, the collapse came, a year later. 'Munich' is now shorthand, for weakness, for retreat, for collaboration, even. This does Chamberlain a cruel disservice. He made the mistake any reasonable man might. He thought the other guy was reasonable. 

03 January 2016

Darkness and Light

by Leigh Lundin

On the 1st of January, two seminal and opposing books entered the public domain. One of these books transmuted the world. The other, which came about as an indirect result of the first, transfigured it.

Mein Kampf
When Self-Publishing Goes Horribly Wrong

Mein Kampf was actually published by private press, Franz Eher Nachfolger GmbH, purchased in December 1920 by the fledgling Nazi party. Hitler’s original title, Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampfes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit, or, Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice… You begin to see the problem of a book written by an angry, poorly educated man. Publisher Max Amann quickly shortened the title to Mein Kampf (My Struggle), but it would take subsequent editions to correct the many grammatical and spelling errors.

Hardly a runaway best seller, Nazi party members were its intended audience. As Hitler gained power and prominence, sales increased and during the Third Reich, the book was often given as awards and gifts. The government gave special boxed editions to wedding couples.

Hitler expressed later regret, saying he’d never have written the thing if he’d known he’d actually ascend to supreme leadership in Germany. Part of that regret was that he’d too clearly spelled out his plans for what he considered Germany’s historical enemy, France, and his intentions for Russia, Poland, Britain, the Jews and the Slavs.

Few Germans actually read the book and even Mussolini admitted he hadn’t been able to wade through it. Foreign translations were deliberately softened. Houghton-Mifflin offered an ‘official’ abridged English translation that omitted Hitler's most anti-Semitic and militaristic statements. When a small Pennsylvania publisher, Stackpole and Sons, released a complete translation by William Soskin on that same day, Houghton-Mifflin sued and won, claiming exclusive rights.

An alarmed American UPI reporter in Germany took action of his own. A young Alan Cranston (yes, THAT Alan Cranston, later to become Senator Cranston of California), issued his own translation, the parts Houghton-Mifflin left out, that more accurately reflected Hitler’s horrific vision. Again Hitler’s publishers sued in American courts and won– but not before Cranston managed to get a half-million copies into readers’ hands.

From the end of WW-II until now, the state of Bavaria has held the copyright and refused to allow re-release of Mein Kampf in Germany, although with millions in print during the war years, copies were readily available. Now that copyright has expired. Bavaria will authorize annotated editions, printings that contain critical assessments.

A corollary to Godwin’s Law says that mention of Hitler or Nazis brings discussion to an end, but better is to come.

Diary of Anne Frank
The Girl Who Would Be Famous

For her bat mitzvah, Dutch schoolgirl Annelies Frank received a red-and-white plaid diary, one that would become known around the world. For two years, Anne bared her soul about her feelings and thoughts of those around her and the outside world. Her dream was to become a famous writer and journalist. And so she did.

It turns out the edition of Anne Frank’s Diary students read in school from the 1950s through the 1970s was edited to remove criticism of Anne’s mother and observations about her own, growing sexuality. A few parents (usually without sullying their minds by reading the text), have attempted to ban the book from American schools as recently as 2010 and again in 2013, calling the writings ‘pornographic’.

In fact, multiple editions are known to exist, at least two in Anne’s handwriting. In March 1944, Gerrit Bolkestein, a minister of the Dutch government in exile, announced on the underground Radio Oranje that diaries would be collected after the war to memorialize the suffering of the Dutch people. Upon hearing that, Anne began to rewrite her diary on loose-leaf sheets.

In August 1944, an unknown party betrayed the Frank family to the occupying Nazis. Six months later, Anne and her sister Margot died in Bergen-Belsen weeks before the camp was liberated by Allied troops.

Former Hitler Youth, Nazis, neo-Nazis, right-wing extremists and holocaust deniers have repeatedly contended the book is a forgery. Multiple examinations, forensic tests, handwriting analysis, and court-directed studies have shown otherwise.

Now comes a disturbing claim from the Anne Frank Fund in Switzerland: In fighting off the loss of copyright (and loss of royalties), they now assert Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was co-author. They also argue that their copyright claims should start the clock in the 1980s, the first appearance of the unexpurgated version.

The foundation’s short-term greed threatens to dilute the message and meaning of those precious writings. Fortunately, courts have ruled that an editor is not a co-author. Nevertheless, the Swiss foundation continues to lay claims to copyrights.

Two historically significant documents that could hardly be more different, one born in darkness, the other forged with hope. Have you read either? Or both? Which do you recommend for school curricula?