Showing posts with label Germany. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Germany. Show all posts

10 June 2014

A Place In History

by David Dean

I was telling my son a few months back about a story idea that had occurred to me.  It would draw from my days in the army when I was stationed in what was then known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic.  He listened politely, then observed with a snort, that I was writing a "historical."  With that single word I suddenly realized that my earlier life had entered the slipstream of history.  It was a sobering thought that carried with it undertones of pending mortality--my pending mortality.

"Smartass," I replied, my ancient and inflexible brain unable to come up with a pithier rejoinder.  This was the same son who had been born in Germany, though he recalls very little of our time there.  And since this piece concerns itself with history, it is worth noting that Robin gave birth to him at Landstuhl Military Hospital while survivors of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut were being cared for there.  Two hundred and forty one marines died in that attack, an incident I would later be moved to write about in a story titled, "Ibrahim's Eyes." 

Later that evening, I unearthed some photographs from that time and place.  They were pre-digital and had acquired a yellowish patina.  The people captured in these snapshots bore a strange resemblance to my own family and myself.  I was relieved to note that other than the deep lines in my face, my hair having gone completely gray, and a sagging neckline, that I had hardly changed since these pictures were taken.  I was about the same age then as my son is now.  The time was the early 1980's. 

In one photo, my family and I stand beneath a sign for the town, or stadt, of St. Julian, holding an infant of the same name, the male heir and aforementioned future smartass.  We look healthy and happy even though we are in a strange land through no desire of our own.  The assignment was for three years--the army would involuntarily extend it by six months (I was that necessary to the effort).  We knew no one and were a very long way from our families.  Letters took a long time to transit the mighty ocean, and phone calls to friends and loved ones were hideously expensive for a G.I. supporting a family of five.  I would spend weeks away on training maneuvers.  Still, we managed to make a great time of it, for which I mostly credit my imaginative and indefatigable wife.

My father had also been to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army (more history), having arrived on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fighting his way into the Fatherland.  Naturally, he had some assistance in this--I believe a cook accompanied him.  It was funny to think of myself there so many years later.  The barracks my unit was assigned to had been formerly occupied by Nazi troops; our artillery range established by the same.  Even so, there were many, many differences between our visits--the most obvious being that no one was actively shooting at us.  The main threat was now the Soviets and their allies.  Both the East Germans and the Czechoslovakians manned the borders between the American and Soviet spheres, while the West Germans, and us, manned our side.  I'm not sure that the Germans loved us exactly, but they liked us a lot better than the alternative.

That being said, there were radical groups within the Federal Republic that were dedicated to the expansion of communism throughout the west, and by any means possible.  Two of these, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction), and the RZ, or Revolutionary Cells, could be extremely violent.  Throughout the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, they were responsible for a number of bombings, murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings.  They trained and networked with several middle-eastern terrorist groups; their ideological brethren in Italy and France, and received money and logistical support from the East German Secret Police, the feared Stasi.  They succeeded on several occasions in bombing American military bases; killing and wounding both soldiers and civilians.  They were no less savage with their fellow Germans.  We were cautioned to examine our cars, if we owned one, before putting a key in the ignition.  That seemed good advice to me.

Meanwhile, I functioned as an intelligence analyst assigned to the 8th Infantry Division Artillery.  Not very glamorous or exciting.  My vast knowledge of Soviet tactics, equipment, weapons, and training, however, were largely responsible for discouraging the Russians from doing anything foolish.  They realized early on that they were simply outclassed.  You may recall that the Iron Curtain would crumble altogether within a few years of my arrival in Europe.
My Soviet Counter-Part

Now, a few decades later, I contemplate fashioning a novel out of that distant time and faraway place.  Even to me, it now seems as if this were another world altogether--quaint, if somewhat dangerous.  The Soviet Union no longer exists, and its demise led to the birth (or rebirth) of dozens of nations.  Germany has been reunited.  Czechoslovakia has been disjointed; the face of Europe made completely foreign to my time there.  Yet, I was there and an actual participant.  And though it did not appear unique to me as I was living it, it became history even so.

Shortly after I wrote this, the Russian Bear reentered the world stage in the Crimea and is growling at the Ukraine.  Perhaps my experiences are not so remote in time as they seemed.  History keeps happening and I'm expecting a call from Washington any minute now, "Dean...we need you...we need you now!"



Switching focus here: As most of you know, Dale Andrews was injured in the line of duty, so to speak, and is now on hiatus.  We have discovered that to replace him required the talents of not one, but two, able-bodied writers: Stephen Ross and Jim Winter, both of whom have graced us with their talents of late.  They have graciously consented to share the yoke on a semi-permanent basis.

Next Tuesday, June 17th, Stephen, through the miracle of the internet, will appear among us all the way from New Zealand.  Or at least his blog will.  Stephen will probably remain in his native land.  But I don't know, as I have heard that his people have harnessed powers that the rest of us can only dream of.  Jim, who is an Ohioan, and speaks a dialect of our language, will share his thoughts with us on the following Tuesday, June the 24th.  From there on out, Tuesdays will rotate between the three of us.  Please give our new co-conspirators a round of virtual applause, and tune in on Tuesdays for exceptional, and once again international, entertainment!

23 October 2013

End of Days

by David Edgerley Gates

I've been reading Max Hastings' ARMAGEDDON, which is about the last year of WWII in Europe, from D-Day to the German surrender. It's a door-stopper of a book, but he's a very skillful writer, and he lays out the campaign in vivid detail. He
tells the story from the shifting points of view of the four major armies, British, American, German, and Russian, and he makes even as confusing a fight as Arnhem transparent in its folly. (Hastings doesn't suffer fools gladly, and Montgomery comes in for his lumps, but so do quite a few others.) I highly recommend it.

Now, he's got a book out about the origins of the First World War, called CATASTROPHE. You'd think this ground had been pretty thoroughly plowed, but Hastings revisits an earlier argument, that Germany was the primary belligerent, and is most at fault for starting the war.


Many of us, probably, take for granted the received wisdom that Europe's major players in 1914 went over the cliff like lemmings, helpless in the grip of events they couldn't control, both the Entente and the Central Powers caught in a tangle of alliances that didn't allow them any wiggle room. This is the case Barbara Tuchman makes in THE GUNS OF AUGUST, still the most influential history of events, and her view is backed up by Sir John Keegan and Paul Fussell, among others, but it wasn't always so. Winston Churchill always held Germany responsible, as did a number of his contemporaries, John Buchan, for one. (Churchill is in fact known to think that both wars were continuous, and that the years from 1918 to 1939 were no more than a static interlude of false hope.) This is why Woodrow Wilson had such a tough sell at Versailles, because Clemenceau and the Brits insisted that the Germans accept full blame, and pay crippling reparations. The humiliation of the peace, and the collapse of the German economy, almost certainly led to Weimar's paralysis, and the rise of Hitler.


So the calamity of 1914 is well worth another look, and Hastings takes a very contrary position. In his reading, Germany is the aggressor, and Russia, France, and Great Britain were forced into the war by necessity. Germany was at this time Britain's chief rival, both in Europe and the world. They challenged Britain's fleet, and British colonial interests, in Africa and elsewhere. Britain's fortunes, politically and economically, rested on a stable international order. German amibitions upset that order. After the June, 1914, assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Bosnian nationalist, London had every reason to believe Berlin would exploit the Balkan crisis. Leaving aside the fact that Austria-Hungary had its own internal tensions, Germany did indeed turn the situation to their advantage. Their intention, if they could persuade France to remain neutral, was to attack Russia, but avoid a war on two fronts. In the event, when Germany invaded Belgium that August, beginning their offensive in the West, to eliminate the French threat, everybody's calculations went off the rails. You have to look at the chronology of mobilization, which is complicated, and then decide whether Germany was bluffing, or trying to buy the pot, without in fact going to war, but it seems to me Hastings has got it right. The actions of the British, the French, and the Russians were taken in reaction to German saber-rattling. A general European war might never have happened, if Germany had shown any interest in conciliation, but their air was to dismantle British hegemony, and establish a German one, in central Europe, annexing Poland, and across their colonial empire, particularly in central Africa. The result, in a word, was catastrophe, for all involved.



The sense that nobody in particular caused the war,that it was a slide over the brink, brought on by accident, mutual suspicion, intransigence, or denial---Christopher Clark's book about it is called THE SLEEPWALKERS---is somehow oddly comforting, as if we're not responsible for history, which has its own logic and momentum, and sweeps us away, captive to a fall of the dice. But man makes history, for good or ill. We're captive to our own nature. In the end, nothing is written, and the waters are uncharted.

28 April 2013

Ecstasy of Eva Braun

by Leigh Lundin

This review is not of a crime novel in the normal sense, but a sketch of perhaps the greatest crime in modern history.

Eva Braun An ARC arrived at a time I was traveling between continents, indeed between hemispheres, but I kept returning to the novel, snatching paragraphs in planes and airports and at odd moments otherwise. These readings were punctuated by looking up facts and figures to track the progress of the novel: i.e, was Gotz Rupp a real figure? Who was Gunnar Eilifsen? And then I needed time to digest the writings.

Paean of Pain

The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun is an unusual novel, a rarity in how it worms into the minds of Germans and especially Nazis of the era. A sly encomium, it creates a seemingly naïve but subversive panegyric to Adolf Hitler. Unlike genre novels, suspense is notably absent; virtually no tension arises even though we know the rough outlines of the ending. Albert Speer once said, "Eva Braun will prove a great disappointment to historians," but author Lavonne Mueller begs to differ.

We know Braun primarily from her films and photographs of Hitler, whose intimate relationship wasn't revealed to the public. Braun (through the hand of Lavonne Mueller) discusses 'Adi' in glowing tones of worship, her Juliet to his Romeo. To categorize Eva Braun as a groupie would be to trivialize her because her character exhibits startling whitecaps of profundity in a shallow sea of insipidness. The book offers a convincing peek into a personal side of Hitler, although it's more a dissertation describing those who loved and admired him.

Führerbunker Mentality

Mueller helps us comprehend the immoral, the insane amidst the then political landscape, how normal became horrific and horror passed as normal, a beastly beauty and rightness seen only by willingly indoctrinated Nazis. At one point Eva asks herself, "Why doesn't the world understand?"

From historical documents culled from the time, we know this isn't an aberration. Consider sources such as a letter Magda Goebbels sent her eldest son, Harald Quandt, shortly before she 'euthanized' her remaining six young children and committed suicide the day after Hitler's: "Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvelous that I have known in my life."

Now you begin to sense the underpinnings of the novel. Nazism encapsulated a peculiarly twisted view where those not of the Aryan ideal were exploited and then destroyed. Jews were dehumanized until they were less than livestock, where they'd become 'bacteria' to be eradicated. A good German might feel angst at the loss of a prized housekeeper or craftsman, not of the loss of human beings.

Guns and Roses

Intellectuals and protesters like the White Rose were 'patriotically executed' for the betterment of the German state, which had become synonymous with the Nazi Party. The concept of 'blood guilt' gave sanction to wipe out the families of those considered traitors.

The Party had become not only the government, but the religion. Thus developed a disconnect between good and perceived good, between evil and perceived evil, a topsy-turvy madness where wicked was wonderful. The killing aped John Ruskin to the extreme, that war is peace and death is artful.

In this story, Braun becomes emblematic of the German citizen, a token, an exemplar of Germanic thought condensed in one woman. She strives to humanize the inhuman, helping us understand what enamored the German nation. Whatever the country felt precipitated in her, distilled and refined. Hitler wasn't merely her hero, he was her god. In Him (her caps), all things were beautiful and perfect, a being who could do no wrong. Naziism exemplified beauty, all else was tainted.

Adolph and Eva

The book's blurb calls Patient Ecstasy 'a disturbing, erotic novel'. True, the author is at ease with kink and sexuality and is clearly skilled to sketch dark, erotic paintings inside the recesses of the human mind, and yet the story isn't erotic in any expected sense. Arguably it's not erotic at all, no more titillating than, say, a nightshirt Eva wore to her wedding bed confiscated from the body of a dead Russian.

Other than a brief 'banana drama' and a strong bent toward submission, the casual reader will find no lingering scenes that dawdle over exploration of sexual feelings and body parts. Braun's baring of her breasts comes off as clinical, a self-serving shadow of a gesture in the midst of war. Here Mueller merges Naziism and the horrors of battle with Hitler's prim and stunted sexuality, not that Braun has the least doubt her paramour is the most perfect male, the most virile potentate on the planet.

Perspective

The historical accuracy is impressive, if sometimes overly detailed down to minute observations such as street numbers. I compared a few of Mueller's events against the known timeline and variance, if any, appears so slight as to be negligible. The author's research gives us virtually a history with an overlay of imagined personalities and conversations, a way to make the reader comprehend the incomprehensible.

Therein lies the power of the book, indeed what fiction should do but rarely accomplishes. Most historians say events cannot be grasped without submersing oneself in the mood and period. This text helps us understand what cannot be understood, not Hitler himself, but his admirers and the mad sense of the day.

Read at Your Own Risk

And that makes the book frightening, because we begin to realize the possibility history could repeat itself. Therein lies the suspense I considered missing from the novel. Suspense hides the horror that writhes barely buried beneath the skin waiting to erupt again upon an unsuspecting world.

12 December 2012

Cold War Berlin: A Whiter Shade of Pale

by David Edgerley Gates

David Morrell's forthcoming new thriller, MURDER AS A FINE ART, takes place in Victorian London, and he remarks that his research and the writing itself so completely immersed him in the time and place that it became more real to him than the contemporary, so-called 'real' world. Anybody who's ever written period stories, whether in the distant past or more recent history, can relate. The language you use changes from modern usage– not so much "prithee, sirrah," as perhaps word order– and even the thoughts of your characters are different, because their view of themselves and the world are different from the present day. The easiest trap to fall into is anachronism, a modern viewpoint bleeding into the past, which could be something as simple as cause and effect: we know the Black Death was caused by a bacillus; the people it killed thought it was the hand of God. Specific details are simpler, as in, when did Lucky Strikes go to war? 1942, as it happens.

In both the bounty hunter stories, which take place in the years just before America's entry into World War I, and the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place immediately after World War II, I've found myself slipping into a habit of mind, not so much a slavish devotion to accuracy ('the smell of the lamp') as a mental device, or discipline, trying to think my way into the characters' heads, which is more than just the correct vocabulary. It's time travel.

I've had a much different experience e-formatting my Cold War spy novel, BLACK TRAFFIC, for upload to my website. I hadn't actually taken a close look at the book in over a year, so it came as a surprise to me how evocative, to my mind, the story-telling is, an era and a city that might as well be as distant and foreign as the Mexican Revolution, or postwar New York. It's time travel, but into living memory. The book takes place in Berlin, in the mid to late 60's, and I was in fact there. Much of BLACK TRAFFIC is based on my personal experience of both Berlin and the spook trade of the times. In other words, it's firsthand recollection, and the problem, often, wasn't a lack of specificity, but too much, an overwhelming flood of significant detail. How to pick and choose? Memory is a chancy thing, an unreliable guide to history. I found I second-guessed myself a lot, was such-and-such a thing for real, or something my subconscious overheard, a trick of the mind's eye? Authentic reconstruction is a false hope.

So what I was left with, after filtering out the generic and over-familiar, while keeping the untidy and simply bizarre---the story of the would-be U.S. defector to the Russians returning to West Berlin to feed his cat is based on fact, for example---was still an indigestible stew, underdone and lumpy, needing better seasoning and more time in the pot (which was true of the book as a whole), but in the end, I could only follow my own likes, and forgetting caution, there were a couple of things I cherished too much to discard.

Berlin had a soundtrack in those years, Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Actually, you heard it all over Europe in the spring and summer of '67, but I always associated it most closely with Berlin, and so did a lot of Berliners. It remains an anthem, even today, for that certain generation, both triumphal and melancholy. Why that particular theme song? I've got no idea. Germans can be a sentimental lot.

The other totemic association I have with Berlin is currywurst. All over town there were food stalls set up in the street, and wurst stands were the most popular. You got brats or a knock with potato salad and a hard roll, with a dab of mustard on the side, on a paper plate. The odder iteration was currywurst. Basically pork sausage slathered in ketchup mixed with curry powder, and served with French fries. An acquired taste, as you might imagine, but once acquired, not forgotten.

I saw a recent news article saying that landmarks which had been inaccessible when the Wall was up, the Brandenburg Gate, for instance, were now overrun with people, both native Berliners and a raft of tourists, and of course they were teeming with so-called Schnell-Imbiss, fast food. A new wrinkle is that they aren't even stalls, but guys with a hot-top rigged up to a shoulder harness, so they can work the crowd, and your wurst comes to you, not the other way around. Interestingly enough, this has generated some political controversy---not the serving method, but the perceived disrespect of public monuments. It's just part of the urban scene, in my opinion, but the politics of Left and Right in Germany often fixate on irrelevancies. The presence of all that cheap food is is seen as an insult to the historic significance of these symbolic places.

Germans are often accused of wanting to conveniently erase or reinvent the uglier passages of their own history, not just Hitler, say, but the Soviet occupation of the East, and the reinterpretations have a definite bias, Liberal or Conservative, depending on your sympathies. In other words, which history, and who appropriates it. Symbols mirror desired meanings, old wine in new bottles. It seems odd to me that currywurst has fallen afoul of politics and now wears a badge of dishonor, in some quarters. It's only sausage links and tomato paste, after all, and has no dog in the fight, so to speak. Then again, one man's relish is another man's distaste.