Showing posts with label Nazis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nazis. Show all posts

14 November 2018

Telemark


I've always had a soft spot for the 1965 war thriller Heroes of Telemark. Directed by Anthony Mann, first off, not to mention I'm a longtime Kirk Douglas fan, it's one of those outnumbered-commandoes-attack-Nazi-stronghold yarns, better than Where Eagles Dare, not quite in the same league as Guns of Navarone.

Telemark is based on a true story, and although they take more than a few liberties, it's reasonably accurate. I was in fact reading The Saboteur, an Andrew Gross novel about the Norsk Hydro raid, exact in its details, when news came that the last surviving Norwegian veteran of the attack had just died. Joachim Rønneberg lived to be 99.

The thing about the Norsk Hydro raid, the real story, is that the fictions actually fall a little short. There's a lack of contrivance, and you have to dramatize a story that's more about endurance and less about blowing shit up. You might even play down how high the stakes were.

In late 1942, there were two trains running. In the U.S., the Manhattan Project, and in the UK, what was known as the Tube Alloys program. What nobody on the Allied teams knew was how far along the Germans were, specifically Werner Heisenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Absent hard intelligence, it was thought better safe than sorry, and senior Brit spooks at the Special Operations Executive began mapping out sabotage missions to damage the Uranverein, Nazi atomic weapons research.

In the occupied territories of the Reich, the Norsk Hydro generating plant at Vemork, in Telemark, was the most reliable producer of deuterium oxide, also called 'heavy water,' an essential component in nuclear fission. German experiments relied on heavy water, and Norsk Hydro became a primary target for SOE.

Access was the main issue. The plant was in a gorge, and a night bombing raid was discussed. If the Lancasters could navigate accurately in the dark, could they pinpoint the ordnance and destroy the target? Odds against. The only thing they could be sure of was heavy collateral casualties among Norwegian civilians.

It had to be boots on the ground. SOE mounted Operation Grouse in October 1942. They parachuted in an advance party, local Norwegians, to scout the terrain and set up the approach. A month later, they sent in a combat group to rendezvous with Grouse. Everything went wrong. The two gliders crashed, the men who weren't killed were captured by the Germans, and then executed. The four-man Grouse team hid out on the Hardanger plateau, scrubbing lichen off the rocks to eat. They were holed up for three months.

The follow-up mission was launched in February, 1943. Six more Norwegian commandoes dropped onto the Hardanger and made contact with Grouse. Because of the failed attack the previous November, the Germans knew Vemork was a target. But the garrison was small. It was the geography that protected Norsk Hydro. The river valley narrowed at the Rjukan Falls, and the slopes were near-vertical. The mountains are high enough to block out the sunlight from September to March. The plant was built on a rocky shelf 1,000 feet above the river. Security checkpoints had been established further up, overlooking the plant, and on the bridge across the gorge. The commando team made their assault from below, climbing out of the steep ravine in the icy darkness.

They got inside, they wired the explosives, they blew the containment vessels to smithereens. Then they got out. Amazingly, they all escaped, with upwards of 3,000 troops out beating the bushes for them. A couple made it to Oslo, a couple stayed behind. Rønneberg and four others skiied to Sweden. Skiied. 400 kilometers. The wartime German commander, von Falkenhorst, later called it the "best coup" he'd ever seen.

There's a postscript, in that the Germans reestablished heavy water production not long after, but after daylight bombing raids, decided to ship the inventory they had by ferry and rail back to Germany. Norwegian saboteurs sank the ferry as it crossed Lake Tinn, and German atom research sank with it.

Did the Telemark raid change the outcome of the war? In all honesty, no. There was nothing remotely analogous to the Manhattan Project in the German war effort. Albert Speer, the armaments minister, was never convinced it was a workable goal. There's a whole other story, of course, about Heisenberg in Berlin, but we'll save that for another time.

Meanwhile, let's raise a glass to Joachim Rønneberg, and the memory of men and women like him. We honor the debt we owe them. We hope we deserve the world they gave us.  

05 August 2018

Innocent Abroad


zzPaul recently mentioned stumbling into a den of Nazis. His encounter reminded me that I might have done the same, in Germany, no less.

My German colleague and I were driving to Stuttgart in the nastiest weather. Evening set in like a black curtain falling as winds and torrential rains rocked and hammered our Audi. Thunder boomed like cannon. Lightning blinded us.

Waters in the roads rose, overloading storm sewers. Wrestling the steering wheel, Dedrick slowed to a crawl to avoid hydroplaning. When we turned into one village, waters gushed down the cobblestones like a river. We yielded in the furious face of Mother Nature and pulled up to a pub.

The dash inside the alehouse soaked us to the skin. The pub’s humidity approximated that of an overfilled aquarium without the nice filtration. Weather reports suggested we’d be holed up for several hours.

This kneipe had last been plastered and painted about the time the Kaiser’s coach last passed through. Its toiletten plumbing surely predated the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The bar ran nearly the length of the room stopping short of the left wall so barmaids could pass back and forth. There sat pinball machines flanking a door. Besides serving the taproom, waitresses also passed through the door, carefully closing it behind themselves.

Two waitress wore prim, high-collar blouses, but our hyper-blonde server wore a bodice cut like a bushel basket, barely containing the fruits of her Nordic genes. All went for naught. Noses in glasses, no one paid attention. A kind of miasma seemed to have settled upon the bar.

The place didn’t decorate its walls with kitsch, memorabilia, or antiques, faux or otherwise. Apparently some visitors left behind traces of chewing gum, perhaps from a New Jersey teen who’d run off to London to become part of the Beatles scene. Visiting German nightclubs and bars, she’d retraced their up-and-coming route through villages like this. She’d disappeared here one evening in 1966, said the barmaid, probably gypsies.

A speaker piped in some sort of deutscher Musik. Whenever someone would switch it on, a man stormed out of the kitchen to shut it off.

A few patrons morosely chatted, exhibiting none of the camaraderie of American taverns or English pubs. A few sat alone, sullen, possibly glum from the relentless rains and floods gushing down the straße. When barmaids opened the door off the bar, traces leaked out of stentorian words, wisps of a laugh, strains of singing.

A man wearing a slouch hat dropped into a booth across from me. The ID tag on the briefcase chained to his wrist might have read Antonio Prohías. His valise covered letters carved into the table. I could make out the letters ‘…child…’.

My colleague was becoming inebriated. After a glass of Mosel, I switched to Coca-Cola, that American abomination that everyone loves. It meant I’d do the driving once the downpour let up.

When slouch-hat man unlocked his briefcase, My imagination made out the rest of the lettering carved in the table, maybe Erskine Childers.

Kaffee,” mumbled Dedrick in half English. “Die bardame, tell her kaffee. Gott, I need kaffee.”

The barmaids had wandered off, but I stayed attentive, waiting for one to appear. Within moments, one whooshed out of the kitchen. She balanced a tray on a pinball machine, levered open the side door, and disappeared inside. This time she didn’t close it.

German Flags
German flag, variously 1848-1934
1848~1933
German flag 1935-1945
1935~1945
German flag 1949-present
1949~20xx
From my angle, the room loomed large, apparently an auditorium. A man stood speaking at a microphone. Surrounding him, the platform was decorated in colorful bunting, red, white, and black. Not, I noticed, the Weimar and post-war red, gold, and black, but the terrifying 1935-1945 decade of red, white, black.

“Dedrick,” I hissed. “Damn it, Dedrick, snap to. Take a look.”

My companion blearily opened his eyes and turned. He stiffened.

The barmaid glided back through the door and headed for the kitchen. The speaker suddenly noticed. He pointed sternly toward the door, nearly pointing at me.

A man in a pressed, light brown uniform strode into view. Was that… Was he wearing a Sam Browne shoulder strap? This sergeant-at-arms glanced around and firmly shut the door.

Dedrick instantly sobered.

“Did you see what I saw?” I asked.

“Shh. Shut up in here.” He glared out the window at the rain. “Can you drive?”

To avoid the appearance of panicked departure, we abided another twenty minutes, then dashed toward the Audi, awash in rushing water.

Once out of town, I steered toward Stuttgart.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Was it…?”

“I know what you’re thinking. No. The Nazi Party is illegal in Germany, banned with good reason.”

“But…”

“Don’t speak of it, not here, not now.”

So in a rain-soaked village overlooking a riverbed disguised as a cobblestone street, a curious gathering took place in a private room adjacent to a scruffy bar. Maybe Garbage Collectors Union Local 101 were merely meeting that evening. Perhaps they shared a penchant for neatly pressed brown uniforms and red bunting with dramatic dashes of black and white.

Or maybe it was something else entirely.



Next time: Ladybug Nazi versus the Valkyrie

25 October 2017

Collaborators


French actress Danielle Darrieux died this past week. She was 100, her career beginning in 1931 and lasting until 2016. Her death notices all remark the fact that she stayed on in Paris after WWII broke out, and kept making pictures during the German occupation. Some of the obits go so far as to call her a Nazi collaborator. I'm guessing the story admits of rather a few more complications.



Let's begin with the fiction that French resistance to the Germans was fierce and widespread. Don't kid yourself. This was a wartime convenience, for Allied propaganda, and for French domestic political purposes after the war. De Gaulle insisted on it. It lifts us on angels' wings above the black market of hypocrisy, corruption, and grievance that characterized the Occupation. The pre-war climate in France echoed the America First movement in the States, a strong dose of appeasement and anti-Semitism, and there were more than a few French admirers of Hitler's scorched earth Jewish policies. And as for the Resistance, the Maquis itself was never organized into any unified chain of command, it was bitterly factionalized and fragmented, the Communists, the Free French, fugitives and draft dodgers and deserters. Lines of authority were disputed, one partisan group was as likely to rat out rival operations to the Vichy milice or the Wehrmacht military police as not.


How do you accommodate your occupier? Good question. We can look at Alan Furst's novels about wartime Paris and get a flavor of what it might be like, daily life in a captive capital. The World at Night, as it happens, is about the French movie biz, even, during the war, and how it was subject to German censorship. More accurately, pictures that didn't fit the bill simply weren't approved - were never greenlighted - so censorship, in that sense, before the fact. What do we make of the real-life example of Danielle Darrieux? When the Germans took Paris, in June of 1940, she'd just turned twenty-three, and her 30th film had been released, Battement de Coeur. I'm not making excuses for her, but twenty-three? In the movies since she was thirteen? Maybe she was a sheltered princess. We suspect, though, that she was a pretty savvy gal. She'd gone to Hollywood the year before, and made The Rage of Paris with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She was a bankable star, and the German movie industry understood both market value and how useful pictures were in the climate of opinion. Alfred Greven, the Nazi film czar in France, supposedly offered Darrieux a deal. She'd stay and make movies, they wouldn't send her brother to Germany as slave labor.

Blackmail puts a sifgnificantly different complexion on things. You give in the once, you're on the hook for more. The hole only gets deeper. Danielle divorces her husband Henri Decoin, who directed her in half a dozen pictures, and falls for the Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. (Army officer, diplomat, bag man, race car driver, and polo player, a favorite of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, he's usually characterized as the 'notorious' Porfirio Rubirosa - and the model for Dax Xenos, in Harold Robbins' novel The Adventurers. A whole other story, there.) Rubirosa fell foul of the Occupation authorities because he made no secret of his anti-Nazi sympathies, and they put him under house arrest in Germany. Danielle gets him sprung by agreeing to a publicity tour in Berlin. When next heard of, the two of them have managed to get to Switzerland, and they spend the rest of the war there.



In other words, we've definitely got some missing pieces along the way. Maybe it was all very ordinary, or maybe it was one hair's-breadth escape after another. Again, a nod to Alan Furst. I'm thinking Mission to Paris. But the story reminds me even more strongly of the Andre Cayyate movie Passage du Rhin - released in the U.S. in 1960 as Tomorrow Is My Turn, a truly cheesy title. (Cayatte directed Darrieux in 1942's La Fausse Maitresse, made under the German film industry's wartime sponsorship.)

Cayatte's picture is about two French soldiers, taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war and sent to work on a German farm. One of them (Georges Riviere) seduces the farmer's daughter and escapes to France. The other one (Charles Aznavour) stays at the farm. Back home, Georges takes up sabotage work with the Resistance, but he's eventually sold out to the Germans. A last-minute reprieve saves him from the firing squad, and then Paris is liberated. Charles is repatriated, and takes up where he left off, working as a baker, bullied by his wife. Charles goes to Georges and confesses he's miserable, Georges agrees to take Charles back to the German border. Charles crosses the bridge over the Rhine, stepping into an uncertain future, and meanwhile, the clouded past catches up with Georges. His girlfriend was sleeping with a high-ranking German officer during the Occupation, and he kept Georges from being shot. When the truth comes out, Georges' record as a war hero will be ridiculed, his girlfriend a German whore. She has to leave him. Fade-out on the two men at the Rhine bridge.

Okay, the summary makes it sound stupid, but it's not. It's about loyalties, and betrayals, and compromise, honor and shame, love and deceit, the whole nine yards, and the kind of thing French pictures are really good at. For our purposes, it's a late-breaking discussion (fifteen years after the fact) of questions the French preferred to turn a blind eye to, wartime derelictions. There's no denying some people showed incredible bravery, and some people were utterly contemptible, but a fair number were probably just trying to get by. It's a variation, or the obverse, of the Good German. 



I don't know what the moral is, or even if there is one. I suspect people play the hand they're dealt, and some of us rise to the occasion better than others. Darrieux didn't embarrass herself. Maurice Chevalier, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry? A little less honorable. Arletty, whose acting career flourished during the Occupation, most famously Les Enfants du Paradis, got jail time for sleeping with the enemy. ("My heart is French, but my ass is international," she later remarked.) Sartre, who wrote for the underground paper Combat, says, "Everything we did was equivocal." Not to put too fine a point on it, pretty much everything they did was self-serving.

David Bell, reviewing Alan Riding's book about Paris during the Occupation, And the Show Went On, reminds us that the French basically lucked out, compared to what was going on in, say, Poland. French artists and intellectuals suffered chaos, and scarcities, and many dangers. But more than a few prospered. And most of them survived to argue about it another day. [The New Republic, 03-03-2011]

It's instructive, I guess, that I'm still raking over the coals myself. We simply don't know how we'd react in a claustrophobic climate of fear, which makes it harder to judge what they did. When you hear the tumbrels passing in the street, you don't want them stopping at your door.

04 August 2017

Where do you get your inspiration?


How many times are writers asked, "Where do you get your inspiration for a book?"

Since you asked, I'll tell you about an inspiration.

I was an army brat who lived in a lot of places, went to a lot of schools. From 1960 through 1963, we lived in Italy and I attended the Verona American School on a via called Borgo Milano in Verona. The school had an excellent library where I discovered a series of young adult novels written and illustrated by Clayton Knight. It was a series of WE WERE THERE books, featuring kids who witnessed historcal events, like WERE WERE THERE AT PEARL HARBOR, WE WERE THERE AT THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN and WE WERE THERE WITH THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE.


I read them all, my favorite was WE WERE THERE AT THE NORMANDY INVASION because the kids were French and I'm French-American (half Sicilian-American but there was no WE WERE THERE AT THE LIBERATION OF SICILY probably because one would have to ask 'which liberation of Sicily?'). Also the soldiers in the book were paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and my father was in the 82nd before he became an army CID agent.

Loved that book. I was maybe eleven when I read it but it stuck with me as I grew up and earned a degree in European History, became a cop, became a writer. It floated in my mind, not the storyline, not even the characters, but the vision of France during World War II.

After I started writing mysteries, I began to daydream about writing an historical novel about France during the war and slowly characters formed in my mind. Not at all like Clayton Knight's kids caught up in battle around D-Day. And no paratroopers.

A few years ago, I watched the movie IS PARIS BURNING? (Paramount, 1966) and my imagination created a storyline. Le Maquis. The French Resistance. Eventually my characters took shape and I dropped them into France in 1943 where the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the French resistance wrecked havoc on the Nazi conquerors of occupied France.

My characters formed a special unit. A secret cell. A cadre of young operatives given the code names of archangels, including Samael, the angel of death. These agents called themselves Death Angels. And I let my mind wander with them from an opening scene blowing up a train to the assassinations of Nazi officers and French collaborators. Scene after scene played out in my brain until the Death Angels arrived in Paris to help liberate the City of Light.

Did a lot of research before I started writing. Then I let the character loose and ran after them and wrote down what the did.

Four characters: French resistance fighters Louis (code name Michael), Chico (code name Gabriel) and American assassin Jack (code name Samael) and the most lethal member, French courtesan Arianne (code name Jopiel).

My vision. My story. All triggered, prodded, inspired by thoughts of Normandy and le Maquis and Paris during the occupation.

cover art ©2016 Dana De Noux

Several of my mystery novels and short stories were also inspired by true events. I'll continue with another blog.

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com



27 April 2016

Berlin Noir


David Edgerley Gates


I mentioned last time around that I'd discovered a new enthusiasm, the Bernie Gunther mystery series written by Philip Kerr. These are period stories, set mostly during WWII, and because Bernie's a German homicide cop, he has to answer to the Nazi chain of command.

I picked up on Bernie mid-stride, reading A MAN WITHOUT BREATH first - the ninth book, which takes place in 1943, and involves the murder of Polish military prisoners by the Russians, at Katyn. My habit, generally, if I happen on a writer I like, is to go back and read their books in the order they were written. Right? Seems only fair. In this case, as it was with Alan Furst, I snatched up what was immediately available, and took one step forward, with THE LADY FROM ZAGREB, and one step back, with PRAGUE FATALE, and then FIELD GRAY. Next on the list is the Berlin Noir trilogy, the first three Bernie novels. I couldn't help myself. I grabbed whatever title was on the library shelf. I was too impatient to wait my turn.

I think there are three elements that make the books so fascinating. The first is historical irony. In more than one novel, actually, the story's framed with a look back, from the later 1940's or the early 1950's. Secondly, there's a constant sense of threat, the Nazi regime a bunch of backstabbers, and Bernie hangs on princes' favors. One dangerous patron is Reinhard Heydrich, a chilly bastard who meets an appropriate end. And thirdly, Bernie is really trying to be a moral person, against all odds. You go along to get along, to simply survive, in a nest of vipers, and hope it doesn't rub off on you. After seeing the Special Action Groups at work in Russia, and himself participating, Bernie is sickened by the whole enterprise. He suspects, too, that the handwriting's on the wall.

Bernie's a Berliner, a guy with street smarts, and too smart a mouth. He fought in the first war, in the trenches, and started out as a cop during Weimar. He has no politics. He's as contemptuous, early on, of the Communists as he is of the Nazis, and then, the better he gets to know the Nazis as they consolidate their power, he comes to realize they aren't the lesser of two evils. They are evil. And it does rub off on you.

This is the question often raised in Alan Furst's books, and the two writers have some things in common, aside from the time-frame and the context of their novels. We don't in fact know how we might behave at a personal breaking point, in the context of Vichy France or Nazi Berlin. It's comforting to think we might Bogart through, but daily life becomes an enormous struggle, for the simplest of things. Having a conscience, or a moral compass, might be a luxury we couldn't afford. We might not rise to the occasion. One of Bernie's superiors in Minsk even quotes Luther - "Here I stand" - and then dismisses it. You can't be serious, he tells Bernie. There's no room for that.

And in the middle of all this, institutionalized murder, mass hysteria, people still commit common crimes for common reasons. They kill people for shoes, or bread, or envy. FIELD GRAY has Bernie trying to solve a homicide inside a POW camp. The fact that he's a POW, and the camp is run by the Russians, only makes the whole thing more surreal. Often enough, it isn't some crazed Nazi weirdness at work, although that usually informs it. Everything's out of square. The truly strange thing is that you begin to see this unbalanced world as somehow the norm, at least to the degree of understanding how to navigate it, and once you go there, you've stepped over the edge. The pit opens.

28 October 2015

The Windsor Folly


David Windsor came to the throne as Edward VIII, king of
England, in January of 1936. He gave it up in December of
the same year, to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. It was the celebrity scandal of the decade, what with the king throwing duty over the side, Mrs. Simpson under the misapprehension she could become queen, the ruling Tory party mutinous and ready to resign from government, the Archbishop of Canterbury discouraging any Anglican clergy from performing the wedding, the Royal Family caught up in both a domestic soap opera and a political crisis that threatened the monarchy - and just when you thought it was all a tempest in a teapot, it could well have affected the outcome of the Second World War.

You have to cast your mind back to the climate of the late 1930's, the consuming fear of Bolshevism and the rise of Fascist reactionary politics in Europe – the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Iron Guard in Romania – but more particularly the Fascist states, Spain, Italy, and Nazi Germany. You also have to remember the strong isolationist and antiwar sentiment in the U.S. and Great Britain, and even overt sympathy for Nazism. (Sir Oswald Mosley married his second wife Diana Mitford in Berlin, at Goebbels' house. Hitler was there.) The most charitable thing you can say about the Duke of Windsor is that he was hopelessly naive.

Invited to Germany in 1937, after the abdication, the Windsors toured the Krupp weapons works, were Hitler's guests at Obersalzberg and Goering's at Karinhall, and gave energetic Nazi salutes. It was a general embarrassment to the British government and personally to David's brother Bertie, who'd succeeded him as GeorgeVI. Windsor, who was himself extremely sensitive to slights, apparently had no shame, or was simply insulated from questioning his own conduct. He led an unexamined life, immune to consequences and tone-deaf to anybody's grievances but his own.



The plot, however, thickens. Once the war began, the Windsors retreated first to the south of France, then to Barcelona, and then in July of 1940 to Lisbon. Spain and Portugal were neutrals, but Franco's regime was in bed with the Nazis. Windsor had made some extremely ill-judged and gratuitous remarks, proposing a negotiated peace, which came close to sedition, and the Germans pricked up their ears.

David also insisted to his brother the king that Wallis be treated as a member of the Royal Family. It was this last bone of contention that suggested itself to the German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, as leverage. What if, he reasoned, the Duke of Windsor were to return to England, and be crowned king again? Would it take England out of the war? In hindsight, it's hard to believe this ever got legs, but in the event, SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Walter Schellenberg, deputy chief of Reich state security, flew to Madrid. The operation was code-named Willi.


None of this took place in a vacuum, British intelligence not being utterly comatose, and Windsor known to them. He was never celebrated for discretion. It had been hastily arranged for him to become governor of the Bahamas, safely out of circulation. He was supposed to sail from Lisbon on August 1st, but mulish as usual, he was dragging his feet - his suspicions fed by German agents, who planted the idea that MI6 was plotting to assassinate him once aboard ship - and Schellenberg, now based in Lisbon, was wondering if simplest is best: why don't they just throw a blanket over the guy and smuggle him out of town? This admirably direct strategy was vetoed by Wilhelmstrasse, the Windsors set sail for the Bahamas, and the plan (such as it was) evaporated.

The issue isn't that Windsor was a vain and deeply unserious person, but that the Nazis, delusional as they were, had reason to think he might actually go along. David was a featherbrain,who probably deserved no better than the equally fatuous and self-absorbed Wallis. On the other hand, von Ribbentrop was generally regarded as a meathead by his own colleagues and in foreign chanceries - his one success the non-aggression pact with Stalin - and he lacked the imagination. Schellenberg, though, was nobody's fool, and wouldn't have chosen a fool's errand in Lisbon. So how did they persuade themselves? My guess is that it was wishful thinking. Hitler's main strategic objective was the defeat of Russia. He thought England would come to the bargaining table once Luftwaffe bombers began crossing the Channel, and it suited him to believe Windsor was more sympathetic to German aggrandizement than George VI. But as petty or foolish as David Windsor was, he must have realized he couldn't be a Nazi collaborator, a puppet king. It would have been beneath contempt.

We're left with speculation. Jack Higgins wrote a corker of a thriller about it. Schellenberg, in his memoirs, characterizes the whole episode as farce. Deborah Cadbury's recent book, PRINCES AT WAR, shows Windsor in an unflattering light, if she stops short of calling him a Quisling. In his memoirs, Windsor says he believed Germany was a military counterweight to the Soviet menace, but he never supported the Nazis. Which is it? There's no way of knowing. The man was shallow, written in water, and unexceptional. Only the circumstance of his birth gives him any historical weight, and simple accident put him in the crosshairs. Windsor had but one decent virtue. He was a stranger to himself, too oblivious to know better.




DavidEdgerleyGates.com

24 July 2013

The Lives of Others


It's a commonplace that Germans don't like being reminded of their all-too-recent history, and like much received wisdom, there's some truth in it. Nobody likes it thrown in their face that they were complicit with deep human evil.  Every once in a while you might bump into some guy in a bierstube (I have) who served in the Wehrmacht, and makes no apologies for his war service, but we're talking about a soldier, not Waffen SS or some functionary who played his small part in the Final Solution. Young people, born after the war, get their back up if you mention Hitler and the Nazis, and demand why they should take any responsibility for the buried past---look at what you white Americans have done to the Negro, is the favored response. And of course there are people of a certain age who blame the Jews, for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, without feeling any embarrassment or even a twinge of irony. There's a victim psychology at work, resentful that they've been unfairly singled out, and tarred with too broad a brush. (This is second cousin to the enduring fiction that the French didn't collaborate with the Occupation, or that America First wasn't riddled with virulent anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers.) "That was another country, and besides, the wench is dead."

So it's a fascinating development, to me, that a few German film-makers have begun to explore this willed national memory loss. DOWNFALL (2004), THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (2008). It amounts to a public airing of dirty laundry, and predictably, these guys have taken heat for it.


DOWNFALL is about Hitler's last days in the bunker, and the final Russian assault on Berlin. In a sense, it's a war movie, the fighting in the streets a counterweight to the claustrophobic self-delusion of the Nazi leadership, sealed off underground. It's also deeply, viscerally frightening to be trapped with these people, the impossible hope of rescue, Magda Goebbels poisoning her children, Hitler, to the end, consumed by the perfidy of the Jews. It plays like black comedy, this feverish unreality, toxic with evasion and denial, but there isn't any comic relief in sight, only bitter disgrace, and suicide, and lasting shame for the survivors. The movie was attacked by critics in Germany, not for fudging the historical record, but for 'humanizing' Hitler. A curious complaint. Bruno Ganz, a Swiss, as it happens, manages the weird trick of seeming to shrink inside his clothes, wasting away as you watch. He makes Hitler human, all right, and if anything, all too familiar. This is not a monster, or an alien presence, but a mirror of our own weakness for hatred. Hitler, seen in the flesh, and without disguise, isn't a figure in some distant landscape, the diseased nephew safely hidden in the family closet. No wonder it made Germans uncomfortable.


THE LIVES OF OTHERS and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX navigate a shifting historical landscape as well. Both are about betrayal. Both are about how Germany defines herself. And both are about doubtful orthodoxies. THE LIVES OF OTHERS takes place in East Germany in the 1980's, when Stasi informants were everywhere, and on the large scale, it's a study of life in an oppressive police state, although the major characters are actually people of privilege. In detail, though, small things matter, choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love. The moral punchline comes in a coda, after the Wall is torn down and the East German regime collapses, and old choices, large or small, can be handled like talismans.

BAADER MEINHOF is something of a cautionary tale, a Cold War story from the 1970's, about the zeal of a convert. Politics are radical and undisciplined, and a splinter faction on the Left turns to violence, a terror campaign against the neo-Fascism of the Old Guard. The security services, reading the Devil's handwriting, react with increasingly brutal tactics. The right-wing press, led by the Axel Springer newspaper chain, impatient with civil liberties, egg them on. They give the Baader-Meinhof gang its name, which over-inflates their importance, and actually generates public sympathy. The ringleaders were captured after a nationwide manhunt. Four of them were later to commit suicide in prison, which gave rise to, shall we say, unanswered questions. The legacy of Baader-Meinhof is mixed, at best.


Taken together, these three pictures don't amount to a critical mass, and nobody expects the Germans to rend their garments and beat their breasts over the crimes of their fathers, any more than you'd expect it of Americans---and everybody, let's face it, is guilty of something. The past is never a closed book. But the unexamined life, Plato tells us, isn't worth much. We don't need to be haunted by regret, or brood on the wrongs done us, or weep for the sins of men. We do require of ourselves an accounting. Choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love.

28 April 2013

Ecstasy of Eva Braun


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.

02 March 2013

A Matter of Conscience


by Herschel Cozine
NOTE: I am once again pleased to welcome my friend Herschel Cozine as a guest blogger. He's been writing and publishing fiction for many years, and--as some of you might already know--his book The Humpty Dumpty Tragedy has been nominated by Long and Short Reviews for Best Book of 2012. He's pretty darn good at nonfiction as well: when he showed the following column to me, I found it fascinating--I think you will also. (Herschel, thanks once more for making a guest appearance. Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) — John Floyd

Recently Eve Fisher posted a column concerning the actions of a fire department in South Dakota. It seems they responded to a fire on the property of an individual who had threatened to shoot anyone who came on his land. Needless to say, he was not well-liked. There was some speculation that the failure of the fire department to save his house was due to animosity rather than fear for their own safety. If it was the former (payback), the fire department behaved irresponsibly and should be reprimanded.

Personal animosity should never be an excuse for failure to do one's duty. I am supposing that the individual, other than being a rednecked, antisocial, and generally unlikable person, was law-abiding and was entitled to the same protection under the law as anyone. Society cannot pick and choose who to serve when it comes to safety or the law.

But there was a time in my life when I and everyone in town felt that this was not the case.

The fire department of my youth behaved similarly, but we all supported their action (or inaction, as the case may be). Were we wrong? Read on, and decide for yourselves.

I was born in a small town on Long Island, and spent the first twelve years of my life there. It was an idyllic life for a child. The town, known as Yaphank, had a population of about 300, and had no amenities other than a grade school, a grocery store, two gas stations, and a post office. No high school, no beauty parlor or barber shop, no movie theater. No pool hall or bowling alley. In spite of the lack of these services and conveniences, we were never bored. There were two lakes in town which we used for swimming, boating, and fishing in the summer and skating in the winter. The townspeople held several "clam bakes" using the grade school grounds. We had weekly card parties where the adults played pinochle while the kids played bunco. All this took place during the Depression. We had no money for entertainment even if it had been available to us. In spite of this, all in all, in my preteen years, life was good.

Then the Nazis came to town. After purchasing a house and grounds less than a quarter of a mile from the house I lived in, they took over the town. Masquerading as a summer retreat for German youth, they were committed to the Nazi philosophy and (we learned later) dedicated to taking over the United States. They frequently marched down Main Street, which was in fact the only street, holding aloft the hated Swastika and forcing traffic to stop for them. They also took over the lake, bullying those of us who were too young and too timid to resist. They were superior, arrogant, and hated.

Sundays saw the arrival of Nazi adults from New York City and surrounding areas. They held noisy and unwelcome rallies where anti-Semitic speeches were given and Hitler was extolled to loud applause.

I had no concept of the significance of these people, or why they were in town. I only knew that my parents, particularly my father who was a WWI veteran, hated them and did whatever they could to make life miserable for them. (I could write a book on that subject.) A few of the year-round residents of the Bund Camp (known as German Gardens) had children who attended school with us. I became friends with one of them who, like me, had no political or philosophical agenda. We were two boys who enjoyed playing marbles, baseball, and the like. Incidentally, unlike most of the Bund Camp residents, his family was loyal to America and remained in this country when the war broke out.

The hostility between the townspeople and Camp Siegfried, as the compound was called, often resulted in confrontations that required police intervention. Yaphank's police department consisted of a sheriff and a part-time deputy. The sheriff was as antagonistic to the Nazis as the rest of us were, so disputes were almost always settled in our favor. In the rare instances when fines and punishment were imposed on the townspeople, they were minimal and seldom enforced.

Whenever a fire broke out in Camp Siegfried or German Gardens, the fire department had difficulty getting there in a timely manner, and to the best of my knowledge never extinguished a fire in time to save whatever structure was ablaze (usually a house). It was of course a volunteer unit, and all of the firefighters were residents of Yaphank, and extremely opposed to the Nazi presence. There is no question that the animosity toward the camp's inhabitants influenced their actions.

I believe, in light of the circumstances, that it is entirely understandable why the fire department behaved as it did in those days. Failure to respond quickly to fires in the camp was simply an extension of the behavior of the townspeople toward Camp Siegfried and the German Gardens. Any means that could be used to get those people out of our town was considered fair. They weren't welcome, they weren't friendly to our way of life, and in fact they were often spying for Hitler. We were not yet at war, so we could not legally evict them--but we saw them as the enemy and acted accordingly. Of course, at the time we were not aware of the atrocities being committed by the Nazi regime in Germany. But the repugnance of their beliefs and actions, particularly after 1939 when the war in Europe started, was reason enough for us to behave the way we did. Harrassment, vandalism, and dereliction of duty by the police and fire deparment. These were our weapons.

But in fact, these people were not breaking any laws. They were in this country legally, and were entitled to equal protection under the law. Still, I cannot criticize the actions of the fire department, the police, or the citizens of Yaphank. Feelings about this are too ingrained in me to believe any other way. Am I wrong to feel the way I do?

This article will give you a lot of information concerning camp Siegfried and its leaders: german/american/bund

As a footnote, on December 8, 1941, the Camp ceased to exist. German Gardens was decimated when the feds descended on the settlement and deported a large number of its inhabitants. A few, like my friend's family, remained.