more on Germany and the war

(see also remembering and forgetting, the bombing of Dresden

Victor Klemperer tells the story of a woman who worked alongside him in the factory – but first I should explain that the handful of Jews who remained in Dresden were not exactly slave labourers. They were not quite starving, although of course their rations were much smaller than the Aryans’. They worked the same shifts as Aryans. And here I should explain, as Klemperer himself does, that Nazi language is forced upon us because it is the only language which can describe the reality of the Third Reich since the people have been divided into Aryans and non-Aryans. The Aryans were not allowed to speak to the Jews but some of them did. The boss was a decent man. Blind eyes were turned. There were situations where the writ of Nazism failed to achieve total control. If everybody had been punished according to the letter of the law who would have remained? Of course these tiny freedoms only operated within small, scarcely insignificant areas and posed no challenge to the power of the state, although they helped to push away absolute despair. A woman once gave Klemperer an apple. But the same woman also said to him, ‘oh, I didn’t know your wife was German!’ He was very hurt by this, because of course it seemed to deny the fact that he too was German, but maybe this incident also demonstrates that the term Aryan was not used in common speech.

The story he was told is that a woman, and two other people, so there were witnesses, saw a cloud in the shape of a man’s head, and the man was Old Fritz, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and that Frederick’s appearance in the sky above Dresden was a clear sign that the city would not be bombed. Kurt Vonnegut would have loved that story. He too was told that Dresden would not be bombed. People will believe anything. This was a particularly weird belief in view of the fact that Frederick, in the course of a war against Saxony in the 1760’s, had caused enormous damage to the city of Dresden.

Some were deceived by the myth of the city’s culture. Everybody loved its art and architecture, even the English – they always called us the English – even the Americans. Even people who knew nothing about Florence rejoiced in the cliché that Dresden was Florence-on-the-Elbe, Elbflorenz.

Some were deceived by the fact that the war was nearly over. If not now, never. What point would there be in destroying the city now? The Russians and the Americans were rushing forward to meet at the river Elbe.

They were deceived by the fact that earlier raids had been aimed at the railway lines, (at what we usually call ‘sidings’ but which in the language of military strategy are more accurately referred to as ‘marshalling yards’), that the Nazi authorities hadn’t bothered to construct decent air raid shelters, except for themselves, that the city sheltered many refugees who had come from bombed out cities in the north and the west. They were deceived by hope. Some had even convinced themselves that there were no vital war industries in Dresden, though there were, although by the beginning of 1945 there were many busy factories in Germany still working away like ants busying themselves with tiny scraps in the scattered ruins of a colony which someone is chopping to bits with a spade.

The deception had spread far. In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 An English officer in the prisoner of war camp says to Billy Pilgrim: ‘You lads are leaving this afternoon for Dresden – a beautiful city, I’m told. You won’t be cooped up like us. You’ll be out where the life is, and the food is certain to be more plentiful than here…. You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentrations if any importance. ‘ How could someone who’s been a prisoner of war for five years know so much? Members of the British ruling class were accustomed to speaking with and inspiring confidence. While we’re making generalisations, is it worth adding that this connects them with their German counterparts?

The realities of the Second World War are bewildering. Some writers construct a composite picture of separate fragments, Walter Kempowski in Swansong for example, or Alexander Kluge in April 30 1945. A German prisoner of war in Texas, a mother in Moscow writing to her son in Germany, an old man hiding in a cellar in Berlin, a woman in Surrey describing the size of the flags her neighbours have put out, a doctor burying new born twins in a camp near Königsberg. It’s as if individuals reappear at the end. We learnt first about the war as a conflict involving nations and groups of people. There are the Jews, the Germans, the Americans, the prisoners of war, the refugees, the Russians, the Nazis. These groups are given reality in the photographs and films we saw: crowds of Germans with their arms raised in the Nazi salute; soldiers rushing up the beach; people standing about among the ruins; regiments of whatever nationality on the parade ground, drilled to iron out individuality; concentration camp survivors with their uniform emaciation. I don’t remember much of what I was told about the First World War in old people’s homes in 1965, (so that was 47 years after the end and the old soldiers were then in their seventies and early eighties); the most vivid memory I have, of one man’s most vivid memory, is that when they went over the top and were advancing under fire towards the enemy, he lost all sense of his comrades on either side, he was an individual alone. I don’t know if he couldn’t afford to be aware of anyone else, because if the man next to him were shot he couldn’t be helped, or whether that’s just the way it was.

Victor Klemperer tore off the star to become himself, or, as a Nazi would see it, to disguise himself. He simply became ‘a German’, which could mean many things, as opposed to ‘a Jew’, which to the Nazis only meant one thing, just as for a long time after the war, to many people all over the world ‘a German’ meant only one thing. Many German soldiers took off their uniforms, took civilian clothing from the dead, to disguise themselves or to become their old selves. Czech partisans stripped German soldiers looking for SS tattoos which couldn’t be stripped off. Type writers had been manufactured in Germany with the notorious double SS lighting strike (1) – I think it’s called a rune, which makes it sound Tolkienesque – versions of which can still be seen for health and safety purposes on electricity pylons all over the world:

For many Germans it became a sign which said shoot me now.

Most Nazis thought that they discovered that without Hitler and the Third Reich they were suddenly no longer Nazis, just ordinary peace loving people with ordinary prejudices. It was all over, just like that. Some queued up to apply to emigrate to the USA. It seemed to be the logical next step.

At the end, as he waited with his wife Eva for the end of the war in a small village in Bavaria, individuals still surprised Victor Klemperer. He had resisted for twelve years by bearing witness, examining prejudice, analysing language, but he got Fräulein Haberl all wrong: ‘with her cold blue eyes, her spectacular blondness, her tight, short clothing and her almost military bearing I would have marked her down as an ‘űbernazi’, a fanatical BDM (2) leader, a ‘gun-wife’ (?!), a Nazi partisan. Her brittle, rough voice matched all this.’ Poor Fräulein Haberl. But as soon as they speak, she reveals herself to be recklessly anti-Nazi – there are still rumours of SS men in the woods looking for traitors to execute, the war has another three weeks to run – and is telling Klemperer, who is still sensibly concealing the fact that he is Jewish, about Dachau. And she gave the Klemperers two eggs.

Did they know or didn’t they? The argument goes on and on. Richard J. Evans’ review of The GermanWar by Nicholas Stargardt led to more correspondence on the subject. A woman who had been a teenager in Germany during the war, and was herself half Jewish wrote:

It was not until the end of the war that most Germans, including all our Aryan family and friends, first heard of Auschwitz and all the horrors committed by the Nazi authorities. Years later I came across the only person I have known who had heard of the atrocities during the war. Gretel came from a small place in what was German Upper Silesia until 1944, and she recalled how heartily everyone had laughed at that ‘crazy Pole’, a Polish labourer who had told them: ‘The Germans shove people into gas ovens and kill them!’”

But other letters told different stories.

In the end it’s all stories. The stories you remember or believe are the ones you want to believe. But I think again about the message at the Jewish museum: hear the truth whoever speaks it. I suppose the converse would be: your friends might be lying.

And when I think about who was guilty and who was innocent, I always remember what Eva Hoffman said in Shtetl, that it only took one person to denounce a Jew but that it might take twenty five people to save one.

1It’s not available among the hundreds of special characters on this computer

2Bund Deutscher Mȁdel, League of German Girls

This entry was posted in history, politics, language, war and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to more on Germany and the war

  1. mtrustram says:

    “It was all over, just like that.” I might have been ten or so when I first saw pictures (not sure if it was film or photographs) of the concentration camps when the war had ended. I didn’t understand why it all seemed to be carrying on. Emaciated people standing about with no one helping them. Why weren’t the liberators feeding and clothing them.

    I don’t remember talking with anyone about these pictures. In our family there was an utter silence about anything painful – personal or political. Now I think about it there was just one exception: the Northern Irish Troubles when our mother cried out in pain while watching the TV news. Was it just the once? It was a lonely internal cry, not seeking or expecting sympathy or conversation.

  2. mtrustram says:

    reports of individual suffering
    (Continuing from my comment of yesterday.)

    It was a little bit as though we too had signed the statement that you say refugees from Cologne in 1942 had to sign (from your post, ‘remembering and forgetting, the bombing of Dresden’):

    ‘I am aware that one individual alone can form no comprehensive idea of the events in Cologne. One usually exaggerates one’s own experiences and the judgement of those who have been bombed is impaired. I am therefore aware that reports of individual suffering can only do harm, and I will keep silence. I know what the consequences of breaking this undertaking will be.’

    And of course we knew – and still do – hence today’s silence – that our suffering was of nothing compared to that of those you write of in Dresden and Cologne.

    I found the quote when I was looking for the post where you slip in a question about whether the pain in your stomach that you wake with in the night is grief? Still not found it (though I did find a bit about there being no matches to light a candle for Sheila in a church in Vaidenista, and the golden patch of sunlight on the altar piece). I woke in the night (02.10 on 25 December 2016) thinking of your question and about Anna Macdonald’s film that I’d seen a few days before about the dying of a woman we both know:

    I don’t get her title but I do know everything is about grief and that you fall. The best thing I’ve read recently, probably ever, about parental grief is David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014). And the glorious Part Song by Denise Riley which was in the LRB (9 February 2012) but is now in Say Something Back, (2016). Both make me think I should abandon my attempts to write of grief and sit instead by the fire and read others. But I don’t do this for some reason; I keep going, as we were taught to do.

    ‘What? Write it down, you criminal! Don’t stop writing.’ (Falling Out of Time, p.79)

    PS I can’t figure our how to get italics and indent and do all the things you can do in Word here?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s