The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939–45 by Władysław Szpilman

Władysław Szpilman was born to Jewish parents in 1911 in Warsaw. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland 28 years later, in August 1939, Szpilman was already an accomplished classical pianist who worked giving live recitals on Warsaw Radio, as well as writing his own compositions.

This memoir was written immediately after the war, in 1945, and describes in mostly flat factual prose Szpilman’s terrible experiences of those years: the German siege of Warsaw, the long occupation, the creation of the Jewish ghetto, the two years he spent in it, how he escaped the deportation of most of the ghetto Jews to death camps, how he went into hiding and survived the terrible month of the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising, and his eventual freedom once the Germans had been driven out of the city by the advancing Red Army.

It moves very fast. Each of these periods is covered in just a few pages, the entire text is barely 180 pages long. He picks out telltale moments, sights he saw, atrocities he witnessed, just enough to paint a scene, to shock you, then moves on.

Szpilman was not a writer by profession or temperament. This is all to the good because it means his account is not weighed down by flowery descriptions or weighty socio-philosophical speculations. He just tells what he saw. If there’s one literary aspect or technique it is the note of bitter irony or sarcasm which regularly surfaces, often when he’s talking about the ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ of the bestial Germans, their mind-boggling cruelty and sadism, the rubber truncheons the SS lash out with which have razor blades at the end, the  bullwhips with ball bearings embedded in the leather (p.118) or the pervert who made anyone who misbehaved bend over, put their head between his thighs which he proceeded to crush as best he could while whipping their arse, till they fainted with pain (p.121).

The false hopes

It is upsetting to read the false hopes the Warsaw rumour mill generated as the Germans crossed the border into Poland, fought their way towards Warsaw, then besieged the city – early rumours that the Germans were being held and turned back, they were badly equipped, didn’t have enough fuel, later rumours that the French had even now attacked Germany, breached the Siegfried Line, the British were bombing Hamburg, the Americans would come to their aid any day now (p.38). Of course none of this happened. The Poles were utterly on their own.

The siege of Warsaw

A friend is sitting next to him in the bedroom of an apartment is killed by a shell splinter which comes through the window (p.40). He watches a horse and cart driven by an old working class man plod down a street during shelling, the driver pauses at a junction pondering which way to go, sets off down Zelazna Street, seconds later there’s a whizz, a dazzling burst of light, the explosion and when Szpilman can see and focus again, nothing but fragments of wood and red matter splattered all over the street (p.40). Bodies everywhere, a distressing number decapitated. Then it got worse.

Humiliating the Jews

Once the Germans had taken the city and established control, the slow encroachment on human rights. The Jews are made to wear armbands, forbidden from having savings over a minimal amount, all the rest must be deposited in accounts whose details were shared with the authorities. Random Jews are stopped and beaten in the street, or abducted in cars to be taken and beaten at police stations. Szpilman conveys what conventional history, concerned with statistics and ideology, often doesn’t: how Nazism, fascism generally, is a charter for bullies, the crude, bully-boy reality on the streets of drunk German soldiers enjoying their power to stop any Jews they want to, push then up against a wall, terrorise them, slap them, spit in their faces. If they put up a fight pull a gun and force them to their knees. Make them beg for their lives.

This happened to Szpilman. He, his father and brother were late returning from a friend’s apartment, broke the curfew and were caught by a German patrol in Zielmna Street, who pushed them up against a wall. Suddenly Szpilman heard weeping and realised it was his father on his knees begging for his sons’ lives. The German bullyboy asked them what they did for a living and when Szpilman replies ‘musicians’, the German lets them go, yelling after them they’re lucky that he is a musician too (p.53). Othertimes bored Germans might shoot begging Jews on the spot. The utter collapse of civilised behaviour, morality or ‘standards’.

Life of a sort continues. Szpilman earns money for his entire family (mum, dad, brother, two sisters) by playing piano in bars. Spring 1940 comes but no help from Poland’s ‘allies’. Instead in May the Germans suddenly invade Holland, Belgium and then attack France. Once again hopeful rumours spread of the Germans being held and turned back. One day Szpilman is about to begin a recital for friends when his sister runs in holding a newspaper carrying the massive headline PARIS FALLS! He lays his head on the piano and, for the first time his self-control snaps and he burst into tears (p.57).

The ghetto

In September 1940 the first transports carry some Jewish men off for labour camps. Others are deported to Germany as forced labour. Acquaintances are abducted in the street. In September signs go up indicating which streets would become part of the special Jewish quarter (the Germans ‘are too cultured and magnanimous a race’ to use the word ‘ghetto’, p.58). The walls are built. All the Jews of Warsaw are crammed into it – there is fierce competition for living space, legally or illegally acquired – and the gates close on 15 November 1940.

At its height as many as 460,000 Jews were imprisoned there,[6] in an area of 3.4 km2 (1.3 sq mi), with an average of 9.2 persons per room, barely subsisting on meager food rations. (Wikipedia)

Szpilman lived in the Warsaw Ghetto from November 1940 to July 1942 scraping a living playing piano at the handful of bars and restaurants which still managed to operate for the ghetto’s small circle of intelligentsia or better off, such as the Sztuka.

What he found hardest was the nightmare feeling of being shut in, trapped, when – just beyond the walls – the life of the city was going on as usual, ‘ordinary’ people were going to work, then afterwards to bars and cafés or for excursions into the countryside. But not for those in the ghetto. It was the psychological effects Szpilman found hardest.

Compared to the time that followed, these were years of relative calm, but they changed our lives into an endless nightmare, since we felt with our entire being that something dreadful would happen at any moment. (p.64)

Szpilman describes the stink and filth created by cramming hundreds of thousands of people into old, decaying, totally inadequate accommodation; the pathetic street markets and haggling about wretched damaged goods, which degenerated quickly into hordes of beggars clutching at the clothes of anyone decently dressed; the grey police vans taking suspects to Gestapo headquarters to have bones broken, kidneys ruptured, fingernails pulled out. With laconic bitterness, Szpilman describes this as ‘people hunting’, the Germans’ favourite sport.

He remembers the secret socialist organiser he met, confident Jehuda Zyskind who had a secret radio, assembled news reports smuggled in from outside, invited Szpilman round for an ever-cheerful briefing about the news… right up to the day he was caught red-handed by the Gestapo, with political reports all over the table, and was shot dead on the spot, along with his wife and all his children, ‘even little Symche, aged three’ (p.70). God, as Ian Kershaw repeatedly emphasises, Nazi rule represented the utter collapse of civilisation into inhuman barbarism, an unlimited charter for bullies, sadists and psychopaths.

Rumours

continue to circulate, wild conflicting rumours, about some Jews being sent to camps, wild rumours about Jews being gassed, more probable ones about the creation of a set number of ghettos in the major cities. Reading this, you realise – with a shock in my case – what it would really really be like to be very intelligent but to have no news whatever about anything that is going on: to be utterly deprived of every source of information, and so forced back into a teeming world of rumour and speculation.

Even official Nazi edicts didn’t necessarily mean anything, the Jews were initially terrified of them, for example the one forbidding the sale or purchase of bread under pain of death, and only slowly discovered lots of them were meaningless or never observed. While at the same time, anybody could be abducted off the street – ‘people hunting’ – for no reason or just shot out of hand.

He tells the story of the leading non-Jewish surgeon, Dr Raszeja, a leading specialist and university professor, who was called on to perform a difficult operation on the ghetto. German police headquarters had given him permission, he had a pass, he was allowed in, he was in the middle of the operation, when the SS burst into the flat where the operation was being performed, shot the patient on the table, then shot the professor and everyone else present (p.88).

Later, when he’s given work on one of the gangs demolishing the ghetto wall, as the vast majority of the 400,000-plus Jews are sent by train to a death camp (Treblinka), life and death continue to be as random. One day at the checkpoint out of the square where they’d been working a bored SS officer divided the work squad up, half to the left, half to the right. All those on the left had to life face down then the officer walked among them shooting them dead with his revolver. Then he let the ones to the right which, obviously included the narrator, continue on their way (p.114).

It was the psychotic irrationality of it all.

Survival

Szpilman survives, by a string of chances and accidents, the biggest of which is when he is rounded up with his family and sent to the vast open yard by the railway station, the Umschlagplatz, where they wait all day with no food or water in the blistering heat along with 8,000 other Jews, old and young, men and women, for the cattle train to arrive. As it does and the crowd surges forward, Szpilman and hid family among them, a hand grabs him from behind and pulls him out of the line, in fact jerks him through the line of Jewish police who are corralling everyone towards the trucks. A voice hisses, ‘Save yourself’ and he sees his father, looking round, make eye contact, try to smile and wave, and then he runs runs across the yard, through the now-open gates, back into the streets of the ghetto slips into a work squad being marched somewhere, goes on, makes his escape, is spotted by a distant relative, now a Jewish policeman working for the Germans, who pulls him aside and puts him up for the night.

Next day he goes to see the son of the new chairman of the Jewish Council (the previous chairman having committed suicide when he learned about the cattle trucks and death camps). This worthy gets Szpilman a job on a labour squad supposedly demolishing the ghetto walls. Rich people walk by, normal people, Aryans who stop and stare at the funny ‘Jews’. Some musician friends spot him, give him money. He buys black market food to take back into the ghetto proper and sell at a profit.

He’s moved through a series of other labouring jobs, turning into a clumsy useless hid carrier and mortar mixer on a succession of building projects where the Polish workers he works with, to some extent protect him. Just as winter 1942 is coming on, Szpilman twists his ankle carrying a load and is transferred to the stores which probably saved him from losing his fingers to frostbite.

Rumours circulate of another round of deportations but now some of the Jews inside the ghetto, considered vital to building and other work, start smuggling weapons in from the outside. Szpilman is leaving in a group to work when he hears shooting break out behind him. He and the other workers are housed by the Germans in temporary housing. Five days later, when they’re allowed to return they find widespread destruction and dead bodies but, surprisingly, the apartment he shares with a handful of others is in one piece and his few measly possessions.

A handsome young Jew, Majorek, had been allowed to go out to buy food for the inmates, and become a go-between with the broader Jewish resistance. Szpilman asks him to pass word to a couple he knew from the radio, and makes a simple escape plan. One evening at 5pm, as an SS officer arrives to inspect the stores, he takes advantage of the confusion among the German guards, slips out the building, takes off his Jewish armband, and walks through the gate into the city, where he rendezvous with his friend, who leads him hurriedly through the darkened streets, to his and his wife’s flat.

Szpilman is then passed on through a series of safe houses, though things remain dicey. The Germans are planning a census of the city which will involve the inspection of every single home. The friend whose flat he’s ended up in brings him news of the Allied victories in North Africa. Then news of the progress of the Warsaw Uprising, the refusal of the last Jews left in it to go quietly and their insistence on fighting the vastly better armed Germans to the death (19 April to 16 May 1943). Szpilman hears the rifle and artillery fire, sees smoke rising over the city for weeks, but plays no role at all, he is in hiding.

He is moved to another flat by the network of Polish Underground operatives but left in the care of one Szałas who, it turns out, take all his belongings, swearing to exchange them for food, and also cadges contributions from all Szpilman’s musical friends, but keeps the money for himself and only shows up once a fortnight or so with a handful of beans and oatmeal. Slowly Szpilman starves, eventually too get off his couch and comes down with jaundice. It is only the wife of one of his earlier protectors, Helena Lewicka, dropping by for a cup of tea and a catch-up who discovers him at deaths door and so hurries out and back with food.

All through the end of 1943 and spring of 1944 all houses are being watched, the Germans are instituting surprise searches, executing people in the street. Szpilman is moved to the last of his safe flats, in Aleja Niepodleglosci, a neighbourhood full of German administrative buildings and a German hospital. Nonetheless he experiences numerous false alarms as strangers hammer on the door or, on one occasion, a burglar tries to break in.

As 1944 progresses, the Germans’ military setbacks become more apparent. The catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 had been the turn of the tide, and slowly the Red Army advances. In September 1943 Italy surrendered. In June 1944 Helena visits him in the flat to tell him news has come through that the Allies have landed in Normandy.

The Warsaw Rising

1 August – 2 October 1944, a rising by the Polish underground resistance to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance but the Red Army, notoriously, stopped at the city’s outskirts and refused to help. Stalin was quite happy to watch the cream of the Polish resistance being exterminated. the Germans were doing his work for him. Their liquidation would make it easier for Stalin to impose his home-grown communist Polish administration in its place. And so the fighting lasted 63 days, street to street, house to house before the uprising was eventually, finally crushed.

16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded in the actual fighting, but as many as 200,000 Polish civilians died afterwards, mostly from mass executions. During the fighting approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block. Added to the damage suffered in the 1939 invasion and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in all over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945 when the Germans finally withdrew.

Szpilman gives us a kind of worm’s eye view of all this, trapped in the third floor flat of a friend, padlocked from the outside so as to keep the neighbours under the impression it is empty. Periodically Helena Lewicka’s woman friend appears with provisions. Otherwise he is completely trapped, has to remain silent and figure out what is going on from the street outside, namely some young men arrive with guns, fire at the German hospital, are fought off and then for day after day, all is mystery and confusion, people running up or down the street, lorries of soldiers pulling up and running into nearby buildings, the continual echo of gunfire around the city.

On 12 August Germans megaphone the inhabitants of his building to leave it, a tank fires a few shells into it, troops come running up the stairs, Szpilman grabs the stash of sleeping pills and opium he’s been given to deal with the after-effects of his jaundice (gall bladder problems), planning to swallow it all as the Germans smash down the door of the apartment. But thinks better of it, slips out the door and up the ladder into the attic space, kicks the ladder away. But the soldiers don’t make it up that far, not least because the ground floor is now on fire (p.155). Szpilman drops down from the attic and goes back into the flat but the fire isn’t dying down, it is raging up the stairwell and the smoke is becoming choking. So after five years of surviving in the ghetto, eluding the death camp transports, and hiding in a succession of safe houses, this is how he’s going to die – burned to death. He takes all the sleeping pills and passes out on the sofa.

He awakes. He is alive. The pills weren’t that strong but he is weak and the flat is full of smoke. He opens the red hot doorhandle, jumps over the bloated carbonised corpse on the next landing down and stumbles through the smoke and flames to the ground floor and outside. He hides amid foliage against a wall and hears Germans on the other side.

Clearly the house is about to collapse at any moment. On the other side of Aleja Niepodleglosci is the huge, half-completed hospital which will have stores of some kind. He crawls across the wide avenue, between the corpses, freezing every time Germans go by. Once inside the hospital he searches high and low but can find no food anywhere for days and days, getting weaker, he makes a hideaway in a lumber room and is terrified when the Germans come and search the hospital several times.

Finally he goes back to his burned-out building where he discovers some bathtubs full of rancid water and a few rusks in a half burned larder. Several times Ukrainian soldiers, even more brutal and sadistic than the Germans, search and ransack the building, Szpilman hiding in the burned-out attic. Later he watches the broad avenue lined with Germans as the escort demoralised civilians, marching them out of the city. The guards pull random men out of the bedraggled marchers and shoot them on the spot. Drop by drop Szpilman watches the city’s population leak away.

Autumn comes on, day after day goes by. Looters come into the abandoned city, one even begins climbing the stairs of  Szpilman’s house till  Szpilman roars out in German, terrifying the scrounger away. One day he sees a German patrol capture some looters, question them, put four up against a wall and execute them there and then, tell the others to dig graves, bury them, get out, never come back.

Worse is to come. He bumps into a German soldier in his ruined house but manages to bribe his way out of it by offering a half bottle of spirits he has found. The soldier is back in ten minutes with an NCO but Szpilman climbs up onto the tiles of the roof. The Germans search, fail to find him and leave. Szpilman takes to hiding out on the roof during the day and going down at night to hunt for food. But one day bullets fly overhead. Soldiers on the roof of the hospital opposite are shooting at him (p.172). He climbs in off the roof, scarpers down the stairs, out a back way, along a deserted street and into another ruined building.

There’s another encounter when he sees a crew of Poles walking down the street and rushes out to talk to someone, to hear someone’s voice, but realises something is wrong. He makes his excuses and deliberately lets them see him going into a completely different house. Sure enough 15 minutes later their leader is back with German soldiers who search the fake house and all its neighbours but don’t find him (p.175).

Finally, a few days later, he is foraging in one of the rooms of the ‘new’ house when he hears a German voice addressing him. Weak and at the end of his rope, Szpilman slumps down and gives up. But, to his amazement, the German is sympathetic. He asks what Szpilman does and when he replies ‘pianist takes him through the wrecked rooms to a music room with a piano and asks him to play. Szpilman plays Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor and that is the title of the 18th and final chapter in the book.

To his amazement the officer warns him that the Warsaw fortress unit is about to move into the building. He helps him find a much better hiding place in a kind of loft hidden above the attic and returns a few days later with a package containing bread and jam, undreamed of luxuries for Szpilman (p.179).

The German tells him the Red Army is on the other side of the Vistula and order, orders him to hold out. He explains his shame at being German. He is, Szpilman writes, the only human being Szpilman met wearing a German uniform. Szpilman is trapped in his loft as the building really is taken over by an administrative unit of the army but he stays safe in his hidey hole. On 12 December the officer slips up to the attic to see him for the last time and tells him the Red Army is at the gates, the Germans are pulling out. They shake hands. On impulse Szpilman tells him his name and to get in touch if he ever needs him (p.181).

The Germans do indeed pull out. Szpilman is left in the empty unheated house in the depth of a Polish winter. He has to thaw ice against his body to get drinking water. Rats run over his face at night. He is lonelier that Robinson Crusoe, the sole inhabitant of an abandoned city.

Then he hears voices, women’s voices! He rushes downstairs and a terrified woman shouts ‘German’ and soldiers turn and fire a machine gun burst at him. Of course, he’s wearing the German greatcoat the German gave him! He throws it off and yells in Polish that he’s Polish. Eventually they believe him, take him to a hospital. Wash. Rest. Food. Above all – freedom from fear.

Two weeks later he is strong enough to go for a walk and explore the incomprehensible ruins of Warsaw, once one of the most elegant and well-off cities of Europe, a city of one and a half million people, now a vast panorama of snow-covered ruins.


In this 1998 edition there are three addenda to the main, original text, which all shed a lot more light on the German officer who appeared right at the end of the story and probably saved Szpilman’s life.

Postscript

Just two weeks later Szpilman is visited by a colleague from Polish Radio, Zygmunt Lednicki. Immediately after the war ended Lednicki had made his way back to his home town, Warsaw, on foot (there was no transport of any kind. En route he passed a camp full of German prisoners of war, behind a barbed wire fence patrolled by Red Army guards. Lednicki couldn’t resist going over and shouting at the Germans, pointing out that they claimed to be a nation of culture and yet they had ruined Poland and ruined him, a musician, taking away his violin and destroying his livelihood. A feverish German officer pushes through the crowd at the wire and asks Lednicki if he knows a pianist named Szpilman. Yes, replies Lednicki. ‘I looked after him, I saved him’, says the German, ‘Please get him to come and rescue me from this hellhole’.

But by the time Lednicki meets Szpilman and tells him this story it is too late. They travel back to the POW camp but it has gone, its new whereabouts a military secret. Szpilman had deliberately never asked the German officer his name in case he was caught and gave it away under torture, so now he doesn’t know how to track him down, and so it remained a regret for several years, until…

Afterword by Wolf Biermann

The 1998 German edition contained an afterword by Wolf Bierman. According to a brief biographical note Bierman is ‘one of Germany’s best-known poets, song-writers and essayists’. He was born in Hamburg, his father was a shipworker, a communist and a Jew who was murdered in Auschwitz. After the war Bierman headed East, deliberately wanting to live in the new communist regime, but he became critical of it, the regime banned his works in 1965, and in 1975 expelled him to the West.

The point of this afterword is for Bierman to tell us more about the German officer, a lot more. A series of accidents led to him being identified as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. We learn that he served in the First World War and then worked as a teacher. His grown-up children testify to his way with kids. But Biermann adduces testimony from other eye-witnesses including several other adult Polish Jews who Biermann saved from certain death. It builds up into an impressive testimonial.

Not only this, but it was discovered that Hosenfeld was still alive and in a prisoner of war camp in Russia for seven years after the war. His wife was receiving letters from him, in one of which he lists the Poles and Jews he saved in Poland and included Szpilman on the list. Hosenfeld’s wife contacted Szpilman. Szpilman went to meet her in Germany, then returned to Poland and lobbied the head of the Polish security service, ‘a bastard’, who went off and carried out further investigations before summoning Szpilman to tell him said there was little he could do. If Hosenfeld had been in Poland, fine, but he is now in the Soviet Union, in the gulag system somewhere, and so…

So his family continue to get scattered news about him and then, seven years after the end of the war, learn that Hosenfeld died of injuries and beatings in a Soviet gulag.

Part of a memoir by Wilm Hosenfeld

Before the end of the war Hosenfeld had sent his wife two secret diaries in which he recorded his private thoughts, which were contemptuous and dismissive of the entire National Socialist regime. This edition contains 15 pages of these diary entries.

Conclusion

On the whole, I wish none of these appendices were in the book. They very considerably interfere with its original narrative arc, which hurtles with ever-growing speed and tension towards the bleak final vision of recovered Szpilman staggering through the ruins of his home town – and with its purity of tone. It is a straightforward factual account of what one man saw and experienced.

Then you turn a page and suddenly it turns into an Amnesty International appeal for the release of a Soviet prisoner, something completely different, a different subject (Stalinist terror, the gulags) from a different era (the Cold War), and the record of another man’s life and opinions.

Its worst impact is to undermine or dilute the burning anger, the horror and the disgust which I think any normal reader is very, very justified feeling against the Germans as a people and a nation.

The movie

As you might know, the book was made into a major motion picture, The Pianist, released in 2002, produced and directed by Roman Polanski, with a script by Ronald Harwood, and starring Adrien Brody.

It won a whole slew of awards, including the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Oscars for Best Director (Polanski), Best Adapted Screenplay (Harwood), and Best Actor (Brody), the 2003 BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Direction, and seven French Césars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It is an awesome, harrowing film, which rearranges and simplifies some of the sequences, but for the most part is accurate in events and certainly in spirit to Szpilman’s terrifying account.

Credit

The book has a slightly tangled history. It was first published in Polish in 1946 as Śmierć Miasta. Pamiętniki Władysława Szpilmana 1939–1945 (Death of a City: Memoirs of Władysław Szpilman 1939–1945), edited by Jerzy Waldorff, a Polish music critic and friend of Szpilman’s, but this text was quickly quashed by the Soviet-controlled authorities.

Over 40 years later, a German translation by Karin Wolff appeared in 1998, Das wunderbare Überleben: Warschauer Erinnerungen (The Miraculous Survival: Warsaw Memories). The following year this his German version appeared in an English translation by Anthea Bell, titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45.

All references are to the 2002 Phoenix paperback version of the Bell translation.


Holocaust reviews

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw (2015)

This is volume seven in the eight-volume Penguin History of Europe and it is very good. It has to cover a lot of ground and Kershaw does it clearly and authoritatively. He does this more by focusing on broad themes and issues, than getting snarled up in details. It is a high-level overview.

Contents

The period

In Kershaw’s opinion the 20th century is characterised by wars, immense wars, and falls naturally into two halves – the period of the two world wars 1914 to 1945, and then the Cold War, 1945 to 1990.

The Cold War will be dealt with in the ninth and final volume of the series. This volume covers the earlier period but Kershaw makes the point that, as the violence and chaos of the Second War continued after its official end, and that it took a few years for its repercussions – and the shape of the post-war world – to fully emerge, so his account ends not on VE or VJ Day 1945, but goes on till 1949, the year the Berlin Airlift ended (12 May) and the Federal Republic of Germany was created (20 September).

The themes

In Kershaw’s view the 20th century to 1949 was characterised by four large themes or issues:

1. An explosion of ethno-racist nationalism

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires both ‘liberated’ a lot of peoples who now set up independent nations (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Turkey) – but also confirmed the trend whereby these new nations defined themselves ethnically.

In the big rambling empires all sorts of religious and ethnic groups may have resented each other, but managed to live alongside each other, in part because they were all subjects of the emperor or sultan. Ethnic nationalism destroyed this tolerance. At a stroke, if you didn’t speak the national language of the national people who the new nation was set up for, you were an outsider and, by implication and sometimes even by law, a second-class citizen. The Jews were outcast everywhere.

2. Bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism

Before he brought America into the war, Woodrow Wilson had declared certain principles, namely that America would be fighting for 1. a peace without conquest (i.e. in the final peace deals, conquerors wouldn’t get to keep the land they’d acquired) and that 2. oppressed peoples would be liberated and given their independence / own nations.

In practice this second one proved tricky because centuries of living under rambling empires had resulted in a tremendous mixing-up of populations. To give an example, a large area in the east of Anatolia was known as Armenia and was the traditional homeland of the Armenian people – but there were large Armenian populations scattered over the rest of the Ottoman Empire, not least in the area known as Cilicia, at the other end of Anatolia from Armenia proper: so what happens to them?

The victors in the war laboured long and hard over complicated treaties (Versailles, Trianon, Saint Germain), drawing lines on maps and creating new nations states. But it proved impossible not to include in almost all of them large ethnic minorities a) who resented not living in their nation b) who were resented by the majority population for not speaking the national language, having the correct type of name or religion.

And impossible not to do this without creating a burning sense of grievance on the part of the nations who lost territory: Germany lost 13% of its pre-war territory and 10% of its population (p.119); Russia lost control of the Baltic states and Finland; Bulgaria also lost some territory, but Hungary lost a whopping 75% of its former pre-WW1 territories so that some three and a half Hungarians found themselves living outside Hungary, many of them in the new enlarged Romania which became nearly twice the size of its 1914 embodiment.

Kershaw gives the chapter where he describes all this the title ‘The Carve-Up’.

3. A prolonged crisis of capitalism, which many thought was terminal, and needed to be replaced by new social structures

The First World War left economic wreckage at every level, from devastated agricultural land through ruined industrial sectors. This was a lot more true in the East where entire regions such as Ukraine, Belarus and Galicia were devastated, than in the relatively static West, where only a relatively small zone about 50 kilometers wide had been devastated by the trench warfare.

At a higher level, all the combatants had had to borrow vast sums to fund their war efforts, and this left many on the brink of bankruptcy. The Western nations had borrowed heavily from the USA. To repay its debt France insisted on huge reparations from Germany. When Germany defaulted on the payments in 1923, France occupied the industrial Ruhr area of Germany, the German government told the workers to go on strike in protest, and the fragile German economy collapsed leading to the famous hyperinflation where you needed a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a cigarette.

This situation was sorted out at an international conference which enacted the Dawes Plan, a simple triangle whereby America lent money to Germany to rebuild her economy, the German government used the tax revenue generated from its growing economy to pay reparations to France, and France used the German reparations to pay back its immense war loans from America and pledged to buy American products.

This elegant plan underpinned the brittle prosperity of the later 1924-29, the Jazz Era, the Roaring Twenties, the Weimar Years. But, as we all know, it collapsed with the 1929 Wall Street Crash which not only led to prolonged Depression in the States, but collapsed the Dawes Plan and plunged Europe into depression, triggering the mounting unemployment and renewed inflation which set the scene for the rise of the Nazis.

Throughout the period, many thinkers and commentators thought the capitalist system was doomed. It seemed to be failing before their eyes, in America, Britain, France and Germany. Many thought Western civilisation could only survive by mutating into new forms, by evolving new social structures.

4. Acute class conflict, given new impetus by the advent of Bolshevik Russia

There had been class-based uprisings and revolutions throughout the 19th century (maybe the brutal Paris Commune is the most extreme and clearly class-based example) and a wealth of thinkers, not only Marx, had analysed the grotesque inequality between the new factory and business owners and the deeply impoverished industrial proletariat as a clash of classes.

But the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia transformed the situation. The Bolshevik regime became a symbol and lightning rod for class antagonisms all round the world. It appeared to offer a real working example of a genuinely alternative social system, one in which the government sequestered all the means of production and distribution and ran them for the good of the entire people, not just a wealthy few.

But it had two baleful consequences:

1. The Russian Revolution split the Left From the establishment of the Communist International (or Comintern) in 1919 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of the Left in every country in the world would be divided between communist parties taking direct orders from Moscow, and all the other forces of the Left who, quite often, the communists undermined & sabotaged (see the Spanish Civil War). This was a fatal division of the forces opposing the Right and Fascism, which Kershaw describes occurring in country after country across the period.

2. The Russian Revolution was a galvanising force in the rise of the Right Right-wing parties everywhere reached out to the newly-enfranchised masses (all European nations expanded their voting based after the war, for the first time creating really mass democracies), especially the large numbers of middle and lower-middle-class voters, and terrified them with visions of blood-thirsty revolutionaries taking over their town or country, lining all ‘class enemies’ (i.e. them) up against the wall, confiscating their businesses and hard-won savings.

One way of looking at it was that, without the very real existence of the Bolshevik regime, and the threat from growing communist parties in every country in Europe, there would have been no rise of Fascism.

And the closer you were to Bolshevik Russia, the more pressing the conflict seemed – from Poland which was actually invaded by the Red Army in 1920, to countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary where initial dalliances with left-wing governments quickly gave way to right-wing authoritarian governments (the Iron Guard in Romania, the royal authoritarian dictatorship of Tsar Boris III in Bulgaria, the right-wing administration of admiral Miklós Horthy in Hungary).

All exemplified, over a longer timeframe, by the central and most important European state, Germany, whose Weimar regime tried to follow Western norms of governance, but was undermined by the extreme social divisions sparked by recurrent economic crises, by the immense and widespread resentment created by the punitive Versailles Treaty, and by a culture of subversion and street violence which the Right, eventually, was to win.

Conclusion All four elements (nationalism, economic crises, left-wing politics, squabbling over territory) had of course pre-existed all across Europe. But they were driven to new heights of intensity by the First World War and the widespread chaos which followed. And then combined like toxic chemicals, catalysed by the series of political and economic crises, to create unprecedented levels of bitterness, hatred, anger and social division all across Europe between the wars.


The origins of the First World War

There are as many opinions about the origins of the First World War as there are grains of sand on a beach. Kershaw emphasises the folly of the German government sending Austro-Hungary, as it pondered how to punish Serbia for the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, a ‘blank check’, promising to support them come-what-may. This encouraged the Dual Monarchy to outface the Russians, which of course prompted the Russkies to mobilise etc etc.

But reading his account what came over to me as the really decisive source of the crisis was the Austro-Hungarian slowness to act. Other heads of state had been assassinated in the decade leading up to 1914 without sparking a general crisis. The other powers expected Austria to attack Serbia and deliver a short sharp reprimand, maybe occupy Belgrade, demand some reparations before withdrawing.

But, as Kershaw says, the Austro-Hungarian Empire only had two speeds, very slow or stop, and it took them nearly four weeks to write and send their ultimatum to the Serbian government.

This appalling delay gave all the other European governments time to consider how they could use the crisis for their own ends, not least Germany, whose military leaders told the Kaiser this was a golden opportunity to thrash the Russians before the Russians completed their well-known plan to modernise and expand their army, which was due to be completed by 1917. The German High Command persuaded the Kaiser that it was now or never.

If Austro-Hungary had gone in hard and fast with a surprise attack into Serbia within days of the assassination, a conference would have been called among the powers – much as happened after the first and second Moroccan crises (1905 and 1911) or the two Balkan wars (1912 and 1913) – to sort the problem out, probably force Serbia to pay reparations, and defuse tensions among the powers.

So you could argue that it was the byzantine and elephantine bureaucracy of the unwieldy Austro-Hungarian state which caused the cataclysmic conflict which defined the entire 20th century.

This view gives edge to your reading of a novel like Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities with its sustained satire on the pompous ineffectiveness of the Austrian administration. Maybe not so funny after all…


Civilised Western and backward Eastern Europe

There’s a whole genre of books devoted to explaining ‘the Rise of the West’ i.e. how Western empires ended up by the early twentieth century ruling a lot of the rest of the world. Harder to find are books which investigate the simpler question: Why was Western Europe relatively ‘civilised’ whereas regimes got steadily more repressive, undemocratic and authoritarian the further East across Europe you travelled. Kershaw’s book suggests some answers.

1. Western Europe was more ethnically homogeneous than central or Eastern Europe. England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden – these were populated by homogeneous populations of people identifying with the nation, with only tiny, insignificant minorities (actually Belgium is the exception which prove this rule, with low-lying conflict between the Flemings and the Walloons). Therefore one of the key prompts of post-war social tension – ethnically jumbled populations with conflicting claims – simply didn’t exist.

A notable exception was Spain where two large ethnically distinct groups, the Catalans and the Basques, combined with a backward, poverty-stricken population to make ruling the country problematic, as its slide towards civil war was to highlight.

2. Nation states in the West were long established. The French could trace their nation back to Charlemagne and the British to Alfred the Great, certainly to Magna Carta in 1216. Both nations had parliaments by the 1200s. That gave them 700 years experience of evolving laws and customs and strategies to manage social conflict. Compare and contrast with Germany, which was only unified in 1871 and whose experiments with self-governance over the next 70 years were not, shall we say, particularly successful. It was only after the British and Americans taught them how to run a modern democracy in the post-war occupation that they finally got it. Or compare with any of the ‘successor’ states to the collapsed empires – Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, which had barely any experience managing themselves. Spain, though it had existed as a political entity since the Unification of the 1490s, had only just ceased to be a monarchy. Only in 1931 did they expel their king and declare themselves a republic.

So all these nations or administrations had very shallow roots and little experience of self-government.

To put the same thing another way, Kershaw explains that in Western European countries (and the USA) the state had, over time shaped the nation, the institutions of the state had created a national consciousness which identified with them, the institutions. The institutions of state had become part of the populations sense of nationhood e.g. in Britain, the Queen, the Houses of Parliament, Black Rod, the Leader of the Opposition and so on.

It was the opposite in the new nations central and eastern Europe. Here ethnically purist nationalisms predated any idea of what a nation was, and the new states were created in the name of ethnically limited nations: Poland for the Poles, Hungary for the Hungarians and so on. The precise political form the new states took was secondary; the aim was to promote the nation.

Thus the institutions of the new democratic states were mostly new and, as they proved themselves incapable of managing the political and economic crises of the 1930s, broad sections of the population had no qualms about overthrowing these institutions and replacing them with different ones. They didn’t have the national identification with Queen and Parliament or President and Congress that the British and Americans have. So they got rid of them and tried something new, almost always rule by the army or authoritarian figures.

Thus in the USA or Britain, most people thought of politics as a simple choice between Labour or Tory, or Republican or Democrat. Most people accepted ‘democracy’ and few people thought about overthrowing it. But the democratic state was such a new invention in the ten new countries of post-war Europe that plenty of politicians, intellectuals and activists could easily imagine overthrowing and replacing it with a different model, more appropriate to the times, and almost always more authoritarian.

3. The further East you went, the less industrialised i.e. the more ‘backward’ countries became. It appears to have been a simple gradient, a line you could draw on a graph. In Britain at the end of the First World War only 10% of the working population worked on the land whereas 72% of the Romanians worked on the land. Rural workers tended to be illiterate and easy to sway towards simplistic, nationalistic regimes in a way the highly educated population of, say, Britain, would have found laughable. Thus Oswald Mosley’s high-profile British Union of Fascists caused well-publicised public disorders, but never had more than 50,000 members, far fewer than the National Trust or the Women’s Institute.

Of course the most easterly European nation was Russia, which – following the West-East rule:

  • had the highest proportion – 80% – of illiterate peasants
  • no tradition of elective democracy – the Tsar only set up a sort of parliament, the Duma, in 1905, and he and the ruling classes made sure it had no power
  • few if any of the institutions of civic society
  • and a ‘culture of violence, brutality and scant regard for human life’ (p.113) as my reviews of some of its classic fiction tend to confirm (Dr Zhivago, Tales From the Don, Red Cavalry, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich)

The weakness of inter-war democracy

Kershaw has a fascinating passage examining the post-war political systems of every country in Europe (pp.123-133) which shows exactly why ‘democracy’ had such thin roots. Later on, a similar survey explains why these weak democracies almost all collapsed into authoritarian regimes by the time of, or during the second war (pp.183-192). European democratic systems during this period:

1. Used electoral voting systems which encouraged weak government. Many used variations of proportional representation, which may, on the one hand, have led to general assemblies which were accurate reflections of national views, but also led to weak governments which followed each other with bewildering speed:

  • Spain had 34 governments between 1902 and 1923
  • Portugal 45 administrations between 1910 and 1926
  • Yugoslavia had 45 political parties
  • Italy had 6 changes of government between 1919 and 1922
  • France had six different governments in just over a year, April 1925 and July 1926

2. Disillusioned much of the population with their mixture of incompetence, endless squabbling, corruption, all too often giving the sense that politicians put party interest above national interest. This allowed extremists to tar all democratic politicians with neglecting the Nation, even accusations of treason.

3. This created what Kershaw calls a ‘political space’ in the newly-created countries – or countries with new political systems – into which broad sections of the populations were all-too-ready to let a Strong Man step and run the country properly:

  • Admiral Miklos Horthy in Hungary in 1920
  • Mussolini in Italy in 1922
  • General Primo de Rivera in Spain 1923
  • in Albania Ahmed Zogu seized power in 1924 and declared himself King Zog
  • General Pilsudski took control in Poland 1926
  • General Gomes de Costa took power in Portugal in 1926

On the eve of the Second World War only about eleven countries in Europe were functioning democracies and they were all located in the north and the west – Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and tiny Iceland; whereas about 60% of Europe lived in 16 countries under repressive, authoritarian rule with curtailed civil rights and minorities facing discrimination and persecution: in the south Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece; in the East Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and slap-bang in the middle, the largest country in Germany, the nation that set the tone, Germany.


What is fascism and how does it take hold?

Kershaw is best known as a historian of Hitler and the Nazis and you can feel the depth of his knowledge when he comes to describe the situation in Germany after the war, during the boom years of the mid-1920s, during the Depression (1929-33), and as he explains the reason for the Nazis’ appeal and rise in each of these periods.

But all too often histories of the Nazis focus so exclusively on the uniqueness of the German context that the reader is hard-pressed to draw broader conclusions. An excellent thing about this book is that it is a conscious attempt to cover the history of all of Europe, so that in each of the micro-periods it’s divided into, Kershaw goes out of his way to explain the situation in most if not all of Europe’s 30 or so countries; how, for example, the onset of the Depression affected not only Britain, France and Germany (which you always get in the standard histories) but countries right across Europe, from Spain to Greece, Norway to Portugal.

This proves extremely useful when he gets to the rise of the Nazis and their successful seizure of power (Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and within 6 months had crushed all other rival sources of power, all other political parties, the parliament, trades unions, universities, professions, every aspect of a modern state had either been Nazified or abolished).

Useful because after explaining all this, he goes on to draw general conclusions, to define what Fascism is, to ask Why Fascism succeeded in Italy and Germany and Why Fascism failed everywhere else. This has all kinds of benefits, one is it allows him to draw a distinction between regimes which were right-wing and authoritarian but not actually Fascist.

1. What is Fascism?

Kershaw says that trying to define Fascism is like trying to nail jelly to a wall because its core attribute is hyper-nationalism i.e. glorification of the nation with its special language and history and traditions – and the precise details of each nation’s history and culture will vary according to circumstances.

Thus an attempt to hold a pan-Fascist Congress in Geneva in 1934 failed because a) Germany didn’t bother to turn up b) the other delegates couldn’t agree joint plans of action.

These caveats notwithstanding, Kershaw says Fascism includes:

  • hyper-nationalist emphasis on the unity of an integral nation which gains its identity from the cleansing of all who don’t belong – foreigners, ethnic minorities, undesirables
  • racial exclusiveness (though not necessarily biological racism of the Nazi type) with an insistence on the special, unique and superior quality of the nation
  • radical, violent commitment to the complete destruction of political enemies – communists, liberals, democrats, sometimes conservatives
  • emphasis on militarism and manliness, usually involving paramilitary organisations
  • belief in authoritarian leadership

Some also had irredentist goals i.e. reclaiming lost territory. Some were anti-capitalist, reorganising economies along corporatist lines, abolishing trade unions and directing the economy through corporations of industries.

All these elements can be present in authoritarian, right-wing governments which wanted to overthrow or dismantle the existing state and replace it with nationalist, authoritarian rule. What distinguishes Fascism is its insistence on total commitment to bend the collective will to the creation of an entirely new nation, expressed in ideas like the New Man, New Society.

Most right-wing authoritarian regimes (like all the South American dictatorships of the 1970s) essentially want to conserve the existing social order, and eliminate the left-communist, union elements which threaten it. Fascism goes much further. Fascism is a revolutionary movement because it seeks to sweep away the existing order and replace it with a new, totally unified society which will produce New Human Beings, a higher form of people who express the quintessence of the Nation, and of the epic national qualities

2. Why does Fascism succeed?

1. Elites lose faith in, and control of, democracy The most important factor in the rise of Fascism – of the extreme, radical Right – is whether the forces of conservatism – business, military, financial and social elites – believe they can get their way through the existing political and social order, or not. If these powers in society retain the belief they can work through the existing system they will support it. Only when they have completely lost faith in the existing system, or believe they have lost the ability to control it, will the elites help to, or acquiesce in, overthrowing it.

In this interpretation, the key to avoiding Fascism is ensuring that all or most elements of these powerful elites believe the existing (parliamentary, democratic) system is the best mechanism for getting their way, or some of it. Only when the existing system has been completely discredited, and the elites feel they are losing control of it and look around for alternatives, does the space open up for radical political change.

Rule 1: Keep the ruling elites invested in the parliamentary system

2. Fascists play up the threat of communism (and atheism) The second factor is the threat of communism as it affects two sectors of society, the elites and the middle classes.

The realistic prospect of a communist regime coming to power and implementing real communist policies (nationalising all industries, confiscating private property) obviously threatens the interests of the business, economic, class elites. If these interests feel that the existing parliamentary system really is going to allow hard-core Socialist or communist governments to administer Socialist policies, then they will intervene to prevent it.

But communism doesn’t just threaten the elite. It also directly threatens the jobs and livelihoods and cultural capital of a large part of the population, the so-called middle classes, which covers a wide range from the professions (doctors, lawyers) through small businessmen, shopkeepers, small craftsmen and artisans and so on.

Historically, the majority of Fascist supporters have not been from the aristocracy or elites (who often look down on fascist vulgarity) but from the threatened and pressurised middle classes.

The elites will have a large number of the population on their side if these people, too, feel threatened by radical socialist policies, and not only by their economic policies but by their attacks on traditional culture.

Spain 1936 is an example where the new aggressively socialist government threatened not only the property and livelihoods of the big landowners and big business, and a wide tranche of the middle classes, petit-bourgeoisie and so on. They also directly threatened the Catholic church and all its values, patriarchy, the traditional family, the sanctity of marriage and the family, and so on, not really having calculated how many traditionalists and believers that would antagonise. They created, in other words, an impressively powerful coalition of enemies.

Kershaw has a section specifically addressing the role of the Protestant churches and the Catholic church during the crisis years of the 1930s and the war. What comes over loud and clear is that the Pope and the Catholic Church, although horrified by the Nazis, thought the communists would be even worse.

Same in Spain. It’s well known that Hitler and Mussolini gave material aid to General Franco, flying his troops in from Africa and bombing Republican strongholds. Less well-known that Britain and France, after some hesitation, decided to adopt a policy of strict neutrality

Rule 2: Avoid the threat of genuinely socialist, let alone communist, policies

3. Widespread grievances, specially about lost wars or lost land Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum, they need supporters. Voters, populations, peoples don’t migrate to extreme parties without reason. Almost always it is because they feel threatened by loss or are aggrieved because they already have lost important aspects of their lives (jobs, money, status).

They believe they have something to lose from the way the current system is tending – status, property, livelihoods, jobs, money, cultural traditions and identity. A very large number of people in Weimar Germany felt they stood to lose, or already had lost, jobs or status. Classic Nazi members were white collar workers, small businessmen, former army officers or NCOs, shopkeepers, small craftsmen, farmers, a huge raft of people who had suffered monetary loss under the economic crisis, or loss of status (ex-army officers, unemployed white collar workers).

The entire German nation was united by a sense of grievance at the unfair provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the loss of large parts of territory and the punitive reparations.

The Nazis played on the widespread grievances of disparate sectors of the population and claimed to speak for them against a corrupt system which they promised they would sweep away, and restore everyone’s losses (of jobs and status), and restore the losses of the entire nation.

Rule 3: Don’t give people and peoples long-running grievances

4. National pride and national enemies The easiest way to address people’s grievances is to bundle them up into all-encompassing calls for a revival of the nation. Pretty much all Germans felt humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, so it wasn’t very rocket science for the Nazis to make one of the main planks a call for National Revival.

And the easiest way to rally national pride, national revival, national rebirth, is to identify some kind of internal enemy who stands in the way. For the Nazis it was their mad irrational hatred of Jews (who, it is always shocking to recall, made up just 0.76% of the German population). Around the same time Stalin was uniting the mass population behind him by attacking ‘kulak’s, ‘saboteur’s etc. All authoritarian regimes are quick to identify enemies and rally the majority of the population against them.

It’s tricky because calls for national revival are an extremely common tactic of all politicians, and many people are patriotic in a relatively harmless way. It obviously becomes toxic when it becomes mixed with calls to defeat ‘enemies’, either internal or external. ‘Make America Great Again’ is fine in itself, until you start blaming the Mexicans or the Chinese for everything. Or the Jews. Or the Liberals or the Socialists etc.

Rule 4: Be wary of calls to national pride, nationalism and national revival which rely on demonising an ‘enemy’ 

5. Economic crisis Implicit in the above is the context of the economic or social situation becoming so extreme and dire that a) the large percentage of the population cease to have faith in the system b) parties of the extreme Left or extreme Right can come into existence, get a purchase on the population, and get into the political system.

Rule 5: Avoid extreme economic or social failure

6. Unstable political systems Political systems like proportional representation, which cater to every political element in a society, allow the proliferation of small, often extreme parties. Once established, extreme parties have the potential to grow quickly and challenge the status quo. This is what the Nazis did in Germany.

This is less likely in ‘mature’ democracies with winner-takes-all systems like Britain and the USA. Our systems are dominated by two main parties, which are themselves flexible and changing coalitions of interests, which ensure that most views have a political ‘home’ and give a broad spectrum of beliefs at least the possibility of seeing their views and policies implemented.

Even in a stable democracy like Britain’s, it is still possible for new parties to erupt and threaten the status quo if the social movement/mood they reflect is powerful enough. This is what UKIP did to the British political system in the lead-up to the Brexit Referendum. What Boris Johnson then did was in line with the long tradition of mature Western democracies, he incorporated most of UKIP’s policies (‘Get Brexit Done’) into one of the two mainstream parties (the Conservatives) thus drawing its teeth, neutralising it, and maintaining the stability of the two-party system. If it resulted in the Conservatives moving to the right that in fact reflects the wishes of a large part of the UK population who voted for Brexit and voted for Boris.

Mature democracies incorporate and neutralise radical elements. Immature democracies allow radical elements to establish themselves and attract support.

Rule 6: Incorporate potentially disruptive movements into the existing system – don’t keep them outside to become a focal point for destabilisation

Kershaw summarises:

Fascism’s triumph depended upon the complete discrediting of state authority, weak political elites who could no longer ensure that a system would operate in their interests, the fragmentation of party politics, and the freedom to build a movement that promised a radical alternative. (p.232)

3. The difference between fascism and authoritarianism

Authoritarianism – authoritarian dictatorships – generally want to keep things as they are or turn the clock back. They all share a loathing and fear of socialism or communism not only because it’s a direct threat to their wealth and power but because it threatens change, threatens to sweep away old values and traditions. Authoritarians want to save the nation by preserving its (conservative) traditions from change.

Fascism, on the contrary, is a revolutionary and dynamic ideology which seeks to sweep away time-honoured and conservative institutions. It seeks a comprehensive rebirth of the nation, freed from the shackles of the past, liberated to fulfil its historic destiny (power, land, international respect), but also to create New People in a New Society.

Thus Kershaw is at pains to point out that, although most European nations became dictatorships on the brink of or during the Second World War – most of these were not fascist. They were military dictatorships first and foremost, which may have used this or that aspect of ‘fascist’ ideology or trappings as suited them, but without the fundamental fascist attribute of wanting to transform society.

  • When General Ioannis Metaxis established his dictatorship in Greece in 1936, his avowed intention was to save the nation from communism, and he tried to set up ‘fascist’ organisations but failed to secure anything like the total social control of a Hitler or Mussolini.
  • When General Edward Smigly-Ridz took control of Poland in 1937 as ‘Leader of the Nation’, the country became more nationalistic and more anti-semitic but ‘there was nothing dynamic about this form of authoritarianism. No major attempt was made to mobilise the population. The regime was content to control the society. It had no ambitions to change it’ (p.262).
  • Even General Franco, after his military coup of July 1936, took a year to sort out the political aspects of what was essentially a military project. He co-opted the ideology of the banned Falange Party and coerced all the other right-wing organisations into joining it (p.240), but the party was only ever a political aspect of what remained a military rule. This was the polar opposite Germany, where a fanatically organised, civilian political party controlled the military as just one of the many levers of its total control over society.

Another fairly obvious difference is that some of these authoritarian regimes locked up fascists as well as communists, socialist, liberals, journalists etc. For example the Polish and Portuguese dictatorships (pp.262, 264) or Admiral Horthy’s authoritarian regime in Hungary, which banned the genuinely fascist Hungarian National Socialist Party and imprisoned its leader, Ferenc Szálasi (p.263).

In other words, for many authoritarian dictatorships, real hard-core fascism was just one more subversive or disruptive element which needed to be controlled.

One way of thinking about this is the contrast between merely authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes want your soul as well as your body, your mind as well as your vote. They insist on total control of every aspect of their citizens lives in order to create a new type of human being.

Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. (Mussolini)

Another way of thinking about the difference between authoritarian dictatorships and genuinely fascist regimes is that none of the dictatorships threatened the peace of Europe – the Western democracies didn’t lose any sleep about the foreign policy of Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Portugal. Even Spain, whose drawn-out civil war was violent and traumatic, never threatened to spill beyond its borders, never threatened the peace of Europe.

Unlike the irredentist and imperialist ambitions of the true fascist regimes, Italy and, most of all, Germany.


The rise of the Right and collapse of the Left in the 1930s

Putting the usual culprits Italy and Germany in the context of the wider, in fact of the complete European scene, brings out a fact I had never fully grasped before.

I suppose I knew that the 1930s were the era of The Dictator – although Kershaw’s review of every dictatorship in Europe really rams this fact home. The deeper point is that the catastrophic economic collapse of the early 1930s, which devastated nations, threw millions out of work, and led many to think capitalism was failing – did not produce a shift to the Left, in favour of thinkers and politicians who’d spent a lifetime criticising capitalism and supporting workers movements – it resulted, all across Europe, in a seismic shift to the Right.

The 1930s was the decade of the failure of the Left.

Why? Because despite its appeal to the kind of intellectuals whose works survive and are studied to this day, for the majority of the population the Left, in either its socialist or communist form, threatened the interests of:

  • most of the ruling class
  • most of the middle class
  • most if not all of the peasants – some may have heard rumours about Stalin’s forced collectivisation in Soviet Russia, all knew that the Left wanted to destroy the Church and traditional religion
  • even a portion of the skilled working class who stood to lose their perks and privileges
  • not to mention the large number of criminals and dossers who are generally left out of sociological calculations, the kind of people who fill the pages of novels like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

In other words, the hard, radical Left always represents a minority of a society, and is always opposed by a majority in that society.

Which makes it all the more striking that such a disproportionate majority of the intellectuals of many of these societies moved to the Left. Kershaw has a chapter giving a tourist’s-eye view of the ‘intellectual life’ of Europe in the 30s and 40s (which jumps around superficially, as historians’ quick compliance with the need to mention something about ‘culture’ so often do) – but the general drift is that from Gramsci through Orwell, Sartre to the Frankfurt School, the majority of Europe’s significant intellectuals took a left-wing, often out-and-out communist, view of the continent’s problems.

In other words, a high proportion of the intellectual class of Europe was profoundly out of step with the majority of their populations.

That’s one rather crude interpretation, anyway. The deeper reasons for the shift to the Right bear investigating and pondering. A deep analysis would give insights into why, in our time, years of austerity, uncertainty and economic stagnation since the 2008 Crash have resulted not in a mass outpouring of socialist idealism but, once again, led to the rise of right-wing leaders around the world. At the same time the intellectual and academic classes remain securely embedded in their progressive and left-wing ghettos (universities), out of touch with the populations they claim to interpret, and blankly incredulous of the leaders who keep getting elected (Trump, Johnson).

To return to the period under consideration, Germany’s dynamic Nazi ideology is in fact the exception that proves the rule to most of Europe during the period. So much ink has been spilt about Hitler and the Nazis but they were the product of a very distinctive set of circumstances – to take two of them, the fact that they were in Europe’s largest and most powerful nation, and that the entire nation felt huge grievance over the Versailles Treaty.

Focusing so much on bloody Hitler and his Nazi Party, whose historical situation was unique and so whose precise brand of turbo-charged Fascism is never going to recur, has distracted historians from the much more practical task of analysing the reasons for the rise of right-wing authoritarian regimes in general – which do recur with worrying regularity, which were widespread during the 1930s and 40s, which dominated Latin America and southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey had military dictatorships in the 1970s) in my boyhood, and which people worry are now reappearing in the guise of various ‘populist’ leaders.

Historians’ focus on one unique event (the Nazis) is, in my opinion, a distraction from analysing and thinking about how to prevent the far more common (almost mundane) phenomenon of military coups and authoritarian dictatorships.

The accidental rise of Adolf Hitler

As anybody who’s read about the period knows, Hitler didn’t storm to power, he was appointed by political elites who thought they could manipulate and control him to get their way. They did so because in late 1932 the Nazis had secured the largest share of the election vote and so had to be included in whatever government was set up – but, when they finally decided to appoint the vulgar little corporal Chancellor, the behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealers made sure to pack Hitler’s ‘cabinet’ with members of other parties. They thought that would moderate his policies. None of them had any idea how utterly ruthless Hitler would turn out to be in eliminating all these restraints on his power.

So possibly the key fact about Hitler’s rise to power is that it was the result of a mistake in political strategy by Germany’s political elite which had, by late 1932, lost all confidence in the ability of the Weimar parliamentary democracy to deal with the country’s severe economic crisis.


Conclusions

Avoiding Fascism What these ideas suggest is that avoiding Fascism is nothing to do with the Left-wing obsession with promoting workers rights, womens rights, minority rights and so on. It involves ensuring that the powerful economic, social and military elites of a country continue to have faith in some form of parliamentary democracy as the best mechanism of protecting their interests.

Any political moves which threaten or jeopardise their interests, in effect, open the door to right-wing coups and worse.

Of course you probably require a number of other factors and preconditions, at the very least a) a political culture which accepts or has a tradition of coups, such as Spain’s with its long tradition of pronunciamentos b) a really severe economic or social crisis which the parliamentary system manifestly fails to manage.

Avoiding Europe If you were American or Chinese or anyone looking at Europe from the outside it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that a) Europe is incapable of governing itself b) Europe is the most savage, bestial continent on earth.

For all their instability, nothing on the scale of either the First or Second World Wars took place in Latin America, Africa or the Indian sub-continent.

One way of looking at the Cold War is that, at the same time as the Soviet Union acquired a deep buffer zone to protect its western border (i.e the Eastern Bloc countries) it was also taking control of the very region which contained the most ethnically mixed populations, had shown the most political instability, had been the location of terrible ethnic cleansing and enormous deaths.

In a sense the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe liberated Western Europe from the burden dragging at its heel and, along with massive American financial and military aid, freed it (Western Europe) for the 30 years of economic growth and prosperity which followed.

It was Cecil Rhodes who made a speech in which he told his audience to remember that they were English and so had won first prize in the lottery of life. Obviously, at the time he was referring to our membership of the biggest empire the world had ever seen – but reading accounts of the twentieth century like this give the idea a whole new meaning.

Put simply, being born in England in the twentieth century meant you weren’t born on the continent of Europe which, as Kershaw vividly emphasises, between 1939 and 1945 descended into hell, real hell, the utter collapse of civilisation, mass slaughter, death camps, mass imprisonment and torture, gas chambers, the endless rape and murder of civilians, displacement and starvation.

In the entire catalogue of destruction, devastation and misery that made up the Second World War, the murder of Europe’s Jews was the lowest point of mankind’s descent into the abyss of inhumanity. The fires of the death-camp crematoria were almost literally the physical manifestation of hell on earth. (p.369)

Both my parents lived through the war as children, experiencing the Blitz and then the V-bombs, which wasn’t pleasant. But nonetheless they both had the immeasurable good fortune not to have been born on the Continent of Atrocity, and in the terrible middle years of the 20th century, that really was like winning a prize in the lottery of life.

Understanding Europe Which leads to a final thought, which I’ll keep brief: maybe it is impossible for an English person to understand Europe. We were never invaded, devastated, forced to collaborate with the conqueror, to round up and deport English Jews, to execute our own socialists and liberals, and then reduced to starvation and chaos amid the smoking ruins of our cities.

The extremity of the experiences of every other nation in continental Europe during the war years (and described by Kershaw in gruelling detail) are beyond our experience or imagining. And so we never experienced anything like the same cultural or political extremity which wartime conditions produced. In the first post-war election in France, the Communist Party won 26% of the vote, in Britain 0.4%, reflecting the two nations very very different recent experiences (p.488).

The great thoughts of Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Sartre and so on have dazzled generations of British students but bear no relationship at all to the history, culture and politics of the UK and its population. Which is why all those humanities students, drilled in their Benjamin and Lukacs, who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, helped him lead Labour to its most crushing electoral defeat in 50 years.

Brexit It also explains something about Brexit. The ideal of a European Union has a real meaning for hundreds of millions of Europeans, raised for generations to believe it is better to be politically and economically united than to fight each other to the death as their grand-parents and great-grand-parents did.

But Britain really was an exception to the history of this terrible period, and that ‘exceptionialism’, for better or worse, was, during the period Kershaw describes, and obviously still is, a strong thread in British culture and population.

(I’m not shoehorning Brexit and ‘Europe’ into this review: the last 20 pages of Kershaw’s book explicitly discuss these questions. He describes the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe, the continent’s division into two blocs being crystallised by the Marshall Plan, announced in June 1947. He quotes several Americans involved in co-ordinating Western Europe’s response, not least George Marshall himself complaining that the British wanted to keep aloof from Europe, that the British wanted to benefit from a scheme designed to create an economically unified Europe ‘while at the same time maintaining the position of being not quite a European country’ – quoted page 516.)

I’m not approving or disapproving Brexit, just pointing out that a book like this, which doesn’t hold back when it comes to describing the terror, murder, torture, holocausts, purges, massacres, reprisals, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, executions and rapes which took place all across continental Europe during these years, can’t help but make you reflect how lucky we were to escape almost all of it, and how the cultural and political consequences of that very real ‘exceptional’ destiny have shaped our politics right down to the present.

Random facts

The books is full of hundreds of facts, figures and anecdotes. A few grabbed my attention:

In Britain just short of 70,000 civilians were killed by German bombing. In one night the firebombing of Hamburg killed some 34,000 civilians. The Hiroshima atom bomb is estimated to have killed about 66,000 people on the day, from the blast and fires, although many more died in the weeks and months that followed.

At their core, both world wars were wars between Germany and Russia. I knew the German High Command in 1914 knew they had a window of opportunity to attack Russia before its army came up to full strength, therefore they had an incentive to attack Russia while they still could. I didn’t realise the Germany High Command felt exactly the same in the late 1930s. Thus in both world wars, a – if not the – fundamental factor was the German gamble to take on Russia, and do it in a hurry.

The Irish taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, was one of a very select few politicians, who sent the Germans a formal note of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler, 30 April 1945 (p.387).

Hitler loved Disney movies. He was delighted when Goebbels gave him 18 Mickey Mouse cartoons for Christmas 1937 (p.465)

The Venice Film Festival was founded in 1932 in Mussolini’s Italy. Winners of Best Italian Film and Best Foreign Film were awarded ‘Mussolini Cups’ (p.466). I think they should revive that tradition.


Credit

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1939 by Ian Kershaw was published by Allen Lane in 2015. All references are to the Penguin paperback edition.

Related reviews

First World War

Russian Revolution

Between the wars

The Weimar Republic

German literature

Czech literature

French literature

Albert Camus

Jean-Paul Sartre

English literature

Graham Greene

George Orwell

The Middle East

The Spanish Civil War

The Second World War

The Holocaust

After the Second World War

The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch – A Summary

On the back of the book, on Wikipedia and in various other locations, large claims are made for The Sleepwalkers, the trilogy of ‘modernist’ novels by Austrian writer Hermann Broch. They are all along the lines of it being ‘a portrait of a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’.

Having read all three novels quite carefully, the aim of this little essay is to question some of these claims and to put the trilogy into a broader historical perspective. If this seems a questionable thing to do, then bear in mind that the novels themselves – especially the third one – include long passages which take a very highbrow, Hegelian view of history, and which analyse the development of Western culture since the Renaissance right down to the present day.

In other words, rather than applying an alien and academic approach to what are essentially fictions, it’s more accurate to say that I am continuing Broch’s own obsession with the present plight of Western Civilisation and his own lengthy analyses of where Western Man has gone wrong – and applying this approach to his own books.

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers is a panoramic overview of German society and history

The Sleepwalkers is emphatically not ‘a panoramic overview of German society and the collapse of its values’. It is three portraits of tiny groups of characters, each one centring on individuals who are psychologically unbalanced.

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers portray ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’

1. The books are spread over thirty years, from 1888 to 1918. That’s not ‘a world’, that’s three distinct eras. Imagine saying three novels set in the England of 1988, 2003 and 2018, as describing ‘a world’ – they might be set in the same country but the social setup, the politics and feel of each of those moments would be very different. Same here.

2. None of the books really describe ‘a world‘ – it felt to me like the opposite: each novel describes tiny, unrepresentative groups of characters.

The Romantic is about army officer Joachim von Paselow, his Bohemian mistress Ruzena, his posh fiancée Elisabeth and his suave ex-army friend, Eduard von Bertrand. That’s not a portrait of ‘a world’. That’s a drawing room drama. It barely has enough characters in it to make a sitcom.

Similarly, The Anarchist concerns a relatively small number of characters, namely the book-keeper August Esch, the woman he bullies into marrying him (Mother Hentjen), the brother and sister he boards with in Mannheim, the local tobacconist and a trade union activist who gets locked up, and with three or four theatrical types he goes into business with. About the wider world beyond these ten or so characters we hear very little. Hardly the portrait of ‘a world’. It’s a microcosm.

The closing pages of the third novel in the trilogy, The Realist, are the only place where you have a sense of the wider world and History impinging on the characters, as they describe the anarchy which breaks out at the very end of the Great War, but these final passages leave a misleading impression: the nearly 300 pages which preceded them, once again, focus on a handful of characters: Huguenau the canny deserter, Esch from the second book who we now meet running a small newspaper, Joachim von Pasenow from the first book, who is now an elderly major in charge of the town, and a handful of civic dignitaries and workers. Again this is the opposite of ‘a world’, it is more like a small village.

3. Another sense in which the novels don’t describe a world is the way the lead figures in all three books are psychologically extreme characters. To be a little more analytical, they are highly unrepresentative figures.

– Joachim von Pasenow becomes subject to increasingly prolonged bouts of delusion and almost delirium. He has little or no grasp on the ‘real’ world, as his friend Eduard von Bertrand is quick to point out.

– August Esch is a dim-witted bully, whose malfunctioning mind is overtaken by absurdly grandiose, religio-philosophical psychodramas.

– Huguenau is calm and collected and detached from reality, an early forebear of the hundreds of psychopaths described in thousands of modern thrillers. This feeling is crystallised when he murders Esch in cold blood, stabbing him from behind with an army bayonet in a darkened street.

The third novel is longer and more complex than the others, but follows the same broad arc whereby the central character becomes drowned in their author’s increasingly lengthy pseudo-philosophical and religious ramblings.

So: three fruitcakes, three psychological cases and their close friends and associates do not constitute a world and are not really ‘a portrait’ of anything (if they really build up to anything, it’s a very negative summary of ‘the German character’, see below).

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers is a bold analysis of the collapse of Western values

Even if it were anything like a panoramic overview etc (which it isn’t), portraying the collapse in values in modern Germany (1888-1918) could hardly be called original.

In fact, it would be deeply unoriginal, since this topic of decline and fall was the obsessive subject of most German politics and culture in the decade after the Great War.

The territory had already been well staked out by Oswald Spengler’s classic of gloomy pessimism, The Decline of the West. Spengler’s book depicted the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts (i.e. Symbolism, Expressionism and everything else which Spengler disliked).

The Decline was published in 1922 and was an immediate bestseller, setting the tone for cultural debate throughout the Weimar period.

A 1928 Time review of the second volume of Decline described the immense influence and controversy Spengler’s ideas enjoyed during the 1920s: ‘When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so’. (Wikipedia)

Quite. Lamenting the decline and fall of ‘Western values’ was an intellectual parlour game played by every intellectual, writer, critic, commentator, aspiring politician and pub bore in the Western world.

Therefore, claiming that Broch’s massive novel about ‘the collapse of social values’ was in any way innovative or ground-breaking is ridiculous, seeing as it was published ten years after Spengler’s book had set the tone and defined the age.

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot holds up because (among many other things) it is an excoriating portrait of mental collapse amid what genuinely seemed – in the immediate aftermath of the Great War – to be a continent in flames. But it got in early (like the Spengler it was published in 1922) and established a marker for a new technique and tone to describe the world. The Sleepwalkers, on the contrary, was published ten years later, and was more like a tardy latecomer to the debate.

Using Walter Laqueur to critique The Sleepwalkers

1. The Sleepwalkers’ cultural pessimism, far from being innovative, was entirely in line with its time and place

A few years ago I read half a dozen books about the Weimar Republic to coincide with some art exhibitions on the subject. By far the most convincing was Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur, who had the advantage of growing up during the period (born 1921, he fled Germany in 1938).

Laqueur’s history of Weimar is interesting because, unlike most left-wing academics who tend to concentrate on the communist writers and composers and the gender-bending nightclubs etc, Laqueur gives full weight to the conservative cultural forces of the time.

Above all he makes it all the more clear that so many of the liberal or left-wing, Socialist or communist artists, writers, playwrights etc who infested the Weimar Republic, did everything they could to undermine it and nothing to support it and thus materially contributed to its overthrow by Hitler and the Nazis.

I was continually reminded of Laqueur and his diagnosis as I read the final volume in the trilogy, The Realist. This is divided into short alternating chapters describing – or in the voice of – eight or so key characters.

One of these is (rather inevitably) an academic – not a professor of medicine or physics or engineering or anything useful, but (again, rather inevitably) a philosopher, and it is he who is the author of a series of sections entitled ‘The Disintegration of Values’.

These ‘Disintegration of Values’ sections go on at some length about the horrors of ‘this age’ and the laziness and cowardice of ‘our age’. The author is something of an aesthete and seems to be an expert in architecture. His sections repeatedly make the point, at immense, circumlocutionary length, that the unornamented style of modern post-war architecture bespeaks a deliberate banishment of ‘style’ and ‘beauty’ which is, ultimately, the emptiness of death.

‘Style’ and ‘Beauty’ we are told, reached their heights in the Middle Ages when all Europeans believed in one ideology, Catholicism as promoted by the universal Catholic Church, and everyone shared the same values and so art was accessible to all. But the Renaissance broke this happy balance between public and private, promoting the value of ‘the individual’, and then the Protestant Revolution smashed it wide open, leading to civil war in Europe but, more importantly, to the triumph of the each individual finding their own path to God.

This quest for individualism has led to 400 years of decline, in social life, art and architecture, until we reach the sorry depths described in Broch’s novels, which, he now explains to us, are meant to be detailed descriptions of how older values have been rejected in favour of the current state of soulless materialism and everyone-for-themselves consumer capitalism.

These sections are example of the worst kind of turgid, long-winded, grandstanding German philosophising. The author of these sections is not slow to drop in learnèd tags, like cogito ergo sum and refer to Neo-Kantianism or Hegelian notions of Geist – and confidently makes sweeping generalisations about all Western history interpreted as an interplay between The Rational and the Irrational etc.

But none of this really masks the fact that, deep down, the author is another drunk old bore propping up a bar somewhere telling anyone who comes near enough that the world is going to the dogs. And quite quickly this becomes really tiresome.

2. The Sleepwalkers is a good example of turgid, incomprehensible Germanic philosophising at its worst

Laqueur’s review of Weimar culture gives pen portraits of the works of numerous figures from the era who are now totally forgotten. Quite quickly you realise something almost all of them had in common was that they were:

  • long-winded and verbose
  • at the same time, extremely obscure and hard to understand
  • full of dire cosmic predictions about the collapse of civilisation and the end of the Western world

You notice this because Laqueur goes to some lengths to point it out and emphasise that long-winded, pretentious obscurity is an enduring strand of German culture.

Take the works of Moeller van den Bruck who wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). Well that describes Broch’s huge trilogy to a T. Here are some other Laqueur comments on writers of the period:

The German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision… (p.63)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

Sounds like Broch.

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Quite. That sounds exactly like the thought processes which come to dominate the characters Joachim von Pasenow and August Esch – long-winded, verbose, over-the-top, full of pretentious, world-shattering generalisations which, on a moment’s reflection, mean nothing.

3. The Sleepwalkers revels in the corruption it portrays without offering any positive vision

What I came to dislike over the ten days I was immersed in these three heavy, turgid novels, is the way Broch’s vast trilogy revels in psychological collapse. It glories in the hysteria and confusion of its characters. It smiles with glee as they hallucinate, scheme and panic.

The Sleepwalkers enjoys its descriptions of corruption. It takes 150 densely-written pages to dissect the character of the loathsome, stupid and mentally ill army officer Joachim von Paselow, and a further 150 glutinous pages to plumb the depths of the wife-beating dimwit, August Esch.

The books dabble their fingers in the damaged Germanic soul, relishing every minute of their portrayal of deeply disturbed characters, and periodically inserting lengthy descriptions of their confused pseudo-philosophical obsessions.

Like so much Weimar Art, The Sleepwalkers trilogy didn’t build, but destroyed. It didn’t make positive suggestions, but carped and cavilled at every aspect of modern society, which their author regarded as going hopelessly downhill. Just like more or less every other author of his day (compare with the lengthy laments about the ‘sickness of our age’ throughout the first half of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf.)

It has no positive suggestions to make, it offers no solutions. It despises industrialism and social democracy and politics as much as it ends up appearing to despise pretty much all human beings and their pathetic attempts to find meaning.

I know that Broch was himself arrested by the Nazis in 1938, not least because he was a Jew, and so he was no friend at all of the regime – but that doesn’t alter the fact that the tendency of these three novels is entirely destructive of what you could call the sensible, democratic middle ground.

They don’t really describe or analyse this supposed ‘collapse of values’ (I actually found it impenetrably difficult to understand just what ‘values’ were being discussed in any of the novels: for example the concept of ‘romanticism’ which is referenced half a dozen times in the novel of the same name is nowhere really explained; not clearly).

What the novels do do, is enact and promote the very decadence and corruption which they claim to be lamenting.

Their nihilism was just one more contribution to the overall artistic nihilism of Weimar, and if this didn’t exactly open the door to Hitler, it ensured that when the moment came, the artistic, cultural and intellectual community lacked the intellectual means or the will to resist him.

The hopeless German-ness of the Germans

I’ve been moving from the specificness of the individual novels, up to a higher-level look at their place in Weimar culture as a whole. Now let’s step outside German culture altogether.

Stepping right back and viewing it from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, it seems to me that the entire analysis carried out by The Sleepwalkers is wrong because it is trapped inside German culture and can’t get out.

It is a truism that people often get stuck in hopeless, repetitive and self-destructive behaviour and eventually need help from therapists or counsellors. This is because the therapist is outside the situation the patient is stuck in and consequently can see it with a clearer perspective, and can offer what often turn out to be relatively simple solutions and ways out.

In the same way, all the works of cultural criticism and gloomy pessimistic German fiction which Laqueur describes, and of which Broch’s trilogy was a notable example, are trapped inside the prison of being German.

They were all addressing a simple problem made up of the following parts:

1. They take it as axiomatic that at some point in the past, say the era of Goethe and Schiller, German culture was fine and good and healthy, that the Germans had at some stage in the past had a wonderful soul and beautiful art and matchless music.

2. But then something seems to have gone wrong. Nietzsche in the 1870s was warning that something was wrong with German culture and after him a flood of writers, philosophers and so on produced thousands of variations on the same theme, from the tortured German Expressionist artists, through Gustav Mahler and his obsession with Death, through Spengler’s pessimism and thousands of nihilistic Weimar artists and writers, through to the Granddaddy of German unhappiness, and friend of the Nazis, the high priest of incomprehensible, long-winded laments that the modern world has lost its soul and authenticity, Martin Heidegger.

3. And this ‘problem’ had gone into overdrive in the aftermath of the First World War because the Germans, from all classes, at all levels, up to and including the loftiest intellectuals, couldn’t understand why the Germans had lost the war.

Why did we lose the war? What is wrong with us? What is wrong with Germany?

Questions which prompted thousands of agonised screeds about Seele and Geist and God and the Absolute – when the answer was perfectly simple: the Germans lost the First World War because the combined industrial and agricultural resources of Germany and Austria were no match for the combined industrial and agricultural resources of Britain, France and, especially, America.

Any therapist or counsellor outside their situation could have told them that this was the brute, blunt, material reason why they lost – but, unfortunately, this was precisely the kind of pragmatic, bathetic ‘fact’ beloved of the despised ‘nation of shopkeepers’ and of vulgar Yankee carpetbaggers that lofty and high-falutin German professors of philosophy just couldn’t handle, process or accept.

It was too simple, too obvious – lacking in true Germanic dignity and Geist and God and Sacrifice and Volk and Blut.

Thus, from the lowest bar-room drunk to the cleverest writers in the land, the Germans, as a people, looked for the reasons for their defeat in a huge variety of reasons and excuses – all except for the blindingly obvious one staring them in the face.

They attributed their defeat to a lack of honour, or patriotism, or duty or sacrifice, in a ‘collapse of values’, in the viciousness of modern culture, in its sexual decadence or its mercantile corruption, in the machinations of big business or the financial conspiracies of the Jews or the betrayal of the Army by civilian politicians or betrayal of the Volk by liberals and Jews – in a hundred and one reasons and excuses all of which managed to mask and conceal from themselves the blindingly obvious reality that, as a nation, they ran out of manpower and resources.

It was this failure to properly and responsibly analyse the stark economic and material reasons for their defeat, and instead the addiction to attributing defeat to a wild collection of fanciful philosophical or religious or psychological failings, which helped to create a paranoid victim culture – which emphasised psychological or moral or spiritual failings, rather than the more mundane practical realities – which helped Hitler’s rise to power.

Seen in this broad cultural context, Broch was just one more German writer crying out that his culture was profoundly, horribly diseased. Stepping right back, he was one among a huge chorus of cultural producers in Weimar Germany who were all lamenting how rotten and corrupt their culture was.

Well, they shouldn’t have been all that surprised when a strong leader stepped forward and offered himself as the cure to everything which was wrong with German society, starting with rejuvenating its rotten debased ‘values’ and re-instilling a sense of Pride and Patriotism and Confidence.

They wanted it. They got it.

The gross failure of German political culture between 1870 and 1945

Above the intrinsic economic and industrial strength of a nation obviously sits the class of people who manage them, who manage the economy, who run the country – the politicians.

And here again, Broch wasn’t experiencing some ‘collapse of values’ – or no more so than anyone in any Western country which had thrown off its Victorian straitjacket, had swapped its ankle-length skirts for flapper fashion and was dancing the Charleston.

No, what he was experiencing – as every other German between the wars did – was the complete and utter failure of German political class to manage its nation.

In the years leading up to 1914, and then again in during the 1930s, the men who came to the top of the German political system turned out to be completely incapable of running a modern state, without itching for war.

This is made crystal clear in all the histories of the Great War which I read during its recent centenary. In 1914 the men at the top of the German political system – Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Chiefs of Staff – took a calculated gamble that they could exploit the crisis which erupted after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

This is a summary of the argument made in a recent book about Germany and Austro-Hungary in the build- up to, and during, the First World War, Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014):

  • The conspirators – Elements in the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry and military had been waiting for an opportunity to suppress little Serbia, located just on the empire’s border and endlessly fomenting nationalist unrest. When Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated on 28 June in the Serbian capital, Sarajevo, the Austrians blamed Serbia and spent most of July devising an ultimatum so extreme that they, and everyone else in Europe, knew that it could not be fulfilled. Germany, not that concerned at this point, gave Austro-Hungary unqualified support, the so-called ‘blank cheque’. Both countries changed their tune when they realised that Russia was mobilising to support the Serbs, their fellow Slavs.
  • War of existence – Why was the Austro-Hungarian hierarchy so harsh on Serbia? Watson gives a review of the many tensions tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire apart. ‘The actions of Austro-Hungarian rulers in the summer of 1914, although secretive and aggressive, were motivated less by belligerence than a profound sense of weakness, fear and despair’ (p.14).
  • The miscalculated risk – The pressures on German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg reflected a nation anxious about the growing might of Britain and France and the industrialisation of Russia, but also well aware of the risk of world war. German Chancellor Hollweg gambled that a) the Austrians would defeat Serbia quickly, within a week and b) that Russia would be so slow to mobilise that the conflict on the ground would be over in the Austrians’ favour before the whole thing got handed over to international mediation (as had a number of other recent international disputes e.g. the Balkan Wars of 1912-13). He was wrong on both counts.

As the situation deteriorated and the German High Command began to fear a possible war on two fronts, they decided to implement the Schlieffen Plan which called for the rapid invasion of France in order to knock her out of the war in a brisk six weeks, so that the Germans could then turn their attention to Russia who, they expected, would take at least six weeks to mobilise.

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Germany’s political and military leaders made a huge military gamble and were wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. World class wrong. All the catastrophes of the twentieth century stem from this one catastrophic miscalculation, not only the war itself but the overthrow of the Tsarist regime by the Bolsheviks, the rise of communism in Russia, Stalin, millions murdered in famines and gulags, the catastrophic triumph of communism and the rule of Mao in China, the entire Cold War with all its deaths and distortions.

From that one miscalculated gamble.

Once they’d committed they couldn’t back down, and when the ‘lightning’ attack through Belgium that was designed to capture Paris and knock France out of the war failed, the world was condemned to four years of meat-grinding deadlock.

This was the simple truth that everyone living in Germany through and after the war appeared to be unable to realise or accept. Instead, they were told by their leaders that they were fighting a war of civilisation against Western decadence (France) and Eastern barbarism (Russia).

They were fed cultural and spiritual and moral reasons for a war which was characterised as a crusade. And so an entire generation of Germans appears not to have grasped its much simpler geopolitical reasons (Germany’s paranoid fear of its rivals France and Britain, combined with paranoid fear of attack from the East, combined with a really fatal military miscalculation).

Back to Broch

Thus Hermann Broch’s big trilogy of novels, The Sleepwalkers, can be read, not as any kind of analysis of ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ and so on, but as one more instance of the German intellectual class’s complete failure to grasp the realities of the geopolitics, political leadership and economics which determined the world they lived in.

Broch was just one of many, many, many over-educated intellectuals and philosophers and academics and writers and commentators who couldn’t accept the simple truth that they lost the First World War because their leaders fucked up, and so wrote thousand-page novels blaming it all on the Renaissance or the Reformation or the Romantic movement or the imbalance between Reason and The Irrational or the falling of God from Infinity into the Absolute, and so on and on and on and on.

Conclusion

To summarise: in my opinion, Broch’s entire project of attempting to explain his country’s plight in terms of a collapse of so-called values:

  1. is not an accurate description of what the books are actually about
  2. is, in any case, crushingly unoriginal and indebted to much more influential cultural forerunners such as Spengler
  3. and completely misses the point – it wasn’t the Germans’ social values which were at fault, it was the failure of their political culture to be able to manage a large modern state without resorting to the Kaiserprinzip or the Fuhrerprinzip and aggressive wars of conquest, which was at fault

What German ‘culture’ meant to its neighbours

Because if you happen not to have been born in Germany in the 1880s, if you happen to have been born in, say, France, the most obvious thing about Germany was not its lamentable collapse into ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ – the most obvious thing about Germany was the way it kept on bloody invading you – in 1870 and in 1914 and in 1940.

The most obvious thing about German culture was that it produced the febrile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II and his military high command who started World War One, and then the febrile and mad Adolf Hitler, who started World War Two.

‘World tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ be damned – this was a nation which plunged the world into a catastrophe in 1914, and then did it again, 25 years later, so that the destruction they caused during the second one surpassed the most destructive capacity of all humanity in all preceding history put together.

That is why to this day the Germans are forbidden from having an army. Because nobody trusts them to have one. Think about that.

To this day the Germans are not to be trusted with an army because the whole world has seen what happens if you let Germany have an army. They wreak havoc, death and destruction on an unprecedented scale (read the mind-boggling descriptions of the destruction the Germans wrought all across Europe in Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe; read Primo Levi about Auschwitz.)

Because Death is a master from Germany.

Thus, stepping right back from the specifics of plot and character, The Sleepwalkers can be read as just one among many long-winded, melodramatic and pretentious refusals by German intellectuals to acknowledge the reality of German culture and history – to deny, to refuse to acknowledge what Germany had been in 1870 and 1914 and would be 1939 – a force for unbridled savagery and aggression.

Which part of the siege of Paris (1870) or the burning of Louvain:

From the first days they crossed into Belgium, violating that small country’s neutrality on the way to invade France, German forces looted and destroyed much of the countryside and villages in their path, killing significant numbers of civilians, including women and children. (August 25 1914)

Or the systematic demolition of Warsaw or the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane

The women and children were locked in the church, and the village was looted. The men were led to six barns and sheds, where machine guns were already in place… The SS men began shooting, aiming for their legs. When the victims were unable to move, the SS men covered them with fuel and set the barns on fire… The SS men next proceeded to the church and placed an incendiary device beside it. When it was ignited, women and children tried to escape through the doors and windows, only to be met with machine-gun fire… (Oradour-sur-Glane massacre)

Did German ‘intellectuals’ not get?

All of it. They refused to acknowledge any of it as their fault or responsibility. Germany’s intellectual class continued to worry about Goethe and Beethoven and the World Spirit while their sons and nephews murdered, raped and burned their way across Europe.

How to cure Germany

Only the complete destruction of their country, the mass rape of their women, the seizure of their borderlands by Poland and the permanent encampment of the Soviet Union in the eastern half of their country for 45 years, along with the expulsion of over ten million ethnic Germans from every one of their neighbours, finally, at last, completely and utterly convinced the Germans that maybe they weren’t a Master Race blessed with special insight into Culture and Spirit and Being.

Only the utter devastation of all their cities, of their infrastructure and economy managed to finally convince the German population that all their verbose, melodramatic, self-indulgent rhetoric about ‘morality’ and ‘values’ and ‘reason’ concealed a people who would shovel millions of Jews into crematoria and set out to exterminate the entire Slav population of Eastern Europe (Generalplan Ost).

In the final book of the trilogy, The Realist, Broch goes out of his way to attack modern, money-minded commercial culture. The central figure of the book, Wilhelm Huguenau, is a successful, respectable businessman who is also show to be an amoral murderer and Broch repeatedly emphasises the direct connection between money-minded entrepreneurism and heartless murder. Broch despises modern business and business methods and business men.

But this didn’t stop Broch when push came to shove i.e. when the Nazis came to power, like so many of his left-wing, socialist or communist fellow Weimar intellectuals, from fleeing to the heartland of consumer capitalism, the epicentre of modern business methods, America, where he sat out the Second World War in comfort, holding a number of academic posts, benefiting from the largesse and the protected by the enormous military machine, generated by precisely the kind of modern capitalist society he went out of his way to anathematise in his novels.

This combination of factors goes some way to explaining why Broch came to dislike and then actively despise ‘the novel’ as an ‘art form’.

Because it was not The Novel he was reviling, not the novels of, say, Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner or Evelyn Waugh – it was his own novels:

– long pretentious tracts which claim to be analysing an entire society through the lens of half a dozen freakish characters

– larded with weighty rhodomontades about Sacrifice and Truth and Reality and Mind and Spirit and a whole load of other capitalised and empty words

– misleading and windy ‘analyses’ which concealed the true nature of the German plight / condition / situation, and so proved utterly useless in preventing the rise to power of the most evil regime in world history

– none of which prevented the rise of the Nazis, their aggressive foreign policy, the outbreak of war and the complete collapse of European civilisation

When you put like that, I think you can see why Broch would come to despise his own efforts as long-winded showing off, as showy grandstanding which, in the end, changed nothing.

Credit

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir of The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch was first published in 1932. All references are to the Vintage International paperback edition of all three novels in one portmanteau volume, first published in 1996.


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Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1912)

Five years ago Gregor Samsa’s family fell on hard times when his father’s business went bust, owing a lot of money. Gregor had been working as a clerk, but stepped into the breach by becoming a travelling salesman and was soon earning enough money to cover all the family’s costs. During those years his father grew old and fat and used to trudging round the apartment in his dressing gown, his mother grew frail and increasingly prone to asthma attacks, and his little sister, Grete, went from being a schoolgirl to a young woman of 17. Only Gregor’s hard work and iron discipline kept the little family afloat, financially.

Then, one morning, Gregory awoke from a bad night’s sleep to discover he had been transformed into a man-sized insect, something like a wood louse.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. (Willa and Edwin Muir, 1933)

Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug. (J.A. Underwood, 1981)

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. (David Wyllie, 2002)

Thus begins one of the most famous short stories ever written, The Metamorphosis. The plot, as such, is easily summarised. His family is horrified at his transformation but, once they’ve overcome their initial shock and repugnance, the main impact is financial: they realise they’ll have to go out to out to work, and so Grete takes a job as a shop assistant, Gregor’s father gets a job as a bank commissionaire and his mother takes in lingerie to darn and repair.

Gregor, for his part, on the first day of his change, is mostly concerned that he’s going to be late for work i.e. keeps on thinking the harassed thoughts of a much put-upon employee in a big firm. So he is mortified when the Chief Clerk from his office turns up to find out why he’s late. The striking feature of this early section, as of the work as a whole, is how everyone accepts the miraculous fact of the metamorphosis, and continues thinking their mundane anxious thoughts.

Quite quickly a pattern settles onto the little household: Gregor’s sister brings in leftover food for him to eat before leaving for work, then removes the leftovers in the evenings. (Kafka gives some thought to what a giant insect would eat, thus he completely ignores the initial offering of bread in milk, and he, and they, learn that he prefers rotten vegetables.)

The Samsa’s cleaning woman quits in horror, but another, more working class one is brought in, who treats Gregory phlegmatically, threatening him with a broom or a chair if he comes out from under his sofa (his favourite hiding place) when she’s trying to clean his room.

Although Gregory can perfectly understand what everyone else is saying about him, when he tries to speak it comes out as an unpleasant squeaking sound and they understand nothing. Thus, from the moment of waking that fateful morning, he continues to have entirely human thoughts and feelings but can express them to no-one. They think he has become an animal and thinks like an animal.

The third-person narrator continually explains Gregory’s feelings to us, and the striking thing about them is how little he is changed, how utterly unfreaked-out he is by what’s happened to him, but instead how he tries to make it up to his family, continues to feel guilty that he is no longer the bread-winner, wishes he could join them at the family dinner table like in the old days, and so on.

But in reality, his new body has other plans. Just as it prevents him from speaking and from expressing his human thoughts, so it foils his human wishes. Only slowly does Gregor learn what makes it happy, namely scurrying all over the walls and even the ceiling of his room, leaving sticky tracks everywhere.

In one scene half way through, his sister realises he’ll be happier if they remove all the furniture getting in his way and so gets their frail old mother to give her a hand manoeuvring heavy wardrobes and tables out of his room. Although it is also marks a psychological turning point, marking the moment when he and his family realise the old Gregor is never coming back.

It’s during the furniture moving that Gregor unwisely comes out of the bedroom, the sight of him making his mother hysterical (she has mostly refused to enter his room or accept what’s happened). And it’s at this moment that his father, much revived and invigorated by his new job as a bank commissionaire, arrives home from work, and chases Gregory round the family living room, before starting to pelt him with apples from the fruit bowl.

One of these apples lodges in Gregory’s back (it’s not explicitly described how but this fact only really makes sense if Gregory has a highly segmented shell like a woodlouse) and, over the coming weeks, rots and seems to spread infection through his body.

In the final act the Samsa family take in three lodgers, and there is some characteristically dry Kafka humour at the expense of these three pompous, formal, grey-bearded old men, exactly the kind of dry pompous nitwits he satirises in the later novels. Their role here is to demand that breakfast and dinner are served precisely on time and exactly as they like it, while the Samsa family are forced to go and eat their meals in the kitchen.

One evening Gregory’s sister Grete starts practicing her violin in her bedroom, which prompts the three worthies to ask Mr Samsa to ask her to come out and perform for them in the living room (everyone dressed, remember, in Edwardian frocks and top hats). Unfortunately, the door to Gregory’s room has been left open and he lets himself be so entranced by the music that he inches into the living room on numerous scrappy little woodlouse legs.

Suddenly the lodgers spot him. Now what makes this moment very Kafkaesque is that you or I, if we were in a room listening or playing music with friends, and a giant, human-sized insect slowly nudged its way through the door, you or I might start screaming and run for the window. But I think the most telling fact I know about all Kafka’s work is that, when he read his stories out loud to his small coterie of literary friends, they would often laugh out loud at various incidents and Kafka himself often had tears of laughter streaming down his face.

Kafka didn’t know there was going to be a Holocaust, that the Bolshevik experiment would lead to mass famine and show trials, that concentration camps would be set up across Europe from Alsace to Archangel within a few years of his death. In other words Kafka wasn’t privy to the enormous weight of historical, sociological, political and cultural weight which was going to be assigned to his writings by later, especially post-war, critics and readers.

If you do read all this catalogue of disaster back into his writings then it is easy to make them prophetic of the bureaucratic dehumanisation of human beings which was the central characteristic of the twentieth century, and make him into a prophet of anxiety and alienation.

On the other hand, if you try to put to one side the enormous freight of existential angst with which the works are now cluttered, then that allows you to be more flexible in your response – for example, to see that it is genuinely funny that the three pompous old men don’t run screaming out the room when they see a giant insect aproaching, but immediately turn to Mr Samsa senior and, not only give him formal notice that they are quitting his rooms, but also insist that they are not going to pay a penny of the rent they owe, knowing as they now do, that they have been living next to a monster!

In the end Gregory dies. He stops eating and wastes away. Is it due to the infection caused by the rotten apple lodged in the plates of his back? Or to the subtler process, which Kafka records slowly coming over him, whereby he slowly loses his vision and becomes more and more insect-like in his behaviour?

Or is it because, after the three tenants serve notice to quit, Gregor for the first time overhears his family discussing what to do with it, and realises that for the first time his sister, who had been so quietly sympathetic and thoughtful (realising what kind of food a giant insect would want, clearing the furniture out of his room) has given up on him, no longer recognises the inset as Gregor, and now regards him as just an insect, a piece of vermin which needs to be eradicated.

Whatever the reason, the story has to end and the only way Kafka can think of doing so is by killing off his protagonist. As he does in The Trial and intended to do in The Castle.

Summary

So what does the Metamorphosis tell us about the ‘Kafkaesque’, what does it have in common with The Trial or The Castle?

  1. It has one central male protagonist.
  2. He is lower-middle-class but has a respectable white collar job (i.e. is not a writer or poet etc).
  3. He is oppressed by the squabbles and rivalries and office politics and pressures of his job.
  4. One day his life is changed by a catastrophic event.
  5. But the nature and meaning and character of this event remain puzzlingly obscure.
  6. But what is almost more puzzling is the way everyone carries on acting as if things are more or less normal. For example, Gregory’s main thoughts aren’t at all about finding a ‘cure’ for his condition, but, initially, are guilt about being late for work, or not turning up day after day as he has become so used to doing – and then almost entirely about wishing he could help the family with the ensuing financial crisis. So the ‘Kafkaesque’ is something to do with the clash or juxtaposition between the Weird and the extremely mundane, boring, quotidian setting and concern of the characters. For example, I was struck by the way the Samsa family doesn’t consider consulting a doctor, let alone bringing in scientists or informing the authorities – no, they just carry on life as before except that, irritatingly, they now have to go out and get jobs and, oh yes, there’s a giant insect living in one of their bed rooms.

And 6. as mentioned above, the only way the story can really end – as with most of his other stories – is with the death of the protagonist because the plights they are condemned to are lifelong, are existential, are unalterable.

Kafka’s verbosity

One of the other really consistent characteristics of Kafka’s fiction is the astonishing verbosity of the characters. They never say something in a sentence when they could take a page and a half.

This extreme verbosity also allows for another Kafkaesque quality, which is the hand-wringing-, hyper-sensitive way the characters over-think and super-worry about even simple situations, even about whether to speak to someone else, or what someone else meant when they just said something, they can agonise for paragraphs.

For example, on the first day of the transformation, a few hours after Gregory has failed to turn up for work, the Chief Clerk from his office pays the Samsa family a visit. As soon as Gregory hears the Chief Clerk’s voice through the door, he is thrown into a (characteristic) state of anxiety and resentment:

Gregor only needed to hear the visitor’s first words of greeting and he knew who it was – the chief clerk himself. Why did Gregor have to be the only one condemned to work for a company where they immediately became highly suspicious at the slightest shortcoming? Were all employees, every one of them, louts, was there not one of them who was faithful and devoted who would go so mad with pangs of conscience that he couldn’t get out of bed if he didn’t spend at least a couple of hours in the morning on company business? Was it really not enough to let one of the trainees make enquiries – assuming enquiries were even necessary – did the chief clerk have to come himself, and did they have to show the whole, innocent family that this was so suspicious that only the chief clerk could be trusted to have the wisdom to investigate it? And more because these thoughts had made him upset than through any proper decision, he swung himself with all his force out of the bed.

Wherever you look it up, you’ll find definitions of the ‘Kafkaesque’ invoking ideas of the nightmareish struggle of the individual against a huge, faceless bureaucracy.

Kafkaesque – characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.

But just as important and intrinsic to his style is the extreme long-windedness of the dialogue, the extraordinary inability of the characters to say in a sentence what can’t be stretched out into a couple of pages of tortuous, shifting, ambiguous and anxiously self-interrogating prose. It’s this quality more than anything else – more than the ‘meaning’ or the symbolism or even the oppressive atmosphere – which makes the novels so hard to read.

Here is (part of) the exchange between the Chief Clerk speaking through the door to Gregory.

The chief clerk now raised his voice, ‘Mr. Samsa,’ he called to him, ‘what is wrong? You barricade yourself in your room, give us no more than yes or no for an answer, you are causing serious and unnecessary concern to your parents and you fail – and I mention this just by the way – you fail to carry out your business duties in a way that is quite unheard of. I’m speaking here on behalf of your parents and of your employer, and really must request a clear and immediate explanation. I am astonished, quite astonished. I thought I knew you as a calm and sensible person, and now you suddenly seem to be showing off with peculiar whims. This morning, your employer did suggest a possible reason for your failure to appear, it’s true – it had to do with the money that was recently entrusted to you – but I came near to giving him my word of honour that that could not be the right explanation. But now that I see your incomprehensible stubbornness I no longer feel any wish whatsoever to intercede on your behalf. And nor is your position all that secure. I had originally intended to say all this to you in private, but since you cause me to waste my time here for no good reason I don’t see why your parents should not also learn of it. Your turnover has been very unsatisfactory of late; I grant you that it’s not the time of year to do especially good business, we recognise that; but there simply is no time of year to do no business at all, Mr. Samsa, we cannot allow there to be.’

‘But Sir’, called Gregor, beside himself and forgetting all else in the excitement, ‘I’ll open up immediately, just a moment. I’m slightly unwell, an attack of dizziness, I haven’t been able to get up. I’m still in bed now. I’m quite fresh again now, though. I’m just getting out of bed. Just a moment. Be patient! It’s not quite as easy as I’d thought. I’m quite alright now, though. It’s shocking, what can suddenly happen to a person! I was quite alright last night, my parents know about it, perhaps better than me, I had a small symptom of it last night already. They must have noticed it. I don’t know why I didn’t let you know at work! But you always think you can get over an illness without staying at home. Please, don’t make my parents suffer! There’s no basis for any of the accusations you’re making; nobody’s ever said a word to me about any of these things. Maybe you haven’t read the latest contracts I sent in. I’ll set off with the eight o’clock train, as well, these few hours of rest have given me strength. You don’t need to wait, sir; I’ll be in the office soon after you, and please be so good as to tell that to the boss and recommend me to him!’

It seems to me that the oppressive or nightmareish quality of the stories is conveyed just as much by the long-winded verbosity and over-elaborate articulacy and self-justifying loquaciousness of the dialogue as it is by the actual ‘plots’.


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Dates are dates of composition.

The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze (2006)

If we are to do justice to the Third Reich we must seek to understand it in its own terms. (p.147)

This is a massive book – 676 pages of text, 10 pages of tables, 84 pages of notes, a 25-page index = some 800 pages in total.

Tooze deploys a mind-boggling amount of research and analysis to give a really thorough economic history of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945. After a brief review of the economic woes of the Weimar Republic (huge reparations to the Allies, hyperinflation, the Dawes Plan) and the complicated series of events around 1931 when America and Britain came off the gold standard, devalued their currencies and began to enact protectionist policies – we arrive at January 1933 when a small group of Germany’s ruling class decided to make Hitler Chancellor on the assumption that they’d be able to control him.

The next 500 pages give a minutely detailed account of the Nazis’ economic policies, from the fiscal or financial level (they reneged on reparations to America, Britain and France, although the details are fiendishly complicated), through industrial strategy (subsidies to industry which then, however, had to do the Nazis bidding in areas like car and airplane manufacture) and agriculture (where Tooze sheds fascinating light on the problems of a still mostly agricultural economy, split into millions of small farms, with an ageing population).

Like anyone who studies a subject really intensively, Tooze’s account tends to undermine accepted myths or accepted wisdom if in part simply because accepted wisdom, by its very nature, tends to be simplistic – in order to be teachable, in order to be memorable – whereas the level of detail Tooze goes into reveals every element of Nazi policy to have been more complicated, contingent and compromised than we read in textbooks or watch on documentaries.

Agriculture

And Tooze takes evident pleasure in overturning received opinion. For example, he says the Nazis’ emphasis on ‘blood and soil’ has for a long time been interpreted as a regressive, turning-the-clock back fantasy on the part of an alienated urbanised society which wanted to return to some kind of peasant utopia. But Tooze devotes a chapter to explaining that Germany was, despite our generalised images of the Nazis’ massed rallies, of bully boys smashing Jewish shop windows in Berlin or Munich, associations of big factories and BMWs, still a predominantly agricultural society in 1939. Factoring in small shopkeepers and workshops who provided goods and equipment to farmers, around 56% of the German population worked on the land. So the Nazi rhetoric of blood and soil was addressing an actual economic and social reality.

Lebensraum

Tooze is at pains to explain Nazi economic policy in the context of the wider system of global capitalism and imperialism, and this is often very illuminating.

Tooze gives a sympathetic reading of Hitler’s analysis of the global economy in the 1920s as expounded in Mein Kampf (1924), and also in ‘Hitler’s Second Book’ (1928), a follow-up full of more anti-Semitic rantings, which he wrote but which was never published. A manuscript was discovered in a safe in Germany in the 1960s and published.

In these works Hitler acknowledges that America has become by the 1920s the dominant economy in the world because its settlers were able to expand across its enormous land area and the huge amount of natural resources it contained – coal, iron, all the metals, endless supplies of timber etc, all of which could be utilised by a population twice the size of Germany’s (America’s 130 million to Germany’s 85 million).

The next greatest economic power was Britain which, although it had a smaller population (46 million) of course possessed a vast and farflung empire a) from which it imported a cornucopia of raw materials b) to which it could export a) its goods, at a guaranteed profit and b) its surplus population, with hundreds of thousands leaving to find a better life in Australia, New Zealand or Canada (where my aunt and her new husband emigrated just after the war).

Even France, Germany’s neighbour, had only half the population of Germany (41 million) while being twice the size (France today is approximately 551,500 sq km, Germany approximately 357,022 sq km), plus the advantages of an overseas empire from which it imported cheap raw materials and to which, like Britain, it could export its surplus population.

Thus, by the mid 1920s, Hitler had reached a simple conclusion – Germany needed more land – and a simple strategy, the Drang nach Osten or push eastward.

In fact this was quite an old idea, having originated among a number of nationalist and right-wing German thinkers in the late-nineteenth century. What was new was Hitler’s determination to carry it out by violence, and the extreme brutality of his plan to not only conquer Poland and push into western Russia, but to subjugate their native Slavic populations as slaves as part of the horrifying Generalplan Ost.

Hitler’s success

As it was, by mid-1939, despite the mire of economic challenges the regime had faced (poor balance of payments deficit, lack of raw materials, housing shortage, crisis in agricultural production, and many more), by a series of extraordinary diplomatic bluffs, Hitler had achieved what no other Germany leader, even the great Bismarck had managed, namely the creation of the Greater Germany of the nationalists’ dreams (incorporating Austria and the Sudetenland), and all without firing a shot (it took Bismarck two wars to create a united Germany, climaxing in the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War).

But all the time Tooze is showing the toll it took on the domestic economy and the frantic juggling behind the scenes among ministries and officials, to try and prevent inflation, preserve the value of the Reichsmark, ensure a decent standard of living for the population while all the time trying to fulfil Hitler and Goering’s enormous wishes for wholesale rearmament.

Familiar and unfamiliar

So Tooze points out counter-intuitive facts (the largely agricultural nature of Germany) which you hadn’t quite grasped before. He goes into massive detail about, for example, the various policy options open to Germany’s finance minister to try and boost exports, improve balance of payments, bolster the currency, and sets all these amid the wider and constantly changing international economic scene, from the gold standard crisis of 1931, through the revival of the global economy in the later 1930s, and then the beginnings of a slowdown in 1939.

All this is new, and puts the main events in a rich and thoughtful context. Also we are introduced to a range of Germany businessmen, financiers and party officials whose internecine fights and feuds helped to shape the Nazi regime, men like the famous Ferdinand Porsche, but also Hjalmar Schacht, President of the National Bank (Reichsbank) 1933–1939, who opposed the scale of Nazi rearmament, was eventually dismissed in 1939, then arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1944. Or Richard Walther Darré, Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture from 1933 to 1942 and also a high-ranking functionary in the SS.

The pen portraits Tooze gives of these key players, and the extraordinary depth with which he describes and investigates the Nazi economy, enrich your understanding, really bring it to life not as the dark legend we carry in our minds, but a congeries of overlapping and competing bureaucracies, the jostling for money and influence, all set against the fraught context of Hitler pushing the pace and ratcheting up the tension in international affairs.

And yet, stepping back, I didn’t feel Tooze changed the overall narrative much. Germany is prostrate from depression and reparations. Hitler comes to power in the back of mass unemployment. The backroom deal which made him chancellor turned out to be a wild miscalculation. He blames all Germany’s woes on the Jews and immediately sets about overthrowing the Versailles agreement. Through the mid to late 1930s he calls the bluff of the Western powers (Britain and France). Astonishes everyone with the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the invasion of Poland. During the war, from humble makepiece beginnings, a vast network of forced labour and concentration camps is constructed, which is never as productive as its planners hope. Defeat in Russia in 1942 leads inexorably to the defeat of the Reich, but the war is prolonged by the superb fighting qualities of the Wehrmacht and the ability of German armaments industries to struggle through their chaotic mismanagement by the Nazi hierarchy and pour out an astonishing stream of tanks, guns and ammunition almost until the very end.

Tooze’s book deepens and complexifies your understanding of these events, gives names and biographies of the key players, in the Nazi Party, the world of finance and the industrialists who made it possible and, at various key points (what I found most interesting) puts you in the shoes, enters the mindset of the Nazi leaders, to help you understand the choices they faced once they’d set off down their fateful road.

But stepping right back, I don’t think this long detailed and rather exhausting book fundamentally changes your overall understanding of what happened, or why.


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Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ The Jewish Museum

The current exhibition, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, is taking place at two London venues: half at the Photographers’ Gallery, just off Oxford Street, half at the Jewish Museum, a few minutes walk from Camden tube. I’ve already reviewed the half of the exhibition on display at the Photographers’ Gallery.

When he died in New York in 1990, Vishniac left his negatives, prints, correspondence and so on to the International Centre of Photography. The Vishniac Archive now houses more than 50,000 objects, including vintage prints, moving footage, contact sheets, personal correspondence, audio recordings, and a staggering 10,000 negatives. The process of digitising and reviewing them only began in 2012.

Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (c.1935-37) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (c.1935-37) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The result of all this is that:

  1. sorting through the archive is an ongoing scholarly quest, which has only just begun and has already thrown up surprises and discoveries
  2. already it has generated so much material that the first major exhibition of Roman Vishniac’s work, originally held in New York, wouldn’t fit into just the Photographers’ Gallery in London. And so it has been shared between the Photographers’ Gallery and here, at the Jewish Museum, where it occupies the entire top floor of the building.
Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum, London

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum, London

The lady on the door explained how the show had been divided between the two spaces: the Photographers’ Gallery show focuses more on Visniac’s technique, approach and achievements as a photographer; whereas the Jewish Museum selection, as you might expect, embeds him more into the Jewish tradition, bringing out his Jewish subject matter, and the themes of contemporary Jewry which he photographed and recorded.

An example is the room dedicated to the 1947 book, The Vanished World. This was issued by the Yiddish magazine and publisher, the Forward Foundation, based in New York, and brought together images of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe by a number of photographers, including Alter Kacyzne, Menachem Kipnis, Vishniac and others.

The Vanished World contained over 550 densely packed images (150 by Vishniac) conveying the richness of those communities even though, by the time the book was published, they had been almost entirely destroyed. In the room devoted to The Vanished World are displayed not only a copy of this rare volume, but a selection of individual prints, as well as correspondence and notes surrounding its creation.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum showing the room devoted to The Vanished World

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum showing the room devoted to The Vanished World

As at the PG, the JM show places a production like this in the broader context of Vishniac’s astonishing life and prolific output, all displayed in chronological order. I counted 15 distinct areas or themes, including:

  • 1920s-30s street photography in Berlin
  • 1930-37 the Nazi rise to power
  • German Jewish charitable organisations
  • Jewish life in eastern Europe 1935-38
  • agrarian camps for Jews in Holland c.1938
  • travel, refuge and internment in France 1938
  • Jewish life in the Carpathians – an exhibition held in New York 1945
  • New York studio portraits
  • New York night clubs
  • the face of America at war
  • Berlin in ruins 1947
  • displaced persons camps in Germany 1947
  • scientific microscopy 1950s – 1970s

Vishniac’s oeuvre as a whole amounts to an awesome x-ray of the tormented middle years of the twentieth century.

The blurb here and at the Photographers’ Gallery say that Vishniac is best known for the photojournalism he did among the severely impoverished Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in the later 1930s, and this photo of happy kids is meant to be his most famous image.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Thus both exhibitions claim to be expanding – rediscovering – the full range of Visniac’s work, and setting the Eastern Europe stuff in the much broader context of his oeuvre. But since I’d never heard of Vishniac before, and wasn’t particularly aware that he is, apparently, the single biggest influence on ‘contemporary notions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe’, the whole thing – his entire oeuvre – came as an equal revelation to me.

Thus I was as entranced by his images of day-to-day life in the Berlin of the 1920s and early 1930s as by any of the specifically Jewish subject matter.

People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, ca. 1930-1935 © Mara Vishniac Kohn

People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, ca. 1930-1935 © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Certainly there seemed to be more about the photos he took in Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, more documentation and explanation of how they were used by the Jewish charities who commissioned Vishniac to take them, than there had been at the Photographers’ Gallery. But it was by no means all synagogues and rabbis; in fact, in a way, I was surprised at the relative scarcity of overtly religious photos. What came over for me, from this selection, was just the general poverty. The figures in the photos may or may not have been Jewish but, God, the snow and the pelting rain and the dirty streets and the shabby buildings and the filthy rooms. I was struck, horrified, oppressed by the sense of universal poverty, of millions of central and east Europeans living in poverty and want. And that was before the strutting Overmen goosemarched in with their plans for a New Europe which ended in typhoid camps and piles of half-burned bodies. What horror. What horror upon horror.

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow (1935-7) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow (1935-7) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

It is an immense relief when the exhibition moves on to Vishniac’s arrival in New York, home of skyscrapers, comic books, movie stars, nightclubs, jazz, and about to see the birth of Abstract Expressionism. It is like escaping from a nightmare and presumably that’s how it felt to so many of the European refugees. Now they could just get on with living their lives. There’s no doubting that America really was the Home of the Free for the vital years at the centre of the Dark Century.

I always remember the way Kurt Weill – remembered for his collaborations with the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, most famously for the Threepenny Opera – as soon as he arrived as a refugee in new York, immediately dropped the politics and the poverty and the proletariat of his entire previous career, and switched to trying to write shiny, optimistic musicals to match Rodgers and Hammerstein and the rest. I can see how it was just not the need to make money in a completely different milieu. It was also the escape from what must have seemed like an endless nightmare. Similarly, W.H. Auden dropped his left-wing politics and completely rethought his position on the basis of a newfound existentialist type of Christian faith.

Well, similarly, Vishniac’s photos of New York are portraits of the famous, snaps of exciting, open and free nightclubs and jazz acts, and (something both exhibitions comment on) a focus on healthy young children. Possibly because that’s what the American market called for. But also as a release from the bottomless poverty and misery he had seen in central and eastern Europe. Civilisation, not barbarism.

Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1949) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1949) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The exhibition ends with a small dark room in which you can sit on a bench and watch no fewer than 90 slides of the colour microphotographs Vishniac took from the 1950s onwards, and which made him a much sought-after specialist.

He produced these stunning images for corporate clients like IBM, Westinghouse, and Pfizer as well as for magazines like Life, OMNI, and Popular Photography.

Again, the visual range is extraordinary, from wonderful photos of coloured jellyfish apparently suspended in black space, to close-ups of the eyes and bodies of various insects, and to unnerving microphotos of the structure of bodily substances like hormones, skin and hair, magnified so much that they look like modernist abstract paintings.

Central core root tissue by Roman Vishniac

Central core root tissue by Roman Vishniac

I sat there for five minutes, watching them all. Something about the rather lurid colour palette transported me back to the kind of basic science books I must have read as a kid at school or in the library in the late 1960s and early 70s.

As I mentioned in my Photographers’ Gallery review, the quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

He was a wonderful photographer, and the necessity of visiting the two locations – the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum – gives a kind of stereoscopic, three-dimensional effect, viewing the same story but from different angles, the same basic chronology illustrated with different examples of his work, bringing it wonderfully, sometimes harrowingly, to life.


Related links

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)

In front of us those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.
(Night, page 28)

Eliezer ‘Elie’ Wiesel was 15 when the authorities in his Hungarian hometown, Sighet, rounded up all the Jews and forced them into a tiny ghetto. A few months later, with terrifying suddenness, the Germans arrived, arrested all the Jewish elders, packed the rest of the population into cattle trucks and sent them to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

On arrival men and women were separated in a matter of minutes, then marched off to their separate dooms, to be stripped naked, forced into the gas chamber, then incinerated in the crematoria. The bewildered boy watched his mother and sister lined up with the other women and marched off, and that was the last he ever saw of them. Wiesel and his father were selected for labour and sent to a men’s barracks where he survived, enduring privations and the anguish of watching his father’s steady deterioration.

In August 1944 he and his dad are transferred to Buna camp where the entire focus of existence becomes getting enough food. They witness terrible scenes. Hangings, shootings. There is the terrifying ordeal of a ‘selection’, all the inmates passing naked before the legendary Dr Mengele, his pencil hovering, ready to add your number to those selected for gassing. Eliezer and his father pass. Then Eliezer develops an infected foot and is sent to the infirmary. He is terrified they will amputate his leg, but it is only an abscess which needs lancing.

Only days later, with the same suddenness, the same midnight panic, the Block elders announce the Russians are now close, so the Germans are evacuating the camp. It is January 1945, the depths of bitter frozen winter, when Eliezer and his father join the 60,000 inmates who are driven on a death march west. Cold, snow, thousands not walking but jogging, forced to run by hundreds of SS guards with machine guns. Respite in a snowed-in ruined factory, prisoners falling asleep in the snow never to rise. Then roll call and more jogging, the body an empty machine, cold, the pain, arriving at a new camp named Gleiwitz, bodies collapsing on each other, squeezing out breath and life.

Someone had lain on top of me, smothering me. I couldn’t breathe through my mouth or my nose. Sweat was running down my forehead and my back. This was it; the end of the road. Silent death, suffocation. No way to scream, to call for help. (p.94)

Three days in the derelict camp without food or water. Many die. They can hear the cannons of the advancing Russians. Then the SS rouse them and march them further west, to the middle of a field by a railway. They are packed into open-roofed cattle trucks, 100 per truck, which travel in bitter cold under the snow. Most die of exposure and are thrown out of the trucks. Light-headed, weak, hallucinating, starving, it is always night, the freezing snow is everywhere. Eliezer slaps his father to keep him awake, to stop him being stripped and thrown overboard. They pass through German towns, German workers throw bread into the wagons and Eliezer watches people literally fight to the death for scraps of bread. Someone tries to strangle him. Night. Snow. Someone dies, someone else starts keening and before long the entire wagon is a frozen hell of corpses and keening wailing lost souls.

Amazingly, Eliezer and his father are just about alive when they arrive at the gates of Buchenwald. 100 entered their wagon. 12 leave.

Everyone is starving. Everyone is dying. At the rest stop in the factory on the death march, Eliezer had talked to a rabbi he knew who was pitifully looking for his son amid the night and snow and corpses. He realised he had seen the son forging ahead on the march, having left his father, having abandoned his father, hoping to survive without the impediment which was his sick, ailing father.

Now, at the most searing moment of the narrative (which Wiesel had already told us about in the Preface to the book) young Eliezer repeats this ultimate act of impiety, unfiliality, inhumanity. He lies terrified on the upper bunk of a bed while he hears his frail father being beaten on the bunk below by an SS officer. He is too terrified to move or protest but must listen to each blow landing on his father’s frail skull. It was 28 January 1945. And the worst thing? Deep inside – he is relieved.

The process of dehumanisation is complete. He is a shell. Two and a half months are covered in a few pages. Details, descriptions, living no longer matter to him. Soup and bread are all that matter. In April the Germans announce a systematic selection and gassing of the inmates. But on 11 April the inmates rise up and disarm the SS guards. Later that same day, units of the Sixth Armoured Division of the United States Third Army arrive at the gates. They are liberated. Eliezer eats. He gets sick. He recovers.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.
The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (p.115)

History of the text

It is almost unbelievable that anyone could continue living after these experiences, but Wiesel settled in Paris and attended the Sorbonne university, before getting a series of jobs as a journalist. It was only ten years later that the French novelist, François Mauriac, encouraged him to write it all down. The first manuscript was in Yiddish and 850 pages long. He went through and reduced this to 245 pages and, titled Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent’) it was published by a Jewish publisher in Buenos Aires in 1956.

Wiesel translated it into French and sent this manuscript to Mauriac, who tried numerous publishers who all rejected it. Eventually Samuel Beckett’s publisher agreed to take it, cut it down to 175 pages and changed the title to La Nuit. This French version came out in 1958.

Wiesel’s agent had similar problems interesting an American publisher until Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang in New York agreed to take it. He commissioned an English translation by Stella Rodway – which was further trimmed down to 116 pages – and published it as Night in 1960. It sold little to begin with, but became a word-of-mouth classic and stirred interest among Jewish literary figures.

As interest in the Holocaust revived among historians, academics and the wider culture, as more documentaries, films, plays and novels were written, Night grew steadily more important as testimony. In the early 2000s his publishers commissioned a new English translation from Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and upon its publication in 2006 it was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, which led to a surge in sales and awareness.

Although first-hand testimony in its own right, Night – for good or ill – is now also part of the substantial cultural enterprise known as ‘Holocaust studies’.

(This textual history – and including the mention of Holocaust studies – is described in Wiesel’s own preface to the Penguin edition.)

Style

The book’s textual history explains its style. It is the result of not one but two translations, and an extensive process of revision and paring down. It has been extensively filtered. It is no surprise, then, that some critics have commented on its ‘minimalism’. By this they mean the style is polished. The sentences are mostly short. But they are pregnant with meaning. And suppressed emotion.

They ordered us to run. We began to run.

The old Jew, Moishe the Beadle, who he used to pore over the Zorah with, is shipped off with all ‘foreign’ Jews but, by a miracle, months later, reappears to tell everyone what happened to his transport i.e. they were lined up in a forest and shot, then piled into pits. He was wounded, played, dead, escaped to come back and warn everyone. But as in a fairy tale – or nightmare – no one will listen.

Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. (p.7)

Short sentences, simple forceful ideas conveyed in unfussy vocabulary. It has the power of a folk story. Or a sci-fi apocalypse.

Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb. (p.17)

Also, it is very fragmented. There are nine distinct chapters (though they don’t have titles or numbers) but within them the text is made up of short bursts, page-long sections. And – at least in the earlier part – each one starts with an indication of the time – ‘and then’, ‘one day’, ‘suddenly’. Cumulatively, they make the text feel punchy, staccato, like being punched. Thus pages eight to 20 have ten separate sections, which start like so:

  • Spring 1944. Splendid news from the Russian front.
  • Anguish. German soldiers – with their steel helmets and their death’s-head emblem.
  • The eight days of Passover.
  • Two ghettoes were created in Sighet.
  • Some two weeks before Shavuot. A sunny spring day…
  • For a moment we remained alone.
  • The ghetto was awake.
  • The small ghetto.
  • Night.

Diary format. Short entries. Each one situated in time, their brevity conveying the sense of hurtling headlong. And that is part of the point. It all happened very suddenly at night, arrests, orders to pack all your belongings, to be outside by 10 o’clock. And continues. In short staccato bursts. Facts. At pace. Bewilderment. Horror.

The Oberkapo was arrested on the spot. He was tortured for weeks on end. He gave no names. He was transferred to Auschwitz. And never heard from again. (p.64)

At six o’clock the bell rang. The death knell. The funeral. The procession was beginning its march.
‘Fall in! Quickly!’
In a few moments, we stood in ranks. Block by block. Night had fallen. (p.84)

God

As a Jewish comedian commented, if God especially loves the Jews, he has a funny way of showing it. The first twenty pages or so describe young Eliezer as devoutly religious. His family want him to be the learned one, the scholar. He prays day and night with fervent feeling, and finds rabbis to study the Talmud and Kabbalah with, he fasts to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

But of course, rounding up into the ghetto knocks his faith and then the journey to the camp and even what he sees in the first few hours, destroys it. There follows the long slow lingering terrible extermination of his faith in God, man or anything. He walks past trenches full of gasoline into which Germans and camp kapos are throwing live babies and infants. Alive. Into the flames (p.32). People around him mutter prayers or reproaches against God.

Jewish and Christian literary critics make much of this central strand of the text. When Wiesel describes walking past a young boy who is being hanged, he overhears someone saying: ‘Where is God?’ to which, inside, he replies: ‘Here, hanging from this gallows’ (p.65). The exchange has prompted literary critics to give fancy interpretations of the boy as symbolising the crucified Christ and thus uniting Christian and Jewish blah blah blah.

I can see the imaginative, psychological, religious and literary power of such moments and such interpretations, but I find them blasphemous. For me, there is no God, no hint of God, no way of hiding, no way out, no redemption. Just humans reduced to animals scrabbling in the dirt by systematic and sadistic evil. To elevate any of this, to invoke any kind of ‘spiritual’ aspect to any of this, seems to me a blasphemy. It is the quintessence of human evil. Talk of God is absurd, irrelevant, inadequate, grotesque.

But then, What do I know? I have never had any remotely comparable experience. I am just a reader.

Youth and identity

I’ve recently read two other Holocaust texts, The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and This Way to the Gas by Tadeusz Borowski. Levi was 24 when he was sent to Auschwitz and had graduated as a chemist. In other words he had an adult identity. He credits his scientific training with saving his life, because it caused him to be transferred to the laboratory where he could steal things to exchange them in the camp for food (specifically the metal rods which he barters for the bread which keeps him and his friend Alberto going to the camp’s liberation – as told in the story ‘Cerium’ in The Periodic Table). But in a subtler way, it meant he had an identity based on science, scientific knowledge, the scientific method, and which related him to the entire scientific tradition of the West. The full depth and resonance and psychological power of this tradition is what gives such weight and force to his masterpiece The Periodic Table.

Borowski was twenty when he was sent to Auschwitz, and was already as a writer of poems, short stories and novels. He also had an adult identity which, in some way, helped him. Even as he unloaded the human freight onto the ramp at Auschwitz, maybe he was shaping and forming the experiences into words to write down.

Comparison with these two (still very young) men highlights Wiesel’s youth. All he had by way of vocation and ambition, was to become a religious scholar. So it wasn’t just his faith he lost in the camp, but  his entire purpose, his entire identity. And that is why, more completely than Levi or Borowski. His account conveys a sense of utter desolation. The others had an adult identity which could, to some extent, step back and rationally analyse the events.

Once stripped of his family and his religion, Wiesel had nothing. He is completely gutted, abolished, vacuated.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame. (p.37)

My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now… (p.68)

Controversy

Alas, Night has been dogged by controversy. At one extreme, some people have claimed Wiesel was never at Auschwitz and the whole thing is a fake. The ‘evidence’ for this and the counter-arguments are laid out in this article:

A lot of the criticism of Night and broader attacks directed at Wiesel and his works stem from his outspoken support for the state of Israel, and for its policies of holding onto the land seized in the 1967 war, and building Jewish settlements on Arab land. Plenty of anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish critics see all of his writing as compromised by his support of Israel.

Then there are critics who broadly support Wiesel, but claim that Night is not a work of fact, but of documentary fiction. Criticism in this vein can range from quibbling about various factual inaccuracies through to questioning entire episodes from the book. Much of this is summarised in this review of the new translation of 2006.

I am not qualified to comment on Wiesel’s stance on Israel or on debates about the book’s factuality. All I can comment on is the text before me. And reading some of the criticism mentioned above did crystallise in me some misgivings about the book, namely:

Harrowing and terrifying though it is, ultimately the book’s shape seems a bit too pat and convenient.

In particular, the last twenty pages or so are designed to wring the very last ounce of anguish from the story of his dying father. Despite all the confusions of multiple transports, endless roll-calls, despite being split up into different Kommandos and work details, despite going through selection procedures and being shuffled from one barracks to another, Eliezer is never separated from his father. Through the confusion of the death march when others were dropping dead, there’s his dad. In the brick factory, he keeps his dad awake and alive. In the open freight car he supports his dad. In Buchenwald his first thought – on getting his soup or his coffee or his bread – is always his dad. He goes to several doctors to get them to treat his dad for dysentery. He cradles his dad as he gives him the water he asks for. After the SS man beat up his dad, he is still just about alive and Eliezer cradles his head for a long time before he finally retreats to his own bed exhausted. Then he wakes the next morning and his father is gone, died in the night and spirited away. At which point the son bitterly laments he had no opportunity to light the candles and say the prayers and perform the Jewish ceremonies over him.

I won’t say it rises to Hollywood levels of sentimentality – but it did feel laid on with a trowel. If you were going to craft a story designed to tug, pluck and finally rip to shreds your heart strings, this is how it would go.

And this sense of artifice is reinforced by the careful way Wiesel sets up earlier father-and-son anecdotes to anticipate his one. As mentioned earlier, on the death march an old rabbi gets separated from his son and young Eliezer doesn’t have the heart to tell him he saw his son steaming ahead, looking grateful to have ditched the old liability. And again, in the open train to Buchenwald, Eliezer claims to witness a burly son beat his own father to death for the sake of some bread thrown into the truck by passing Germans.

The point being that the final operatic Oedipal climax to the narrative has been carefully prepared and anticipated in the narrative – almost like a Shakespearean tragedy in which minor plots are designed to parallel and comment on the main action. Having witnessed the two earlier father-and-son betrayals allows Eliezer to feel even more distraught when he, also, fails the test.

I have absolutely no idea how much of this is fiction, fact, false or ‘faction’, but a seed of doubt is planted in your mind.

For this reason, I would recommend new readers seeking a first encounter with Holocaust testimonies to start with Primo Levi’s If this Is A Man, and would also recommend Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman to Night.


Credit

As described above, Night was published in French in 1958, Stella Rodway’s English translation was published in 1960, and Marion Wiesel’s revised English translation was published in 2006. All page references are to the 2008 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi (1947)

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen. (p.96)

Levi spent a year in Auschwitz concentration camp – from February 1944 to the camp’s liberation by the advancing Russians in January 1945. He was one of the very few Jews to survive the experience and write about it. This is his account.

Lead-up

Having been born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, he came to adulthood and was pursuing studies to become an industrial chemist at just the time that Italy’s Fascist leader, Mussolini, allowed himself to be dragged into Hitler’s European war, and then came under growing pressure from the Nazis to enact German-style anti-Semitic legislation.

To escape the increasing anti-Jewish persecution, Levi took to the mountains outside Turin in late 1943, to form a ragtag group of ‘partisans’. They were captured on 13 December 1943 and interned in an Italian camp. Then, on 21 February 1944, came the order to load all the Jews in the camp onto trains – into the notorious cattle trucks, 650 people packed into 12 trucks, with no heating, seats or toilets. They began an agonisingly slow journey North and East – through Austria and Czechoslovakia, then across the border into southern Poland, arriving at the siding of the vast industrial-concentration camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau one dark night.

If This Is A Man is the relatively short (160 pages in the Abacus paperback) but devastating and upsetting account of his experiences there. In his introduction Levi explains that the 17 chapters were written in order of intensity of the memories, and only later re-arranged into a sort of chronological order. This explains what I think is the key feature of the book – it is not an account of what he saw there, it is a meditation on what it meant, on what he learned.

Thus there is detail about the first few hours – how almost all the women, children and elderly are taken off in one group at the siding, to be gassed and incinerated (though none of them realised it at the time); how the remaining 96 men were processed into the work camp of Monovitz-Buna, which involved standing around naked waiting to be deloused, being shaved, having a number tattooed on your wrist – Levi is number 174517.

My number is 174517; we have been baptised, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die. (p.33)

But then it jumps quite quickly to a few months later, into the heart of the condition – when Levi has become a shambling slave like all the others, shattered by the starvation rations, by the long hours of gruelling physical labour, by lack of sleep, by permanent illness, dysentery, running sores, by the freezing grip of the never-ending Polish winter.

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this. (p.32)

And it’s not just the physical privations: it’s the psychological destruction wrought by the camp. Using the Teutonic efficiency which he ironically refers to throughout (for every person missing the roll-call, ten would be shot), the Germans systematically destroy each inmates’ self-respect and then their bare humanity: shaving the head and tattooing a number is just the start of a process which continues with the constant beatings and kickings by the ‘Kapos’ (Jews appointed as work overseers), the implementation of a host of petty regulations (‘the rites to be carried out were infinite and senseless’, p.40), the way all authority sees through them, ignores them, makes it clear in a host of ways that they are non-people, non-humans, dead men walking.

For beneath all the daily humiliation and struggle to survive, is fear of the ‘selections’ when the inmates are given a card with a number and go naked from one dormitory to another, handing the card to a bored SS man holding a clip file. In those two or three seconds he makes snap decisions about who looks well enough to carry on working, and who is obviously kaput and will be sent, the next day, to the gas chamber. Later, those who know they will die distribute their meagre possessions (a spoon, a bowl) and lie on their bunks staring glassy eyed into nothingness.

We prisoners

Because he is concerned to plunge the reader into the heart of the experience, Levi routinely uses the second person plural, ‘we this’, ‘we that’, to convey the sense of the communal experience, to make himself a representative figure, an everyman or more accurately, everyslave figure – embodying in the degradation and immiseration of his person the suffering of millions and millions of his fellow Jews as well as the hundreds of thousands of other non-Jewish victims of the camps.

We have learnt.. to reply ‘Jawohl‘, never to ask questions, always pretend to understand. We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose crumbs… We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap round our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad out our jacket against the cold… (p.39)

So it isn’t a straightforward factual account. It is an existential account. Levi returns again and again to the experience, the feeling of being reduced to a number, a shambling skeleton, a wreck of a human being.

A fortnight after my arrival I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men, which makes one dream at night, and settles in all the limbs of one’s body… On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal. I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my emaciated body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening. (p.43)

He drums into us the monotonous rhythm of camp life, waking before dawn on freezing mornings, roused and dressed and checked and then marched off to work, work, work when they could barely stand.

Teachings

Levi always refers to the camp as the ‘Lager’, the German word. Here everyone is set against everyone else. People are reduced to animals who will squabble and fight about crumbs of food. On the other hand, down here at the bottom, you learn the basic rules of humanity and of survival. Everything can be stolen. Even when washing in the fetid unclean water, never let go of your shirt or jacket or beret, which you must clutch between your knees. Never put down any of your belongings, they will be stolen. Take advantage of any opening, any offer of extra food, a day without work, every five minutes not spent slaving is a window, an opportunity to recover energy.

Chapter 9 is titled ‘The Drowned and The Saved’ and this is a central division, a profound division among the inmates, which Levi observed, so important that he gave the name to a collection of essays he published 40 years later. Some people are survivors: they strive for a ‘place’, position, any kind of small privilege, often acting the part and in the end being appointed overseer of this bit of work, or elder in a dormitory or even Kapo – all with the promise of more food and less work. Others – the drowned – from the start give in, collapse, fold up on themselves, lacking the inner resources, the steel, the determination to survive and prove the Germans wrong.

  • the privileged will always abuse the unprivileged: it is how they demonstrate to themselves that they are privileged
  • to those that have will be given more; to those that have nothing, everything will be taken away (p.94)
  • ‘One of the most important things I had learned at Auschwitz was that one must always avoid being a nobody. All roads are closed to a person who appears useless, all are open to a person who has a function, even the most fatuous.’ (p.235)

In his repeated technique of drawing general observations about human nature from various aspects of the camp, we see Levi the scientist, the PhD chemistry student, weighing and analysing, regarding the Lager as ‘a gigantic biological and social experiment’ (p.93) – justifying his claim in the Preface, that the book wasn’t written to add to the accusations against the Germans (many of whom were still being tried at the Nurenberg Trials when he wrote it), but ‘to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ (p.15).

Other people

In this condition of subjugation and deliberate dehumanisation, Levi marvels at the people around him. In what will become his trademark approach, Levi gives cameos of people he sees with a kind of wondering alienation. He wonders how so-and-so survives despite being so sickly, he admires the strong who have shouldered their way into enjoying some petty privilege, he is full of contempt for those who could help their fellows but don’t.

In this grim landscape there is rarely the opportunity for friendships or relationships. Instead he gives us moments of interaction between inmates which he turns into moralised vignettes, gestures which point towards larger human truths. The many individuals he names or describes are individuals but at the same time somehow, types, essences, possible variations of the human creature.

Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. (p.98)

Levi devotes chapter 11 to the Ulysses canto from Dante’s Divine Comedy (and his attempt to remember it properly and explain it to a fellow inmate, Jean, ‘the ‘Pikolo of our Kommando’, as a kind of test that he is still a civilised man). You can make an obvious comparison: Dante used figures from his own day, including many of his own friends and acquaintances, to point larger morals about sin and redemption; ditto Levi in the camp.

  • Steinlauf, ex-Austrian army, fought in the Great War, teaches Levi that you must go through the rituals – washing in fetid water, ‘cleaning’ the greasy muddy shoes – in order to maintain your ‘dignity and propriety’, so you don’t descend into slovenly brutes (p.47).
  • Null Achtzehn, a man reduced to the last three digits of his camp number (018), shambling wreck, an emptiness, stands tottering with no impetus of his own: he will go to the gas chamber with the same lack of interest.
  • Chajim, a Polish watchmaker who retains dignity by adapting his skills to the new situation (p.53).
  • Schmulek, a Polish Jewish albino, selected for death, he quietly gives Levi his spoon and knife (p.59).
  • Alberto, an optimistic 22-year-old Italian Jew who manages to befriend everyone, wangle favours from everyone, without actively hurting others, a ‘rare figure of the strong yet peace-loving man against whom the weapons of night are blunted’ (p.63).
  • Engineer Kardos has developed a speciality in tending the inmates’ feet, lancing boils, cleaning wounds, tending corns, getting paid in fragments of bread (p.64).
  • Resnyk, a tall courteous Italian, with whom Levi must share his narrow bunk (p.71).
  • Schepschel, survivor of four years in the camp, doesn’t hesitate to betray his partner in a theft from the kitchen, Moischl, to a flogging, in the mistaken belief it will gain him credit in the eyes of the block supervisor (p.99).
  • Alfred L., director of a chemical factory who grasped from the start that you must act like one of the saved, dress and hold yourself and talk like a ‘prominent’ and whose long term plan paid off when he was appointed head of the Chemical Commando, a position of privilege he defended with complete ruthlessness.
  • Elias Lindzen, an immensely tough muscular dwarf, a ball of muscle, impossible to understand his deformed Yiddish, a phenomenal worker who gains a position of respite, and devotes himself to full time theft and survival. A monster. A ‘para-human’. Perfectly suited to life in the camp (p.103).
  • Henri, a civilised 22-year-old Frenchman, whose brother died in Buna camp and who has perfected a seductive manner with which he charms all sorts of favours out of all sorts of inmates and supervisors, all the time covering his soul in an impenetrable carapace. Charming and utterly cold (p.106).

There are quite a few more pen portraits, in the remaining 70 pages, which I won’t list here. But this list shows several things:

  1. Levi succeeds in his attempt to record all the people he can – as witnesses, as testimony, as a simple record of the lives of victims otherwise reduced to a nullity and then exterminated
  2. Levi’s ability, as a writer, a chronicler, to create such vivid pen portraits, to produce very powerful short cameos of those around him
  3. Levi’s ability to see beneath the individual to the general ‘laws’ of human nature, which fascinate Levi the scientist

An ending

To his amazement Levi is called to an interview to work in an actual chemistry laboratory. He will never forget the way the blonde Aryan chemist interviewing him, regards him. He gets the job and does his best to clean himself before coming to the lab each day, but can’t ignore the looks of repulsion on the faces of the pretty German secretaries.

But it isn’t the lab job which saves him; it’s getting ill. Throughout the autumn of 1944 rumours had spread that the Allies have landed, somewhere far away in France, and that the Russians are throwing the Germans back. By Christmas they can hear the low rumble of the guns at the front, off to the East. And it’s at this crucial point that Levi contracts scarlet fever, and is in the Ka-Be, the Krankenbau, the infirmary full of the sick and dying, when the Germans make the momentous decision to evacuate Auschwitz. Some 20,000 surviving inmates were lined up and marched off west. As history records, almost none of them survived the long, pointless march through the Polish snow and ice.

One morning the infirmary inhabitants wake up and all the Germans have gone. The last chapter returns us to time, to human time. It is in diary form, recording in detail the events of the ten days between the Germans’ departure and the arrival of the Russians – January 18 to 27 – because now days are no longer an indefinite repetition of grey monotonous slavery: they come alive with individual features; they progress; things change.

So in the last few pages the still sickly Levi forms an alliance with two Frenchmen, new to the camp and so still with residual energy, Charles and Arthur, and set about scavenging the camp for food and treasure. They find a stove, break up firewood, discover a huge store of frozen potatoes and turnips. They collaborate. They use initiative and imagination. They become human again, rising up from their slave nullity, and this – as well as the sense of the approaching Russian liberators – gives the final pages an extraordinary force and energy and excitement, which lifts the reader out of the despairing pit of the central core of the book.

But leaves you, nonetheless, with pitiful haunting memories.

He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel and moving story; because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity. We tell them to each other in the evening, and they take place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible? (p.72)

The warning from the camp

There is no one place you can point to and say this is Levi’s Great Message; instead there are lots of scattered insights and warnings. In the Preface he comes nearest to a general conclusion:

Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. (p.15)

I take this to mean that the temptation to define one or some groups as ‘the other’, the ‘strangers’, is a part of all human nature. To insult or abuse or threaten the other, the stranger, minorities or outsiders, is always tempting and, on a psychological level, often pleasurable because it fulfils some basic human need. ‘Disconnected’ acts of abuse or threat are part of the rough and tumble of everyday life, no matter how much we disapprove.

The watershed, the crux, the line in the sand – is when threats and abuse become part of a ‘system’, and are officially sanctioned. Either by a powerful group, by a political party or – God forbid – by a government. At that point, the doorway to the Lager is opened.

Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal. (p.15)

It is this demonising of any social group, or gender, or religion, or minority, which invokes the shadow of the death camps, and which it’s in all our interests to avoid and prevent.


Credit

Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi was published by the small publisher, De Silva in 1947. In 1958 it was republished by the bigger publisher, Einaudi and became better known. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by the Orion Press in 1959. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

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Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi (1982)

The Lord our God, the King of the World, had divided the waters of the Red Sea, and the chariots had been engulfed. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them on quails and manna? No manna descended from the black sky, but only pitiless snow. (p.65)

Primo Levi

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919. He was taking his final exams in chemistry as Italy joined Hitler’s war (June 1940), and then pursued a number of job options designed to conceal his Jewish identity. In 1943, when the situation in the civilian world became impossible for Jews, he joined a partisan group in the mountains outside Turin, but was quickly captured by Fascist forces. He was held in an Italian internment camp before being shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Here his chemistry expertise secured him a ‘good’ job and helped him survive a grim and horrifying year, before the camp was liberated in 1945 and he made his way, via a long detour into Russia, back across a ruined Europe and home to Turin.

Levi took up various jobs in post-war Italy while writing short stories and an account of his year in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo. This wasn’t much noticed when first published in 1947, in a country still prostrate with poverty and wanting to forget the war – but had more impact when republished in 1958. It was translated into English as If This Is a Man in 1959. It was followed by a sequel, The Truce (1963/65) describing his long odyssey home after release from Auschwitz, and then by a trickle of short stories, further memoirs, poems and novels. All depict with unsparing accuracy the horrors which he and tens of millions of others, Jewish and Gentile, had to endure as Europe descended into barbarism and anarchy.

The combination of unflinching truthfulness about the horrors he’d witnesses, and the quiet dignity of his civilised worldview and restrained style, led Levi, by the 1980s, to be considered one of Italy’s leading writers and, in some quarters, as a secular saint.

Narrative levels

The novel operates on least three narrative levels:

  1. The present The ‘present’ of the main narrative which moves forward in simple chronological order, the events of one day or night following the others consecutively. The chapters are long and broken up into shorter sub-sections, a flexible technique which allows some scenes to be described in detail while others move swiftly over months of relative inaction.
  2. The remembered past Most of the many characters in the novel has a back story which we learn about at some point or other. In addition, many of them tell anecdotes about the adventures and travels which brought them to join the partisans. Thus, from the level of the Continual Present, the text repeatedly opens doors into events from the past, recalled around a campfire, over a drink, in the safety of the forest or a ruined building – memories which slowly form a mosaic, the remembered fragments of a lost, an exterminated, civilisation.
  3. History The text is divided into 12 chapters and each of them has a formal date stamp, as the present narrative moves slowly from ‘July 1943’ to ‘July-August 1945’. In the early chapters the events seem to take place in a nameless wilderness and the characters have the archetypal power of types – the silent one, the strong one, the lost one, the angry one – like modern equivalents of The Pilgrim’s Progress or extras from Waiting For Godot. But as the novel progresses, the context of the wider world impinges more and more – especially after the partisans hear over a crackly radio that Mussolini’s government has fallen and the Allies have invaded Italy (September 1943) – and the story is pulled out of its timeless allegory and into the orbit of actual history, becoming less mythical, less archetypal, more the story of individuals in recognisable times and places.

If not now, when?

Levi published If Not Now, When? in 1982 under the Italian title Se non ora, quando? It was translated by William Weaver and published in the US in 1985. Some 40 years after the events it purports to describe.

I was expecting it to be about his time in the mountains outside Turin with the Italian partisans, but it isn’t at all. It is set a thousand kilometres away, in the vast empty spaces of south-west Russia and describes the adventures – or bare survival – of several groups of ‘partisans’ – in fact little more than ragtag groups of men, women and children – who’ve somehow escaped the Germans as they swept into Russia in 1942, and have survived to endure an incredibly harsh hand-to-mouth existence in the wild.

The narrative describes their extended trek across the marshland, forests and fields of Russia and Belarus, across the border into Poland, and then on to Germany. It features a host of harrowing and upsetting incidents along the way, as the group joins and splits from other partisan groups, Jewish and Gentile, and struggles to survive, to kill or sabotage German forces where they can, sustained by hatred, revenge, fear, and the dream of one day journeying to Palestine to start a new life.


Plot summary

Mendel and Leonid

The novel opens with two Jewish men meeting in the woods. Mendel ben Nachman, a watchmaker, is 28. He saw the Jews of his village, Strelka, rounded up by the SS, forced to dig a pit, then shot and buried in it, including his wife, Rivke, his ballebusteh, the queen of his house. Throughout the novel her death and his visions of her body, lying cold and lifeless in a pit of lime and mud, haunt his days and especially his nights. Mendel was dragooned into the Red Army artillery and fought numerous battles before being defeated by the Germans and escaping into the forest.

Mendel is talking to Leonid, trained in paratroop school, caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp or Lager (as Levi always calls them) near Smolensk, who has escaped and lived wild. Mendel has made a base of sorts in the forest, near Valuets, a village near Bryansk, and Leonid has just stumbled across it as the novel opens. They eat, smoke, chat. Two Jews with terrible stories to share and a minimal approach to bare survival in the wild. After a few days a little girl, all unwary, stumbles across the base. She’ll tell the local peasants. They must move on. And so begins their epic trek.

The Uzbek and the Heinkel

Mendel and Leonid meet Peiami Nazenovich (p.14), who’s made a base in a crashed German plane, a Heinkel. They warily chat, then they barter salt for some mouthfuls of a rabbit he’s caught and cooking. Food. Hunger. Barter.

They move on, towards Nivnoye marshes, and come across a larger camp with some scores of ‘partisans’ ie men and women who are surviving in the woods, led by Venjamin Ivanovich (p.33) As they approach the camp, the band are celebrating the end of the war, a bit prematurely since in fact it’s only the overthrow of Mussolini (July 1943). Surely the war can’t last much longer, they sing happily. Little do they know. Venjamin is suspicious of them because they are Jews and, after they’ve been with them a few days, advises them to leave, to press on West towards Novoselki, in the midst of the Polessia marshes, where rumour has it there’s an entire village of hiding Jews, the so-called ‘republic of the marshes’.

The republic of the marshes

The first hundred pages or more of the novel refer to place names but I couldn’t find many of them on a map. They appear to be so generic that there are scores of them scattered across the vast empty spaces of western Russia and Belarus. The landscape – frozen marshes, snow-capped forest, secret hideouts – is as stark and primeval as the elementary human relationships it is describing. Men and women are reduced to their basest needs: food, shelter, a smoke, companionship. It is the minimal landscape, the psychological ground zero of Waiting For Godot (1953).

After walking for more than ten days Mendel and Leonid come to the ‘republic of the marshes’, based on an abandoned monastery hidden in the forest and inhabited by a group of armed Jewish survivors. It is ruled by Dov, in his fifties, who comes from faraway Siberia where the comet exploded and destroyed hundreds of miles of trees. The Germans have not got anywhere near Siberia so he’s one of the few characters who can be confident that his native village still exists and the people he knew will still be alive. Almost all the others know their villages have been burned and everyone they knew murdered by the Germans. Mendel and Leonid are welcomed to the ‘republic’ and given tasks  in the routines of chores, foraging, guarding, cooking, as autumn comes on, August and September.

At which point the group get a tip-off that a German force is in the area, trying to track down surviving partisan bands. There is just time to prepare some defences, to build camouflaged trenches, when the Germans attack. There’s a big firefight with machine guns – the heaviest weapons the partisans possess. The fleetest of foot escape out the back while some see the slower members being caught, lined up against a wall and shot by laughing SS officers. Old Adam was wounded in the thigh and bleeds to death a little distance away. His daughter, Sissla, keeps on, weeping. Ten partisans survived the attack.

Ulybin’s partisans

Dov leads the survivors north where, after weeks of travel, they stumble into guards for a larger band led by a tough man named Ulybin. This is based in three wooden barracks hidden in forest near Turov (p.74). These are Russian and Polish partisans, not Jews. They accept the Jews as allies but, in a series of personal encounters, explain that they finds them strange and uncanny. They tell them they had included a group of Jews, led by the eccentric Gedaleh Skidler, but he didn’t get along with Ulybin and, after one almighty argument, Gedaleh had led them off.

Some Red Army officers appear with information and supplies. Dov, injured at the monastery and visibly aged since, reluctantly goes off with them, to what they all refer to as ‘the Great Land’, meaning Russia, free Russia unoccupied by the Germans, but making it sound like a country from an allegory.

In another sequence the partisans discover a handful of Germans have built a triangle of fires a few days march away, which they are lighting to get German planes to drop supplies. Ulybin selects a group of the fittest men to carry out a small mission, to walk across country to the strip, to shoot the handful of Germans who man it, and create an alternative drop zone a mile away, then returning to the barracks with their booty (p.103). All goes according to plan, and the partisans feast their eyes sorting through the food and munitions. But next night the German planes drop bombs fly low over the fake landing zone and drop bombs instead of supplies. Somehow they’ve learned about the partisans’ trick. Several men are killed by the bombs.

The Gedalists go their own way

To everyone’s surprise, twenty or so pages after he went off to ‘the Great Land’, Dov returns with Russians bearing supplies, and accompanied by the troupe of Jewish partisans led by Gedaleh. They had been in Lyubin when the Germans took it and killed all the Jews they could find. They escaped into the woods and here they are. Gedaleh holds a summit meeting with Ulybin. Ulybin’s men have been ordered East to join up with Red Army forces. Gedaleh considers he has different aims, to head West, harass the Germans, and break through the line.

The survivors split into two groups, Gentiles going with Ulybin, all the Jews deciding to follow Gedaleh, plus one token Russian, Piotr, who can’t explain it but feels he’s come to like and respect the Jews. There is a moving scene where he tries to put into words why he likes them, egged on and ridiculed in equal parts by his Jewish audience. It is one of the many scenes where the nature of Jewishness – what is it to be a ‘Jew’ – is discussed, probably the most prominent theme in the book.

The rest of the novel follows the epic trek of Gedaleh and his thirty or so partisans who come, over a period of time, to refer to themselves as the ‘Gedalists’. Gedalah is much more emotional and unpredictable than Ulybin. He used to be a shoe salesman and keeps an old violin with him in homage to the time it stopped a bullet going for his heart, at Luninetz, and which he later ironically decorated with a medal taken from a dead Hungarian. He partners off with one of the five or so women in the group, plain, lazy, bubble-bursting Bella. Gedaleh’s mercurial character, his flashes of humour, his impulsive decisions, his quickness to take up the violin and start playing a Jewish folk tune, are a major flavour in the rest of the book.

In the windmill

After weeks of trekking, the Gedalists hide out in an abandoned windmill miles from anywhere. One of the youngest in the group, Isidor, can’t stop himself paring away the mould from the walls and eating it. He is 17, and hid from the Germans in a hole under a stable with the rest of his Jewish family for four years, until the peasants hiding them had milked them of all their money at which point they betrayed them to the Germans. Isidor, who happened to be taking one of the rare permitted walks into the woods at the time, returned to watch, from hiding, a squad of teenage Nazis beat his mother, sister and father to death. He ran away, survived for weeks in the wild, then stumbled upon the group, but has been mentally disturbed ever since, given to compulsive behaviour and obsessed with fantasies of revenge.

On one of the peaceful evenings, Gedaleh plays folk tunes on his violin and then an arrangement of a long poem by a Jew, Martin Fontasch. Gedaleh tells his story. Martin was a writer who escaped to join a partisan band. When the Germans captured him they gave him thirty minutes to write a last poem, before they shot him.

Do you recognise us? We’re the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight.

If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when? (p.127)

Here, as in scores of other memories and vignettes on almost every page, the novel stuns and appals with the understated way the characters share stories of horror and unendurable suffering. Each of them is a survivor and a witness to barbaric atrocity.

Along the trek, Leonid who we first met in the opening pages, had paired off with Line, a skinny, blonde woman named after the English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. But one night Mendel, overcome by memories of his dead wife and exterminated village and, very characteristically, recalling the women and love affairs of the Patriarchs and Elders from the Old Testament, finds himself seducing Line. They silently climb the stairs to the windmill’s rickety upper floors and make dry, sad (and, one imagines, very dirty) love. But Line was the only thing keeping Leonid together and next morning he is gone, along with a machine gun, to Geladeh’s fury.

The relief of Chmielnik

Having crossed the border from Belarus into Poland, the Gedalists hear from locals about a small concentration camp or Lager at the nearby town of Chmielnik, and go on a mission to liberate it (p.170). There is a great deal of tension on the long walk through the snow to get there and they arrive only to discover they are too late to save most of the inmates, who have been shot and incinerated. The air of the surrounding area is heavy with the ashes of incinerated human beings. Behind the barbed wire fence remain only ten walking skeletons.

The partisans approach carefully, realising the watchtowers are abandoned, their machine guns gone, but there are one or two guards patrolling the perimeter. The terrifying character known as Mottel the throat-cutter silently kills the ones out patrolling, and then the partisans attack the guardhouse with grenades. At least one guard survives and prompts a prolonged firefight, before they storm the building, finish off the wounded and drag the officer outside. The partisans bicker and quarrel about what to do until the German stands to attention and says, ‘Get on with it’, and they shoot him.

In the brief firefight Leonid, who had rejoined them, is shot dead. He had given up the will to live anyway. But not as much as the Lager inmates. Only one will even walk out the gates, and he hasn’t gone far into the woods with the partisans before he asks to go back.

The Free Polish Army

The Gedalists hear that there’s a long goods train in a siding at a town nearby, Tunel, and go to loot it then sabotage it. Here they are unexpectedly surrounded by armed men led by Edek, 23, leader of a squad of the Free Polish Army, the Armia Krajowa, and Marian, his experienced sergeant. The Gedalists are disarmed while Edek seeks guidance from his superiors (p.184). The Gedalists settle into a modus vivendi with the Poles.

In November the Polish Army group picks up a distress call from a group of fellow Poles surrounded by Wehrmacht forces in the nearby Holy Cross mountains (p.196). The Gedalists volunteer to help, and set off accompanying Edek’s Poles to travel across country for several days. When they arrive, the mountain is shrouded in fog. They make their way slowly to the summit, intending to surprise the surrounding Germans, and so help the besieged forces escape. But the firefight which kicks off is very confused, it’s never clear where the enemy actually is, and after chaotic firing and explosions, they appear to disappear altogether into the fog.

As our guys climb the mountain they discover nothing but dead bodies and a fortress at the top completely filled with emaciated corpses. The Germans had starved them to death then left. Once again they are too late. Once again the forces of Death triumph. The Jews lament and Mendel, who has emerged as a moral focus of the text, wonders why, why does evil prevail?

The Russians arrive

Back at the barracks the partisans are celebrating a wedding. A while earlier Gedaleh had suggested that a way to ‘cure’ young Isidor might be to make a man of him, to take his virginity and the woman they call White Rokhele, ten years older, had obliged. Now they are very definitely an item and Rokhele comes to Mendel, who has established a sort of authority, as a man who knows prayers and sprinkles his conversation with Biblical blessings and references, asking him to marry them.

In the middle of the celebrations, a terrifying bombardment kicks off, deafening everything, a monstrous barrage of shells and munitions screaming overhead, some landing terrifyingly close. Initially the Gedalists think it’s a German attack on them, but then realise it’s actually a full scale attack by the nearby Russians on the German lines. The front line of the war in the East has crept up to them and now is passing right over them (p.210).

In the midst of the chaos one of the partisans on guard duty outside crashes through the door, clutching a man they think might be a spy, named Schmulek, who he found prowling round just before the bombardment began. But Schmulek claims to be a partisan like themselves and begs to be allowed to take them to his hideout. Amid the deafening din of the shells, some of the Gedalists follow Schmulek through the woods to a well. In its walls are embedded steps down which they clamber to find the entrance to a cave. In fact to a warren of caves. At one stage, Schmulek tells them, 200 Jews took refuge here. Now all of them are dead except him – in the middle of this chaos more memories of atrocity and murder. Our partisans cower in the dark, listening to the inhuman rage of the guns over their heads.

The schoolhouse at Wolbrom

Next morning, when they emerge from the well-cave into the unnaturally quiet landscape, it is to find the well surrounded by laughing Russian soldiers. A political commissar turns up and the mood changes. He rounds up the other survivors from the Gedalists’ ‘barracks’, and they are disarmed and driven off to the nearby town of Wolbrom. Here the Red Army authorities accommodate them in an abandoned school and feed them, they are treated alright, even though the commissar is sceptical about their story of being real genuine fighting partisans. He thinks Jews can only be helpless victims. But while they await some kind of orders from above about what to do with the Gedalists, and the weeks go by, right-wing Poles start to hassle them. First they daub anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, then chuck a Molotov cocktail through the window. It is time to leave (p.221).

The Lager at Glogau

The Gedalists steal a lorry from a vast vehicle dump near the railway station and head West towards Glogau, just inside Germany (though, after the war, it became part of Poland). The high anxiety of stealing the lorry at night, and then the bickering and arguing about who should drive the truck (since none of them know how to drive) are described with deadpan humour. But some days down the road they run into a platoon of Red Army soldiers under the command of an angry corporal who impounds their vehicle and they are again detained – but this time behind the barbed wire of the former Lager or concentration camp at Glogau (p.230).

But it is not under concentration camp conditions. Once again they are fed and watered by the Red Army. And the officer in charge is a puzzle: he claims to be named Smirnov, Captain Smirnov, but Mendel and the others suspect he is a Jew pretending to be ethnic Russian.

One by one Smirnov calls the partisans in for interviews. To Mendel he explains that he wants them to write their story. He wants a record made of this vast panorama of chaos and destruction and suffering. The Gedalists mingle with other camp inhabitants and hear their – generally horrifying – stories. A French woman in particular recounts her long harrowing journey from Paris high society to the lowest pit of hell in a concentration camp. It is just the latest of the many harrowing accounts which stud the text, which make it not just the story of a handful, but emblematic of an entire generation, of an entire race hunted to near extinction.

Eventually it is May 1945. The Gedalists wake up one day and all the Russians are gone. The camp gates are open. Smirnov leaves a note telling them where to find a stash of machine guns and ammunition. The Gedalists move out, heading west further into Germany.

Vengeance in Neuhaus

The end of May finds them at the German village of Neuhaus, near Dachau. The German army has surrendered. The Americans are in charge. The towns and roads are packed with displaced persons trying to find their way home. In Neuhaus they find themselves among a crowd of Germans, who mutter anti-Semitic insults. Suddenly there’s a shot from somewhere, and the woman they call Black Rokhele slumps to the ground and quickly dies (p.241). The crowd vanishes, it is impossible to tell who did it.

That night the male Gedalists go on a revenge attack, breaking into the local Rathaus or town hall, killing the bodyguards, throwing grenades, executing all the men they find. Ten Germans for one Jew. Exactly as the Germans did in so many of their occupied territories. And, being Jews, they debate it fiercely afterwards: is revenge justified? Bible heroes carry out vengeance, so does God condone or forbid it? If it’s wrong why, as Jozak says, does it feel so right?

Mendel, who has emerged as the reader’s representative in the text, simultaneously the most Jewish (the most learned in Bible teaching and Talmudic law) and the most sceptical of the group, can’t decide. To be a Jew seems to involve being endlessly plagued with questions and anxieties.

But mostly, the Gedalists just want to get out of Europe, out of this place where there is no safety and no escape from endless persecution and contempt.

They hand themselves into the American authorities, who note their names, then let them go on their way, in their easygoing  Yankee manner – so unlike the murderous Germans or suspicious Poles or unreliable Russians. They walk on to Plauen, to the big railway station here, on the main Berlin to Italy line (p.246).

Train to Italy

The Geladists find a derelict house in the town to make a base and set about bartering for food. Over the next few days Geladeh chats up one of the men who works on the German railroad, who plays the flute. They are to be seen playing flute and violin duets. Abruptly, one night, Geladeh announces he’s got his railway friend to arrange for an entire carriage on the next train heading south to be made available to them. It’s a hush hush operation and in the middle of the night the surviving 31 Geladists pack their few belongings into the carriage, which the railroad man attaches to the long locomotive. The whistle blows and it sets off chuntering slowly south towards Italy.

The British Army Jews

At the border of the Brenner Pass, the train is stopped and the carriage opened by British Palestine Jews, operating with the British Army but licensed to help and rescue surviving Jews (p.256). There follows a long discussion about whether to accept their help or not during which their spokesman, Chaim, lays out the merits of going to Palestine but on condition they hand over their weapons at the border to the Allied border guards and declare themselves stateless persons. After much debate among the group, they agree.

Milan

The train rumbles into the bombed-out central station at Milan. The British Army Jews had given them the address of the Assistance Centre for Jews in the city. Processed through here, they are sent out of the city to a farm in the countryside, where the Geladists are housed in peace and comfort, where there is regular food, all they have to do is help with the farm work, sometimes loading rather heavy crates, which they suspect are full of weapons, onto trucks (p.266). All of them now want to leave Europe and make their way to Palestine to found a new state, a state where Jews won’t live in fear.

They are surprised to be invited to a party in the city, given by a very swanky fashionable couple. Four or five go and find themselves completely ill at ease among city dwellers, a type none of them have ever known, and who poke and prod them like zoo animals. ‘If they knew everything we’d done, they’d be scared of us,’ says Mendel (p.269). And the reader has become so inured to the hardships and horrors of their journey, that we too feel uncomfortable – we resent the tourist superficiality of the well-heeled Milanese who seem to have come through the war unscathed and enjoy the frisson of talking to real genuine partisans!

In the middle of their embarrassment, there’s a phone call from the farm. Their comrade, the one they call White Rokhele who Mendel married to Isidor on the night of the great bombardment, and who the text has recorded becoming more and more heavily pregnant over the past few months, has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital.

With relief the Gedalists exit the party and catch a taxi to the maternity hospital, there to meet with their comrades, Izu, Bella, and the baby’s father, Isidor, the one who saw his own family beaten to death by the SS, the one who Rokhele ‘healed’ with love and sex, now pacing the room like any expectant father.

It is a painful labour, there are complications, doctors and nurses rush in and out and tell our guys to be patient, while all along I had a bad feeling that God (and the author) might pull one more brutal hurt from his bag.

But no – Rokhele is safely delivered of a baby boy. And as the small group huddle round laughing and celebrating, another group, of nurses and doctors, is huddled round a newspaper that’s just been brought in, with an enormous headline. A new kind of weapon, an atomic bomb, has been detonated at a place in Japan named Hiroshima. And on this ominous, on this world-threatening note, the novel ends.

New life has come into the world. The mother’s friends celebrate. But a new technology which could end the entire world and place all previous barbarity in the shade, has entered at the same moment. God and the author have left a bitter blow to the end, not the one I expected, one much bigger and which shadows our lives to this day.


Jewish

‘A dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent’ (p.5)

The book is saturated in Jewish traditions, Jewish proverbs, Jewish stories, Jewish music and humour, rabbinical teachings, with numerous characters referring to (what we Gentiles call) ‘Old Testament’ characters, as if they lived only recently, as if their lives provide useful examples of how to behave now, people to compare ourselves against, here in the midst of the worst calamity humankind has ever known.

He, Mendel, if they were to ask him his age, and he decided to answer sincerely, what would he say? Twenty-eight, according to his papers, a bit older when it came to his joints, his lungs and heart; and on his back a mountain of years, more than Noah and Methuselah. Yes, more than they, since Methuselah begot Lamech at the ripe old age of one hundred eighty-seven, and Noah was five hundred when he brought Shem, Ham and Japheth into the world, six hundred when he built the ark, and a little older when he got drunk for the first time… No, he, Mendel the watchmender, roaming about the woods, was older than they. (p.23)

Many of the characters speak only Yiddish, and the book is alive with the language itself, and its traditions, stories, jokes and riddles, with its peculiar kind of argumentative wisdom, with its vivid words and phrases.

‘You’re a nebbish, a loser, a meshuggener.’ (p.30)

And also rings with the prayers and blessings and the age-old laments of persecuted Jews, updated to reference all the innovations of modern evil:

The Holy One, blessed be He, why was he hiding behind the grey clouds of Polessia instead of succouring his people? ‘You have chosen us among the nations’: why us exactly? Why do the wicked prosper, why are the helpless slaughtered, why bare their hunger, mass graves, typhus, and SS flamethrowers into holes crammed with terrified children? (p.61)

Why indeed? And why – everywhere they go – the unremitting hostility, anger and hatred of almost all the Gentiles, the contempt, suspicion, spitting, threats and violence, the Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred, why the virulent genocidal anti-Semitism which the characters experience or recall on almost every page?

The novel offers no answers, no redemption, except for the vitality of the text itself and the words and memories and lives and consciousnesses of the characters it creates. Implicitly, its message is that People are our salvation. There is no God. There is no Heaven. Life. Being alive. Living, breathing, thinking, are the greatest, the deepest, the fathomlessly profoundest gift. Everyone who spits on Life, holds Life cheap, who kills, alienates himself from the God who made us.

The story is its own justification. It bears witness to atrocities and suffering beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine. Yet it pulls and gathers this unspeakable horror into the great European art form, the novel, which proves able to takes all the abuse which can be hurled at it, only to emerge stronger and more powerful.

Not many writers can really be called ‘wise’. Many, especially many British and American writers, are merely provocative – creators of brands and personas which are good for a quote or a facile phrase, poolside entertainers, producers of fictions which morph seamlessly into TV dramas or Hollywood movies.

Levi is different. Even translated into another language, his books have a depth and dignity in their phrasing and rhythm, a restraint which accepts the full depths of horror but doesn’t give in to hysteria or despair, effortless insight into extremes of human psychology, which lift him onto another plane.

This is an astonishing novel, resonating on countless levels, which deserves to be read and reread and reread, to appal, to terrify, to teach and to inspire.


Credit

Se non ora, quando? by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi Editore, Turin in 1982; in English translation by Simon and Schuster in 1985; by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1985. All references are to the Abacus paperback edition of 1987.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/ 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)

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