Monday 3 March 2014

A Good German? by Eve Edwards

For me, part of being a historical novelist is challenging myself with the question: in this era, what kind of person would I have been?  On what side would I have fought?  Roundhead or cavalier? Whig or Tory or radical?  Mod or rocker?

Recently, thanks to a rummage through an Oxfam bookshop, I picked up Joseph Kanon's The Good German.  It is set in Berlin in 1945 and falls into the spy thriller category but also taps into some intriguing historical themes that go far beyond a good page-turner.  I can highly recommend it for its portrait of a ruined city and the early days of partition.  I was particularly fascinated because the Nazi round up raises one such difficult question for me. Had I had the misfortune to be born a Berliner in those years, what kind of German would I have been?  I hope that I would make all the right choices, but a good novel like Kanon's confronts me with the very real possibility that I would not.

It is easy to imagine everyone on the 'enemy' side was bad - it helps make the history books cleaner, more white hat/black hat as Hollywood prefers in its superhero movies.  But history isn't clean or simple.  Last week Deutsche Welt ran an article by Anne-Sophie Brandlin  - translated and reported in The Week under the strap line: Grow up, America - we aren't all Nazis.  The writer is tired of the lack of nuance with which the events of WWII are portrayed and argues that Berlin 'is packed with reminders of the past' whereas in Washington in the National Mall there is not a single memorial to non-American victims of the Vietnam War.  I don't know if that is true and the contexts are very different, but I get the point Brandlin is trying to make.  Most Germans are not slow to acknowledge their 20th century faults but they also need to be allowed to portray recent history in its full complexity without being accused of trying to bury ugly truths.

That was why it was intensely moving this week to read Clive James' essay on Sophie Scholl in his  Cultural Amnesia - an amazingly broad and erudite essays collection on 20th century thinkers.  If you thought he was only a TV critic, think again.

Sophie Scholl with brother Hans and Christoph Probst,
leaders of the White Rose resistance - photo from US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Back to Sophie.  Is her name familiar to you?  It wasn't to me, but she deserves to be up there with Anne Frank as one of our heroes.  She joined with her brother in the White Rose resistance movement - young Germans who knew the Nazis were evil and did what they could to register their protest.  She was executed at age 21 by the Gestapo in 1943, along with her brother and other members of the group.  The most remarkable aspect of her bravery was she was told she did not have to die - she could claim she was misled and be spared the guillotine. Instead she chose to stick by her principles and is reported by the chief executioner to have died more courageously than anyone else he had led to the block.  I'd like to declare her an unambiguous good German.

We are running a theme of cranky ladies this month on the blog but Sophie is too great to be saddled with that title. She was 'cranky' in the sense that word is often used to attack women: those who refuse to fit in, make themselves awkward for their society.  Good for you, Sophie. I can only hope I would display a fraction of your courage if ever I had to make such a difficult moral choice.


Clare Mulley said...

Sophie Scholl, and her brother Hans, were some of the few to actively resist in Germany. They should be better known. I absolutely agree that it is important to look at the grey areas of coercion, consent and resistance so we can gain a better understanding of the ways in which Hitler was able to harness the resources of his country for his terrible purposes, and how and why some people stood out and stood against the tide. Thank you Eve.

Anne Booth said...

I LOVE this blog post. Sophie Scholl is my heroine. Last year I went to Munich and looked at the balcony from where she threw the leaflets down (I couldn't stand there as there was scaffolding and restoration work going on). I love the public art embedded in the pavement outside the university - at first sight you think someone has been throwing litter about, and then you see it is actually an art piece made up of facsimile leaflets and photos of member of the White Rose Movement embedded in the ground. It's so moving, particularly as there was a group of modern university students standing chatting beside it.

I don't mean to hijack your post, but my children's book 'Girl with a White Dog' (Catnip) is precisely about the whole question of whether, if we were 'safe' Aryan Germans at the time of Hitler's rise to power in Germany, would we have done anything like Sophie and her fellow White Rose members. They, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and The Edelweiss Pirates and the Swing movement, are my heroes.

I think the question of the 'Good German' is crucial to prevent us in Britain taking it for granted that there is some inherent safeguard against fascism in our national identity and character. Sadly, there were many pro-Hitler voices in our country at the very time that 'Good' Germans were trying to combat Hitler - Jews had lost everything, many political prisoners had been sent into Dachau by , many elderly & disabled had been killed by the time we took up arms against Nazism in 1939.

Thank you for this post. I really want to read Clive james' piece now. I love Sophie Scholl so much my publishers gave me a bunch of white roses at my launch party on Saturday!

Miriam Halahmy said...

None of us can ever know what we do in such a terrible situation and I am always in awe of such bravery. I have written a poem called, "Would I have saved a Jew?" and I am Jewish. A very important post - there were many different kinds of Germans, as there are people in all communities all over the world.

Leslie Wilson said...

I first heard about the Scholl siblings in the early 70s when I was an English language assistant in Solingen, and the boys' secondary school was called the Geschwister-Scholl-Schule (Scholl Siblings School). I have a dvd about the White Rose which I ordered but am too scared to watch. I do so much admire their courage, and yet - and yet - when I think about the deaths of those two young people I have to weep. Do you know that it was only by chance that their parents found out they had been arrested, and if the Nazis had had their way, they would not have been able to say goodbye to their children? I know that the parents were enormously proud of Hans and Sophie, but there must have been moments, and many of them, when they wished they were alive, instead of being heroes. And that bitterness, I think, cannot be left out of the celebration of the young people's brief lives. It must be part of it. I am so glad you wrote this post.

Meredith said...

As an American Jew, I'm also tired of the lack of nuance when it comes to the past. (And also, to that German writer, not all Americans think all modern Germans are Nazis.) The Yad V'Shem Holocaust Memorial in Israel has an "Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles" - a loving tribute to those who risked their lives to help Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis. I'm sure each and every one of the names immortalized on a plaque under a tree had a story worthy of any Hollywood movie. And most of them probably didn't consider themselves heroes, either - just people doing what they thought was right.

Most of us love to paint ourselves into history as "would have been on the 'right' side of things." Here in the States white people like to swear they would have been active abolitionists during the time of slavery, and yet I know very few actual activists who work in real ways for political or social change. We forget how much easier it is to keep our heads down in times of trouble and not get noticed, especially when we have families to think of. That's what makes women like Sophie Scholl and those remembered at the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles so outstanding - they refused to do the easy thing, no matter what it cost them.

There's a dramatization about Sophie Scholl:

I haven't seen it yet, unfortunately, but at least there's something.

This is why I love the current trend - yes, in Hollywood - of making movies highlighting the marginalized, unknown footnotes of history. Let's start shining more light on these extraordinary people and what they did.

Leslie Wilson said...

Meredith - I have found, on the whole, that many Jews take a far more nuanced and understanding view of what it was like in Nazi Germany than many (though of course not all) gentile British people do. Indeed, I cannot be grateful enough to Jewish people, and one half-Jewish friend, for accepting me, helping me to face the pain of Nazi Germany, and pointing out the injustice of that sense of inherited guilt (me being half German). That they were not just willing but apparently keen to do so is a tremendous tribute to their generosity,depth of understanding and strength of character.
If you want to read about the quiet heroes, try Bernt Engelmann's In Hitler's Germany, now OP I think, but available second-hand. I found it invaluable for both Last Train from Kummersdorf and Saving Rafael. But I would also say: if you want to understand the why of Nazi Germany, look at the things that happened in the Weimar Republic. I had a thoroughly unpleasant lot of Nazi baddies in Saving Rafael, but they had been ruined twice, first by the inflation, and then by the Wall Street crash. You cannot put such things out of count. Oh - another really good book about quiet heroes, if you can get hold of it, is Brenda Bailey's A Quaker Couple in Nazi Germany. It is the story of her parents, who quietly resisted and did their best to help Jews, and her father's eventual imprisonment in Buchenwald. Unfortunately, he suffered from PTSD, something little understood in those days, for the rest of his life.

Leslie Wilson said...

When I said Jewish people, I should have said that some of them were my friends - but not all. The kindness of strangers - and one of them, an Auschwitz survivor..

griselda heppel said...

Super article which addresses a really important issue. Those of us (like me) who've never been tested in this way are incredibly lucky. I hope I'd have had the courage of the Scholl siblings but realistically feel it's unlikely - the survival don't-rock-the-boat instinct would be very strong. When I was at school in Stuttgart in the 1960s a skinny, frail, gentle vicar called Helmut Traub took my class for Religious studies. He told us of interrogations by the gestapo who tried to force him to denounce Jews, of narrow escapes from the guillotine. My memory was hazy but much later I googled him and found it was all true and more. Given the appalling reprisals faced by anyone who stood up to the Nazis, the heroism of those who did should be remembered and celebrated.

Leslie Wilson said...

The thing is, for years and years people said nobody in Germany helped, and now we are hearing the stories. But this may partly be because those who didn't do anything didn't want to hear about the ones who did do something. My mother told me nobody could do anything, which was what she felt. I believe one determining factor was whether you had a network you could trust. Some people did help Jews, etc, just as solo performers, but most of them had connection to others.