Reading Germany

I spent the last ten days of September traveling through Germany. I carried with me a few of novels – most of them set in and around the Weimar Republic, a period that has always fascinated me – to read on the long train journeys.

Klaus Mann, Mephisto 

Mephisto

This fact above all others – that he was not a Jew – struck Hendrik all of a sudden as immensely comforting and important. He had never in the past estimated the true worth of this considerable and unsuspected advantage.

I first came across Mephisto in a classroom – the book was banned in West Germany after World War II, at the instance of the heir of Gustaf Grudgens – the man it was supposedly based on. Many years later, on reading the novel, I could easily see why Grudgens’ family was outraged. Mephisto – which was written in 1936, while Mann was in exile – tells the story of the moral degradation of Hendrik Hofgens, who starts out as a left-leaning playwright and actor in Weimar Germany, but ends up neck-deep in complicity with the Nazi regime. Hofgens is not himself a Nazi, or even sympathetic to the Nazis; however, his personal and professional insecurities, and overweening ambition, drive him to make a series of compromises, each one more damning than the last, until he becomes the Director of the Berlin theatre and the personal protege of the Nazi Prime Minister, while his former friends are either exiled or executed. At each step, Hofgens convinces himself that his collaboration is necessary to mitigate the worst facets of the regime, that he can at least do some good from the inside, and that in any event, better him in that position than a committed Nazi. But by the end, with his anguished cry, “every regime needs the theatre!“, it is clear that all his justifications have crumbled, and that he stands revealed as nothing more than a collaborator.

The book’s name comes from Hofgen’s most successful role, and which launches him on the path of (Nazi) stardom – Mephistopheles, from Goethe’s Faust. The allusions, of course, are obvious; and they stand out with particular poignancy when Nicoletta, one of his more principled colleagues, tells him: “It was good, Hendrik. I knew you could do it. Mephisto is your great role.” Mephisto is filled with such scalpel-like lines. For example, of Hofgen’s decision to anonymously finance the dignified burial of of Otto Ulrichs – another former colleague, who stays true to his left-wing beliefs (“When you have witnessed those horrors, you have only one choice,” he said. “You can either kill yourself or go back to work with greater dedication than before.” He went back to work.“) – and is executed for it – Mann writes (as the narrator), “this was the last and only thing Hendrik Hofgen could still do for his friend Otto Ulrichs – or the last affront he could inflict on him.”

Hofgens, however, is not the only target of Mephisto, although he is its main one. The theme of collaboration generally – the collaboration of the privileged, who do have a choice in the matter – runs through the book. Mann is more sympathetic, for example, to Hans Miklas – the working-class actor who becomes a foot-soldier of the Nazis (and is ultimately swallowed up by them), than he is to Dr. Ihrig, the left-wing commentator who writes Marxist screeds in financial newspapers, because “the serious side of life prevailed in the commercial section, but in the pages where no serious businessman ever cast an eye, a Red Pope could be allowed to let off steam.

And of course, Mephisto presents stark descriptions of the Nazis’ rise to power, descriptions that will no doubt be familiar to many:

Life was fun under the dictatorship. Strength through joy was the watchword. There were nation-wide celebrations and festivals. The Saar was German – a national celebration … Germany left the League of Nations and regained sovereignty over its defense – an enormous national celebration. Every breach of a treaty – Versailles, Locarno – produced a national celebration, and so did the obligatory plebiscites that followed. The persecution of Jews was a prolonged national celebration, as was the pillorying of those women who committed “race profanation” with them. So was the persecution of Catholics, about whom one learned for the first time that they were never much better than the Jews and who were slyly brought to trial on “currency offences” involving ridiculously small sums, while the leaders of the regime hid enormous fortunes abroad. And finally, a long-drawn-out national celebration surrounded the persecution of “reaction”, a term designating nothing very precise. Marxism had been “eradicated,” but was still a danger and an excuse for mass trials. German culture was now “Jew-free” but, as a result, had become so dreary that no one wanted to know anything more about it. Butter was becoming scarce, but guns were more important… did the people not begin to tire of so many dubious carnivals? Perhaps they were already weary. Perhaps they were already groaning. But nothing could be heard above the din blasting forth from megaphones and microphones.

All in all, Mephisto paints a terrifying picture of a nation at a time when fascism is on the rise, when its victory seems inevitable (which it was), and its reign unending (which it wasn’t). But perhaps more than that, its value lies in showing us how easily individuals become collaborators with the regime, and how fragile a thing conscience is.

Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Novels: Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin

Berlin Novels

Their passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present, I just sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched to the railway station, seventeen years ago.

Christopher Isherwood witnessed the rise of the Nazis while living in Berlin. In the Berlin Novels, through a series of character sketches, he portrays the last days of the Weimar Republic, and a city that will soon be taken over by fascism. The first novel, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, follows the travails of Arthur Norris, as seen through the eyes of the first-person narrator, Bradshaw. Norris, a purported left-wing sympathiser, is also a hustler, a con-man, a congenital liar, and perpetually short of funds – qualities that render loyalty a fickle thing in the Berlin of 1930, where the leftists and the Nazis battle for control over an increasingly dysfunctional government, and where things change so rapidly that a Nazi electoral defeat in November and a “majority of over 100,000 in Berlin” for the leftists is followed by the Reichstag fire just a few months later.

Mr. Norris Changes Trains is set in the same time period, and has a cast of characters that is similar to Mephisto: spineless opportunists, grimly determined – and doomed – leftists, and of course, the “ordinary people” who profess a distaste for violence, but are alarmingly susceptible to its attractions when it is targeted against “Jews … business rivals, and the Marxists, a vaguely defined minority of people who didn’t concern them, had been satisfactorily found guilty of the defeat and the inflation, and were going to catch it.” And, like Klaus Mann in his descriptions of the rise of fascism (“Life was fun under the dictatorship“), Isherwood points out its celebratory nature, how it fills people with enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that, on its surface, appears entirely genuine and authentic:

Our street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the black-white-red flags hanging motionless from the windows against the blue spring sky. On the Nollendorfplatz people were sitting out of doors before the café in their overcoats, reading about the coup d’etat in Bavaria. Goring spoke from the radio horn at the corner. Germany is awake, he said. An ice-cream shop was open. Uniformed Nazis strode hither and thither, with serious set faces, as though on weighty errands. The newspaper readers by the café turned their heads to watch them pass and smiled and seemed pleased … they smiled approvingly at these youngsters in their big swaggering boots who were going to upset the Treaty of Versailles. They were pleased because it would soon be summer, because Hitler had promised to protect the small tradesmen, because their newspapers told them that the good times were coming. They were suddenly proud of being blonde. And they thrilled with a furtive, sensual pleasure, like schoolboys…

One difference between the two novels, though, is that Isherwood is far more concerned with the human (a luxury perhaps afforded to him by a time and distance that was not available to the exiled Mann, writing in 1936). Mr. Norris Changes Trains is focused on human relationships as much as it on fascism, and Isherwood’s touch is deft (“We sat round the elegant little dinner-table like three people absorbed in a difficult chess problem…” and “We regarded each other with the amusement of two people who, night after night, cheat each other at a card game which is not played for money…”); he has an acute sense of self-awareness (“His eyes measured me for the first time. No, he was not impressed. Equally, he did not condemn. A young bourgeois intellectual, he thought. Enthusiastic, within certain limits. Capable of response if appealed to in terms of his own class-language. Of some small use: everybody can do something. I felt myself blushing deeply.”); and he does not judge – not even Norris, whose weaknesses and foibles turn into something far more dangerous in the time and place that he is in. Mr. Norris Changes Trains is a novel about fascism, but it is also a deeply human novel.

Goodbye to Berlin, the second of the two novels, presents a set of short character sketches of Berliners – again – on the eve of the Nazi takeover: a thinly-disguised version of Isherwood interacts with con-(wo)men (a recurring theme in his writing), ill-fated Jewish tradesmen, upstanding, educated and intelligent Germans who have internalised Nazi ways of thought, non-Nazi Germans – the gamut. Nazism itself lurks in the background, until at last it comes to the fore with the Reichstag Fire, and the narrator’s own departure from a Germany that he knows is swiftly doomed. On the eve of the Russian Revolution, Victor Shklovsky describes the poet Mayakovsky as wandering around Moscow, trying to fix everything in his memory, as one does when one is seeing something for the last time; Isherwood expresses a very similar sentiment in the closing lines of the book:

I catch sight of my face in the mirror of a shop, and am horrified to see that I am smiling. You can’t help smiling, in such beautiful weather. The trams are going up and down in the Kleiststrasse, just as usual. They, and the people on the pavement, and the tea-cosy dome of the Nollendorfplayz station have an air of curious familiarity, of striking resemblance to something one remembers as normal and pleasant in the past – like a very good photograph.

No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened …

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

M01846275156-large

A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days is a most unusual novel. Set in four places – a little Polish town, pre-war Vienna, Stalin’s Moscow, and post-war Berlin, End of Days is a story of mid-20th century Europe caught up between Nazism and Stalinism. In some ways, End of Days is similar to Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years: in its four cycles, and in (a few of its) protagonists, who begin as idealistic communists, but ultimately find themselves outlawed and hunted by the very Party that they have given their lives to building.

But its form is very different: the story is told through the eyes of one woman – the child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father – and in each cycle, she dies (suffocating as a child in a cradle, committing suicide as a young woman, killed by the Party…). Each cycle, however, ends with speculation: what if this one event had turned out differently, and she had not died? The next cycle, then, takes up the story as if she hd not died. This gives End of Days a uniquely haunting quality, and the never-quite-far presence of death constantly reminds the reader of the fragility of human existence, especially when faced with the totalising ideologies of anti-semitism and Nazism, and Stalinism.

More than that, what End of Days succeeds brilliantly at is the hugely difficult task of telling world-historical events through the lens of a single life – a life with its individual sum of joys and sufferings, triumphs and defeats, rootedness and wandering, and – ultimately – loss. Through the protagonist’s infancy, her youth in Vienna and her first brush with the Communist Party (“Had not they, the Communists, made it their business to even out the gradient so that everyone could stand freely without falling, without pushing, shoving, being pushed or shoved, free – and without fear?”), her falling in love (“Only after she had fallen in love with him had she realized what a great longing she’d always had to be knowable to another person: to be one with herself, and at the same time with another.“), their travel to Moscow and her husband’s persecution and murder by the Party (“Would a truth take her farther than a lie? And which of the many possible truths or lies should she use?“), and her last days in Berlin, End of Days is about the human being, the human being who retains an indisputable core of existence outside and independent of the reach of ideology. And so, through the series of politically-induced tragedies that rack the alternate lives of the protagonist throughout the novel – tragedies that warn us of the perils of totalising ideology – it is this quality that continues to linger in the memory long after the reader has put down the book:

One evening after a meeting, she had told H. about her Sisyphus, and he had talked to her about his plays. A few days later the two of them went together to a gathering of so-called revolutionary writers, and suddenly everything that had been separate for so long and separately had made no sense fell into place. After all what did having a world view mean if not learning to see? Was it possible to change the world if you found the right words? Could the world be changed only if you happened to find them?

And finally, reading Erpenbeck’s novel in between Mephisto and The Berlin Novels was an interesting experience for another reason: in Mann’s and Isherwood’s work, the communists appear as the opponents of the rising Nazis: this gives their cause a heroic tint, and the communists themselves – in both novels – are portrayed as principled resistors (as they undoubtedly were), willing to risk torture and death for an ideal, but never complicity with the regime. End of Days shows us that very communist dream going sour in victory, with its doctrinaire rigidity, show-trials, and the totalisation of the Party; Erpenbeck too begins with the communists as idealists and dreamers, in pre-war Vienna:

No, youth no longer existed so one could squander one’s youth, or simply wait for the years to pass until one could eventually slip into old age as into rags that others had worn to shreds. It no longer existed for being ground down to make up for the failings of an older generation. Now the point of youth was to be thrown away: for a new world such as the world had never seen before.

But by the end, we are probably left wishing that time had stopped when it did in Isherwood and in Mann, before the “new world” really revealed itself.

Alfted Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

doblin_cvr_new_COLORS_2048x2048.jpg

This probably sounds heretical, but I’m not quite sure what to make of Berlin Alexanderplatz, acknowledged to be one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. The story is set in Berlin 1929, and follows the travails of Franz Biberkopf, who has just come out of prison after serving time for manslaughter. Despite his efforts to stay “decent”, Bibkerkopf finds himself being inexorably dragged back into the underworld, with its routinised violence and mayhem: and thus begins the bildungsroman (as Walter Benjamin labels it), in and around Weimar Berlin, through its streets, alleys, bars, and working-class districts, at a time when the atmosphere is tense with the oncoming confrontation between the communists and the Nazis.

The book, though, is not a linear narrative, but meanders in all conceivable directions: digressions, interior monologues, clashing registers, streams-of-consciousness – all combine to render the prose anything but linear. In an illuminating Afterword, the translator sums it up thus: “… the way of greater chaos, absorptiveness, allusiveness, speed, a kind of interiority that is indistinguishable from exteriority (and of course, vice versa).” This, of course, is not unfamiliar – I’ve read a very similar analysis of by Edward Said of Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain – but reading the Afterword did help me appreciate that for its time (1929) what Berlin Alexanderplatz was doing was fresh and innovative, and – more importantly – it broke new ground by deliberately adopting not just the perspective, but also the register of the Berlin working class (and Berlin, as a city, was just coming into its own at the time).

For me, I found the initial portions of the novel – particularly dense with very particular Berlin geography – to be difficult going; the middle portion of the book was much better – the characters sharply realised, their relationships and their travails intriguing and moving, along with brief flashes of narrative wisdom – but things once again seemed clogged towards the end, with interior monologue taking over. I also found myself put off just a little by the gratuitous – and seemingly pointless – amounts of violence, although one will probably argue that Doblin was only depicting reality! I would have come away considerably less impressed were it not for the Afterword, which really helped to contextualise the book’s historical importance; it left me wondering that Berlin Alexanderplatz is probably one of those novels that needs to be read with an awareness of its context, both in the history of Germany, as well as in literary history.

(For a longer and more detailed review, see Max Cairnduff’s blog.)


All – or at least most – of these books deal with Germany on the cusp of the 1930s. And reading them, I was struck by what now, with the benefit of hindsight, seems like a historical inevitability (the rise of the Nazis), at its time, simply – was not. It is one thing, of course, to read historical accounts of the strength of the German left wing in the 1920s; but it is only in reading these novels that you get a sense of how finely poised the struggle was, how much popular support the German left had (especially from the working classes), and how little it would have taken for things to go the other way; there is a particularly poignant moment towards the end of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, where the narrator’s landlady is “adapting” herself to say “Heil Hitler” – and the narrator wryly remarks that she’s probably forgotten that she voted communist at the last election.

Is there a lesson here?

Perhaps only that what today feels like living in the midst of an inevitability may not be so either.

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