Why things happen (Nazism)

This essay was originally conceived and written as an open letter to Martin Amis in November 2014 following the publication of his book Zone of Interest & the piece he wrote to promote it in the Financial Times on August 23rd, 2014. This is a somewhat shortened version.

Before starting, a few word about myself: I'm Swedish, living in Brussels, former journalist, mainly writing in French. English is not my mother tongue and that will hopefully pardon its clumsy use. My father was in his twenties during the world war and my grandfather, as a "neutral" Swede employed in Brussels at the time, had Mein Kampf on the book shelves but told me sternly not to read it. It's an evil book, he said, very hush-husch: I was a little boy at the time and it's only now, when they're both dead, that the Unexplainable they must have lived through (or rather, lived side by side with), ie the Why – or your "No-Why" – has taken centre stage.

The books and articles I've read lately (discounting thus Winston Churchill's magnus opus e.g.), which might be of good use for future reference, are the following – they will inform the nature of my question marks.

Gitta Sereny's biography of "Albert Speer, His Battle with Truth", 1995, in the Swedish translation, 2001.
Karl Kraus' Dritte Walpurgisnacht, 1933, in the French translation, 2005.
Ian Buruma's review of Joachim Fest's "Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood", English translation 2014 (German original 2008), in The New York Review of Books, vl 61, n°13, 14/8-24/9 2014.
Jorge Semprun's collected speeches 1986-2005, "Une tombe au creux des nuages", 2010.
Stig Claesson's "Det lyckliga Europa" (Swedish), 2001

In that order.

Well, not quite. Before reading Kraus, leading to my discovery of his 1933 book, I had read its summary, written by José Lillo with a view to make a theater production of it, published in book form by Agone in 2013 under the title "Je n'ai aucune idée sur Hitler" – which is the first phrase of the original 1933 publication, "Mir fällt zu Hitler nichts ein".

By itself, the fortunes of this provocative line is remarkable. As the French translator of the 1933 book points out, there's has been a whole bunch of respectable German journalists who publicly took the ironic line to signify that Kraus admitted his ignorance of Hitler and his henchmen, thereby showing... they hadn't even read the book! From page one to the last, Kraus sole aim is, in his usual rambling & difficult style, to dissect the atrocious nature of Hitlerism.

Noteworthy too is the fact that Kraus' Walpurgis, published in his one-man-showpiece Die Fackel in 1933, wasn't republished before 1952, in German (Suhrkamp), and then 2005 (Agone), in French – a Japanese translation is mentioned, but that's about all. In the history of ideas, this is yet another case of knowledge "jet-lag". Kraus wasn't very popular in his own time, in the "mainstream" sense, and no one took much notice later on.

Before going into my readings of these writs, it should perhaps be stressed how much they depended on "chance meetings", ie not the result of methodical research but, rather, haphazard encounters, a bit like Hoffmann's cat Murr used to "eddicate" himself. Serena, the first one on the list, was found in a second-hand bookshop in Brussels during the summer and chosen because the range of Swedish books on offer being as usual rather poor, both in quantity and quality, Serena seemed to me a good choice. The shorter version of Kraus, on the other hand, had been promoted to the table presenting newly published titles in a Brussels downtown bookshop, one of my favourite halts during lunchtime walks. This was just a few weeks later and, naturally, the weird title (no know anything about Hitler) caught my eye. I had heard of Kraus already but not read him much until then. It so happened, by chance, that I read them both during a rather short time-span – during which I also read Martin Amis' piece, and later on Ian Buruma's, making notes of it (longhand) in my note-book, I do that quite a lot, for reference and later use.

Time now to come to the point. It goes this way.

The thing that struck me in Serena's longish Speer biography (built largely on long interviews with the latter) is that, while dedicated to the task of trying – and failing – to get Speer to admit he knew about the genocide during the war, as well as also trying to explain (The Why!) how Speer could ever have been seduced by Hitler and his crass & low-standing gangster crowd, being himself of good bourgeois upbringing (Goethe et. al.), Serena doesn't question for once the number one enigma, which is: how explain that Speer (and a large proportion – a majority? – of the German people) thought it was the natural thing to invade neighbouring countries or, to put it simply, go to war, kill and maim other people, go for world (European, at least) dominance?

This question is never put to Speer. The only thing that interests Serena is the genocide, the mass killings of Jews – and Speer goes a long way to insist that, Oh dear, no, I was never was an anti-Semite. (At one point, Serena does state that "the sufferings of the Jews dominated the media reporting" both during the Nüremberg trial and later on, page 186 in the Swedish translation, and again, page 189, "Be it right or wrong, it's the genocide of Jews that dominated not only the world-view of Nazism following the Third Reich's downfall but also in the conscience of most Germans."

Why's that, again, I'd like to know. The mass killing of Jews was certainly ghastly, and the pictures thereof even more so, but, to use Serena's word, why did it "overshadow" all the rest, over 20 million Russians also died because of Hitler's Lebensraum venture eastwards e.g., only to become marginal notes. The Nüremberg trial did add war of aggression on the list, but it hardly registered in the minds of most people.

Same thing, in a sense, with Joachim Fest's autobiography. In Ian Buruma's review, there's a line stating that "How much most Germans knew about the Jewish genocide while it was happening is still endlessly debated." But why they went to war (kill & maim people) in the first place, ie thought it was the natural thing to do: not on the agenda.

As Buruma reminds us, Fest's father Johannes was among the few in Germany who looked with disbelief at Hitler, in his words a "primitive gangster" (& so had a hard time at his job) but, when he came into power, remained silent because, quote unquote, "there was absolutely nothing I could do with my knowledge. Not even talk about it!" Johannes Fest's motto was "Etiam si omnes – ego non" (Even if all the others, not I) – there weren't many of his stature, apparently.

Now Fest, the son, historian, had a peculiar relationship to the Speer syndrome: he couldn't quite fathom why Speer, charming & gentlemanish as he was, was led to mix with the Hitler crowd – and concludes, quote unquote, that "Speer more than Hitler make us realise how fragile these precautions are [ie Speer's upbringing with strict values] and how the ground on which we all stand is always threatened." We all? Fest, for one, of course, presumably extending his own lame excuse to encompass all Germans and, why not, everyone on this godforsaken earth. This is, needless to say, debatable...

But Kraus, then, reverses the quaint fairytale. What he gives us – and this is in 1933! – is a panoramic indictment of the monstruous growth of Nazi thug-rule, at times with vitriolic wit: for instance, his acceptance letter (page 320) to partake in a cultural radio broadcast in Köln on the subject of Shakespeare's sonnets in which, by the bye, he reminds his hosts that his own German rendering of the sonnets had been made from the Hebrew translation thereof... But to the point: what Kraus describes in detail, for all to see in 1933 (even abroad, Kraus makes extensive use of news-clippings from foreign newspapers, French and English), is the nature and scope of the publicly organised Nazi horrorshow: the concentration camps, the burning of books, beastly beatings & systematic torture, killings, public humiliation of beat-up German women who had had the cheek to flirt with un-Aryan degenerate "Mindervertigen", and so on and so forth.

Speer could hardly not have known. Any educated German, at the time – or for that matter the French or British denizen - could hardly not have known. But Serena, writing in 1995, seemed to have forgot. Fest, re-writing his adolescent years (he was seven in 1933), does mention that, in 1936, "pretty much everyone I knew was for the Führer" - but, looking back, in 2008, people like Kraus seem to have fallen completely out of the picture, to have never existed. At one point, Serena quotes Speer as saying that he "doubts that anyone can understand today what happened then" (page 79). There, we have come full circle back to Martin Amis' soul-searching piece on the Why.

With a twist, though. The Why that matters, shortly after the war until today, is why the persecution and genocide of Jews? Not why so many Germans took for granted that making war to its own people as well as people abroad was the natural thing, along with physical and intellectual dominance over anyone thinking otherwise. That is altogether another Why.

In the meantime, things have happened, of course. The Cold War, for instance. It overshadowed. Also, Germany had to be rebuilt, not from scratch, but with the very people who had so meekly (or fiercely) endorsed the Third Reich world-dominance stance. What you see at work here is "storytelling". Each historical period views its own past with the lenses that serve it present purposes – but this is pretty well-known.

Time to wrap up. Martin Amis has put forward an unexplainable Why (morally required to stay that way, following Primo Levi's suggestion) and I've somewhat enlarged it to fit into the bigger picture of its historical setting, no less unexplainable. I may add a few words regarding the Semprun and Claesson books. It would run this way. Semprun, quite young at the time of his imprisonment at Buchenwald (saved from death thanks to his communist membership, his "comrades" being more or less in charge of the concentration camp's clandestine shadow cabinet), sticks to the Kantian absolute evil thesis (linked to the totalitarian system, itself, in turn, left unexplained) – and focuses mainly, same as Serena, on the genocide of Jews: one good piece here is the moment when, conducted by a Jewish-American army officer, the German people of the neighbouring Weimar area are forced to join a guided tour of the camp: We didn't know, they said. You chose not to know, was the harsh rejoinder. Interesting also, and perhaps more to the point (story-telling, huh), is the fact that the Buchenwald Report, written by this officer in 1945, was kept secret until 1995 (fifty years!) for, as Semprun states, "dark reasons dating back to the Cold War era" and, particularly, the need to hush up "the important role [played by] the German communists (...) in the antifascist resistance." (page 296).

The Swede Stig Claesson, on the other hand, at the time almost as young as Semprun, had when the war ended gone with other young idealists to Yugoslavia to help build a railway section. This international brigade, perhaps quite as important as its former Spanish version, was soon to be hushed up too. Not quite the story people should be told about. Claesson has harsh words on the bloody EU-promoted (German) partition of Yugoslavia – another historical flash-point that has been left "unexplained".

Somewhere along the remembrance path, Claesson reflects on the fact that "The failure to understand one's own time is largely spread. Those who understand it the least seem to be those we choose to do the talk. And talk, they do. All that remains to do is to listen uncritically." I liked that. With that, I sign-off.

PS: By the way, Churchill, I mentioned him in passing: my father had his Second World War, three volumes, but I was dumb enough to get rid of it with so much else when he died; when my stepfather died however, I found, kept and read Churchill's abridged 1000-pages long version of the same – and the disturbing thing is this: he hardly mentioned the hardships of the Jews, even less the horrendous death machinery they were herded to. This is strange. Churchill's book was published in 1959 but the extermination of the Jews is here only of marginal interest. Noteworthy.