Book reviews: Hitler’s first victims | Honeydew

Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, late President of the German Reich and Adolf Hitler. Picture: Getty

Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, late President of the German Reich and Adolf Hitler. Picture: Getty

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WOULD the Shoah have happened if more Germans had believed in the law, asks Allan Massie

The historian must always remember that events now in the past were once in the future. It is easy for most of us to forget this. Because Nazi Germany became a totalitarian state, one may wrongly assume that from the moment Hitler was appointed Chancellor by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the complete Nazi takeover of the state was assured.

But it wasn’t. The Nazis had no majority in the Reichstag. They never won 50 percent of the vote in a free election – indeed their vote had actually fallen in the most recent election in the autumn of 1932. They faced opposition from a number of states’ governments, notably the Bavarian, and from much of the civil service and legal profession. Hindenburg had dismissed three chancellors in the previous 18 month; he had the power to dismiss Hitler and might well have done so, for he neither liked nor respected him.

Nothing did more to cement the Nazis’ grip on power than the Reichstag fire in February 1933. They immediately blamed it on the Communists, though it was widely suspected that they themselves set fire to the parliament building in order to be able to persuade the president to issue a decree proclaiming a state of emergency.

It is now generally accepted that this was one crime of which they were innocent, and that indeed their first reaction was alarm. But they certainly made good use of it. The emergency decree suspended civil liberties, like the freedom of the Press, and in the heightened atmosphere the Nazis were able to arrest opponents and take them into “protective detention” in concentration camps. This book by Timothy Ryback,. co-founder of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, recounts what happened in Dachau, one of the most infamous of these camps, in the first year of Nazi rule

Detention was anything but protective. Dachau was a place where detainees, mostly Jews, Communists and Social Democrats were whipped, kicked, beaten up and murdered – many of them “shot while trying to escape”. Ryback recounts the brutality and criminal activity of the SS men who staffed the camp in all its horrible detail. None of this will come as a surprise to readers. It’s what we expect of Hitler’s gangster regime.

What is likely, however, to surprise some is Ryback‘s account of the pertinacity with which Dr Josef Hartinger, a Bavarian civil servant and deputy prosecutor, and Dr Moritz Flamm, a state-appointed medical examiner, refused to accept the SS’s version of these first deaths in Dachau and insisted on investigating them thoroughly. Hartinger was even able to prepare indictments against members of the SS , among them the camp commandant. This alarmed Himmler, the SS chief, who took the matter to Hitler.

The indictments were predictably quashed. But as the Nazi grip on power was not yet secure, one of the senior SS men was dismissed and the killings in Dachau stopped for the time being. For the Nazis, the message was clear: the organs of the state, especially the legal establishment, must be subjected to the control of the Party. Yet because, though by intention totalitarian, the Nazi regime was in many respects inefficient and disorganised, with competing fiefdoms, some degree of judicial independence survived.

Hartinger himself was transferred from Munich, which removed the Dachau camp from his judicial authority, but was permitted to continue to serve as a district judge in his home town of Amberg, near Nuremberg. He survived the war, and after spending two years in an American POW camp, resumed his career in the civil service. When the indictments he had drawn up were discovered not to have been destroyed – bureaucrats rarely destroy papers – he was eventually able to bring some of the Dachau murderers to justice. One of the most brutal of them sent a long self-pitying letter to Hartinger, who rightly disdained to reply.

This is a fascinating book, and a story well told. Much of the detail is, of course, disgusting. It does demonstrate on what a flimsy basis the Nazi regime stood in its first months; Hartinger’s investigations lead to anxiety not far short of panic among the Nazis. One wonders how things might have turned out if many more state officials had been as resolute. Ryback understandably writes: “While these initial Dachau killings do not represent the homicidal process in its full horrific scope, the murder of Jewish detainees that spring involved the constituent parts of the genocidal process – intentionality, chain of command, selection, execution – we have come to know as the Holocaust.”

This is fair comment, but 1933 was still years away from the Wannsee conference and the Final Solution. In the Thirties Jews were humiliated, beaten up, robbed, imprisoned and often murdered, but they were also exiled and indeed sometimes encouraged to exile themselves – provided they left their wealth and property to their persecutors. Yet it took total war to make the death camps and the attempts to exterminate a whole people possible.

ALLAN MASSIE

HONEYDEW

Edith Pearlman

John Murray, 279pp, £16.99

It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed,” Edith Pearlman – the American writer hailed by Susan Hill and many others as the best living short story writer in the world – told an interviewer three years ago when she was 75. “As quiet and unnoticed as possible.”

Even then, the publication of her fourth collection, Binocular Vision, won so many many awards and so much critical praise as to make this aim difficult if not impossible. And her majestic new collection is further cause for celebration.

Pearlman excels at capturing the complex and surprising turns in seemingly ordinary lives. In the title story, the headmistress of Caldicott Academy finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Her lover, the father of her child, also happens to be the (married) father of an anorexic student The affair tumbles ahead; the headmistress suspects she will be forced to resign once her pregnancy is revealed; the starving student studies the stomachs of ants. These characters are steadfast in their paths even as the ground beneath grows increasingly combustible.

In these stories, the point of view flits nimbly from character to character, allowing the reader to absorb the world from a bird’s-eye perspective. The result is like a diorama, simultaneously intimate and removed: We are able to observe both how these characters perceive the world and how the world perceives them.

Pearlman is particularly incisive on the subject of solitude. Paige, the grieving pedicurist in “Tenderfoot,” handles feet and secrets, but remains isolated by her status as a war widow. “Puck” introduces us to Rennie, the proprietor of an antiques store in the fictional suburb of Boston that serves as a setting for many of these stories. Known for her “discretion and restraint,” Rennie is an expert at handling the affairs of her clients – but what of her own?

Pedicurist, antiques shop owner, headmistress: these are not the only characters whose jobs place them in regular, often intimate, contact with other people; yet much of their interior lives is a carefully kept secret. Though lasting happiness is elusive for Pearlman’s characters, they tend to confront their fates, no matter how ruinous, with quiet resolve. In “Sonny,” the terminally ill son of the local “vegetable man” continues, despite his diagnosis, to assist his father in their usual labour – “the two working with their rare efficiency, as they would continue to do while they could, until they couldn’t.”

Despite the shadows cast by loss, the world Honeydew conjures is not bleak. Life can be cruel, even shockingly cruel, but these stories remain rich with instances of grace. The headmistress, after a bravura scene in which she crawls furiously through the woods to reach her student, who had been spying on her, succeeds in forging a cautious bond with her. In “What the Axe Forgets the Tree Remembers,” an employee in the local chapter of the Society Against Female Mutilation feels the hot light of desire when she falls for a survivor who has testified before the group: “Gabrielle felt her face redden. Shame? No, desire: desire that had eluded her for 52 years until Selene, maimed Selene.” Often these stories end with the sensation of the landscapes having been ever-so-slightly realigned, the blows eased by unexpected mercies.

With 20 stories, this is a robust collection. Inevitably, this means that a few of the selections lack the urgency and substance of Pearlman’s finest work – they’re still lovely, but ephemeral, like ribbons of smoke dissolving into the air – yet this is a minor quibble with a collection abundant with stories that have an uncanny power to charm and devastate.

We write in a culture that favors the heft of the novel. Better still if the novel in question is large enough to be wielded interchangeably as a doorstop and a weapon. To commit oneself wholly to the short story, as Edith Pearlman has done, suggests not only a gift for exploding the boundaries of the form, but something of a contrarian spirit. And where on earth would literature be without its great contrarians?

If Binocular Vision launched Pearlman, rightly, into the spotlight, “Honeydew” should cement her reputation as one of the most essential short story visionaries of our time.

LAURA VAN DER BERG

THE LIGHTNING TREE

By Emily Woof

Faber, 336pp, £12.99

Emily Woof may be better known to British audiences as a film and TV actress – she had had a role in the films The Full Monty and This Year’s Love as well as Velvet Goldmine. But she has also worked variously as a film director and as a playwright, and five years ago she published her debut novel, Whole Wide Beauty, which was considered by many critics to be highly promising. This second novel, however, doesn’t work quite as well, and for several reasons.

There are a lot of titles out at the moment which are interested in the 1980s, probably reflecting the coming-of-age era of many of the authors, and Woof’s personal experiences might have made this stand out from the rest. There are insights into the everyday world of the jobbing actor, for instance, which one assumes Woof knows plenty about and in fairness to her, these sections have an authenticity and vitality about them.

But the central narrative that carries the whole novel – girl meets boy, girl leaves boy to go travelling in India, girl has a transformative experience and ditches boy, girl gets boy back after many of life’s twists and turns – never feels quite dominant enough and really struggles to make headway. Woof wants to make political and social points about the era, but they’re less integral to the love story than they should be.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare novels, but I couldn’t help thinking of Ajay Close’s novel of last year, Trust, about three friends from the 1980s and their paths through life from the miners’ strike onwards. That was a challenging, often complex read, but the affairs and relationships emerged organically from the politics. In Woof’s novel, Ursula is raised by a politically active, left-wing mother in a middle-class household; she meets Jerry, politically brilliant from a poorer home, who nevertheless makes it to Oxford. This first part of the novel also heavily involves Mary, Ursula’s grandmother, who is becoming senile, drifting back ever more into her past.

The point Woof is making is about political consciousness coming through the generations, as well as all the other characteristics that make up our personalities, so that perhaps we are in the end only the sum of our chromosomes, although Fate takes a hand in it all, giving us very little free will.

When Ursula and Jerry do try to exercise their free will, Jerry going to Oxford and Ursula to India, the results are disastrous. Their letters to one another form probably the least successful section of the book – too much is explained, the voices don’t sound different enough – and by this time it’s over, Ursula’s in acting and Jerry’s making his way up the party political ladder.

But neither has chosen quite the right course and over the years they will make mistakes, trying to compensate for parting in the first place. It’s just growing up, but there’s a lack of alchemy about the relationship between the two of them. Ursula’s relationship with her grandmother is the most real and moving thing about her; Jerry seems more like a cipher than a real person, a handy kind of hero to carry ideas or plot twists.

Love stories are notoriously hard to carry off successfully, and Woof is trying to inject some originality into a cliché, for which she deserves credit. But she takes up a self-conscious narrative position from the first page (“Let us start right here, with a man and a woman in bed by the sea”) which creates a sense of distance, and too often, this narrative voice distils information that could have been dramatically employed. The quick resumé of Ursula’s life when she returns from India, or the summing-up of Mary’s girlhood experiences working in the laundry, are too briefly passed over.

This is an important error, because the line that runs through Mary all the way to Ursula is an interesting and crucial one. It seems clear that this relationship, and not the rather lacklustre love story between Ursula and Jerry, is the real narrative strength of the novel. Ursula’s literary namesake is Lawrence’s heroine of The Rainbow, another novel about continuity between women through the generations, and another woman whose enlightenment proves problematic for her. But what anchors that classic tale is missing from this contemporary one, making it that little bit too light, too frail to really take hold.

LESLEY McDOWELL

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