Tag Archives: Germany
Montenegro (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
Under my clothes my skin still kept the joy given by the salt water, the freshness had not left my blood.
REBECCA WEST’S EXCURSION in Yugoslavia is coming to an end. That is clear in this slight chapter dedicated to Montenegro. Here intrigue settles onto the narrative like an omen. Her companions, including her driver Dragtuin, the akiltered Constantine, and a local official, appear agitated and constantly bickering. Over and over they stumble across fresh indication of nefarious designs on Yugoslavia as foreign figures continue to appear after crossing the Albanian frontier only a few miles away.
West admires this small, cragged country and attributes a national heroic spirit to its mountain people. By her companions’ telling, this national characteristic nearly led to her demise. She describes another small set piece in which she and her husband hike a mountain led by a young guide who loses his way in the mist. His martial pride prevents him from admitting that he is lost before Constantine finds them descending toward a slippery escarpment that the locals, except for the guide, are convinced West and her husband would surely fall from to their deaths. A hero would brave the descent despite the risk, it is implied, rather that admit he had failed in navigating his own ground.
This graze with death does not upset West. But she appears distracted. Her interest in the local environment and its people feels rote by this point. Something else is on her mind. She has spent the previous several weeks and more than 1,000 pages describing in close and sympathetic detail the difference, beauty, and meaning of different cultures and nations. This extrospection at last swings inward to consider the worth of her own country which is as threatened by the fascist juggernaut as any other country in Europe. She writes:
My civilization must not die. It need not die. My national faith is valid, as the Ottoman faith was not. I know that the English are as unhealthy as lepers compared with perfect health. They do not give themselves up to feeling or to work as they should, they lack readiness to sacrifice their individual rights for the sake of the corporate good, they do not bid the right welcome to the other man’s soul. But they are on the side of life, they love justice, they hate violence, and they respect the truth. It is not always so when they deal with India or Burma; but that is not their fault, it is the fault of Empire, which makes a man own things outside his power to control. But among themselves, in dealing with things within their reach, they have learned some part of the Christian lesson that it is our disposition to crucify what is good, and that we must therefore circumvent our barbarity. This measure of wisdom makes it right that my civilization should not perish.
It is impossible not to think of George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn,” perhaps the only other example of such ambivalent yet affirming patriotism under existential threat:
Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture of the individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photography young mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing except that you happen to be the same person.
And above all, it is your civilization, it is you.
With this on her mind the dark monition follows her. In a restaurant Constantine stares down a group of “eight people, four men in open shirts and leather shorts, four women in dirndlish cotton dresses, all very fair and much overweight.” She remarks that they seem harmless enough. Constantine puts that notion down by idenitifying one of the men as “the chief German agent in Yugoslavia.”
It is possible that this German agent was Wilhelm Höttl, an SS intelligence officer. He fits the profile and West’s corpulent description in 1937. A doctor of history and a specialist on southeastern Europe, he joined the Nazi party and then held the position as head of intelligence for the region. Höttl had a working relationship with Adolph Eichmann and gave testimony for the prosecution in Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem (he even appears in Hannah Arendt’s report on the banality of evil). He is identified by several historical authorities (and some Holocaust deniers) as the first reference to the six million deaths of European Jews during the war. Höttl played a weak hand well after the German defeat, surrendering to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) in Switzerland and parlaying that into employment with U.S. Army intelligence.
The party stumbles across another German, whom Constantine identifies as the government minister in Tirana. This was likely Eberhard von Pannwitz who at that moment served as the German ambassador to Albania in Tirana in 1937. A career diplomat from a noble family, Von Pannwitz was captured after the German surrender and died in U.S. custody in December 1945. His son, like Eichmann, emigrated to Argentina.
The last paragraph of this chapter ends the book’s main narrative on a note that would seem hysterical only if everything that followed West’s visit did not in reality occur. In retrospect it sounds like a cry of alarm, like an air raid siren. Constantine and the local official notice several foreign automobile makes parked near the town center; each one is driven by foreign diplomats posted to Albania. They are immediately alarmed: the diplomats would only be here, in Montenegro, if they had to communicate with their capitals in a way the Albanians could not overhear or intercept. Constantine flags down another acquaintance, hailing him in Greek, for the story. He returns with this upsetting news:
“It is very bad. It is a massacre. The officials all are bought by Italian money and they have taken the four hundred young men who were most likely to give Italy trouble when she takes the country, and they have pretended it is a Communist rising, and they have killed them all. It is all nasty, so nasty, and it will not stop until the end.”
Constantine is clairvoyant if not precisely correct. A quasi-colonial power, Italy installed and propped up Albania’s King Zog and would invade Albania in 1939 less than two years later and one month before sealing the Pact of Steel with Germany. Two years after that Germany would invade Yugoslavia itself. Constantine very likely describes a real political crisis in Albania. On May 16, 1937, The New York Times reported “Revolt Flares in Albania, Town is Captured; Enemies of King Act on Unveiling of Women” in the town of Agyrokastron (today Gjirokastër).
Constantine accurately notes that the Albanian rebels, led by former Interior Minister Ethem Toto, are deemed communists by the government. (The Times insists on characterizing the revolt as inspired by Islamic mores and this appears to be true.) It was likely not the massacre Constantine described, but it was violent enough. Toto was “tracked down and shot”; six others were reported killed and 150 rebels captured. (Zog, for his part, survived more than 50 assassination attempts.) With the clear intrigue West documents, it is understandable that Constantine should be so distraught.
One of the last activities West and her party enjoy is a long-delayed dip in the Adriatic. She describes this experience as the pure essence of physical pleasure. “[T]he water was hardly water, being fused with sunshine,” she writes. “It worked its progressive magic on us, delighting the skin, then the blood, then the muscles.”
Just to be alive is good.
It is impossible to hold this image in mind without its antipode, the cataclysm to follow. This moment on the shore seems to be West’s argument in miniature. A glimpse of the sea and the feeling of water are pure affirmation of life’s promise that is threatened by millions of human beings driven by a corrupt nihilist desire for domination and destruction. That is what follows. West knows this, writing in 1941. But it is not simple retrospect. It is true. In just four years everything she has seen on her journey from London to the Adriatic will be plowed under. All of this as it was will be gone.
Journey (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
“These were exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known; and there were sixty millions of them in the middle of Europe.” (Journey)
WITH HER HUSBAND Rebecca West travels by train from Salzburg, Austria, to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. They climb to Badgastein and the Hohe Tauern railway tunnel built in 1909 (bearing the name of the emperor Franz Joseph at its entrance) to Villach, high in the Austrian alps. They traverse the Wörther See to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and then on to Zagreb. West does not visit Slovenia and fails to mention Ljubljana at all in the text, marking that station only on the map on the endpaper of the 1st edition.
West and her husband are joined in the first class car by a klatch of Germans who left Berlin for a 30-hour rail trip to the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic. Here we see West’s keen personal and cultural critic emerge as she scrutinizes these thoroughly average people leaving the hothouse of their country. She hears them fuss about comfort and diet and work. She watches them visibly relax as soon as they enter Yugoslavia. She observes them chastise a young man who attempts to join them in first class with a second-class ticket. “The vehemence…was so intense that we took it for granted that it must be due to some other reason than concern for our comfort, and supposed the explanation lay in the young man’s race and personality, for he was Latin and epicene.” She remarks their delight in her husband’s excellent German – he was interned as an enemy alien in Ruhleben during World War I and worked in Berlin until he objected to a Nazi hack replacing a Jewish colleague – “as if they were complimenting him on being good as well as clever.”
She also listens to their stories of the political transformation under way at home. Their children, they confide, are all for Hitler. They are not upset about the Nazi’s ideology so much as its political interference in their everyday lives, especially commerce. One explains how her hairdresser had lost her job after failing the test for her license. “Yes, I am good at my work!” she quotes her hairdresser, who proudly enumerates her services, “but keep from mixing up Göring’s and Goebbels’s birthday, that can I not do.”
West’s companions bewilder her completely. She feels warmth for them when they react like children to seeing the snow in the alps and she commiserates with their tales of political and economic chaos after 1918. This aside, she finds them irritating. They view the country they are passing through with naked contempt. Dalmatia is redeemed only because that is where Germans go and, as a result, they believe the hotels and food they are accustomed to at home will follow. West, piqued, insists that the local cuisine and accommodations are excellent.
They are prototypically middle-aged and middle-class. West might appear to have succumbed to anti-bourgeois sentiment common among leftists of the age but for a jarring, “climactic mystification” she witnesses as they reach their first station in Yugoslavia. As they are approached by a Croat conductor, West is astonished to discover all four Germans were squatting in the first class cabin on second class tickets. This explains their strange vehemence when ejecting the alien young man who had tried to do the same thing. The Germans try to bribe the Croat conductor, who turns purple in rage and indignation. He shouts them down and they meekly submit. West and her husband are quietly appalled at this “most monstrous perfidy”.
Most of this could pass as social commentary in the vein of E.M. Forster or P.G. Wodehouse, a slight comedy of manners diverting from the main argument of the book. But West hides in plain sight a cutting indictment in miniature of the regime that at the moment of writing controlled all of Europe. The lack of moral awareness evidenced by her German cabinmates, combined with their reflexive deference to authority and force, goes very far to explain Germany in the 1930s.
“It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and so apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted,” she writes. That is an extraordinary prediction given the book was published in 1941. Somehow even in that dark moment she saw the Armageddon that awaited Germany in 1945.
This section and the Prologue before it are comparatively shortish examples of West’s creative approach. She marries an astonishing attention to detail to very long exposition which can appear to meander, the interest in a shiny new thing taken to its logical extreme. But West always tells a story to reach its moral. She foreshadows what becomes reality outside the book but also, as we will learn, an individual exemplar who arrives in the narrative later. She is at once anticipating, observing, and explaining the reductive seduction of fascism.
She is also contrasting these fussy Bürgers to the Yugoslavs they scorn in relation to her own experience. As the train approaches a suburban station outside Zagreb, she observes:
“An elderly man, his thin body clad in a tight-fitting, flimsy overcoat, trotted along beside the train, crying softly, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’ He held an open umbrella not over himself but at arm’s length. He had not brought it for himself, but for the beloved woman he was calling. He did not lose hope when he found her nowhere in all the long train, but turned and trotted all the way back, calling still with anxious sweetness, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’”
As the train pulls away, she notes:
“A ray of light from an electric standard shone on his white hair, on the dome of his umbrella, which was streaked with several rents, and on the strong spears of the driving rain.”
In that evocative sketch, we see her repose, the strain of social pretense evaporating. She is relieved: “I was among people I could understand.”
A Centenary’s Legacy Beneath Our Feet
The new year brings the centenary commemoration of World War I in Europe, whose legacy reverberates through our history, policy and literature. From the peace experiments of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations to the tendentious borders of southeastern Europe and the Middle East, World War One continues to affect us in our every day. In its fratricidal horror it has become, in some sense, Europe’s civil war. To me its sound down the decades makes William Faulkner’s adage — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — all the more resonant and poignant.
While living in Belgium I was immediately struck how the legacy of the combat from that war, and the wars that followed, continued to lurk just beneath the topsoil. I visited Verdun, the site of a year-long Franco-German engagement in 1916 resulting in a million deaths. (Such casualty figures are almost impossible to imagine today, but just look at the Congo.) To achieve this death toll, the belligerents fired at least as many artillery rounds, and probably many more. The result is still plain on the battlefield, etched by communication trenches (see picture above): the landscape looks like a snapshot of the ocean during a storm, roiled by waves. The churned earth, now smooth, conceals the bodies of the dead and untold number of unexploded artillery rounds. Visitors are strongly advised to keep to the cleared and marked trails.
The village of Fleury-devant-Douamont was completely destroyed during the fighting. The cliche of wiping something “off the map” is too often bandied about in global affairs today. But in the case of Fleury and for many French communities during World War One, it is important to remember that the map is the only physical record left of them.
Back in Brussels, a bomb from World War II was excavated during the construction of the new NATO Headquarters complex across Boulevard Leopold III. (We were instructed to remain indoors while the bomb was detonated.) This was alarming but hardly surprising. The entire area had been commandeered by the Nazis as a military airfield during the war, so unexploded ordnance (UXO) — Allied and German — were bound to be left behind.
In fact, Belgium and Germany have some of the most active UXO disposal teams in the world working on their own soil. I’ve seen reported Belgium responds to more than 3,000 reported UXO cases a year. Germany has had four deaths in recent years trying to clear UXO from World War II. Japan is also very active disposing of UXO from the Pacific campaign. This is an awful legacy of both world wars just among our Allies. UXO from more recent conflicts, or conflicts among belligerents involving our proxies, or among countries that don’t involve us at all, implicate a far greater legacy.
I am deliberately avoiding the subject of landmines, which has attracted its own attention for all the appropriate reasons. I’ve also written previously about the legacy of chemical weapons dumped at sea. It seems to me, in the centenary of World War I — in a vastly changed world, with all the belligerents from that conflicts now partners, Allies and friends — that there is something important to be understood about the century-long legacy of that conflict, which is buried right at our feet. And that is: we shouldn’t have to cope with the same legacy, with our new friends, more than one hundred years hence.