Friday, November 11, 2016

Narratives of Resistance

Wounded Angel (1903) ~ Hugo Simberg (1873 - 1917)
Museum of Finnish Art, Helsinki

1. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
(first published 1947; English translation 2009)

"But she will keep her self - respect.
Then that will have been her attainment in life,
keeping her self - respect."

In this narrative of heroic resistance to Hitler, Fallada deftly weaves the true story of law - abiding model German citizens Otto and Elise Hampel into a compelling, distressing novel about Otto and Anna Quangel and their small circle of relatives, acquaintances, and co-workers. After the loss of their brother / son, the compliant, unassuming Hampels / Quangels become convinced that loved ones are dying in vain. And so begins their understated project of resistance, scattering postcards throughout Berlin: "German people wake up!" "Hitler's regime will bring no peace." "Hitler's war is the worker's death!" "Free Press! Why suffer war and death for the Hitler plutocracy?"

Their undertaking mystifies the Gestapo for two years (1940 - 42) before they are apprehended and sentenced to hanging. The following passages occur near the end of the novel, when Otto is imprisoned along with the musician Dr. Reichhardt, and they ponder the course their lives have taken and the impact of their resistance effort:

429 - 30: " 'I sometimes think now, Doctor, about the gifts I had no ideas I had. It's only since meeting you, since coming to this death row, that I understand how much I've missed out on in my life.'

'It's like that for everyone. Everyone facing death, especially premature death, like us, will be kicking themselves about each wasted hour.'

'But it's different for me, Doctor, I always thought it was enough if I didn't mess anything up. And now I learn that there are loads of other things I could have done: play chess, be kind to people, listen to music, go to the theater. You know, Doctor, if I were granted one wish before my death, it would be to see you with your baton conducting a big symphony orchestra. I'm so curious to see it, and find out my reaction to it.'

'No one can develop every side of themselves, Quangel. Life is so rich. You would only have spread yourself too thin. You did your job and were a man of integrity. When your were at liberty, Quangel, you had everything. You wrote your postcards.'

'Yes, but they didn't do any good, Doctor! I wished the earth would swallow me up when Inspector Escherich told me that of the 285 postcards I wrote, 267 went straight to him! Only eighteen not handed in! And those eighteen didn't do any good, either!'

'Who can say? At least you opposed evil. You weren't corrupted. You and I and the many locked up here, and many more in other places of detention, and tens of thousands in concentration camps -- they're all resisting, today, tomorrow.'

'Yes, and then they kill us, and what good did our resistance do?'

'Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end. And much more, it will have helped people everywhere, who will be saved for the righteous few among them, as it says in the Bible. . . . As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn't mean the we are alone, Quangel, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.'

'. . . You want to remain brave and strong; everything that keeps you brave and strong is good, just as everything that makes you weak and doubtful, such as brooding, is bad.' "


2. Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen
(first published 1947; English translation 1970, 1979, 2000)

“Really, this people, only yesterday so
intelligent and discerning, seems to have
been overcome by a disease of the mind.
They now believe everything they are told,
provided it is done with sufficient aplomb.”

In connection with Every Man Dies Alone I can't help thinking of the wartime narrative of wealthy landowner Fritz Reck, who -- like the Quangels / Hampels -- found a way, in the midst of despair to maintain his self - respect. Reck's very privileged and well-connected life is somewhat different than most of the WW II accounts I've read over the years. Still, the Nazis got him in the end because he bad - mouthed the government and wouldn't kowtow to the most powerful.

He was a backward looking man with a pastoral vision of cows in the meadow and virgins dancing at the crossroads (Gerry's phrase to describe a similarly misguided perception of Ireland). Of course, he could afford an anti-progressive stance because the old ways had been good to the landed gentry. In that way, I couldn't share his politics, since I usually have to align myself with the working class when it comes to the benefits of revolution. However, I agreed with him and found him wisely gazing into the future when he observed that petroleum and the advent of the automobile (big government, big auto) would ultimately do way more damage to civilization than the abuse of alcohol. If he could see the world today he really would despair. [See "A Horse Is At Least Human" & The Front Porch of My Life]


Gerry shared this book with his father,
who passed it on to his friend and neighbor
James White, who wrote the following response:

"I have always been interested in Germany -- their stamps, language and history. I had never heard of Friedrich Reck -- odd as the diary is a rare interesting account of life and conditions in Germany. It was dangerous to keep such a frank account and took a lot of courage.

I am sure much of the material has been incorporated into the documentaries, such as those frequently shown on aspects of Hilter on Freeview TV, but I have never noticed an acknowledgement of Friedrich Reck.

The heartfelt invective regularly featured against the regime is quite difficult to appreciate -- a bit of flaunting of his classical education and superiority socially and otherwise, so I do not think he exactly qualifies as a saint, although his death was no doubt heroic and honourable.

He was exactly the opposite of what I would support in many ways -- a conservative, a monarchist, an aristocrat, an elitist. It was quite amusing to me that the worst he could say of Hitler was that he had once lived in rented room at an unfashionable address! That is how people not born to privilege have to live while on the way up!

Although he prides himself on the accuracy of his facts, he is quite frequently wrong, as Paul Rubens points out in the notes illustrating the danger of gossip -- even from people who claim to be eye - witnesses. I was surprised at how people in his elevated circles knew of Eva Braun at an earlier date than I thought -- most Germans did not know (or care) of her existence -- and Reck seems to have been in the right place to report at the right time: Munich at the birth of the 'movement'; Berlin and Vienna later; and to have had embassy connections in Russia.

I was pleased to read a little of Sophie Scholl ( mentioned p 178), a young girl (18 or 19, I think) who had converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism and showed the highest moral objections to Nazism -- quite fearless and coherent -- a heroine, a patriot, and a saint which any country would be proud to own as a daughter. Traudl Junge, who was one of Hitler's private secretaries and in the Berlin bunker when he died, said that she had excused herself as too young to see the evil that Hitler was doing to Germany until after the war when she read Sophie Scholl, who was younger than she was -- and knew fully."


3. All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr

Thanks to my friend Katy Bunder for loaning me this book
(and for initially inspiring me -- eight years ago! --
to start a book blog and keep it going).

A novel of and for the senses -- a young French girl named Marie - Laure who cannot see, a young German radio communications expert named Werner, a priceless gleaming jewel that can curse or bless -- called the Sea of Flames, miniature models of complex cities, so many hiding spots, voices from the past. In this dual odyssey of compliance and resistance, of connection and coincidence, of place and time, Doerr brings Marie - Laure and Werner at last to the same Here and Now.

Of the numerous acts of resistance described by Doerr, the most ennobling occurs at Werner's military school when his classmate Frederick declines to participate in the enforced torture of a prisoner who has been tied to a stake on a cold night and doused repeatedly with water until he freezes.

228 - 29: "The water keeps coming. The prisoner's face empties. He slumps over the ropes . . .

The buckets make a muted, frozen clanking as they are refilled. The sixteen - year - olds finish. The fifteen - year - olds finish. The cheers lose their gusto and a pure longing to flee floods Werner. Run. Run. . . .

When his turn arrives, Werner throws the water like all the others and the splash hits the prisoner in the chest and a perfunctory cheer rises. He joins the cadets waiting to be released. Wet boots, wet cuffs; his hands have become so numb, they do not seem his own.

Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.

And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.

Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground. . . .

The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground. 'I will not.' "

When Gerry and I visited the Algonquin Restaurant
in New York City last Christmas (2015), Doerr's novel
was one of the featured reading selections in the window: