The Debatable Land #4: Tales from the Rubble
The making of Germany and the unmaking of women
Welcome to the fourth edition of The Debatable Land, my weekly newsletter. Thanks for signing-up and being here. Please do spread the word, should you feel like doing so.
The fierce urgency and moral horror of forgetting
Travelling through postwar Germany Hannah Arendt noted that the Germans she spoke to were oddly candid about their experiences under - and with - Nazism until, that is, she told them she was a Jew:
There generally followed a brief awkward pause; and after that came - not a personal question, such as ‘Where did you go after you left Germany?’; no sign of sympathy such as ‘What happened to your family’ - but a deluge of stories about how Germans have suffered.
For Arendt this was both personally painful and a sign of Germany’s inability to reckon with its own actions. It was easier for Germans to reimagine themselves as Hitler’s first victims than to confront the reality of its own criminality. If this was, morally, at best dubious it might also be considered the kind of necessary fiction upon which a shattered country must rely if it is to think itself capable of building any kind of new future.
And as Harald Jahner, the author of “Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955”, observes it must also be possible - credible, even - that Germans responded to Arendt in this fashion not because they did not know but because they did. Shame required shoving the Holocaust into some dark, unopened, recess of the mind. It could not be openly acknowledged for if it were it would swamp everything else. How could you live with the open knowledge you knew and not only did not care but welcomed it? Germany’s immediate history had to be repressed, the better to allow itself a future.
Jahner’s book is amongst the finest and most remarkable I have read this year. I commend it without hesitation. It is a cultural history not a military or political one but the world it reveals is a place that, amidst the deluge of Second World War history, is still under-examined. Or under-known in this country anyway.
For this was not the Germany of the economic miracle - extraordinary though that was - but instead something altogether different; a place liberated and guilty simultaneously; broken almost beyond repair and yet, still, capable of repair. A country lucky to still exist even as it was cleft in two. A place of near-unimaginable turmoil - it could take a week to travel by train from Hamburg to Munich - and yet also resourceful enough to begin the task of reconstruction.
Jahner is unsparing about his countrymen’s wilful amnesia (the author, a former newspaper editor, is a child of ‘68, the generation that insisted on an overdue reckoning) writing that, ‘if the majority of the people had had their way, there would have been no denazification worthy of the name’. And in many cases there wasn’t or, at least, there wasn’t until the 1960s. As Konrad Adenauer said in his first speech as chancellor, “The government of the Federal Republic, in the belief that many have atoned for a guilt that was subjectively not heavy, is determined where acceptable to put the past behind us.”
But only sometimes. Adenauer appointed Hans Globke, one of the authors of the Nuremberg Racial Laws, to run the Chancellery. If this too seems monstrous to a modern mind, we might pause to reflect on Adenauer’s defence of his decision: “One does not throw out dirty water while one does not have clean”. That is what you might deem a very hard truth.
It is, frankly, hard to conceive the scale of the destruction necessarily wrought upon Germany. In Berlin it took 22 years to clear the city of wartime rubble; in Dresden the rubble-clearing was not completed until 1977. Nine million Germans had been bombed out of their homes; 14 million refugees and Germans exiled from the east swarmed the country; 10 million released slave labourers and prisoners had to find somewhere to go and something to do. Millions more German prisoners of war returned home to a country they could scarcely consider home at all. There were perhaps as many as 40 million displaced persons.
Some of these - perhaps as many as 100,000 - were Jews, most of them Poles, who made an extraordinary migration from the east into what would become West Germany. “Of all places”, Janher writes, “Munich, the birthplace of Nazi movement, became the transit point for a mass-exodus of Jews from liberated Eastern Europe”.
In August 1945, the Americans were shocked by the conditions in which many Jewish displaced people were living, “under guard” a report noted, “behind barbed-wire fences, in camps of several descriptions […] including some of the most notorious of the concentration camps”. Many “had no clothing other than their concentration camp garb […] while others, to their chagrin, were obliged to wear German S.S. uniforms…” Let us pause for a moment to think on that.
Many, most, of these Jews wished to make their way to Israel or the United States but huge numbers were required to wait years before doing so. One camp, Föhrenwald, formerly home to munitions workers toiling for IG Farben, was still populated until the last residents left in 1957. I repeat, 1957.
This book is full of marmalade-droppers of this kind. And yet amidst all the horror and the amnesia and the scarcely imaginable devastation there was also, especially for the young, the promise of a new beginning. Theatre and music and cigarettes and sex returned; cultural arguments raged with a freedom and vehemence all the brighter for its fleeting nature. A moment in time between the horrors of Nazism and the comfortable, but conformist, realities of 1950s life in the Federal Republic of West Germany. For a moment, history was erased and anything was, if not possible, at least imaginable.
Much of this required a moral slackness that is easily - understandably - reckoned sickening today. But, true as that may be, it prompts a series of separate questions: what would you have done, how would you have thought, what would you have considered vital, had it been you living in that place, at that moment? I fancy the answers to those questions would not, in reality, have been as comforting as we might wish or even think them to be.
Because, in the end, how do you make an immediate reckoning with a horror in which you were not complicit, or the poor, first victims of, but rather enthusiastic supporters and participants? To confront that history immediately and then swiftly learn from or move on from it would risk seeming cheap, even glib. A kind of false reckoning. A knowing forgetfulness, persisting until such time as a better kind of resolution with the past could be made, might not be so very noble but it might also allow for that fuller form of historical book-keeping. Perhaps.
We know so much about the Second World War it is easy to forget there is still, even now, so much more to learn about it. By comparison the post-war moment is under-examined even though it too helped create the boundaries - mental as well as physical - of a world we still, just about, inhabit today.
For of course Germany’s response to occupying Europe was not to leave Europe - a physical impossibility anyway - but to bury itself within Europe. And by imagining themselves Hitler’s victims, Germans could on one level commit to the european project with a cleaner conscience than might otherwise be the case even as, on another level, that commitment was itself an act of recognition and atonement.
Britain’s experience, by contrast and almost uniquely, was quite different. We were not victims of the war and that coloured much of what was to come. If you seek a starting point for Brexit, amongst many other things, you may find it in that distinction.
Regardless, Jahner’s book is packed with life as it was - unsparing and real - but also replete with imagination and, perhaps above all, humanity. Even where he judges, he does so with empathy. What more can we ask of a historian than that?
And, look, the past is closer than you think…
Earthquake in Shropshire; Some Dead
Shropshire is the location of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle and thus, in fiction as in life, a kind of lotus land for Tories. It takes a rare measure of political genius to turn a 23,000 vote Tory supremacy into a 6,000 vote Liberal Democrat ascendancy in a place like that but, credit where it is due, Boris Johnson has achieved this. The North Shropshire by-election was wholly unnecessary and only forced as a result of the government’s scandalous - and incompetent! - handling of the Owen Paterson Affair. The Downing Street Christmas Party and all that said about this government - the reaction and the denial being worse than the original malfeasance - then did the rest.
Covid, of course, and the general temper - distemper, if you will - of the moment played a part. Voters gleefully took advantage of the opportunity to give the government a kicking. And who can blame them? Objectively, all of this is Very Funny Indeed.
But, as I wrote for The Spectator, the real significance of the result is what happened to the Labour vote. It fell by 12 points and this is very good news for Keir Starmer. Why? Because it shows that voters, even tribal Labour ones, are organising themselves to back the non-Tory candidate most likely to defeat the Conservatives. If that pattern were repeated at a general election, Labour voters would help the Lib Dems take seats from the Tories and Lib Dem (and Green) voters would help Labour in a rather greater number of constituencies. The growth of an unofficial, de facto, anti-Tory alliance is what should really concern Conservative HQ this weekend. Because when tactical voting starts to happen organically, it takes on a life of its own. Just ask John Major about that.
On Twitter you live and learn and one of the things I discovered this week is that asshat American lawyers are even more insufferable than their priggish British counterparts. Poor Jolyon Maugham - the fox-slaying, kimono-sporting would-be saviour of the realm - cannot hold a candle to some of his American counterparts. They do Wrongness bigger and better there.
Which brings me to a cove named Seth Abramson. He gained a certain notoriety for extended Twitter riffs during the Trump years in the course of which he claimed to have discovered all the proof the world needed of Trump’s collusion with the Russians. Even if you were minded to view this sympathetically, Abramson’s style was enough to make you think twice about doing so. But, whatever. Mileage may vary and all that.
This week he took exception to JK Rowling taking exception to Police Scotland’s policy of classifying male-bodied rape suspects as women if that is how said suspect would rather be considered. Abramson did not so much pick up the wrong end of this stick as seize an entirely different stick. I made the mistake of pointing out that, on a matter of fact, his understanding of Scots (and indeed English) law was mistaken. (Rape here requires a penis). Anyway, things escalated somewhat and ended thusly:
What’s interesting, but also hugely typical of this so-called debate, is the accusation Abramson ends with: those who disagree with him must want “all trans women dead”. Anyone who has taken part in this argument - or watched others doing so - will have come across this before but it is always odd to be accused of, well, something tantamount to “genocide” - a word Trans activists are very happy to throw about - on the basis of absolutely nothing at all. To observe that while gender may exist on a spectrum sex is binary ought not to be controversial. It is, however, an in large part because there is a constituency which now considers elementary truths hateful. You cannot merely have a difference of opinion; you must want trans people dead.
You can’t really argue with this sort of thing and of course that is part of the point. You aren’t supposed to. Better to have the discussion shut down and if it takes moon-howling hysteria to do so then so be it.
And yet, despite this, it won’t go away. As it happens I wrote about the reality-bending instinct to allow rape suspects to identify as women for my Times column this week. Now, on one level this is a hypothetical matter (albeit a useful and revealing one) but it is also an issue of real concern: there are already female-identifying, male-bodied sex offenders serving time in British prisons.
Almost all violent crime and almost all sexual offences are committed by men. Or, if you must, by people with male bodies. In response to this fact, trans rights campaigners argue that trans women are not a danger to biological women; “cisgender” men are.
But if you think this - and I do as well - then you have to rethink your enthusiasm for self-ID, the process by which medical accreditation of transgender identity would be replaced by a process of self-affirmation. You can think sex offenders who “discover” their female identity (while remaining, so to speak, intact males) after they have been charged are not actually trans women in any true sense and are, instead, exploiting the fashion for self-identification for their own twisted ends or you can continue to insist that, despite all that, their self-declared identity is a true expression of their sense of themselves. A kind of new reality.
You cannot, I think, argue that a sex offender who identifies as trans is not actually truly trans and still, however, insist that self-ID is a serious, and worthy, proposition. Some consistency is required. Either these people - however hypothetical they may be - are trans or they are not. Self-ID requires you to take them at their word and there is nothing that can be done about it.
This seems very unfair on those trans people - a minority, admittedly - who have actually gone to the trouble of obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate. This does not necessarily require surgery, but it does depend upon a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and a commitment to living your new reality. It is not, then, a kind of lifestyle choice of the sort made by Eddie Izzard when he declared he would now be living in “girl mode”. From which we may further deduce that being trans also exists on a spectrum.
I think that if I were a GRC-holding trans person I should be grossly upset by lifestyle trans folk - and trans allies - trespassing on my turf in this fashion. For I doubt I would think many of these people trans in a true or committed sense and I suspect I would worry that expanding the definition of trans to include male sex offenders fancying life in a women’s prison would do more to damage trans rights than expand them.
Viewed from that perspective, a more stringent definition of trans might actually serve the interests of trans people better than the anything goes approach that is current Scottish government policy.
Relatesly: Rosie Kay on being forced out of her own dance company for the crime of Thinking Bad Thoughts: “You are asking far, far too much and we know it. We must, and always must, state our truth of our own existence.”
These are the Nolan Principles: how many, if any, does Boris Johnson meet? Be honest. And show your working.
Grimness, up north, as always
I take mean-spirited joy in tales of Londoners fleeing the metropolis for the countryside only to discover that the countryside - even in England, where they don’t have much of it - is not London. Last week’s edition of The Sunday Times carried a splendid example of the genre:
The rude awakenings often depend on where in the countryside they move to. Ben Pridden, a director at Hewetson & Johnson estate agency in North Yorkshire, says: “If someone is moving from Acton, say, to Hampshire, it’s not such a massive upheaval. But North Yorkshire is a big move. It’s darker, damper, browner — it’s the real countryside. There isn’t a Soho Farmhouse to nip to every Saturday morning, with negronis on tap.”
The social make-up is different too. “In the Cotswolds there’ll be five to ten big houses in every village and five children all at the same prep school. In North Yorkshire there might be one big house per village. You might have to go to five villages to find another family.”
One of his clients found this out the hard way. “I had a young family who came up to North Yorkshire to start the idyllic life just over a year ago. They moved to a significant house, it looked like the dream move. But it became evident fairly quickly that the area wasn’t for them — it lacked the support network that the mother was used to in London. She said, ‘I’m having to drive a hour just to have a cup of coffee with someone.’”
The horror. Bear in mind, too, that while North Yorkshire is empty by English standards it has at least ten towns or cities with a population of more than 50,000 people and a population density of 74 folk per square kilometre. By comparison, Perthshire has 29 and the Highlands only 9.
[One day, some bright editor will commission pieces in which people from Shetland or Scunthorpe discover that life in London is not like life at home and, in oh so many ways, much worse. One day…]
The joy of Saki
There is something about Saki’s short stories that make them especially suitable for reading at this time of year. More than a century after HH Monro’s death at the hands of a German sniper in November 1916, I suspect he is little read these days. But he deserves better than that. Many of his stories - as playful as they are macabre - retain their freshness. Read them and you can discern their influence on folk as various as PG Wodehouse and Roald Dahl. Anyway, a judicious selection would make a splendid present for any inquisitive or pleasingly troublesome child. A lifetime of enjoyment will ensue.
The Lumber Room is a particular favourite. Its beginning is perfect:
The children were to be driven, as a special treat, to the sands at Jagborough. Nicholas was not to be of the party; he was in disgrace. Only that morning he had refused to eat his wholesome bread-and-milk on the seemingly frivolous ground that there was a frog in it. Older and wiser and better people had told him that there could not possibly be a frog in his bread-and-milk and that he was not to talk nonsense; he continued, nevertheless, to talk what seemed the veriest nonsense, and described with much detail the coloration and markings of the alleged frog. The dramatic part of the incident was that there really was a frog in Nicholas's basin of bread-and-milk; he had put it there himself, so he felt entitled to know something about it. The sin of taking a frog from the garden and putting it into a bowl of wholesome bread-and-milk was enlarged on at great length, but the fact that stood out clearest in the whole affair, as it presented itself to the mind of Nicholas, was that the older, wiser, and better people had been proved to be profoundly in error in matters about which they had expressed the utmost assurance.
"You said there couldn't possibly be a frog in my bread-and-milk; there was a frog in my bread-and-milk," he repeated, with the insistence of a skilled tactician who does not intend to shift from favourable ground.
So his boy-cousin and girl-cousin and his quite uninteresting younger brother were to be taken to Jagborough sands that afternoon and he was to stay at home. His cousins' aunt, who insisted, by an unwarranted stretch of imagination, in styling herself his aunt also, had hastily invented the Jagborough expedition in order to impress on Nicholas the delights that he had justly forfeited by his disgraceful conduct at the breakfast-table. It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred; if all the children sinned collectively they were suddenly informed of a circus in a neighbouring town, a circus of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day.
Henry Mance meets Nick Clegg. Kind of. “Nick Clegg may be available in Berlin. He has a slot in Paris. He’ll make time for lunch in Brussels. Then Omicron hits, and the vice-president of global affairs at Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is not coming to Europe after all. Instead Clegg offers to meet . . . in the metaverse, the immersive digital world hyped as the successor to the internet. In the metaverse, no one can give you Covid. So I put on a bulky virtual reality headset, sign away my data and log into a simulated meeting room. There I find that the one-time deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom is now a wrinkle-free avatar with the word “Nick” hovering above it. “Can we get the sneering and mockery out of the way?” says the avatar. Sadly not, because he doesn’t have any trousers on. Neither do I.” [FT]
Jonathan Freedland goes in studs-up on the government: It’s not sleaze, it’s corruption. [Guardian]
Paris is planning to make it possible to swim in the Seine without the risk of poisoning yourself. A reminder that this kind of eco-politics should be meat-and-drink to conservative politicians everywhere. Yet here - or in England, anyway - the Conservatives seem oddly sluggish in this regard. [Bloomberg]
On which note, this may date from 2018, but it’s still strange to think that, of all people, the high-profile person doing the most to save England’s chalk streams is, er, Feargal Sharkey. [Guardian]
Sales of luxury watches per capita are 40 per cent lower in the United States than the UK. Which may be why The Times rates Watches of Switzerland a “buy”.
Ten years after his brother Christopher’s death, Peter Hitchens republishes his moving, lovely, tribute: “I am still baffled by how far we both came, in our different ways, from the small, quiet, shabby world of chilly, sombre rented houses and austere boarding schools, of battered and declining naval seaports, not specially cultured, not book-lined or literary or showy but plain, dutiful and unassuming. How unlikely it would have seemed in those irrecoverable suburban afternoons that we would take the courses we did take.” [Mail Online]
Now you know this, nothing will ever be the same again:
Yves Montand: Les Feuilles Mortes. Enough said.
That’s all folks! See you next time for a Christmas/New Year edition that will, I think, be the last of the year. As always, thanks for being here and if you felt like encouraging others to be here too that would be very kind and nice indeed.