Monday, December 21, 2015

Hanky-panky in the book of the year

I realize, I am offering a
nomination too late to max
out its sale, but the book
of my year would not, in a
town with our pity, draw a
large audience, anyway. It
is Nick Stargardt's second
popular history of the war
in Europe, 1939-1945, from
the perspective of Germany
- a ringside seat, if ever
there were one.

For readers in this field,
The German War, adorned as
it is, by not one, but two
whole subtitles, makes for
necessary reading, even if
some will find it disturb-
ingly familiar.

Some years ago, in another
publishing house, our Nick
brought forth Witnesses of
War, with no more than one
subtitle; but the book won
attention, deservedly. Af-
ter Rossellini (Year Zero
and Grass (Tin Drum), some
historian of childhood was
bound to write of Germany.
It was very well done, and
I'm a little surprised, to
have omitted mentioning it.

But who knew, that in this
new text, I would have the
chance to praise the first?

     I think we all understand, when a guy repeats himself in a long political campaign. We tolerate these regurgitations as the stump speech, the spiel that would simply be ungenerous not to be sure we were fed. We know the refrain in song, we know the prior work's return, in footnotes or selected quotations, on the same page or in an appendix. How often do we appreciate, in fact, the trail-blazing provenance in an anthology's list of prior publication, to say nothing of the convenience of corralling Trevor-Roper between two covers? What we sort of don't like to think we might undergo, is the word-for-word redumping of entire blocks of text, from the copyright of Knopf, 2005, to that of Basic Books in 2015, without so much as a wave of the referring hand, an admission in the introduction, an assertion of right on the title page.

     It isn't that we're finicky. But of course it's one thing, for a guy to steal from himself, and something else, to adduce the same tissue of words to represent a different investigation. Is there so little connection between the work of selection and statement of evidence for A, that selection and statement can be abandoned as a warfare accomplished for B, ever after? I don't suggest laziness in this, I wonder about the risk of critical lethargy; and I certainly don't care, that he holds an Oxford chair. Some of our neediest cases did the same.

     The thrust of the book for Knopf was the description of the diversity of suffering of children under the Nazis in Germany and in the East. The thrust of the book for Basic is how Germans, self-identified as subjects of the regime, conducted their lives and sustained their minds in that same period. The Germans were Germans in both books; but they were miles apart in identity, under these two distinct vantage points.

     What are the conditions of the evidence, swapped from this burner, when evolved on that burner, without the same predicate, the same seasoning, the same destiny? What on earth is the structure of discussion doing, playing musical chairs with suggestive fragments? The risk in fiction, we recognize as blinding; but is this because we distrust fiction? Or do we hold history in worse contempt? In both, something greater than narrative elegance is at stake. Interpretation and judgment travel very, very badly when they change trains without notice. That is not a politician's redundancy. That is diagnostic mayhem, in any thought involving words.

     And this is regrettable, because a book doesn't rise to this level of consideration without extraordinary felicities. Stargardt's hunger to understand shines through his haste to explain, and for me - guardedly, but decidedly - this instinct closes gaps that his own weaknesses might open. For readers in this field, no return to it can be undertaken with pleasure, but it can be rewarded. The reward in this extremely humane book rises to a par with literature which really is implicit in the conduct of history. We think it strange, to be exemplary despite contradiction. But it is not strange at all, if you were German, and this were 1942. And we are not strange. 

     We just have an alarming politics. To endure its infinitely fatuous assertions of common sense, its grotesque temptations to excess, its monstrously vulgar seductions to force, a little leavening in history's registry of experience is not amiss. This citation comes from page 210 of the book of the year. It had 360 more pages to go:

     The farmer's son confessed to his diary in order 'to
     keep a balance of my life, to consider what is right 
     and wrong and to keep perspective'. Fumbling in the
     cold to get the words down, Albert Joos concluded,
     'Very rarely are people subjected in their lives to
     such brutalisation [Verrohung] and forced to live in
     such primitive conditions .. the continual lying in
     wait for the enemy, in order to do him in at any op-
     portunity, that lets one become properly harsh [roh]'.
     Existential fear now turned Nazi propaganda about
     Jewish-Bolshevism, treacherous civilians and danger-
     ous partisans into common sense. However nagging the
     lingering scruples of individuals, who recognised 
     with distaste how 'hard', 'harsh', 'brutal' and
     'coarse' they had become, the collective self-trans-
     formation of the eastern front was complete.

Nicholas Stargardt
Professor of European
  History, Magdalen

Witnesses of War
  Children's Lives under
  the Nazis
  Cf., Klaus Seidel's story,
  pp. 229-231
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005©

The German War
  A Nation under Arms, 1939-1945
  Citizens and Soldiers
  Cf., Klaus Seidel's story
  pp. 366-368
Basic Books, 2015©

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