Inveterate Tauranga reader Kevin Newman shares with you three reviews of his recently read books. ARTbop WORDS welcomes Kevin as an occasional reviewer. Kevin describes his first review of the World War II career of a female Nazi member of the Waffen S.S. And her participation in events we now generally call the Holocaust as “a most disturbing read”.
LET ME GO by Helga Schneider
Published in English by Walker & Co., originally published in German in 2001
A most disturbing read. This well written and shocking book details the life of her Mother Traudi, and her relationship with the author.
Traudi abandoned Helga, aged four years and her son Peter 19 months in 1941. Bad enough. Traudi left them to pursue a career in the S.S. Traudi expressed no regrets. None for deserting her children and none for her career in the S.S.
In 1998, Helga is persuaded to visit her Mother, then ages 90. Her only previous meeting had taken place in 1971. It was not a success. On that occasion Traudi praised her former S.S. Comrades as “irreproachable family men”. Oh dear.
Prior to the latter visit, Helga consulted the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, documenting war crimes. Her Mother’s record was even more disturbing than she had feared. That she was an early Nazi activist was to be expected. She went on to become a Camp Guard at Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck and Auschwitz-Birkenau. At Ravensbruck she took part in experiments conducted on prisoners.
The reunion does not go well. Yet again Traudi expresses no remorse. She praises the Nazi regime. She can see nothing wrong with the brutal and disgusting experiments carried out on the prisoners. Helga reacts, once moe, with dismay and disbelief.
The details of the experiments make for grim reading. Traudi tries to give her daughter some gold jewellery. Helga refuses to accept. After all, how had her Mother got possession of the gold? The lack of remorse is a continuing feature.
The Catholic Church teaches that Hell exists, but that we do not know for certain if anyone is there. As we cannot know the disposition of anyone’s conscience at the time of death. We should assume true sorrow for sins committed and a desire for forgiveness. Let us hope that for Traudi’s sake that this is true.
This book gives an insight into evil ideas and behaviours. After finishing it, I turned to P.G. Wodehouse as an antidote.
Kevin’s second review is of a work about a post-war East Germany; the Germany divided by the Berlin Wall, its security service “the Stasi” and its overwhelming information collection.
STASILAND by Anna Funder
Published by Harper Collins, Granta and originally by the University of Michigan 2003
Anna Funder’s passionate and deeply moving work paints a frightening and depressing picture of life in the D.D.R (the former East Germany). The harshness of the regime was matched by its thoroughness in information gathering about the ordinary citizen.
The book highlights individual perspectives of those who fell foul of the regime, and its secret police the Stasi. Some who tried to escape to the West were avowed anti-communists. Others simply wanted to be different, to not have to conform to the stifling rigidity requited in the D.D.R. Having a foreign boyfriend, reading the wrong books, attending Church; all made a citizen suspect.
The personal stories of escapees and those who failed to escape, show the determination of the regime to maintain its control over society. Funder interviewed victims of the regime and their persecutors. Former Stasi operatives speak candidly about their activities and demonstrate a clear lack of remorse for ruining people’s’ lives. Whatever they thought they were doing, building socialism, it was not!
Despite informers in every school, workplace, apartment block and social activity, the Stasi failed to predict the demise of the regime. They collected a massive amount of information. Laid out end to end, the Stasi files would have formed a line 180 kms long. They even went so far as to collect smell samples of the political opposition in Leipzig. So they could identify them in the dark?
By the time the regime was nearing its end the Stasi became scared that their opponents would take revenge on them. They displayed a strange paralysis of will and concentrated on destroying files. The shredders broke down through over use, and they had to send agents out to the West to purchase new ones.
The courage, resilience and sheer decency of those opposed to the regime shines through. The opposition brought about the only peaceful revolution in German history.
In the midst of her extensive research, Funder manages to lead an interesting personal life, of which she gives us occasional glimpses. Having being reminded of a particularly lengthy drinking session she writes: “One of the conventions among decent drinking partners is that where there is not actual amnesia it should be simulated.” I say Amen to that.
Kevin’s final review continues his European focus; a book about wartime and post-WWII France and Paris.
Paris After the Liberation 1944 – 1949 by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper
Published by Penguin, New Edition, October 2007
An excellent historical work. Very well researched and written. The book commences with the collapse of the Third Republic in 1940. It covers three principal themes; the struggle between traditional France, right-wing and pro-church forces and the anti-clerical left; the uneasy love hate relationship between France and the U.S.A.; and the conflict between intellectual traditions.
The Authors examine the myth of the resistance, that the French, State and People, ad resisted the German occupation. In reality relatively few French citizens had actually resisted. The collaborationist Vichy Regime, led by Marshall Petain was widely supported. However, General De Gaulle, a towering figure, sensed the need to build national unity and promoted the idea of France Combattante – Fighting France. France had somehow freed herself with little help from the Americans and the British.
The book is broad in scope, ranging from themes of international power politics to regulations relating to the running of brothels.
There is a case of varied characters. General De Gaulle comes across as vain, moody and resentful. A “great” man but possibly not a nice one. The pious Mme De Gaulle was so religious that the though of meeting divorced woman gave her a migraine. The collaborators are drawn fairly, if not sympathetically. The authors have dept to their early statement; “The primary duty of the historian is to understand. It is not to cast stones in moral outrage.”
Indeed there are some stones to be case. After a relatively brief period of bringing collaborators to justice, the Government decided to return to business as usual. After all, many French citizens had simply continued doing their jobs. Where was the wrong in that? Consequently leading officials who were in charge of the round-up and deportation of French Jews and Jews of other nationalities living in France were left to continue their careers. It was not until the 1980’s that attempts were made to bring the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity to trial.
The book covers the intellectual life of Paris in much detail. Perhaps I suffer from an overdose of pragmatic Anglo-Saxon disdain for French intellectualism. The idea of sitting in cafes drinking and smoking too much, flirting with members of the opposite sex sounded (and sounds) great fun. One could, at the same time, pontificate about life, history and ideas. It probably doesn’t amount to a great deal. An excellent read.