Extracts from the Jun 2013 Journal

Germany on the London stage

It is not often that the London stage plays host to two productions about Germany in quick succession. The first, The Captain of Köpenick, an English adaptation of Carl Zuckmayer’s classic comedy Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (1931) and starring Anthony Sher, had a recent run at the National Theatre, while the second, a stage adaptation of Kressmann Taylor’s short novel Address Unknown (1938), opens at the Soho Theatre later this month. Both throw light on the troubled history of Germany in the first half of the last century, though the adaptation of The Captain of Köpenick restyled much of the play into knockabout farce.
That was a missed opportunity, for Zuckmayer’s play, based on a real incident that occurred in 1906, is the model of a very funny play that has serious points to make. Those who mistakenly believe that there is no such thing as German comedy would do well to compare Zuckmayer’s comic masterpiece with its British contemporaries, the best-known of which are ‘Oh Dahling’ comedies by Noel Coward or farces like Rookery Nook. There are few works of literature that challenge the authoritarian mentality more effectively, and with greater comic force, than Der Hauptmann von Köpenick. It was inspired by the exploits of a petty criminal and unemployed cobbler, Wilhelm Voigt, who, in desperation at his inability to obtain papers officially permitting him to work and live in Berlin, acquired a second-hand captain’s uniform, commandeered a unit of soldiers, marched them off to the town hall of the south-eastern suburb of Köpenick, declared a state of siege, arrested the mayor and absconded with the contents of the borough treasury. The way in which everyone he encountered, soldiers and civilians, kowtowed to the all-powerful aura of the army uniform caused a storm of hilarity across Germany.
The drama’s action skilfully weaves together the stories of its two main agents, Voigt and the uniform, over a period of some ten years, before bringing them together for the climax at Köpenick. One strand of the action traces Voigt’s dispiriting quest for the papers that would allow him a stable life, through scenes in soulless police offices, seedy bars, a prison and a dosshouse, while the other develops the story of the uniform. After initially adorning the person of a Prussian officer, Captain von Schlettow, the uniform passes to the aspiring young local politician Obermüller, at that stage also a junior officer in the army reserve, and ends up in a cheap Jewish second-hand clothes shop. There Voigt acquires it for his daring impersonation of an army officer, in which his principal victim is none other than the unfortunate Obermüller, now mayor of Köpenick.
Zuckmayer ironically subtitled his comedy ‘ein deutsches Märchen in drei Akten’, a modern ‘German fairy tale in three acts’, in which an unemployed cobbler disguised as an army officer triumphs over a soulless bureaucratic machine bent on denying him his basic rights. The play’s vibrancy and lasting appeal derive from its skilful exploitation of its principal comic theme: the collision between self-important bureaucrats, pedantically insistent on the observance of administrative regulations, and the slyly disrespectful, Schweikian outsider, who uses the tools of wit and irony to undermine pompous officialdom and who successfully turns the system’s own weapons against it in his escapade at Köpenick. Zuckmayer’s attack on militarism and the authoritarian, hierarchical mentality that flourished in imperial Germany is clad in exuberant, often hilarious comedy. He satirises the military spirit that pervaded so many German institutions, for example by showing how Voigt gains the knowledge of the Prussian army that enables him to pull off his impersonation from a spell in Sonnenburg prison (of all places), where the governor is bent on instilling patriotic, military behaviour in his charges.
The drama is also a variation on the perennial literary theme of ‘Kleider machen Leute’, illustrating how people are judged (or misjudged) according to the clothes they wear. In this case, the uniform guarantees the success of Voigt’s ruse, thereby demonstrating the continuing hold of authoritarian, militaristic attitudes on the civilian population of a supposedly constitutional, democratic state and the continuing unthinking deference of civilians, up to and including the mayor of Köpenick, to the militarised symbols and values of the ‘Obrigkeitsstaat’, the authoritarian state. That such attitudes spilled over from the era of the Wilhelmine Empire into the Weimar Republic, helping to undermine its democratic structures, was demonstrated in 1925, when Field Marshal Hindenburg, former head of the imperial army and symbol of its values, was elected president of Germany; in that office, he appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933.
Address Unknown, written in 1938 as a warning to a largely ignorant America about the insidious dangers of Nazi ideology, was the work of (Kathrine) Kressmann Taylor (1903-96); her publisher used only her two last names, thinking the story too hard-hitting to appear under a woman’s name. The novel takes the form of an exchange of letters between two business partners: a Jew, Max Eisenstein, who has stayed in San Francisco, and a German, Martin Schulse, who has returned to Germany; the exchange, beginning in November 1932 and ending in March 1934, reflects the seismic changes wrought by the Nazi assumption of power in January 1933.
Kressmann Taylor’s novel was a huge success when it appeared and, though it vanished from view after 1945, has sold well since its republication in 1995. The British edition is published by Souvenir Press (London) at £7.99. Its success derives from the author’s extremely effective use of the simple device of telling her story entirely through the letters of her two protagonists, allowing the deterioration in their relationship and the reasons for it to emerge from their own words, with no narrator or authorial comment intervening. The hallmark of the epistolary novel has always been to allow the reader direct, unmediated access to the thoughts, feelings and motives - real, pretended or concealed - of its characters. That applies to texts where the reader enters the emotional world of a single figure, as in Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) (1774), or those which chart the relations between two characters, like Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (1970), or those written from multiple perspectives, like Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) (1782).
Address Unknown begins as a correspondence between two old friends, as Eisenstein in San Francisco expresses his envy of Schulse’s return to pre-Hitler Germany. But the cordial tone of Schulse’s reply of December 1932 cannot conceal the weaknesses in his character: while lamenting the poverty afflicting Germany, he boasts from Munich of the palatial residence that he has been able to pick up cheap, and his decision to take up an official position hints at an unattractive streak of self-interested ambition. His attempts to sing the praises of Eisenstein’s younger sister Griselle, an aspiring actress, ring false; the reader soon gathers that Schulse has had an affair with Griselle, but has abandoned her to return to his wife.
In Schulse’s next letter, dated 25 March 1933, his fickleness emerges all too clearly. Though impressed by Hitler’s fiery oratory, which he compares to an electric shock, he still has serious doubts about the methods, goals and even the sanity of the Nazi leader. But he leaves us in little doubt that he will follow the path dictated by his own interests as an official; he has already joined the Nazi Party. While deploring the Jew-baiting with one breath, with another he seeks to trivialise the Nazis’ ruthless use of violence: ‘But these things pass; if the end in view is right they pass and are forgotten. History writes a clean new page.’ A less than convincing attempt to justify the persecution of defenceless minorities.
Sure enough, by July 1933 Schulse has become a loyal Nazi, seeing Hitler as the great Leader sent to rescue Germany from the morass of defeat and poverty. He now argues that Eisenstein’s horrified condemnation of Nazi outrages merely demonstrates the defects innate in those of Jewish race, and that it is those defects that are to blame for the persecution visited on the Jews. In line with his new-found Nazi beliefs, Schulse insists to Eisenstein that their correspondence must cease. But Eisenstein is forced to disregard his ex-friend’s demand, in his desperation to discover what has happened to his sister, who, having rashly accepted a role on the Berlin stage, has now disappeared. Schulse’s reply to Eisenstein’s pleas is chilling. ‘Heil Hitler!’, it begins. ‘I much regret that I have bad news for you. Your sister is dead.’ From Schulse’s account of events, the reader can deduce that Griselle has fled to Munich, but that Schulse has refused her refuge, out of naked cowardice and fear for his position, leaving her to the tender mercies of the pursuing Storm Troopers. I will not reveal the means by which Eisenstein exacts revenge on his faithless friend; suffice it to say that it brings the novel to a compellingly dramatic conclusion. [more...]

Frankfurt unveiling of plaque to British diplomats who helped Jews

‘Day by day for several months, these men provided comfort, advice and help to the unfortunate people filling the waiting room. This is surely a shining example of true humanity.’ This quote, from Rabbi Georg Salzberger, appears on a plaque unveiled on 8 May on the site of the former British Consulate General in Frankfurt and refers to the former British Consul General Robert T. Smallbones and Vice Consul Arthur Dowden. Georg Salzberger was for 30 years Rabbi of the Liberal community in Frankfurt (today’s WestEnd Synagogue) and later founded what is now Belsize Square Synagogue. [more...]

Stolpersteine in south-west Germany: Commemorating the first deportations

The Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones project has been going on throughout Germany for the last 18 years. Small concrete blocks, 10 x 10 cm square with a brass plaque on the top, have been set in pavements around Germany and in some neighbouring countries in front of the homes of people who were deported by the Nazis.
The plaques give the names and dates of these individuals and an indication of their fate. Many towns and cities have taken up the idea enthusiastically, as local activists commemorate citizens who fell victim to Nazi ideology - Jews and those non-Jews who did not fit into the Nazi framework.
For the south-west corner of Germany, the salient date is 22 October 1940 - 15 months before the Wannsee conference. This was the day on which nearly all the Jews from Baden, the Rhine-Palatinate and the Saarland, totalling some 6,000 people, were deported to a camp at Gurs near Pau at the foot of the Pyrenees in south-western France.
The camp had been built in 1939 to hold Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War. After Germany's invasion of France in June 1940, it was run by the Vichy French. Conditions were primitive. Although there were stoves in the windowless wooden huts, no wood was provided for heating. Constant rain turned the heavy ground into a quagmire for anyone searching for firewood or going to the makeshift latrines. There were no beds: initially, men slept on the bare ground while women were given straw to lie on. Nutrition was utterly inadequate.
However, there was no deliberate policy of sadism. People could be liberated from Gurs if they had relatives to pay their transfer to another country (mostly America). It was possible to write, though paper was difficult to get hold of. Much information comes from their letters, as well as volunteer workers' diaries and later memoirs. It was also fairly easy to escape, though difficult to survive outside without ration cards.
Of the 6,000 deportees from Germany, 1,050 died in the first four months, 60 per cent of them aged over 60. The German authorities had not informed the French about these arrivals so the latter had had to find some ad hoc way of dealing with them. Not all remained in Gurs. Many were transferred to other camps, such as Rivesaltes near Perpignan, Récébédou and Noé near Toulouse, or Masseube in the département of Gers. There was a camp for families with children (but with men and women separated) and camps for the sick and the elderly.
Humanitarian organisations like the Quakers, Swiss Children’s Aid and the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE, founded as a health organisation by Jewish doctors in Tsarist Russia in 1912 and metamorphosing into an underground children's rescue service in wartime France) placed some of the children in homes, from where they were helped to escape to Switzerland. Adults were less fortunate. Once the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ was reached, the Jews in the camps of southern France were an easy target for the Nazis. They leant on the French to organise the transport. In August 1942 trains left these camps for the transit camp of Drancy, outside Paris. Here the convois which left Paris with one destination – Auschwitz - were put together.
These people are now being recognised in their former homes. As a regional centre, Heidelberg has already conducted three stone-laying ceremonies for some of the 300 people deported from there. The most recent was in November 2012 and the next was due to take place this March. [more...]

Art Notes (review)

Years ago I visited Pompeii. The Roman villas, the frescoes, the streets all had an air of having just paused for lunch on a hot Mediterranean day. But it took just 24 hours in AD 79 to submerge both Pompeii and its seaside neighbour Herculaneum under a pyroclastic deluge of volcanic ash and stones which erupted from Mount Vesuvius, killing some 16,000 inhabitants.
Pliny the Younger recalled the utter blackness; poets like Statius lamented the cities’ loss. I vividly remember the entwined bodies of a pair of lovers, entombed in ash for eternity. They had a Sleeping Beauty-like stillness.
This is the pathos of the British Museum’s excellent exhibition Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum. But it is not death that the BM celebrates, but the intensity of industrial city life: from the frescoes to the marble statues, from the garden room murals to the ionic pedestals lining a shimmering pond, from the reconstructed sounds of hammering, tiling, hewing to the lilt of birdsong and the sound of water. [more...]

Letter from Israel:

By a strange coincidence, I found myself in three separate situations within the space of one month in which I was required to sing along - an activity in which I am not usually prone to participate. All three situations occurred in very different circumstances and were far from unpleasant, but I think they each show the society of modern Israel in a new and different light.
The first occasion was the annual gala evening laid on by the Israel Museum for its hundreds of volunteers. For a variety of reasons (demographic, medical, sociological), most of these volunteers seem to be female and of retirement age or more. Having been among their number for the last five or six years, I can also vouch for the general high level of culture, affability and intelligence of this group. Of course, there is a sprinkling of men among them, but they are a definite minority.
As is customary, the evening consisted of an hour or so of entertainment followed by a dinner. The entertainment segment of the evening started off with congratulatory speeches from various members of the Museum’s directorate and the volunteers’ organisation, followed by a musical interlude.
This year the music was provided by five young men calling themselves The Magical Mystery Tour and - yes - they played a medley of songs by the Beatles. As is obvious from the ages of the volunteers, many of them were young when the Beatles first burst onto the scene and thus feel quite attached to that kind of music. Even the most ardent adherent of classical music, such as myself, feels a certain affinity for those songs.
But the band on the stage were not content with playing their guitars and singing the songs. They invited us all to sing and clap together with them and - better still - dance in the aisles. No one who was there that evening will forget the sound of dozens of ladies of a certain age belting out ‘She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’ and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, or the sight of the more adventurous among them standing up and wriggling and writhing where they stood.
The second occasion was at a concert in the village of Abu Ghosh just outside Jerusalem. The church there hosts choral concerts throughout the year. At the concert I attended, the Stuttgart Chamber Choir sang cantatas by Bach and Buxtehude. The choir is semi-professional and its singing is of the highest quality. But lo and behold, when the audience demanded an encore the conductor turned round to us and explained that the driver of the bus that had taken them around Israel each year for the last ten years had taught them an Israeli song they would like to sing to us. After the choir had given a touching rendition (in Hebrew) of ‘Eli, Eli’, the conductor exhorted the audience to join in, which we duly did. Nothing could have been more surreal, or more touching, than to hear an Israeli audience singing that song in a church in an Arab village together with a choir from Germany.
And the last occasion, in that same month, was the first concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra subscription series in Jerusalem’s Binyanei HaOoma, a huge auditorium which can accommodate almost 2,000 people. The conductor, Zubin Mehta, is originally from India but is virtually considered an Israeli due to his longstanding association with the IPO. Since it was the first concert of the series it began with the national anthem, Hatikva. At the familiar drumroll everyone stood up and, accompanied by the orchestra, sang the words that have meant so much to so many people for so many years. It never fails to move me.

Letters to the Editor

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