History, as the word suggests, is a story – about us. We want to know what we are about, and to find out we look at what we have done. To some we look like Hottentots dancing around the rim of a volcano. Sometimes we go off course and fall in – and all Hell breaks loose.
Just that happened a lot during the events we label the French Revolution. Vast libraries have been written to describe it. It is one thing to put together a narrative or analysis. It is altogether different to have the art that conveys an image and an effect beyond words. Not many have that gift. Tacitus, Gibbon, Ranke and Macaulay had it.
So did Carlyle, and he applied it in The French Revolution in a manner that defies imitation or repetition. A tutor at Cambridge said I should treat it like a poem. I like the analogy of opera – where the plots are often over the top. Phrases and images of Carlyle stay with me like parts of Mozart or Verdi.
It is not silly for me to say that I got that kind of electric charge from readingAftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich by Harald Jahner. The author paints a picture of events in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the most evil and destructive war in the history of mankind. It is a colossal achievement which commanded my intellectual and moral assent from start to end.
Before looking at some of the insights, I will set out how Carlyle saw the horrors of the French around 1793 prefigure the horrors of the Germans around 1943.
One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention, and no more: the blond perukes; the Tannery at Meudon. Great talkers of these Perruques Blondes: O reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined Women; the locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a cordwainer, her blonde German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald. Or they may be work affectionately, as relics, rendering one suspect? Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort.…. Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; ‘There was a tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotine as seem worthy flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made; for bleaches and other uses. The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality of shamoy; that of the women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture ….’ Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever? Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.’
The first task was to clear the rubble. That is beyond description. When I was last in Berlin, about six years ago, there were still I think weedy spaces on Friedrichstrasse.
The suffering of European Jewry may have started at Calais, but it got worse as you moved east from the Rhine. Many Jews in Poland chose to go to Germany – they regarded Bavaria as American. In turn, Orthodox Jews from the East distrusted ‘worldly’ Jews. They accused them of betraying Judaism by wanting to stay in the land of their murderers.
Infighting was general. German regions rediscovered their tribal background. ‘Volk’ was bad – as was ‘ein volk.’
Taxes were levied to spread losses. Some had to pay half of what they owned so that those who had nothing could survive. This on top of the enforced association of unloved ethnic groups made a new nationalism out of the question. And imagine any western government trying on that kind of tax now.
The Marching Song of 1945 was sung in mordant cabaret staccato by Ursula Herking. They marched on –
Because our heads, because our heads
Are still solidly on our necks.
There was a frenzied uptake in dancing. People just lived for the moment. People were ‘unimaginably sociable.’ The rhythm was pure jazz. The Nazis had forbidden so much. There was an excess of freedom, and people coming out of jails feel lost.
Cologne – what was left of it – put on its first Carnival in 1946 under the motto – ‘We’re back and we are doing what we can.’ Only 40,000 residents were left out of 770,000. There was a feeling of joyous relief of not having as yet been stripped of ‘the sweet habit of existence.’ It was like surviving lethal cancer.
Those men who came back were not recognisable and so often beyond repair. Men lingered outside too scared to go in. Finally, one little boy said ‘Look Mum – it’s Dad.’
The freedom of the Americans dazzled the locals – how was it possible to win a war without constantly clicking your heels?
Venereal disease was everywhere. ‘Veronika Dankeschon.’ Against all odds, and military orders, 170,000 intermarried by 1988. People write songs about that sort of stuff.
The black market made the currency useless. Then in 1948, it was stabilised, and the economic miracle began. People rediscovered the old truth – ‘half of economics is psychology.’
Then came the Berlin airlift and Berlin, the most reviled city on earth – which many sane decent people had wanted to annihilate in 1945 – became ‘the frontline city of the free world.’ The USSR brought misery to the East, but was there at the start of the triumph of the West.
The American re-education program was a great success. The exploits of the American Hans Hase – in his tailor-made uniform – are worth a book in themselves –during and after his time in Germany. The Soviets said that fascism was terrorism of the working class! The Hungarian born Hase said ‘I was unusually attractive, and I didn’t lack qualities of the heart.’ He married six times – including three of the wealthiest women in the world. How could mere communism cope with that? The Combine, as Ken Kesey may have said, got him. ‘You have gone native.’
There is a chapter on repression. The Germans could not come to grips with mass murder – and their part in it. Who can? They saw themselves as victims. This would lead to a grizzly generational backlash which peaked in the unease of 1968. ‘Let’s catch up on what was missed in 1945.’
Back then, the Germans loved Chaplin, but they were not ready for The Great Dictator.’ On the repression, the author says: ‘The collective agreement of most Germans to count themselves among Hitler’s victims amounts to an intolerable insolence…. The conviction that one had been Hitler’s victim was the precondition for being able to shed all loyalty to the fallen regime without feeling dishonourable, cowardly or opportunistic.’
The damage to the psyche would take more than one generation to heal. When the most evil regime in the history of mankind was in its death throes, Goebbels – who with Hitler and Himmler cheated the hangman – decreed a general annihilation after the manner of the favourite Wagner opera of his Führer –
Hatred is our commandment and revenge our battle cry. The Werewolf is judge and jury and decides over life and death.
That kind of evil is beyond words. We are left, like Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness, simply with the ‘horror.’
There is then left the comparison with the experience of Japan, and more importantly, the comparison with the Great War. Then, the Allies did not heed warnings from within and did not finish the job of destruction, but treated the defeated with an arrogant cruelty. Keynes and Hitler then set out word for word how those mistakes would lead to the next war.
Because of the cruelty of Hirohito and Hitler, their nations finally surrendered unconditionally when there was nothing left. They had betrayed and destroyed their own nations. This time, the Allies knew about the need for reconstruction. It would tart to say the two nations have been model citizens since. But they have. And, it has taken someone assessed to be as evil as Hitler, but with the bomb in his hands, to get Germany fully to rearm – with the blessings of their allies.
If you go to YouTube, you can get Ursula Herking singing the marching song from 1945, the year I was born. Like Edith Piaf, she has a gravitational pull that is universal – again like Lili Marlene.
But for some reason, when I listen to it, I think of a moment at the darkest part of the war. Many did not trust Churchill, and some were ready to deal with Hitler. Churchill opened a meeting of the War Cabinet to the full Cabinet. Here was a gathering of the political elders of the nation that had given the world the model of parliamentary democracy. They were desperate for a leader, and after Churchill spoke, he was surprised by the warmth and eagerness that they grabbed him with. In the course of resolving the issue, Churchill said:
‘We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’
Churchill would of course echo those remarks in his most famous speech to parliament. God only knows what may have happened if England had not had Churchill. As far as I know, we might be having this discussion in German, and my Jewish friends might not be here.
That’s why we need history, and why this book means so much.
Carlyle may or may not have been mad himself – who is not at times? – but he may have the last word.
What, then, is this Thing called La Révolution, which, like an Angel of Death, hangs over France, noyading [drowning], fusillading, fighting, gun-boring, tanning human skins? …It is the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men. In this man, it is, and in that man; as a rage, or as a terror, it is in all men. Invisible, impalpable; and yet no black Azrael, with wings spread over half a continent, with sword sweeping from sea to sea, could be truer reality.
History – Germany after 1945 – evil – the French Revolution – building a nation – war and peace.