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Peculiar Pageantry

One of my characters is most certainly a Nazi.  There is no need for her to be coy about it.  From where she’s standing, she’s in the majority.  Everyone she knows is a Nazi.  For a time.  So, knowing I want to write about a young Nazi girl, I set her in Munich and make her the right age to grow up as a Hitler Youth girl, a BDM – Bundes Deutscher Madel.  Perhaps I have her born at the very instant that the Fuhrer-to-come is yelling in a beer hall Putsch.

She’s probably not old enough to have taken part in The Night of the Amazons festivities that I came across today.  I should say that one particular problem with doing Nazi research is also stumbling into modern fascist sites.  If we ever lose our Freedom of Googling right, I fear for my Cookies.  Anyway.  The Night of the Amazons was a pageant which various sites say is based on the Bread Riots of the French Revolution, but in seeking out footage of this pageant, that didn’t seem to be the story to me.

You can watch footage of the event on the DVD “The Nazis: A Warning from History” as well as various spots on Youtube.  And the audience are certainly dressed for Versailles.  But the performers are nubile young women in various states of undress, jostling on cart and horseback, some with their dignity tucked behind a frond.  A lucky few are clothed; above they look like cocktail waitresses at a Jolly Rogers, while others are veiled to spin as dervishes or wearing a fetching helmut and nappy ensemble.  More remarkable than their nudity, for that shouldn’t be a shock where a Nazi celebration of beauty is concerned, is that the women are costumed for a world of cultures.  There are Indians, Amazons, and slaves of every race.  The woman painted gold is dancing in a vaguely Chinese-fashion; women bang ribboned tambourines in a manic tarantella that brings to mind the gypsies their party was already persecuting.  Freakish, bizarre and, it must be said, strangely intriguing.  These are a people who like their pageantry, however peculiar.

One cultural group is noticeable in its absence.  Perhaps their representation was a step too far, even for Nazis ready to party.

Prostitution in Berlin

One of my characters may have been a Weimar prostitute.  She is cagey on this issue and certainly wouldn’t confirm or deny in a public place like this.  My friend Jo had told me about the colour coding of boot laces in Weimar, and how the colour signalled what you would or wouldn’t do.  It seems a strange twin to the coloured-taxonomy that was to come, when a pink triangle or yellow star spoke volumes.

So, Weimar prostitute – so far, so expected.  But in contemplating prostitution in Weimar, you have to know what you’re looking for.  What kind of prostitute then?  Is there life after Sally Bowles?  There would appear to be 16 types of prostitutes, according to Mel Gordon, whose Voluptuous Panic surveys Weimar erotica.  “Grasshoppers” performed oral sex in the Tiergarten, while “gravelstones” were the physically-deformed sex workers of north Berlin.  “Telephone girls” were children who could be selected by their attributes to modern film stars and ordered by phone.  “Nice girls” were “demi-castors” (Franco-slang for “half-beaver”) who merely hooked part-time to feed their families.

Why so many prostitutes?  This from the book:  Germany’s recent defeat in World War I did its part, encouraging general disillusionment and leaving behind thousands of war widows in Berlin’s populace of 4 million with no means of realistically supporting themselves other than by prostitution. Gone were the Kaiser and the old morality, and in their place was a new liberal republic. And then there was the general economic collapse and inflation. In October 1923, German currency traded at the astronomical rate of 4.2 billion marks to the U.S. dollar. Gordon points out that “the most exquisite blow job” to be had in Berlin never cost an American tourist more than 30 cents.

Tolerated since the Middle Ages as a “necessary evil” and condoned by the police since the 19th century, prostitution even found the Nazis in the pimping business, with women servicing, however unwillingly, every camp.  Having seen this list, I will certainly look at SS boots with fresh eyes….  And it’s certainly legal in Germany now.  Prostitutes even pay income tax and charge VAT.  Wikipedia, every googlers first port of call, cites the German population of prostitutes at 200,000.  That’s a lot of laces.  If you’re so inclined, you can find prostitutes in the bars, Eros centres, apartments, massage parlours, as well as partner-swapping and sauna clubs of Berlin.  None of which strike me as particularly Weimar.  With Weimar we want glamour and decadence, trans-gender chorus dancers, bobbed hair and whips.  How to square any of that with the elegant woman disembarking on the Isle of Man in my third chapter?  Well, that’s the fun part.  Figuring it out.

the kindly ones – part 1

The Kindly Ones, Nazi, internment

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one small post

Looking for pictures of my characters.  This is Gisela.

when the story is too big

I’m having trouble knuckling down today with this book.  The chest infection and day jobs have kept me away and distracted.  Now I’m having trouble rekindling that first flame.  Worse, at only 11K in, I’m looking at what I have and thinking – no, that’s not it at all.

What to do when the story is so big and you feel certain you are too small to tell it?

Think small.  Work on the details.  Create tiny little moments that will somehow stitch together into the big picture you can see in your mind but your fingers won’t interpret.  When the story is too big, make it small enough to deal with.  If the choice is between narrowing your field and focus, or sitting slumped in the chair overwhelmed, the choice is easy.  Little thoughts, little words, little steps.  That is how a novel gets written.

learning from Hans Fallada

This chest infection of mine is lasting a long time – longer even than the book I’m currently reading, The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, which comes in at a whopping 975 pages.  It may be hot outside by the time I blog that one.  But beforehand I read Alone in Berlin, at a more modest 568 pages that really felt more like 300.  It is currently being packaged as a modern thriller:  “Berlin, 1940.  The city is paralysed by fear.  But one man refuses to be scared.”  But it isn’t.  Yes, Berlin was paralysed by fear, but Alone in Berlin isn’t a modern thriller, nor should it be sold as such.

Author Hans Fallada is as fascinating as his book which, with writers, is not always the case.  Born Rudolf Ditzen, he engaged in a suicide pact staged as a ritual dual in his teens; he killed his friend (and perhaps sexual partner) and turned his friend’s gun on himself.  He survived and was charged with his friend’s murder, and was committed to a psychiatric hospital when he was deemed unfit for trial in 1912.  In the hospital he began a reliance on prescription drugs that would blossom into full-blown addiction.  His debut novel in 1920, Young Goedeschal, was published under a pseudonym, a name from Grimm’s fairy tales, to avoid reminding the public of the earlier scandal.  But scandal did not leave Fallada alone.  He was twice convicted for embezzlement and recommitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1944 for threatening his ex-wife with a handgun.  While in hospital again, Fallada began work on a book about his own substance abuse, The Drinker, deliberately written unintelligibly, so that it could not be deciphered and published until after his death.

Alone in Berlin was also not published until after his death in 1947.  It was written in a manic 24-days while undergoing hospital treatment for substance abuse.  It is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a middle-aged couple who left handwritten anti-Nazi letters in buildings throughout Berlin; they were arrested in 1942 and beheaded in 1943.  In the book’s afterword, you can see copies of some of their postcards and read police reports.

It is a cracking read, but it isn’t a modern thriller.  There are none of the devices we have come to expect: no hooks, no cliffhangers.  The writing, in translation, is written in the present tense.  It is fluid, straight-forward, and filled with details of life under the Nazis and the day-to-day rationales of people who did not see themselves as colluders or collaborators but who, by their actions and justifications, allowed the regime to flourish.  It is neither a tale of evil, nor the banality of evil; it is about getting through life a day at a time, in extraordinary times, which Fallada did.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, he chose not to leave, even though Putnam in London arranged for his emigration in 1938.  Fallada’s war-time history is as gray and conflicted as any of his characters.  He was neither a collaborator nor a resistance fighter.  He cooperated with the regime with some of his lighter works while challenging it in such pre-war books as Wolf Among Wolves.  His eldest son was a Hitler Youth, but Fallada also found ways to suport authors and publishers who were discriminated on political and racial grounds.

Primo Levi declared that Alone in Berlin was “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” I am not qualified to dispute this, but Fallada’s book is less a celebration of heroic resistance than an exploration of self-justification among ordinary Germans.  The campaign of resistance was unsuccessful, even futile.  Only those who found ways to collaborate with clean consciences, or to disappear, were successful.  Fallada’s strength is in articulating this ambiguity, in reminding us that war is never black and white.

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