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Alexanderplatz

This is the Park Inn Berlin at Alexanderplatz.  This is where I am going to spend a week’s researching, writing, and staring out the window.  Warum?

When you’re planning to do research in a city you don’t know, you have to start somewhere, especially if you’re planning to research a city that has been destroyed by war.  I’m looking for history, here.  So, why have I ended up in a hotel built from 1967 – 1970?  To learn more about this particular building, and its claims for being ” the tallest building and the eleventh tallest structure in Berlin and the 29th tallest building and tallest hotel-only building in Germany” click here:

Alexanderplatz was originally a cattle market outside the city and was named in honour of the visit of Alexander I in 1805.  It was the heart of decadent Berlin, alongside Potsdamer Platz, in the 20s, inspiring Doblin’s novel and Fassbinder’s adaptation, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and a place to board trains.  It was also the site for the notorious police station that features in books and films, such as Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, and served as a Nazi prison during the war.   Now, it features a Burger King and a new department store.  Less glibly, it is also the location of the Alexanderplatz demonstrations in 1989, which spoke out for the democratization of East Berlin and ultimately led to reunification.  Demonstrators wore yellow sashes saying “No violence.”  From cattle market to cabaret, from transport hub to prison, Alexanderplatz sounds like my kind of place.  I travel in 34 days.  But – who’s counting?

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The Good Nazi

Sitting beneath a convalescing cat, held fast by his bulk, I was kept still long enough to finish The Kindly Ones.  At last!  What a rich and strange text, one that has divided reviewers since its appearance in France in 2006 and its English translation in 2009.  It will come as no surprise that I googled reviews of the book – if only to decipher the meaning of the book’s last line and title.  The Kindly Ones.  The New York Times Book Review cited its reference to the third play in Aeschylus’ Trilogy, “the kindly ones” being the dreadful Furies turned house-cat by Athenian law.  The book does end with a state of law, but I couldn’t tell you who became domesticated in the process; there is no happy ending here, for anyone.

Even if it is perceived that Dr. Max Aue has “got away with murder”, he is clearly tormented by his own Furies, even when he claims forgetfulness.  The Furies eat their way out of him.  They consume him from within.  There is, ultimately, no redemption for Dr. Aue – and should there be?  Though “The Good Nazi” was given to Albert Speer’s biography, I would have thought this would be a more fitting title.  But, to be fair, titles are not my strong suit.  Check my CV.  But surely, rather than the taming of inner demons through adherence to state law, this book is about how good men can do evil things.  Which leads to the next question, of course.  Is Dr. Aue a good man?  Can you be a good Nazi?

Dr. Aue was certainly an effective Nazi.  He was good at being a Nazi.  Which is not the same thing as being good.  Dr. Aue loves classical music, which serves as shorthand for his culture, his refinement, his class.  But even his love of music abandons him in the end, when he destroys a musician for reminding him of beauty.  So, it is not that he is a good man; in fact, he commits a catalogue of sins.

But by Nazi standards, then, as a good Nazi he also believes himself to be a good man, because he cares more than most.  The last third of the book finds him investigating the camps, from their “hey dey” to their evacuations.  He cares more than most by expressing his concerns about overcrowding, diets, hygiene, hypothermia.  But still, he does nothing.  He is no hero in this tale, but he believes, to the end, that he is redeemed by his own commitment to the Nazi cause, a commitment that only abandons him at the very end.

Aue disdains men who do the work of Nazis without the philosophy.  This is summed up in an encounter with Doll, “a good family man who wanted to feed his children, and who obeyed his government, even though in his innermost being he didn’t entirely agree?  If he had been born in France or America, he’d have been called a pillar of society and a patriot; but he was born in Germany, and so he is a criminal.  Necessity, as the Greeks knew already, is not only a blind goddess, but a cruel one too.”  He explains his belief that man is neither naturally good nor naturally evil, ill-equipped to judge the heart of man.  “Doll killed people or had them killed, so he’s Evil; but within himself, he was a good man to those close to him, indifferent to all others, and, what’s more, one who respected the law.   What more do we ask of the individual in our civilized, democratic cities?”  Aue is aware that law began with God, that Thou Shalt Not Kill is always set aside in times of war, as it is “just to kill the enemy of one’s people.”  “So for a German, to be a good German means to obey the laws and thus the Fuhrer: there can be no other morality since there would be nothing to support it.”  (And Dr. Aue needs a lot of support – staff, privilege, beds, liquor.  All that he wants and needs he is furnished with – but it is never, never enough.)  “What man alone, of his own free will, can come to a decision and say, This is good, that is evil?  How outrageous that would be, and how chaotic too, if everyone dared to act that way: if every man lived according to his private Law.”  Thus, he sets up the argument that no good Nazi can be tried alone.  All of Germany must be tried in total, for all of Germany followed the same law, uniformed or no.

This really is a most fascinating book.  Nearly every third page is folded down for reference.  You could open the book anywhere and start a blog post.  But I return to my initial query, lest my blog run the length of The Kindly Ones.  I want to get under the skin of fascism, to understand how it is made acceptable to a smart individual and a smart culture to so wholeheartedly embrace and enact a very bad idea.  I’m less convinced in the book’s writing than in the book’s ideas; if you are interested in the philosophy and practice of Nazism, I can’t think of a better place to start.

And so, back to the history books.  For I have a trip to Berlin planned, to place my Good Nazi into her own landscape, to see for myself what does -and does not – remain of her world.

The Kindly Ones marches on…

A supervisor on one of my first ever jobs told me I had trouble with transitioning.  That may sound a fair comment, but I need to point out that the workplace was a fast food counter in Disneyland and the supervisor was commenting on my inability to move from pouring sodas to scooping fries with sufficient speed or good humour.  I think, considering I was a teenager, that I was not nearly sulky enough.  However, this woman (who perhaps, even now, is supervising the serving of fat and salt in a theme park near you) and her words are with me.  Was she right?

Do I have trouble transitioning – where my writing is concerned?  How do you make your brain and your heart big enough for two books at once?  I can’t even read more than one book at a time.  Rewrites are stalled, holiday books are read, and so I return to my favourite Nazi, Dr. Max Aue, who shares his war in The Kindly Ones, which I last spoke of here: The next chunk of the book is titled Courante, meaning a baroque running dance that typically follows the Allemandes.

Courante finds Aue on a fast train and transfer from the Eastern Front to Stalingrad.  It is also a much faster chapter, driving Max through a variety of horrors that leaves him mad and hallucinating, as the relationship with his twin sister comes forward and is addressed directly in Sarabande, meaning a baroque suite featuring slow triple crotchets.  The sarabande might not be seen as a passionate music form, sayeth Wikipedia, but there is passion-aplenty once Aue is removed, convalescing, to Berlin.  (Spoiler alert)  The hallucinations of the siege in Stalingrad are revealed to be a near-death experience  – and thank goodness for that, I say, as the hallucinations were even getting to me!

Aue happily shows off his head wound throughout Sarabande, but what of his heart-wound?  Only the arrival of his twin reveals the extent of this damage, but she is unwilling – or unable – to do anything about it.  She has married and moved on; she has left him stuck in their shared childhood, emotionally infantile.  This explains some of the more bizarre fetishes and interests that Dr. Aue exhibits, but really, so far, so Nazi.  Meanwhile, cracks are beginning to show in the usually impeccable Max, whose Weltschmerz finds him threatening to shoot party guests in a hotel for daring to celebrate while, “the whole world was twisted in pain, and people should not be having fun, not right away in any case, they should wait a little while, a decent amount of time should go by.”  It is this rationale, of course, that makes the character fascinating.  We read about perpetrators of evil to learn how they justify their own actions, how they explain their decisions to make them acceptable.  We all do that, don’t we, evil or not?  It is the “not right away in any case,” that makes the statement so spooky – the appearance, the seemliness, is more important than the belief.

There is a particularly fascinating passage on whether Nazism arose from Zionism; the crafty Dr. Mandelbrod tells Aue that “the very term National Socialism was coined by a Jew… what’s more volkisch than Zionism?  Like us, they realized there there can be no Volk or Blut without Boden, without land, and so the Jews must be brought back to the land, Eretz Israel, purified of any other race.  Of course, those are ancient Jewish ideas.  The Jews were the first genuine National Socialists… ever since Moses gave them a Law to separate them forever from the other peoples.  All our great ideas come from the Jews, and we must have the lucidity to recognize it…the notion of the Chosen People, the concept of the purity of blood.”  Dr. Aue is more interested in the laws that will have to be rewritten following war, but his natural curiosity in the “Jewish Question,” as well as an inability to get a posting that he likes, finds him in a job where he must survey a number of death camps, as the book rolls into Meneut.  He believes it is his job to make them more “efficient”, which means to Max that fewer “workers” die unnecessarily.  It is hard to know if Max is being coy or ignorant at this point; he is kept in the dark by most of his superiors, including the mysterious Dr. Mandelbrot.  But that is also the point about the Nazis  – they all said, and perhaps believed, that they didn’t know anything.  That nobody joined up the dots.

Meanwhile, the hallucination/head traumas continue, and Aue spots a prayer shawl around the shoulders of Hitler, a tefillin on his forehead, the little tallith beneath his jacket.  Is this his “pineal eye” in overdrive?  Only time – and reading – will tell.

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