Most readers in Britain are so well-supplied by books in their own language that they rarely venture into reading books in translation and therefore miss out on the best literature of other European nations. About a third of titles reviewed on A Common Reader are European books in translation and I am pleased to add The Silences of Hammerstein to this number.
Hans Magnus Enzensburger is considered to be Germany’s most important modern poet and is a highly regarded publisher and essayist. But he is little known in Britain, or presumably other English speaking nations.
His book, The Silences of Hammerstein is difficult to categorise, being in parts biographical, fictional and critical. One of its features is the way Enzensburger intersperses his narrative with imagined conversations with the main characters in his book in which he asks them pertinent questions and records the answers he thinks they would give. The book ranges far and wide, and reminds me a little of W G Sebald’s books in the way photographs are insterspersed among the pages, providing enigmatic insights into the narrative.
The Silences of Hammerstein, chronicles the life of a German General and his family as they lived their lives through the 1930s and 40s largely while being largely opposed to the rise of Nazism.
When Adolf Hitler seized power in Berlin, Kurt von Hammerstein was head of the German Defence Forces, and tried (unsuccessfully) to derail Hitler’s rise to Chancellorship. During the days of the Weimar Republic, Hammerstein had collaborated with the Russian military, who were able to supply Germany with weaponry despite the proscriptions of the Treaty of Versailles which prevented Germany from re-arming to any great degree.
Hammerstein was above all intelligent, and understood the dangers of Nazism from a military perspective and he judged Hitler to be insane, a jumped-up Private, who could lead Germany to destruction. However, when Hitler was assassinating those who opposed him, Hammerstein escaped death, partly because his opposition to Hitler was largely something he kept discretely to himself (thus the book’s title).
His silence however did not mean that his opposition was ineffective. It enabled him to retain connections throughout the German military and his home was a meeting place for various people who sought to depose Hitler and indeed his whole family in one way or another actively opposed the regime, particularly his daughters who were communist or at least sympathisers with the cause. Hammerstein was never arrested for his lack of commitment to Nazism and was allowed to retire and possibly his ill-health caused the Gestapo to feel that he was little danger to them (he died in 1943).
Enzensburger enjoys describing the contradictions of the Nazi years, how the utmost horror coexisted with the banalities of everyday life. In a section entitled, “On the scandal of synchronicity” he describes how Hollywood style comedies played in cinemas next door to apartment blocks which were emptying because of arrests. New schools were being built, while black vans transported the newly arrested to torture and death.
In the summer, the beaches were crowded, bee-keepers devoted themselves to bee-keeping, football was played, postage stamps collected, amateur sailors went sailing. As re-armament proceeded apace, holiday trips and cruises were organised for “workers with hand and brain” under a slogan “Strength Through Joy” that would make any present-day advertisers turn pale with envy.
It is apparent that for most people, at least during the 1930s, Nazism brought improvements to their lives and a sense of purpose, but Enzensburger brings out the deep contradictions in people’s lives, for it is certain for everyone who’s opposition to the regime was clear-cut their were many who were disturbed by what was going on while also benefiting from improving economic conditions and a revived sense of national pride. In some ways, Enezenburger’s “silence” was a powerful response, because someone in his position would have been expected to demostrate whole-hearted support of the Nazis. His failure to do so was perhaps statement enough.
This book has been very well-received in Germany and while I enjoyed it, I think its appeal will not be quite so great in other countries. While it is an interesting read, the history of the period is well-known and the book does not contain any dramatic new insights into the times. Hammerstein is not an appealing personality, being dour and serious and I got little sense of a personality with any appeal. I think the purpose of the book would be to help Germans understand the depths of opposition to the regime, and the book is successful in this. Opposition meant death sooner or later, and co-existence could only be maintained by keeping silent.
Silence is not however an attractive stance in terms of literature, it being difficult to read courage or passion into it. Hammerstein comes across as a military man who could never betray his country and who was therefore incapable of any creative response in opposition to Hitler. While the book is very well researched and presented and makes for a fascinating read, it could be said to lack a vital spark due to the lack of constructive action by its main character.