These are troubled times. We have a strike of water workers. I have been worrying for weeks whether the water would continue to run out of the taps. I even laid in a stock of Perrier water. In London at any rate, the water still runs. As to the Perrier water, almost my favourite drink, I cannot allow myself to drink it until the situation becomes acute. Then there are the interminable talks over the limitations or even reduction of nuclear weapons. The outcome of these talks is easy to surmise: they will end with all the nuclear powers possessing more nuclear weapons than they did when the talks started. Once I would have worried about this also. Now I look forward to drinking the Perrier water even if the water talks succeed.
To speak the truth, not an invariable practice with me, I do not care in the slightest about the nuclear talks and their outcome, I do not even care very much whether water will run out of the taps. Something far graver weighs upon me day and night: my wife is in hospital.
She is not gravely ill, though the doctors have not yet found out what is the matter with her. In a few weeks’ time, perhaps in a few days, she will be returned to me fit and well. This is no consolation for the devastation my wife’s absence causes me. My problems begin early. As soon as I am dressed I have to make the bed and it is no joke making a double bed single-handed. I have to run from one side of the bed to the other and no sooner is one side smoothly tucked in than the other side gets out of order again. Making a single bed is easy: the problem of tackling the double bed alone is one I have never had to face before.
Then there is the problem of getting dressed. I can get dressed all right but normally I rely on my wife to tell me whether I have done it correctly. Now I can only rely on the mirror, which is pretty useless when I am trying to tie a bow tie – I think I am one of the few men in England who wears one on alternate days. Breakfast is the only safe time in the day: I have been making breakfast, whether for a large family or none at all, for the last fifty years. My routine has never varied: bacon and egg, bacon and mushroom, kipper, and so round again. Washing-up is rather a problem. I have always held that as the one who makes the breakfast I am automatically exempt from taking any share in the washing-up. Now my wife is not here, and if I do not wash up, the dirty dishes will still be there when I begin to make dinner in the evening.
The most acute problem for the solitary housekeeper is the shopping. For years past I have relied on my wife either to do the shopping or to give me a list of what I should buy. Now I have to make the list and nothing comes into my head. I check every single item to see whether we have any left. I make a list. On my way to the shops the idea comes into my head of things I might have forgotten. So I go back home to see whether there is a perfectly adequate supply already. When I finally reach the grocer’s shop I wander desolately up and down the aisles of shelves seeking what I wished to purchase. My search is usually in vain. In my younger days when I used to go shopping a courteous grocer took my order without any of this search, and the goods I ordered were delivered the same afternoon. Now I have to pull my trolley laboriously homeward. Civilisation is certainly breaking down – indeed, has already done so.
Cooking a solitary dinner is the worst of all. I understand the rudiments of cooking. You place the object to be cooked in a pan, light the gas under the pan and the rest answers for itself. But how long does the object take to be cooked? Apparently the objects vary one from another. I am told I should use the oven for some objects but I cannot find out how to light the oven, so I have given up that idea.
Well, that is enough of my domestic troubles. I turn to a more cheerful subject. During my solitary evenings I have been reading the two volumes of Thomas Hardy’s biography by Robert Gittings. I have just finished it and this recalls to me Hardy’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, which I actually attended. Or rather the funeral of most of him: his heart had been left behind in Dorsetshire. I suppose I was one of the ‘gate-crashers’ of whom Mr Gittings writes so disapprovingly. I entered by the north transept door merely by showing my visiting-card and was ushered into a choir stall just where the coffin came to a halt. The pallbearers or chief mourners were an odd assembly. First came the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and the Leader of the Opposition, Ramsay MacDonald. Baldwin had some idea what to do at an Anglican service: MacDonald was much at sea and missed some of his cues. Then came John Galsworthy and Bernard Shaw, presumably the literary kings of the time. Galsworthy behaved impeccably, doing everything absolutely right. Shaw got enjoyment by looking around most of the time. The next pair were Edmund Gosse and J.M. Barrie. Barrie had arranged the whole thing, so I suppose he was entitled to be there. Gosse had been a friend of Hardy’s in earlier days, so there was an excuse for his presence too. But why Kipling and Housman had been chosen to wind up the procession is beyond me. Perhaps they were rewarded for literary merit. Altogether an old-fashioned conspectus of the Dean’s literary taste. The rearguard was composed of the Vice-Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, singular mourners of Jude’s creator. The funeral was in January 1928. It now occurs to me that I may be the last survivor of those who attended it. At any rate I am the only one who has set down his impressions of this macabre occasion.
Hitler became German Chancellor just over fifty years ago, on 30 January 1930. Nearly every historian-journalist has had a go at the subject. I certainly did with 1200 words in the New York Times. Revisiting these distant years, I found, as I ought to have remembered, that the subject was not very interesting. There was no seizure of power, only Hitler’s elevation in a strictly constitutional way. Of course Hitler soon changed all that and began a procedure which led him to dictatorship, though this took him longer than is often supposed. Hitler’s first step to his breach with legality was not on 30 January but a few weeks later, and even then he was provoked into it by the action of someone else. This was the fire at the Reichstag on the evening of 27 February, one of history’s great mysteries or so it used to be regarded.
The Reichstag fire is a story rich in drama or maybe in black comedy. At first sight there is no great mystery about it. Soon after nine o’clock in the evening of 27 February, the Debating Chamber in the Reichstag was set on fire. The wooden panelling and the dusty curtains burnt briskly. Within a quarter of an hour the Chamber was gutted. A young Dutch student called Marinus van der Lubbe was found wandering around the building. He at once confessed that he had got in through a broken window just before nine o’clock and had started the fire with the aid of firelighters. When the supply of these gave out he had torn his shirt into strips and set these alight. All this seemed straightforward enough. But not for long.
Hitler and other leading Nazis were at a party nearby. On the news of the fire they rushed off to the Reichstag. As Hitler burst in he announced in a frenzy: ‘This is a Communist plot, the signal for an uprising. Every Communist official must be shot. The Communist MPs must be hanged.’ From that moment the Reichstag fire was changed from a simple event to a profound mystery, a character it has never lost. For if Hitler, the inspired Führer, had said there was a Communist plot, a Communist plot there must have been. The police reported that there was clear evidence against van der Lubbe and against him alone. Their report was swept aside. Hitler had spoken. The police made little headway in identifying Communist criminals. Torgler, Communist leader in the Reichstag, had been in the building but had been seen to leave well before the fire started. The police also brought in three Bulgarian Communists who happened to be in Berlin – Dimitrov, Popov and Tanev. The police did not know that in Dimitrov they had caught the chief Comintern representative in Western Europe.
There was already another version in circulation. On the first news of the fire Willi Münzenberg, an inspired Communist publicist then living in Paris, announced that the Nazis had set fire to the Reichstag themselves. Every anti-Nazi in Europe from Communist to liberal believed the story without question. Soon two rival shows were running. The Nazis laid on a trial before the German Supreme Court in Leipzig. Münzenberg and others organised a counter-trial in London. The rival shows ran for a long time. The Nazis handled their show badly, proof perhaps that the fire had taken them by surprise. They failed to produce the slightest evidence against any of the accused except van der Lubbe, who repeatedly insisted that he had done it all alone. Faced with evidence from so-called experts that this was impossible, he replied: ‘I was there and they were not.’ For some strange reason they brought in Goering as a witness and this gave Dimitrov the opportunity to harass the witness ruthlessly. The Supreme Court timidly preserved its independence. Though it rejected van der Lubbe’s evidence, it found him alone guilty. The four Communists were released.
Meanwhile the counter-trial flourished in London. Münzenberg was a master in manufacturing evidence. He produced alleged Nazi renegades to tell their fabulous stories. He even produced a detailed letter of confession from a Nazi who was killed in Hitler’s ‘bloodbath’ of 30 June 1934. According to these witnesses, the Nazi complicity in the fire turned on a tunnel which led from the Speaker’s house to the Reichstag. Goering was now the Speaker. The Nazis were so bemused by this story that they showed the tunnel to journalists in an effort to prove that it was for water pipes, not for human beings. Willi Münzenberg’s story is still widely accepted. Most people, if questioned, would say that the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag if they gave any answer at all. They would be wrong. Van der Lubbe set fire to the Reichstag all alone. But it is very unlikely that the truth will prevail. Indeed, there are still ingenious people who offer to reveal the real secret of the Reichstag fire. But they never do so.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.