‘Al-Qaida thought it had some reason to believe that the US would retreat from the Middle East in response to its attacks,’ Thomas Nagel writes, adding that ‘as it turns out, the US presence in the Middle East has not been reduced’ (LRB, 8 September). Whatever al-Qaida thought, Osama bin Laden gave specific reasons for the 9/11 attacks, in particular US support for Israel, UN sanctions against Iraq and the presence since 1991 of US troops in Saudi Arabia, which was considered particularly objectionable because Mecca and Medina are there. On 29 April 2003, just two days before George W. Bush’s ‘mission accomplished’ speech about the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld announced that he would be withdrawing all US troops from Saudi Arabia; on 22 May 2003 most of the Iraq sanctions were lifted. Unpalatable though it may be to admit, by invading Iraq the US met two of bin Laden’s demands.
School of Advanced Study, London WC1
I was a ‘Mischling ersten Grades’ (a half-Jew in Nazi terminology) living with my Jewish family in Berlin until 3 January 1943, when two polite, nondescript German officials came for my Jewish grandmother. After that I lived partly with Aryan relatives and partly with ‘ordinary’ families in different parts of Germany. Nothing in my experience of life in Nazi Germany corresponds with Nicholas Stargardt’s generalisations about ‘Germans’ in his letter of 11 August, where he repeats the message of his recent book, The German War, that ‘Germans’, i.e. most Germans, were aware of the mass slaughter of the Jews.
What most Germans, especially in the cities, could not but be aware of was sufficiently horrendous: the public humiliation of Jews, the mandatory introduction of the Yellow Star in September 1941, the total exclusion of Jews from social and cultural life, the gradual ban on just about everything people care about, down to the pet canary no Jew was allowed to keep. I know that many, perhaps even most, Germans would cross the road to avoid an embarrassing encounter with a former Jewish acquaintance, and that huge numbers benefited from the removal of a Jewish neighbour without giving it much thought.
But the belief that most ordinary Germans knew of the wholesale murder of Jews before the collapse of the regime indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of life in Nazi Germany, a failure to appreciate the immense care a ruthless leadership would take to protect the general German public from all knowledge of the Final Solution. In 1938 the leaders found to their dismay that a good many of their subjects had been repelled by the open savagery of Kristallnacht. After that they did their best to keep all knowledge of potentially disturbing projects from their squeamish German subjects.
Huge numbers of Wehrmacht members on the Eastern Front would inevitably have known about some of the killings – a few even took part in mass killings. Yet there are many reasons besides the cautiousness of the leadership why the majority of people on the home front did not know what many assume they must have known. The places where these massive horrors were committed were in the east and at some considerable distance from the German heartland; the regime’s brutality and relentless censorship and surveillance would dissuade any but the most courageous or foolhardy soldier to raise such matters in letters or during the few precious hours of the occasional home visit; and millions of those committed to the Eastern Front never returned. I have yet to see anything indicating widespread German knowledge of the Final Solution before the summer of 1945. A few hints in a few letters from the Eastern Front, some ghoulish snaps of mass killings or snatches of ‘forbidden talk’ as picked up by Nazi surveillance bodies indicate merely that the Nazi blackout could not be perfect. Some ‘ordinary Germans’ did know. But none of this is proof of widespread knowledge among ‘Germans’.
In The German War Stargardt refers often to the six Nazi death camps, but only twice does he mention Theresienstadt, the old Habsburg garrison city in Bohemia which the Nazis converted into a Jewish settlement in 1942 and which Stargardt rightly says ‘was deliberately used to calm German anxieties’. He doesn’t consider that it served a purpose in providing a smokescreen for German Jews as well as German Aryans. By the summer of 1942 everyone in Berlin with Jewish connections knew of Theresienstadt, where the city’s Jews would be ‘resettled’. With no specific information as to what this resettlement (Umsiedlung) might involve, and feeling in any case generally uneasy, all Jews in Berlin would keep their suitcase packed, awaiting the knock on the door which could come at any time. Some people snatched hope from a rumour that Theresienstadt was an agricultural settlement where Jews could look after themselves, relieving Germany of their keep. Only a few weeks before my mother – who, as an Aryan, was free to move around the city – found his family’s flat sealed with the familiar party emblem, my cousin Dieter had proudly announced that he and the family would soon be moving to the countryside. I forget what my mother said when I complained at having to stay in Berlin.
For all the lack of information and the general disquiet, what we knew and were aware of did not lie beyond the bounds of ordinary human experience. However appalling the treatment of the Jews, the notion of an organised, mechanical annihilation of millions of human beings was beyond the imagining of most ordinary Germans, whether they were members of one of the many, mostly obligatory Nazi organisations, or detested and feared the regime. Six months after my grandmother had been taken away, a card arrived from one of her old acquaintances at Theresienstadt with just a brief message: ‘Don’t send Else any more packages.’ Even then the notion that my grandmother or indeed any Jew ‘resettled’ in the east might be deliberately murdered remained unthinkable. My grandmother had been frail and old; she could have died of natural causes.
It was not until the end of the war that most Germans, including all our Aryan family and friends, first heard of Auschwitz and all the horrors committed by the Nazi authorities. Years later I came across the only person I have known who had heard of the atrocities during the war. Gretel came from a small place in what was German Upper Silesia until 1944, and she recalled how heartily everyone had laughed at that ‘crazy Pole’, a Polish labourer who had told them: ‘The Germans shove people into gas ovens and kill them!’
Stuart Middleton writes that ‘Aneurin Bevan resigned as health minister in protest’ against Gaitskell’s plan to introduce charges for NHS dentures and spectacles (LRB, 8 September). In fact, some three months before he resigned from the government, Bevan became minister of labour. Hilary Marquand, his successor as health minister, accepted Gaitskell’s proposal.
Middleton goes on to write that the reason Wilson gave for his resignation in his Commons statement ‘was a technical objection to the economic feasibility of rearmament’. What Wilson said was much broader than that. He spoke of the risk that spending more on defence would increase the price of scarce raw materials and warned that in addition to the new charges breaching the principle of a free health service, any economic disruption would damage other social reforms.
James Meek’s Diary is laced with insolent observations of body types and attire that reveal admiration for British and American male soldiers: they are ‘fit, young, attractive’; ‘tall, lean, fit’; ‘lanky’; ‘standing tough and sunburned’; and indifferent to the figures of almost everybody else (LRB, 28 July). He is gripped by the girth of Arab women, however, and the size of their bosoms. The first time he encounters Arab women in his Diary they are ‘fat young girls with headscarves’. In contrast, a British woman officer is simply ‘keen’ and ‘young’, the chief of the MoD’s press office is a ‘woman with blonde curly hair, in civilian clothes’. Are they fat? Headscarves are not civilian clothes? Entisar is a ‘buxom Arab woman’ who wears a ‘white tracksuit’, an item of clothing that captured Meek’s imagination enough to merit two mentions: the curvy Arab woman in the white tracksuit.
After feasting on a banquet of chicken biriani, tabbouleh and okra, Meek tells his diary that ‘after so many hotel buffets homecooked food tastes good.’ I wonder if he shared his sentiment with the voluptuous white tracksuit. I’m inclined to think not. His emotional and erotic capture by power was already accomplished in the anticipation of embedding with the fit, young, tough, attractive soldiers.
Highland Park, New Jersey
Anne Summers writes correctly that a perceived ‘servant crisis’ led to the admission of many young women immigrants, including twenty thousand refugees from Nazism (Letters, 11 August). They weren’t the first young women immigrants to be admitted during that period. In the early 1930s the British government came up with the idea of the ‘foreign au pair visitor’ – a predecessor of the current au pair scheme. From 1934 to 1936, the Home Office issued around 2300 permits to young women from the Continent to reside in Britain on an ‘au pair’ basis. The hope was that this would defuse public criticism of the recruitment of European maids, who were thought to be displacing English ones, thereby exacerbating national unemployment figures. The scheme made it possible for the government to have it both ways: the au pairs alleviated the servant crisis, but they could also be seen as temporary, thus remaining outsiders in British society. Remind you of anything?
Birkbeck, University of London
David Roberts refers to ‘David Miliband’s dismantling of the splendid Victorian Library’ at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Letters, 8 September). I have been looking for a volume of ‘Condoléances’ on the death of Prince Albert subscribed at the British Consulate in Pau in December 1861 by the ‘hivernantes Britanniques’ of the day. There would have been many such volumes across Europe and the Empire. The volume for Pau (perhaps a foolscap sheaf of a dozen leaves with just over a hundred names) was exhibited in Pau in 1978 by courtesy of the ‘Foreign Office’. My inquiries led to the National Archives, the library at King’s College London and other collections, all to no avail; what remains of the FCO Library denies all knowledge of the volume or of having any file of correspondence relating to its despatch or its return.
Mike Jay’s article about Franco Basaglia triggered memories of my childhood in Perugia at the time of the asylum’s closure (LRB, 8 September). My father was the head of the technical college that moved into the premises vacated by the ‘manicomio’. I remember marvelling at the absence of sharp corners in the school. Some former patients – inmates, really – had been reluctant to leave. One man took it on himself to be responsible for the parking lot, deciding that only teachers from the technical college could park there; he reported to my father on a regular basis. Another stood at the centre of a nearby crossroads and directed the traffic. Many hung out in the city centre.
Open University, Milton Keynes