In the Opposite Direction

David Blackbourn

Poet, essayist, political commentator, dramatist for radio and stage, influential editor and publisher, Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of Germany’s leading public intellectuals. He belongs to the same generation as Günter Grass and Jürgen Habermas, although he has been less bien pensant, less predictable, than either. His early poetry, lyric verse with a strong political content, won him the Georg Büchner Prize and he is now widely regarded as Germany’s foremost living poet. Enzensberger is the most important postwar writer you have never read.

He was born in 1929 in the Bavarian town of Kaufbeuren. His father was a post office bureaucrat with expertise in radio and telecommunications, aspects of a burgeoning modernity that would engage the interest of his eldest son. Expelled from the Hitler Youth for his bad attitude, Enzensberger was drafted at the end of the war into an anti-aircraft unit, from which he deserted. He supported his family after the war by black-market dealing while he worked for his Abitur, before studying literature and philosophy at German universities and the Sorbonne. After completing a dissertation on the Romantic writer Clemens Brentano in 1955, he worked as a radio editor in Stuttgart. The Swabian capital was then, as it long remained, a stiflingly conservative place which deserved its reputation as Germany’s largest village. Yet the city of Bosch and Mercedes-Benz provided – almost behind its own back – surprisingly fertile ground for cultural experimentation. That was true of architecture and modern dance; it also applied to Enzensberger’s pioneering radio broadcasts on media and the ‘consciousness industry’, later published in his first collection of essays in 1962.

Enzensberger enjoyed a nomadic life in the 1960s, living for extended periods in Norway and Italy, and undertaking long study tours – he was in Moscow, for example, in 1967. The following year he accepted a fellowship at Wesleyan University in the US, but found the campus intolerably genteel (‘opposition to the war in Vietnam was reduced to a polite whisper,’ he later wrote) and bolted to Cuba, which provided good copy for the political essayist.

He was a strong supporter of the extra-parliamentary opposition (APO), the student movement that developed in West Germany in the late 1960s. He wrote about issues dear to the radical left and provided a platform for others to do so in the Kursbuch, a journal he started with a colleague in 1965. In 1967 he signed the founding declaration of the Republican Club in West Berlin, the avant-garde of the German New Left. Earlier that year, Kommune I, an ultra-radical offshoot of the APO that combined Situationist street happenings with hippy acting-out (Jimi Hendrix was a later visitor), began life in Enzensberger’s Berlin apartment. Its members included his ex-wife, Dagrun, his young daughter and his brother Ulrich.

It’s hard to imagine a more impeccably radical pedigree. Fast forward 40 years, and what we have looks like a journey from left to right. The critic of the Vietnam War has witnessed the Khmer Rouge and become a critic of ‘the cant in Western anti-imperialist discourse’. The critic of archaic German orthography has become the critic of orthographic reform. The writer who excoriated the left’s culturally elitist disregard for the possibilities of the new mass media has written television off as a ‘zero medium’ and spends much of his time writing about Diderot and Goethe. And on one issue after another – Iraq, Bosnia, Islamist terrorism – Enzensberger has taken positions that sit uneasily with progressive orthodoxy. All true. Yet the notion of a slide into conservatism with advancing years (a lazy idea anyway) does not fit his career. He was, and remains, a contrarian. The writer Peter Chotjewitz made the point cruelly a few years ago: Enzensberger was, he said, a political dandy, ‘a conductor who calls everyone aboard and then nips off on a train going in the opposite direction because it’s so wonderfully empty’.

Chotjewitz is right to say that Enzensberger has relished his role as enfant terrible, perhaps relished it too much, but wrong to call him ‘slippery’. An attachment to tentative judgments, a dislike of jargon, a willingness to embrace contradictions – these have always marked his approach. That is why, alongside poetry and drama, the essay has been his favoured form. In a speech in 1997 he defended the genre, mocking those academics who criticised its lack of philosophical rigour or ‘with an air of triumph accused the essayist of contradictions, just imagine – contradictions!’ He held up Montaigne as the great exemplar of the tentative, tolerant essayist. Even in the 1960s Enzensberger was brushing off ultra-left critics of his austere semi-detachment by insisting that he had no use for world-views free of contradiction. He has always been ready to dish up untimely thoughts, especially to the left. His early writings on the media were written from a Marxist position (he was especially influenced by Benjamin) and contained some memorable stabs at the ‘charlatan’ Marshall McLuhan, but they were also scathing about radical media critics who couldn’t get beyond the adjective ‘manipulative’. His 1969 account of the Cuban revolution was notably unromantic. An essay four years later on ‘tourists of the revolution’ was similarly tart: an embryonic version of his later beady-eyed dissection of ‘Third-Worldism’ in the West.

What Enzensberger particularly dislikes is hypocrisy, the striking of poses, gestural politics. Let me give two examples, separated by a quarter-century. The first is a jeu d’esprit in a 1964 essay on the German question, where he suggests that alongside the material competition between nations with its dreary slogans (‘Buy British,’ ‘Deutsche Wertarbeit’) was a macabre competition among intellectuals, with each group seeking to show that it had the heaviest cross to bear. American liberals went with race, the English countered with the Establishment, and the Russian intelligentsia with Stalinism – but the Germans always trumped the competition because they had the ‘unmastered past’ of National Socialism. Broadening the argument, Enzensberger suggested that at a certain point ritual self-abasement becomes its opposite: qui s’accuse, s’excuse.

The second essay is a long piece on the World Bank and the IMF published in 1988. It is beautifully constructed, and filled with the evidence of thorough research, as well as interviews and architectural detail gleaned from visits to the two institutions. The essay contains plenty for critics of the world capitalist order to enjoy, but Enzensberger also writes scathingly about the games played by dictators in developing countries, who publicly denounce the IMF for domestic political reasons while maintaining contact with its officials behind the scenes. The behaviour of the IMF and the dictators represents, he suggests, two species of hypocrisy; but there is also a third kind, found among the nice-minded who want to ease their consciences with rhetorical gestures. Enzensberger is unsparing: ‘Only someone who seriously hopes for the collapse of the global economy, with all the consequences that entails, and who is capable of thinking another option through to its conclusion, can expect something good from the abolition of the two monsters.’ In tone and content this is eerily reminiscent of Max Weber, who also deplored gestural politics and insisted that intellectuals and politicians confront the logical consequences of their positions.

Enzensberger has written on politics and ecology, culture and crime; on matters as grave as the preparations for thermo-nuclear war and as dull as European integration. Often he has lit on subjects that would receive sustained attention only decades later. In his 1962 essay on ‘The Industrialisation of the Mind’, for example, he points to fashion, religious cults and tourism as under-explored subjects. But there are several preoccupations to which Enzensberger has returned. One is science and technology. Like left-wing intellectuals of an earlier period, but unlike most contemporary intellectuals of any political stamp, he follows scientific thinking and puts it to use in his work. There are already references to systems theory in his media writings of the 1960s, while essays from the 1980s onwards bear the traces of his reading in chaos theory. One of these takes the topological figure of the ‘baker’s transformation’ (a one-to-one mapping of a square onto itself) discussed by mathematicians such as Stephen Smale and applies the model to historical time as the starting point for a series of reflections on the idea of progress, the invention of tradition and the importance of anachronism. But it was during the 1970s that science and technology marked Enzensberger’s work most strongly. His 1978 epic poem on the sinking of the Titanic allowed him to talk about dreams of progress (whether in the early 20th century or in the 1960s) as well as their mirror image, ideas of the end of the world. My favourite book from this period is Mausoleum (1975), subtitled ‘Thirty-Seven Ballads from the History of Progress’, a series of biographical poems about scientists, inventors, engineers; a fair number of them – Charles Fourier, for example, and Wilhelm Reich – were completely crazy, though crazy in interesting ways. Enzensberger’s verse does two things superbly. It captures the mental states of its subjects (which often means their desolation or unhappiness), and it shows us that the ideas and artefacts of modernity which we now take for granted seemed exceedingly strange when they first appeared.

A preoccupation with history runs through his work. He has used historical individuals as exemplary figures. Early in his career he wrote an essay on Bartolomé de Las Casas, the 16th-century Dominican friar who denounced the treatment of American native peoples under Spanish rule. He has also attempted larger-scale historical biography. In the early 1970s he wrote a life (described as a ‘novel’) of the anarchist José Buenaventura Durruti, who died in the Spanish Civil War. Then, in 1988, he returned to the subject of his dissertation with Requiem for a Romantic Woman, a drama about the wife of Clemens Brentano. The Silences of Hammerstein, his new book about General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord and his family, is intended to show in microcosm ‘all the essential motifs and contradictions of the German emergency’. It is, he claims, an ‘exemplary German story’.

Born in 1878, Hammerstein was a career soldier from an aristocratic family who enrolled as a cadet (not very enthusiastically) at the age of ten. His quick mind and command of detail elevated him to captain of the General Staff by the age of 35. He served as a company commander in Flanders in 1914 before rejoining the General Staff. In 1907 he had married Maria Lüttwitz, which placed him in an awkward position when, in March 1920, his father-in-law, together with a pliable civil servant called Wolfgang Kapp, mounted a short-lived military putsch, one of many attempts to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Hammerstein had little liking or respect for Lüttwitz, thought the escapade brainless, and kept well out of it. In the 1920s he became a leading figure in the much reduced German army, often travelling to Russia as part of the secret agreement between Germany and the USSR that provided economic benefits to the latter in exchange for opportunities for the Black Reichswehr to conduct manoeuvres out of sight of the Allies. Among fellow officers Hammerstein had a reputation for being very clever but easily bored, indispensable but indolent, a rather lordly figure. He spoke sparingly, but his words were always to the point and often sardonic. He became chief of army command in 1930, an appointment that did not sit well with the political right, which considered him insufficiently nationalist.

Hammerstein never disguised his contempt for Hitler. But unlike his contemporary and friend Kurt von Schleicher, a politically minded soldier who served briefly as Reich chancellor before Hitler, he remained passive during the political crisis of the early 1930s. Forced into retirement at the end of January 1934, a year after the Nazis came to power, he was a mordant critic of the new regime. When Schleicher was killed during the Night of the Long Knives that June, Hammerstein defied a ban on attending the funeral. ‘I knew hardly anyone who so openly and fearlessly rejected the regime,’ one of his friends, Ursula von Kardorff, observed. ‘Astonishing that he was never arrested.’ Ulrich von Hassell, who visited him in 1937, wrote in his diary that Hammerstein, who ‘is about the most negative one can imagine when it comes to the regime of “criminals and fools”, also places little hope in the beheaded and castrated army’. Hassell himself was a key figure in the conservative resistance to Hitler, a link between those grouped around Carl Goerdeler and Ludwig Beck and the younger members of the Kreisau Circle. Active in discussions about overthrowing Hitler in the autumn of 1939, Hassell would be executed after the July Plot in 1944.

These were the circles in which Hammerstein moved. In 1939, briefly returned to active duty and given command of an army detachment on the Rhine, he had planned to detain Hitler when he toured the Western defences – but the visit was called off. Hammerstein believed that the war was unwinnable, and by spring 1942 was speaking within his family circle about ‘organised mass murder’. He was close to the men who would mount the July Plot the year after his death from cancer in 1943, although he advised against assassination. Writing about his funeral, Ursula von Kardorff remembered him in his hunting jacket, removing a cigar from his mouth before shooting: ‘This outward bonhomie contrasted with the biting condemnations he expressed, in a slight Berlin accent, slowly, almost by the way, but with deadly accuracy.’

Enzensberger’s book takes a figure from the margins of history and places him centre stage. But Hammerstein’s life is only half the story, for woven through the book is a remarkable account of his seven children. (The aristocratic predilection for large families clearly trumped the tendency for ‘mixed marriages’ – Hammerstein was Protestant, his wife Catholic – to produce small families.) The picture that emerges of Hammerstein as ‘Papus’ is mixed. Two of his daughters remember being hit, and their father’s complete silence during meals. But he could be relaxed and happy, when teaching them the names of trees, for example, or showing them how to give sugar lumps to horses. He also allowed the children into adult conversation, didn’t talk down to them and gave them a large measure of freedom – they were known for being ‘wild and rebellious’. The book has a wonderful photo of Maria Therese in her early twenties posing boldly for the camera as she sat on a motorbike on a country road around 1932. There was something seigneurial about Hammerstein’s easy-going attitude: his three eldest children were his gels, and he was damned if he cared what people thought about the way they lived their lives. ‘My children are free republicans. They can say and do what they want,’ one of them later reported him saying. A favourite motto was ‘fear is not a world-view.’ When it came to politics Hammerstein was fearless but essentially passive; the children, with his support, were spectacularly active.

Maria Therese Hammerstein on a country road in 1932
Maria Therese on a country road in 1932

His three daughters, Marie Luise (‘Butzi’), Maria Therese (‘Esi’) and Helga, found a political home on the left. Two joined the German Communist Party. Marie Luise became the lover of Werner Scholem (brother of the scholar Gershom), a prominent Communist Party organiser before his expulsion for ultra-leftism, who later died in Buchenwald. Helga had a long relationship with the Communist underground functionary Leo Roth, a victim of Stalin’s purges in 1937, through whom she passed information from her father’s desk to the Comintern. Maria Therese married Joachim Paasche, the son of a prominent Jewish pacifist murdered in 1920 by right-wing paramilitaries – a marriage advised against by Carl Schmitt, a family acquaintance. She moved from Marxism to Zionism, emigrated briefly with her husband to Palestine, and then in 1935 to Japan, the country Paasche studied. All three daughters received information from their father and used it to warn opponents of the regime – the architect Bruno Taut was one – who were about to be arrested. All three were themselves interrogated by the Gestapo. Their brothers Ludwig and Kunrat were minor players in the July Plot and had to go underground after its failure. In August 1944 their younger brother Franz was arrested, and Helga was once again interrogated. In December, their mother and the youngest, Hildur, were arrested and taken to the women’s prison in Moabit. In March 1945, Maria, Franz and Hildur were among the hostages taken by the SS from the families of those involved in the July Plot – in addition to the three Hammersteins there were Goerdelers, Hassells and Stauffenbergs. The hostages were transported from Buchenwald to Dachau to a remote part of the Tyrol, where they were finally released by the SS to a Wehrmacht company and shortly afterwards passed into American hands.

Enzensberger relates the lives of Hammerstein and his family in 80 short sections that draw on documents, memoirs, diaries, letters, anecdotes, newspaper stories, photos, interviews with the living and imagined interviews with the dead. Intercut with these miscellaneous materials are ‘glosses’, seven in all, which pronounce on the lessons for Germany. In a postscript that describes how he first became interested in the Hammersteins more than 50 years ago, Enzensberger claims that The Silences of Hammerstein is neither a novel nor a work of scholarship. He does not say what it is, except to note that the book ‘proceeds analogously to photography rather than to painting’, which makes little sense to me. Some German reviewers called the book a collage, and that seems fair. Enzensberger has long sung the virtues of the hybrid essay form that mixes facts, reportage and first-person views, pointing to the Weimar writers Joseph Roth and Siegfried Kracauer as well as modern exponents like Joan Didion.

The book is artfully constructed but the virtues so apparent when Enzensberger writes in short form have not carried over to this longer work. Imagined conversations, for example, are – as Enzensberger says – a venerable literary form, and one he has used in the past. In this book they create a polyphony of voices, but they often sit heavily on the page. Nothing here achieves the lighter-than-air quality of Enzensberger’s ‘conversation’ with Diderot, which ends with the philosopher becoming fascinated with his interlocutor’s recording machine. Here the ‘posthumous conversations’, as Martin Chalmers has it, raise other questions. In one Hammerstein says: ‘If it had been up to me, I would already have fired on the Nazis in August 1932.’ What he actually said was: ‘If the National Socialists come to power legally, that is acceptable to me. If not, I shall shoot.’ Elsewhere he is quoted in two different places saying two different things about the Nazis and the Reichstag fire. Enzensberger not only has a casual way with quotations; his own interjections repeatedly make pronouncements on German history that are stale, or melodramatic, or both. ‘The Weimar Republic was a fiasco from the start,’ the first gloss begins. Well, not really. The five pages that follow are potted history of the laziest kind, the flattest writing by Enzensberger I have ever read. Later apodictic pronouncements about the German-Russian relationship and German-Jewish symbiosis present a cartoon version of history.

There is a disjuncture between the ambiguity that Enzensberger grants his characters and the hectoring certainty with which he gives his views on German history. He shows the Hammersteins much more respect than he does his readers. In the 1960s and beyond Enzensberger argued provocatively that the obsession with 1933 as the vanishing point of German history threatened to become a self-defeating ritual. Over 50 years he has written on an astounding variety of subjects, but not on the Third Reich. The Silences of Hammerstein changes that. Simply because of its subject matter it is likely to be the work with which many English-speaking readers will associate Enzensberger. It’s rather like watching Scorsese win an Oscar for The Departed – right guy, wrong work.