Little People Made Big

Neal Ascherson

  • Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo, translated by Shaun Whiteside
    Pushkin, 264 pp, £16.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 908968 51 7
  • The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
    Seagull, 257 pp, £13.50, June 2013, ISBN 978 0 85742 086 2

Werner Schwieger, one of Maxim Leo’s grandfathers, hung out a big swastika banner after Hitler came to power. But he couldn’t get his father-in-law, Fritz, to accept one: Fritz was a left-winger. Twenty years later, in the German Democratic Republic, Werner hung out a big red flag, but he didn’t even offer one to Fritz. He thought Fritz wasn’t left-wing enough.

Werner, from a working-class family, became a much decorated headmaster in East Berlin. But in old age, long after the Wall had fallen, his personal treasure was his participant’s pass to Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games. ‘It was the most lovely time,’ he told his grandson.

From that sort of story you could conclude that the 56-year German experience of fascism and communism was just a matter of getting by, a shrug as one changed a brown shirt for a blue one. But these two excellent books show that passion and commitment were often present too: not just fanatical excitement, but the genuine subjective passion to contribute to the systems’ goals, beneath the outer show of marching, chanting and resolution-signing demanded by the dictatorships.

To reassure his doubting young wife, at the outset of the Nazi years, Werner said: ‘Nazism is posh communism.’ Both these books make clear why that wasn’t so, and how different the two regimes were. But Werner was talking about one of the similarities clearly apparent to somebody like him – and also to the young Franz Fühmann, growing up in the German part of the Sudetenland in the 1930s. This was the Magnificat effect, the spectacle, real or faked, of the putting down of the mighty from their seat and the raising up of the humble and meek.

Both regimes, but especially the postwar communist state, gave Werner access to almost unimaginable opportunities, to leisures and professions once reserved for the middle-class elite. The Nazi welfare programmes allowed him to travel; he saw the sea for the first time. ‘All of a sudden anything seems possible,’ he noted. As his grandson Maxim writes, ‘that was probably the feeling that many people had in those days. Hitler made the little people big and the big people small.’ And Werner, not really a political person so much as someone determined to be a part of things, repaid both states by his enthusiasm and hard work.

In the Sudetenland, the teenage Franz Fühmann eagerly swallowed German radio’s account of the Führer leading the war in a private’s uniform and sharing his men’s pea soup on the battlefield – Volksgemeinschaft! Much later, returning from years in Soviet captivity, he met a policewoman on an East German train whose husband had been murdered by the Nazis: she had now been raised up from poverty and given a holiday with her children in a castle once occupied by a count. In the same train was a man who had been a Prussian farm labourer, but was now dazed to find himself possessing land of his own as a share of the expropriated estate. Yes, Franz told himself, this state and not the Third Reich was the real thing: the new, levelling, democratic Germany of his dreams.

The Third Reich and the GDR certainly shared a distrust of their own subjects. Yet Hitler’s Germany, though it tortured and murdered domestic opponents on a scale unmatched by the GDR, could rely on a far wider degree of support or consent. The Nazi security apparatus (Gestapo, Sicherheitsdienst and so on) was very small compared to the insane reach of the Stasi with its millions of unofficial collaborators. The reason was straightforward: the Nazis could broadly rely on their subjects to inform on their fellow citizens without coercion. Most inhabitants of the GDR, in contrast, put up with their unwanted regime with glum passivity. All the same, Western journalists like me were always surprised to register the number of people in the GDR who showed genuine faith and hope in the system and repeated its official gabble with apparent sincerity. How unlike Poland, Hungary and even Czechoslovakia! In those countries, after the death of Stalin ‘real communists’ were hard to find.

To read The Jew Car is to be reminded that the precondition for mass belief in Hitlerism was a degree of ignorance and credulity perhaps impossible today. In spite of a world war and a brief experience of overseas empire, Germans knew amazingly little about the outside world. As his diaries show, even Joseph Goebbels, who supposed himself a travelled sophisticate, seriously believed that Franklin Roosevelt was the puppet of a global Jewish clique which dictated American policies.

A boy like Franz Fühmann, growing up in an isolated German minority in the Bohemian mountains, had more excuse for ignorance. Fühmann died in 1984, by then a respected poet and novelist who had moved slowly from almost unconditional support to a sternly critical view of the communist regime and its cultural repressions. The Jew Car was first published in censored form in 1962, and in its original text in 1979. It consists of 14 gripping episodes of autobiography, running from Fühmann’s prewar Sudeten childhood to his decision to settle in the GDR in 1949. It’s unlikely that everything happened just as he describes it, and there are some very large omissions (he doesn’t tell us the details of his conversion to Marxism-Leninism as a Soviet prisoner of war; nor does he mention that, as a boy in Nazi uniform, he apparently took part in the Kristallnacht pogrom). But this is, even so, one of the most honest and revealing accounts of the long rearguard action conducted by blind faith in Fatherland and Führer against disenchantment. It’s a classic study of the art of blanking out, of not seeing what you don’t want to see.

The title story, deft and grotesque, begins with a rumour flying round the school playground. A bloodstained car, crewed by four hook-nosed Jews armed with huge knives, has been seen cruising the nearby villages; the Jews snatch little girls and mix their blood into pastry. Franz has never seen a Jew, but has heard from his parents about the dreadful things they do to Germans. One day he sees a car creeping along a country track: it’s them! He can see them inside, the blood on the running-board, the knives. But when he tells the class, a superior girl crushes him by revealing that it was her family car that he saw: the rest was his imagination. Furious, he blames ‘the Jews’ and their ‘dirty tricks’ for his humiliation.

‘Soon the Führer will bring order to the Reich!’ says Franz’s father, a small-town chemist. A few years later – this is a wonderfully comic chapter – his high school barricades itself against an imaginary assault by the ‘barbaric’ Czechs. Nothing happens, but German radio describes the ghastly atrocities as the Czechs storm in and massacre the German boy heroes. Franz and his friends are loyally thrilled by this report, even though they know there’s not a word of truth in it.

Then comes Munich, and the Wehrmacht marches into the Sudetenland. Then the abolition of Czechoslovakia itself. Then Danzig. The infallible Führer has so far ‘saved the Reich from war’. But now the bloodthirsty Poles reject his outstretched hand of peace and start shooting. Franz is bewildered to hear his father groan: ‘This is the world war, boy, and Germany won’t survive it.’ ‘But we have the Führer!’ Franz stammers.

Three years later, Franz is an army teletype operator in Ukraine. He resolves to be a ‘good and gentle master’ to Russians and Ukrainians. But out of the corner of his eye he sees disturbing things which are better left unanalysed: women being crammed into freezing cattle wagons for labour in the Reich, men shouting ‘Long live the homeland!’ on the gallows, villagers who turn their backs on Ukrainians working for the Wehrmacht. In another sketch, he is stationed in occupied Athens. The car taking him to work passes the usual trucks carrying the bodies of Greeks who have died of starvation in the night, but Franz has something important to think about: transmitting messages of loyalty to the Führer after the July 1944 attempt on his life. Many of the servile messages come from aristocratic officers, and Franz’s Magnificat instinct kicks in to arraign ‘this gang of posh Von’s and Zu’s, the calcified aristocracy, the counts and barons who had a problem with the fact that in National Socialist Germany the people decided things and that officers and men ate the same food from the field kitchen.’

By now, Franz is writing doom-laden poetry, inspired by the Edda (‘wind-time, wolf-time’), but his political faith is still intact. The miraculous survival of the Führer after the bomb plot merely proves to him that there was ‘one unassailable certainty: Greater Germany’s victory in this war’. In May 1945, with the Russians already in Berlin, Franz – wounded and on home leave – is wondering when the ‘Miracle Weapons’ will finally be launched to turn the tide. The Führer seems to be leaving it rather late. But that is probably because he has agreed with the Americans on a joint offensive to exterminate the Red Army.

Less than a week later, Franz is swept up in the gigantic rout as German resistance collapses. He is captured, and shipped across the Black Sea to begin years of forced labour in the Caucasus. Confusingly, the ‘Bolshevists’ don’t immediately kill or torture their prisoners. Although the captured soldiers are kept cold and hungry, the Soviet camp authorities regard them as misled but essentially redeemable workers. At first, this makes little impact on the Germans. When a camp official comes running with the ‘good news’ that the German working class in the Soviet Zone, Social Democrats and Communists, have united into a single party, the response is a roar of derision.

But here and there, doubt about the past and concern for the future are beginning to infiltrate stubborn minds. At the news of the Nuremberg death sentences on the Nazi leaders, Franz is surprised to hear himself say, ‘They sure had it coming,’ and men around him nod. It’s a pity that he then goes silent about his conversion to Marxism-Leninism. We learn that the ‘scales fell from my eyes’ at some special training school in Soviet Latvia, but the narrative only resumes with his return to East Germany in 1949. As Fühmann himself later admitted, this final section, the happy ending, has a whiff of Socialist Realism about it, and doesn’t match up to the frightening but convincing quality of the rest of the book.

*

Red Love is a silly title for a serious, very moving book (the German original, ‘Hold Your Heart Ready’, at least promised some subtlety). It’s a weave of narratives about five lives, connected by blood and marriage but divided by politics, and it’s also a very German saga of convictions and compromises. Most of its action takes place in the GDR, where Maxim Leo (born in 1970) grew up. But the attitudes of the actors were formed, directly or indirectly, by what happened earlier on. One of Maxim’s grandfathers was Werner Schwieger, the man who hung out the big swastika banner. The other was Gerhard Leo, a powerful figure in the GDR who was for a time a member of the Central Committee of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). His story, and his influence, dominate the book.

To declare an interest, I knew Gerhard Leo in the 1960s, when he was foreign editor of the Party paper, Neues Deutschland, and I liked him. His loyalty to ‘the cause’, to the GDR, was cast-iron hard. But he was intelligent, ironic and fun to be with, unlike the gloomy morons who ran party and state in the GDR. This was not because he had a Jewish father, though that helped. It was because he had lived in France after 1933, and then fought in the French Resistance. In that way, he belonged to a category of party members, many of them Jewish, who had spent the Hitler years as exiles in the West and knew something about bourgeois freedoms. They contrasted with the ruling Ulbricht Group, who had been flown in from the Soviet Union and understood only democratic centralism and unanimity enforced by terror. This is not to deny that Gerhard was Stalinist in his own way. When his daughter Annette wondered why she and other students had to clear snow from the railway, Gerhard replied with a fearsome rebuke: when it came to the crunch, he warned, she would be on the other side of the barricades. When the Soviet Union led the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Gerhard judged it only from the point of view of the world struggle between imperialism and socialism. ‘Necessary for the cause. If anyone doesn’t understand that, they aren’t part of it.’

Gerhard’s father, Wilhelm Leo, was a bold Jewish lawyer who led a slander case against Goebbels and won (Goebbels had gone around lying that his club foot was the result of torture by a French general). Gerhard himself became an official GDR hero who lectured schoolchildren about his wartime exploits. This gave him influence and also immunity: the ‘Western’ émigrés in the SED were purged or downgraded in the paranoid, anti-Semitic frenzy of Stalin’s last years, but Gerhard could still criticise the party leadership in closed meetings and get away with it.

Annette, his beautiful, serious-minded daughter, grew up in awe of her father, but could not share his iron certainties. Max, her son, calls the GDR ‘the unhappy love of her youth’ and she has called it her ‘prison of loyalty’. She became a party member in her teens, ‘the Red’ in her class, and then party secretary of first-year university students. Yet she was soon worried by the lies and intolerance to which she was expected to subscribe. What made it more painful was the fact that she was a child of privilege. Gerhard’s status meant she wasn’t punished for protests that would have ruined the career of an ordinary comrade. And later it meant that she and her son were allowed to leave the country and visit the West – something other GDR citizens could only dream about.

Gerhard dismissed her problems with the GDR as ‘politicking’ and refused to listen to her. So Annette ran away and married a handsome young artist, Werner’s son Wolf, who dyed his hair blue or green. She clung to ‘the cause’; Wolf treated the state’s restrictions with contempt. Max, their child, remembers the family battles: ‘Here ideology collided with life. That struggle raged for whole years. It was the reason my father went round the house shouting, why my mother secretly cried in the kitchen, why Gerhard became a stranger to me.’

When she finally left the party, only months before the Wall fell, it was because it was ‘denying reality’ and ‘ossified’ rather than because it was tyrannous. And after 1989, Annette was one of those who worked vainly for a Third Way, a democratic, socialist German state to replace the GDR. The first time she was persuaded to venture into West Berlin, she literally lost her voice and could speak only in a croak. Today, she is a respected historian, but Maxim writes tenderly: ‘My cool, intelligent mother is still grieving for that first great love even twenty years after the end of the GDR.’

For Wolf, his father, it was very different. He had been a child when there was no Wall, and he and his East Berlin pals roamed freely across the city. Whatever their government said, it was obvious to them that life in West Berlin was richer and more fun. And yet when the Wall moment came in August 1961– when Wolf stood at a temporary wire fence he could easily have jumped through, before the concrete went up – he hesitated. Most of his friends had already gone west. But Wolf hung around, he still doesn’t know why, until border guards came up and grabbed him. He was loudly rebellious and bohemian, and yet the Stasi shrewdly noted that ‘his fundamental attitude towards the GDR is positive.’ Wolf would never have put it like that, but on at least one occasion he came surprisingly near to lending the Stasi a hand. ‘I thought that if you’re not going to escape to the West, you have to do something where you are.’ That urge to ‘contribute’ again.

Maxim had fewer hang-ups. His rebellion against his parents was to dress neatly, get a job and declare that he would move to the West. He had, he says, a ‘non-relationship’ with the communist state. With the Wall now closing the Berlin border, his teenage gang amused themselves by pretending to be West German visitors, talking in loud ‘Wessi’ accents and impressing girls by telling them about their lifestyle ‘over there’. Yet even he wasn’t quite immune to the dream. Grandfather Gerhard took him to France one summer (Maxim got a passport in ten minutes, from a special bureau for the party elite and their families), but when he returned alone, he shuttled five or six times between the last West Berlin ‘S-Bahn’ station and the entry to the GDR at Friedrichstrasse before finally plunging into the dim control-corridors of ‘home’.

In some ways the GDR truly was dream-like, a place where you could live a quiet, sleepwalking half-life if you didn’t think about the army of Stasi agents and informers walking invisibly beside you. Both dictatorships made promises of equality and social justice which moved many unpolitical Germans deeply, and which at first seemed to be coming true. Both betrayed those promises, but left behind a void once filled by ‘the happiness of hoping for happiness’, as the poet Erich Fried put it.

To Maxim, born so long after fascism and war and Stalinism and hunger had become history, ‘the cause’ meant nothing. Yet, in the years after ‘the first socialist state on German soil’ was thrown ignominiously into the skip, he found himself infuriated by Westerners who talked as if the GDR had been ‘a cholera zone’ inhabited by the ill-educated, the weak-willed, the corrupted. ‘Suddenly there it was, this feeling that I hadn’t known before. This “we” that I’d found so hard to say. I think I never felt so close to the GDR as I did after its downfall.’