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.

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