Sunday, May 23, 2010

A good novel

I recently read Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada. This novel about life in Nazi Germany was written in 1947, but apparently not translated into English until very recently. It's based on the true story of a working class couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who became so frustrated with Nazism that they started dropping postcards denouncing Hitler all over Berlin. This seems a fairly innocuous action in a country with free speech, but in Nazi Germany it was a death-penalty crime--and the couple knew it.

The couple eluded police and Gestapo detection for two years.

The book is gripping and a page turner. It's well-written, even in translation (there are some word choice oddities however) and puts you inside the world of the characters with great immediacy. The story, of course, is compelling.

More importantly, for all the books I've read recently on everyday life in Nazi Germany for a paper on Bonhoeffer, nothing captures the experience of living in a totalitarian regime like literature. Novels such as this one and George Orwell's 1984 bring totalitarianism to life in a way no amount of delving into Gestapo archives, compiling lists of facts and figures, or discussing repressive legislation and Nazi social programs can do. As a person who loves and values both history and literature, I am happily reminded of how well the two complement each other. We can't fully understand literature if we read it in a vacuum; likewise, we can't fully grasp a historical period without entering it imaginatively--often best led by someone who witnessed the era and can transform that witness into art.

I also very much appreciated the novel's depiction of most of the women characters as strong, independent, resourceful women. More often than not, it's the women holding things together, from households to earning income. This corroborates the histories I read, where, despite Nazi propaganda about sending women back to the home, women tended to be employed in large numbers, both because they worked for less money than men and were more docile. Of course, once World War II began, the government depended on women's labor to fill in for the men at war. Whatever the reason, I very much appreciated Fallada not reducing his females to sex objects or stereotypes.

There's also nothing like literature to communicate the "total" in totalitarian: the people in the book live in a world of black and white. Either you are entirely loyal to the system in every way or you are a traitor. There was almost no gradation, no "I'm Ok with this part of National Socialism, but against that." As a Quaker, I am struck that there was no conscientious objector status: you either went to war when you were called or you were given the death penalty. People apparently pulled strings all the time to be kept from the front, but the concept of objecting on the basis of conscience was not tolerated. The idea of having an inner life that differed from political policy was not tolerated. It's difficult to imagine what it would be like to live in such a world, but the novel goes a long way towards filling that gap.

15 comments:

novels said...

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Diane said...

Thanks novels.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks for this, Diane. It does bring a bit of the awareness you gleaned from this book to us, to me. We're so far removed from such a world, really. And we take it for granted that we'll always be. But maybe there is in the air for us, and always for followers of Jesus something of this dynamic. Which is inherent in following the Jesus way against the tide of the world's way. Yet such troubled times end up bringing that to the fore. Does make on thank God for the freedoms we have. But do we easily lapse into something less than a full following of Jesus as a result? I'm afraid more than not that that may be the case.

Diane said...

Ted,

Yes, I think we do--or I do--lapse from loving Jesus with my full head, heart, mind and soul. In the novel, when the couple do finally--in jail--encounter a truly good Christian chaplain, and a truly Christian layman, it's astonishing. The reader feels the grace so fully, because it's been missing in Nazi Germany. We just take so much for granted, even the small kindnesses. At the same time, Fallada doesn't romanticize the clergy--there's a bad chaplain too.

Diane said...

Ted,

Yes, I think we do--or I do--lapse from loving Jesus with my full head, heart, mind and soul. In the novel, when the couple do finally--in jail--encounter a truly good Christian chaplain, and a truly Christian layman, it's astonishing. The reader feels the grace so fully, because it's been missing in Nazi Germany. We just take so much for granted, even the small kindnesses. At the same time, Fallada doesn't romanticize the clergy--there's a bad chaplain too.

Diane said...

Ted,

Yes, I think we do--or I do--lapse from loving Jesus with my full head, heart, mind and soul. In the novel, when the couple do finally--in jail--encounter a truly good Christian chaplain, and a truly Christian layman, it's astonishing. The reader feels the grace so fully, because it's been missing in Nazi Germany. We just take so much for granted, even the small kindnesses. At the same time, Fallada doesn't romanticize the clergy--there's a bad chaplain too.

Jeremy Mott said...

Diane and Friends, I think all would enjoy the book Quakers and
Nazis, by Hans Schmitt, published
in 1997 by Univ. of Missouri press.
It's still available from the pub=
lisher and other sources on the
internet.
There were a few hundred German Friends in 1933 when Hitler came to power. The authoritarian
clerk of German Y.M., Hans Albrecht, was determined that
German Friends----a very young
group---would survive. With the
approval of the yearly meeeting,
he ruled out any revolutionary
action, violent or nonviolent,
for German Friends. Their activity under the Nazis was to
be restricted to two things: worship and service. And what great service they did, rescuing
Jews and political opponents of the Nazis, helping Friends and
others in concentratiion camps.
offering meetinghouses where young Jews and half-Jews could
gather, and so forth. The German
Quakers didn't even expect their
young members to be conscientious objectors, since this might have
meant death. Many served in the
German army, often in the medical
services. Some died there. At the
end of the war almost all the German Friends were still alive.
And they had kept their unique point of view, their peace testimony, alive too; totalianarian thinking had not
conquered them Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

Emerging Diane,
As many Friends used to know, legal conscientious objector
status is pretty much a Quaker
creation. It began in Rhode Island in the 1670's. The Quaker
government there, in alliance with
the other New England colonies,
was fighting a terrible war against
Indians (with the approval of Geo. Fox, who was visiting). Yet it did grant CO exemption to young Friends (and other CO's if there
were any) who would otherwise have been drafted into the militia. Some of these men refused to perform the alternative civilian
work that the law required; I guess they were fined and their
property seized. Sound familiar?
Within a few years, similar laws
were passed in all colonies (later
states) that had Quakers or Brethren or Mennonites. When both North and South passed federal
conscription during the Civil War,
similar CO provisions were included. Usually CO's had to pay a big commutation fee; those who did not had their property seized or were drafted after all and if they still didn't serve might be
court-martialed or worse. This
sort of system was adopted in Britain, Australia, and elsewhere in the British Empire during WWI and WWII. Ireland, including the
North, never had conscription.
The other origin of legalized
CO status is with Mennonites. A large number of German-speaking
Mennonites were settled in Russia
under Catherine the Great. (They
were escaping from conscription in
Prussia.) She promised them exemption from the draft. In the
1800's, CO status was conditioned
on civilian service in forestry
camps, then withdrawn altogether in many cases. Russian Mennonites then mostly moved to Canada and the U.S.A. The Canadian and later
American programs of civilian work
for conscientious objectors obviously came partly from this.
Once legalized conscientious ob-
jection had spread throughout the
English-speaking world, it didn't
go much farther for a very long
time. Not only Germany, but France, Holland, and Italy had no such provisions during WW2 and
later. France didn't legalize CO
until after the Algerian war. And
West Germany, when it was created
by the Americans and the British
about 1952, was told it must have
a draft and must legalize pacifist CO's. So Germany
actually led the way in Europe.
Finland and Greece still court-martialed CO's and sentenced them to death into the 1950's (Greece
didn't carry out the sentences; but Finland sometimes did.)
Now pacifist conscientious ob-
jection is an international
human right, thanks mainly to the
lifelong work of Friend Rachel
Brett at QUNO--Geneva; you may read her papers on this subject on the web. Of course, there are
many countries, notably Israel &
Turkey & Greece, where CO's are
still drafted and sent to prison.
You can read about this on the
website of War Resisters Intl.
Virtually every country in
Europe no longer has
conscription or is giving it up.
If the U.S. expands the war on terror so much that we
restore conscription, we will
be out of step. We are a much
more millitarized nation,
in spirit especially, than we
were a few years ago. War is
popular again. Peace, Jeremy Mott

Diane said...

Jeremy,

I am behindhand in responding but thanks for all the information on COs. I find it fascinating. The German Quaker decisions during WWII must have been wrenching but they did allow the group to survive.

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy adds: The book Quakers and
and Nazis: Inner Light and Outer
Darkness, was published only about
13 years ago and is still in print.
Of course it should be available in the library of any Quaker college. In the aftermath of World War II, when Friends in Germany were really suffering still, Friends in the U.S set up a program to help. My family, like many other Quaker families,
sent a packkage every month or two
to a German Quaker family that we
had "adopted." We sent canned food, baby clothes and children's clothes, blankets, soap, tooth powder, etc. Believe me, the recipients were grateful. They still felt the hatred of their
compatriots, as much as ever.
British Friends couldn't do this,
since they were still suffering
from wartime shortages and rationing also, until about 1952.
We have a remarkable recent
history, in the last 150 years,
not just an ancient history.

Jeremy said...

Jeremy writes again: Yes. And Hans Schmitt's book, Quakers and
Nazis, Inner Light and Outer Dark-
ness, should be available in any
good Quaker library, and may still be bought from the publisher, Univ.of Missouri press, on the internet. I am more interested in
what Friends did in Germany than in other opponents of Hitler like
Bonhoeffer who took up arms.
In France also, Friends and other
friends of Friends were deeply in-
volved in saving Jewish lives and
the lives of other opponents of the Nazis. They used a lot of American money, smuggled through Switzerland. Yous can read about this in the books about Le Chambon sur Lignon, the Huguenot village in the south of France, where unter pacifist leadership, thousands of Jews were saved. Some were captured there, but not one was turned in.
In the aftermath of World War II,
there was a considerable effort among U.S. Quakers to help German
Quakers who had survived the Nazis. They still had rationing and shortages of many essentials. In my family and many other Quaker families, we "adopted" a German Quaker family and every month or two sent a package with canned food, baby clothes and children's clothes, tooth powder, soap, blankets, and other useful items.
This helped the spirits of the
recipient families, as well as the
bodies.

Jeremy Mott said...

As ror reading about Friends worldwide, you can't do better than
starting with the 5 FWCC websites,
espcially the one for the Section
of the Americas (which includes
Margaret Fraser's reports from a
recent month-long trip to 3 different gatherings in Kenya), and
the webside of the Asia and West
Pacific Section, which includes
material about Friends in India
(they are booming) and the Philippines (likewise). The FWCC--
AWPS newsletter is now published
in both Hindi and English.
Try googling Guatemala evangelical
Friends for those 3 yearly meetings with a total of more than 20,000 members. One of these yearly meetings has a radio station Radio Verdad and publishes pamphlets El Senor Jesu Cristo and La Luz Interior, both titles, by the same author. The European
(& Middle East) section of FWCC
has a good website, covering all
the small liberal Quaker groups of
Europe, some quite new. The Africa
section of FWCC's website lists
almost all the groups in Africa, in
cluding several obscure local meetings in west Africa, both anglophone and francophone.
We're much a much bigger
Society than we ever used to be, even though our U.S.yearly meetings are shrinking or at
best stable. This is, I believe,
a very exciting time for Friends.

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy continues,
There's a wonderful yearly meeting in southern Africa, extending to 8
different nations; it's Central & Southern Africa Y.M. (I think).
Right now most of the members are
English-speaking white people; they are trying hard, with some success, to change that, since it's obvious that the future in SouthAfrica is black Africans.
If you look up EFC-ER, and go to
their mission work, you can findout
about their magnificent work among
Gypsies in Hungary and Romania;
also about their work in Haiti,
and Haitian refugees in Dom.Rep.
and U.S.A. Go to ERC--SW, and
you will be led into much on their
amazing mission work, under incredibly difficult conditions, in
post-genocide Cambodia.
Try Friends Peace Teams if you will. Some of these groups, including FPT, offer voluntary
service opportunities overseas,
for a month or for a year or two,
for individual Friends or for whole families. And they don't care if you ever went to seminary, or even college in many cases.

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy writes again: Here's a remarkable foreign Friend:
Zawadu Nikuze, who you can find by
googling Friends Peace Teams African Great Lakes Initiative.
She lives in the eastern Congolese
city of Goma, at the northern end of Lake Kivu, adjacent to the
Rwandan city of Gisenyi. Goma
is a gigantic overgrown refugee
camp of a city, built on a dump,
which lies on top of a sometimes-
active volcano. It must be one of
the ugliest cities in the world;
but many Friends live there, including pastors and other members of CEEACO (which you can also look up via google). At the south
end of Lake Kivu is Bukavu, which
is a beautiful city; it has Quakers too; but it has been the
scene of fighting recently in the
seemingly endless World War III of
this area. As you can see on the
web, Zawadi Nikuze was recently on
a fundraising tour that included
Chester, Pa. (I suspect that the
Friends meeting there has many
African-American members.) These
Congolese, Burundian, and Rwandan
Friends are really marvels. All are young; the leaders are almost
never over 35 years old.

Jeremy Mott said...

Diane, I'll try again to get my
spelling right: Her name is,
I think, Nikuzi. And find Alexia
Niboya, I think her name is, a
Burundian doctor for the Friends Woman Assn. clinic in Kamenge, the terrible neighborhood of Bujumbura
the capital of Burundi. Dr.Niboya
was just denied a visa for a speaking tour in the United States. The insane consul ruled that there was a risk that she might not return to Burundi---yet
she is exec.director of the Friends Women's Assn., head doctor
of the clinic, and mother of 12
adopted children! Luckily, her
American partner Dr.Alexandra Douglas, could and did come instead. I don't understand why
you don't have some of these amazing Friends visit at Olney
and Earlham. All that one must do,
when a speaking tour is planned,
is invite them, agree on dates,
provide hospitality and publicity,
and allow them to collect money and lists of names for their projects. The most amazing Friend of the 21st century so far, I think, is David Zarembka, the exec.
director of African Great Lakes
Initiative. He lives in Kenya now, but he's a member of Baltimore Y.M. He brings together
Friends from the United States,
Britain, Norway, Canada, Kenya,
Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo
to work on many important peace-
promoting projects. He even mangages to raise money from AFSC,
from Philadelphia Y.M. foundations,
and from the United States Institute of Peace (a State Dept. foundation). You can find his
reports under www.aglifpt.org