James Hawes

Hitler’s legacy: two books examine different aspects of the horror that was Germany, 1945

Dark Lens and Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself reviewed

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Dark Lens

Françoise Meltzer

University of Chicago Press, pp. 256, £14.99

Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans

Florian Huber

Allen Lane, pp. 304, £14.99

Two new books offer very different takes on the utter ruination of Germany in 1945. Each in its own way shows the enfeebling results of our modern obsession with amateur psychologising.

Françoise Meltzer’s Dark Lens is based around a couple of dozen snaps which her mother, a Frenchwoman who had been in the Resistance, took of ruined German cities immediately after the war. This personal angle whets the reader’s appetite, as does the reminder of just how strangely fascinated we all are by ruins. Meltzer quickly delivers riveting information about how truly insane the Third Reich was: when Albert Speer was designing his megalomaniac new Reich capital for Hitler, they deliberately planned that ‘after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years the ruins would more or less resemble Roman models’.

Unfortunately, this book isn’t really about information. If you genuflect at the phrase ‘Derrida himself’ or think Slavoj Zizek a genius, good luck with it. Everyone else will soon find it a wearying peroration on how we are supposedly manipulated by secret forces. There may indeed be, says Meltzer twice, some parallel between how we see the bombing of Nazi Germany and how we see Palestine today. Because whenever we look at photographs from history, we ‘view them through the filter of whatever reigning state apparatus has educated and thus constructed our gaze’. Is it really the photographs we are seeing at all, or is it not merely a story that has already been put into our own heads, eh, Molesworth 2?

Meltzer’s book becomes a reminder that the wretched equivocation of ‘alternative facts’ was originally cooked up not on the carcinogenic barbecues of the American alt-right but in the grubby Parisian kitchens of the left. A stout British empiricist might suggest that anyone who sees anything like the same tale in pictures of German ruins in 1945 and pictures of Palestine today should visit an optician.

All eyes will be opened, though, by the sheer facts on offer in Florian Huber’s Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself. Like perhaps no country in history, Germany has publicly faced up to its grandfathers’ darkest hours. Or at least, it thought it had. The country has been shocked by Huber’s revelation that as the Reich dissolved, tens of thousands of Germans, perhaps even 100,000 or more, killed themselves, often taking their entire families with them.

Using the technique readers will recognise from the second world war books of our own Tim Craig and Phil Clayton, Huber follows a cast of real, all-too-human characters as they head into darkness. He builds a terrifying picture of how a modern, civilised culture embraced a lunatic death-cult and then doubled down on it rather than face the mounting evidence of what was really going on the Eastern Front and in the camps — Huber is in no doubt that many, many Germans must have known it. The orgy of suicide and child murder was ‘the act of a gambler who’d staked everything on one card and knew he’d lost’.

Huber’s terrible evidence is priceless, and belongs on every bookshelf. But again, the psychologising is misleading. He implies that all Germans thought much the same way. They didn’t. The Nazis themselves knew this very well. In September 1944, Hitler ordered the evacuation of Aachen, suspecting that the western, Catholic population, who never voted even 25 per cent for him, might greet the Allies as liberators. But he forbade the evacuation of East Prussia, hoping that the Lutheran Prussians, who had voted over 60 per cent for him, would take part in a Götterdämmerung-style last stand.

Even Germans easily forget how far eastwards Germany used to go. East Prussia, the spiritual and often literal home of the Prussian military elite, was east of Poland. My wife’s late father was brought up there as one of them, in what’s now Russia, and he recalled the utterly colonial and therefore highly militarised life the Germans there had lived for centuries. A Germans vs Slavs showdown was never far from Prussian minds. Fifty-odd years before Operation Barbarossa, members of Wilhelm II’s Prussian elite discussed kicking Russia out of the Baltic, getting their armies to the Volga, setting up a puppet Ukraine, and reducing the tsars to vassals.

This explains why all the people who killed their families were eastern Germans. With such old and bad blood, and knowing full well (as many must have) what the regime they’d voted in had done to their Polish neighbours, eastern Germans had good reason to suspect that when the showdown went wrong and the vengeful helots came charging in, there truly might be fates worse than death. This was nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with the thing that can safely be left to speak for itself: history.