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Posted on 22 Oct 2020 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

CATRINE CLAY The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis 1933–1945. Reviewed by Kim Kelly

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In telling their personal stories, Catrine Clay brings to life the Germans who resisted Nazism, reminding us that the Fuhrer’s cheering crowds did not represent everyone.

Catrine Clay is an award-winning BBC documentary-maker and author of three previous works of popular history that take a path less trodden and bring a sharp focus to the personal within the political. Her latest, The Good Germans, looks closely at the lives of six individuals experiencing a period of the past we think we know – the rise and fall of Nazism – and creates a kind of prismatic array of reaction and resistance that has the reader asking all the while: ‘What would I have done?’

Clay deliberately and carefully casts her net wide in order to take us into all areas of German life, including the perspectives of ‘workers and aristocrats, Communists and conservatives, women and men, young and old’, piecing together their experiences through their own words in letters and memoirs, and from the historical record. Each of her subjects is both an intricate character study and a vehicle for the broader historical narrative. They are, in brief:

  • Berndt Engelmann, an ordinary middle-class schoolboy, whose story thread shows us how Social Democrats (members and supporters of the SPD, Germany’s moderate, liberal left), made small acts of resistance and compassion for the victims of fascism part of the fabric of life during those years. 
  • Fabian von Schlabrendroff, a young law student in Berlin, who takes us into the network of secret resistance, and whose activities show how all classes of society participated in the sharing of information beneath the Nazi propaganda machine.
  • Rudolf Ditzen, a middle-aged, alcoholic novelist writing under the name Hans Fallada, a famous but very flawed man who must decide how he can continue to make a living with his popular fiction under the regime that is increasingly pressuring him to write Nazi puff pieces.
  • Irma Thälmann, the teenaged daughter of Ernst Thälmann, adored leader of the German Communist Party (KPD), who shows through her unfaltering commitment to socialist ideals the courage of youth when resistance quite literally is futile.
  • Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, a Prussian aristocrat and passionate, old-school nationalist whose journey through his own conscience takes him from an enthusiasm for the possibilities of Nazism to becoming one of its most fearless enemies.
  • Julius Leber, leader of the SPD in the Reichstag before the Nazis’ rise, a politician of substance who spends most of this story in prison, never giving up his belief in social-democratic values of fairness and peace in the face of Nazism’s relentless violence, no matter that it would likely cost him his life.

Sympathies swirl from one story thread to the next, weaving back and forth across the period, and each reader of this book will no doubt be struck differently by each of the subjects, their efforts and the danger of their circumstances. For writers, these words on the novelist, Ditzen, throw out a terrible challenge:

With each demand from the Ministry the self-confessed coward had to screw up his courage to refuse, each time knowing that sooner or later his luck would run out. Meanwhile, he made some compromises, kept his head down, and held his breath. There were frequent moments of despair when he thought he couldn’t write anymore, because he couldn’t write without the Nazi authorities interfering and threatening.

Lovers of the heroic will be inspired by fearless young Irma Thälmann:

By the time she was thirteen, Irma was a hardened revolutionary. She’d been in the Young Pioneers [KPD youth group] for seven years and witnessed for herself the poverty of families whose fathers were unemployed or who’d been killed in the uprisings or street battles. Every Christmas she’d brought toys and food to those starving families, donated by the Party. Now, on 10 July 1932, wearing her Young Pioneers uniform, she was part of the throng of workers making their way to the Platz for the anti-fascist rally…

As her story unfolds, she stands up to Nazi schoolteachers and prison guards, too.

Those who have wondered how on earth the SPD, Germany’s oldest political party, whose values of decency and justice should have withstood the assault of extremism, managed to fail so badly, will find much here to answer that question. Cast in such personal terms by Clay, this study could just as well be asking the same question of social democrats today in the face of new tyrants: ‘What should we do?’ and ‘What should I do?’ The answer, from the lessons of this book, is perhaps that those on the left should put aside the squabbles among themselves and act together against authoritarianism now – not after the tyrants take control. As Clay sets out with chilling clarity, Ernst Thälmann, leader of the KPD, predicted just about to the letter what the Nazis would do and how they would do it, but it appears he was not listened to by the more complacent sections of the left who did not believe such things could happen in their civilised, dignified country.

While there are many examples of ordinary people being excellent humans in this book – from a secretly socialist prison guard who shows kindness to inmates, to those thousands who did what they could to hide Jewish friends and neighbours, and the wonderful figure of Tante Ney, a legend of proletarian generosity and cunning – the fact that none of their actions could bring down the regime is starkly and relentlessly drawn. Beyond the often incomprehensible numbers of record, Clay gives us a sense in everyday terms of just how many people had to be imprisoned, tortured and murdered for the Nazi machinery to operate; the grinding dread and anxiety; the meanness, weariness and desperation that causes most to retreat into survival mode.  

This is a big book that sprawls comprehensively over these enormous years, diving into the detail of courtrooms and living rooms, streets and cells along the way, and it is an unwieldy narrative at times. Essentially retelling the same larger story from six distinct angles results in some repetitiousness and an occasionally meandering focus that wanders into biographical territory that seems extraneous. However, even in these digressions and repetitions, there remains a richness in its layering of history and character, and readers unfamiliar with the chronology and complex politics of this period will never find themselves lost.

Australian readers who have enjoyed popular histories such as those of Peter Fitzsimons, where we’re invited into the living breathing world of the past and the hearts and minds of its players, will find this book an interesting addition to their collection. This narrative approach might put off those who prefer their history told without any emotional landscape, but Clay never steps too far into the realms of the speculative in this regard; her focus on the words and actions of her subjects reveals their intimate selves without sentimentality or sensationalism, and all imaginings are tightly bound within the framework of cold hard facts.

All the expected facts are certainly here, with the Führer appearing in all his usual grotesquery – a loud idiot in love with chaos and inciting hate, surrounded by clowns and thieves. Not much creative embellishment is ever required for such well-documented material, but Clay’s depictions of the cultishness of Nazi hysteria, its inherent dishonesty and constant cries of fake news at any opposition, again make for a chilling read in light of happenings today. Clay makes no overt comparison, though; she doesn’t need to.

But it is timely to be reminded that those old Nazi newsreels of screaming worshippers showed nothing like the whole truth. The Nazis came to power from a relatively small base, their propaganda breaking through to enough broken and despairing people to draw a pathetic crowd, one that also attracted all the natural sadists and bigots that exist in any society at any time, and very quickly it became too terrifying for most ordinary people to resist. Clay also illuminates the determination of socialists and communists to forge a fairer world, when their stories were largely forgotten in the anti-Red fervour of the Cold War that followed, setting up prejudices against socialist ideals that persist today.

The Good Germans delivers quotable quotes, shocks and heartbreak on every page, but there is very little triumph, and it’s an antidote, in a way, to the plethora of contemporary World War II fiction that reduces Germans generally to bad guys and collaborators, casting the good guys as war-winners. In real life, that’s not how it happened: for the most part, the Nazis wore themselves out with their own depravity and excess. As Clay says in her introduction, ‘Once power gets into the wrong hands, there is little the individual can do.’ And it’s a warning we should probably heed right now.

Catrine Clay The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis 1933-1945 Hachette Australia 2020 PB 352pp, $32.99

Kim Kelly is the author of ten novels, including the acclaimed Wild Chicory and The Blue Mile. Her latest, Her Last Words,was published in July 2020. Find out more about Kim at: kimkellyauthor.com

You can buy The Good Germans from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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