For the past few months I have been writing about a character who has intermittent bouts of clinical—and untreated—depression. His coping mechanism is to obsess about World War II and specifically, the last months of the war, when it was clear all was lost for Germany and all that remained was retaliation, bloodshed and defeat.
Well, I know enough about World War II to know that an obsession with it could distract anyone from the horrors of their own mind. Also, as an undergraduate I took a powerful and powerfully-taught course called “Hitler’s Germany,” and though I skipped some discussion sections and probably zoned out through a lot of lectures, I knew something about the Third Reich. For example, I knew that Albert Speer wrote Inside the Third Reich and that I’d read it. Or read sections of it. I was 18. I don’t remember.
Just a few years ago I borrowed the 1970’s epic World at War series—a 26-episode documentary made for British television, narrated by Laurence Olivier. It featured extensive interviews with then-living survivors, perpetrators or witnesses, including Hitler’s secretary, Himmler’s adjutant and Karl Donitz, Hitler’s successor to power in Germany. It was Donitz who signed the instruments of unconditional surrender in France 20 days after his succession as president.
I was riveted. Horrified. It was true that as a kid I’d watched a re-run of Judgment at Nuremberg and confessed in the kitchen to my mother that I thought I had to hate Daddy now that I’d known what the Germans had done (I’m Danish on my mother’s side and German on my father’s). But what did I really know of the war after watching war movies and documentaries?
Enough to know I could give a fictional character a real-life obsession with it.
But if I was going to write about it, I had to really know something about it, not simply gather a vague sense from what I’d seen of it on TV.
And so began my reading—still in its infancy stages—of military history, and particularly that of the last few months of the war. In other words, my more in-depth knowledge of World War II begins as the Nazi regime is convulsing and imploding under Hitler’s megalomaniacal insanity, the Reich’s impotency, the Red Army’s retaliatory brutality, Stalin’s paranoia, Eisenhower’s naiveté and Roosevelt’s largely uncomprehending last days.
As I read about it, up close and with footnotes, it’s a nightmare too real to be fictional, to awful not to be believed.
Right now I’m slogging my way through John Toland’s The Last Hundred Days (which was actually on the syllabus of my undergraduate course, though I was too young and callous to know or care enough to pay attention to what I was reading) and Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945. And I don’t say “slogging” because it’s boring or tedious. I say it because it’s painful. Painful and fascinating. Painful and horrifying.
And it took my invention of an entirely fictional character to get me to pay attention to something that is more real than our nerve endings: the war happened. The insanity was commonplace. It was widespread.
We say that about war now. We say that about Islamist extremists. And we want to cordon off that part of the world that is so different from us. (Whatever us actually means.) And in that way we can preserve some fictional sense that we possess a greater civility, a wiser ken on a better form of government, a more insightful sense of how human beings should live.
And yet—what we say about Islamist extremists isn’t isolated to some far corner of the world where the Enlightenment hadn’t spawned Kant, Spinoza, Hume, et al. Because extremists and fanatics were churning butter and making beer and writing poetry and making movies all in the service of their hell-on-wheels ideological constructs not so very long ago and not so very far away.
We visit these places with an enthusiastic and romantic eye when we can afford to. It’s Europe, after all. Those people are so much like us, what with their keen sense of culture, civility and technological acuity (what marvelous flush toilets and excellent high speed trains!). So it’s easy to forget that, just a few decades ago, ideologies equal to the craziness of the most extreme forms of religious zealotry in places far away from us led to brutalities beyond words, deaths beyond measuring, rapes beyond counting and miseries untold in a world not far away.
What can we learn? That we are not so different from one another in our human capacity for venality? Most definitely.
And also—perhaps—that we have a choice? As W.H. Auden wrote as the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, “We must love one another or die.”
But we won’t know enough to know that unless we know what is killing us. And that means paying attention to what has killed us before—however painful it is to take the time and muster the humility to truly pay attention.