Review: “Did You Ever See Hitler?”

You’ve probably never heard of one of Germany’s most important post World War II authors, Walter Kempowski, but he’s a must read.  History doesn’t get much more intimate than it does in Did You Ever See Hitler?, his slim volume of interviews German citizens published in the mid-1970s. He asked them the provocative brief question: “Haben Sie Hitler gesehen?“ Did you ever see Hitler?

Kempowski compiled the book from over 300 interviews with people of all ages and professions, and the project gives you a crowd’s-eye view of Hitler from the 1920s through the end of World War II, concentrating on the effect the dictator had on people and was still having decades later.

Several threads emerge. Some people only saw him once, or barely at all in a motorcade rushing past. Others often saw and heard him in Berlin. The older respondents were the generation that “had fallen for Hitler” and tried to make sure that “the memory of this fall — and the memory of the man — died out.”

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There are plenty of Germans in the book who almost brag that they weren’t impressed by Hitler, or that they found his manner or face weird (“like a pink marzipan pig”). Then there are others who said they couldn’t imagine he was going to be so powerful. Some of these same people report many public appearances in the 1930s that were less than crowded, and cities where Hitler was not wildly popular. Though as one man notes wryly, after the war, every German city claimed it had disappointed Hitler with small crowds.

But there are far more accounts of the elaborately stage-managed productions that thousands swarmed to, even if the school children or Hitler Youth were required to be there. And one after another, people talk about the hysteria Hitler evoked in women and girls: “The women were howling with delight,” “They were peeing in their pants with excitement, and the older women were moaning as if the Savior were coming,” “The women turned their eyes up so that the whites showed, and dropped like flies. Like slaughtered calves they lay there, breathing heavily,” “We hardly dared wash our hands for three days, we were so affected simply because he had touched them.”

And then there are the people who blame others for his mistakes or the war, and still believed in him. A number of Kempowski’s respondents refer to crowd psychosis and tell him that nobody today can imagine what it was like to be there, whatever one felt about Hitler. Even opponents could feel swayed by the spectacle and apparently by the man.

The volume, available used on Alibris, is illustrated with photos that don’t appear in the German edition. These were propaganda shots that made Hitler out to be avuncular, friendly, approachable, human. They were designed to fill albums which were printed in the hundreds of thousands, then given to students and youths who won prizes for filling them up.

Though many people speaking to Kempowski would claim  that Hitler didn’t move them, the main impression this amazing book leaves you with is the strange mixture of the quotidian and the bizarre. You can almost feel the hungry, thirsty hordes waiting for hours with their feet aching, and then coming to life when they see Germany’s new God appearing, blocking out the sun, promising to punish all enemies and make Germany great again.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in many genres including the memoir-travelogue My Germany.

 

*”hitler1″ by billium12 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Transcription” Is The Dullest WW II Novel I’ve Read In Years

When I started reviewing crime fiction and other genres for the Detroit Free Press back in the 90s, I made an odd discovery.  Reviewers, friends, acquaintances would be raving about a book or an author.  I’d get a review copy and think, “Huh?  What am I missing?”  I remember one book that was hailed across the country in almost ridiculous terms, with one major reviewer gushing that it wasn’t just a book, it was an experience.

Well, isn’t reading every book an experience of some kind?

The second part of this discovery was that when I’d be out on tour for one of my own books, when it came time for Q&A, eventually someone would ask about one of these books the whole world seemed to worship and adore.  The questions always came a bit tentatively, as if it was heretical to even raise them.  I would be honest but focus on something technical.  For instance, with one wild best seller, I said I just didn’t believe the voice was the voice of a teenager.

I’ve been observing the love fest for Kate Atkinson for awhile. Friends have urged me to read Life After Life or Case Histories, and I just couldn’t get into them.  Then a best friend sent me three of her books as holiday gifts.  I picked Transcription because it was the shortest, and I was determined to finish it so we could discuss it.  This is the story of a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, drawn into the fringes of England intelligence in 1940. Her job is typing up transcriptions of bugged conversations of British Nazi sympathizers.  If it sounds dull, it is.

Nothing dramatic happens until halfway, and even then, the drama is relative. Eventually something more exciting does take place, but as WW II books go, this is a sleeper.  I have nothing against war novels that are literary fiction: One of my favorites is Helen Humphreys’ Coventry, which is poetic and intensely dramatic.  But Transcription was annoying in a number of ways.  Apparently shifting decades is one of Atkinson’s “things.”  I found it frustrating.  A straightforward narrative would have ramped up the tension.

But the narrative itself was more awkward and off-putting than the structure.  Juliet is given to incessant thinking about her thinking and to making silly puns.  When told to keep an ear out, she notes that she has two.  Hah.  Hah.  The trivial focus on her mental commentary is relentless and her observations are sometimes ridiculously banal: “But then, what constituted real?  Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”

There’s a plot twist at the end that doesn’t quite relieve the boredom of the previous 250+ pages. There’s also so much tea drinking that after awhile you begin to wonder if the book is meant to be some kind of spoof of British fiction.

After finishing, I found that a host of highly disappointed readers on Amazon found similar problems with the book.  Me, I read it out of loyalty to my friend, and finally out of morbid curiosity: could it really go on like this page after page?  It did.

With twenty years of university teaching behind him, Lev Raphael offers a range of creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com “Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael is like seeing ‘Blade Runner’ for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, Michigan

Stunning Diary Reveals How Much Ordinary Germans Knew About the Holocaust

On my last German book tour for my memoir My Germany I was reminded of what a rich book culture that country has when I browsed in crowded book stores at the train stations, and studied billboards–yes, billboards–for all kinds of books, not just thrillers.

And speaking at Justus Leibig University in Giessen north of Frankfurt, I heard about a remarkable diary that had just been published in German and is finally available in English from Cambridge University Press.

The devastating book by Friedrich Kellner is the diary of a court clerk in a small German town in the western state of Hesse. The German title translated as All Minds Are Clouded and Darkened; the author’s own title was My Opposition (Mein Widerstand), which is how it’s appearing in English.

This diary makes it very clear that despite any claims to the contrary, ordinary Germans during the War knew a great deal about what was being perpetrated in their name upon the Jews and every other victim of the Nazis. It’s simply not true that people did not talk about what was happening, or were so terrorized by the Nazis that they were completely blind to events around them, or silenced. Conversations on these subjects may not have been public, but they were widespread.

Kellner asked questions, read newspapers carefully, kept clippings, listened to what others were saying, and composed a stunning portrait of what was really going on in Germany before and during the war. Without difficulty, he learned about killings of those deemed mentally unfit. He learned about the real fate of Jews being shipped “to the East.”

He was remarkably prescient in foreseeing post-war denial: “Those who wish to be acquainted with contemporary society, with the souls of the ‘good Germans,’ should read what I have written. But I fear that very few decent people will remain after events have taken their course, and that the guilty will have no interest in seeing their disgrace documented in writing.” The diaries go from the beginning of the war in 1939 to just past its end and offer an unparalleled entrance into the years of Nazi destruction.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.