Klaus left Germany in 1928 to go to university in England; he was away for six years. When he returned, he mostly stayed at his father’s little house in the country. He spent a little time in the larger cities – mostly Berlin and Hamburg, but they became depressing as the Depression worsened. His city friends had scattered with the onset of Nazism; a few had fled, most had joined. His country boyhood friends – the rural idiots, he called them – were largely indifferent to politics. They were happy that the Nazis were in power, because they got to keep their farms, which had been mortgaged to the hilt during the Depression, when it was impossible to make a living from honest crops. But such city matters as freedom of the press didn’t trouble them much.
Klaus tried talking to them about Hitler, but it didn’t do any good. It was quite fascinating, and he found it hard to avoid the alienating contempt of the intellectual. They could only see politics in the most local, tangible and practical terms. They cared nothing for freedom, the democracy of the Reichstag or the death of the Republic. They wanted good rains and dependable insurance. They wanted their sons to work hard and their daughters to marry well. They wanted to go to church and sit with a pipe. They wanted to know the words to every song that could be sung. They were the rhythm of the land, of the seasons, of the decades between birth, marriage and re-birth. When he was younger, Klaus thought that they might be wise, in their own slow, stolid way. But now, he knew that it was not so. Extend that principle, he thought, and trees become sages.
The Nazis were a curious bunch. They met at the mansion of Count Orsky, a local aristocrat, and Klaus sometimes sat in on their gatherings. He could never decide if they believed their own propaganda about Germany and the Jews and the Master Race and whatnot. Sometimes they seemed to – some of the salon evening at Count Orsky’s were most passionate on these points – but in their very next breath, they could as easily say that all these lies were only designed for the masses, and that whoever swallowed such idiotic bait was utterly unsophisticated. Klaus could not follow their transitions.
And then, one night, at Count Orsky’s, Klaus was told that he was now a Nazi, and he shrugged and nodded, both sad and touched. He began to view his own induction as a kind of experiment. Something about the boundaries between morality and conformity and abstract aesthetics. He strove to understand the souls of the men around him, because he was a curious man.
Nazis, he saw, could not sit still for long. Well, that was only mostly true. Most of them could not. Some of them sat perfectly still. They had thin little round glasses, frozen facial expressions, and acerbic tongues. They were thin flesh around some sort of icy core. Coagulated rage, was a phrase which popped into Klaus’s mind from time to time.
There were those who were in it for the violence, that was clear. Klaus knew this type from the Twenties. The men who had come of age in the Great War, and had very little use for life in ‘Civvy Street.’ They lived for the military life. They were, in their personal lives, extremely disorganized. They loved the training, the uniforms, the camaraderie, staying up half the night singing, the regular meals, the external regimentation, the sense of purpose. They loved the excitement of violence.
There were the degenerates, of course. Something in the Nazi life had loosed the restraints of sexual deviance. It might have had something to do with Julius Streicher, who always carried a whip, had a legendary collection of bestial pornography, and had private parties which only the basest imagination could picture. Klaus was occasionally tempted to ask if Streicher was the kind of German who represented the Master Race, but never did. He could imagine the answer. Certain men are above morality. They represent a higher ethos. They cannot be judged by historical standards. Blah, blah, blah.
It wasn’t that Klaus didn’t believe in any of these things. He did, and he didn’t. He tried explaining this to his father once, soon after his indoctrination began. Martin was clearly going through some profound moral crisis, which Klaus found both amusing and depressing. To imagine that there is One Answer to all these questions, which have merely been placed in our minds as pleasant diversions, is both funny and sad…
One night in the kitchen, after the family had gone to bed, Martin asked him whether he though the Nazis were immoral.
“I know that this is delicate, son,” said Martin, rubbing the welts on his neck his priest’s collar always left him, “because you’re sort of in the thick of things, but I have to know what you think.”
“About what? The Nazis being immoral?” Klaus smiled. “I – I would say that that’s like asking a man: How is your wife? His answer? Compared to what?” Klaus laughed. “I think that is brilliant! You could spend your whole life thinking about that exchange, and still not be done.”
Martin’s lined face was yellow in the candlelight, and he cracked his knuckles softly. “But in your heart?” he asked. “In your heart?”
“Oh, father! You suffered a lot to get me educated. Surely you don’t want me to fall back on such a faulty oracle!”
“But they have concentration camps. Rumour has it.”
Klaus nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, I’m sure they do. I would actually be shocked if they didn’t.”
“So – what do you think?”
Hr shrugged. “I hope I never end up in one. But if I did, well, that would just be the next chapter in the story. You shouldn’t be so attached to things, father.”
It was strange how, since the coming of the Nazis, father and son had changed places, as far as their authority went. Klaus sat, perfectly composed. Martin sat, hunched over, staring at the scarred wooden table.
“I don’t know whether to act against them.”
Klaus smiled. “I am glad that you trust me enough not to think I will turn you in. Our relationship has improved considerably.”
“If you did…” started Martin, then paused. “If you did, then I wouldn’t have to decide. Just experience. Martyrdom is easier than questioning.”
“You can say that now!”
“What do you think, though?” insisted Martin, biting at his cuticle.
“Dad, you’re going to chew your hand off,” said Klaus gently, taking his father’s arm down. “First of all, I don’t think that my opinion is that important, but here it is. Part of me is horrified. I’ll be honest. I think of what’s going on in those camps, and I shudder. I feel sick. It’s a natural reaction.”
“Yes!” exhaled Martin.
“But then,” continued Klaus, “just when I’m worked myself into a fine, traditional moral storm, I feel all the wind go out of my sails. In my mind’s eye, my ship goes from great storm to glassy sea, in an instant. And I think: so what?”
“So what,” echoed Martin, his eyes wide.
“So what!” said Klaus with sudden vehemence. “So these sows and piglets want to be ordered around. So they might all end up being shot. So what? What have they ever done to earn or keep their freedom? An illiterate man will always take a hunk of bread over the freedom of speech. And even these so-called educated men – what happened to them? They did not lift a finger. The early Nazis all came from the universities! And the Jews and gypsies? What do they do? We strip them of everything, they don’t run. I get very angry at sheep that lick the knife which will open them up. Don’t you want to just crush them? You think: one good fight, one good show of resistance, and we will both be free! But they bleat and squirm to kiss your hand as it closes on their throats. Agh! Who wouldn’t want to rid the world of these people?”
“Whoever begs for their own immolation. The Jews? Who knows? Whoever. Because…” Klaus frowned, wiping his high forehead. Martin noticed that the colour seemed to have gone out of his son’s fair hair. ‘Blonde’ had just become ‘pale.’
“Because,” continued Klaus, “there is one thing that is true that the Nazis say. One thing that… Well, they weren’t the first to say it, not by a long shot, but… Might does make right, but ‘might’ is not what most people think it is. It isn’t the gun. Might is not the gun. Might is the will to use the gun. Not to die for a cause, but to kill for it. Christ in the temple, whipping the money-changers. People always follow whoever is the most committed. The most consistent. Have you ever read the transcript of Hitler’s trial for the Beer Hall Putsch? It’s almost beyond words. 1923. He tries to overthrow the government. Fails. Hauled in front of the court. The lawyers try to browbeat him. They say: ‘You just wanted to seize power.’ Hitler smiled and says: ‘But of course I wanted power. We all wanted to overthrow the government. I’m just sorry we failed!’ And they look like fools. He’s had the same message since 1920. Fifteen years. Who do you know who’s kept exactly the same beliefs for that long? And he says to the sheep – he screams at them – I will enslave you all, kill the Jews and go to war. And they bleat and titter and give him the shepherd’s crook. Hitler is like a principle of nature. He’s like the wind that blew down a crumbling wall. Blame the wind? No! Blame the wall! And all the walls to follow, like domino’s. Pop, pop, pop!” Klaus gestured violently.
“If you – if you knew what was going to come,” said Martin evenly, trying to keep the horror from his voice, “would you have opposed them?”
“Father, you can say it. Nazi. Nahh-zii. Come on, try it.”
“Please. Please, Klaus. I need to know.”
“Would I have opposed it?” Klaus frowned, looking away. “Would I have opposed it..? Can it be opposed?”
“What I mean is,” interrupted Martin, afraid that his son was going to go off on another tangent, “what if everyone was just waiting for someone to say: No! That’s what terrifies me. If I stand up and say: No!, then perhaps everyone will say: Oh, my heavens – I was just thinking that, and they will all rise up as one.”
“Rise up? Rise up?” Klaus laughed contemptuously, his face twisting into shards of shadows. “Rise? From what? Who is unhappy? What glories were lost with the Republic? Who misses freedom and property rights and voting? Who misses responsibility? Everyone cheers! Drive through any town with a big picture of Hitler. Women will throw themselves at your car. In Berlin, they faint in his presence. Oppose them? It’s like going back to the thirteenth century and demanding the overthrow of the Catholic Church. No one would have any idea what you were talking about! Not to mention that the Catholic Church might have an opinion of its own, and would not let you keep your tongue for long.”
Martin lowered his voice further. He left that his son’s face was a pool of still water, and passion was a rock breaking it into incoherent ripples. He whispered: “I was at the gallery in Berlin, when I was about your age. A man was looking at a picture of a hall of Muslims, all kneeling in prayer, thousands of them. He turned to me and said: ‘Everyone in that picture thinks that the person next to him is really talking to a god.’ No doubt he was a hopeless sinner, this man, but he had something. Not about God, but about this perhaps. This case of the Emperor’s new clothes…”
Klaus leaned forward slightly, and the table creaked. “Oh, that would be too bad, father,” he murmured. “That would be too bad, if you ever said anything like that to anyone else.”
Martin rubbed his face with his hands, then shook his head rapidly. “Yes. Yes, perhaps. But I have to answer to a higher authority.”
“A higher authority which put Hitler there.” said Klaus slowly. “Above you. Well… armed.”
“Sometimes there is the test of obedience,” said Martin. “And sometimes there is the test of disobedience.”
Klaus almost spoke, then got up and poured himself a cup of water from a stone jug. Martin could not help but see how his son’s clothes hung loosely on his body.
“Let me ask you something,” said Klaus, returning to the table. As he sat, a ripple of displaced air guttered the candle. “Why didn’t you oppose them?”
“I ask myself that every day. I believe in authority. In unity. I know the Republic could not last. But why all this murder?”
“You mean, you believe that a man can be given absolute authority, and use it well?”
“Yes,” said Martin, without any trace of irony.
“What made you think that was possible?”
“Divinity. Divine power. If God put him there, He would guide his actions.”
“So you thought Hitler was divine.”
“Not Hitler, no. Don’t blaspheme. But his course. His cause.” Martin could not resist going for his cuticle again. “I mean, without God… How else could he have done it?”
“Ahh, the great question,” said Klaus, closing his eyes briefly. “The greatest question, I think, in history. How did he do it? How does anyone do it? I have a little opinion, Father. Probably useless. Hitler has power over us because we agree with him. We agreed with him from the very beginning. Germany was great. We were betrayed at Versailles. We didn’t start the war. Logic is French prejudice. Emotions are everything! Democracy is decadent. Strength is all! We are encircled. Either a nation expands, or it is destroyed.” Klaus snorted. “How were we going to fight him? We agreed with him!”
“Not all…” whispered Martin, barely able to find his voice.
Klaus suddenly threw back his head, laughing gaily, and Martin suddenly saw his son one again as a carefree boy. “Do you want to know one of the funniest things I’ve heard?” asked Klaus, his voice thick with wild joy. “Do you know where Hitler got his army? His civilian Stormtroopers? It’s the most wonderful thing! The government paid them. The government paid for its own executioners! The simple German taxpayer paid to be enslaved for a thousand years!”
“What are – what are you talking about?”
“Germany – we had the first welfare state in the history of the world. Bismark, 1880s. He puts it all together. Unemployment, welfare, pensions. And not to help the poor. Not so! He said it himself. He paid the poor not to protect them, but to enslave them to the state. And fifty years late? The young men and women who joined the Nazi party turned over all their unemployment benefits to Hitler!” Klaus giggled. “Can’t you just love that with your whole heart? The Republic funded the Nazis! That’s another idea you could spend your whole life on. And we wonder why it fell? You see, the government is nothing but violence. Do you know what that means?”
Martin shook his head numbly. He felt that he was standing before a black canyon, and that the fall would be blessed.
“It means,” said Klaus, “that every time a man wants the government to do something, something to protect him or nurture him or care for him or educate him or save his soul or lead him – he is saying that violence can achieve goodness!” Klaus giggled again. “And this man, this very same man, will be shocked when the state turns against him! Why? Why? He has said to the government: use violence on my behalf! What can he say if someone says: more violence! Or, that the violence should be used on someone else’s behalf! What can he say to that? What? That the government should not use violence? But he has already asked the government to use violence! That the government should use less violence? But that’s like a master thief saying to lesser thief: you should steal less. Not convincing.”
“But – I have never asked the State to use violence.”
Klaus scowled. “You support public education.”
“But – but that… Citizens must be educated…”
“Why? Don’t tell me for the sake of democracy. We were the most educated population on the planet, and look what happened to us! The government is violence. That’s all it is. Taxation is violence. Regulation is violence. Redistribution is violence. State education is violence. There is nothing else. You see, the strategy of the statists is to give you one good that you desperately want – education, health-care – and say that the government will do it. And so the violence begins. And here is where it ends.”
In his mind, Martin was falling, into the canyon, and he said dreamily:
“So it should all… end? The state should do nothing?”
“Oh Lord, father!” laughed Klaus. “You weren’t really listening, were you? I’m just an observer. I’ll probably think just the opposite next week.”
True to his word, Klaus was of another opinion the next week. But his thoughts that night struck Martin violently – it was, perhaps, the start of his political education – and he pondered them for many, many days.
Klaus viewed his Nazi-fication as a kind of psychological experiment. He tried out many different approaches, but settled on one final approach which seemed to work best.
First of all, he thought, you have to suspend critical judgment. Go with the moment. Contradictions are an indication of a higher truth. So is consistency. Whatever is, is true. Everything you feel is true – for you. If you hate Hitler with all your heart, then that is true for you. But it no more follows from the feeling that Hitler is hateful that Hitler is hateful than that blue is the best colour, just because you like it most.
Impulses must always be followed. Klaus found this process very interesting. He expected, on adopting this rule, that both good and bad (to use an ancient terminology) impulses would follow. He would want to punch a shopkeeper and kiss an old woman. But it wasn’t so. He felt the urge to punch the shopkeeper, but the old women remained unmolested.
But what should he do when he had a strong impulse? That was a tricky one. One morning, in a tobacconists, he had an overpowering impulse to punch the shopkeeper, a man in his early twenties, with absolutely horrible acne. Klaus felt rage and pity. Pity because the man was grotesque; rage because he inflicted it on people. He imagined the man cooking his eggs, and felt physically ill. He wanted to punch the man. But the thought of getting his burst-acne goo all over his fist was even more ghastly. He would prefer to shoot him from a distance.
Klaus didn’t have a gun, so as he paid, he said:
“Keep the change. Your skin is disgusting. I would like to shoot you.”
If the man’s natural skin had been visible from under his acne, it would surely have gone pale.
Klaus found it compelling to speak his impulses out loud. He knew that it was cowardly, but gave himself some time to make the transition. He got more and more used to it. Of course, his Nazi uniform helped. He felt himself dissolving into his uniform as he walked and squawked. Once, he saw a suit in a shop window, suspended by wires, with a hat floating above air, and shuddered.
He wanted to break the window and set fire to the shop. And then stay and burn. But he forced himself to turn and walk away, because he was terrified, and so clearly not ready yet.
With great patience, Klaus waited for more benevolent impulses to strike him. He would see a little girl hesitating before crossing a street, and would frown, waiting for his feet to take him over and give her a hand. Nothing. A man in a wheelchair, stuck on a pavement curb. Violence, indifference. Nothing good.
He got more headaches, but life was now easier in so many ways. No more wrestling with choices, consequences, endless questions. One simple premise: If I do not feel it, I will not do it. Or: if I feel it, I do it.
There were exceptions, of course, because he was sometimes weak and old-fashioned. Sometimes his hand would land heavily on his bouncing alarm at five o’clock. He should get up, eat, wash and drive to the aerodrome by six. To train yet another flotilla of Luftwaffe pilots. But he would lie in his bed, letting his mind wander the slow-blowing fields of his indifference. If I rise and go, or stay and die, what does it matter? To the universe? To my bed? To me?
But he would be shot if he didn’t go. You did not disobey the Fuhrer for existential reasons. Even if you were obeying him for the sake of an existential experiment.
So Klaus would rise and wash and drive to the aerodrome, and stand before the endless rows of his eager pupils. And he did not think of the airplanes and the bombs and the coming war, because he had no impulse to disturb the experiment, and so could only stand beside the deathbed of his own ending, and record his widening wounds with detached curiosity.