Comfort comes from unexpected places
At the height of the French Revolution, did sane people take comfort in studying the history of the Spanish Inquisition? When fanatical Catholics and Protestants were dragging each other to the gibbet in the mid-sixteenth century, did anxious Englishmen find solace in The Martyrdom of Polycarp? Why is it so reassuring to read about other people living through terrible times?
Our own times being relatively rotten, I find it restful to read about Nazis. For a while I drifted off to sleep at night listening to William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, an eyewitness account of an enlightened liberal democracy falling head-over-heels for a sociopathic autocrat. Listening to it in the dark was like hugging a very pessimistic talking teddy bear. One that I imagined looking a lot like Liz Cheney. Unfortunately, the audiobook came due before I’d finished it, and all six copies on my library app are currently checked out. So I guess at least six other people feel the same way I do.
Besides listening to William Shirer, I have dipped into two memoirs of living through World War II inside the Reich. In The Past is Myself, Christabel Beilenberg describes moving to Germany in 1934 and renouncing English citizenship to marry Peter, a young law student. The clouds are already gathering—this is a few months after Hitler’s purge of the Brownshirts and other enemies. But Christabel and Peter aren’t worried. The German people are so cultured, so civilized! How could they fail to see through those Nazi clowns?
Nine years later, with Peter in the Luftwaffe and food scarce in Berlin, Christabel takes their three small sons to the Black Forest. They settle in Rohrbach, a quiet village filled with fairy tale characters: the baker, the innkeeper, the churchwarden who is also the cow midwife. People are mostly decent and pragmatic. Sepp the shoemaker tells her, “I don’t think that pile of shoes will get any smaller, no matter who wins the war.” But Hitler’s face glowers from a portrait on the mayor’s wall, and it’s dangerous to trust anyone completely. In 1944, when Peter lands in Ravensbruck prison camp because of his relationship with conspirators in the Hitler assassination attempt, Christabel makes a dangerous journey to Berlin to plead for his life with the Gestapo. Against all odds, she manages to save Peter. However, in the center of the once great city she finds “a sea of ruins . . . a silent ghost town.” So much for culture and civilization.
Reading The Past Is Myself, I imagine what sort of person I would have been in Hitler’s Germany. I feel the comfort, even satisfaction, of thinking I could have been Christabel or some less brave version of her. In the middle of insanity, I would have been a mere witness to the unravelling of other lives. I would have held my family together and preserved my own treasured values against all odds. I would have observed the whole mess with sometimes ironic detachment, pitying the pitiable and execrating the wicked.
But another memoir, Account Rendered: Dossier of My Former Self by Melita Maschman, interrupts my self-congratulatory would-haves. It’s an astounding book, published in 1963 as a letter to a Jewish friend from Maschman’s youth. This friend was much later revealed to be Marianne Schweitzer, by then living in the U.S. The girls were soulmates in school in the thirties, bonding over poetry and other passions. But after Melita Maschman joined the Hitler youth and offered her heart to National Socialism, she cut off ties with Marianne and eventually even informed on the Schweitzer family. Her actions led to the temporary arrest of Marianne’s sister and mother—a dreadful betrayal, for which Marianne never forgave Melita.
The Nazification of young Melita only intensified with the advent of war. Serving in the League of German Girls, she was sent to help settle German families on occupied Polish lands—the Warthegau. This brought her into contact with the people displaced from those lands, which challenged her idealized view of National Socialism as a liberating force for the poor. As revolutionaries invariably do, she learned to distance herself from the pain of victims in order to maintain her ideals. Yet occasionally she experienced flashes of intense shame. Once, when she became lost while out walking, an old Slovenian woman who was about to be displaced invited her in, gave her food and drink, and showed her a beautiful rose garden. “When she held out her hand to me, I could see her face only dimly through a mist of tears,” Melita recalls.
She remained a Nazi until the end of the war and was hardened, if anything, by her prison experience afterwards. Slowly, though, she began to experience deep disillusionment with National Socialism. Germany was in ruins—and whose fault was this, anyway? What had it all been about? The full scope of her own crimes escaped her until a decade after the war, when she finally awoke to her guilt. This happened partly through the friendship of a Christian minister who offered her tolerance and basic kindness, even speaking up for her at her trial. She saw that, in the pursuit of what she had thought was a beautiful ideal—a united German people, a classless society all working together in service of a pure idea—she had become an ideological murderer. “You learned to look past the half starving Polish children as if they were tree stumps and you did not even permit yourself to be horrified when you looked into the ghetto . . . When one has once experienced that, one trembles for the goodness of good people all over the world . . . Is there—one asks oneself—any guarantee that evil will not one day conquer them?”
Melita tells Marianne that one motive for recording her experience is the desire to say to every good person “Be on your guard. Take warning. There is nowhere any good thing—however worthy of respect it may seem—which one may serve with means of evil (that is of lovelessness).”
I think this is worth heeding in 2021. Many of us like to think of ourselves as Christabel Beilenbergs: independent minded, critical, potentially heroic people. But history proves that most of us are Melita Maschmanns. We are joiners, ready to offer ourselves to some person or ideal that inspires us, be it politician, preacher, party, philosophy, or identity. In single-minded pursuit of some worldly thing, some painting on the sky, we risk losing sight of individual faces around us. An ideal cannot love. A political party cannot suffer.
To quote another pessimistic teddy bear, Hannah Arendt, “Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces.”
M. Elizabeth Carter is a counselor and writer living in Alabama.