Sunday, 25 March 2007

Back To Sensible Posting...

..for now at least, or until I get back from the pub later. The following post contains *spoilers*.

I've just finished the alternative-history novel In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove, in which a group of Jews live in the shadows of Nazi Berlin in 2010. It's most interesting to me for two reasons: firstly it borrows several aspects from 1984 - the hidden thoughtcriminal who takes genuine pleasure in doing his job for a repressive regime; being taken in and beaten by the Security Police; the concept of being initiated into a secret "club" of people who deserve death simply for being what they are. It also attempts to refute Orwell, in the sense that hope is not only possible, but essential; and that the people do in fact widely harbour thoughts and ideas that the regime would hate if it knew - they simply live with them, rather than being terrified out of them. In addition, the system of surveillance is _not_ the most complete thing about this regime. The spirit of (some) people survives.

Secondly it also borrows from real history, in that the Greater German Reich of 2010, despite being the most powerful state in history, is atrophying under the weight of a gerontocratic government who have lost the impetus of radicalism. The key moment in the story is when the reformist Fuhrer, Heinz Buckliger, is deposed in an SS coup and replaced with an apparatchik run by the Reichsfuhrer-SS, a scene which clearly owes plenty to the 1991 Soviet coup. In this scene, the Wehrmacht enter the fray and smash the power of the SS, exposing them as bullies and causing the Reichsfuhrer-SS to top himself. Nazism is left to continue a path of reform under the Fuhrer and his ebullient and wildly popular Gauleiter of Berlin (obviously Yeltsin).

I wondered about this: it seems overly sympathetic to the Wehrmacht and almost to have them exonerate or rehabilitate themselves, while casting the SS as incompetent bullies. Unlike real history, however, the Nazi government and state is left intact, with no sign that its key premise - the hatred of Jews - is going to change anytime soon, though its leaders have been forced to admit that Ayrans are not necessarily as great as they have been saying for the last 80 years. In this scene you witness the saving of a regime which, though it is never stated, must have exterminated over 200 million people, and you are encouraged to think reform might be possible without thinking that the state itself is going to collapse (viz: the final scene in which the younger sister of Alicia Gimpel is herself "initiated"). The book does therefore, without I think intending to be sympathetic in any way, give the reader an uneasy sense of the regime legitimising itself both in its society and the imagination of the reader - something somewhat disturbing. It is not enough that the SS are brought down several pegs - there is a lot more to the state than the SS.

Plenty of things about the novel are questionable: could a death-cult like Nazism have the energy to have survived that long (a refutation of Winston Smith, if not Orwell - "you cannot build a society on hate")? Would it be so open about the extermination of the Jewish people - given Himmler's famous speech in October 1943 - "a page of glory in our history..never to be written..."? Would it not be more likely simply to make talking about Jews extremely dangerous (as in Robert Harris' "Fatherland")? Why does the technologically advanced state not use much more advanced methods of sniffing out Jews than the phone tap and the denunciation? Perhaps that's to do with the general decay of the state.

Lastly, one thing about it is quite powerful: the surviving Jews pass on the crumbs and the rags of their culture to their children, fully aware that it could lead "to the showers" but with a sense that they must live as though Jewish culture can and will survive. Easy enough to write, perhaps, but very difficult for a comfortable liberal-democrat to read. Some people really do have courage of a different level.


james higham said...

I think the Nazi state ahd no real choice but to implode. The enormity of their crime was starting to come through towards the end.

The Tin Drummer said...

And the wider point that the Nazi state, being essentially a death cult, could not sustain for long anyway (even if war had not broken out in 1939 it would have done sooner or later) is also surely correct. Hence my slight disquiet with the book.

Gracchi said...

Interesting- I've never read any Turtledove but your review makes me want to- reading it as an answer or modification to Orwell is fascinating. I've always seen Orwell through the lens of an argument about Communist attempts to remake bourgeois man, but I suppose he works as an argument about the creation of Aryan man by the Nazis too and thus Turtledove. Good review.

The Tin Drummer said...

Yes, I had always read Orwell that too, Gracchi (though I think there are one or two sly digs at my own Church there too) - but I think this shows that 1984 is a novel engaging many, many different attempts to make people into things they have no say in. Great, great literature.

And thanks for dropping by, Gracchi. Good to see you around. I'm reading the debates on your blog at the mo' but not really wanting to give my penn'orth.