Monday, February 2, 2015

The Joys of Duty

The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz

The joys of doing one’s duty are so varied…that it always
 pays to put them in the proper light.

Under Nazi rule the German people were nothing if not dutiful. The historical record is clear on that. Thanks in large part to the work of such groundbreaking scholars as Robert Gellately, Ulrich Herbert, Christopher Browning, Omer Bartov, Robert Ericksen, and—perhaps most famously—Daniel Goldhagen, it is now widely accepted (though surely the precise degrees will always be debated) that, during the war, German citizens were not only well-informed about the Third Reich’s policies and atrocities (receiving regular bulletins about them on the radio, in the movie theaters, and even in church, as well as reading about them in the daily papers), but were willing, often active participants in the horrors themselves. It is a growing body of evidence that negates, perhaps once and for all, the standard, oft-made claim that “they [the German people] were only following orders” or were just “reacting to the extreme duress of a totalitarian state,” the Nazi reign of terror less the will and product of good, hard-working people than the sinister machinations of an aberrational clan of “cold-blooded technocrats dispassionately organizing mass disappearance on an industrial basis.” Sadly, wholesale German complicity is closer to the truth. 

In the years immediately following the war, young German writers, especially those like Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll, and Alfred Andersch (all of whom had worn Wehrmacht uniforms in their youth) found themselves “standing on the edge of an abyss.” They had few real choices: they could confront the Nazi horrors head-on, including their own complicity in them, or they could avoid the subject altogether, seeking their voice and vision in the abstract, allegorical, and ideal, groping their way back through the centuries toward a charmed and mystic past. Then there were the writers, surely the best of them, who sought to define a vision somewhere in between the two extremes, a vision of then and there, but with a twist, writers like Grass with his novel The Tin Drum, Boll with his novel The Clown, and Andersch with his novel Efraim’s Book. Instead of directly confronting the monstrous, arguably ineffable phenomenon of the Nazi years, especially from that proximity, all three authors chose to approach it more obliquely (as one might study an eclipse by its projection alone), and therefore, in that way, ‘By indirections find directions out.’ Of all of the novels of the post-war years I have read, I can think of none that describes the period, the culture, and its fateful psychology as successfully—with such clarity, depth, and integrity—as Siegfried Lenz' extraordinary novel The German Lesson.

Told in retrospect, about a decade after the war, through the eyes of a juvenile delinquent named Siggi Jepsen who, as punishment, has been confined to his cell to write an essay for his German lesson called 'The Joys of Duty' ('die Freuden der Phlicht'), the story proper unfolds during the war in a remote German town on the North Sea, a bleak, storm-struck village of windmills, peat bogs, and dykes called Rugbüll where the narrator's father was "the most northerly police officer in Germany." Charged by Berlin to stop a local Expressionist painter (his own childhood friend) from practicing his 'degenerate' art, Siggi's father, Jens Ole Jepsen, carries out his duty with a doggedness and consistency that proves deeply revealing in its implications for the people of the modest, taciturn town. Writes Goldhagen, in his controversial and award-winning study Hitler’s Willing Executioners, “All ‘obedience,’ all ‘crimes of obedience’ (and this refers only to situations in which coercion is not applied or threatened), depend upon the existence of a propitious social and political context in which the actors deem the authority to issue commands legitimate and the commands themselves not to be a gross transgression of sacred values and the overarching moral order.” Sure enough, this proves true in the remote little town of Rugbüll, this simple village drama a brilliant microcosm of the insidiously destructive power of the Third Reich itself.

While at first resistant to the idea of writing this obligatory essay, the narrator Siggi Jensen, soon finds himself enthralled by the normally humdrum subject of duty, inhabiting the past in all its richness, sorrow, and detail, and filling notebook after notebook with his descriptions of his intense, if largely refracted experiences of the war as a child in Rugbüll—of the many eccentric characters in the village there, of his friendship and complicity with the local artist, Max Ludwig Nansen, and of his ultimate defiance of his father, the dutiful policeman and proxy for the State. Told in some of the freshest, most evocative language I have read in years, I would be remiss if I didn't offer you a little taste of it, this from the opening of Chapter 2 called "No Painting Permitted":

In the year '43 (to get going somehow), on a Friday it was, in April, in the morning, perhaps around midday, my father, Jens Ole Jepsen, policeman, who manned Rugbüll, the northernmost police station in Schleswig- Holstein, got himself ready for a daily trip to Bleeckenwarf, in order to deliver to the painter Max Ludwig Nansen, who the people round about simply called —'The Painter', an official order form Berlin by which he was   forthwith forbidden to paint. Unhurriedly my father gathered togetherhis rain-cape, field-glasses, uniform belt and torch; he busied himself at his desk, obviously with the intention of delaying his departure, buttoned up   and unbuttoned his tunic for the second time, eyed the miserable spring day and listened to the wind, while I waited for him, muffled up and motionless. It was not merely wind one heard; this north-westerly, besieging the farms, the hedges and rows of trees, tumultuously skirmishing, testing their resistance, was what shaped the landscape, a black, windy landscape, crooked and tousled and charged with some incomprehensible meaning. It was this wind of ours, I think, that made the roofs keen of hearing, made the trees prophetic, caused the old mill to grow larger, swept across the ditches so that they became delirious, or attacked the peat-barges, despoiling their shapeless loads.


When our wind was out and about, one was well advised to put some ballast in one's pockets—packets of nails, or bits of lead piping or even a flat-iron—to be a match for it. Such a wind is part of our lives and we could not argue with Max Ludwig Nansen for bursting his paint-tubes, taking furious violet and crude white to make the north-westerly visible, this     north-westerly that belongs to us and which we know so well—the wind to which my father was listening with deep suspicion.

Siegfried Lenz (1926-2014) is  one of Germanys' most signficant post-war writers whose novels explore individual German culpabilty for the horors of Nazism. The German Lesson, a New Directions book, was transalated Ernest Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. 
Peter Adam Nash

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