I read this while I was also reading Robert Fisk's
The Great War for Civilisation The Conquest of the Middle East
. Bad idea. Very bad idea. Note to self: Reading two depressing books at the same time does not do good things to one's mood.
There has been a surge of interest in the German experience of World War II, particularly the experience of those who tried to resist the war mongering. This novel joins works like
The Song Before It Is Sung A Novel
Valkyrie The Plot To Kill Hitler
Sophie Scholl The Real Story Behind German's Resistance Heroine
. It was, however, written long before, in 1947 by Hans Fallada, and in that sense, can be regarded as almost a synchronous record. I am glad for this rehabilitation. It is always useful to remember that no group anywhere is a monolithic bloc and in this age of a resurgent right and rising Islamophobia, it is a lesson that is only too important to remember.
What makes this book, for me, less a four or five star effort was its treatment of its characters. Good or bad fell into more or less easily defined camps. The Nazis were brutal bullies; the resisters were good hearted but ineffectual.
I don't think life is that simple. The story touched on but did not delve into the fact that most people are just scared. Scared of being denounced, scared of dying, it's so much easier to just go along, to close your eyes to the horror around you. How many of us would do that? I'm pretty sure I would cave, especially if faced by torture and the deaths of my nearest and dearest.
Worse. How many of us would be immune to
The Lucifer Effect
, that infamous Berkeley experiment where ordinary men off the street turned into brutal thugs when placed in charge of another group of men off the street and told to treat them like prisoners? The craven eager willingness to give in to calls to invade Iraq gives me little hope: when even in the "land of the free and the brave" dissenting voices squelch their nagging doubts what are the chances that we'll be better than that?
What I liked about the book was its portrayal of ordinary people, holding fast to their beliefs. I'd like to believe that it's possible. I also liked how it raised the eternal question: what form should resistance take? Is it still necessary even if or even when
it's utterly useless? This book says, and says resoundingly, "Yes!"
I want to believe that. I really do. Oh, but how easy it would be to rationalize collaboration, to say, "I can do more good subverting the system from within."