Holiday reading time and I’ve just finished A Postcard from the Volcano by Lucy Beckett. It tells the story of a young Prussian Count Max von Hofmannswaldau as he grows up and reaches adulthood through two world wars. Max makes friends with a Polish aristocrat and the story is woven around their different paths towards truth and the wholesale madness that takes over Germany as the country slides with ever increasing speed into the horror of Nazism.
Beckett’s knowledge of history is deep and profound. She has been criticized by some reviewers for using her characters to explain the history and philosophy that ended Prussia and brought poor Germany to such a terrible place. But I liked the way the characters argued with each other over what had happened and how the wise Classical Tutor kept his boys thinking right up to the point where all minds were closed and made Nazi.
Rather alarmingly there are far too many parallels with today’s media and Government approach. New laws in America in particular (as well as less obvious laws here in the UK) are very similar to those that came out in Germany before the Second World War in which people could be arrested and detained without trial or hope of justice. As Pro-life and pro-family people around the First World are targeted by police today, so pro-life and pro-Jewish people were targeted then.
The history of the world wars is a vital part of our human history in that it really can teach us and warn us. It is with sadness that so much of what Beckett writes in her rich truthfully historical novel is still happening and repeating today.
Some of the men are offered scientific research posts in which they are to prove the Aryan race is superior and the Jews are less human. Just as today scientists are rewarded for “science” that helps the Government and Insurance industry wash it’s hands of sick people, so it was then.
Three wise men hold Max’s life together as he negotiates the pitfalls of growing up and learning love. His tutor at home Dr. Mendel is wise but too saddened and perhaps too influenced by the pagan Roman culture he teaches. Max’s grandfather Dr. Meyer who builds a harpsichord showing that in good music there is still hope and in Bach there is still a soul for Germany.
I am sure I read or heard once that someone had said that the music of Bach was a proof for the existence of God. Bach does shine gently throughout the story, an old portrait of the great musician and composer being a sort of presence in Max’s life, along with the violin that Max plays.
Finally there is the very wise Dr Fischer who is the tutor at the Gymnasium Max attends.
Breslau is a city full of a mix of people, Jews, Germans from all over old Prussia, Austrians and Poles and more. It could have been a wonderful cultural sharing space for music and art and learning. The people are like people everywhere, good, bad, saintly and evil.
One thing that interested me was the realization (I hadn’t known this) that the economy of Germany was already on the mend when Hitler came to power. The people didn’t need to blame the Jews or the Poles or the Catholics. They were on the way up already. But something was already “rotten in the state of Denmark” as Max’s friend Zapolski who plays Hamlet while they are at University notes.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a backdrop to the thought that runs through the book. Playing the role has a profound effect on the Nietzsche loving Zapolski for Shakespeare’s worldview is diametrically different from Neitzsche’s.
While there’s a lot in the book that points to how a good culture based on fine thought like Goethe, Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson and of course the wonderful Bach can steer a person around the banality of evil, there’s some points that are missing in the story.
Beckett talks about the beliefs of the local parish priest, one a true Christian, another a Nationalist and anti-Semite, but she never mentions the Vatican Document Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Zeal) which was and is the only Vatican document to be written and promulgated in German. All documents are usually made in Latin and then translated. This document was given out on Passion Sunday (Mar 14th) 1937 and spoke strongly and clearly against the rise in Hitler’s National Socialism. I think it’s a strange thing to leave out when she was clear about the Concordat, which of course Hitler signed but reneged on. I personally don’t have an issue with the Concordat that some people have. The Holy Father saw what was coming, he’d warned the Bavarian people against voting for Hitler and in very large part they didn’t. He was trying to save his people as best he could. That seems a good thing to me.
Becket traces the culture of evil that in some ways made Hitler inevitable from Nietzsche through social Darwinism, runaway materialism and all this built on fear and loss for Germany. Luther is condemned but Darwin let off the hook somewhat. I am not sure what I make of that.
If you want to get to understand how those wars came about, reading this book straight after the Head of the House of Coombe and Robin is a really good way to learn. They are very different books, written with a different style but they both show facets of the culture and thought that made the 20th century into such a century of slaughter.
I wish we would learn. But we don’t.