On reading about Nazis

by Barendina Smedley

For a long time, I had no particular interest in reading about the Second World War.

History, per se, always mattered a lot, which is how I ended up with a doctoral degree from Cambridge University, the odd insight into how the Tudor reformations did or didn’t play out in the flatter parts of west Norfolk, and a lasting aversion to academic infighting.

But because I was born in the mid 1960s, WW2 somehow never registered as ‘history’. Like my parents’ dated taste in music, their books, indeed the blind-spots of their politics, WW2 was simply a generational experience which I could regard with a sort of semi-detached bemusement. It wasn’t my own experience, true, but it never really seemed like ‘history’ either, if only because when I was growing up, every middle-aged person I met spoke of those wartime years with absolute familiarity. ‘The war’, as everyone called it, was both too far and to near to me to come into easy focus. Hence I ignored it.

Of course, like the rest of my generation, both in the USA where I grew up, and in the UK which is now my home, I also grew up in a world where ‘the war’ was omnipresent. At school, the most innocent games of throwing balls or chasing each other invariably had some WW2 overlay. We all watched war films, knew each other’s parents’ families’ war records (embellished or otherwise), and speculated regarding the origins of the only German any of us knew, our rather portly, lugubrious maths teacher. There was also a big illustrated book about the war that most households, somehow, seemed to own. We were encouraged to study it for, in effect, its unproblematic patriotic content, but mostly ended up carrying away memories of images that matched nothing at all about our safe, comfortable suburban lives — visions of burnt bodies, protruding from a tank turret or the wreckage of a bombed-out house, or piles of what looked like badly-stacked firewood but were actually our fellow human beings. War was horrible and in some ways inexplicable, but it was also glorious, and had made our parents and our nation what they were. Would I ever need to know more about WW2 than that?

Yet in this present year, 2018, I have read more about WW2 than in all the rest of my life put together, and I want to explain why.

At first, it was an accident. I was at our house in Norfolk, the heating wasn’t working, and the weather forecast promised several days of snow and sub-zero temperatures. Also, I was preoccupied with the apparently imminent demolition of a nearby house to which I had grown greatly attached. So I made a huge fire in our drawing room — but what could I read that would suit my circumstances? For some reason, Antony Beevor’s Berlin felt like the right sort of comfort-reading — ‘comfort’, in the sense that, having read it before, I knew it would put my own extremely minor troubles in perspective.

Beevor is, whatever else he may be, engaging company. With my laptop computer open beside me on the sofa, using Google Maps to try to trace out that doomed retreat through places whose names were never stable, as the snow silenced everything outside and the day-old fire continued to warm the heart of a dark old house, time passed pleasantly enough. The content of the book, of course, was absolutely grim. Men died by the thousands on the Seelow Heights, around Königsberg, in Berlin’s suburban villas and its office buildings. Meanwhile I drank coffee, cradling the mug to warm my hands. That is what history is like sometimes — tales told by a fire late at night, a bedtime story the sheer outlandishness of which serves to make us feel relatively safe.

Yet this time, perhaps because I was alone with no distractions other than the need to feed that fire, something was different.

One feature of Beevor’s narrative — which may relate to his own brief military experience in the Cold War Germany of the late 1960s — is his across-the-board sympathy for middle-ranking officers on all sides, having to deal with incompetent commanders and frankly insane political leaders, while still remaining loyal to their men, their own military professionalism and, in some complex sense, their deeply troubled and problematic nations. (I should add here, by the way, that Beevor is also very clear that the Wehrmacht was complicit in many of the worst atrocities of WW2, but this isn’t an essay about that, so if you want to know more, try reading Berlin.)

And for the first time, despite having read the book before, I was struck by the real tragedy of this story. Both Germans and Soviets were fighting on the orders of what were, by any definition, appalling governments, capable of near-unimaginable evil. What’s more, many of them seem to have recognised some version of this tragedy. Some of the better Germans, for instance, seem very much aware that they were fighting, in effect, to slow down the inevitable defeat of a regime that many of them had long since learned to hate, not least for the damage it had done to the country for which they were notionally fighting. The better Soviets would return, if they survived, to a land of show-trials, gulags and a repressive government that, even in 2018, views PoWs as non-persons or traitors. For none of these men, or for the civilians around them, would the war entirely end in 1945. None of this had really dawned on me before.

In fairness, this is not how most normal American or British people of my generation think about WW2. In the previous year I had been with my son to see a film called Darkest Hour, which seems more typical.

Darkest Hour is, frankly, a rather odd film. In it, Gary Oldman, playing Robert Hardy playing Churchill, battles with Viscount Halifax to ensure that Britain ends up definitively on the right side of history. One can quibble with all sorts of things about it, from the wrong kind of champagne glasses (coupes not flutes please) and Churchill’s wartime rooms which, with their distressed wall-finish and quirky lighting, look like some hipster Soho pop-up cafe designed by Retrouvius, to the fact that Viscount Halifax didn’t actually have a left hand, to what my son immediately identified as a bomb-strike borrowed from some banal video-game. Or indeed, one could question whether it was entirely right that Halifax is shown as being virtually the only person in the UK who isn’t desperate to go to war, which even I, with my lack of WW2 insight, was pretty sure wasn’t the case.

The main point here, though, is something else — the way the film positions the great struggle of WW2, the ultimate point of it all, as the existential moment wherein the UK as a nation ended up doing the right thing. If there is actual blood, sweat and tears to be had — let alone mixed motives, a dash of moral ambiguity, a tiny nod to why it was that the generation who had got through WW1 didn’t invariably want their sons or daughters to live through a world war of their own — it happens somewhere else, offstage. Meanwhile the Great Man himself makes a famous speech, surrounded by a mandorla of mysterious light, leaving everything else in darkness at the margins, because for us, nothing much matters next to the rightness of Britain’s cause, her stature as an elect and justified nation. And the audience in the cinema all seemed very happy with this, and went away soothed and reassured.

So what I suppose happened to me, reading Beevor’s Berlin, was the gradual realisation that there were other nations and people for whom WW2 was a more complicated, protracted and painful story — and also, that this was something not only interesting, but also possibly relevant to my life right now.

If Godwin’s Law enjoins that any internet discussion that goes on long enough will eventually mention Hitler, there should really be some comparable law for the days in which we live now, in which every conversation eventually converges on Brexit or Trump, or maybe both. Well, brace yourselves: this brief memoir is about to do precisely that.

There are some very real ways in which the referendum on EU membership (June 2016) and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (November 2016) changed my world. For one thing, both thinned out the ranks of my friends. As someone who had long been involved in Tory politics — very much on the eurosceptic side, too — my conviction that leaving the EU would be a big mistake has caused problems. After May gave her ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’ speech (October 2016), with its unsubtle appeal to immigrant-hating, UKIP-voting goons, I no longer felt at home in the Conservative party, which also caused problems. Also, rather to my amazement, several friends whom I thought I knew really well revealed themselves to be supporters of a US president-elect who seemed quite clearly to me a racist, a sexual predator, quite possibly a federal criminal several times over, a stooge of Russian security operatives and very certainly not fit material to hold any sort of public office. Recently, I’ve learned that a close relative really enjoys going to Trump rallies, and admires Trump for his direct speech, so unlike that of most politicians. On the other hand, she’s an ex-communist, so perhaps in that case, the warning signs were there from the start. But none of this has done much to boost my sense of security regarding the way in which our world is headed.

Meanwhile Brexit and Trump get everywhere. Conversations with incidental contacts — the guys who are putting up a stock fence, the chap who is driving me, that nice Hungarian guy who used to work at my local coffee shop until he got fed up and went back to Hungary — come back to these two great magnetic poles of our time. Is Trump just a fool or has he got a point? Is Brexit some great triumph of classical liberalism, or of grass-roots democracy, or actually just a way of keeping Muslims out of Wisbech — and why is the government making such a mess of it?

Just as regular as the conversations, though, are the poignant silences. There are people with whom, for decades, I discussed absolutely nothing other than politics — whereas now if we speak at all, we chat about children and gardens, tiptoeing gingerly around great matters we cannot mention, and go away sadder than before. And this is all before actual Brexit happens, and before whatever Trump’s extraordinary approach to foreign policy will produce over the next few months! On the other hand, a few friends have made the same journey that I have over the past year or two. These people matter even more to me now than they did before.

Anne Applebaum discusses her own Polish version of this problem with great elegance and historical sweep here.

So, what does any of this have to do with reading about Nazis?

First, an important disclaimer: although I do think Brexit is, in practice, quite a racist, nationalistic enterprise, and that Trump, insofar as he is intellectually capable of anything other than petty venality and crude animal impulses, is both a racist and a nationalist, and also that Steve Bannon is an intensely nasty piece of work, I am absolutely clear that neither the current Tory government, or indeed the Trump administration, is anywhere near as bad as Hitler’s Third Reich or Stalin’s USSR. There is an absolute difference in kind here — worryingly dysfunctional situations as opposed to regimes predicated on mass murder and systematic evil. So, let’s all be clear that this is not the comparison I’m making. I should also add, for Brexit or Trump-supporting pals who might chance to read this, that I genuinely don’t think you are Nazis. I do, however, think it is true that both US and UK politics are currently polarised in a very profound and painful way, and hence that it is not unreasonable to look, for instance, to the Germany of the 1930s and 40s when it comes to attempting to understand how that polarisation works, what the costs of it might be and what, if anything, can be done about it.

What I discovered, then, reading Beevor’s Berlin in a snow-bound Norfolk house, was a sort of indirect, almost poetic reflection of a pain that had been very much present in my life for many months, for which it had previously been hard to find a working metaphorical language. Of course, like most metaphors, the minute one starts to pick it apart, it starts to look ridiculous. There is, to put it mildly, quite a lot of difference between a slightly depressive, extremely insignificant ex-Tory unsure how best to fight Brexit — is it worth engaging on Twitter? — versus the highly-decorated Graf von Stauffenberg, glamorous Nazi war hero, fumbling with his three remaining fingers to prime the bombs that are supposed to kill his Fuhrer in a few minutes’s time, if everything goes according to plan, which of course it will not.

So that, then, would be quite a stupid comparison to make. Let’s look elsewhere. Later in the spring, after the snow had melted and the primroses were blooming, I read A Good German: Adam von Trott zu Solz (1994) by Giles MacDonogh. Like Stauffenberg, Trott was executed for his part in the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, all eloquently described in the book. But the part that really stood out for me, sadly, was the painful, foreseeable but ineluctable deterioration of friendships that Trott had made during his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. There still seems to be quite a debate about Trott: was he right to go back to Germany, to serve the Nazi regime, even while trying at the same time to moderate or undermine it, and certainly to keep channels open to the Allies? Many of his ex-friends were very sure that this thoughtful, charismatic man was, indeed, very wrong, and blamed him for it. Yet on the other hand, having had the good luck to be born British, they were never faced with the sort of dilemma that defined and ultimately destroyed Trott.

It is easy to feel ambivalent about aspects of Trott’s story, although perhaps impossible not to feel sympathetic towards him in human terms. In particular, when it came to those rather stilted letters, the visits that should have been happy but were actually just awkward and inadequate, there was a definite feeling of being on familiar ground. On the other hand, just who was who in this story? Was Trott, in effect, my pro-Trump ex-friend, unwilling to criticise an administration in which my ex-friend still hoped to play a what might have been a constructive, damage-limiting part? And if so, had I made a terrible mistake? Or conversely, was Trott offering me a cautionary tale about why I was right to give up on the Tories, my old friends and comrades, because trying to fight against immigrant-hating and UKIP-lite nationalism from within the present-day party was a task destined to certain failure? What, in short, are any of us to do when allegiances and loyalties pull one way, but conscience pulls another? Trott’s story provided no simple answers, any more than history usually does, but at the same time, the discussion was one that I needed to hear.

Another interesting book, along related lines, was The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 (2015) by Nicholas Stargardt. For anyone who has ever wondered how it is that a nation full of largely normal, non-psychopathic people can end up spending years committing acts of unimaginable monstrosity, day after day, month after month, and then later largely excuse themselves for doing so, or mis-remember so that perhaps with hindsight they hadn’t personally done anything wrong at all — well then, this is your book. Stargardt makes a damning, and to my mind utterly convincing case that it was almost impossible for anyone in Germany during the years in question not to have realised what was being done by Germans to Jews, to Poles, to Soviets, to the disabled or to political opponents — and also that although it was perfectly possible for Germans to speak out against this, often without serious sanctions, few did so. Using letters and diaries, Stargardt chronicles the deterioration of perfectly nice-sounding individuals into torturers, rapists and mass murderers. What is hard to capture in this summation, however, is the skill with which he makes his case. I have probably never read a book that made me question more frankly what I would have done, faced with the sequence of incremental challenges described here. And no, the conclusions aren’t always optimistic ones.

The German War is, in that sense, the converse of that film Darkest Hour, because it suggests that the reality of war lies less in one heroic speech than it does in a million little decisions, many of them apparently trivial, carried out over a long stretch of time. In other words, we can’t always count on some soi-disant Great Man to save us. Only our own positive moral choices will do that — and even that won’t always work.

Stargardt is strong not only on momentous events — the impact of the Commissar Order, for instance, or the bombing of Hamburg and its aftermath — but also the very ordinary ones. A Lutheran schoolteacher turned soldier details to his wife his revulsion about what he is seeing on the Eastern Front — but then after a while, he starts to draw a veil over the whole subject, except by saying that perhaps it is better not to talk about it until after the war. Ditto another young, rather cultured officer, writing to his friend. One soldier and his wife basically invent for themselves the 1940s postal version of ‘sexting’ — and yes, as a reader in 2018, it feels very odd to get that close to a man who almost certainly did truly appalling things, but who also missed his wife and his home.

Nastiest of all though, perhaps, is observing the way in which little nuances of social pressure, tiny little friendly or familial inducements to conform, seem to have kept people in line much more reliably than the spectre of the Gestapo, their informers and blood-spattered cellars. The Germans in this book turn out to be motivated not only by things that seem alien and inexplicable to me — antisemitism, the general idiocy of pseudo-scientific race theory, that famous ‘stab in the back’ myth — but also things that make perfect sense, like patriotism, a feeling that troops at the front deserve our support, anger at being attacked, even just a desire to get on well with friends and neighbours. And that, for all sorts of reasons, makes The German War an uncomfortable and challenging book for British and American readers, as well as presumably for German ones.

Of course, not everyone let the Nazi regime go unchallenged, even in Germany itself. During the Cold War, when the UK and US urgently needed to embrace as allies against Communism some of those very same Germans who had so recently featured as enemies, the need to discover ‘good Germans’ became particularly pressing. There’s a fascinating if dense book by Eberhard Zeller called Flame of Freedom: The German Struggle Against Hitler (1967) that shows this impulse in action. Yet in Germany itself, this process was slow and ambivalent. I think it is right to say that the widows of Stauffenberg, Moltke and other July Plot participants, for instance, were unable to collect their military pensions for many years, as their late husbands were still listed as traitors, not heroes, while it was only in 1980 that anything much was done about making a public memorial to the July Plot conspirators. And even now, the narratives around these men’s lives remain controversial. Did someone like Moltke — whose letters to his wife Freya, now available in English translation, provide an amazing insight into his thinking, both during his time as a diplomat and then during his imprisonment — spend too much time intellectualising pointlessly about the finer details of a post-Hitler Germany, when he should have been getting on with toppling the regime? Was Stauffenberg really just a mostly-unreformed romantic nationalist who got a bit sick of how badly Hitler & Co were managing the war, and simply wanted to put better commanders in charge of the same project instead? Or are we barking up the wrong tree when we expect active participants in Hitler’s army and diplomatic corps to at the same time be fully ‘woke’ liberals, when in fact we should really be honouring any attempts to curtail the survival of a wholly loathsome and hateful regime, in all cases at enormous personal cost? Should we criticise or admire? Can we even hope, at a deep level, to understand instead?

I should perhaps also add, for those who get nervous about such things, that I am not advocating assassination. There are perfectly good constitutional ways of removing Trump from office, perhaps even of reversing the disaster that is Brexit. The point here, rather, is what, for instance, a patriotic conservative ought to do about a badly-flawed regime that’s drifting ever further to the right. At which points is it better to stay engaged, to fight from within  — and at which points does one have to do the massively counter-intuitive thing of willing the victory of the regime’s enemies, either in private or in public? I don’t think any of the Germans who resisted Hitler found this a particularly easy distinction to make. How much more difficult, then, it is to gauge the validity of ‘resistance’ in our far less catastrophic, if also deeply worrying times.

Two more books deserve a quick name-check here, in this partial account of my year’s reading.

The first is by Hans Erich Nossack, a slim little book published in English as The End: Hamburg 1943, in what seems to me (I cannot read German) an elegant translation by Joel Agee (1943, translation 2004). It’s relatively well known, if only because it gets a shout-out in W. G. Sebald’s weirdly flawed essay, ‘On the Natural History of Destruction’ (2003).

I mention The End for a variety of reasons, but in part because my grandfather and uncle were both officers in the US Army Air Corps / USAF. My grandfather was too old for much flying by the time WW2 occurred, so commanded various bases in the US; my uncle was only a small child at the time, playing with Bakelite recognition models. Still, growing up, when I and my school friends played WW2-themed games in the playground, my family’s war record always seemed to me a source of pardonable pride. Unlike Vietnam, after all, which was taking place simultaneously with my early school days, WW2 was a ‘good war’, both because it had clearly been a good war to fight, and also, because unlike Vietnam, it ended with an unambiguously positive result — the US had won, hadn’t we? The fact that all of Eastern Europe had ended up in Soviet hands was a detail that, alas, slipped my infant notice. Ditto, of course, all the unspeakable harm that was done along the way, because of course the reality of war is infinitely beyond the grasp of most of us, let alone a rather cosseted child growing up in 1970s America, only hearing the stories told by the winners.

So to me, The End, when I got round to reading it during this hot, unseasonable summer, was a sort of rebuke, all the more powerful for being, in some ways, remarkably understated. It’s an account of the author’s experience of being in and around Hamburg during the Allied bombing raids of July 1943, in which something like 42,600 people were killed, and a beautiful and historic city which had long had the closest of links with my beloved East Anglia completely devastated. Hamburg was a military target insofar as some armaments production took place there, but the other point of the raids was explicitly to harm German morale, which is an indirect way of saying that the Allies were quite relaxed about killing German civilians. Or at least their commanders were relaxed. Apparently some Allied air crew remained traumatised for years afterwards by their experiences over Hamburg.

The End is horrifying, as much for a sort of numbed, resigned tone as for any of its various horrifying details. What it isn’t, oddly, is a book about being German, or being at war with Britain and America. It is just a book about being human, or at least trying to be human, in a context where the world has near enough come to an end, which is, I expect, why it ended up with the English title that it did.

Yet this isn’t just a book about the past, either. There are a lot of things I dislike both about what I take to be the main motivations behind Brexit, and also the main motivations for electing Trump, but perhaps the greatest of these is the elevation of callousness into a signal patriotic virtue. It’s everywhere in the language, that aggressive self-centredness: ‘America first’, Trump’s ‘trade is bad’ carefully scratched out in all caps using a marking pen, the immigrant children ripped from their parents’ arms, that stupid red bus with its message about ‘our’ NHS spending, the whole business of ‘taking back control’, etc, etc.

Who cares about the pregnant teenager lurching on her precarious, overloaded raft off the coast of Greece, or the rural Polish lad who not unreasonably wants a better life, or the Mexican dad who would quite like to raise his little family away from criminal gangs? Who cares about careers, relationships, entire lives casually dislocated by removing the rights of EU citizens to move in and out of the UK, or indeed the rights of British residents to move in and out of the EU? As far as that goes, who cares about wanting economic prosperity for other people’s countries, as well as one’s own? Or wanting peace and stability pretty much everywhere, almost as if we all shared a common humanity, and might have a certain fellow-feeling for each other?

No, present-day populism invites us to feel at best indifferent, at worst distrustful or downright hostile to those who live elsewhere, speak different languages, maybe worship in different ways. And callousness really has a lot to do with what went wrong with Nazi Germany, as is very clear from Stargardt’s book, where concentration camp guards and members of the Einsatzgruppen quite consciously worked on their callousness, perfecting it like some sort of professional skill, needed to complete tasks that they felt were more important than mere human feeling. So when a political movement asks for callousness, we all ought to be very worried indeed. 

The reason The End mattered to me, anyway, was because it seems to put the strongest possible argument against that kind of thinking. It demonstrates very starkly, and without a lot of extraneous commentary, exactly what happens when people decide that they no longer need to care at all about each other’s survival.

The last book I want to mention, although a very different one, has in some ways a strangely similar message. It’s by Hans Graf von Lehndorff, and published in English as East Prussian Diary: a journal of faith, 1945-1947 (1963). It is no longer in print, hence quite expensive.

Lendorff was a surgeon, from an aristocratic, rather horse-obsessed East Prussian background. A devout Lutheran, he was certainly no Nazi. One of his brothers, Heinrich, was yet another German officer executed for his part in the July 1940 plot against Hitler. His mother was persistently in trouble with the local Gestapo for protecting enemies of the regime.

Although no short summary will do any sort of justice to the power of this extraordinary book, suffice to say that it is simply Lendorff’s diary and recollections, as he continues to work as a surgeon, first for the German military, later for the Red Army, then drifts off into a strange sort of nightmare-picaresque through the hellish no man’s land that is neither really East Prussia nor Poland nor much else at that point — a place that includes his old family home, various family members, a world at once familiar and unrecognisable, in countryside both blighted and also, as the seasons pass, sometimes achingly beautiful. This is a book full of rape, torture, murder, absolutely pointless cruelty and horror — but at the same time, it is also, quite bizarrely, entirely life-affirming. The dilemma facing Lehndorff is no longer really about survival — a sort of fatalism, or perhaps more accurately an absolute surrender to God’s will, descends upon him fairly early on — but rather, about how to be a decent person in a world that has all-but-literally turned upside down. ‘Inspiring’ is an over-used word, but it’s inescapable here.

It is quite striking how quickly, in Lehndorff’s account, all the usual distinctions central to books about WW2 simply cease to matter. The diary includes admirable and also deeply unpleasant Germans, decent and monstrous Russians, good and bad Poles — Lehndorff really doesn’t seem to care, accepting instead that extreme circumstances show up human nature both at its best and its worst, regardless of nationality or ideology. There is a massive amount of loss in this book, but not a shred of self-pity. If Lehndorff offers any sort of meaningful resistance either to the barbarity of Nazism or its mirror image, the barbarity of Soviet communism, it’s expressed through a calm, brave commitment to service, decency and humility.

It really isn’t going too far to say that East Prussian Diary is now one of my favourite books, and Lehndorff a personal hero. If ever a book deserved a cheap modern addition, this time with a few maps, it’s East Prussian Diary.

Where, then, does that leave us?

Even ‘good wars’, I think, are very bad, and should be avoided when we can do so. Peace is better, more rare and fragile than many of us realise. In particular, people who have grown up in the US and the UK can be more than a little blind to what war actually means in practice — not, as it turns out, a heart-warming feeling of national solidarity and shared purpose played out to a crackly Vera Lynn soundtrack, as my generation too often seems to assume — but rather, a self-fulfilling prophesy of violence, terror and death, as many in continental Europe know all too well, in which it is hard to emerge with much if any honour. This may be part of the reason why, for instance, some Germans and French people, along with their friends from elsewhere on the continent, seem quite keen on retaining supranational bodies charged with maintaining peace and cooperation. It may also be why people in the UK think we can afford to be quite casual about it all, and why people in the US think it will work well for the US simply to stand back from European affairs. They should all, perhaps, spend more time reading about Nazis.

Happy are those with the luck to be born on the right side of ‘good wars’. I think it is true to say that my own grandfather, mentioned above, was briefly gazetted to the rank of general in WW2. He was, however, as it happened, not only an early airman, but also a friend to that other early and much more famous American airman Charles A. Lindbergh, he of “Spirit of St Louis” trans-Atlantic solo crossing fame. At some point, for reasons not entirely clear to me, my grandfather made a point of leaving out in a prominent place in his home or office a copy of a controversial pamphlet by Lindberg. Heaven knows what this was (my grandfather died more than a decade before I was born, so I only know this story second hand) but as Lindbergh was, among other things, a rancidly antisemitic, eugenicist supporter of America First, it clearly can’t have been anything very good. Scandal ensued, which might or might not be why my grandfather ended the war back as a lowly full colonel.

At such a distance, aware of the demands of filial piety, what can we say about my grandfather’s motivations? On one hand, he was a very loyal friend, in some ways quite the rebel by nature, and may simply have enjoyed winding up the Army top brass, whom he felt had been unfair to his old friend in refusing him access to active service. And yet on the other hand — well, my grandfather might simply have been rancidly antisemitic, a eugenicist and an America First supporter himself. My point, really, is that as my grandfather was lucky enough to be born an American, I can discuss this point as a rather arid thought-experiment. Had my grandfather been born a German, I do slightly worry than he might have ended up not only a decorated officer in the Luftwaffe, but also an early Nazi party member. In the end, some of the choices we are offered in life — whether to be virtuous or evil, or at least whether to be seen to be virtuous or evil — really do involve a degree of good fortune. And this, in itself, may teach us something about humility in the face of other people’s moral choices, both then and now.

It is helpful too, sometimes, to realise how lucky I have been. Through my son’s rather international junior school, I got to know other mums whose personal experiences included losing most of their families in the Holocaust, having relatives tortured by repressive political regimes, or indeed seeing the destruction of their own familiar and much-cherished homeland in the ongoing Syrian civil war. It is important to keep these things in context. Reading about Nazis helps with that, too.

On the other hand, history suggests that other people, while fortunate for most of their lives, sometimes live to see their luck run out. Graf von Lehndorff’s very privileged, comfortable family — not Nazis, nor, as far as I can see, horrible people in any way — lost several close relatives in horrific circumstances, as well as their East Prussian estate, the landscape around it — their whole way of life. The same is true, ceteris paribus, for the von Moltkes, the von Dönhoffs, or indeed plenty of far less famous names in places like Hamburg and Konigsberg, Stalingrad and Kiev, indeed Rotterdam or Belfast. Yet all of these experiences pale beside those of Europe’s Jews, who effectively lost a whole civilisation.

Perhaps almost the last word should be left to a 93-year old Jewish man, who recently wrote a very powerful article about his experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto. Stanisław Aronson was born a Pole, took part in the resistance during the Nazi occupation of his country, and after the war moved to Israel. He frames his article, explicitly, in terms of the lessons he would like to pass on to future generations. The article merits being read in full, and indeed has helped me to recognise various points mentioned above. These passages in particular, however, continue to haunt me:

“Confronting lies sometimes means confronting difficult truths about one’s self and one’s own country. It is much easier to forgive yourself and condemn another, than the other way round; but this is something that everyone must do. […]

“Finally, do not ever imagine that your world cannot collapse, as ours did. This may seem the most obvious lesson to be passed down, but only because it is the most important. One moment I was enjoying an idyllic adolescence in my home city of Lodz, and the next we were on the run. I would only return to my empty home five years later, no longer a carefree boy but a Holocaust survivor and Home Army veteran living in fear of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. I ended up moving to what was then the British mandate of Palestine, fighting in a war of independence for a Jewish homeland I didn’t even know I had.

“Perhaps it is because I was only a child that I did not notice the storm clouds that were gathering, but I believe that many who were older and wiser than me at that time also shared my childlike state.

“If disaster comes, you will find that all the myths you once cherished are of no use to you. You will see what it is like to live in a society where morality has collapsed, causing all your assumptions and prejudices to crumble before your eyes. And after it’s all over, you will watch as, slowly but surely, these harshest of lessons are forgotten as the witnesses pass on and new myths take their place.”

“Finally, do not ever imagine that your world cannot collapse, as ours did …”

Because that, too, is what history is like sometimes — truths told by elders who bear the scars of that truth, their parting gift to different generations, who have no cause whatsoever to feel even relatively safe but who are, paradoxically, perhaps stronger for having that fragile truth in their keeping.

Believe me, I have often wondered, this year, embarking on another deeply grim book along the lines of Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth or Philippe Sands’ East West Street because for some reason other books can’t hold my attention so firmly right now, whether there was something a bit unwholesome in dwelling on these terrible warnings from history — or recent memory, or whatever it is that I now consider WW2. Further, I have often wondered why it is the more uncertain and conflicted amongst the Germans — basically, people just one step removed from that classic Mitchell & Webb ‘are we the baddies’ sketch — for whom I feel the most obvious, if involuntary and often uncomfortable empathy.

The answer to the latter question, at least, is surely fairly simple. As someone who for several decades was an energetically eurosceptic Tory, even though I was also a Remain voter, there’s a level at which I do feel a degree of guilt regarding Brexit — even regarding Trump, as far as that goes, if only because when I was still in America back in the 1980s, I identified as a Republican, as a libertarian conservative, and those people surely bear some of the responsibility for Trump. Put bluntly, I don’t want the sort of ambiguity to exist regarding what I really thought about the great issues of our day that still exists regarding, for instance, how my grandfather felt about America First. I want to stand up and be counted as somehow who thinks Brexit is a colossal mistake, and that Trump is a monstrous fraud — someone who sees the positives in immigration, in diversity, in trade, in international cooperation, in peace. But at the same time, I fear I spent far too long inadvertently giving support to those who believed then, and believe still the absolute opposite. For those friends who are no longer friends, or only ‘friends’ because social media muting and a degree of physical and emotional distance makes it possible for me — well, this is why.

And now, when it’s far too late to change any of this, it’s hard to know what I can do to redeem past mistakes. True, I can heap old friendships and allegiances upon a bonfire of vanities, whilst doubting as I do so that this shabby and belated sacrifice will appease anyone or anything. Or I can try to explain, crafting ever more intricately contextual excuses, in the unlikely event that anyone will believe that it all seemed more sensible at the time. Or perhaps I should do what all sorts of sensible people do, and stand back from anything political, because it is all too ghastly and complicated right now — as Voltaire put it, in a typically sly and double-edged way, semi-retired from the politics at which he, too, was often quite bad, il faut cultiver notre jardin.

What is hardest to do, of course, is to try to follow, in some inadequate fashion, Lehndorff’s hint — to try to behave decently, speak up when it could possibly do some good, avoid despair, pursue kindness and generosity, and hope for better times.

And what is easiest, of course, is to keep reading, because I’ll always keep reading — if only to remind myself that there have always been, and always will be, sane, rational and loving voices to be heard there among all the inchoate baying, even if these are sometimes in themselves slightly quiet or uncertain, and to take whatever encouragement I can from all that.