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Postscript to 2015: Revisiting A Man in Despair

December 31, 2015



This is my last gloomy post of the year, I promise. Largely because it’s my last post of the year. Tomorrow, all will be sweetness and light – for a day or two at least.

The thoughts in this post are not mine. They belong to a remarkable man, far braver and more perceptive than me. Freidrich Reck-Malleczewen was an aristocratic German writer who kept a secret diary during the Nazi years. He was, if you like, the equivalent of the bloggers in Raqqa who risk their lives writing about conditions under the rule of the Islamic State. Except that he lacked the means to publish his work. Instead, he intended what he wrote to be a testament of a dark time that he didn’t expect to survive.

First published in English by the translator Paul Rubens, Diary of a Man in Despair is a book I’ve read more than once, and I’m reading it again now. The writer’s hatred of the Nazis was so intense that had his journal been discovered at any time, he would almost certainly have been executed. Hiding it every day in the woods outside his house every day failed to stop him from eventually falling foul of the Nazis, and he died in February 1945 at the Dachau concentration camp.

Fritz Reck, as he was also known, was an arch-conservative who poured scorn on political leaders from Bismarck onwards. He was something of a snob, but unlike so many of his countrymen, he never said a word against the Jews.

He was widely read in the German classical tradition. He saw himself as a cultured man, the opposite of Hitler and his acolytes.

Here’s the passage, written in 1937 – four years after the Nazis took control of the state, and two years before the Second World War. Reck writes about the Münster Rebellion of 1534, in which a group of Anabaptists expelled the ruling Catholic bishop, and set up a sectarian theocracy in the north German city. He examines its parallels with the Germany he was living in at the time.

I have been working on my book about the Münster city-state set up by the Anabaptist heretics in the sixteenth century. I read accounts of this ‘Kingdom of Zion’ by contemporaries, and I am shaken. In every respect, down to the most ridiculous details, that was a forerunner of what we are now enduring. Like the Germany of today, the Münster city-state for years separated itself from the civilised world; like Nazi Germany, it was hugely successful over a long period of time, and appeared invincible. And then, suddenly, against all expectation and over a comparative trifle it collapsed….

As in our case, a misbegotten failure conceived, so to speak, in the gutter, became the great prophet, and the opposition simply disintegrated, while the rest of the world looked on in astonishment and incomprehension. As with us (for in Berchtesgaden, recently, crazed women swallowed the gravel on which our handsome gypsy of a leader had set his foot), hysterical females, schoolmasters, renegade priests, the dregs and outsiders from everywhere formed the main supports of the regime. I have to delete some of the parallels in order not to jeopardise myself any more than I already have. A thin sauce of ideology covered lewdness, greed, sadism, and fathomless lust for power, in Münster too, and whoever would not completely accept the new teaching was turned over to the executioner. The same role of official murderer played by Hitler in the Röhm Putsch was acted by Bockelson in Münster. As with us, Spartan laws were promulgated to control the misera plebs, but these did not apply to him and his followers. Bockelson also surrounded himself with bodyguards, and was beyond the reach of any would-be assassin. As with us, the masses were drugged: folk festivals, useless construction, anything and everything, to keep the man in the street from a moment’s pause to reflect.

Exactly as Nazi Germany has done, Münster sent its fifth columns and prophets forth to undermine neighbouring states. The fact that the Münster propaganda chief, Dusentschur, limped like Goebbels is a joke which history spent four hundred years preparing: a fact which I, familiar as I am with the vindictiveness of our Minister of Lies, have most advisedly omitted in my book. Constructed on a foundation of lies, there existed for a short time between the Middle Ages and modern time a bandit’s regime. It threatened all the established world – Kaiser, nobility, and all the old relationships. A few things have yet to happen to complete the parallel. In the besieged Munster of 1534, the people were driven to swallow their own excrement, to eat their own children. This could happen to us too, just as Hitler and his sycophants face the same end as Bockelson and Knipperdolling.

I stand before these 400-year-old records, startled by the thought that the resemblance might not be coincidence at all, but may be determined by some frightful law decreeing periodic draining of a psychic abscess. How much do we really know about the vaults and caverns that lie somewhere under the structure of a great nation – about these psychic catacombs in which all our concealed desires, our fearful dreams and evil spirits, our vices and our forgotten and unexpiated sins, have been buried for generations? In healthy times these emerge as spectres in our dreams. To the artist they appear as Satanic apparitions. Then, on our cathedrals, the Gothic gargoyles push obscene backsides out into the air, and there creep across the inspired canvasses of Grünewald, with beaked nose and claw-foot, the representations of all the vices; those flagellants strike at the Saviour so that the law may be fulfilled, and in the very inevitability of it one feels pity….

But suppose, now, that all of these things generally kept buried in our subconscious were to drive for emergence in the blood-cleansing function of a boil? Suppose that this underworld now and again liberated by Satan bursts forth, and the evil spirits escape the Pandora’s box? Isn’t this exactly what happened in Münster, so conservative before and after the event? Doesn’t this explain how all of this could have happened to a basically orderly and hard-working people, without resistance from those dedicated to the good in life, in the same kind of grim and incalculably vast cosmic convulsion which from the first day of the Hitler regime has not only brought sunspots to affect the weather, endlessly rainy summers to spoil the harvests, and strange crawling things to afflict this old earth, but has also in some unfathomable way turned on its head concepts like mine and thine, right and wrong, virtue and vice, God and the Devil?

I leave it to you to figure out why I end 2015 with this passage. A better Germany did arise – liberal and humane, the very antithesis of its Nazi past – although, as he predicted, Reck didn’t live to see it. But before things got better, they got immeasurably worse, as he describes in the rest of the journal.

And in our time, even if there seems to be no light at the end of so many tunnels of misery, the light will eventually appear. Maybe not next year. But it will appear.

I wish you all a happy new year. May your dreams for better things come true.

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