6th June 2009
Sometimes the asides and diversions in a book can be as, if not more, revealing than the main story. In this third and final post on Stephen Spender’s book European Witness, an account of two visits he made to Germany immediately after the Second World, I want to write about the unacknowledged hero, or villain, of the piece, his Humber car.
One of the ironies of the book, is that despite his grand and noble conclusion that only a “conscious, deliberate and wholly responsible determination to make our society walk in the paths of light” could save the world from “a threat of a still greater darkness, a total and everlasting one ... rising up from the ashes of fascism", he himself appeared powerless and unable to do anything.
The original reason for his visit to Germany was to inspect and re-open libraries in the Ruhr and Rhineland, including vetting and removing Nazi books. But he came to think that this was a pointless task:
“…my conversation with Dr Reuter, [the librarian at Düsseldorf] made me realize that there was little point in our policy. Anyone who wished to obtain Nazi books in Germany could easily do so, and to withdraw the Nazi books seemed only a piece of window-dressing which would give us a reputation for treating literature in the same way as the Nazis themselves had done.”
For example, a librarian at Aachen told him there was no difficulty at all carrying out his orders; they had previously done much the same for the Nazis:
“We understand exactly what you want, and there is no difficulty whatever about carrying out your instructions. You see, throughout the Nazi regime, we kept all the books by Jewish and socialist writers in a special cellar, under lock and key, as having only historical and scientific interest. All we have to do now is to take out these books and put them on our open shelves, while at the same time we lock up all the Nazi books, because now they only have historical and scientific interest.”
And in any case, many local German librarians had already done what was necessary on their own initiative:
“In practice, I found that the libraries of the Ruhr and the Rhineland were capable of opening themselves without my intervention … In every case, the Germans had automatically set about purging their libraries on the day of their towns being occupied by the Allies, if not before that.”
Throughout this time, Spender was often unable to travel round the British Zone and do his job, because his (British) Humber car had broken down, often for days, despite attempts to fix it:
“During these days of my car being broken down, I was often left with little to do but observe conditions and listen to rumours.”
“The car remained in a very bad state. However, one day we managed to get it to Aachen and almost all the way back before we got stuck a few miles outside Bonn, from where we had to be towed.”
I don’t think he intended the book to be read this way, but it seems to me that the car had become a symbol of the British occupation; of how despite the best of intentions, they were not able to achieve anything constructive, and were in fact no different from, and no better than, the people whose country they were occupying:
“On 20th September the Humber had a slight attack of recovery. I made an attempt to get it to Düsseldorf. After going very fast for four miles, it stopped in a rain-storm on the autobahn between Bonn and Cologne. My driver decided that the pump was wrong and he got out to repair it. After he had taken it to pieces and put it back, no petrol came through the pipe leading to it from the tank at the back of the car. He undid the cap of the petrol tank and blew down the hole. There was some pressure of air in the tank and petrol squirted back at him into his eyes, mouth and nose. He was practically blinded for five or ten minutes. Three little German boys who were present at this scene were in ecstasies of hysterical joy. They rolled over on the ground roaring with laughter, and, for the next hour, while we waited dismally in the car, they imitated to each other the expression on his face when he fell back into the road. This was one of those moments when our occupation suddenly appeared like all occupations: one could imagine similar scenes in which little French boys were squirming on the ground with laughter at solemn German officers whose Mercedes had broken down, during their Occupation.”
Spender could be extraordinarily insensitive to the needs and feelings of those around him, as well as very perceptive. For example, he described meeting, by chance, a former inmate of a concentration camp, and arranged to see him later at his hotel. Because he was classified as a German civilian, Spender was not permitted to share his tea with him:
“The next day he arrived at four-thirty while I was having a large tea in the lounge. I could not offer him, a German civilian, tea, so I sent him up to my room while I finished off my excellent repast with far more butter and ham than one gets in England. I was aware of the contrast between my own standard of living and that of this concentration camp inmate; but although this worried me, on the whole it had the effect of making me eat perhaps a slightly larger tea than I would have done otherwise, because this worry was a form of anxiety and anxiety tends to make me greedy.”
I don’t think there was any irony in this account, or even self-criticism.
During his second visit, in September and October 1945, Spender met the documentary film director Humphrey Jennings, who was in Germany making his film ‘A Defeated People’ (see previous posts on this blog).
In the book Spender refers to Jennings as ‘Boyman’, presumably from his tendency to say “Oh boy, oh boy”.
“Boyman talks an Anglo-American-Continental Film World slang in which he mixes up phrases such as ‘Oh boy, oh boy,’ with cockney such as ‘Bob’s-your-uncle.’”
Jennings’ self confidence irritated him. At the end of an evening in the British officers’ mess, Spender wrote that:
“[Boyman] talked a great deal more and said that the damned fool of a British public ‘had no realization of these conditions.’ His attitude that everyone except his Film Unit is a bloody fool, annoys me. Besides which, why should the British public be sensitive to conditions in Germany? I often wonder whether sensibility is such a virtue as I myself am inclined to suppose it to be, since my own experience is that being sensitive, aware and imaginative does not prevent one from being selfish. In fact, it makes one ego-centric. All the same, Boyman is a live wire, and part of my irritation with him is undoubtedly due to jealousy and competitiveness. After the evening with Boyman I went to bed doubly depressed: by the squalid destruction of Düsseldorf and by the assertive cocksureness of Boyman.”
One of the ironies of history is that while Spender’s reputation has declined over time, that of Jennings has grown, and he is now considered by many to be Britain’s greatest wartime documentary film maker. For example, Angus Calder in his classic work, ‘The Myth of the Blitz’, referred to him as “Britain’s most remarkable maker of official films.”
But what struck me most were not the differences, but the similarities in outlook between Spender’s book, European Witness, and Jennings’ film A Defeated People. Words and images in the book reappear in the film. For example these words from European Witness could be describing a shot in the film: “The girders of the Rhine bridges plunged diagonally into the black waters of the Rhine frothing into swirling white around them”; as could descriptions and portraits of a demoralised and apathetic people; ‘Zero Hour’ represented by the clock whose hands have stopped working; and an overriding concern, in the words of the commentary of the film, that “our powers of destruction today are terrible”. But also apparent both from reading the book and watching the film, were the high and noble ideals of many of those responsible for the British occupation; their belief in the urgent need to do whatever was necessary to prevent another war; combined and contrasted on occasions, with a sense of hopelessness in the face of extreme adversity; and running in parallel with all of this, a grudging sympathy with the current condition of the former enemy.
Despite overwhelming odds, and personal limitations, both the book and the film tried to convey to the British people back home, the sense that things could not be left as they were; in the words of the film, the German people could not be “left to stew in their own juice”; and despite everything that had happened in the past, what was needed now was a constructive effort, on both sides, to repair the physical, moral and, for some people, the spiritual damage caused by the war. In Spender’s words: “a conscious, deliberate and wholly responsible determination to make our society walk in the paths of light.”