Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Book of the Month: The song Before It Is Sung (Justin Cartwright)

I will crush and destroy the criminals who have dared to oppose themselves to Providence and to me. These traitors to their own people deserve ignominious death, and this is what they shall have. This time the full price will be paid by all those who are involved, and by their families, and by all those who have helped them. This nest of vipers who have tried to sabotage the grandeur of my Germany will be exterminated once and for all.
Adolf Hitler to Joachim von Ribentrop (20th July 1944)

On 20 July 1944 a bomb inside a briefcase went off in Adolf Hitler’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’—his command post for the Eastern Front in Rastenburg, Prussia. The bomb was placed by Major Claus von Stauffenberg. The intent was to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazis. Hitler was not killed; he sustained injuries to his forearms and lost hearing permanently in his right ear. Stauffenberg, who had returned to Berlin, planning to seize the city, believing that Hitler was dead, was arrested and shot at midnight on the same day by a firing squad. Within days almost all the fellow conspirators of Stauffenberg were rounded up, and after a show trial in the People’s Court (set up to judge political crimes), presided over by the rabid Nazi Roland Freisler (who was to die a few months later during an air raid on Berlin), executed. The executions were carried out by hanging the conspirators slowly from meat-hooks; their death agonies were filmed and shown to the Fuhrer.

One of the co-conspirators of von Stauffenberg was Adam von Trott. Born into a wealthy, aristocratic Prussian family, von Trott came to the UK in 1931 as a Rhodes scholar and studied at the Balliol College, Oxford. While in Oxford, von Trott became friends with a Jewish philosopher the same age as he, who had come to the UK a decade earlier, from Russia. The young philosopher’s name was Isaiah Berlin. von Trott returned to Germany and trained as a lawyer. He visited England on a few occasions in the thirties. In 1940, von Trott joined the Nazi party and became the legation counsellor in the German foreign office. Charged with complicity in the July 20, 1944 plot, he was hanged a month later. His three young children were taken by the Gestapo, following Hitler’s decision to introduce Sippenhaft—‘Absolute responsibility of kin . . . a very old custom practised among out forefathers’ as Heinrich Himmler declared. von Trott was thirty five when he died. Berlin outlived his friend by decades, and went on to become one of the most influential liberal philosopher and historian of ideas of the twentieth century. He died in 1997, at the age of eighty eight.

The conspirators involved in the July 1944 plot joined the resistance movement by different routes. Stauffenberg, apparently, was appalled by the atrocities committed by the SS (Schutz Staffeinel) during Operation Barbarossa. von Trott’s path to resistance was as long as it was tortuous. After spending a year at the Balliol, where he formed a friendship not only with Berlin, but also with David Astor (who edited The Observer for well over two decades with great distinction) von Trott returned to Germany and worked as a public prosecutor in Hesse. While working in Hesse, von Trott wrote a letter to Manchester Guardian (in response to a report in it that Jews were denied justice in Germany). In the letter von Trott claimed that no anti-Semitism existed in the courts of Hesse. This letter, at the very least a grotesque distortion of what was going on in Germany at the time, incensed Berlin and put their friendship under severe strain. Whether it was irrevocably breached or whether it healed with the passage of time is a matter of opinion. David Astor, close to both men, asserted, in a letter to New York Book Reviews in 1998, a year after Berlin’s death, that after the temporary strain in the relationship following von Trott’s ill-advised letter to the Manchester Guardian, the two men renewed their friendship. Certainly, Berlin, in later life, spoke of and wrote about von Trott in glowing terms. In 1997, the year he died, Berlin invited von Trott’s widow and two daughters to visit him, and, later, wrote to his friends, ‘I enjoyed the visit of the Trotts very much. I did indeed talk about Adam as they wished me to, and said everything I felt and thought.’ However, all of this was after von Trott had redeemed himself with his martyrdom. It is not known whether in von Trott’s life (which was to end on a meat-hook at Ploetzwnsee Prison ten years after his letter) the two men—one an erudite, witty, liberal thinker; the other an admirer of Hegel and German idealism— managed to rediscover their friendship. On the eve of the Second World War, von Trott visited England, and later America, to shore up support against the Nazis. He had secret meetings with Lord Halifex, who arranged for him to meet the British prime-minister, Neville Chamberlain. He also met Felix Frankfurter in America. While in England, he briefly met Berlin and requested a letter of introduction to Fankfurter, which Berlin duly supplied. However, what did Berlin, and others in Oxford, really think of von Trott at this time? History tells us that von Trott’s efforts did not come to fruition; the allies did not support the anti-Nazi conspirators. Ignoring his friends’ advice von Trott returned to Germany. In 1940 (relatively late, it has to be said) he joined the Nazi party (what did Berlin make of it?) and, while serving as the legation officer, he also became a member of the Kreisau Circle—a group of intellectuals opposed to the Nazi regime.

What was it that made von Trott, who appeared, even to his well-wishers in England, to be an apologist (if not an enthusiastic supporter) of the Third Reich at one stage, risk his life while plotting for its downfall in less than a decade? How did he arrive at the point of his final, heroic, act? It is this question that Justin Cartwright explores in his splendid novel The Song Before It Is Sung (The title is inspired from a quotation of Alexander Herzen, the father of Russian socialism, ‘Where is the song before it is sung?’, which Berlin, a great admirer of Herzen, often cited.) Cartwright makes it explicit in the ‘Afterword’ that the novel is based in part on the friendship between von Trott and Berlin: Axel von Gottenberg of the novel is von Trott, and Eliya Mendel is Isaiah Berlin (Berlin’s father’s name was Mendel).

Almost six decades after von Gottenberg is hanged, Conrad Senior, an Oxford graduate and a former student of Mendel is bequeathed his, Mendel’s, cache of papers and letters. In a letter left for Conrad, Mendel indicates that he had been haunted to the end of his life by the suspicion (and associated guilt) that he might have treated von Gottenberg unjustly; that had he given more support to von Gottenberg when he came to the UK on the eve of the Second World War, von Gottenberg might have been spared his appalling death. Why does Mendel choose Conrad, who, post-Oxford, has not made much of his life? Because Conrad, while not Mendel’s ‘most brilliant’ student, is ‘the most human’. Conrad, whose life (as his increasingly exasperated and disenchanted doctor partner suggests unkindly) has been a series of nearlies, clutches to the Mendel papers as if it were a rope suspended over a pit of dragons. He decides that what Mendel wanted him to investigate was to find out whether or not von Gottenberg was a self-romanticizing, ceremonious, politically ambivalent, and gullible aristocrat who over-estimated his sphere of influence and paid with his life; or whether he was genuine in his revulsion of the Nazi atrocities and echt in his attempts to overthrow the Nazis. The Song Before It Is Sung is the story of Conrad Senior’s quest for the truth. It is a powerful exploration of guilt, human frailty, errancy, friendship, mortality, and courage. Cartwright weaves an intricate web, mixing, effortlessly, fact and fiction. The von Gottenberg of this narrative is a deeply-rooted-to-the Fatherland, Junker (landed nobility of Prussia), with a sense of noblesse oblige, and Cartwright effectively conveys the aura of tragedy and doom surrounding von Gottenberg. The story is recounted in two different timeframes; the narrative moves back and forth between past and present. As Senior becomes more and more obsessed with the dark recesses of the European history of the twentieth century, his personal life disintegrates. His partner finds solace in the arms of her work-colleague, and leaves him. As Conrad traces the inevitable trajectory of von Gottenberg’s life towards its doom, his own life, so it seems, is heading towards a different kind of annihilation. The parallels between Conrad’s life—in the here-and-now—and those of the two men he is investigating are subtle yet uncanny. It is also a testimony of Cartwright’s artistry that he seamlessly introduces the only truly fictional element—the romantic interests of the Prussian aristocrat and Jewish Don—in a novel teeming with historical actualities. At times, though, he appears to stray away from facts; or perhaps his interpretation of certain crucial events is different from that of von trot and Berlin’s common friends. Cartwright indicates in the novel that Mendel warns Frankfurter and other influential Americans that von Gottenberg’s motives were suspect and that he was not to be trusted. All the available evidence suggests that in real life it was not Berlin but his fellow Oxford Don Cecil Maurice Bowra who warned the Americans about von Trott. (Bowra continued to view von Trott as a Nazi and was unmoved when the news reached Oxford of von Trott’s hanging. In later life Bowra expressed bitter remorse for his treatment of von Trott.) At other times, Cartwright sets out on riveting historical what-ifs, which add to the intrigue. Conrad Senior is convinced that a film of von Gottenberg’s execution exists. In real life, von Trott was executed eleven days after his fellow conspirators, and it is unlikely that his execution was filmed. Gestapo kept him alive for a variety of reasons: aware of his foreign contacts they wanted to extract more information and possible wider ramifications of the plot; it is also possible that some in the SS might have wanted to keep him alive in order to buy their way out when Germany lost the war—for, surely, by then all except the gullible and the deluded must have known that they were staring down the abyss of defeat.

Cartwright is an astute, if acerbic, observer of the human quirks and peculiarities, which makes this novel an especial pleasure to read. Conrad Senior’s observations and views on life, and his relentless insight into human ambiguities may be sardonic, but they are not flippant or mocking. This is an erudite, deeply thoughtful novel with a serious message: humans are the authors of their own lives. As one reads the account of von Grottenberg/ von Trott’s last days, and his epic composure at the trial, one is left with the feeling that it could not have turned out any other way. von Gottenberg / von Trott could have stayed back in England instead of returning to Germany. He did not. He rejected the safe option which would certainly have seen him through the war to the comfortable obscurity in the post-war Germany; and instead embarked upon a path which he must have known, as the war progressed, could only have one outcome.

Victa placet mihi causa—albeit lost the cause does please me—wrote Lucanus almost two millennia ago. History, however, the hardhearted mistress she is, has no time for causa victa, and is excessively fond of causa victrix. That, perhaps, is the reason why the German resistance to Adolf Hitler, which culminated in the July 1944 bomb plot, has not been accorded its rightful place in history; and the persons involved, the plotters, are forgotten names; they are the unsung heroes. Justin Cartwright, in this highly accomplished novel, has made a persuasive case for causa victa. Poignant, elegiac, soulful and profoundly moving, The Song Before It Is Sung is a triumph.