The wood for the trees

With this bright, autumn weather we’ve been having lately, I thought it was time to clear up a corner of the grounds here that border on a neighbouring farm. I started early in the morning, with the air still crisp and clear, hacking back the underbrush with a bag-hook and cutting away yearling saplings with a pair of long-handled secateurs. The sun had not yet cleared the tall trees in the woodland on the other side of my neighbour’s pasture, so I worked the first hour in shadow. The cows on the other side of the fence, however, would only have had to stroll a few dozen yards further along the field to catch the first rays of the morning sun. But for some reason they chose to stay near me in the frosty shadows and watch, with atypically bovine curiosity, as I hacked and swore my way through the thicket of shrubs that had, in my father’s time, been distinctly recognizable as part of a garden. Apparently it makes more sense, for a cow, to keep both eyes on the potentially menacing user-of-tools (they’ve heard stories, no doubt, and there have been numerous disappearances) rather than enjoy a little warmth on a chilly morning.

For every sapling removed I would find six or seven smaller ones waiting in its shade for their hour to come. In the end I was uprooting spindly little micro-trees that would surely pose a problem if left for another season … barely tough enough to offer resistance but so many as to make the work numbingly repetitive. Finally even the cows decided that I was no real threat to them and wandered off. The morning warmed up and added its share of flies to the thorns, nettles and whiplash undergrowth. By afternoon I was itchy, hot and bothered, but I had my desired result: rich naked earth and a few quality shrubs rescued from oblivion or death by throttling.

Cold-war kids need uncles too

When the allies occupied Germany at the end of the last great European war, the desire for de-Nazification was strong and vocal. A new Germany could only rise from the ashes of the old if every trace of the Nazi era was purged; every criminal hunted down, every tentacular outgrowth of the party uprooted. But of course it didn’t quite happen that way. Those deemed useful, those with particular experience and talents soon found themselves undergoing a process of miraculous sanitization prior to being recycled into the very same positions they had previously held. Not just scientists, military intelligence officers and spies, all of whom could apparently be “of service” in the new, Cold War climate, but policemen, diplomats, bureaucrats, politicians and judges. Those who had personally suffered at the hands of these people, who had endured persecution and loss while seeing their country looted and its institutions perverted by the agents of a barbarous ideology, were horrified at this development, but soon grew cynically resigned to the sight of the new political machinery, bullishly dedicated to progress at any cost, blundering unchecked over any hope of either justice or reconciliation.

Lies were manufactured to serve the new reality: the “good” German who could never have dreamed of, and couldn’t possibly have known about the death camps, the reluctant Nazi who was caught up in the spirit of the times and only woke up to the truth when it was too late to do anything, those who were too young to know, or too remote from the centres of “civilisation” to be well-informed, those who lived near railways and marshalling yards and were such unusually deep sleepers … These and other fabrications were believed by the masses of new Germans in new Germany, because belief saved everyone from a lot of awkward questions and kept the ball of progress, democracy and growth rolling.

The frontier is just another dotted line

So why does it surprise us to “hear” that German diplomats, sophisticated University men, not racist rubes, who were seconded into service with the Nazi administration in embassies around Europe were, almost without exception, not only active, but distinctly pro-active in the selection and deportation of Jews from occupied countries to the death camps? Why does it scandalize us to “learn” that these same, reasonable men, skilled in the subtle arts of negotiation, were so ready to bully and harass with a singular lack of subtlety in the name of the party they had so recently predicted would either never achieve political power or surely make an international laughing stock of itself if it ever did? Why are we distressed to “discover” that many of these mild-mannered pen-pushers, far from reluctantly or unwittingly consigning Jewish lives and property to an uncertain future in uncertain times, had actually visited Dachau to see the triumphant new order in action and appreciate its efficiency prior to taking up posts abroad and scrawling their black bile along all the dotted lines of Europe?

Former Foreign Minister and respected elder-statesman Joschka Fischer, who commissioned the independent report, claims to be shocked at the sheer weight of incriminating evidence that has emerged, not only of Foreign Service complicity in the Holocaust, but also of the Ministry helping war criminals to disappear into third-country exile, while recycling other less-obvious former Nazis into top post-War positions as ambassadors and envoys. It would seem that Mr Fischer, whose grasp of history and political reality has generally been sound enough, must also have been taken in as a young and idealistic politician by the stock clichés of post-War “new-think”. Sometimes even those who genuinely seek the truth are blinded to it by their share of a collective myopia born of a suppressed sense of shame.  Even those who think they want to reveal and confront the past can be incapacitated in this task by a subconscious state of denial. The whole truth is a bitter and barren field. It is a place that is both hard to arrive at and hard to leave. It is also equally hard to build upon, because it offers nothing, neither relief, nor hope, nor materials.

Ghosts in the machine

For a second generation that is eager to move on, the way history keeps throwing the ghosts of spanners past into the smoothly whirring cogs of the economic super-state “Deutschland AG” is irritating to say the least. First the Wehrmacht was revealed in its true colours, as fully cooperative and eager to conquer and subjugate anywhere, anyhow and in anyone’s name, even Hitler’s. Now the Foreign Service, long considered almost neutral – the unwillingly coerced partner in an unequal marriage – is held up to the burning glass of unbiased research, and all those who only wanted to clear away a bit of underbrush, but failed to see the Nazi wood for the German trees, now find themselves utterly deforested.

The ink dried long ago on all those deportation orders. The men who signed them are almost all dead and gone. The cattle cars are carrying cattle again. But this affords little comfort to my neighbours in the next field and not much more to me. The Nazis and their heirs are still with us. They smile sincerely, they court the vote and their shirts are clean. They wait for us to momentarily lose our grip, to sleep on the job, to underestimate them. In their shade are the thriving legions of wiry young shrubs, robust and stupid, eager to grow strong and suck dry their allotted plot of earth.

Edwin Drood

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