I normally avoid novels set in Nazi Germany, but the #1936club in the form Klaus Mann’s Mephisto has taken me there. So I’m going to stay in the period for a couple of novels at least, starting with one written by New Zealander Catherine Chidgey.
Remote Sympathy was quite the surprise. If you ask me to name the German places I call mine, I would say: Munich (where I fell in love with the country), Frankfurt am Main (where I lived and worked), and Weimar (where I was planning to retire until Brexit got in the way). All three locations appear in this novel. If it hadn’t been for the time period, my delight would have been immeasurable. Delightful, however, is not the right word to describe a novel set in Nazi Germany.
I’ve chosen never to visit Buchenwald Concentration Camp just outside Weimar (one visit to Dachau, just outside Munich, was quite enough), and I’ve no need to go now. Chidgey provides a detailed picture of how things worked on the inside from the points-of-view of the camp administrator and a prisoner, SS Sturmbahnführer Dietrich Hahn and Doctor Leonard Weber respectively. Hahn’s testimony is a transcript, dated 1954, Weber’s letters are written in 1946 to his daughter. From this we know from the outset that both men survive the war. It might seem a strange choice removing suspense in this way, but this foreknowledge focuses full attention on their experiences and their attitudes.
Hahn’s wife, Greta is the third narrator. Her story is told in the form of a diary, detailing her privileged experience as a SS-officer’s wife, living in a spacious villa in proximity to the camp. While she is happy to take advantage of imprisoned craftsmen to furnish her home with bespoke luxury, she chooses to remain in ignorance as to what really goes on behind the gates. Then she get sick. Her illness brings Weber into Hahn’s orbit, as treatment options diminish. As the inventor of the Sympathetic Vitaliser, a machine based on the principles of electrotherapy, he is Hahn’s last hope for his wife. In this case at least, Hahn is willing to run the risk of letting a Mischling (a part Jew) secretly treat his wife.
Finally there is a chorus of 1000 ordinary Weimar citizens which relates the experiences of the townsfolk as time moves from 1937 to defeat in 1945. It shows their resentment towards the SS and their families, who knew no want while they were faced with ever diminishing supplies; how the camp negatively affected their own living conditions and security, yet how they continued to feed their prejudices and justify its existence. I found these sections most insightful in answering how much ordinary Germans knew what was happening in their name on their own doorsteps. How far did they delude themselves? The answer to that is staggering, as their denials continue even as they are forced to confront reality when the Americans march 1000 of them (ostensibly those who make up Chidgey’s chorus) into the camp to witness the aftermath for themselves.
As for self-delusion, Dietrich Hahn is the absolute master. His testimony is chilling, with no hint of regret. Of course, he is trying to extricate himself from responsibility for the horrors to which Weber’s letters bear witness. He claims he was only the administrator. He never shot anyone, fatally injected anyone, worked anyone to death. He cared for the prisoners as best he could on the allocated budget. In one breathe he insists he was running a labour camp, not a death camp. In another he tells of the headache of keeping the crematorium operational to process all the “wastage” (his dehumanising word for the dead).
Chidgey’s research is both deep and seamlessly integrated into her narrative. Hahn’s testimony contains actual quotes from that of his real life counterpart, Otto Barnewald. Weber’s Sympathetic Vitaliser is based on experimental medicine of the time. The Hahns’ domestic servant, Josef Niemand (Joseph Nobody) is chosen from Jehovah’s Witness prisoners, because it was recognised that this group would never attack their persecutors. She also highlights the dangers of practising Catholicism or owning a bible when you are married to an SS officer. Finally there’s the delicious irony in the SS officer having a Jewish name (and constantly referring to the certificate that proves he is not Jewish) and the part-Jewish Doctor Weber having a model Aryan appearance.
Only Greta Hahn’s diary is called imaginary. I assume this story came entirely from the author’s imagination to hold the other strands together. I did find her treatment a little repetitive but then Greta Hahn’s illness is both progressive and symbolic of the malignancy of National Socialism. As for the ending, we know how history played out, and Chidgey inserts a hopeful note for Leonard Weber. Strangely it was the only one in this remarkably powerful novel that sounded off-key to me.