Books: Cultural Amnesia — Ricarda Huch |
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Ricarda Huch (1864–1947), the first lady of German humanism in modern times, can be thought of as a bridging figure between Germaine de Staël and Germaine Greer. Poet, novelist and above all historian of culture, she started out as the very model of the stylish female troublemaker, the upmarket bluestocking as inveterate social bugbear. Breaker of many male hearts, including those of her husbands, she began her career of role reversal as one of the first female graduates from Zurich University, where she studied history, philosophy and philology. (The universities of her native Germany still did not admit women.) Her books on romanticism retain their position as key works. Her historical novel Der dreissigjahriger Krieg (The Thirty Years War) richly demonstrates her uncommon gift for talking about the powerless as if they had the importance of the powerful. She got into history herself in 1933, when she publicly rejected the blandishments of the Nazis, who were keen to co-opt her prestige. After quitting her position as the first woman ever elected to the Prussian Acadamy of the Arts, she went into internal exile in Jena. A lifelong rebel against the class structure of capitalist society, after the war she stayed in the East, spending her last years as a figurehead: in the year of her death she was honorary president of the First German Writers Congress in Berlin. If she had lived to see the regime ossify, she would probably have written yet another book that her would-be masters would not have liked. But she was an old lady, and her studies of history had given her everything but clairvoyance.

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To save Germany was not granted to them; only to die for it; luck was not with them, it was with Hitler. But they did not die in vain. Just as we need air if we are to breathe, and light if we are to see, so we need noble people if we are to live.


BEFORE WE SPEAK about the old lady who wrote this, we should recall the doomed bravery of the young men she was writing about. For those involved in the July 20, 1944, plot against Hitler’s life, martyrdom was always a possibility, and in retrospect, naturally enough, it looks like a certainty. A successful coup d’état would have required far too much to go right. Even if the conspirators had succeeded in killing Hitler, their own lives would have been forfeit: Himmler had the exits covered. With martyrdom secured, canonization duly followed, especially on the conservative right. Many of the plotters had been aristocrats and it was felt—felt because wished—that they had expressed a long-standing repugnance among people of good family towards the vulgar upstart Hitler.

Actually it had never been as simple as that. When some of the condemned young officers had been even younger, Hitler had looked to them like a saviour, a new Bismarck. Nor was it only the Wehrmacht that benefited from well-connected enthusiasm. Aristocratic recruits to the SS were plentiful: promotion was rapid, and there were opportunities to ride horses. (Funding an SS equestrian team was one of Himmler’s master strokes.) Most of the young officers who developed doubts about Hitler had close friends who never developed any doubts at all. Critics on the left who would like to deny saintliness to the high-born conspirators will always have a lot to go on. But the papal voice, the voice that matters most, spoke early. The voice belonged to the distinguished scholar Ricarda Huch, the bearer of a resounding title given to her by no less an authority than Thomas Mann. He called her the First Lady of Germany.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Ricarda Huch, by then heaped with laurels but still glamorously prominent as an enfant terrible, was the kind of illustrious Aryan name they wanted to keep enrolled in their academic institutions to help offset the gaps left by the expelled Jews. Already of a certain age but with plenty of a glittering career left in her, she nevertheless, and without hesitating for a moment, found the courage to tell the Nazis where they could put it. The composer Max von Schelling, president of the Prussian Academy of the Arts, received a letter from her in which she insisted that the “Germanness” the Nazis kept talking about was not her Germanness: nicht mein Deutschtum. Her point made, she retired into private life. It was a mark, of course, of Nazi Germany’s relative porosity vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that it offered bolt holes in which it was possible to lie still and say nothing, as if silence were not treason. Had the regime lasted longer than its brief twelve years, Himmler’s steadily growing SS imperium and Bormann’s always more enveloping bureaucracy would have probably closed off the last chances of tacit dissent: as under Stalin, vociferous affirmation would have been the only survivable posture. But under the Third Reich a woman of Ricarda’s age and authority could get away with holding her rulers in contempt, as long as she wasn’t vocal about it. The housebound matriarch survived the war and resumed her career afterwards, living long enough to find her early works forgotten. With the relentless, and largely justified, left-wing critique of the old institutions increasingly establishing an unchallenged ascendancy, a scholarly achievement like hers was thought too bourgeois to be valuable. The First Lady of Germany was quietly lowered into the tomb of her own respectability. The Germans have a word for it: Todgeschweigen. Killed by not being mentioned.

But there was a paradox in the deathly hush, because the First Lady, when young, had been the First Vixen. Born too grand to be impressed by high society, Ricarda became an establishment figure only by default and by the lapse of years: as a girl she was a rebel, not to say a bit of a raver. Intellectually, she had begun as an admirer of Mussolini, not for his Fascist hegemony but for his rowdy anarchist origins. She had admired Bakunin for the same reason. Emotionally, she was a feminist role-reverser avant la lettre. In Wilhelmine Germany, at a time of stifling conformity when the marriageability of young women was the quality that mattered most, she managed, by sheer force of character, to dish out to men the kind of treatment she would ordinarily have been expected to take. If women got in her way, they too were given short shrift. She stole her sister’s husband without compunction and usually made a point of getting engaged to her suitors before giving them the elbow, just to ensure that they would have the humiliation to remember. She was a social revolutionary in the deepest sense: no party, not even the Sparticists, had a programme to match her behaviour. She was on her own. For her spiritual equivalent in modern times, you would have to imagine a combination of Germaine Greer, Billie Jean King and the London bluestocking Barbara Skelton, the fiery amalgam eventually cooling into the general shape of Muriel Spark, with overtones of Camille Paglia after the second cocktail.

It is doubtful, however, if the wild girl’s pilgrim soul was ever tamed, even by time. One modern parallel that won’t work is to attribute to her a Jane Fonda—like anabasis from one mould of progressive conformity to the next. Ricarda was never a conventional spirit looking for the display case of a radical context: she was always a genuine solo act. Her opinions were entirely hers and often uncomfortable to even the most wide-ranging liberal hierophant, as if she had been some kind of clerical surrealist out to shock with decontextualized opinions instead of sliced eyeballs and soft watches. In June 1943 she recorded in writing her profound enjoyment of her first air raid. It was the same month that Hamburg was incinerated. Thoughts of doom and retribution would have been more suitable, but Ricarda could not repress her delight that the full-colour spectacular had come to a cinema near her. “Finally Jena has had a sensation.” In Berlin after the war she wandered the world of ruins—the Trümmerwelt—where it would have been permissible for the author of one of the most important books on the Thirty Years War to weep heavy tears for the downfall of a civilization. She loved it. Her aesthetic enthusiasm for the gutted buildings and heaped rubble was boundless. She was in her eighties at the time.

And that was the time when she wrote her encomium to the suicidal young nobles of July. It would do us good to remember that the old lady had lived a long life as they had not, and that she had lived it with originality as they might never have done. They were exactly the kind of stiff-necked, tight-trousered cadets to whom she had once so enjoyed giving the runaround. If she could salute them, so should we. She was, after all, absolutely right on every point in the paragraph. The boys never had a chance. Even if the apprentices had managed to kill their sorcerer, they could not have saved Grossdeutschland, which was going down to unconditional surrender no matter who led it. But even if they had known in advance that a coup would not work, they would still have been right to try. Henning von Tresckow, who knew more about the Killing Hitler business than anybody, guessed that the July 1944 plot was doomed but said it should go ahead anyway. He could only have meant that he saw it as a ceremony: a moment of honour that would be remembered when there was nothing else to remember except shame.

Ricarda was well aware that there were other and less charismatic people in the conspiracy apart from the glamorously uniformed Hochadel scions whose consciences had developed few notable doubts until military defeat became a certainty. There were obscure commoners who had seen through Hitler from the beginning. What she meant by nobility was the sacrificial spirit that joined, in this one instance, the beautiful young men from the Almanach de Gotha and the plodding minor bureaucrats from the local council. She could take such a large view of nobility because she was noble herself. One of the marks of the natural aristocrat is that the brain, the centre of rationality, does not become detached from the viscera, the seat of moral judgement. As a student of German history—and a reader of her book on romanticism will wonder if there was ever a better student—she was well placed to assess the condition her country was in during the Weimar Republic, and to understand the appeal that a strongman might have to those conservative forces who feared a Bolshevik insurrection beyond anything else. But she had only to see the Nazis in action to know exactly what they were, and when they invited her to join them she had only one answer to give. Millions of dead bodies later, those who equivocated were slow to mention her name. Their reluctance was understandable, and remains easy to share. Conscious that we, too, might have found no uncompromising path through a moral maze, we would all like to believe that there was no easy answer. And indeed there wasn’t. But there was a clear one. It was to tell the Nazis to go chase themselves.

All it took was courage. But courage is hard to come by: as Ricarda’s rococo c.v. suggests, to have buckets of guts you need to be a little bit mad. Hence the discomfort which haunts any of us who write about the subject: the malaise comes from our self-doubt, and the self-doubt is the surest sign that the murderers in black uniforms are still with us. It is almost as disturbing that a woman like Ricarda Huch is still with us, but if we seek reassurance about human dignity instead of mere acceptance of human weakness, we must face up to her, and try to remember why Judas found it so hard to look into the face of Christ—not because of the divine serenity that was there, but because of the self-seeking calculation that was not.