Books: Cultural Amnesia — Wolf Jobst Siedler |
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Wolf Jobst Siedler (b. 1926) would be a fair choice for the title of Most Civilized Man in Post-War Germany. In 1943 both he and Ernst Jünger’s son were sea cadets when they were caught making sceptical remarks about the future of the Nazi regime. At the personal intervention of Dönitz their lives were saved, but Siedler spent nine months locked up before he was drafted as a Luftwaffenhilfer—a dogsbody in a flak battalion. After the war he studied sociology, philosophy and history at the Free University of Berlin before spending ten years as a literary journalist. He then rose to an influential position in publishing with the houses of Ullstein and Propylaen, before, in 1980, starting his own house. Siedler Verlag became such a successful property that the Bertelsmann conglomerate eventually bought it, but Siedler continued in place as the most high-toned publisher in Germany. His own writings helped his glossy image. There was a series of beautifully produced picture books about the foundations and fate of the architectural heritage. (The picture book with long, well-informed captions can be a delicious form in the right hands, which his were.) But his most valuable contribution has always been as an essayist. He wrote a whole series of essays emphasizing the cleverness of the Nazis in leaving the high bourgeoisie able to feel that nothing much had changed. Some of Siedler’s critics on the left thought that he had underestimated the anti-Semitism of the cultivated class before the Nazis came to power, and overestimated its ignorance afterwards. But Siedler’s immense learning and faultless taste—best sampled in his volume of selected essays Behauptungen (Opinions)—gave his views weight. As the publisher of the historian Joachim Fest, Siedler can perhaps be held accountable for aiding and abetting Fest’s effect of displacing the Holocaust as a central theme in Nazi history. When it comes to the case of Albert Speer, however, there is no “perhaps” about it. There can be no doubt that Siedler aided and abetted Speer’s post-war campaign of self-rehabilitiation. As Speer’s publisher, he attended on Speer as one civilized man attending on another, and Speer’s pose as a man who never really knew what the Nazis were doing to the Jews was given extra plausibility by his being so welcome in Siedler’s ambience. Siedler’s credentials to play host look impressive. From his student years onward he was decorated with all the favours of post-war democratic German culture, right down to the signed presentation copies of Ernst Jünger’s books and the fond letters from Thomas Mann. Persuading us that even the unthinkable can be finessed from the centre of our attention and normalized as a source of growth, his finely judged tone of voice gives comfort. But we should be cautious when we spot comfort creeping into the historic memory: if it climbs the wall like a stain, it could be a sign that the truth is being drowned.

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As well as the most spooky and unsettling, the most misleading thing about this State was that on the very evening of the burning of the synagogues, an event which brought the Eastern Europe of the Middle Ages into the Germany of the twentieth century, everywhere in the cities of our country festively clad people went to operetta, theatres and symphony halls, and that, six hours after the deportation wagons left the station platforms of Berlin, the trains for the seaside left also.


MOST OF SIEDLER’S books have been published under his own class-act imprint. I have a collection of his lavishly illustrated and finely printed monographs about architecture in Berlin and the Mark Brandenburg, and about how that architecture was restored or further wrecked—usually the latter, wherever the Communists were in charge—after the war. On the left of the right, Siedler is a very civilized, quietly persuasive voice. One of his most seductive themes is the idea that the Nazis were the militant arm of bourgeois taste: that they never really radicalized a comfortable, well-stuffed patrimony, but instead co-opted it for their purposes. Care for the end phase of the bourgeois era, he says at one point, doesn’t really contradict the law of tyranny: it expresses it. There is something in what he says. Though there was plenty of very bad, very kitsch Nazi plastic art—much more than Siedler can be bothered to contend with—there was never very much specifically Nazi literature, and it would probably have been swept aside if it had ever existed. As things were, Germany had no Vilfredo Pareto, Georges-Eugène Sorel, Charles Maurras or Giovanni Gentile. As an approved literary pet of the Nazi regime, the dud scribe Hans-Friedrich Blunck thought that an enthusiasm for Fascism might threaten a diversion of National Socialism in the direction of un-German intellectualism. Blunck was not alone among Nazi thinkers in finding Fascism dangerously novel and far too concerned with the brain.

The more cultivated among the Nazis proved their cultivation by knowing the traditional names: minus, of course, the names of Jews. When a production of a Mozart opera came to occupied Poland, the soundtrack of the newsreel celebrated the occasion thus: Auch so, auf tanzenden fussen, kam Deutschland in diesen Land. (“Even so, on dancing feet, Germany came to this land.”) No mention of the Stukas and Panzers: it would have spoiled the mood. Siedler is unbeatable in his evocation of the regime’s anti-modern, thatched tone. He practically makes you taste the cream cakes that were Hitler’s fast food of choice. But Siedler’s final effect is to overstate his case by underplaying the facts. Perhaps because he thinks that everybody else has already done it, he doesn’t make enough of the enormous, raucous, radically perverted creativity represented by the Nazi system of Führer worship and mass murder. There was nothing normal, snug or unchallenging about the filth coming out of the radios and the loudspeakers. The instantly disgusting Der Stürmer was on sale at street corners, not in cellophane packets on top shelves. By putting such an emphasis on the bourgeois normality of the Nazi period, Siedler retroactively creates an ambience in which an intelligent man might be lulled into thinking that things were not so abnormal after all. It was certainly the message that a man like Albert Speer wanted to hear. In 1973 at his villa in Berlin-Dahlem, Siedler, in his role as publisher, hosted a launch party for Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler. Speer was the guest of honour. Marcel Reich-Ranicki was invited without being told that Speer would be present. In Mein Leben (p. 482) Reich-Ranicki records how Speer, to establish an atmosphere of chummy colloquy, gestured at Fest’s black-bound 1,200-page book where it lay on a table and said: “He would have been pleased.” Reich-Ranicki went home, and his friendship with Siedler was never the same again.

Speer was also a social hit at his own launch parties, especially in London; and probably for the same reason: reassurance. His suavely barbered poise helped to persuade civilized people that on the Nazi question there might have been no clear choice. Perhaps we all would have fallen for it, especially if there were a few men in well-cut suits like him around. That was the lazy assumption that the post-war Speer counted on. But it was also the assumption that the Nazis counted on: none of the good, dependable things in life have changed, you can have your nationalist dream and eat your cream cakes too. Siedler has done us a service by bringing out the cosiness that the Nazis offered the middle class in return for its quiescence. He could have done more to bring out the Nazis’ cleverness in offering the lower orders, set free to climb by the radical social programmes, a point of aspiration that would recompense them for any horrors they might have to endure or inflict: membership of the middle class. But what he scarcely brings out at all is that nobody with half a brain, whether the brain was bourgeois or plebeian, could have failed to notice for five minutes that the whole Nazi state was a raving madhouse.