Books: Cultural Amnesia — Manès Sperber |
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Manès Sperber (1903–1984) was psychologist, philosopher, epic novelist and fascinated eyewitness to both of the main twentieth-century European tidal waves, which collided right in front of his eyes. Like Sartre’s Road to Freedom novels, Sperber’s fictional trilogy, Like a Tear in the Ocean, can be read as a saga of the politically engaged conscience, but Sperber’s enduring testimony as a writer is another trilogy, the set of autobiographical books that record his own story directly, without benefit—or anyway with less benefit—of imaginative reconstruction. Non-fiction in the truest sense, Sperber’s autobiography makes a point of shirking nothing about the author’s initial Communist convictions and the long and bitter business of disillusionment. Born in Galicia, Sperber first picked his political side in Vienna, and was an active Communist organizer when he moved to Berlin in 1927, by which time the Communists and Nazis were already fighting it out in the streets. Doubts about Stalin had set in even before he transferred to Paris, but they did not reach fever pitch until news came through of the Moscow trials. Even as late as 1939, however, Sperber was still writing articles in which he called Nazism an extension of capitalism: he developed that view to the point of explaining the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as proof that the two totalitarianisms had both become forms of “state capitalism” at root. A tenuous position, but by that time nobody was listening anyway, because events had outrun theories. Lucky enough to be granted domicile in Switzerland, Sperber emerged after the war as one of the most prominent analysts of a period he had been very lucky to get through unhurt by one or the other of the popular forces dedicated to destroying all notions of the liberal democracy which he himself never quite got around to taking seriously. The three books of autobiography, collectively called All das Vergangene (usually translated as All Our Yesterdays), are Die Wasserträger Gottes, Die vergebliche Warnung and Bis man mir Scherben auf die Augen legt. They can be found in English translation, called, respectively, God’s Water-Carriers, The Unheeded Warning and Until My Eyes Are Closed with Shards. In the original language, in paperback, they can be handily carried as pocket books. The complete work can be confidently recommended as a guide to the times. Above all it gives disturbing credibility to the view that so many serious young people of Sperber’s age had no choice except to decide that democracy was doomed.

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A bad conscience, an ineradicable feeling of responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of Germany, could be found only among men and women who had always been opponents of Nazism and had suffered from its rule. These, the guiltless, had overcome either late or never their shame for what had happened.


THE QUICKEST WAY to praise the inexhaustibly unfolding wisdom of Manès Sperber’s three-volume intellectual autobiography All das Vergangene (All Our Yesterdays) would be to say that almost every moral judgement in it is as good as this. At this point he is talking about the Germans he was meeting in the French zone of occupation after World War II, where the German Communists were playing the same cynical game as in the American zone. (The game was “cynical” even if the anti-Communists said it was: one of the easiest points to forget when reading about European politics in the aftermath of World War II.) The German Communists, denying all vestige of their real allegiance, were masquerading as democrats in order to persuade the occupation authorities that the Social Democrats were the enemies of civil order. In the French zone the tactic succeeded to the extent that an Antifaschistichen Kampfbund (Anti-Fascist Battlegroup) was set up, whose cover remained unblown until 1948. (In the Russian zone there was no need for pussyfooting, and the Social Democrats could be sent straight to Buchenwald, which was kept open for business specifically to accommodate them.) Sperber was an adept at working out what was really going on because he had known the Communist Party from the inside. It was not until very late in the 1930s that he started making the break. There is a telling confessional passage early in Bis man mir Scherben auf die Augen legt (a better translation would be Until They Put the Pennies on My Eyes) in which he lays bare, through bitter hindsight, the psychological mechanism that enabled him to predict in June 1934 how the massacre of the SA leadership in the “Röhm purge” would strengthen Hitler’s position rather than weaken it. As a Communist, Sperber was obliged to debate the point with his comrades. As always, they were certain that the Nazis had overreached themselves and would shortly disappear from history.

Unusually blessed with realistic insight, Sperber guessed that such confidence was moonshine. But while doing his best to convince his comrades that the opposite was true, he never once brought forward the example that weighed on him and from which he shrank with a reflex of fear—namely, the way Stalin’s elimination of the left social revolutionaries, the worker-opposition and the Trotskyists had bolstered his dominance. Sperber wrote his intellectual autobiography near the end of his life. The great psychologist was at last ready to ponder the mental subterfuge by which, long ago, he had failed to admit even to himself the significance of what he already knew. The news about the brutalities of Soviet rule had been reaching the socialist movements in Europe—and especially the Germans—since the 1920s. Sperber had known all about it. But he was not yet ready to think about it. The third volume of his fascinating experiment in self-examination is especially useful for showing us how intelligence can work to defeat itself for as long as any kind of grip is maintained on the wrong end of the stick. If he had been more dense, he might have found fewer mental tricks with which to go on convincing himself that his faith had never been misplaced.

Arthur Koestler’s horrifying personal experience in Spain—loyalty to the independent left almost got him killed by the Stalinists—was a big influence on Sperber’s eventual reappraisal of his own historic expectations. Before its publication in 1940, Koestler showed Sperber the manuscript of Darkness at Noon. Sperber was convinced by the book’s central idea that a figure like the Old Bolshevik Bukharin could have made such absurd confessions at the 1938 show trials only out of duty to the Communist ideal. This notion remained popular among ex-Communists until the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, when Khrushchev convincingly pointed out what should always have been obvious: that the confessions had been obtained by torture. (“Beat, beat, beat!” shouted Khrushchev, who knew all about it, because he had actually done it.) Sperber analyses the process by which those who had held the illusions were so reluctant to be disillusioned completely. “Many years had still to go by after our break with so-called Marxism-Leninism before we were finally free from all illusions and from many picture-book imaginings [Bilderbuchvorstellungen] that despite everything we almost unconsciously, and anyway without willing it, had held on to” (p. 172). One of the picture-book imaginings had been the consoling notion that a bloodstained old ideologue like Bukharin, with his perpetrator’s knowledge of monstrosity on the grand scale, might have been some kind of idealist despite all. Even the hard-bitten Koestler—one of the first to realize, and to say, that communism was the god that failed—had cherished that pious wish at some level. The pious wish had helped to give Darkness at Noon some of its complexity and force, but it was nonsense. The secret of the show trials was that there was no secret—they were an exercise in unlimited violence.

Another reason for Sperber’s slowness to accept this might have been his temperament. For Sperber, “absolute negativity” was a horror (ein Greuel), a death in life, a forecast of extinction (p. 185). In one of Sperber’s novels, a Yugoslav partisan refuses to believe that cruelty is deeper than sympathy, or more real than love or even than the need for justice. Sperber was simply—or rather, not simply, but firmly—a lover of life: a pretty generous reaction when you consider the range and determination of the forces that were always conspiring to bring about his death. He escaped the scythe, but plenty of people he knew and loved did not, and he saw them go. No survivor’s writing could be further than his from the cheap consolations of ordinary uplift. His tone is “positive,” but the affirmation has been hard won. The strength comes from the admission and examination of weakness. Without aligning himself with the perpetrators—which would be another indulgence—he can plausibly suggest that most of them got into a life of crime because they were human, and were therefore unable, on the occasions when it mattered most, to face the truth even when it was staring them in the face. He can suggest that from his own self-knowledge, but only because he has the rare gift of being honest about how his mind once worked: often too slowly, and always far more wisely after the event than before. The only point he misses is the one still missed by reformed Communists all over the world. What about all those liberal democrats who never fell for the voodoo in the first place, and will their tormented shades ever be offered an apology for being called social fascists while they were alive?

When a woman asked me, at an evening meeting a few days later, how I could have presented an opinion that was so obviously contrary to likelihood, I defended my conviction aggressively. But I read in the eyes of this woman that she did not believe me, and I was so struck by it that I remember that evening, and that scene, exactly, even today.


The evening meeting in 1931 took place a few days after Sperber had spoken publicly in a debate following the first Berlin screening of the Soviet film The Way to Life. The film, famous at the time, purported to show that the Soviet problem of homeless children (the besprisorny) was over, because they were all being re-educated in special schools to lead a useful life: they went into the school as wastrels and came out as scholars, heroes of labour, future leaders. Sperber was not long back from his first trip to Moscow, where, in a single square near his hotel, he had seen dozens of homeless children sleeping rough, with nothing but an asphalt-melting oven to keep them warm. At the time, Sperber managed to convince himself that these must be the last of the homeless children still on the loose, because it would have been easy for the government to sweep them out of sight. They were still there only because there were so few of them, and they would soon be sent to the special schools. (Sperber had been taken to see a special school, where he swallowed the assurance that it was only one of many: the old Potemkin village trick worked again.) A Russian psychologist at the psychological conference he had been attending tried to convince him that the government’s promises on the subject had not been fulfilled, and that the same was true for every other promise in the first Five Year Plan. She could back up this argument with the evidence of her own life. As an academic of rank she had been allotted barely enough living space and nourishment to maintain a decent existence. Sperber rationalized all her objections, even though she was the woman on the spot. Even as early as 1931, he was well capable of seeing that the Soviet leadership was lying, especially about Stalin’s benevolence. But he still thought that without the Party’s leadership there could be no chance of rescuing Germany from the obscenities of unemployment and the coming collapse of capitalism. It bothered him that the Soviet Union seemed to be suffering from shortages and privations even worse than those haunting his homeland, but he wanted to believe the Soviet Union had a future, whereas Germany was dying in the grip of its past. So he understood the sardonic objections of his Russian friend without taking them in.

But this other woman, the one at the evening meeting in Berlin, shook him. He knew at the time that he already had his underlying doubts, but he had been able to keep them in balance against his need to believe in the Soviet mission. Her disapproving look was instrumental in the long process by which the balance tipped towards disbelief. The process took all of ten years, but this was where it started. A mind that knew it had been massaging the facts was altered towards facing the consequences. Sperber’s trilogy is full of such moments, and their quietly dramatic presentation as turning points in a long road puts his masterpiece on a level with Bowlby’s three-volume work Attachment and Loss, except that Sperber’s emphasis is on the mechanisms of political allegiance rather than of neurosis. Belief is made concrete as the memory of a woman’s glance. Not long after I read this passage for the first time, I was watching one of the later episodes of Band of Brothers. The crucial moment of morally revealing behaviour involved a woman’s glance. Deep in Bavaria on their way to Berchtesgaden, Easy Company of the 82nd Airborne is billeted in a small town. In a grand house, the American captain, an alcoholic in search of a drink, deliberately drops the framed photograph of a Wehrmacht officer so that the glass breaks. The Wehrmacht officer’s well-born wife stares at him accusingly and he wordlessly admits his embarrassment. Next day, a company scout finds a slave labour camp nearby in the woods. In keeping with the facts, the scenes are horrific. (This much we owe Spielberg and his visual achievements in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan: whatever his Disneyland impulse towards last-ditch uplift, the look of the thing had never been so true to the facts before.) Again in keeping with the historical reality, the good burghers of the town are put to work dragging the ruined corpses to the burial pits. One of the appalled citizens put to work turns out to be the Wehrmacht officer’s wife. The same captain sees her at her labours. He catches her eye, and this time it is she who registers shame before she looks away. Again there are no words, but everything is said, and it will all be remembered.

If I look carefully at my own memories, many of them centre on the humiliating moment when shabby behaviour was observed and correctly judged by someone else whose face I still recall exactly, and for no other reason. Other people tell me that the same is true for them. If there is such an automatic and unceasing system of moral accountancy in the mind, Sperber was one of its first scholarly explorers, although of course it had been explored in literature from the beginning. Shakespeare’s ghosts are memories that haunt living minds. Tolstoy is full of such moments. When we read his biography, his egocentricity seems monstrous. But when we read him, we see that his soul was examining its memories constantly, and assessing them all according to a moral test. When, in War and Peace, Zherkovim makes a condescending joke about General Mack and is chewed out by Andrey, why is Zherkovim’s humiliation so vividly presented? Almost certainly because it happened to Tolstoy himself. He was laying a ghost to rest. The conspicuous merit of Sperber’s great work is that these admissions about the mind’s embarrassments are not offset on to fictional characters, but are faced fair and square as personal experience. Writing in that vein, Sperber is like Freud transferred into the political dimension that Freud himself fought shy of by focusing his attention on character traits formed in infancy. Nobody can entirely supplant Freud: but he can certainly be supplemented, and Sperber triumphantly does. Sperber would probably have given the credit to Adler, but he would have been too generous: his honesty about his own mind was born in him, like a poetic gift.

That being said, we are entitled to point out a gaping hole in his analysis of the political forces contending in the last years of the Weimar Republic. He is good and honest about saying why he believed in communism against all the evidence that was coming out of the Soviet Union, and even in despite of the Comintern’s incomprehensible instructions that that the Communists should join the Nazis in voting against the Social Democrats. But he doesn’t say enough about the Social Democrats. There were always more people voting Social Democrat than voting Communist, right to the end. Why did not the Social Democrats see the Party as the only hope? Sperber doesn’t tell us. One can only conclude that even while he was writing his monumental autobiography, at the end of his life, he still clung to the belief that the people who fell for neither of the political extremes weren’t fully serious about politics. Such is the long-term effect of an ideological burden: when you finally put it down, you save your pride by attributing the real naivety to those who never took it up.