Commentary Magazine


Darkness Over the Valley, by Wendelgard von Staden

The Reich at Home

Darkness Over the Valley: Growing Up in Nazi Germany.
by Wendelgard von Staden.
Translated by Mollie Comerford Peters Ticknor & Fields. 163 pp. $9.95.

The most interesting thing about Wendelgard von Staden’s slim account of her recollections of growing up in Hitler’s Reich is its great success in Germany. Since it first appeared in 1979, the book has gone through seven printings, and its author lectures throughout the country to packed audiences of all ages.

The memoir was originally written, as the author puts it, solely for her children. (She only gave in to her publisher’s demands, she says, when after thirty years it struck her that telling her story was an act of piety to Hitler’s victims.) It is a little story told with matter-of-fact simplicity. Mrs. von Staden grew up in a small farming village near Stuttgart as Wendelgard von Neurath, niece of Hitler’s first foreign minister, although because of unspecified disagreements over debts on the family estate the two branches of the family were estranged. Since her father cared for little but hunting and painting small watercolors, the pivotal influence on Wendelgard’s life, and the heroine of the book, was her mother, Irmgard, who is depicted as a Fabian socialist with strong political opinions, although we never learn what they were. We are told only that she had flirted with Marxism (or at least read some Lenin and Marx) and was leery of Nazism because she feared the devastating effects of war on her country.

Nonetheless, and “whatever the reason,” Wendelgard’s mother participated in Nazi activities, taking part in meetings of the Nazi Women’s Corps, lecturing to the girls of the BDM (Bund Deutscher Madchen), and setting aside a room in the house to serve as headquarters for the Hitler Youth. Little Wendelgard and her brother, mesmerized by the “ideals and manly virtues” of the Nazi youth, joined in enthusiastically. When war came in earnest, Mrs. von Neurath withdrew from party activities and busied herself running the farm and managing the crews of forced laborers who worked it. “Mother would explain to all—whether they were Poles, Frenchmen, or Russians—that here there would be no war, here we would all quietly work together for our daily bread.” As Hitler conquered country after country, she grew pensive: “With such extensive conquest, what plan for peace could Hitler possibly have, she wondered.”

In 1944 the SS appropriated a small valley on the estate and surrounded it with barbed wire, watch-towers, barracks, and guards with whips and vicious dogs. “That’s the special camp,” her mother commented, “and it has nothing to do with military purposes.” “Those people in the camp are criminals,” replied her father. “It’s a good thing they’re so well guarded.” One day a detachment of inmates from the camp came to collect food. “ ‘What kind of people are these anyway?,’ mother asked, horror-struck. ‘They’re no longer human beings.’ ” The guard explained that they were Jews, “subhumans. You can see that for yourself.” Although her husband cautioned her to stay out of it, Mrs. von Neurath did what she could to feed the detachments sent to the farm and gave orders to the guards that “nobody would be beaten here.” The only prisoner that could be found to lead them to work was one old Alsatian; the Russians and Poles exploded at the suggestion that they come into contact with Jews, and “were put to work elsewhere on the farm.” But the camp and its inmates became the center of life for the author, who was then in her late teens.

Slowly, she learned to tell the prisoners apart. “There was one who had a long, open sore on his leg which made a wet spot on his trousers.” From them she learned of Maidanek, of Auschwitz, of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, of the gas chambers. She also learned that the camp on their property was a depository for the sick and dying from other camps, that every day seventy or eighty corpses were thrown into a clay pit on their land, which explained the “strange odor, heavy and foul, . . . creeping up as far as the village.” The camp, however, was well hidden, and when the villagers occasionally asked questions, the von Neuraths kept discreetly quiet.

As soon as it became clear that the Allies were advancing, Mrs. von Neurath devised a scheme to save the surviving inmates. She would transform a series of tunnels into bunkers, stock them with provisions, and display a large banner as a signal to occupying forces—“Here are 2,000 men in greatest depression. Come and help.” She trusted the commandant of the camp to help her with this rescue plan, but to her surprise, it failed: strangely, he was more interested in saving himself and his troops than the inmates, and simply made off with the provisions; furthermore, the Allied forces did not notice the sign. After three days, Mrs. von Neurath decided to bring the camp to the attention of the French troops. They found that 680 prisoners were still alive, though starving; 2,500 corpses were buried in pits or strewn around the camp.

When the Americans picked up Mrs. von Nuerath for questioning and held her for almost six months, a petition was circulated by former inmates attesting to her humane treatment of them. She was released. And so “Camp Weisengrund disappeared from the lives of most of us in the same way it had come, like a ghost or a bad dream. For most of us it had been just one more incomprehensible event at a time when fate toyed with people’s lives as it pleased.”

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In its girlish sentimentality, wishful thinking, and skirting of the real issues this last quotation goes a long way toward illustrating the book’s popularity in Germany. Innocence, in fact, is the implicit message of Mrs. von Staden’s narrative, expressed both in her highly personal subject matter (there is something childlike in the book’s narrow focus, limited as it is to family and village) and in her naively impersonal style. Events are catalogued in a neutral schoolgirl fashion without being refracted through Mrs. von Staden’s presumably more mature vision. The few expressions of moral outrage come from outsiders—the French, the Americans, the inmates themselves—and are set down with an eerie detachment; we are left to guess at whether the author finds them comprehensible or not. I would guess she does not.

For instance, there is this revealing passage:

All the men of the village were ordered to help take the camp inmates to nearby hospitals and sanatoriums. They returned that night, horror-struck by what they had seen. “The sick on bare cots . . . hardly any blankets,” the men related, “and those blankets were so full of lice they crawled. Even the bedbugs were eating the lice. We’ve never seen anything like it. We had to carry the dead men to the pit. They didn’t weigh a thing—just skin and bones. And we’ll be the next ones to be thrown into that camp.”

That’s what we all thought. We felt certain that the French would put our whole village into the barracks and close the barbed-wire fence behind us. But instead the French set fire to the barracks. . . . Finally all that was left of the camp were charred beams lying in the field. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The valley was free again at last.

But that is not all. Sensing that something more is expected of her, Mrs. von Staden finishes the passage in a characteristically lyrical-mystical vein:

A cross was erected over the clay pit in memory of the 2,500 nameless people who were buried there. That summer, red poppies bloomed all over the valley. There had never been poppies in those meadows before—and they bloomed there only that one year.

What does it all mean? Mrs. von Staden, aware of her own ignorance, once again puts her trust in a Higher Being. Undoubtedly, she also trusts that we will understand; and in Germany, if sales are any evidence she is understood.

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By contrast, a writer like the conservative Bavarian aristocrat, Fried-rich Reck-Malleczewen, is not understood at all. His book of memoirs, Diary of a Man in Despair1 also dating from the Hitler years, and unquestionably a classic, was overlooked in his own country and has been more or less disregarded in this one since it first appeared here almost ten years ago. Hatred for Hitler was the central fact of Reck-Malleczewen’s life, the seismograph by which he read the past and predicted the future. His commitment to the old order was not intellectual, moral, or sentimental; he would have found these distinctions contemptible. He did not find National Socialism repugnant morally, intellectually, or aesthetically; he recognized it to be the enemy of civilized life.

Gradually, as he described the destruction that he had predicted drawing nearer, Reck-Malleczewen grew more and more isolated. He refused to utter the phrase “Heil Hitler”; conspicuously walked out on a newsreel showing Hitler’s celebrated jig over the fall of France; threw several delegations of Nazi commissars who had been sent to survey his property for an energy project unceremoniously off his estate; and ignored a draft notice for the Volkssturm. His journal ends in October 1944, the month he was arrested. In February 1945, he was killed in Dachau.

Whereas to Reck-Malleczewen National Socialism was an outrage, an affront to civilization, Mrs. von Staden appears in her book to be not so much anti-Nazi as against the uncomfortable realities of war. Although fulgent in her sympathy for the victims, she consistently evades the central issues. “I rack my brains trying to discover the meaning of this persecution of the Jews,” Reck-Malleczewen wrote after Crystal Night. Mrs. von Staden’s heroine had no problem explaining the matter to her daughter: “They’re persecuted by Hitler because they’re of a different race.” “Because they crucified Jesus,” the young Wendelgard puts in knowingly.

Mrs. von Staden is twice blessed. Although an aristocrat by birth, she embodies all the familiar middle-class virtues, particularly that comfortable blend of decency tempered somewhat by patriotism, and patriotism tempered somewhat by decency, that is so understandable to her countrymen and for which Reck-Malleczewen had such boundless scorn. Because she once suffered in silence, she can now be praised for her outspoken candor. She is human, as the saying goes, to a fault. Being fallible, she can be lauded for her decency. Reck-Malleczewen, on the other hand, committed an unpardonable sin: he was not only arrogant, but strong. Being good but not much better than most, she confers absolution; he, in his prophetic outrage, offers nothing but contempt.

It is an age-old problem. Virtues are more lovable than values. The impulse to heal, to soothe, and to get on with it is sociable, the impulse to justice not only is not—it is worse, it is troublesome. Mrs. von Staden is pacific, benign, and did good; Reck-Malleczewen was abrasive, a crank, and did nothing. Those who look for our sympathy get it. Those who sit in judgment are judged. In Mrs. von Staden’s pervasive humility, her loyalty not to values but to community ties, there is a suggestion of stupidity, of helplessness, that is the best defense of all, one that is not only endearing but undoubtedly strikes the most responsive chord in her readers. Life, goes the message, is a tricky balancing act for the solid citizen, for any reasonable person, but within the framework of the community, we do the best we can. Reason is equated with survival. It is equated also with community taboos. After the war, when the author’s friendship with a former inmate raised so many eyebrows that her father said, “What you’re doing, mein liebes Kind, isn’t possible,” she came to agree: “I knew that myself.” The implicit reassurance here is surely not lost on her readers. How different from the scorn of a man like Reck-Malleczewen who had nothing but contempt for human weakness or compromises, and loathed the unthinking, reflexive actions of the mob.

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There is a conventional Holocaust rhetoric that equates honoring the dead with remembering them, as if not forgetting corpses is important. There is a heartwarming ritual composed of flowers, memorials, and stones that is particularly popular in Germany. But does it really matter if we remember the name of one or any of the thousands of inmates who died on the Neurath property? Surely we have lost the only chance we had to be of any use to them. And knowledge, in and of itself, is useless.

Honesty of the von Staden “not forgetting” variety is soothing and popular. It is easy to be honest about what happened. It is much more difficult to be honest about how much it mattered, and why. And above all, it is difficult to be honest as Reck-Malleczewen was, in the present tense: that is, to be honorable.

If it is obvious why Mrs. von Staden met with such success in Germany, it is not quite so obvious why Reck-Malleczewen met with so little in the United States, while the memoirs of Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, published almost simultaneously, was greeted with a tidal wave of enthusiasm. In his brief mention of Speer, Reck-Malleczewen may himself provide a clue:

Why should that lout named Speer worry, either, with that clean-cut expression of his, which is the epitome of this whole sickening, mechanical, little-boy-at-heart generation? I must admit something about Speer: after Papen, who combines the conscience and sense of honor of a butcher’s hound with stupidity so devastating it is not an excuse but a crime, and just after these new German pseudo-Girondists and ersatz aristocrats of the type of Krupp et al., his is the most sickening face I know among Nazidom’s second-string—and he imagines himself to be the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci.

Reck-Malleczewen was right: in an age such as ours there is something not only ingratiating but titillating in the murderous cool of a Speer, and something unseemly, even embarrassing, in passionate moral outrage. How overheated Reck-Malleczewen’s lines about Speer now must sound to a dispassionate reader, how overblown, bitter, and offensively arrogant they seem when little hangs in the balance and there is nothing at stake. Moral passion is merely gauche when the times no longer require it. Then it is evil, not goodness, that becomes fascinating. Then it is Speer who not only satisfies our prurient curiosity, but spares us embarrassment, while Reck-Malleczewen, who does neither, seems abrasive arid out of place. Those who sound like prophets when the crisis comes, merely sound crotchety when the crisis is past. We may rely on them when the barbarians are at the door, but when the nightmare is over, and the barbarians have once more become good citizens who are guilty of no more than quoting bad poetry and overly loving their cars, it is the corpses we want to remember, and the prophets we want to forget.


Footnotes

1 Translated by Paul Rubens, Macmillan, $1.95 (paper).

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