The Captive Dreamer, by Christian de la Maziere
The Captive Dreamer.
by Christian De La Mazière.
Translated by Francis Stuart. Saturday Review Press/Dutton. 288 pp. $7.95.
Christian De La Mazière is the self-possessed young man in Marcel Ophuls's movie The Sorrow and the Pity who admits to having been a fascist during the war. As a result of his appearance in the movie de la Mazière decided to write The Captive Dreamer, a compelling memoir of his life from 1944 to 1947. He expresses some regrets and offers a few self-justifications, but he has written neither a self-recriminating apology nor a self-justifying apologia but rather what the French would call an apologue—a moral fable. That he himself finds little to moralize about in his past does not diminish the impact of his book. For instead of inspiring outrage his dispassion raises the question of how to deal with the diminishing moral authority of the Holocaust.
In 1944 de la Mazière, the twenty-four-year-old son of a prominent general and diplomat, worked for Le Pays Libre, a fascist newspaper in Paris. As he begins to explain in The Sorrow and the Pity, he had progressed from his inherited romantic-aristocratic nationalism to the vision of a glorious future presented by Nazi propaganda. Through heroic self-sacrifice he hoped to become part of a revolution against big business and other selfish elements in society (he does not say if he believed the propaganda when it went on to identify the Jews as the culprits). With the victory of the allied armies unquestionable and imminent, an old friend offered de la Mazière the chance to switch sides and join a resistance group; instead of accepting, he volunteered for the French division of the Waffen SS.
He was sent to Wildflecken, Germany, to join the French Charlemagne division, one among several groups of foreign volunteers training to fight on the collapsing eastern front. Proud of his spartan training and the egalitarian spirit in which officers were supposed to eat the same food and run the same risks as their men, de la Mazière was sent to the front as an anti-tank officer. He describes incidents during his training in which the French outsmarted their German officers when they tried to impose absurdly strict regulations (at one point the French, to avoid an order to shoot one of their number who has committed a small infraction, set up a dummy in front of a firing squad). Yet all these years later, he expresses no second thoughts about the nature of the SS. On the other hand, he tells how, aware of the impending catastrophe, his instinct for survival led him cleverly to avoid being tattooed under the arm with the SS insignia—a precaution that saved his life when he was captured and which subsequently mitigated the prison sentence that he served in France.
De la Mazière's unit was put in a hopeless position before the advancing Russians at Korlin, a northern German town near the Baltic sea in Pomerania. After three days of fighting, about three hundred men slipped out of the town at night. For three weeks they wandered in the wintry forests, their numbers decimated by skirmishes with the Russians, until de la Mazière and four remaining companions (the original force had broken up into groups of ten) surrendered to a patrol of Polish troops fighting with the Russians.
The tale of de la Mazière's survival, including brushes with death after being turned over to the Russians and then the French, from both of whom he concealed his fighting role with the Waffen SS, is as astonishing as those of the few European Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Yet, unlike these innocent survivors, who have continued to suffer guilt over those they left behind, de la Mazière, perhaps because he believes he suffered his punishment by going to jail, lives free of conscience pangs. His only regrets come in the form of resentments: He was deceived by the Nazi myths; he was tried by civil authorities where a military tribunal would have been more lenient; he was verbally abused by French railway workers on his way to prison even though these same workers ran the trains for the Germans during the war; Russian killing in Siberia is never mentioned though reference is made constantly to Nazi atrocities.
But de la Mazière is not arguing his innocence. Instead he in effect balances against his guilt the genuineness of his motives, his heroism, and his personal integrity. To begin with, he insists that he has never been an anti-Semite. Not until after the war did he learn of the death camps: “I knew that camps existed—what country has not had its camps?—but not of the extermination plan that they served.” During his trial in France a Jewish tailor testified that de la Mazière arranged for him to hide in unoccupied France. With aristocratic disdain for currying favor, though, de la Mazière reveals that he did this only as a favor for a friend, that he found the tailor obnoxious, and that while in hiding the tailor made ill-fitting clothes for the de la Mazières, who were hiding him, and their friends. He is no anti-Semite, de la Mazière is saying, but he will not pretend to be a philo-Semite. As for the Waffen SS, that was strictly a fighting unit which had nothing to do with the mass murder of civilians committed by the other divisions of the SS. In fact, the Waffen SS was known for its brutalities by 1944. It had been involved in the last days of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. Early in 1944 one of its units put to death men, women, and children in a town in southern France; in June another unit in Normandy put to death American prisoners captured after the D-Day invasion. Thus de la Mazière, well-informed as he was, volunteered for a possibly legal but notoriously brutal military force. His claim of Waffen SS innocence is of a piece with his deceptive treatment of the crucial facts of his past. At his trial, he writes, “it was only by a certain frankness that I could keep my self-respect.” But from his capture through his trial and prison term he lied that he was with the Waffen SS strictly as a journalist.
The truth of The Captive Dreamer is a truth to experience, and it contains some unsettling truths for those who might have been de la Mazière's victims. Its author was both intelligent and idealistic and yet a fascist. In the process of recreating his experience he has written a small, hard classic, its prose reflecting the duplicitous brilliance of its author. “Prisons, like churches, always escape the bombings,” he writes, at first charming the reader with an economy of Gallic wit. Only later does the reader recall the destruction of Canterbury Cathedral and the monuments to bombed-out churches in central London.
Preoccupied with his experience and his own accomplishment as a writer, de la Mazière is not especially concerned about the horrors with which he associated himself. Until recently such detachment, at least in public, would have been inconceivable for anyone so involved as de la Mazière was. But as is apparent from the loose way that the word genocide has come to be used, the Holocaust has ceased to compel the conscience of mankind. It is a sobering thought. On the other hand, the moral seriousness of de la Mazière's book, flawed as it is, suggests that perhaps this is as it should be. As long as men's imaginations remained overwhelmed by the Holocaust they could not write as he has. And as long as they could not so write, which is to say come to some kind of terms with their own experience, they must have felt resentment toward those who evoked their guilt. (If this is true it may be that the distressing rise of anti-Israel criticism is an expression, in some quarters at least, of a pent-up urge to throw off a constraint. It is even possible that it will have good effects as well as bad.) Whatever the results of efforts such as de la Mazière's, it appears that the moral burden of the Holocaust is destined to be left to the Jews. In a sense that part of it has become nobody's business but their own.