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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Just doing their Best?, 19 May 2011
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This review is from: The Silences of Hammerstein (The German List) (Hardcover)
Readers of this book who have not previously heard of General Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord may be surprised to learn from the entry under his name in Wikipedia that he `is famous for being an ardent opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime.' English speakers seeking confirmation of this startling assertion in the leading popular studies by Ian Kershaw, Michael Burleigh and Richard Evans will find that Hammerstein is either passed over in silence or mentioned merely as having been Head of the German Army in January 1933 when Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor. Within days, Hammerstein hosted a gathering of senior staff officers at his home during which Hitler declared his contempt for `the damaging cancer of democracy', his commitment to authoritarian leadership, the indoctrination of the young in the principles of national struggle, the reversal of the Versailles treaty by force, the build up of the military establishment, and the appropriation of territory to the East'. Quite what von Hammerstein made of this is unclear, but he certainly didn't express any contrary views and nor did he resign, but remained in place for almost a year, before quitting his post shortly before the Reichstag Fire. It should also be remembered that Hammerstein's principal accomplishment in the inter-war years had been to enter into liaison with the Red Army in order to arrange the training and equipment of the German Army in forms of warfare specifically excluded by the Versailles Treaty, and so it seems highly probable that if Hammrstein had survived the war, he would have been in the dock among the defendants at Nuremberg charged with 'participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace' and for `planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace.'

Hans Magnus Enzensberger does not himself really claim that Hammerstein-Equord was an `ardent' opponent of the regime. He asserts that the General did, indeed, despise Hitler and the Nazis; that he thought they were a disaster for Germany; and that he believed that Germany would be defeated if she picked a fight with the Soviet Union. Hammerstein may, or may not, have been involved in 'plots' against Hitler, and his sons Kunrat and Ludwig certainly deserve honourable mention for their involvement in the attempt of 20 July 1944, but by that time their father was no longer alive: he had died of cancer in 1943. Had he survived, and if not compelled to suicide, he would, under the principle of 'Sippenhaft', have been arrested and imprisoned as were all the other members of the family on whom the Nazis could get their hands. Some may feel that there is a certain irony in the fact that Hammerstein did much to bring about a situation in which both sides in the ultimate conflict were likely, in the end, to see him as different kinds of criminal.

This book, as its author is at pains to point out, is neither a work of history, nor a work of fiction. Instead Hans Magnus Enzensberger seeks, in the story of the Hammerstein family, `to find and describe in a small space all the essential motives and contradictions of the German emergency'. Enzensberger (born in 1929) is typical of his generation in that he regards `facts' as treacherous and slippery things - the product, usually of reported speech, and subject to distortion through misunderstanding, prejudice, and wishful thinking. Documents, he claims, are not much better: memories become unreliable through lapse of time, and even public records are distorted by `pedantry and slipshodness.' These contentions seem to be given substance in the narrative itself: a German Communist cultivates contacts among the the well-placed in order to gain information to pass onto Moscow, but is later shot in the Lubyanka on the basis that, given such contacts, he must be a counter-revolutionary; in Stalin's purge of the Russsian Army, General Tukhachevsky together with 2 of 5 marshalls, 13 of 15 generals,1,500 officers, and a total of 30,000 cadres of the Red Army was condemned and shot on the basis of documents forged by Rheinhard Heydrich and the intelligence service of the Nazi party and leaked to Stalin via President Benes in Prague through a Czech agent in Berlin.

Life, then, and particulalrly reported life, argues Enzensberger, is in some ways more like fiction than the facts that might otherwise be thought to make it up. This, he asserts, justifies a fictive approach, where the writer is entitled to present anecdote, even when false, as a significant form of truth; to treat different accounts of the same event as giving grounds for doubting all of them; to introduce `interviews with the dead' in which the players are invited by the author to speak - an invitation which they are quite free to refuse; and `glosses' in which the author expresses sweepiong personal opinions of a vaguely metaphysical character. Meanwhile those who are interested in formulating a judgment are referred to a general bibliography whilst being warned that Enzensberger himself has been able `to draw on a store of unpublished materials' to which, of course, the reader can have no access. The result is an impressionistic farrago, filtered through the intelligence and sensibilities of a man described on the endpaper as `Germy's most important living poet' and `highly regarded essayist, journalist, dramatist, editor, publisher and translator.'

Since these claims are undoubtedly justified, it is hardly surprising that the book is both well written and intensely interesting. The claim that the story of the Hammerstein family casts a revealing light on the inter-war years in Germany is, in the main, made out. Kurt von Hammerstein provides the interesting spectacle of an aristocratic career soldier whose general attitudes were formed in the Kaiserzeit, and who remained to the end, a prussian gentleman of the old school. Hammerstein, who was regarded by his ultra-right father-in-law as 'an opportunist' and who rose to the top on the coat-tails of the unscrupulous Kurt von Schleicher had a reputation for intelligence tempered by idleness. He seems to have been chiefly concerned with staying out of trouble (which maybe why the cynical von Schleicher regarded him as a safe pair of hands and why, far from sharing Scleicher's fate, Hammerstein was hauled out of retirement in 1939 to command the Army facing France during the invasion of Poland). His marriage appears to have been a cold and dysfunctional affair, and he seems to have had hardly any interest in the personal side of life - which he left to his wife - and little interest in his wife herself. Meals at the family table were taken in silence, and Hammerstein appears to have been entirely uninterested in the doings of his children.

In the circumstances, it was perhaps not surprising that Hammerstein's three older daughters rejected the assumptions of the world into which they had been born. All formed close connections with the German Communist party and it was claimed by members of the KPD that the daughters raided their father's desk in the Bendlerstrasse and arranged for the transmission of confidential information and documents to Moscow. It is striking that so many of the girls' communist contacts - and boyfriends - were German Jews. At one point Enzensberger seems to suggest that this was a happy but ultimately doomed attempt at German-Jewish symbiosis - an assertion that I found somewhat extraordinary in the abnormal circumstances in which it took place, scenting instead not only a violent rejection of the parental milieu, but a determination to shock, outrage and appal which has been a consistent feature of inter-generational relationships in Germany for longer than many people recognise. At the same time, these inter-war children were still quite at home, accepted by, and happy to make use of the priveleged circle into which they were born. Enzensberger may be right in seeing their independence of mind, their dislike of the bourgeoisie, and their identification with the interests of workers and peasants as not inconsistent with the traditional values and assumptions of the junker class from which they came. But perhaps again, they were just spoiled, attention-seeking children, flirting with the unacceptable in a world where dangerous political affiliations were perhaps little more than the the intoxicating equivalent of getting mind-numbingly drunk, having indiscriminate intercourse and wearing hideous clothes. Certainly the cutely posed photograph of Ludwig von Hammerstein which appears opposite p.399 of the book and which shows the would-be plotter cutely posed with slouch hat and loosely held pistol has the unfortunate effect of bringing irresistibly to mind a limp-wristed and neurotic fantasist from the pages of a novel by Christopher Isherwood.

The possibility that von Hammerstein's children may simply have been reacting to parental neglect in a typically immature and self-indulgent fashion is one of the few that Herr Enzensberger does not really seem prepared to entertain: he is, it seems to me, overly anxious to avoid being judgmental, and in so far as he does espouse a view, it would seem to be that everyone involved in this long and sorry story - except, I assume, the Nazis - was `doing the best they could' under difficult circumstances. It is almost as though the author holds that those who can be shown to have demonstrated independence of thought - or mere obstinacy -(the `Eigensinn' of the book's German title), are somehow entitled to credit for what usually amounted, to a kind of 'silent insubordination'. While prepared to entertain this view seriously I found it, in the end, impossible to accept.

General von Hammerstein famously identified four qualities which he said could be usefully employed to place army officers in their appropriate positions. These four qualities, often found in pairs, were cleverness, stupidity, diligence and laziness. Hammerstein held that about 90% of officers were stupid and lazy, these formed the ordinary class of officers necessarily employed in routine duties; the second class were clever and diligent - their place was on the staff; clever and lazy officers were suitable for the highest positions because 'they possess the intellectual clarity and composure necessary for making difficult decisions'; but those who were diligent and stupid should never be put in any positions of responsibility because they would only use them to do damage. It's an amusing analysis, but the trouble with the clever and lazy are that they are often tempted to do nothing because experience suggests that most problems will either go away or find their own solutions and, in the end, the clever and lazy may be too cynical to bother much either way: alright, I suppose, for member of the general staff, but not, I think, the appropriate attitude for a Head of the German Army - and certainly not for the Head of the German army in January 1933.
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