A Man of Courage and Integrity

Ulrich Schlie: Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. Biographie ISBN 978-3-451-03147-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Carl Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg’s world and mine are some 70 years apart, and this may explain my harsh judgment of his person and the motives that led him to lead the 1944 putsch against Adolf Hitler. I still don’t like Sophie von Bechtolsheim’s book that I reviewed in my previous post, but this biography gave me a much better and much-needed understanding on who Stauffenbergwas and what drove him to try to kill Hitler.

Stauffenberg was a patriot in a positive sense. As a member of the German nobility, he had very high ethic standards, some of which we have come to consider typically German: industriousness, personal honour, discipline and last but not least a deep emotional bond to Germany. As a student he initially wanted to become an architect and in a school essay he wrote that “every building should be considered a temple dedicated to the German people and fatherland.” Now you may smile just as I did, but I perfectly understand what the young man meant. A certain naive idealism is not uncommon at the age of 14, and his generation was convinced that Germany had a special destiny.

From his early youth on Stauffenberg had been influenced by the German poet Stefan George as Schlie points out. George was en vogue and emphasized the unity of life with one’s life’s purpose (Einheit von Leben und Werk). One of his poems “Clandestine Germany” (Geheimes Deutschland) announced a new kind of order, a state founded on the preeminence of spiritual elements. That “clandestine Germany” could be constructed as an alternative to the political system in Germany after World War I, the Weimar Republic, as an alternative also to its economic model of unrestricted capitalism, and as the chance for a spiritual rebirth after the disastrous defeat of 1918. Nothing in George’s ideas suggest a sympathy for the growing Nazi movement. George saw himself as a new source of German nationalism, but he abhorred the vulgarity and the violence the Nazis stood for.

George was a poet however and not a politician or a political scientist. He didn’t work out a blueprint for a new German state or for the revolution necessary to bring that new state about. It was less a plan than a dream. This may explain why Stauffenberg had a reasonably solid plan for the attack against Hitler and the following putsch, but little idea on what Germany would or should look like once the Nazis had been driven from power. Too many uncertainties remained during the planning phase in 1943/44.

How would the Allies react? A quick cease-fire would perhaps make the putsch acceptable to the majority of the Germans, but would the Allies play along? And if so, under which conditions? An unconditional surrender would have been unacceptable for Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators as this would mean repeating the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles, one of the reasons why the Nazis found a receptive audience in the 1920s. The Allies however showed no interest whatsoever in the conspirators’ plans.

Stauffenberg decided early in his life to join the army and become an officer. He saw it the best way to fulfill his personal ideals: to serve the state and to be ready to sacrifice his life for Germany. Stauffenberg had found the purpose of his life. It was only later that he realized that this state and with it Germany as a whole had been hijacked and perverted by the Nazis. His wish to overthrow the Nazis can be understood as a continuation of his actual mission. He and his co-conspirators would turn back the wheel of history and return to those German values Stauffenberg had taken up from Stefan George.

As important as George’s influence was for Stauffenberg as an intellectual stimulation, his political consciousness however was shaped just as much by current political affairs: the failure of the parliamentarian democracy of Weimar to provide for a secure, politically and economically stable environment in which Germany could prosper. Much has been said about why the Weimar Republic failed, suffice to say that the reasons were numerous and the political-philosophical mindset of most Germans was only one reason. To Stauffenberg and many others the armed forces appeared as the only anchor of stability. It emphasized courage, self-sacrifice, honour and discipline, four virtues mostly absent from the debates in the Reichstag. It it is these two elements that makes a military dictatorship attractive to many even today.

The Nazis needed the support of the armed forces to come to power. They promised to return the military to its former strength and thus gained the loyalty of thousands of officers, whose mindset was mostly national-conservative. Nothing indicates that Stauffenberg ever was a convinced Nazi, says Schlie. In 1930 the young man had been promoted lieutenant, and when Hitler grabbed power in 1933 he certainly did not oppose him. He believed Hitler as millions of Germans did. That year he wrote to George: “Anyone who builds a stable foundation for his power, must be applauded.”

Stability was the issue of the day and that was what Hitler had promised. As for the means to achieve this stability, it would take a few years and the first military setbacks during the invasion of the Soviet Union before Stauffenberg would deem the price too high. By then he had also understood that Hitler’s totalitarian regime was totally opposed to his own political concepts and that being at war on three fronts would lead to disaster. In 1939, on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, Stauffenberg called Hitler a fool. And with the Soviet victory in Stalingrad in 1942 he became convinced that Hitler must be stopped, if necessary by force.

Ulrich Schlie’s book allowed me to reassess Stauffenberg’s life and his motivation. That’s why I read it, that’s why I had hoped for. The superficial information I had researched on the internet in connection with that other review had left me dissatisfied. This was the book I needed to understand the man. His origin explains his political conservatism, his experiences with the Weimar Republic explain his distrust of the parliamentary democracy. But he had precise moral compass and a tremendous amount of personal integrity and courage. A true leader, quite unlike the Führer.

Stauffenberg grew up with the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favourite writers, and I remember I post on my other blog about a Rilke poem dealing with the question whether one has achieved one’s life’s goal or not. Stauffenberg did achieve his goal. He died because he had risen up to fight evil. That poem of Rilke has some very special magic, just like the piano piece I associated with it. Franz Schubert wrote it.

A Pilgrimage from Youth to Old Age

Getting to Know Stauffenberg? Not Really.

stauffenberg

Sophie von Bechtolsheim: Mein Großvater war kein Attentäter ⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-451-07217-8 Killing a tyrant is a complicated issue. Not from a practical point of view. It can be done. It has been done actually. Cesar, Louis XVI, Tsar Alexander II, Nicolae Ceausescu… But is it legitimate? And if so, under which circumstances? What if the killer has no noble motive, but just happens to be psychopath? What if he acts for personal gain? What if he wants to become a tyrant himself?

I came to reconsider this question when I started to read this book about Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, one of the men and women that plotted (and failed) to kill Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Hitler was evil, of course, but killing a man is an immoral thing, isn’t it? The last time I had thought about it was in 1989, when I took an undergraduate course in political theory and tried to deal with the ancient Greek philosophers’ ideas on the subject. The Greeks came to the conclusions that killing a tyrant is a complicated thing.

Had Stauffenberg’s plot succeeded, World War II might have ended earlier than it did. But would it have been right for Stauffenberg to blow up the Führer with a bomb when Stauffenberg mostly wanted to save Germany from a humiliating military defeat, that would strip it of its earlier military gains? His motive wasn’t to propagate a liberal democracy in Germany, far from it. Democracy was totally unpopular in Germany after the failure of the Weimar Republic and would have been unfeasible in 1944 after an eventual cease-fire. The Allied powers had to force it upon the Germans after the total defeat in 1945.

The plotters around Stauffenberg were concerned about the suffering of Germans, dying at the Eastern front or at home in the bombed cities. Those very Germans who had elected the Nazis in 1933 with a substantial majority. The plotters wanted a powerful, autocratic Germany minus Hitler and his Nazi clique. They were aware of the horrible crimes committed against the Jews and civilians in the occupied territories, but to stop this wasn’t their primary or even secondary motive. They acted out of a feeling to save Germany’s honour, the honour of some other Germany, not perverted by Hitler’s fantasies.

Sophie von Bechtolsheim is a German historian born in 1968. She is also the grand-daughter of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the subject of her book. Stauffenberg was a plotter, but he was much more than that as the title suggests. He was a husband, a father, a German national-conservative, a soldier, a faithful Catholic. Von Bechtolsheim’s intend was to sketch a personal portrait of the man. I had high expectations that unfortunately have not been fulfilled by the book. Von Bechtolsheim gives us some background about the Stauffenberg family, and that’s it.

Stauffenberg was executed by the Nazis a day after the failed attack on Hitler and, as a careful conspirator, he had left no written traces about his plans, his motives, his reflections, his political ideas. He knew right from the beginning that he was playing with fire. For that reason von Bechtolsheim draws from the memories of relatives, mainly Stauffenberg’s wife, of friends and surviving co-conspirators. It adds a little to the picture of Stauffenberg, but not much. To historians the book is utterly irrelevant and certainly no alternative to a well-researched biography. To political scientists her comparison of modern-day terrorism and the bomb attack of 1944 is at least bizarre.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was a gifted and enthusiastic cello player. I valued this piece of information in von Bechtoldsheim’s book more than anything else she wrote. Given his education, he certainly was familiar with the Romanticists’ beautiful chamber music. So here we go with the appropriated music, Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor:

Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Imagining the Fusion of Man and Melody



Geoff Dyer: But Beautiful. A Book about Jazz
ISBN 978-0-85786-402-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What a sad book this is. What a wonderful book this is. Geoff Dyer is imagining key moments in the life of the world’s most famous jazz musicians. Lester Young, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell… Do you realize that I love jazz almost as much as I love classical music? On the eight day, God created jazz – music that encapsulates all the joys and even more all the sufferings of this world. All God had created before. God was a musician. Johann Sebastian Bach knew it. Charlie Parker knew it.

Dyer’s book speaks about proud and broken men, about misery, drug abuse, racism, loneliness, violence and perpetual erring. The corollary of musical genius, unbound creativity, fearless improvisations, innate harmony, the intense fusion of man and melody, of man and instrument. His approach to these musicians and their indiviual style is very personal: He recounts their lives the way they tell it to him through their music. A post-humous reconstruction. Artificial, but faithful. It’s a tool from my own toolbox I sometimes try in my posts about classical music and its composers, past and present. With less success than Dyer, but him doing it, validates the idea.

I am writing this at an airport on a day most things went wrong. A missed flight, a lost afternoon, a long wait for an alternative flight, a late night arrival with all the associated hassle. But. But I had this book with me, Wifi access, sufficiant battery capacity and storage memory on my smart phone. Ben Webster, Charles, Mingus, Chet Baker and and many more made me happy that afternoon. Music as a lifeline… It’s not the first time I experience this. Great consolation is to be found in the musical testimony of these man, and the missed plane is quickly forgotten.

Read the book! And listen to Thelonious Monk’s recording “Misterioso”! There’s a song called “In Walked Bud”. Bud like in Bud Powell. Because this book is also about true love and true friendship.

 

The Dirty Secrets of Barcelona’s Upperclass

Rosa Ribas, Sabine Hofmann: Das Flüstern der Stadt (Spanish title: Don de lenguas) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-463-40354-0 Two female writers, a female journalist as the main character in a crime story with Franco’s Falangist Spain as the backdrop – the result is a fantastic novel, a masterful plot narrated in a wonderfully nuanced language. Too bad I never learnt Spanish, I had to contend with the German version of this Spanish-German coproduction. I bet, in the Spanish version I would have been even more fascinated by the refined use of language. Such a well-written book!

Ana Maria Noguer is a young journalist working for a newspaper that each day performs a careful balancing act between not offending the Franco regime and its journalistic mission to report the truth. Ana Maria usually does not come into touch with political reporting, she covers the glamour life of Barcelona’s upperclass society, attending cocktail parties and opera performances. One day however she is tasked to report about the brutal murder of Mariona Sobrerroca, a lady beloging to the said upperclass. She was the widow of a well-known physician. The police is under political pressure to come up with a quick result and the investigation is handed over to Inspector Isidro Castro.

Castro and Noguer meet as they have to cooperate. The police needs a little PR and Ana Maria needs Castro to learn the details about the case. An initially uneasy cooperation evolves into a somewhat trusted partnership. At first they follow a lead saying that Mariona Sobrerroca became the victim of an armed robbery. But Ana Maria has recruited the help of Beatriz, a linguist, to analyze love letters among the victim’s possessions. They conclude that the lady had rather fallen into the trap of a conman, contacting lonely wives to get their money. It all seems to fit together, the police is happy, Ana Maria’s editor-in-chief is happy. Ana Maria herself and Beatriz however have a doubt. It all looks to good to be true.

She and Beatriz continue the investigation that officially is closed, despite Inspector Castro’s explicit injunction to stay out of the way. Gradually they uncover a conspiracy meant to bury disturbing, compromising facts about Barcelona’s upperclass society. A dangerous undertaking as they find out.  Mariona Sobrerroca’s deceased husbands knew a lot of important families and many of Barcelona’s distinguished ladies. He also knew quite a few of their dirty secrets. The murderer of Mariona Sobrerroca knew that too. And so a cat-and-mouse game develops that takes us deep into the Spanish society under the rule of Franco, where the past catches up with the present and puts political careers at risk.

If the cunning plot of this novel is an argument good enough to buy it immediately, I would like to point out another lovely characteristic: The story has a lot to do with books, with writing, with literary style. Recruiting a linguist to uncover a hidden truth – even Inspector Castro has to admit at some point that literary sciences can be of direct practical use to society. Even if he doesn’t like the final result of Ana Maria’s and Beatriz’ conclusions.

I read a the last chapters of this novel while being sick, and besides Ana Maria and Beatriz, I had Mozart helping me through the day with his Piano Trio in D Major:

A Mozart Piano Trio to Recover from a Flu

The Homo Sovieticus is Alive and Kicking

img_6058

Masha Gessen: The Future is History. How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia ISBN 978-0-525-53406-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Masha Gessen’s book intends to draw a psychogram of the Russian society, a fascinating endeavour for anyone interested in current political affairs and a must-read for anyone interested in the future of the West’s relationship with Russia. I cannot judge how close Gessen gets to draw an accurate and complete picture of how the Russian society ticks today, but by following the fate of four former Soviet and now Russian citizens from the terminal stage of the USSR until today, she gave me a highly valuable insight into the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, a species that did outlive its natural habitat.

The lives of Zhanna and Masha, both born in 1984, Seryozha, born in 1982, and Lyosha, born in 1985, are the four lenses through which different steps of contemporary Russian history are examined. They represent different social backgrounds, different ways of education and socialization, but they share a common fate: They are crushed by the weight of an ever more oppressive political system and their wishes for a life in a free society did not find fulfillment.

Gessen basic theory is that the Homo Sovieticus had learnt to be ruled by ruthless rulers without complaining too much and that any new ideas – i.e. those imported by the West like democracy, liberalism, the rule of law – will not be met with enthusiasm by the Russian society. Modern Russian society functions both at the level of the rulers and at the level of the ruled according to the norms of the USSR.

Basic pillars of social cohesion in the USSR were the narrative of a glorious Soviet victory in World War II, a certain ideal of presumed Russian traditions (xenophobia), the opposition to the United States and great power status. The Homo Sovieticus thrived on these, and modern Russia looks back with nostalgia according to Gessen. The capacity for “doublethink”, the admission of contradictory experiences in one mindset, a capacity well-developed among Soviet citizen, was of great help to adjust to the situation then and now.

President Vladimir Putin, an old hand in the art of manipulation, exploits this nostalgia by promising Russians the return of the apparently golden times. This, and the Russians’ longing for “stability” after the turmoil that signaled the end of the USSR, made it possible for Putin to turn Russia into an authoritarian state. He succeeded in petting a complacent, silent majority against minorities: students pursuing a liberal society, foreign NGOs, non-ethnic Russians and the LGBT community. And he succeeded in creating the illusion that Russia is under threat from all sides, a situation that requires an active defense which he alone can lead.

Obviously Putin did not succeed simply by coming to power. He needed the backing of the rich elite, that is the oligarchs who managed to gain control over large parts of the Soviet economy when Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin broke up the state monopolies to fill the government’s purse. Putin had them choose between two options: a) accept political control under Putin’s leadership and retain the majority of their wealth b) oppose Putin’s policies and face detention and the loss of all their wealth. For most oligarchs the choice was easy. They backed Putin, had their second residence in Switzerland and were left alone.

Ordinary Russians, who could not choose between two residencies, had another choice. They could rebel openly, demonstrate in Moscow, distribute flyers or stage protest actions like the Punk group Pussy Riot. They would have to face arrests, beatings by the police, psychological harassment and the loss of their job. Or they could tacitly agree with Putin’s policies, participate in pseudo-elections and be left alone too. Many chose the latter option since this was what had guaranteed the Homo Sovieticus a more or less untroubled life. It proved to be a good survival strategy once more.

True, human rights abuses under Putin are minimal compared to the totalitarian rule of Stalin. But Putin does not need Stalinist terror. A little pressure here and there seems sufficient, especially when his policy has elements the Homo Sovieticus can agree wholeheartedly: Yes to Russian grandeur, no to foreign interference. Yes to traditional family values, no to pedophiles (i.e. homosexuals in Putin’s propaganda). Yes to a strong ruler, no to democratic experiments that lead to anarchy.

By exploiting the deep-seated fears of the Homo Sovieticus, Putin has imposed his idea of a “guided democracy” upon Russia. More and more dissidents leave the country, the silent majority stays. Putin benefitted from a booming economy, but even successive political and economic disasters like the sinking of the submarine “Kursk” and the banking crisis have not paved the way for a leadership change and a different, more open society. The few years of relative freedom under Yeltsin were not enough to foster western ideas about a modern, liberal and democracic society in Russia. And by now it is too late as Putin exercises sufficient control over what the Homo Sovieticus reads, hears, sees and thinks to make any revolt a hopeless endeavour.

But let’s turn to our four dramatis personae. Zhanna is the daughter of the longtime politician and activist Boris Nemtsov, murdered in Moscow. As such she is an eye-witness to the gradual worsening of the human rights situation in Russia. Masha for her part grew up with an admiration for the Soviet Union’s strength. She wanted to become a military officer. At the end of day however we find her marching with thousands of protesters in Moscow against the manipulation of elections in Russia.

Seryozha grew up in a privileged part of Soviet society, the nomenklatura. He had his political awakening in 2008 at the presidential elections, which he recognized as what they were: a farce. Finally Lyosha. He knew he was in trouble as soon as he had discovered he was gay. Even before Putin started to blame the LGBT community for making Russia weak in every aspect, be it demography, the field of national defence or the political arena, living homosexuality in the open was problematic in Russia. Under president Putin it became life-threatening.

Gessen paints a depressing picture of today’s Russia, and Western leaders and businessmen should not be trusted when they present Russia as an opportunity and try to persuade us that closer political and economical ties would benefit ordinary Russian in pursuing their dream of a free society. That dream is dead, and the formula “change through interaction” has already failed with China.

Gessen has written a good book, an important book, nevertheless some of the last chapters irritated me. She emphasizes the persecution of the LGBT community as this is a good indicator of the degree of individual diversity the rulers and the vast majority of Russians are willing to tolerate. Needless to say that by now the tolerance is zero. Putin and his propaganda masters have turned the population into enforcers of  discriminating laws, mainly by equating gay men with pedophiles, foreign agitators, spies and Jews. As important as this part of Putin’s policy may be, is it the only indicator of an authoritarian state worth mentioning?

Gessen sees Russia in the fangs of totalitarianism, but she offers not enough elements to substantiate this claim. The take-over of most media outlets would have been an example, the selective access to the internet another. Gessen remains rather silent about this. Putin’s ideas on economical autarky, useful if you want to limit exposure to foreign ideas, is not mentioned at all. The militarization of youth movements like “Nashi” and the growing budgets for defence expenditures are subjects omitted in Gessen’s book.

These elements may have little to do with the soul of the Homo Sovieticus, but a lot with Gessen’s claim that Russia is a totalitarian state. By focusing on the LGBT community, Gessen suggest that their persecution is the biggest problem of Russia. It clearly isn’t. It’s part of what is wrong in Russia, but it’s not the key issue. The key issue is the question whether Putin’s idea that Russia is different from the US and from Europe and thus not suited for democracy and an open society is echoed by a majority of the Russian population. This is crucial for us who live outside Russia.

What does Putin’s vision of Russia mean for Poland and for Hungary whose leaders do not look like they share the fundamental values of the European Union? What does it mean for our dependency on Russian gas? And what does it mean for the United States under the presidency of Donald Trump? Gessen offers no answers except personal indignation. Am I unfair towards the author? She’s an LGBT activist and has a substantial journalistic talent, she is not a political scientist after all. To this I would like to object that totalitarianism in the shape of National Socialism and Stalinism is too serious an issue to serve as selling argument for a book.

The Soviet composer Edison Denisov once complained about “fossilized academicalism” in the Soviet Union. He was a student of Dmitry Shostakovich, one of the greatest Russian composers of all times, and in 1954 he wrote a wonderful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano:

A Student’s Reverence to Dmitry Shostakovich