Monday, January 31, 2005

Another diseased spirit

George Walden was a Tory MP and sometime junior minister between 1983 and 1997. He now reviews books on a regular basis in various London publications. In the left-wing New Statesman he patronises and pours scorn on Hans Erich Nossack’s newly-translated memoir of the Allied air raid on Hamburg; a raid that killed in one night almost as many that have been killed in Iraq over the last two years.

While he does acknowledge that Nossack doesn't seek to blame the Allies for the attack, there is, Walden says, a problem of tone. He is deeply suspicious of the romantic lyricism of Nossack’s prose:

Just as the images of the incineration of 3,000 souls in New York's twin towers were too alluring for aesthetes to resist applauding, the firestorm of Hamburg, says Nossack, ‘was almost lovely to look at’. For him, this vision of hell becomes a great, mystic, chaotic thing. Rather as many a Nazi envisaged war, in fact.

He doesn’t reveal the identity of the applauding aesthetes, which might lead us toward a certain conclusion, to which I’ll come.

What he does do is echo WG Sebald’s critique of German writing in response to the airwar. He agrees that it was concerned with forgetting rather than reportage. Such prose is "part of this process of forgetting". Yet Sebald calls Nossack "the sole exception" who was able to "put down .. concrete facts about the progress and repercussions of the gigantic, long-term campaign of destruction."

In Walden’s account, these concrete facts seem to be swamped by self-pity and moral equivocation. Could this be because Sebald had read widely in the subject and could see things that we can’t?

Walden suggests we read Nossack's book in tandem with Diary of a Man in Despair, an evocation of a nation's diseased spirit leading to war - written by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a German who did not equivocate and was consequently shot. Here you get the full moral stench exuded not just by the Fuhrer … but the schoolteachers, shopkeepers, labourers or sub-postmasters who helped give him 88 per cent of the vote. The sweat from their brown-shirted armpits is none the sweeter for coming from humble bodies.

For there is such a thing as the guilt of whole nations

Walden’s suspicion extends even to suspecting Sebald of equating the airwar’s destruction with "the enormity of Nazi evil itself" and playing down the culpability of ordinary Germans. This seems excessive; a means of avoidance. What’s more, he seems to want to attach guilt to all Germans who need to reveal the enormity of what happened to them. Walden doesn’t even want to learn enough to forget in the first place. Could this disdain be due to more recent events than the Second World War?

For the first six years of Walden’s time as an MP, he was part of a government that supported Saddam’s evil regime in Iraq: the time, it has to be said, he was at his most dangerous and most murderous. I wonder how he feels about being closer to influencing policy against a tyrant than many of the Germans he pours scorn on? I can find only this sickening article in the Telegraph which curiously fails to mention his own complicity in causing the deaths of the "exterminated millions … in the Iran-Iraq war" yet rages against Germany for refusing to join in the latest turkey shoot. For it is clear he applauds the recent, more direct efforts of extermination by ‘the Allies’, but it is probably 'almost too lovely' for him to describe.

For there is such a thing as the guilt of whole governments.

Sadly, diseased spirits like Walden, who do more than equivocate, suffer a different fate to Reck-Malleczewen.


  1. Anonymous3:39 pm

    It was interesting to read your opinions on this article which I read myself during the week.
    I too found the position Walden takes against the German population of that time distasteful. He never allows himself the possibility that these sort of tyrannical movements can just appear. As we all know the early part of Hitler's rule was characterised by a resurgence in Germany's fortune. Maybe the people didn't want to trade in what appeared to be a good thing. Keeping their eye on one spot they didn't realised the tide surrounding them.
    Maybe a population can totally mistake a leader and not see what they really are (step forward Mr Bush). We never claim that Americans are foolish for voting Bush, anyone who has ever seen Fox news will realise they are merely misguided.

    The fact that Walden was a Tory MP (a fact unbeknowst to me until now)surprises me when re-reading the article. I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion that a member of government is more likely to be able to change the course of history, to stauch the flow of evil around the world or however you want to put it. To blame an entire nation is unfair. The majority of people work their day and look forward to coming home to their families and don't really take note of whats around them, and I dare say there were a number of people who did this in Nazi Germany. I am not claiming that this is a good thing, I merely state that this is a thing that happens. The blame will always lie with those who create the tyranny not those who live in its shadow.

    Thanks for your blog. It is a tonic to the sea of banal detritus that fills many a blog and many a paper.

    capita70 at

  2. Anonymous4:09 pm

    "While he does acknowledge that Nossack doesn't seek to blame the
    Allies for the attack"

    Well who the fuck was to blame if not those who did it!?



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