Monday, January 28, 2013

Ben Elton's 'Two Brothers': A Quibble

I've just finished reading Ben Elton's latest novel Two Brothers. Like all of his novels it's a great read and I highly recommend it.

One thing, however, jarred a little, and it's that I wish to focus on here.

But first a modicum of scene-setting. Two Brothers is set in the Germany of the Weimar Republic (1919-33) and its Nazi successor (1933-45). The three main characters are Paulus and Otto Stengel, the twin brothers of the title, and the irresistably beautiful Dagmar, with whom both boys are in love. All three are German Jews (although there's a qualification here I won't be going into as it's not relevant to the subject of this post).

The discordant note comes in a chapter called Beached Dolphin, Berlin, 1935, midway through the novel. Bit by bit, the Nazis have been ramping up the pressure on Germany's Jews. Our teenage protagonists had earlier been subjected to segregation in school and now find themselves banned from using public swimming pools. This particular measure has hit the spirited and athletic Dagmar, the beached dolphin of the chapter, hard, and the conversation unsurprisingly turns to the subject of emigration:

"'They say we'll spread lies about them so they're not going to let us go,' Dagmar explained miserably.

'Well, maybe it'll work out for the best in the end, eh?' Otto said, still lying on his back while bench-pressing Dagmar's dressing-table chair, 'because you can come with me to Palestine.'

'Palestine?' Dagmar asked in some surprise, having never heard Otto even mention the place before.

'Oh yes,' Paulus said with heavy sarcasm, 'haven't you heard? Otto's a Zionist now. Fuck, Otto, you don't even know where Palestine is!'

'Yes I do!' Otto protested. 'It's the next one down after Turkey - sort of. Isn't it?'

'It's in the Middle East and it's already full of Arabs,' Paulus said.

Otto's recent announcement that he had decided to become a Zionist had both amused and frustrated his brother. Lots of Jews in Berlin had begun talking about trying to get to Palestine. The Nazis themselves even raised the idea as a possible way of dealing with their 'problem'.

'It's our homeland,' Otto continued defiantly, 'that's all I need to know about it. Next year in Jerusalem!'

Even Dagmar giggled at this. In the past there could have been no less political individual than Otto Stengel. And no less a religious or spiritual one either for that matter. Otto was an archetypal teenage boy. His interests were sports, machines, food, music and Dagmar... Now, having picked up a few illegal pamphlets in Jewish coffee shops, Otto had suddenly begun using the language of Zionist politics.

'Homeland!' Paulus protested. 'Homeland? Two thousand years ago, Otts! Believe it or not, mate, things have moved on. Palestine is now the homeland of - who? Oh, let me see. Oh yes, I remember: the Palestinians. Get it? The Palestinians live in Palestine. There's a clue in the names. And I don't think they will take very kindly to a fifteen-year-old German Jew boy turning up and saying he owns the place.'

'We'll take it back,' Otto said darkly. 'We have no choice.'

'Great!' Paulus snapped. 'And when you do maybe you can ban all the Arabs from using the parks and swimming pools.'" (pp 255-256)

The problem here is that while Elton reads the Zionist project in Palestine correctly, with Otto picking up "a few illegal Zionist pamphlets" he unwittingly conveys the false impression that German Zionists were putting up some kind of resistance to the Nazis at the time. The simple fact of the matter is that Otto wouldn't have needed to pick up "illegal Zionist pamphlets" when all he had to do was purchase a copy of the perfectly legal weekly organ of the Zionist Federation of Germany (ZVfD), the Judische Rundschau. And if he'd done so, he would have seen just how accommodating of Nazi racism the Zionists were.

As Lenni Brenner has written in his must-read 1983 classic, Zionism in The Age of the Dictators:

"Not even the Nuremberg Laws of 15 September 1935 challenged the basic German Zionist belief in an ultimate modus vivendi with the Nazis... The goal of the ZVfD became 'national autonomy'. They wanted Hitler to give Jews the right to an economic existence, protection from attacks on their honour, and training to prepare them for migration. The ZVfD became absorbed in trying to utilise the segregated Jewish institutions to develop a Jewish national spirit. The tighter the Nazis turned the screw on the Jews, the more convinced they became that a deal with the Nazis was possible. After all, they reasoned, the more the Nazis excluded the Jews from every aspect of German life, the more they would have need of Zionism to help them get rid of the Jews. By 15 January 1936 the Palestine Post had to make the startling report that: 'A bold demand that the German Zionist Federation be given recognition by the government as the only instrument for the exclusive control of German Jewish life was made by the executive of that body in a proclamation today.'

"German Zionist hopes for an arrangement faded only in the face of the ever-mounting intimidation and terror. Even then there was no sign of of any attempts at anti-Nazi activity on the part of the ZVfD leaders. Throughout the entire pre-war period there was only a tiny Zionist involvement in the anti-Nazi underground. Although the [Zionist] HeChalutz and Hashomer youth movements talked socialism, the Nazis were not concerned. Yechiel Greenberg of Hashomer admitted in 1938 that 'our socialism was considered merely a philosophy for export'. But almost from the beginning of the dictatorship the underground Communist Party of Germany (KPD), always looking for new recruits, sent some of their Jewish cadre into the youth movements and, according to Arnold Paucker - now the editor of London's Leo Baeck Institute Year Book - some Zionist youth became involved with the resistance at least to the extent of some illegal postering in the early years of the regime. How much of this was due to the influence of the Communist infiltrators, and how much was spontaneous is impossible to estimate. However, the Zionist bureaucracy vigorously attacked the KPD. As in Italy, so in Germany: the Zionist leadership sought the support of the regime for Zionism and resisted Communism; in neither country could it be thought of as part of the anti-Fascist resistance." (pp 53-54)

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