In Hillel’s Steps
In Darkest Germany.
By Victor Gollancz.
London, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1947. 128 pp. With 144 photographs. 8s.6d.
In the eyes of the British public, Victor Gollancz is probably one of the outstanding Jewish laymen in the country. When one considers the fact that he is neither especially active in Jewish affairs, nor is the recipient of the notoriety which goes with a slanderous anti-Semitic attack, this appears rather odd. He has, after all, never held a government post, nor appeared on the screen, nor written a best seller, nor made any celebrated contribution to the arts or sciences. He heads one of the smaller publishing houses, which specializes in moderately priced books on current affairs, mainly from the Socialist point of view. His self-imposed task has been to prod the British conscience into a recognition of the hideous burden of error and oppression under which men, no matter where, are convulsed—a thankless pursuit at best. Yet somehow, in his long and vociferous battle in defense of human rights, he has managed to convey the sense of a deep personal union between the fact of his being a Jew and that of his being a humanist. He is often explicit about it when he feels it relevant to be so; but when it is not explicit, it is ineradicably implicit.
Mr. Gollancz’s activities are of long standing. He was chairman of the China Campaign Committee from the mid-30’s to near the end of this war. During this period, as founder of the Left Book Club, he was an exponent of collective security, and was one of the first to make available documented reports of Nazi terror. In 1941 he discarded his Communist sympathies and has since become as bitter a critic of Stalin’s regime as he was of Hitler’s In 1942 he was one of the cofounders of the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror. But it is unlikely that any one of these labors earned for him, or will earn for him, as much respect as his present chairmanship of “Save Europe Now” and his struggle for a decent policy toward conquered Germany.
In Darkest Germany is a record of Mr. Gollancz’s recent tour of the British zone of Germany. Much of it consists of letters and articles that have already appeared in the British press, and which have scored a minor victory in getting the British Government to lift the ban on private relief parcels. Along with the text, there is included photographs pressing home his points.
One does not have to be a sceptic to wonder whether any further victories will be forthcoming—Labor government or no. After such a record of mismanagement and misrule on the part of the British occupation authorities, it would need a really drastic overhaul to set things right, and there are no signs of that. Why not? Why cannot a well-meaning and able government see to it that the blunders and idiocies cease? I have yet to meet an Englishman who could give an answer to that one, so a foreigner may be excused from the attempt. It is, however, this very inability to give simple responses to what are essentially simple problems that makes the situation even more heartrending and infuriating.
Mr. Gollancz quotes chapter and verse to substantiate his statement, opening a report from Dortmund with “I have been living for six weeks in a madhouse.” The Potsdam policy of wrecking German industry, absurdly unrealistic even when adopted, has become nothing short of lunacy now that Germany, and indeed all of Europe, needs that industry for the purposes of reconstruction. As Mr. Gollancz puts it: “There is an intellectual beauty about the completeness of the vacuum which separates zonal desires and necessities on the one hand from the impersonal operation of the reparations machine, positive and negative, on the other. Aeons (as it seems) ago there was some connection between the two: for the whole thing started with a tentative list of ‘war potential’ and ‘surplus’ firms and factories put up by the zone. That list has now acquired an independent robot’s existence: bit by bit . . . it comes crashing like some giant stupid steamroller into the zone. . . .” Fishing-smacks are blown up because they exceed by one meter in length the standards of the reparations committee. (Not even claimed as war booty, but simply taken out and blown to bits!) Cement factories, because the Siegfried line was built from its products, are dismantled, despite the terrible need for re-housing. If this logic were to be followed faithfully, Germany women must henceforth go stockingless because silk and nylon are used in parachutes.
From a rational point of view, such goings-on are bewildering. But then, from a rational point of view, so much of politics must seem a thick miasma. Having spent some time with the American occupation forces in Germany (where the situation is not essentially dissimilar), I find these things intelligible if not reasonable. If the commanding officer of an infantry regiment in the 42nd Division could order his men (as he did) to crane their necks and salute all passing airplanes on a certain day because the commanding general was due to make an aerial survey, how could this officer be expected to govern the thousands of civilians under his control? Why wasn’t a civilian administration ready to take over as soon as military victory was assured? Unfortunately, when the Control Commission did take over in the British zones, all that they did was to organize chaos. In the absence of any over-all plan, that was inevitable. Consequently, we see cases like that of a blanket-making firm which was allocated coal but was refused power to run its machines; or the pin and needle factory which was given permission to start, but not to use its stock of raw materials. The situation is aggravated by the thousands of “good-time Charlies” (Amüsierschwengeln) , incapable of holding down a job as assistant shipping-clerk back home, who succeed in obtaining positions of responsibility in the occupied territories—while German refugees from Hitler, with a fund of experience and practical knowledge, languish in Sweden because they cannot obtain visas to come back to the British zone.
None of the assertions in this book has been successfully disputed, though Mr. Hynd, minister in charge of German affairs, and his subordinates, have tried to do so. Rarely has there been a spectacle of a statesman so persistently and effectively harassed; no sooner does Mr. Hynd make a speech or issue a report than Mr. Gollancz is in the newspapers and magazines, tearing it to shreds.
The photographs will shock no one. Partly because, after Belsen and Buchenwald, we have lost the faculty of being shocked, and partly because they are not horror pictures at all. They simply show an entire nation living in the midst of hunger, disease, poverty, rubble, and—worst of all—hopelessness. For this reader, at any rate, they were all the more poignant for eschewing the sensational. For others, the reaction may be different. Why, these people might say, should we waste sympathy upon this nation which has inflicted such deep wounds upon the world’s body and soul, and especially upon the body and soul of world Jewry? To these, Mr. Gollancz replies with a gentle wisdom: “People talk, or used to talk, of the mission of Israel. This mission, if it exists, is not to blow up people in Palestine; our mission is, just because we have been specially insulted and outraged for 1,900 years or more, to be specially ready for reconciliation. I say this in no spirit of criticism of those, whether they be Jews or Frenchmen or Czechs or Poles, whose sons or wives or lovers have suffered such agony and shame that even now one dares not think of it, and who can therefore neither forget nor forgive. I understand very well the thoughts and feelings that are their daily portion. But just because this awful legacy of hatred is, for our poor humanity, all but inevitable, so much the more incumbent it is upon those of us who have suffered only vicariously, if at all, to balance their bitterness by our well-wishing.”