The ‘German Genius’ and its Friends in the Wrong Places

A book I just finished reading played a part in unraveling a minor mystery concerning a right-wing German politician.

The right-wing politician is Björn Höcke, Thuringian state chair of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.

The book is The German Genius, a 2010 English-language book by the British journalist Peter Watson.

First I’ll talk about the political mystery, then the book.

I. The Political Mystery

The mystery is whether Höcke, under the name “Landolf Ladig”, wrote articles (g) for an extreme-right publication of the German NDP party.

Let’s keep both parties straight. The AfD (g) Party, founded in 2013, is a right-wing, anti-immigrant nationalist-conservative political party. Although controversial, it currently polls at 10-15% of the vote and is represented in the German federal parliament, the Bundestag.

The NPD (National Democratic Party) (g) is a far-right political party which is considered the just barely legitimate political face of extreme right-wing German nationalism. There is considerable overlap between neo-Nazis and fanatical nationalists and the NPD. German law allows the Federal Constitutional Court to ban political parties which oppose the ‘liberal democratic order’, and several attempts have been made to ban the NPD party, but they failed on technical grounds. The NPD polls at 1-3% nationwide, and is not represented in the federal parliament, although it did get into some state parliaments in East Germany.

So in American terms, the AfD would be Donald Trump — controversial, often rude and crude, but with genuine support in the population, and generally smart enough to avoid openly embracing white nationalism. The NPD would be Richard B. Spencer — white nationalist and proud of it.

Trump is controversial, Spencer is radioactive.
The AfD is controversial. The NPD is radioactive.

Now back to Höcke. Höcke, a high-school history teacher (g) (which means he’s a civil servant) and “German Patriot”, is easily the most controversial member of the AfD. Appearing on a major German political talk show, he unfurled a German flag and set it on the armrest of his chair:

Bildergebnis für höcke will fahne

Höcke is part of the AfD’s ‘right-wing’ fringe, and there have been moves to try to kick him out of the party (g) to give it a more mainstream image. They were unsuccessful.

The question in this post, however, is whether Höcke is “Landolf Ladig”. The texts Landolf Ladig wrote for the radioactive NPD party are filled with extreme-right rhetoric. This doesn’t mean they’re openly neo-Nazi; even the NPD avoids that sort of rhetoric, which would earn it an immediate ban and criminal charges. But they’re full of völkisch-nationalistic code phrases popular among the German far-right. They’re even more controversial than what Höcke normally says, and some of the arguments in those articles may even be unlawful in Germany.

So, to sum up, what Landolf Ladig wrote is well outside the pale even for right-wing Germans. Therefore, if Höcke is Ladig, this would be a major blow to his political career. In 2015, a German sociologist Andreas Kemper, began publishing pieces in which he noted the similarities between Höcke’s writing and that of Landolf Ladig. Here’s a representative video:

Unfortunately it’s only in German, but it makes a strong case that Höcke wrote the Ladig pieces. Kemper’s work, among other things, eventually led the AfD to commission a legal expert opinion on whether Höcke was Ladig, which, according to news reports (g), concluded that it was likely he was, indeed, Ladig (g).

Höcke has always denied being “Landolf Ladig”, and in 2015, he threatened to sue anyone who said he was. This has led a German left-wing group to troll him by devoting an entire website (g) to claiming that Höcke is Ladig. You can even buy mugs and T-shirts with Höcke’s picture identified as “Landolf Ladig” on them. So far, Höcke has declined to sue.

And now, finally, we get to the book! One of the pieces of evidence mentioned by Andreas Kemper in a recent interview and article (g) was that Landolf Ladig told his NPD readers to read Watson’s book The German Genius, which bears the German title of Der deutsche GeniusBut Ladig got the name wrong, calling the book Genius der Deutschen. And guess what? Höcke made the exact same mistake! It’s only one element of the Höcke=Ladig case, but it’s an interesting one. Allow me to say, just for the record, that I am not interested in being sued, and don’t really care, so I hereby expressly declare that I have no opinion on whether Höcke is Ladig.

II. The Book

So what about the book? In a word, it’s a nearly 1000-page long compendium of German achievement, summarized thus in a positive Guardian review:

Peter Watson’s colossal encyclopaedia, The German Genius, might have been written for me, but not only for me. A journalist of heroic industry, Watson is frustrated by the British ignorance of Germany, or rather by an expertise devoted exclusively to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Watson wonders not just why the nation of thinkers and poets came to grief between 1933 and 1945 but also how it put itself together again and, in 1989, recreated most of the Wilhelmine state without plunging Europe into war or even breaking sweat.

Watson has not simply written a survey of the German intellect from Goethe to Botho Strauss – nothing so dilettantist. In the course of nearly 1,000 pages, he covers German idealism, porcelain, the symphony, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, telegraphy, homeopathy, strategy, Sanskrit, colour theory, the Nazarenes, universities, Hegel, jurisprudence, the conservation of energy, the Biedermeyer, entropy, fractals, dyestuffs, the PhD, heroin, automobiles, the unconscious, the cannon, the Altar of Pergamon, sociology, militarism, the waltz, anti-semitism, continental drift, quantum theory and serial music.

Watson’s approach is mainly biographical — the book is essentially a series of potted biographies of German achievers, complete with birth-and-death dates. However, Watson’s summaries of their achievement are accurate and interesting, and he revives many forgotten figures and controversies. Watson probes every single nook and cranny of modern German culture and achievement.

The argument of the book is basically that although German thinkers and doers have shaped huge portions of our modern intellectual and political landscape, the English-speaking world underestimates this achievement because of its excessive focus on the ‘Prussian militarism’ and of course the Nazi era. Germany was a world leader in universal public education, modern research universities, and modern healthcare, chemistry, and physics.

And before the mid-20th century, the English-speaking world recognized this. Watson points out (twice), for instance, that the New York Times dedicated its entire front page to the death of Alexander von Humboldt in 1859. There are thousands of American cities, towns, and institutions whose names reflect the heritage of German settlers (including Humboldt County, California, now famous for something very different). German intellectual rigor and distinction was once proverbial in the English-speaking world, and German language ability and a tour in a German university was a mark of distinction for young British and American intellectuals. Watson’s book is intended to remind us why this was the case, and that the specifically German aspects of German-speaking culture still has much to offer the world.

I enjoyed the book immensely and learned an enormous amount from it, so it’s a solid recommendation from me, Landolf Ladig, and Björn Höcke. Although I should point out, in capital bold letters, that Peter Watson is in no way an apologist for völkisch German nationalism. He devotes exhaustive attention to the horrors of the Third Reich, and points out how aspects of the “German Genius” (excellence in chemistry, philosophical and social radicalism, völkisch nationalism, German historiography) either helped lay the foundations for Nazism or furnished it with tools. Watson admires modern Germany’s culture of remembrance, and doubtless has zero sympathy with the AfD, NPD, or any of those fellows. This is not a book intended to warm the hearts of German nationalists (although, as we have seen, it does that), but rather to encourage respect for and interest in one of the world’s great, and distinctive, cultural traditions.

German Word of the Week: Thingstätte

This GWOW amuses English-speakers because it begins with a false friend. But then it gets very German, in all senses of that word.

A ‘Thing‘, Wikipedia tells us, was “the governing assembly of an early Germanic society, made up of the free people of the community presided over by lawspeakers.” In other words, a sort of proto-parliament, usually held outdoors at a symbolic grouping of stones or large tree (perhaps a Gerichtslinde or “court linden”). There are very few records of Things left, and few ruins which can be positively identified as Thingstätte (Thing-places, pronounced approximately TING-steh-tuh). Nevertheless, they were important institutions — many Scandinavian parliaments have some form of the word “ting” in their official title.

But Germanic Thingstätte had a disturbing second life, as with so many things Germanic. The völkisch movement in Germany, and later the National Socialists, decided to revive the ancient tradition of the Thingstätte. The new versions weren’t supposed to be parliaments, but rather outdoor gathering places where the faithful could assemble to revere nature, the Germanic soul, and other nationalist topoi*.

Party groups, or the Hitler Youth, would assemble at the Thingstätte for Thingspiele, multi-disciplinary events which might feature torchlight processions, speeches by academics or ideologues, choral singing, patriotic dramas, sporting contests or similar collective celebrations of things young, healthy, vigorous, and Teutonic. Nazi-era Thingstätte in Germany — of which 400 were planned, but only 40 built, are often huge, with oval-shaped amphitheaters with seating for thousands, usually set on hilltops. This means they’re quite hard to get rid of, and still generate controversy, since they are massive and indelible reminders of the Third Reich. They attract visitors from the unsavory right-wing fringes of German society, as well as from people who want to revive ancient Germanic traditions such as Walpurgisnacht (there is some overlap between those groups, but it’s far from 100%). I once visited perhaps the most famous Thingstätte, in Heidelberg, and saw only yuppies jogging up and down its steps.

And today I just learned, from the magnificent ars publica düsseldorf** site, that Düsseldorf had its own Thingstätte, way off in Gerresheim, a working-class suburb in the eastern part of the city. It was built in 1935, partly as an employment-generating measure for World War I veterans. Now, it’s pretty much completely abandoned, and surrounded by privately-owned houses:

It included a big 220-step path up a large hill, at the top of which was a massive boulder with a memorial inscription. I bet a ruined Thingstätte would be pretty interesting to visit (after getting necessary permissions, of course), so it’s now at the top of my list of things to see and do in this endlessly-fascinating city. Continue reading “German Word of the Week: Thingstätte”

“Cartoon Rabbits in Nazi Uniforms”

Fascism in the ranks of adults who dress up like animals. Is nothing sacred?

The war began when a fascist party and its armband-clad leader led a putsch. Antifascists mobilized in response. Threats of violence ensued.

Then the Rocky Mountain Fur Con canceled all future events.

The Fur Con is an annual summit in Denver, Colorado, for “furries,” people who present themselves as animals, from donning full-body fur suits to adopting “fursonas” for their character. And just as in the rest of America, a lot of furries resemble Nazis lately….

Fascist furries are nothing new, but until recently, “they were rare individuals who were more interested in uniform fetish than espousing Nazi ideology,” Deo, another furry told The Daily Beast.

But the rise of the alt-right has ushered in the #AltFurry, a hashtag under which right-leaning furries can organize, and the uninitiated can encounter more cartoon rabbits in Nazi uniform than they possibly expected to see in their lifetimes.

"Right-leaning furries."

Also this:

16836322_1441791555865726_5614664705644016957_o

 

Mitten in Deutschland — German History X

A huge conglomeration of public and private foundations put together a three-part series on the early 2000s murder spree of the National Socialist Underground called Mitten in Deutschland (In the Middle of Germany) in Germany and German History X when it was released by Netflix with English subtitles.

It's basically a trilogy of feature-length movies. I found it surprisingly good. German television and movies punch below their weight in general, but have shown some intermittent signs of improvement in recent years. Deutschland '83 is much more than watchable, and so is German History X. 

The first movie, about the formation of the 2-man one-woman 'trio' which formed the core of the NSU, shows the protagonists coming together in the 1990s neo-Nazi scene in Jena. The three core performers are stellar. The film also does a fine job of demonstrating how young people in the damaged, demoralized East often sought fellowship and a sense of purpose in violent Nazi groups. The second movie focuses on the victims, and is held together by a strong performance by Almila Bagriacik, who emerges from adolescence under the shadow of the murder of her father. The police immediately seek the killer in the 'milieu' of foreign small businessmen, without considering the possibility of a terrorist motive even after numerous other foreign shopkeepers are killed with the same weapon used to kill the first victim. 

The final movie, which focuses on the investigation, is the slackest of the bunch. This is hard to avoid, since the subject is, by definition, an investigation that went nowhere. The early-2000s murder spree of the three NSU members was discovered only posthumously, when two of them committed suicide after a botched 2011 bank robbery, and the murder weapon was found in their accomplice's apartment. The third movie paints a picture of detectives who develop solid leads, only to be frustrated by the machinations of the Thuringia state Verfassungsschutz. The Verfassungsschutz claimed to have deeply infiltrated the groups supporting the NSU trio, and fought against any arrests, questioning, or surveillance which could theoretically blow their agents' cover. Which meant, in the end, that they provided an enormous amount of cover, and even financing, to out-and-out Nazis who were committing sundry violent crimes. The movies' clear implication is that the Verfassungsschutz was operating at least in part out of sympathy for the right-wingers' goals.

The English translation of Verfassungsschutz in the movies was "secret service", which obviously doesn't do justice to this peculiar organization. English-language viewers certainly missed many of the implications of what was shown in the third film. Basically, the "Agency for the Protection of the Constitution", as the title means in English, is an originally West German domestic spying and intelligence agency. As its name implies, it is theoretically supposed to monitor, document, report on, and suppress any nascent threats to the German constitutional order. This includes right-wing and left-wing extremists, religious organizations, and cults. Each German state has one of these agencies, and there is a federal one as well. To call them controversial is an understatement — they are often accused of putting far more energy into surveillance of left-wing militants than right-wing groups, and are also accused of chilling free speech by singling out politically-charged organizations and publications for scrutiny in their public reports. In fact, the right-wing weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit – successfully sued to prohibit the Verfassungsschutz from mentioning them in its reports.

The agency has also been involved in innumerable scandals involving — at the very minimum — incompetence. The most recent in a very long list is the hiring of Roque M. (g) — a German citizen of Spanish descent who was hired as a Verfassungsschutz spy in the State of Northern Rhine Westphalia despite a history of mental instability and bizarre behavior, such as acting in gay porn films even though he was a married father of 4, running his own gay porn publishing house, running a website selling "German Military Underwear. Strong. Manly. Sexy.", and converting to radical Islam. The Verfassungschutz – apparently unaware of the possibility of running a Google search — only found out about him when he bragged about being a mole in the agency and working on plans to destroy it in an online forum which was being monitored by his co-workers.

In fact, the picture of the German law enforcement authorities in all of the films is devastating. The Keystone Kops of East Germany let the three neo-Nazis go underground even after finding bombs and weapons in one of their hideouts. Cops invent a hare-brained drug-smuggling conspiracy theory to explain the totally unrelated murder of ethnic-minority shopkeepers all over Germany with the exact same weapon. (Although this isn't mentioned in the film, they also chased a phantom serial killer whose existence was based on botched DNA testing). Their attitude toward murder victims' surviving relatives is callous in the extreme; Germany still has only a vestigial state infrastructure for providing counseling and care to surviving family members of murder victims. And in the third movie, the police actively allow and sometimes even assist neo-Nazis to commit violent crimes and spread propaganda, either out of incompetence or covert sympathy for their goals.

The general portrayal of police agencies is counterbalanced by sympathetic portrayals of individual cops, but they are seen as constantly having to fight against institutional blindness, rivalry, and silo-mentality thinking. When they're not fighting against moles in their own and other agencies who actually intentionally assist the neo-Nazis. The picture of police is probably a bit exaggerated, but there is no doubt much of it was justified — there are still dozens of very strange unanswered questions surrounding the fruitless investigation of the NSU murders. And, given the authorities' mania for secrecy and the lack of a culture of vigorous investigative journalism fed by leaks from inside the government, they'll probably remain unanswered forever.

“During nice weather I’m either making whiskey or selling Nazi panties”

How some of Eva Braun's underwear allegedly reached Ohio:

He had traveled with the 506th Infantry from Africa to Europe. He got to Berchtesgaden in time for the liberation of the Nazi headquarters. Underneath Hitler’s home, he and a friend found a series of tunnels leading to a nearby hotel called Platterhof. There, they discovered boxes of Hitler and Braun’s belongings that had been stored for safekeeping. The pair loaded  seven steamer trunks with the treasures and shipped them back to America.

Snyder, accustomed to seeing one or two pieces at a time, was impressed. Over the next three years, he said, he paid $3 million in installments for the entire contents of these trunks, which had been held in “a warehouse-like place” outside Charlotte. Included in this trove were 100 pieces of Braun’s lingerie, including perhaps 20 to 30 pairs of underwear.

Aurochs With and Without Questionable Ideology

A translator opines on the difficulty of rendering Aurochs into English:

Walser was prophetic about 100% Germanness. A good decade after his 1917 story, German scientists—Heinz Heck in Munich and his brother, Lutz Heck, in Berlin—started a program to breed back the massive primordial beasts, extinct since 1627. The result was Heck cattle, misleadingly announced to the world by the publicity-savvy brothers as “back-bred aurochs.”

Although the research started in the 1920s, and the first bull said to resemble an aurochs was born in 1932, the whole effort has been remembered, not entirely unjustly, as a project of “Nazi science,” madly breeding a genetically pure super-race. Lutz joined the Party early. Time magazine says “the Nazi government funded an attempt to breed them back as part of its propaganda effort.” But one English journalist, Simon de Bruxelles, seems to have cornered the market on magnificent aurochs headlines, from “A shaggy cow story: how a Nazi experiment brought extinct aurochs to Devon”—

Through the misty early morning sunlight dappling a Devon field a vision from the primeval past lumbers into view. The beast with its shaggy, russet-tinged coat, powerful shoulders and lyre-shaped horns could have stepped straight from a prehistoric cave painting. The vision is … Bos primigenius, the aurochs, fearsome wild ancestor of all today’s domestic cattle, immortalised tens of thousands of years ago in ochre and charcoal in the Great Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux in southwest France…

—to, just last month, the nearly incomparable “Peace in our time after slaughter of Nazi super-cows:”

Britain’s only herd of “Nazi” cattle has been turned into sausages because they were so dangerous that no one could go near them…. The cattle, which have long horns as sharp as stilettos, were an attempt by Nazi scientists to re-create the prehistoric aurochs, a breed of giant wild cattle regarded with awe by Julius Caesar….

Atavistic Northern European grandiosity about aurochs lives on. There’s a new effort to resurrect the ancient breed, the Tauros Project, led by Dutchman Henri Kerkdijk, and an even newer offshoot from 2013: the Uruz Project, complete with a TED event. They want to help “rewild” Holland by “de-extincting” the animals that inhabited earlier ecosystems. It all sounds pretty plausible: as this useful summary explains, scientists sequence aurochs DNA from old bones found in Britain, then go looking for breeds of cattle alive today with segments of aurochs DNA still intact. (“Tauros,” initially called “TaurOs” ≈ Taurus + Os, “Bull + Bone.”) With the sequencing of the complete aurochs genome, celebrated on the Breeding-Back Blog last year, the double-helix dictionary of the aurochs is complete. A few more generations of selective breeding and there we’ll have it.

The aurochs are not being “recreated,” as an online commenter puts it: “They are just being ‘rejoined.’ The genes are still there, spread through the population of cows.” They are being spelled.

Here's a picture I took of an modern quasi-Aurochs recently in the Neandertal Ice-Age Animal Reserve (g), where they are no longer being bred for their chthonic-Aryan qualities. Presumably.

Aurochs with Medium Length Horns

Richard J. Evans on the Use and Abuse of the Third Reich

Richard J. Evans has an interesting essay in the Guardian on changing perspectives on Germany history among historians and the public at large:

Nazism, the society it created, the world of the Third Reich and the people who lived through it all appear as a kind of moral drama where the issues are laid out starkly before us with a clarity we are no longer able to achieve in the morally complex, confusing and compromised world we live in today. It has become commonplace to classify the inhabitants of Nazi Germany and the countries it conquered and occupied as “perpetrators”, “victims” or “bystanders”, as if the Third Reich was one single, gigantic act of criminality to be retrospectively judged as if history were a court of law. Occasionally we might nod in the direction of the few who resisted, but their numbers shrink into insignificance in comparison with those considered guilty or innocent, the actively criminal and their passive victims.

Yet we have not always approached the history of nazism in this way. Indeed, the predominantly moral perspective from which Hitler and the Germany he created are currently viewed is a relatively recent one. For a long time after the end of the war he launched in September 1939 and lost five and a half years later, Hitler was a comparatively neglected topic for historians, as were the Nazi movement and the Nazi state. Evidence was piled up for the Nuremberg trials, but the focus was very much on “war crimes”, the years before 1939 were more or less out of the visual range of the prosecutors, and the death camps at Treblinka, Auschwitz and elsewhere were not the central point of the investigation.

…Sweeping generalisations about “the Germans” are out of place both in serious historical scholarship and in an informed public memory. Wartime propaganda damned all Germans past and present for the rise of nazism and the murderous triumph of antisemitism, but nazism, it should not be forgotten, was a tiny fringe movement until the very end of the 1920s. The regime had to work hard to get popular support once it came to power in 1933, and violence played as important a role as propaganda. Prominent Jews in the Weimar Republic, notably the foreign minister Walther Rathenau, were not despised, marginal figures but enjoyed huge popular support and admiration, expressed in the national outpouring of grief on his death.

It has become increasingly difficult to sustain the view, rooted in wartime allied propaganda and given more sophisticated expression in the work of the dominant school of left-liberal West Germans of the 1970s to 1990s, that the roots of nazism lay deep in the German past. Often seen against the long-term background of modern German history since the era of Bismarck’s unification of the country in the 19th century, the Third Reich is now increasingly also viewed in a broader international, even global context, as part of the age of imperialism, its drive for domination building on a broader tradition of the German quest for empire.

 

‘Cloth Insignia of the SS’ by LTC (ret.) John R. Angolia

Not many posts recently, because I've been in Japan for the holidays, admiring Shinto shrines, being harangued by right-wing soundtrucks, ogling Harajuku cuties, and all the rest.

Browsing the bookstalls in Jimbocho, the used-book district of Tokyo, I came across a book which brought back fond memories. Good old Col. Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) John R. Angolia was a friend of the family, and used to take me to World War II war movies. Problem was, he knew so much about Nazi insignia that every couple of minutes, he would bust out and say something like 'What kind of moron directed this piece of crap? That cadet's sleeveband reads SS Schule Braunschweig in Sütterlin script. This movie is supposed to take place in 1941! Any fool knows that from 1936 onwards, Sütterlin script was reserved exclusively for the insignia of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler!' Sometimes he began clawing at the screen, and they had to drag him out of the theater.

Fortunately Old Leatherballs, as they used to call him in the army, found a productive outlet for his disturbingly profound knowledge of Nazi insignia:

Cloth Insignia of the SS cover.52

From now on, I'll never be embarrassed at dinner parties by insisting that all the sleevebands for the Heinwehr Danzig bore SS runes, when every rube knows that some of them did not. Imagine my humiliation when my host's 11-year-old son Hartmut had to correct me on that point, and then asked rhetorically: 'Daddy, why is the fat American lying?'

Below are are just a few of the 475 magical pages of this book:

SS lady.40

SS violinist.59

As for Old Leatherballs, he went on to write Leather Insignia of the SSMetal Insignia of the SS, and his famous memoirs, My Golden Hours Among the SS Insignia. How I miss him and his delightful stories of SS insignia. Rest in peace, Leatherballs.

Freude, Zucht, Glaube in the USA

As a proud owner of a copy of the official National Socialist guide to summer camping (Freude, Zucht, Glaube — Joy, Discipline, Faith), I was intrigued by this film, recently restored by the National Archives of the USA:

The curator notes

I have one great party trick. Anytime someone asks me if I’ve ever come across something really cool while working in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, I tell them about the time we had what looked like footage of a Boy Scout camp and then the Boy Scouts raised a Nazi flag along with the red, white, and blue. Without fail, I get the attention of anyone in within earshot. Then, I tell the assembled crowd that in the late 1930s the East Coast was home to many summer camps for the junior Nazis of America and the National Archives holds the film evidence. They might have been hoping that I would tell them about footage of the Roswell aliens, but the reaction to “American Nazi summer camps” is just about the same.

Volks-Deutsche Jungen in U.S.A. (German Youth in the U.S.A) you’ll see what first appears to be an unremarkable story of a boys’ summer camp. The film starts with the camp under construction and excited children piling onto chartered buses to make the journey from New York City to Windham, New York in the summer of 1937. The boys pitch tents, unload crates of baked beans, and perform physical fitness drills. If you pay close attention, you might notice that some of the boys are wearing shorts bearing the single lightning bolt insignia that marked the younger contingent of the Hitler Youth, but it’s not until the “Flaggenappell” (flag roll call) at 13:47 that the affiliation becomes clear.

Less well-known is that the DAB also operated as somewhat of a cultural indoctrination organization for German-American children, with activities that are depicted in several of the films we hold. The summer camps, complete with the official uniforms and banners of the Hitler Youth, might be the most visual and chilling example of the DAB’s attempts to instill Nazi sympathies in German-American children. Another film, intended to encourage boys to attend the camp, includes a perhaps unintentionally ominous intertitle that translates to “German boy you also belong to us.”

Gottfried Benn in English

The New Republic has a very fine essay on Gottfried Benn by Adam Thirlwell, occasioned by Michael Hofmann's recent book of English translations of Benn's poems:

The phenomenon of writers ignored, abused, cast out, disgraced, not for the disaster of their writing but the disaster of their politics, is one contribution the twentieth century has made to the history of literature. Cioran, Kipling, Gorky, you name it: the history of literature has become natty at its particular version of kashrut. We’re therefore now accustomed to the general map of literature being marked by weird absences, small oblivions, fuzzy silences. Mostly, I guess, these oblivions are now so usual that their existence is hardly noticed. Who, for instance, is exercised by the absence in their iBooks library of the German poet Gottfried Benn? And yet Benn—along with Brecht, Celan, and Rilke—is one of the great German poets of the twentieth century, the equal of Eliot or Montale. And the reason for this absence, as usual, is not the work but the life.

Benn, of course, chose a different trajectory in the terrible 1930s—even if, very soon, his work too, like Kokoschka’s, was condemned as 
degenerate. In the end every expressionist was to be shunned by the Nazi regime—just as Benn would then be shunned forever, for his year of Nazi temptation.

In other words, the career of Gottfried Benn is a case study in disgrace. And now the international reader, whose acquaintance with Benn might have otherwise been as fragmentary as a mention in an essay by T. S. Eliot or in a poem by Frank O’Hara, can finally examine this case study with voracious comprehensiveness, owing to this virtuosic, acidic selection of translations by the poet Michael Hofmann. Benn’s late style is one of literature’s great inventions, and the composition of this selection conditions its reader to concentrate on that phenomenon: from 1912 to 1947, a period of 35 years, Hofmann offers just twenty-four poems, while from 1949 to 1955, the last six years of Benn’s life, there are a lavish forty-eight.

Benn … speaks from inside this moral gray zone. He gives disgrace its aesthetic form. He experienced life as total defeat, and in this disgrace, he discovered a kind of nihilistic truth. In Benn’s poetry, the real meaning of disgrace was not remorse. No, its real meaning was isolation. In disgrace, he discovered how easily one can be severed from every community. From this isolation, his conclusion was an absolute disillusion. The only truth in which he could believe was the truth he had always relied on: the swarming, isolated self.

I have always admired Benn's poetry, and am glad it's finally gotten a persuasive advocate in English. As Thirlwell points out, Hofmann takes risks with his German translations, but they're smart ones. I've ordered the book, but it's still on its way. Benn, like Emil Nolde, initially favored the Nazi party, but was then sidelined by the cultural commissars owing to the 'degenerate' nature of his work.

The accompanying portrait of Benn, by Ivan Solyaev, is also magnificent:

Article_inset_thirlwell (1)