Sam Spade in the S.S.

George Orwell used to speak of "good bad books" and occasionally he argued they were better indices of the cultural moment than anything written by more celebrated authors.  In other words, the Raffles crime novels by E.W. Hornung revealed more about the public's attitude toward right and wrong during the 1930s than any of the works of Thomas Mann.

This notion has occurred to me more than once as I've enjoyed my way through Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series.  On one level Gunther is a standard-issue pulp gumshoe: former cop, current PI, divorced, remorseful, cynical.  He's straight out of the Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett-Ross McDonald playbook.

The only change is the setting.  Bernie's a good man in the Third Reich.  Along the way he finds himself working with the likes of Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann and Mengele.  And--like all good detectives in the noir genre--he struggles to follow the semblance of a moral code in a thoroughly corrupt society.  His Poisonville just happens to be an evil place on steroids. 

It's a great conceit and one wonders why someone didn't think of it earlier.  Sure, Martin Cruz Smith worked similar ground in his Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, Polar Star, Stalin's Ghost).  I don't know, though.  Nazis trump Commies as exemplars of evil in so many ways.  Kerr's Gunther has even begun to spawn imitators.  Luke McCallin is currently on book two of his Gregor Reinhardt series. Like Gunther, Reinhardt's another ex-cop from Berlin's Kripo (Kriminal Polizei) who finds himself trapped on the wrong side of Word War II.

And this is where Orwell's notion of cultural trends in popular literature comes in.  Chances are the public might not have gone for Sam Spade in the S.S. before now, even if he hit all of the appropriate anti-Nazi notes.  Twenty years ago, for example, Joseph Vilsmaier's film Stalingrad took a sympathetic look at German soldiers on the Russian front, but it was not enthusiastically distributed outside of Germany. I did manage to see the film and it felt odd to be asked to empathize with Wehrmacht grunts, especially if you had any historical awareness of what actually happened on the Russian front.  It was just difficult for me to separate the soldiers from the system for which they fought.

More recently German public television aired Generation War, a mini-series tracing the lives of five friends in war-time Germany.  The German title was "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter" (Our Mothers, Our Fathers).  The series caught some flack for its portrayal of Nazis as the "others" and the young, attractive Germans in the series as simply victims of their times.  Some critics suggested that "putting five sympathetic young protagonists into a harrowing story just offers the war generation a fresh bunch of excuses."  

My question is why has it become suddenly more palatable to write sympathetically about Germans living under the Nazi regime?  Why are we interested in them?  Partly, I suppose, it's just the passage of time.  World War Two's shadow on the culture is passing.  Nuremberg, the camps, the Eichmann trial are just pictures on a page now and subject to reinterpretation and reintegration into fiction. 

One worries, however, that something else is going on in the culture.  Is there a need in the age of Guantanamo, Abu Graib and torture-justifying legal sophistry to find more subtle moral distinctions for those swept up in evil systems?  Do we now find ourselves in need of some heroes on the wrong side of the moral divide?  I don't know. Maybe I'm letting my inner-English major get a little off-the-leash here and making more out of something than it merits.

In any case, Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels certainly fulfill Orwell's definition of "good-bad" books.  They are well-wrought popular entertainments, but maybe, too, their popularity also says something uncomortable about us.

Comments

Anonymous said…
nazis trump commies? are you comparing hitler to stalin? or mao or pol pot?
Professor Quest said…
Not making any comparison based on facts. It just seems to me that Nazis loom larger in the collective unconsciousness as emblems of evil.
Anti-Dada said…
Interesting points of view. There are a lot of possibilities for why Nazis from WWII are being viewed with more nuance or from different angles. You may be on to something with your ideas. Two other possibilities popped into my head as I was reading your post (I really like this post). One possibility is that looking at Nazis as pure evil has been done so many times for so long and yet is still so interesting that the time had finally come to look at them from other angles (and enough time has passed, as you mentioned, to be able to do so). The other possibility that I thought of is that maybe the culture has in part matured enough--in relation to Nazi Germany--to look at that time frame with more complexity and subtlety, has matured enough to allow looking at the same event from multiple angles. The only reason I even suggest the latter, though, is because the history of Nazi Germany is well known even among high school dropouts and those who may be illiterate. Outside of Jesus, Hitler is probably the best known historical figure in the West. So, on this topic at least, there actually is a public knowledgeable enough to view subtleties and different POV without hysteria. I'm going almost completely against the grain of how I usually consider Western culture in this case. However, a public capable of holding a morally ambiguous point of view for the purpose of learning more about that time frame as well as re-examining morality in general? I doubt it. Then again it might be a combination of a lot of these factors as well as others we haven't considered. Interesting subject, that's for sure.

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