Having endured Susan Sontag’s self-serving essay about Victor Serge, I was pleased to read the foreword to Unforgiving Years, written by the novel’s translator Richard Greeman.
Greeman quotes something Serge wrote concerning Walter Krivitsky. In 1941 Krivitsky, a defector from the GRU, was found dead in a Washington, D.C., hotel room with a bullet in his skull (FBI files here). Serge’s words seem to describe himself much better than they do Krivitsky:
There had been some fine moments in his life; he had been courageous and devoted. Now in his soul, he was a defeated man. But these types of struggles are so out of proportion to any man’s powers—and to one who was misled during the decisive years of his life, that it didn’t astonish me. Rare are those who know how to resist demoralization in defeat.
The third section of Serge’s novel is set amid the 1945 firebombing of Germany, in one of the few ‘oases of habitation’ left in ‘a ghostly city bristling with the skeletons of churches’, where people were ‘baked like potatoes in ashes… a volcanic realm of sudden explosions, smouldering dormant fires, smoky eddies of soot, dust clouds, the stench of rotting corpses’.
A US journalist, having been ferried in on a jeep, tries to interview an elderly German schoolteacher, whom he takes for a ‘former officer and civil servant by the looks of him’. The old man, his brain ‘vaporized by the heat of events’, is a loyal supporter of the Hitler regime, a self-described ‘peaceful citizen’ whose sons have died heroic deaths in Courland and Libya. He had crept out, along with others waving white rags, to meet their conquerors, in ‘avid anticipation of violence and handouts… people were appearing across the ruins like larvae emerging from the soil – and they were indistinguishable, on the whole, from the inhabitants of Chicago’s slums or any other poverty-stricken corner of the world.’
The fictional exchange records Serge’s burning contempt for those, like the journalist, who would attribute collective guilt to people based on nationality – the Michael Hanekes and Bernhard Schlinks of his day, the Daniel Goldhagens, William Deanes and Paul Keatings.
There is no national ‘we’, so far as Serge the one-time Bolshevik and long-time internationalist was concerned. There were plebeian ‘poor bastards facing exploding volcanoes’, people for whom ‘the social consciousness matched the conditions’. And there were a few helmsmen, ‘leaders wielding infinite powers of secrecy and authority’, commanding the ‘organized brutality that drives great empires.’
The fat journalist, resembling ‘some big shot’, displays no sympathy for the starving people. From behind his sunglasses and with hands on hips, he scrutinizes suspiciously the women with their powdered faces and rouged lips (‘Make mental note of this vignette’), and the ‘fairly well-dressed’ children: ‘however did they manage?’
A swift pencil and shorthand pad recorded the schoolmaster’s extravagant ramblings for the benefit of countless newspaper readers.
‘Do you people feel guilty?’
If there was one emotion which had never been experienced by Herr Schiff (at least not since his adolescent religious crises) in his half century of diligent service, that emotion was guilt. It is healthy to live one’s life in the meticulous fulfilment of duty. The schoolteacher cocked his head obligingly. ‘Pardon me, I didn’t quite catch…?’
‘Guilty for the war?’
Schiff’s gaze swept the horizon of the broken city, strewn with the dead doves of humiliation. The grander generalizations existed for him on a different plane from everyday reality. The Second World War was already down as a great historical tragedy – a quasi-mythological one – which neither Mommsen, Hans Delbrück, Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Oswald Spengler, or Mein Kampf could elucidate entirely… The sons immolated themselves upon the altar of blind gods. A new, unholy war, unworthy of human nobility, had begun with the destruction of Altstadt; and this war alone existed in reality.
‘Guilty?’ Herr Schiff said in flinty tones, with the air of a livid turkey-cock. ‘Guilty of that?’ (And he bobbed his head at the surrounding devastation.)
‘No,’ the reporter said, not quite grasping the response, ‘guilty for the war.’
‘And you’, Herr Schiff retorted, ‘do you feel guilty for this?’
‘My dear professor, the journalist began, striving for an offensive politeness, ‘you started this war… You bombed Coventry.’
‘I?’ said Schiff, in frank astonishment. ‘I?’
Franz [a former NCO, now a cripple with a hook for a hand] butted in unceremoniously: ‘Well, I fought in the war, as perhaps you can tell by looking at me. I give you my faithful, one-hundred percent amputee’s word of honour that I didn’t start it.’
‘Herr Professor’, whispered a daring old lady in a black lace cap, ‘do ask them whether the soup kitchens will be allowed to continue? Or do the American gentlemen intend to feed the city?’ She spoke the last three words more loudly, to make sure that the authority would hear them. The reporter’s eyes popped with outrage behind his shades. No shame, no guilt, not a shred! These folks seem to think we come over, leaving a hundred thousand of our boys underground along the way, just to sort out their next meal! He turned on the old lady.
‘Madam, have you ever heard of a place called Dachau?’
Intimidated by his tone, but happy to help out, she quavered enthusiastically: ‘Oh yes, it’s a pretty little town in Bavaria, where they held interesting popular festivals in the old days…’
‘Yes, sir…’ (The old lady blanched at the covert fury of the question.)
‘What about the concentration camp?’
‘Ooh, that may be, I can’t tell you about that, I’m afraid… I so seldom read the newspapers.’
Franz was grinning maniacally, Alain’s face too was that of a madman, a dangerous one. The old lady felt inexplicable tears wetting the corners of her eyes. She murmured, very humbly, ‘I beg the gentleman to excuse me if I’ve offended him’, for these were clearly military persons of great influence.
The burly [US] officer with the round beard, like a sailor in an old-fashioned illustration, hailed the reporter. ‘We’re leaving, old man. Happy with your little interview?’ ‘They are staggeringly unconscious of everything’, the journalist said. ‘Well, if you’re looking for consciousness from bombed-out towns…’