By Nicholas Stix
December 20, 1996
“Leichenträger zur Wache.” “Corpse carriers to the guardhouse,” recalls an Auschwitz survivor in Mother Night, the new film based on Kurt Vonnegut’s 1966 novel.
Despite a sterling cast, Mother Night passed by without fanfare, while Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, is a bestseller. Repeating Christopher Browning’s tale of police battalions of ordinary Germans, young Goldhagen argues that Germany was a nation of Nazis.
Is this 1996 or 1946?
Mother Night’s fictional protagonist, Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte), is either a traitor or America’s greatest spy. A successful, American-born playwright raised in Germany, Campbell is unofficially recruited by American intelligence major John Goodman to spew Nazi venom on the radio. But unlike Tokyo Rose or Ezra Pound, Campbell works for us.
He and his German actress wife, Helga (Sheryl Lee), are romantics who feel allegiance only to their “Reich der Zwei,” a nation (really, empire) of two. But their “nation” cannot survive Nazism and total war. Kurt Vonnegut perfectly captures the extremes of the German psyche: The boundless romanticism that would die for love, and the spiritual “inner emigration” from a mad world, which one outwardly obeys.
Escaping prosecution at war’s end, Campbell loses himself in Greenwich Village. Following his discovery on a fluke, a series of strange visitors land on his doorstep: Old Nazis; the “black Fuehrer of Harlem”; paunchy veterans seeking revenge; his beloved Helga, long-believed dead; and Soviet and Israeli agents.
During The War, Vonnegut was one of our fly boys who firebombed Dresden. Later, he sought to make sense of the madness through surrealism, yet without abandoning his humanity, unlike today’s bloodless “postmodernist” writers. Like George Orwell’s 1984, Mother Night depicts a last lunge at love in a world in which gestures have lost all meaning. Sheryl Lee (with a perfect German accent) is heartbreaking, as the embodiment of boundless love.
Conversely, Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a shrill, polemical shout by a man who knows the words, but not the music. No heartbreak here. Goldhagen insists that Nazism was the German spirit’s truest expression. But the Russians and Poles were more virulent anti-Semites. And a real historian would know that under opportune circumstances, “upstanding” citizens will denounce their neighbors, steal their property, even kill them en masse.
But then, unlike Vonnegut, tin man Goldhagen had no interest in plumbing the depths of the German (gentile or Jewish) soul.
A “professional Jew” and Harvard professor, Goldhagen cultivates victimhood the way so many black writers do. Thus, the explosion of so many intellectually corrupt Judaic and Holocaustr (and black) studies programs, whose proponents never noticed the passing of “a time when gestures had meaning.”
During five years spent in West Germany, I saw Jews born after the war, Henryk Broder and Leah Fleischmann, make fortunes off books proclaiming the Germans’ vileness. Professional Jews seem unconcerned that the Nazis slaughtered not six million, but twelve million civilians, split evenly between Jews and gentiles. That’s minority politics for you.
That Goldhagen’s largely unread tome should be a bestseller, following the success of Schindler’s List, tells me that people are holding fast to the Holocaust.
But insight into horror is not to be had through such crude means. The most powerful works were more indirect, more delicate, e.g., Stanley Kramer’s film, Judgment at Nuremberg; Paul Mazursky’s film of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Enemies; and death camp survivor Paul Celan’s poem, “Todesfuge.” Or they turned them into cartoons, as Art Spiegelman did in Maus.
Those who would tell the epic of the 20th century must be up to the task. Fifty years later, few are, and fewer care. As with slavery, you cannot use the sufferings of the fathers as a weapon to secure privileges for the grand- and great-grandsons.
Postscript, Sunday, January 15, 2017: An orthodox rabbi from Far Rockaway, Queens, where Straight Talk was based, responded to this column with a letter to the editor, denouncing me as a rabid anti-Semite. The publisher immediately stopped running my columns, without explanation. Since she wasn’t paying me, anyway, this did not hurt me in the wallet, but cost me a very modest audience. Her weekly didn’t survive much longer, anyway, which might have had something to do with other people besides me discovering that her delivery man was dumping much of each week’s run in the garbage.