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The Sins of The Father – Scottish Review of Books
by Alan Taylor

The Sins of The Father

November 12, 2011 | by Alan Taylor

The trial in Jerusalem in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann was what we have learned to call a media circus. Between 1941 and 1945 Eichmann was directly responsible for the transporting of over two million Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps. By the late 1950s, however, he had sunk into semi-obscurity in Argentina, a favourite hiding place of fugitive Nazis. As his biographer, David Cesarani, acknowledged, he was ‘a colourless administrator of mass murder’ and may well have remained so had the head of the Israeli Secret Service not received a tip off as to his whereabouts.

It was Hannah Arendt who first portrayed Eichmann as just another efficient cog in a wheel that was madly spinning. Far from being unusual or unique, Eichmann, at least to Arendt, was an ordinary man, easily replaceable, unimaginative, the embodiment of her resonant phrase, ‘the banality of evil’. He had never himself physically murdered anyone.

Thus, as Cesarani has acknowledged, ‘From the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s the mass murder of the Jews was seen as the zenith of  modern bureaucracy, rather than as a throwback to barbarism. Nazi Germany was characterized as a super-centralised modern and hierarchical state in which power and authority flowed from the top downwards and officials decided the fate of millions. Mass murder was a “medicalised” process or an economic rationalization carried out by professional men, doctors and lawyers, in crisply pressed black uniforms, who consigned human beings to “Fordist” death factories on the basis of quasi-rational decisions derived from racial eugenics and economic planning. Eichmann, the bureaucratic desk-killer par-excellence, thus became a key to one of the most enduring approaches to the Nazi era and the “Final Solution”.’

Allan Massie was not the first Scottish novelist to recognize in the trials of Nazis which followed Germany’s defeat a subject rich in fictional potential. Muriel Spark, of whom Massie wrote a formative study, attended the Eichmann trial for five days at the behest of the Observer and later drew on the experience for The Mandelbaum Gate, which appeared in 1965. For Spark, whose father was Jewish, the sight of Eichmann dissembling and deferring to the bench, as he had once deferred to Hitler and others in Nazi hierarchy, was sickening and disturbing. She had recently completed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which fascism is allowed insidiously to flourish in an Edin-burgh school, and here she was looking into its face. Yet she could not side wholeheartedly with the Israelis in their re-established homeland. In particular, she found their attitude to the Arabs whom they had displaced deeply worrying. All of this emerged in her novel in which the heroine, Barbara Vaughan, is made to think that, ‘Knots were not necessarily created to be untied. Questions were things that sufficed in their still beauty, answering themselves.’

Whether Allan Massie would subscribe to such a philosophy is debateable. What one can safely say, however, is that such knots as he presents in The Sins of the Father are not easily unravelled. Throughout a prolific career as a novelist and journalist, Massie has been concerned with rejecting pat answers or solutions. Quick fixes are not his default. Simple solutions to complex problems are relatively rare. History is worth consulting for precedents and guidance. But the past was no more black and white than the present. The story of human beings is that of choices and circumstances and relationships. Why we act in one way rather than another is freighted with possibility and danger. Sentimentality is as pernicious as deceit. Good men are capable of doing bad things and vice versa, especially, but not exclusively, in a time of a war. That is a fact, the denial of which is a denial of the truth. In the Second World War, there were good Germans and bad Germans, as there were good Jews and bad Jews, even in the concentration camps. Ultimately, we are all Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

In 1977, when he was 39 years old, Massie contributed an essay to a book of that title. In ‘Retrospective’, he looked back and forward, noting as he did so that, ‘The past I write down today is then the past for today.’ He also decried ‘the beastliness of Predestination’ while speaking up for Calvinism. ‘The image is the Kirk in the moorlands, man face to face with God: reductio ad simplicitatem. It is God felt as a pure Wind of Reason and also as something beyond reason.’

All of the above sentiments have found their way into Massie’s fiction and, in particular, The Sins of the Father. Interestingly, no overt mention is made in ‘Retrospective’ of World War Two. He was of course too young to have other than a bystander’s view of it. What he knew of it and what the effect on him was he does not say. Born in Singapore and brought up in a farming community in Aberdeenshire he would have been less aware of it than many boys of his age.

Of his early novels, The Death of Men is perhaps the best indicator of how Massie’s work was developing. Based loosely on the kidnapping of the Italian politician Aldo Moro in 1978, it combined elements of the thriller with a serious exploration of political and personal morality in the 1970s not only in Italy but across Western Europe, climaxing in ‘a grand orgy of hypocrisy’. Massie’s next novel in a similar vein was A Question of Loyalties, published in 1989, which can be viewed a loose-fitting prequel to The Sins of the Father. Set during WWII in Vichy France, its central character is Lucien de Balafré, an idealist with a deep sense of duty, his aim during the war being to serve France. But that proves not to be as simple as it sounds and Massie uses Lucien to demonstrate that in a time of war individuals, whose view of the bigger picture is not as clear as it could be, can find themselves on the wrong side at the wrong time fighting the wrong enemy and supporting an ideology that their old pre-war selves would have found abhorrent.

By the time The Sins of the Father opens, however, the war is already slipping from view. The novel begins in the 1960s in Argentina which not only helped Nazis escape pursuit but, under the regime of Juan Perón, consciously offered them succour and protection. It is some two decades since Hitler’s demise and in Buenos Aires it is as if the Holocaust had never happened. Franz and Becky are apparently in love and determined to be married. He is the son of a German engineer who is also a Nazi criminal; she is the daughter of a blind Jewish economist and a survivor of the concentration camps. When the two families are brought together by the impending nuptials, Eli, Becky’s father, recognises – by his voice – Rudi, Franz’s father, and sets in motion his apprehension and removal to Israel where he will be tried for war crimes, following in the footsteps of Eichmann who was found guilty and executed.

If that all seems too neat and symmetrical it is anything but. Nothing, save for Massie’s style, is tidy in a plot that is as intricate as it is raw and discursive. As Rudi sits in the dock, Becky discusses with Luke, a young Israeli novelist, the comparative horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. For Luke, the Holocaust wins hands down, which, he says, cannot be understood if ‘you don’t realise that Hitler held out the offer not only of revenge’.

‘Revenge for what?’ asks Becky.

‘What you like,’ replies Luke. ‘Let us say for the humiliation of existence. Not only revenge, but hope. A clean sweep. A new purified beginning. You cannot understand it unless you are prepared to accept how attractive Nazism was in its early day… If I had been German, and not a Jew, I would, no, I might well have been a Nazi in 1928.’

This, then, is the crux of Massie’s intelligent, intellectually-challenging and disturbing novel. It is meant, of course, to make us think as well as to entertain us. What happened in Germany from Hitler’s rise to power until his craven suicide, we are led to believe, could have happened anywhere if the conditions were had been similar. The exercise and acceptance of power was crucial to the reality of the Holocaust. Who did what to whom and when was, in a sense, as banal as producing motor cars. Moreover, Massie appreciates that the scale of the killing was so outrageous that it was almost beyond imagination and therefore capable of being dismissed from our minds. For who knows what six million people look like? How much space do they take up? Later in his peroration Luke tells Becky that large numbers became playthings. He is talking, initially, about the calamitous collapse of the Ger-man currency in the 1920s. Then he adds, ‘Besides, it is easier to kill a million men than ten. The ordinary person couldn’t even bring himself to kill a single calf, but the slaughterhouse worker kills hundreds and goes home to a good supper.’

It is hard to read this passage and not think of the then prevailing view of Eichmann who for so long was deemed in the great scheme of things to be relatively insignificant. In that regard he is like Rudi, and much of what he – as a fictional character – tells us about himself is similar to much of the mythology that grew up around Eichmann. Like Eichmann, Rudi as a young man encountered Jews he hated. His life was going nowhere and he dreamt of killing himself. He had menial, dead-end jobs. Then, he tells Franz, he heard Hitler speak and it was as if he had been given a lifesaving injection. ‘He spoke to me, directly to me, in an audience of thousands.’ The Bible contains similar descriptions of Christ’s effect on those who saw him preach. ‘That was his genius,’ says Rudi of Hitler. ‘He spoke to those who had been isolated and who in their isolation had ceased to believe even in the possibility of their own existence. Unless you understand that, you understand nothing. I joined the party. Oh, moment of blessed release and fulfilment! I had become someone.’

Rudi’s conversion to National Socialism was religious in its intensity, as was Eichmann’s. In Hitler, they both found their saviour, someone to lead them to the Promised Land, where there would be lebensraum aplenty. But how men who had previously been nobodies could become mass killers is a mystery that has perplexed countless scholars and philosophers. What seems the most likely explanation is that somehow, without being specifically ordered to do so, they read his thoughts and gave him what he wanted. The sociologist Max Weber termed this ‘charismatic authority’, which he described as ‘power legitimized on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers.’ It is as if a whole population was not free to act individually and according to conscience. They were transfixed, mesmerized, automatized, brutalized, dehumanized. Their sin was made manifest in their inability to react, which makes The Sins of the Father a novel that continues to haunt our thoughts and force us to ask what would we do, what could we do, what must we do, if ever we are confronted with anything remotely similar.

Sins of the Father will be published early in 2012 by Vagabond Voices

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