That an American, a person of some authority, could be so cavalier about the Nazis in a story set after the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of equal rights, not to mention after Hitler had imprisoned his political opposition and eliminated the free press — was both mind-boggling and infuriating. Of course, this was the point. A canny novelist, Wouk — who died on Friday, just shy of his 104th birthday — had the good sense to let his characters hang themselves with their own words..... It seemed silly to protest … she insisted that anti-Semitism was a blot on an otherwise exciting, lovely land.” As such, her resistance primarily took the form of playfully chastising high-ranking Nazis at booze-filled dinner parties.
...... Adelle Waldman, NYT book reviewThe NY Times June 23 book review print edition this past Sunday had this very interesting piece on the late Herman Wouk who died recently.
Herman Wouk Wrote Historical Novels. But His True Subject Was Moral Weakness.
At the beginning of Herman Wouk’s novel “The Winds of War” (1971), the book’s hero, Victor “Pug” Henry, is offered a post as the United States Navy’s attaché in Berlin. The year is 1939.
Pug discusses the job with a fellow naval officer, a man named Tollever who previously held the position. “Hitler’s a damned remarkable man,” Tollever says over drinks in Pug’s elegant Washington, D.C., living room. “The Germans do things in politics that we wouldn’t — like this stuff with the Jews — but that’s just a passing phase, and anyway, it’s not your business.”
Tollever tells Pug that the worst of it was Kristallnacht, “when Nazi toughs had smashed department store windows and set fire to some synagogues.” But, he says, “even that the Jews had brought on themselves, by murdering a German embassy official in Paris.” Besides, the whole thing was exaggerated by the press; as far as Tollever knew, “not one” Jew “had really been physically harmed.” In sum, Tollever had enjoyed the post immensely: “I haven’t drunk a decent glass of Moselle since I left Berlin.”
When I read this, I wanted to throw the book at the wall.
That an American, a person of some authority, could be so cavalier about the Nazis in a story set after the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of equal rights, not to mention after Hitler had imprisoned his political opposition and eliminated the free press — was both mind-boggling and infuriating.
Of course, this was the point. A canny novelist, Wouk — who died on Friday, just shy of his 104th birthday — had the good sense to let his characters hang themselves with their own words.
Wouk’s best books have aged surprisingly little. Among these are his impeccably researched World War II novels, “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance” (1978). Even decades after they were published, these novels continue to have something to teach us.
Wouk is often grouped with middlebrow writers of popular historical fiction — James Michener and Leon Uris, say — but his novels are better understood as pointillistic character studies in historical settings. The World War II books follow the Henry family — Pug, his wife, Rhoda, and their three grown children — through the war years, providing a framework in which the era’s most prominent figures, from F.D.R. and Churchill to Stalin and Hitler, plausibly make cameos. Although sweeping, the novels aren’t melodramas. They are the kinds of books in which an attractive young woman in a doomed love affair comes down with a cold — and doesn’t die. She doesn’t even become seriously ill. She takes some aspirin and goes to bed early.
These are also novels in which you can’t immediately tell whether a character will turn out to be mostly admirable or mostly not. With Wouk, it takes hundreds of pages of seeing the character in action before you can decide — and even then, your verdict is liable to remain uncertain and subject to change. Even in literary fiction, this kind of authorial restraint and fidelity to human complexity is surprising.
But the main reason the novels still feel urgent has to do with the nature of Wouk’s ambition. He didn’t set out merely to write a family saga or to smuggle a history lesson into a story. Wouk wanted to know how so many people in Europe and America allowed the Holocaust to happen. He uses the tools of the novel to anatomize the various psychological mechanisms and sociopolitical rationalizations that enabled intelligent, generally well-meaning and well-informed individuals to justify or ignore what was right in front of them.
As a novelist, Wouk could do things a historian couldn’t: enter not only the living rooms but the minds of a diverse range of characters. Take Rhoda, for instance. She is a little frivolous, easily distracted, occupied more by her private life than by politics. In other words, she is a lot like many of us. When she and Pug arrive in Berlin, she at first refuses to walk in the Tiergarten: “It was far more clean, pretty and charming than any American public park, she admitted, but the signs on the benches, juden verboten, were nauseating.” But with time, her resistance wears down: “Day by day, she reacted less to such things, seeing how commonplace they were in Berlin, and how much taken for granted. … It seemed silly to protest … she insisted that anti-Semitism was a blot on an otherwise exciting, lovely land.” As such, her resistance primarily took the form of playfully chastising high-ranking Nazis at booze-filled dinner parties.
This feels sadly right to me, the way someone with good intentions, someone not consciously monstrous, becomes nonetheless inured to cruelty and injustice in a context in which these evils are normalized. This is also the way we tend to feed our self-esteem but accomplish nothing, by railing against an injustice from a position of personal safety.
Just as unsettling is the response of a Jewish character, Aaron Jastrow, a prominent American author living in Italy. Jastrow is so attached to his self-image as an intellectual — someone too knowing and philosophical to do anything as gauche as panic — that he responds to Hitler’s rise to power with detachment, a reaction that on its face seems baffling, given that it’s 1939 and that he lives in a fascist country closely allied with Germany. “I’m impressed with Hitler’s ability to use socialist prattle when necessary, and then discard it,” Jastrow tells guests over a wine-filled lunch, weeks before the outbreak of war. “He uses doctrines as he uses money, to get things done. They’re expendable. He uses racism because that’s the pure distillate of German romantic egotism.”
Pug’s son Byron voices the reader’s discomfort: “I’m surprised you talk as calmly about Hitler as you do. Being Jewish, I mean.”
Jastrow answers a little peevishly: “Young people — young Americans especially — aren’t aware that the tolerance for Jews in Europe is only 50 to 100 years old and that it’s never gone deep. … If Hitler does win out, the Jews will fall back to the second-class status they always had under the kings and the popes. Well, we survived 17 centuries of that. We have a lot of wisdom and doctrine for coping with it.”
This is jarring not simply because Jastrow turns out to be wrong on the facts. Wouk is getting at something deeper: a tendency of supposedly sophisticated people to dismiss the possibility of cataclysm. At play is a sort of intellectual vanity that seeks to distance itself from anything that could be seen as hysterical or rube-like.
By far the most chilling point of view Wouk presents is that of a German general, a man who is not himself especially anti-Semitic but who serves Hitler to the end, and writes a memoir after the fact. General Armin von Roon forces us to look at the “problem” of the Jews from the perspective of the German military, as horrific as this is: “11 million dispersed inhabitants of Europe had been designated as our nation’s blood enemies. In Germany the Nuremberg decrees had expelled them from civic, business and professional life. The Third Reich, once it began its armed drive to normalize Europe, therefore had to reckon at the outset with this closely knit community branching all over the continent, with powerful connections and substantial resources overseas.” In other words, having persecuted the Jews for years, the Nazis, once the war began, felt besieged by the presence of so many potentially hostile actors in their midst.
The Reich planned to keep the Jews in ghettos until they died naturally of starvation and exposure, von Roon says. But humans have a remarkable ability to adapt even to the direst conditions. “The slow rate of attrition became worrisome,” he says. “Plagues broke out, and plague germs do not distinguish between captors and prisoners. The weakened Jews therefore became a standing menace to the local populations and to our armed forces.” In this context, von Roon describes the “switch to euthanasia” (that is, the advent of the gas chambers) as merciful: “Since these people were in any case condemned to death, would not a quick, unexpected, painless end free them from long woes?” For him, Auschwitz and the other death camps emerged out of “essentially humane considerations.”
This defense of the indefensible, coming from an individual with a veneer of civilization, is as disturbing as anything I’ve ever encountered in a novel. It’s a reminder that human reasoning can be used toward many ends, including rationalizing whatever is expedient.
One of Wouk’s achievements in these novels is to present a wide range of convincing, socially precise responses to Nazism, from von Roon’s cold justification and Jastrow’s self-enamored philosophizing to Rhoda’s flakiness and the bankrupt dissipation of a man of the world like Tollever.
We tend to associate fiction’s capacity to perform a moral accounting with the private sphere, with romantic and family drama, rather than with world affairs. But Wouk reminds us that it doesn’t have to be so, that history is shaped in no small part by the personalities and particular habits of thought of multitudes.
Adelle Waldman is the author of the novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”