Wednesday, July 13, 2005

BOOK: Ernest R. Pope, "Munich Playground"

Ernest R. Pope: Munich Playground. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1941. viii + 260 pp.

I often think it would be interesting to know more about how momentous events were seen by their contemporaries, by the ordinary people who were alive at the time when the thing in question was going on. Thus when I noticed an advertisement for Munich Playground on the dust jacket of Curt Riess' Total Espionage, it immediately struck me as a book that I would like to read. Pope worked as a Reuters reporter in Munich for several years before WW2 as well as during the first two years of the war itself. In his view, Munich was a more cheerful and easy-going place than e.g. Berlin; Hitler and other Nazi leaders would often visit Bavaria to relax and have a good time: hence the word “playground” in the title of the book. Pope had many opportunities to observe that the Nazi leaders were not “an awe-inspiring group of ascetic, fanatic, and inhuman supermen” as they were sometimes imagined; “[i]ndeed, their human failings are far greater than those of other national leaders” (p. vii).

As can be expected from a book like this (indeed it was probably one of its important selling points), it contains several more or less lurid anecdotes; I have of course no idea to what extent they are true, but after all lurid anectotes may be enjoyed regardless of their truthfulness (or lack of it). To be fair to Pope, it should be pointed out that he does not insist that these stories are true, but often simply presents them as stories told by some other source, or even simply as rumours.

For example, there's the rumour that Himmler entered Unity Mitford's hotel room in Nuremberg one night and tried to get into her bed (p. 134).

And even: “it was in this room [in Hitler's residence in Munich] that Hitler's niece shot herself—after an unwilling incestual night with her wild-eyed uncle” (p. 138). Ian Kershaw in his recent biography of Hitler is more moderate (Hubris 9 VII): “whether actively sexual or not, Hitler's behaviour towards Geli [i.e. his niece] has all the traits of a strong, latent at least, sexual dependence”; however, evidence about the exact nature of Hitler's relationship with his niece and the causes of her suicide is really too scarce and unreliable to allow any clear conclusions to be drawn.

Pope also mentions rumours that Hitler and Eva Braun already got married, but thinks it unlikely because Nazi propaganda strongly promoted the view that “no mortal woman is worthy to become a Frau Hitler” (p. 138).

Chapter 10 is about Unity Mitford and her obsession with Hitler and Nazism. Supposedly Unity denounced to the German authorities a number of German citizens whom she overheard expressing critical opinions of Nazism, and saw to it that they were sent to Dachau; p. 133. Pope also claims that her suicide attempt following the outbreak of war was faked (p. 132), “she was found merely unconscious, with a superficial bullet wound” (p. 137). As far as I know, this is quite inaccurate; according to Mary S. Lovell's The Mitford Girls, the wound was in fact quite serious, Unity never fully recovered, and complications from the wound were also the cause of her death in 1948.

Himmler supposedly enjoyed “personally administering whippings to the inmates of Dachau Concentration Camp” (p. 154; see also p. 156).

When Ribbentrop and Ciano met, “plotting the overthrow of the British Empire two weeks before the war”, since Ribbentrop couldn't speak Italian and Ciano couldn't speak German, they “discussed their intrigues against England in English!” (P. 163.)

Pope also mentions “[u]nconfirmed local rumors [...] that Heinrich Himmler on occasion would flush some condemned two-legged game for the Reichsjägermeister” (i.e. for Göring, who was an avid hunter); p. 167. It's not impossible, I suppose; but such rumours often arise during wars. In the 1990s, while the war was going on in Bosnia, I remember reading in a newspaper rumours that snipers involved in the siege of Sarajevo were occasionally joined by pecunious foreign hunters who wished to add a human trophy to their collections. In fact, as long as the “hunters” are taking the same risks as the snipers, I don't see the conduct of such hunters as being inherently any less moral than that of the snipers. The hunter would in effect be acting as a short-term auxiliary or mercenary soldier of some sort. But in Göring's case, if the above anecdote is true, the matter is of course altogether different; firstly the prisoners supplied by Himmler were almost certainly imprisoned unjustly, and besides Göring was simply shooting and unarmed civillians outside of a combat/war-zone situation, so it was really nothing else than cold-blooded murder. And I must admit that, although I am not exactly a fanatical supporter of animal rights, once we agree that such “hunting” of people is simply cold-blooded murder, it's hard to think of hunting of other animals as much better than murder. Just as in the case of hunting a human, it can in no way be said that the contest is equal or fair, nor can it be said that the quarry in any sense deserves to die. Of course this does not mean that I think hunting should be altogether abolished, but it should be reduced as much as possible. For instance, if the population of some species of animals has reached unsustainably high levels, I wouldn't mind if the hunters shoot some of them; otherwise the population will sooner or later reduce itself though disease and lack of food, so in the end many individual animals will be just as dead as if they had been shot by a hunder. But often people with vested interest will claim that a population is excessive even though it in fact isn't, just so they can justify further culling; thus even hunting of species whose populations are unsustainably high should be kept to a minimum and organized so that nobody profits from it (so that nobody has an interest in providing false data to justify more hunting).

In a few places, Pope mentiones jokes from the Nazi era, for example this one about a fat and corrupt Munich functionary named Christian Weber. He was visiting a gallery with portraits of Nazi leaders, and was outraged to see that his own portrait made him look like a pig. It turned out, of course, to be a mirror (p. 30). — In my opinion one of the few good things about corrupt and totalitarian regimes is that they are good sources of jokes. I know that jokes are also told about politicians in democratic countries, but they somehow don't seem to have quite the same savour. On the web one can find excellent large collections of Soviet jokes, (e.g. this one), but it seems that German jokes from the Nazi era are much less common. Either there are fewer of them because the period also (thankfully) lasted a shorter time, or there hasn't been as much interest in preserving, recording and publishing them, or there may be a grain of truth in the accusations that Germans have an underdeveloped sense of humour (“German humour is no laughing matter”, as they say; but I doubt it; there may be brief periods of time less favourable to the development of jokes than others, and there may be individual sections of society that are on average less likely to appreciate jokes than others (Victorian-era matrons come to mind), but in general I think that a sense of humour is such a basic and common human characteristic that no nation as a whole can be said to be genuinely deficient in it for a sustained period of time). Anyway, one of the nice things about Pope's book is that it contains at least a few jokes and humorous anecdotes from the Nazi era. See e.g. pp. 215-18, 225-7, 246. A comedian said: “I don't understand why Dachau Concentration Camp is guarded so carefully. It has barbed-wire and high-voltage fences, a moat, machine-gun nests, and very high walls. Yet if I wanted to, I could get inside Dachau without the slightest effort!” (P. 216.)

Pope met Lindbergh in 1937; “[m]y conversation with the famous flyer [...] left me convinced that he was no Nazi sympathizer” (p. 205-6).

However, it shouldn't be thought that the whole book consists of nothing but lurid rumours. In fact, as a whole it was more neutral than I initially expected. Chapter 13 is particularly interesting as it presents his journalistic work, his efforts to obtain news and other information as quickly as possible; he recounts how he reported on Ludendorff's death (pp. 121-2), conventions of the German “Foreign Organization” (pp. 179-80; the organization included, among others, many German-American Nazi sympathizers), Nuremberg rallies (pp. 188-9), Chamberlain's visit of Hitler in Berchtesgaden (pp. 192-3), the Munich appeasement conference of 1938 (p. 199), the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 (p. 200). Diplomatic channels are slow and he was sometimes able to provide diplomats with news before they could receive them from their superiors (p. 196). The German people did not wish war, weren't happy about the Czech crisis in 1938 and were extremely happy when Chamberlain's appeasement policy avoided war for the time being (pp. 195, 200).

There are several passages showing how important it was to him and the other reporters to be the first to report on a particular story or piece or news; even if just by a few minutes! See e.g. pp. 121-20, 160, 199-200. I must admit that I don't entirely understand this hurry; a newspaper is only published once or perhaps twice a day, so reporting some piece of news a few minutes or even hours late cannot make much of a difference. Perhaps Reuters, of which Pope was a correspondent, also supplied news to radio stations, who might report news many times a day and would thus be more interested in really fresh news.

Chapter 15, “Nazi Morals”, is also quite interesting. The Nazi party consciously encouraged the erosion of traditional standards of sexual propriety and morality, realizing that “[a]n unhampered sex life is the outlet least dangerous to the regime [...] It is also the cheapest luxury, requiring no imported raw materials” (p. 231). (Incidentally, this last observation reminds me of the well-known limerick that ends with “Here's one thing the bastards can't ration”. :-)) Many of the Nazi leaders were also themselves inclined towards promiscuity (p. 230). This loosening of the morals particularly affected teenagers and young adults, and was one of the ways in which the authorities tried to attract them to join the Nazi organizations (pp. 229, 236). An unfortunate consequence of this was an increase in sex-related crimes (p. 235) and teenage pregnancy (p. 236-7). The weakening of family ties was partly also due to the fact that people were encouraged to enroll in various Nazi organizations, the activities in which left them little time to spend with other family members; what is more, children were encouraged to act as spies, denouncing their parents if they criticized the regime (p. 229). “The mainspring of Nazi sex policy is, of course, the drive for an increased population.” (P. 239.) This led to the introduction of various laws and taxes which discouraged people from remaining single (p. 239), prohibited contraceptives (p. 237) and abortion (p. 238), etc. Himmler recommended his SS-men that, as bearing children is a woman's “loftiest task”, they should look up women whose husbands have been drafted into the army: “Since their husbands are not in a position to become fathers, offer the women your services in the name of Germany's future.” (P. 240.) However, even if the number of births increased, many babies were weak due to “Nazi food rationing, overworked German mothers, medical malpractice” etc. (p. 242). “Although homosexuality is severely punished, Nazi authorities as yet have failed to legislate against the friendships of women.” Thus, some women, not wishing to have children, “have diverted their libido to their own, safe sex” (p. 242).

My own impression after reading this chapter about Nazi sexual morality is highly ambivalent. On the one hand I naturally always approve of any loosening of sexual morality and any removal of obstacles and inhibitions. On the other hand I am always opposed to population growth, and find the Nazis' fixation with child-bearing deplorable, and I strongly disapprove of their persecution of contraception and homosexuality. It is also regrettable that sex has been offered to people as a way of making their lives not better but merely less bad, i.e. to make their miserable lives of long working hours, food rationing, no freedom of political expression, etc., easier to put up with. It always makes me sad to see that a ruling class has found a way to buy the obedience of the exploited lower classes through a simple bread-and-circuses policy, as in this case; it reduces the likelihood that the lower classes will rebel against their regime, but without such a revolt no decent system worth living in can ever be established.

It is well known that Hitler was very fond of Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow, but it seems that in Nazi Germany this operetta was usually performed in a version that included generous amounts of female nudity (p. 7). And in 1939, Hitler commissioned a new version of the opera Tannhäuser with extra gratuitious nudity (“a nude girl posing as ‘Europa’ on a bull” and “a living, unclad Leda with her swan”; p. 138). Pope disagrees with the common belief that Hitler was not interested in women; apparently he often had one-night stands with actresses (p. 11-12, 137).

The last chapter (ch. 16, “Hitler Breaks His Toys”) shows that there are many signs that Hitler and his regime are unpopular among the Bavarians, who dislike “its Prussian nature” (p. 243), its persecution of Catholicism (see e.g. ch. 6), regimentation of all spheres of life, rationing of food, sending people to war, etc. In fact one of the reasons why Hitler plunged Germany into war was to suppress dissent more easily and to make the people rally behind him, as people are wont to do in times of war even if their leaders are otherwise unpopular (p. 243-4). Anti-Hitler sentiment was also present in the army, both among officers (p. 247) and ordinary soldiers (p. 249).

Wikipedia's article on Blitzkrieg mentions that “Though ‘blitzkrieg’ is a German word meaning ‘lightning war’, the word did not originate from within the German military. It was first used by a journalist in the American newsmagazine Time describing the 1939 German invasion of Poland.” Blitzkrieg occurs several times in Pope's book (which was first published in 1941), but one occurrence that I find particularly intriguing is on p. 255, where Pope is quoting a German who was concerned about his sons' fate in the war: “I'm afraid my sons won't be so fortunate in Hitler's damned blitzkrieg!” Perhaps the German did not use the word blitzkried and it was introduced only by Pope when translating the sentence into English; but if it was already used in German, this would suggest that the word has been present in everyday German language in late 1939 when the quoted conversation took place (and the speaker in question probably didn't have access to English-language magazines).

All in all, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Except for some of the wilder rumours, much of it seems to be quite reasonable and probably not far from the truth (as far as I can evaluate such things, of course; for example, ch. 15 on Nazi morals agrees substantially with the section “The Politics of Self-Righteousness” in Michael Burleigh's excellent recent book The Third Reich: A New History; a book, incidentally, which I enjoyed immensely, although I hated Burleigh's unnecessarily pompous and ostentatious vocabulary and his evident relish in airing his conservative political opinions). Perhaps I should read some of William Shirer's books at some point — he was another American journalist who worked in Nazi Germany for many years and later wrote several very well known books about subjects related to WW2 and Nazi Germany. And when it comes to journalists' memoirs from the Nazi period, I'll certainly have to read Bella Fromm's Blood and Banquets at some point. Alas, so many books, so little time.

It seems that not very many web pages mention Pope. According to this one, he was born in New York City on March 17, 1910; according to this one, he studied at Cornell and died in Bonita Springs, Florida, on October 4, 1995.


Blogger Michael M. said...

From the books I've read, German humor towards the end of the war was (logically enough) very dark and morbid. I've read a few examples, but the only thing that comes to mind now is that Berliners used to joke that LSR (Luftschutzraum) stood for "Lernt schnell russisch."

I'd also like to see a collection of jokes from that period, if only out of curiousity. For what it's worth, Die Brennessel was a Nazi "humor" magazine, albeit totally void of humor... So it probably doesn't count.

Nevertheless: great post. Great review.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005 12:32:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for the praise :-) as well as for the link to Die Brennessel. I agree that it isn't particularly funny. I think we should distinguish between government-sponsored attempts at humour (which tends to be really just thinly veiled propaganda), and the jokes told amongst the people in private, which may indeed be dark and morbid (if the situation is bad; but then I like dark and morbid humour anyway), but are also quite likely to be funny (because people told them to cheer each other up and make the situation feel a little more bearable). Obviously jokes of the latter sort couldn't appear in a Nazi-era print publication; but after the war they might be still collected from memory or oral tradition and then published.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005 1:15:00 PM  

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