Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Perfect Nazi - hmmmm...

The Perfect Nazi by Martin Davidson (Viking: 2010 – published in paperback by Penguin: 2011). Martin Davidson is a maker of documentaries and writer of non-fiction. His family holds a secret they rarely talk about though – his Grandfather was in the SS during the War. In The Perfect Nazi, Davidson embarks upon a mission to find out what his Grandfather actually did during the war, and why he did it. How could his own flesh and blood play such an active role in one of the world’s most evil stories? Was he an unwilling passenger, or a committed member of the cause? And if the latter, what drove him to such acts of hate?
I lied to you.
And I feel bad about it, I really do. Over the last 20-odd posts, I feel we’ve developed a bit of an understanding, you and me. Blogger and blogee. And don’t try to tell me it’s all one way. I know you feel it too.
And then I went and lied to you.
I told you I was “giving the real world a rest” this week. That I’d break the streak of non-fiction reviews and pick up something fuelled by imagination again.
But I didn’t. I read The Perfect Nazi by Martin Davidson instead.
I lied to you.
But that’s OK. Because Martin Davidson lied to me too.
You see, he told me that, in the pages of this book, he “unmasked his SS Grandfather.” That he drew on “an astonishing cache of personal documents” to “understand how [his Grandfather] and millions of others like him were seduced by Hitler’s regime.” So, understandably, what I expected was a very personal book, focussing tightly on the life of Davidson’s Grandfather. A book that gave a personal history of an SS officer, one that went some way to explaining how large parts of an entire generation of Germans managed to depart so terrifyingly from Western  morality.
That was a prospect that intrigued me. Like most other people my age, I’ve learnt of the evil of Nazi Germany. Partly through school, partly through programmes like The World at War. I’ve been presented with the facts and been astonished that human beings like you and me could believe such things and commit such atrocities.
What I’ve never really seen is a sustained explanation of how they came to descend so far. That’s what Davidson promised with this book. The personal story of a single man whose life led him to an SS uniform, whose experiences delivered him to a blinding belief in things you and I find sickening.
Trying to find out how he got there – now that sounded like a book worth reading. And that’s what Davidson promised to me.
But it’s not what he gave me. What he gave me was a plotted history of the rise and fall of Nazism. Sure, there were sections that tried to focus on how the course of German history affected the man on the street. He tried to insert his Grandfather’s story wherever he could. But a lot of the time he relied on assumptions of how the narrative of history translated to the individual. He spent so much of the book on the big stage, detailing the history of the German side of the war and painting the major events that drove it.
All too often it felt like Davidson’s Grandfather’s  story was an afterthought. It’s not entirely his fault of course. He’s handcuffed in part by a scarcity of materials. His family was tight lipped about the actions of their patriarch, and finding records of an individual Nazi amongst millions restricted Davidson to a few scraps of paper detailing his rank and his memberships. Huge assumptions are made about his motivations, his state of mind, his ideology, even his actions. And, once these assumptions are made, Davidson then picks up the macro-narrative again.
But that’s exactly why I picked up this book. I wanted to know the man’s state of mind. I wanted to know how he went from innocent babe to card carrying, flag waving, Jew hating Nazi. I wanted to know exactly how this man ended up the way he did, and exactly what it drove him to do. But Davidson does not tell me any of that with any degree of certainty.
On the plus side (and there is one), this is a highly readable book. I sped through it. It wasn’t what I promised, but it was a detailed and gripping representation of the most terrifying phenomenon in modern history. Nazism has spawned a galaxy of books, documentaries, and films. As a topic, it’s as fascinating as it is frightening. These were real people that did these things. These heart breaking things actually happened. This evil truly existed. And Davidson does go into a level of detail about it that makes for some glued-to-the-page reading. That he uses a German perspective to it all perhaps gives it an extra edge. Throw into the mix the quality of writing (which is incredibly high) and you’ve got yourself a book that really is difficult to put down.
But that doesn’t get past the fact that I was lied to. I was promised a personal account, an explanation of what drove this man, and I didn’t get it. Instead, I got another history book.
I can’t help but think that Davidson has cheated here. There are thousands of books out there about Nazi Germany. I’d wager it’s one of the most written about topics of all time. It’s a topic that grips in its own right, and one that I’d bet is difficult to write about without some level of success. Davidson tried to rise above the rest by promising a genuinely new perspective and a new understanding.
All he delivered though was another (albeit very good) book about the Nazis, with just flashes of personal history based too much on assumptions.
And every one of those four are because of how well written this book is. I really did speed through it. Part of that speeding though was because I was constantly on the hunt for what I was promised.
I didn’t find it.
Right, next week I really am going to put the real world back on the shelf. Fiction for me all the way next week. I promise.
And I wouldn’t lie to you.


Anonymous said...

glad you've read that one for me! probably won't be picking that one up. Recently finished Alone In Berlin, by Hans Fallada. It's a novel, but written in 1948, and based on real experiences. in fact, the author wrote it while in prison just after the war and had a very stark view of how the German people were turned, and turned on themselves, as they shadow of Nazism fell across the country. anyway, it's a great novel, and if it's insight on the German mind set during this time that you're after, then it's a pretty good one to pick up. It was translated in to English for the first time last year.

Gav Collins said...

Thanks Anonymous. Sounds worth a read. That's what I'm loving about GBR - so many good reccomendations coming in from readers.

Consider Alone in Berlin added to the GBR list!