When I was ten years old and a budding philatelist with an album to be filled, my father gave me the collection he had made in the 1930s. He had specialised in airmail stamps, which at the time formed a sub-genre all of their own. It was only much later that I wondered how he had found them. The answer lay in a small bundle of envelopes tucked into the back flap of his album. Carrying airmail stamps of their own, they came from a Jewish dealer in Vienna.
By this time I was familiar with the history of that dark decade, so probed a bit further. The postmarks began in late 1936 and ended abruptly in April 1938 – a month after the Nazi takeover of Austria. What, I wondered, had happened to my father’s dealer? Ten years ago, still curious and on holiday in Vienna, I visited its Jewish Documentation Centre and enquired if they had any record of him. Five minutes later the archivist returned. ‘No record of deportation’, she said, with an air of finality. I like to imagine that he escaped, perhaps to set up business again in New York or Tel Aviv. Yet he could just as well have fled to illusory safety in Paris or Amsterdam, only to be sent to the death camps from there.
Which brings us to Giles MacDonogh’s book. The year 1938, he argues, was one of cataclysmic change for Germany and so merits a book all to itself. The device of taking a year and declaring it a turning point or milestone is a familiar one, and if done well can be illuminating. Certainly there is much to be said for singling out this of all the years between the Nazi seizure of power and the outbreak of the Second World War. For it was then that Hitler purged the German army of half-hearted generals, made himself supreme commander, prodded the West’s defences, and found them seriously wanting. He followed that with the Anschluss that brought his own native country forcibly into the bosom of the Reich, and finished up by annexing the Sudetenland. The year also witnessed the horrors of Kristallnacht and the first serious deportation of the Jews from the Reich, thus ushering in the Holocaust.
Unfortunately the format chosen by the author dilutes rather than strengthens the story, for he devotes a chapter to each of the year’s twelve months. Perhaps the intent is to create tension in a Jack Bauer, clock-ticking, countdown-to-disaster sort of way, but if so it doesn’t work. All it does is highlight the fact that some months were more important than others. Padding out those where little happened with inconsequential gossip trivialises the whole. Does it really help his thesis to devote two whole pages to Goebbels’s self-pitying whines about the miserable debacle of his affair with the Czech actress Lída Baarová? Too often the book descends into a mechanical chronicle of unconnected events.
That said, there are some good parts. It’s on the fate of Austria’s Jews that MacDonogh writes best. This is probably because the history of Central Europe is to some extent that of his own family. 1938, he tells us, was the year that his maternal grandfather’s Viennese family was scattered to the four winds. Thus he is able to mine dozens of sources in German that shamefully illuminate the small, daily humiliations heaped on the Jews of Vienna which, long before the mass killings began, cumulatively destroyed their lives. Like the diaries of Victor Klemperer, who chronicled the endless humiliations visited on the Jews in Dresden, they help us understand the roots of genocide. The book is excellent on the details of how the Nazis turned on the Jews, as well as on their victims’ often bewildered responses and their increasingly desperate stratagems to survive and escape.
Amongst Vienna’s Jews were some of the most talented writers and artists of the age. The Nazis moved rapidly to seize their royalties – their confiscation of Jewish assets was, after all, one of the largest organised robberies in history, comparable to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The Nazis dignified it by coining a new word, arisieren (to Aryanise). What remains shocking is how many Austrians greedily joined in the legalised looting. Take, for example, the case of Felix Salten, the pen name of Siegmund Salzmann, the author of Bambi: A Life in the Woods. By the time of the Anschluss, the book had become an international bestseller and he was enjoying considerable royalties. But after the Anschluss his publishers simply refused to pay him. Fortunately for Salten, by 1942, when Walt Disney transformed Bambi into an animated film, he was living safely in Zurich. The businessman and writer George Clare, whose masterpiece of family history Last Waltz in Vienna was tellingly subtitled The Destruction of a Family, 1842 – 1942, and who died only this March, was another fortunate who escaped (in his case to London), although his parents did not. They, like thousands of others, fled to Paris only to be arrested later by the Vichy authorities and deported from Drancy to Auschwitz.
Thanks to this book – the excellent bits, that is – I shall hold on more firmly to those envelopes from Vienna as poignant and fragile evidence of a community destroyed, a past now vanished, and an individual whose life was swept up in the whirlwind of history.