‘The God of the Germans’, wrote Jung in a notorious essay of 1936 which was said to lend support to Nazi anti-Semitism, ‘is not the Christian God but Wotan.’ Leo Abse agrees. The leitmotiv of his profoundly disturbing and compulsively readable book is that a destructive aggressiveness, a Wagnerian megalomania, lurks at the root of the German psyche. Since 1945, the Germans have been struggling to repress these elements, but (as every psychologist knows) whatever is repressed tends to resurface sooner or later with a vengeance.
It is clear that a lifetime’s thought has gone into this book. Leo Abse had a German Jewish grandmother from Königsberg, and was brought up in a family in which German was spoken and German books were read. As a young man, he absorbed German socialist ideas and literature; as a soldier, he had an affair with a German woman in Africa, and witnessed the horrors of the liberated concentration camps; as an MP for thirty years, he was deeply involved in Britain’s relations with both East and West Germany. The book he has written (which he describes in the subtitle as ‘autobiographical’) is intensely personal and subjective, often eccentric and deliberately provocative, but many of its insights are extraordinary, and nothing in it can be wholly dismissed. His most controversial thesis is that Hitler was correct in depicting the Jews as an alien element in German culture: their rational tradition did not fit in with the airy mythmaking of the German soul. He has some vicious things to say about such thoroughly ‘German’ Jews as the novelist Arnold Zweig, who ended up providing a respectable front for the persecution of writers in East Germany, and the educationalist Kurt Hahn, who established at Gordonstoun what Abse regards as a dangerous system based on repressed homosexuality.
There are some odd paradoxes in this book. For example, the author laments that the Germans are fundamentally lacking in rationalism and enlightenment, yet the ceremonial reburial at Potsdam in 1991 of the bones of Frederick the Great, the most rational and enlightened German of all, shocks him to the depths of his socialist and pacifist soul. What carries total conviction, however, is his account of how the writing and teaching of history in Germany has fallen in recent years under the control of an intellectual Mafia which propagates the view that the Nazi period was a mere parenthesis, an untypical aberration, concerning which the Germans need not be ashamed as they pursue new nationalist goals. I have some personal experience here as the recent biographer of Hitler’s Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, who was considered by many to bear a heavy responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1939. My book (the first serious study of this figure and the product of nine years’ work) is being translated into French, Spanish, Polish, Czech and Romanian, but no German publisher will touch it.
Leo Abse is at his terrifying best when discussing the consequences of the collective German effort to deny guilt in relation to the recent past: as a successful criminal lawyer, he knows that a man who has committed what he subconsciously knows to be a great offence, which he denies and for which he avoids punishment, is likely to offend again in a serious form. His interest in Freudian psychology, however, leads him into some strange areas. He refers to the ‘anal’ character of the Germans, which he believes explains their obsession with order, discipline and money. The decision of ‘the eighteen anal-retentive members of the governing council of the Bundesbank’ to abandon sterling in September 1992 was influenced by ‘morbid coprophiliac displacements … The German Hausfrau’s imperious injunctions, given when the Bundesbank members, as children, sat upon their pots, are playing a significant and malevolent part in Europe’s struggles with economic recession.’
Leo Abse does not provide any direct answers to the question he poses in the title of his book: ‘Can Britain live with the Germans in the European Union?’ But he makes an eloquent plea that we should at least think seriously about the national character of the people who are likely to form the dominant element in the federal Europe towards which we may be heading:
‘Our betrothal rites with our European partners are being conducted by politicians too prim to dare to be in touch with real feelings. Dowries and financial arrangements are being endlessly discussed; but the nature of the person with whom we are to live, and our feelings towards that person, are too embarrassing to be mentioned.’