Two things really shocked me about the story you tell in All That I Am. First, the horrific indifference of the British and US authorities that borders on complicity. Second, how untold the story is. Do you feel these two factors are related?
First I should make clear that the plot of All That I Am is invented, along with, of course, the interior lives of the characters. Much of what happened to my characters did happen—most importantly the betrayal of one friend by another and the subsequent kidnapping and the deaths in Bloomsbury not long afterwards.
After staring long and hard at the available evidence (for months, going on years) I puzzled out the story of these people and events in a way that seemed both likely and emotionally true, as well as intricately knitted in to what is historically known.
But a proper historian would no doubt see it differently—the inquest verdict of a double suicide, for instance, still stands. That said, the issue of British and US indifference is historically accurate. As is the largely untold story of these very early, very brave anti-Hitler activists.
The issue of British appeasement of Hitler is very interesting. One can understand a general reluctance for the British leaders to seriously contemplate another war brewing with Germany.
They were from a generation that had lived through the horrors of the First World War, and I think there was a sense that “this cannot be happening again”.
The deaths in Bloomsbury were widely reported in the papers at the time, and rumours abounded of nefarious Nazi activity in London. In that sense there was no “cover up”.
However, it is curious to me that the coroner, at the inquest into the deaths, refused to allow political issues of any kind to be raised. This was in the context of the very suspicious deaths, together, of a politician and a political activist in exile—one of whom was deeply involved in exposing Nazi activities in London.
I have at times wondered if this was usual, or whether an order was given from somewhere in the British government or administration for no politics to be raised in the inquiry. And if so, from whom?
In my book the Swiss government is outraged (as it actually was) by the kidnapping that occurred on its soil. It protested loudly, and in the end effectively, to Hitler’s government.
This was a very different reaction from that of most members of the British government to the alleged activities of Nazi agents in London in the 1930s.
In addition, a social historian would be able to tell you more about the effect of British anti-semitism on this issue. I know from seeing fairly brusque Foreign Office communiqués of the time referring to “Israelites” that it existed.
The US turning away the boat of Jewish refugees off its coast was a shocking thing for me to learn. This is more so because the Australian government has been busy these last ten years, for largely internal xenophobic reasons, turning away boats of refugees from our own coasts.
There have been horrific mass drownings, many of women and children. This is devastating in itself. It is also distressing to think that the price of short-term political popularity can be the deaths of people considered “other” than us.
More generally on the “untold” nature of the story of early resisters to Hitler, it seems to me there’s sometimes an inverse relationship between how recent the history is and how hard it is to see or tell.
I described this explicitly in Stasiland—and in fact the example of the reception of that book itself in Germany might serve as a good one here.
It was pretty clear that in the mid-1990s, the general public in Germany, and the political class in particular, did not want to hear stories of resistance in the former East Germany. It is not, however, that these were suppressed in any conspiratorial way.
It is a more interesting and complex manoeuvre which begins with ignoring, trivialising or over-swiftly declaring, “We know all about that—subject closed” when the history is too close and too hard.
This way of speaking about an issue works its way, as time goes on, up to full-blown forgetting.
The public narrative in unified Germany was—and I oversimplify here, but you will get the picture—that East Germany had been a nation of downtrodden whingers.
The East Germans were considered to have been subservient to authority in a way deeply troubling to West Germans because it reminded them of their own history (which was of course also East German history, though the East German government had rendered themselves and their people innocent of Nazism).
The stories in Stasiland showed that there was a great deal of heroism and conscience among ordinary people. Consequently these stories were hard for the German nation to hear.
It was hard for left wing ex-1968ers in West Germany to hear of the perfidy of the socialist state. And it was hard for ordinary Germans to hear of yet another totalitarian dictatorship flourishing on German soil.
And then, too, there was the urgent project of “all getting along” which the new government of united Germany wished for. In my view, you can’t “get along” until the victims are recompensed and the heroes honoured.
The issue of recognising the heroic resistance to the Hitler regime is a little different. Just about everyone who lived through it is dead. These things are easier to look at when there can be no calling to account.
I have always been struck by the story of Sophie and Hans Scholl, the brother and sister in the movement called the “White Rose”.
Much, much later than my characters, in 1941, these two, and some of their university friends, were arrested and then executed for distributing anti-Hitler leaflets.
In the village they came from, after the war their parents were seen as pariahs, because they had produced “traitor” children. It took till decades for them to be honoured in their own home.
I find these kinds of continuing loyalties and beliefs very interesting. They dictate, probably as much as any kind of official secrets’ act or official silencing, what stories can and can’t be heard at a particular time.
Do you think that your novel, together with the recently republished Alone In Berlin, means there is a thirst for a different account of history? Does the novel, as opposed to a straight history book, have a specific role to play in this?
The issue of responsibility for the Holocaust is hugely complex, and there is a vast field of historical and literary writing about it.
It is possible in a novel to represent emotional truths. Desire (and its attendant blindness), for instance, or courage and fear—as in All That I Am in a way that would not be legitimate for a historical account of those people.
That said, I still think a novelist has a similar kind of moral responsibility to the historical truth as a historian does.
Did you feel that as a story All That I Am would have something to say to those who fight today? The contemporary relevance of All That I Am is for me highlighted by two very different things. First, the current economic and social crisis which carries faint echoes of the 1920s. Second, the combination of selflessness and comradeship and pressure to conform and submit experienced by those who commit themselves to radical social change (glimpses of which Socialist Worker readers may recognise from their own lives).
I think there are many contemporary resonances. I didn’t labour these in the novel. But I did feel while I was writing that this is not a historical book. This is something about a human and political dynamic that could happen anywhere, that has happened throughout history, and that is most certainly going on in our time.
This book could be about China or Burma, or about the struggles in the Middle East and Africa. Where there are abominable acts of absolute governmental power there will always be people of conscience who see what should be done. And, rather extraordinarily, there will always be people prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
I think that the pressure to conform within political organisations can be very difficult for some of the members, though no doubt to a certain point it is necessary. Dora, in All That I Am (and in life), couldn’t stay in the USPD. I’m not much of a joiner either—though I see that as a character fault.
I was at the university in the 1980s, and I found that the left wing campus groups that I sympathised with to some extent—mainly feminists and socialists—required a kind of conformism of thinking, behaviour and even dress that I couldn’t manage.
I would hope that All That I Am might have something to say to your readers—and they to me in response perhaps. I think it is very important for brave people to speak out against injustices.
I think that sometimes the times are listening, and sometimes they are behind and cannot hear.
Read Yuri Prasad’s review of review of All That I Am
All That I Am is out now and published by Penguin, £16.99. You can buy a copy from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, at bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or 020 7637 1848