“You are from Germany?” asks Alex, the very friendly owner of the very cozy accommodation in a prefab neighborhood of Yerevan.
“Then I have to show you a steel helmet.”
He gets up, and I follow him into the dining room, where there is not only a swastika-decorated helmet, but also workbooks of the Reich Labor Service, Wehrmacht officer’s whistles, an SS badge and Heinrich Himmler’s glasses, all nicely arranged like in a museum.
I don’t want to start a discussion with my host (especially as I don’t speak any Armenian or Russian), but he can recognize my lack of enthusiasm. Alex quickly proceeds to show me my room, thankfully free of fascist memorabilia, the balcony and the bathroom.
I am not one to argue that you should only visit countries of which you speak the language. If I was, I wouldn’t have made it to 65 countries or so myself.
But speaking the language does increase the experience.
If I hadn’t known some Spanish, I would have been completely dumbfounded by this English translation at the bus terminal in Baza, Andalusia, for example.
Even the Spanish original has a typo.
Still, it was a lovely old-fashioned bus terminal, where the answer to everything from “Is there a bus to Orce today?”, “Can I buy a ticket here?” to “Is this the right bus to Orce?” is an optimistic, yet non-committal “I think so.”
More about Andalusia, all helpfully translated into a language that you understand.
I purchase three pieces of cake. They cost 5 euros and 13 cents.
I have 12 cents in coins, otherwise only bills.
“That’s not enough,” the bakery lady says with mathematical precision, so I have to hand her a 10-euro bill and she has to hand me a bunch of coins.
That’s how it works, perfectly correct.
A few years ago, in Bolivia:
I am walking through the neighborhood in Cochabamba, discover a small bakery, have two pieces of cake wrapped up for take-away, which costs 14 bolivianos (= 1.70 euros).
Unfortunately, I do not have the right change, but only a 50-boliviano bill. That equals only 6 euros, but is enough to embarrass the bakery lady, because she doesn’t have enough change. It’s a family bakery, tucked away in a residential neighborhood, not too busy.
“No problem,” I offer, “I’ll quickly go to the supermarket and buy something to drink, so I can get some change.”
“Do you live around here?” asks the bakery lady, who has seen me for the first time and must have noticed that I am not Bolivian.
“Yes, a few blocks away. Lucas Mendoza Street.”
“Then just pay whenever you come by again. Better enjoy the cake now!”
With the spectacular opening episode of this historical series, I wanted to point out that World War I ended neither with the armistice nor with the peace treaty. Shooting, fighting, conquering, occupying and liberating continued everywhere. The aftermath of the Great War will continue to haunt us for many episodes to come. Exactly one hundred years ago, in March 1921, for example, French and Belgian troops occupied parts of Germany, the Polish-Russian War was settled by the Treaty of Riga, and Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary attempted to coup his way back to power.
These are all interesting topics, but we are going further east today, where the aftermath not only of World War I, but also of the Russian October Revolution is raging. And how it is raging!
You know that already, from Doctor Zhivago, but contrary to popular myth, the carnage was not caused by the quarrel between Tonya and Lara. Russia, which hadn’t necessarily won World War I, but certainly hadn’t lost it either, and had been gifted with not one, but two revolutions, somehow didn’t manage to rest on its laurels. Instead, the October Revolution of 1917 was immediately followed by the Russian Civil War, which dragged on for another agonizing five years. Longer than the World War had lasted. And much more complicated.
Simplifying drastically and not taking into account the heterogeneity of the warring parties, the military interference of Germany, France, Great Britain, the USA, Japan, the Ottoman Empire and the Czechoslovak Legion who took the wrong way and ended up in Siberia, nor the national independence movements in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Abkhazia, Bessarabia and the People’s Republic of Tannu-Tuva, as well as the changing alliances, it was like this: There were the Reds and the Whites. The Reds were the Bolsheviks. The Whites were all those who were against the Reds, that is monarchists, democrats, nationalists and moderate socialists.
Some advice for students of history: Never attend the lecture on the Russian Civil War! It’s like a four-dimensional labyrinth with mirror-inverted wormholes. You won’t find your way out of it ever again.
In order not to get bogged down in details, which is a constant danger on this blog, we leave the big picture and focus on just one person, following him for a few years through the Russian Civil War and a few hundred kilometers across the steppe. Or more like a few thousand kilometers, because Russia is huge.
That one person is, no, not Doctor Zhivago. It is a Baltic German baron, i.e. a member of that German-speaking upper class in Estonia and Latvia who, as descendants of the Crusaders, subjugated the Estonians and Latvians. Roman Nikolai Maximilian Feodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg was his name. (The history of the Baltic Germans would provide material for a hundred digressions, but I’ll write about them when I am in the Baltics again.) Because the Baltic Germans liked to maltreat people, the Russian tsar gladly recruited them for the administration or the military.
Roman, not having learned anything useful, was drawn to the army, too. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05, incidentally the first war that a European country lost against a non-European country. After that, he bummed around a bit, served with a Cossack regiment in Transbaikalia, got drunk too often, quit the service, rode his horse to Mongolia, where, for lack of anything else to do, he learned Mongolian and read up on Tibetan, Hindu and Buddhist teachings. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he returned to Estonia in time to invade East Prussia with the Russian army. (Ethnicity was not yet so important at the time of the multi-ethnic empires, and Germans fought Germans on other fronts as well. Each for his emperor or tsar, who were certainly grateful for it.)
And when the World War was over, there was this stupid revolution, which didn’t fit into the baron’s concept at all. For one thing, as a nobleman he was loyal to the tsar. For another, the Estonians were now independent and revolted against the German overlords.
Roman von Ungern-Sternberg sided with the Whites, no question. Granted, loyalty to the tsar had become a questionable concept after the tsar and his family had been murdered. But Bolshevism, where barons were relegated to earn the same as bus drivers, was nothing for the nobleman. He was also angry that the revolutionary people had set fire to his manor house and that he had to move into one of those prefabricated apartment blocks.
What’s a cavalry officer to do when everything is a pain in the horse’s butt? Naturally, he takes a horse and rides east. He robbed trains under the pretext of cutting off supplies for the Bolsheviks. He held up traveling merchants to extract “customs” payments from them. And soon, he was back in Transbaikalia, setting up an Asiatic Cavalry Division, made out of Mongols, Buryats, Kyrgyz, Manchurians, Tibetans, Kazakhs, Evenks, Uyghurs, Bargas.
With all the evils that henceforth emanated from this man, I don’t even know where to begin. If the Russian Civil War had already been extremely brutal, Ungern-Sternberg stepped it up a notch and became the most fearsome commander of the Whites. With bloodthirsty brutality, he murdered opponents, alleged opponents, prisoners, his own soldiers, civilians, and above all Jews. To Jews he gave no pardon, they were hunted down until the last child was slain.
At some point, it had nothing to do with the Russian Civil War any longer, which had become a hopeless cause for the Whites anyway. Unpleasant-Sternberg simply lived out his hateful anti-Semitism. He behaved like a warlord with a private army.
Because this is getting too bloodthirsty for us, we change the setting a bit and move south to Mongolia. It lies roughly between Russia and China and had been a Chinese province for 200 years at the time of our story. But China was having a bit of domestic trouble (a virus, production shortfalls in the Apple factory or trouble with students in Hong Kong, I don’t know), and the Mongol princes thought: “If such trifle countries like Lithuania or Czechoslovakia can become independent, so can we.” (Mongolia, even if you’ve overlooked it until now, is pretty large.)
You must know that the Mongols are mainly Buddhists and therefore have a chief lama called Bogdo Gegen. That is the title, not the name. Just like the Dalai Lama, who has the same job with the Tibetans. Exactly, this is the guy who is always smiling for no reason, who makes harmless statements that people put on their Instagraph too feel “enlightened”, and who has accomplished zero point zero for his people.
The Mongols, as I said, had known the Chinese for 200 years and knew: “Smiling won’t get us anywhere.” Instead, they elected the eighth Bogdo Gegen as Bogdo Khan, i.e. the ruler of Mongolia, which thus declared itself independent. The Mongols contacted the Russian tsar (before his assassination, obviously) and received a huge loan, which they invested in a winter palace that still exists in Ulan Bator today.
There, they prayed for independence.
When that didn’t help and, to make matters worse, their Russian sponsor was shot, the Mongol princes sent desperate pleading and begging letters around the world. (Just like princes from Nigeria do today.) Two hundred letters, three hundred letters, four hundred letters. All with pompous seals, written with camel blood and delivered by Mongolian eagles. Very impressive.
But nobody could read the letters. Because nobody spoke Mongolian.
Wait! You remember the Baron’s youth, when he studied Buddhism and Mongolian? He was constantly ridiculed for indulging in such Far Eastern ballyhoo instead of studying something solid like civil engineering or multimedia marketing, but now it was a sign of fate. His fate and that of the Mongols: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg received one of those letters, summoned his multinational cavalry, bid adieu to the (already hopeless) fight against the Bolsheviks, and rode off toward Mongolia in August 1920. Of course not without looting and killing everything on the way.
Tragically, quite some time had passed since the letter was sent, and not as uneventfully as arrogant Westerners might imagine that time passes in Mongolia. In 1919, Chinese troops had regained control of Mongolia and deposed the Bogdo Khan in 1920. Nevertheless, during the long ride Ungern-Sternberg made the plan to unite all Central Asian peoples (Tibetans, Buryats, Uyghurs, Mongols, Kyrgyz, etc.) into a “Great Mongol Empire”, which should last forever and for all times as the monarchist bulwark against Europe and the civilizing bulwark against China. Nominally, Baron von Ungern-Sternberg was still fighting for the dead tsar, but in reality, he already saw himself as the new Genghis Khan.
In October 1920, the Asiatic Cavalry Division arrived in Urga (now Ulan Bator and still the capital of Mongolia) and was defeated twice by the numerically superior Chinese. Ungern-Sternberg deliberated for a few months, habitually passing the time by raiding villages and monasteries. Finally, in February 1921, he remembered a stratagem of Genghis Khan’s: He had fires lit on the hills around Urga to simulate a large army. The Chinese therefore did not throw the full defensive force at his cavalry, and the cavalrymen rode into the city, where they liberated the Bogdo Khan and put the Chinese troops to flight. (To avoid another such fiasco, China has since built the Great Wall and developed drones.)
Bogdo Khan and Roman von Ungern-Sternberg subsequently argued about who was the more important man in town. The Mongol invasion had gone to the baron’s head, and he saw himself as the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. The Bogdo Khan didn’t much warm to the idea of the Great Mongol Empire; Mongolia alone was big enough for him. Finally, the two agreed that Ungern-Sternberg would install the Bogdo Khan as ruler of the newly proclaimed Kingdom of Mongolia in March 1921, exactly 100 years ago. In return, the new king recognized the baron as the founder of the state, as a heroic general, and as the incarnation of the Tibetan patron deity Jamsaran, a particularly wrathful deity.
As is well known, the wrath fitted like a glove. The baron made it clear that he was the real boss and that the king only served as figurehead. He had lists drawn up of all the Jews living in Mongolia. Many of them had fled the Russian Civil War to the supposed safety of the Far East. But now Baron von Ungern-Sternberg went from house to house with anti-Semitic obsession to exterminate Jewry in Mongolia. Even the German occupiers 20 years later, known to be extremely fanatical, did not come this far east.
And for only one reason: Because Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was already dead. Otherwise, of course, he would have made a pact with the Wehrmacht to fight against Jews and Bolsheviks, his dearest enemies. In the end, we were saved from this by a rebellion of his own people, when the baron ranted about having to advance on Tibet next. That was too far and difficult (there were no trains to Lhasa at the time), and the guys arrested their leader and handed him to the Bolsheviks.
The trial was rather short, probably for a shortage of lawyers. Annoyed by the baron’s anti-Semitic tirades (“Bolshevism was invented by the Hebrews in Babylon 3,000 years ago”), the judge suggested if he wouldn’t perhaps simply want to be shot. Compared to other methods of execution, this was quite a concession. (Do keep that in mind if you’re ever in a similar situation.)
“I would prefer not to,” Roman von Ungern-Sternberg replied, but the objection died in the hail of bullets from the Kalashnikovs along with the German Genghis Khan.
Mongolia, by the way, remained independent. Today, there are still voices that revere Baron von Ungern-Sternberg as the founder of the country. But much more important seems to be the question where the baron buried his legendary gold treasure. That is why people are digging and burrowing everywhere in Mongolia.
You don’t have to dig that deep to find people in Mongolia whose fascination with history, with the German baron and with everything that Germany has exported to the wider world since then, is rather unclouded by historical judgment.
So much for the swastika apologists who always claim: “Well, in Buddhism it has a totally different meaning.”
If this article has provided you with an interesting topic for a presentation at school or has prevented you from an ill-advised trip to Mongolia, I would be happy about any support for this blog. In return, there will be many more curious stories from a hundred years ago, the effects of which we still encounter today.
Today is International Women’s Day, but many of you don’t seem to know how to properly celebrate or commemorate it.
It’s NOT a day for those who forgot Valentine’s Day,
NOR is is a second chance for those whose object of affection has since changed.
It’s NOT a day to send flowers and hearts and other cheesy messages to your Facebook friends.
It’s NOT Mothers’ Day.
NOTHING is achieved by wishing someone a “happy Women’s Day”.
It’s NOT a day for companies to offer “Women’s Day Specials”.
No, it’s a day to fight!
As these Italian partisans show us, you can still be fashionable if you want to, but the guns and the fight are what counts.
8th of March is a political day, a day of justice, a day of equal rights and participation. Special Women’s Day offers with lots of stereotypical pink hearts are rather counterproductive and backward if you want women to progress beyond the status of Barbie dolls.
The only place where I have seen it done right was in Bolivia:
More from Bolivia, an exemplary country in many ways.
Outside the town hall, Antonio stands with a sign, no, with several signs against high taxes and levies.
Against which ones, I ask.
“All of them!”
I am probing further and learn that it’s about something like a property appreciation tax, which he has to pay for now living in the apartment of his mother, who passed away two years ago. And if he won’t pay, the apartment will be taken away from him, he says. He only has a pension of 436 euros a month and can’t afford the payments, he laments.
That’s why he is in front of the town hall every day. For two years already. Except on weekends, when he goes to church.
What happened to the apartment, I inquire anxiously.
“I still live there. I can pay the taxes in installments.”
And to get home, he probably takes the tax-subsidized bus. (Pensioners who earn less than 800 euros a month can use the bus for free.)
As I leave, Antonio calls out “Arriba España!“, a battle cry of the Franco dictatorship. Maybe he isn’t really here for the taxes after all.
But fortunately, there is this Russian lawyer and exposer of corruption, Alexei Navalny. He makes one film after another. And most of them are more captivating, better researched and better produced than most commercial films.
I know, Navalny is controversial, and I am the last person to approve of his nationalistic and xenophobic statements. (If he has moved on since then, he should finally distance himself from them.) But his films are really good.
The most famous film by now is “A Palace for Putin”. In feature length, it’s about much more than Putin’s 100 billion ruble (and butt-ugly) palace, the property for which is 39 times the size of the Principality of Monaco. It is about the system of corruption at the highest level, who pockets what money where and how, about the middlemen and straw men (or rather straw grandmothers, whose granddaughters always happen to have affairs with Putin). And it’s about the beginnings of this biggest heist in modern history – in Dresden, Germany.
If your Russian has gotten a little rusty since Perestroika, don’t worry. The films have English subtitles.
Equally meticulously researched is the film that reveals the exact sequence of events, the many years of planning, and the perpetrators of the Novichok attack on Navalny (and previous attempted attacks):
It’s really like a thriller. The story becomes even more incredible when Navalny finds out the phone numbers of the killers and calls them, one after the other. They all hang up. Only one of them is careless enough to speak with Navalny, who poses as a superior from the state apparatus, about what went wrong with the poison attack and how he made evidence disappear.
In Russia, all this evidence does not even lead to the opening of a criminal investigation. Instead, Navalny is sent to the gulag. After trials which the European Court of Human Rights declared unlawful and arbitrary.
It’s the end of February. If you are like me, most of your New Year’s resolutions have already dissipated, been forgotten or pushed to March or April. The smarter ones among you won’t have made any resolutions in the first place.
But if you want to feel really bad, consider young Winston Churchill’s New Year’s resolutions, as reported in his autobiography My Early Life:
I therefore planned the sequence of the year 1899 as follows: To return to India and win the Polo Tournament: to send in my papers and leave the army: to relieve my mother from paying my allowance: to write my new book and the letters to the Pioneer: and to look out for a chance of entering Parliament.
These plans as will be seen were in the main carried out.
After all, a year has 365 days. Why limit oneself to resolutions regarding exercise, diet or learning a new language?
As we all know, Churchill’s career did take off, both in literature (he won a Nobel Prize) and in politics (he won a World War). Apparently, he was so multi-talented that he was not only a Member of Parliament and eventually Prime Minister, but served as President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Minister of Air, Minister of Defence, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary of State for the Colonies.
It is the latter office that we shall focus on, because Winston Churchill assumed it in February 1921, exactly a hundred years ago. I also want to focus on it because it puts a rather different light on the “savior of the free world”. As always in this series, the centenary serves merely as a starting point and we will explore Churchill’s view on colonialism before and after that.
The River War, the product of Churchill’s above resolution was, rather shocking for a 24-year old, already his third book. It was also, even more shocking, full of crudely racist and anti-Islamic passages. This was not some youthful sin which he cared to rectify with advancing age and increasing responsibility. Quite the contrary. Churchill held deeply racist views that would put him in the camp of white supremacists today.
In 1937, for example, when he was already warning the world about the Nazis, Churchill said:
I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.
Again and again, his thinking reveals this belief in a racial hierarchy, with white Protestants being superior to white Catholics (i.e. the Irish), Jews superior to Muslims, and Anglo-Saxons superior to everyone else.
Apologists will say that this was the thinking of the day. But it wasn’t. Not for many people. Even in the UK, even at the time and even within his own Conservative Party, Churchill was regarded as an extreme racist.
And as late as 1954, he said about the Chinese:
I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them.
Surely no accident for someone known for his gifted oratory.
Among all the people insulted, humiliated and treated horribly, I want to turn the focus on India, a British colony until 1947.
At one point, Churchill explicitly told his Secretary of State for India that he “hated Indians” and considered them “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. (I am not sure if he didn’t know that there were Indians of different religions, or if he didn’t care.) He was particularly imbued with hatred against Mahatma Gandhi, suggesting that Gandhi “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”
When the Atlantic Charter, proclaimed by Churchill and US President Roosevelt in 1941, named self-determination of the peoples as one of the guiding principles for the post-war world, Churchill explicitly declared that this would not apply to India. And that despite Indians contributing to the Allied war effort with over 2.5 million men, back then the largest volunteer force in the world.
The low point in a life filled with low points was probably the Bengal Famine of 1943. More than 3 million people starved to death, while Churchill ordered the diversion of grain from starving Indians to British soldiers and to build up buffer stocks in Greece and Yugoslavia.
“The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks,” Churchill applied his racial hierarchy. And, he said, it was the Indians’ own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. (Churchill had five children himself.)
Again, this is not some retroactive application of modern morals. People at the time realized the inhumanity. British officials pleaded with Churchill, but to no avail. Canada and the USA offered to send help, but Churchill turned it down. The Indian colony was not allowed to spend its own reserves or use its own ships to import food. Vessels bringing wheat from Australia were not allowed to unload in Indian ports and were ordered to continue to Europe instead.
Considering that British rule was sought to be justified on the ground that “it keeps the people from killing each other”, this was rather cynical. All this makes me wonder about the people, textbooks, novels and films that still romanticize colonialism, which is not a problem pertinent only to the United Kingdom. Or maybe it doesn’t make me wonder, because it’s the same old European feeling of racial superiority. (“But we brought them the railroad.”) That’s why I welcome any debate, and if a few statues need to be toppled or spray-painted for that, so be it.
Obviously, a famine is not a monocausal event. But if I had tried to get any deeper into the course and the causes of the famine, my complete lack of knowledge about India would have become even more evident.
In this article, I have drawn on Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor. Thanks to Dieter for sending me the book! More books are always welcome, as would be an expert on Mongolian history, on the history of chess, on Irish history and on the Tulsa massacre – especially those willing to take over for one episode of this series.
Impostors who portray their lives as more adventurous than they are don’t just exist in novels and in blogs. Some live among us. Or, when impostorism conspires with narcissism, they force their way onto the big stage.
Now, everyone is thinking of Donald Trump.
But much more interesting is an impostor and narcissist who is also intelligent. Who deceives all his life, but never enriches himself.
Someone like Enric Marco from Barcelona.
Marco, who turns 100 this year, probably had his greatest performance in 2005, when he addressed the Spanish Parliament on Holocaust Remembrance Day. As chairman of an association of Spaniards who survived the Nazi concentration camps. And as a former inmate of the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
A few months later, historian Benito Bermejo revealed that Marco had invented this part of his biography. He had never been interned in a concentration camp. It is true that Marco was in Germany during World War II, but not, as he had claimed, as a resistance fighter who had joined the French Resistance. In truth, he worked as a metalworker at a German shipyard in Kiel, conveniently avoiding military service in Spain.
When things got dicey in Germany in 1943, he absconded to Spain. The Germans didn’t bother to look for him, and the Spanish military did not draft him because they thought he was still in Germany. Marco started a family, concealing the existence of his already established first family, and became a car mechanic.
A life like a novel.
That’s how he survived the oppression of the Franco era. Not exactly underground, but under the radar of the authorities. When he was bored, he told of his exploits in the Spanish Civil War, always on the front line, shoulder to shoulder with the well-known heads of the anarchists, in the attempted liberation of Mallorca, in the Résistance. But only in a small circle, because in the times of the dictatorship, anti-fascists were not en vogue.
That changed after Franco’s death. When the anarcho-syndicalist trade union CNT was reestablished in 1976, Marco went to the meetings. There he expanded on his life story, in which he had now fought underground for the CNT’s cause during the decades of Franco’s dictatorship. For this reason, he said, he had to flee Spain, but had been betrayed and arrested in Marseilles, and had thus ended up in a concentration camp. Although none of the other trade unionists knew this lively, energetic man who could tell stories so well, they elected him president of the Catalan section of the CNT in 1977 and president at the national level the following year.
A life like a novel.
The CNT fell out between different factions, Marco was not re-elected and eventually expelled. His car repair shop did not fulfill him, so he began to study history on the side. At university, he met a young student whom he impressed with his heroic stories of civil war, anti-fascist struggle, escape and underground. With her, he started his third family.
But soon, he was bored again. So he got himself elected to the parents’ council of his children’s school. As was almost inevitable, within a very short time he became vice-chairman of the Parents’ Association of Catalonia. He negotiated with the ministers of education, he gave speeches, and he forced his way into every newspaper photograph.
But at some point, his daughters had finished school, and Marco could not for the life of him remain in the Parents’ Association. He needed a new job, especially since he was now retired. Being a retiree without a second job can be mind-numbingly boring. That was nothing for Marco.
He went to Amical de Mauthausen, an association of Spanish concentration camp survivors, and said that he would like to contribute to keep the memory from fading into oblivion. He could visit a school now and then to give a lecture. It turned into more than a few lectures. Soon, Marco was the organization’s most sought-after speaker, he spoke in schools across the country, he appeared on radio and television, and – this should surprise no one by now – in 2001 he became chairman of Amical de Mauthausen.
A life like a novel.
Javier Cercas, the author of the book “The Impostor” from which I took this story, did not have to invent anything. He was able to write a novel without any fiction because the protagonist provides enough fiction.
And so “The Impostor” is not only a biography, but also a book about the research that Cercas and others undertook over years. The sophistication with which Marco concocted his legend is impressive, but so is the way Cercas uncovers it piece by piece. Chance discoveries in old newspapers or archives often help, but Marco himself continues to be extremely talkative. His craving for recognition goes to the point of self-destruction. But his imagination is also the source of his strength. Like Don Quixote.
What I found excellent about the book is how Cercas embeds Marco’s life, real and invented, in the history of Spain. From the Civil War to the will to forget to the memory circus, as the author calls it. Marco, the historian who became famous as an eyewitness, as a mirror of how Spain deals with history. Or does not deal with it.
Cercas embeds all this in thoughts about fiction and truth, about literature, about psychology and philosophy, which, however, sometimes gets too out of hand. If the author had restrained himself a bit, dispensed with repetitions and superfluous details, the book could have been shortened by at least 100 pages. But nevertheless, it remains an interesting book that you won’t forget about quickly.
My hosts in Linz are exceptionally gracious hosts. On the morning of the farewell, they cook, bake, puree, flambé and prepare food as if I weren’t a humble little fellow, but a horde of a hundred hungry men.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much of an appetite. Because today, my journey will take me to Mauthausen.
The extremely caring hosts don’t mind driving me the 20 kilometers. Maybe they don’t trust hitchhiking, although it got me to Linz safely. Despite the corona virus. We are cruising past blast furnaces, steel mills, smoking chimneys, sparking fires. Railroads are roaring and rushing from one part of the steelworks to another. There is hammering and smelting, productivity and perspiration. This is what the Rust Belt must have looked like before it got rusty.
These are the Hermann Göring Works. Construction began in 1938, a few months after Austria ceased to be an independent country. Built, expanded and operated with forced labor, with prisoners of war and with prisoners of the nearby concentration camps Gusen and Mauthausen. At the time, the Germans and Austrians could not show up to work themselves, because they were busy invading other countries to enslave their populations for the benefit of a German economic miracle. Capitalism needs growth, if necessary by force.
But you have to give credit to Voestalpine AG, the name under which the company is now trading, for maintaining a museum of contemporary history on the factory premises. Thousands of other companies keep as quiet as mice, even though almost everyone in the German Reich had forced laborers, down to small and medium-sized businesses and even small farms.
From the town of Mauthausen, and town is almost too big a word for it, a road winds its way through the forests and cornfields. Always uphill. Up to the fortress, which still yields a threatening and gloomy aura.
Thick walls. Barbed wire. Guard towers.
No trees, preferring a clear line of fire instead.
It is summer 2020 and there are fewer visitors than usual because of the corona virus. The lady at the reception takes a lot of time to explain everything.
Mauthausen was one of the last concentration camps to be liberated, on 5 May 1945. The fact that the first concentration camps had already been liberated ten months earlier did not stop the killing here. The fact that Hitler had killed himself a week earlier did not stop the killing. The fact that the Wehrmacht had already surrendered on many fronts at the beginning of May did not stop the killing. But thereafter, for the rest of their largely unprosecuted lives, the murderers blathered on about allegedly “not having had any choice”.
Because the killing went on in Mauthausen almost to the last breath of the Nazi regime, the camp was the destination of several transfer and death marches from other concentration camps. The number of prisoners swelled dramatically from 1944 on, and in the last four months before liberation, as many people died as in the previous four years. At least 90,000 people in total.
Mauthausen was liberated by the US Army. Looking at the banner with which the Spanish prisoners welcomed the liberators, it becomes evident that the term “Antifa” does not deserve any negative connotation. Quite the contrary.
But it is thanks to the Soviet Union that Mauthausen became a memorial site, the knowledgeable lady enlightens me. Like Germany, Austria was divided into four occupation zones, and north of the Danube was the Soviet zone. The Soviet occupying power returned the site only on the condition that it be maintained as a memorial.
“What do the people in Mauthausen make of the fact that their town is always associated with the concentration camp?” I want to know.
She turns to a young man who is doing an internship: “You’re a local, you can probably say more about that.”
“Yesterday I was handing out flyers for our film week,” he recounts. “Some people were interested. But when I walked into an ice cream parlor and said I was from the memorial site, the woman there turned around and didn’t talk to me anymore.”
He tells it like it’s not the first time this has happened.
And: “When we go abroad, we prefer to say we are from Linz.” I know this phenomenon from Dachau, where people prefer to say that they are from Munich.
Equipped with a map and other helpful hints, I begin exploring the grounds. Outside the fortress-like walls was the soccer field. Here, the SS played against local clubs. The local population could watch, and there was probably someone selling sausages or lemonade. There were also other joint celebrations and regular contact, even marriages between SS men and local women. The population of Mauthausen grew, the landlords rejoiced, the innkeepers were happy.
Next to the sports field were barracks for the prisoners who were so sick that they were no longer a flight risk. To die, they could be stacked outside the walls. Today, a woman is walking her dog in this field and picking flowers. For the breakfast table.
Where the SS barracks once stood, there is a memorial park. A mirror of the post-war situation, the Cold War and the changes that have occurred since then. The first monuments were large, heroic, male. Many groups of victims such as women, homosexuals or children were overlooked.
It was not until the 1970s that a memorial to the Jewish victims was erected. The Roma and Sinti had to wait even longer, until 1989.
And the commemoration was national. Each country wanted its own memorial. Germany is represented twice, not as perpetrator and victim, but as East and West. There are countries that no longer exist, the USSR, the GDR, Yugoslavia. And new countries like Ukraine and Slovenia.
Visitors from around the world put up plaques. There is gratitude to the U.S. liberators next to remembrance of the Soviet victims. The latter ones, at least if they were lieutenant generals, received the more flowery obituary. (“… Torture and mockery did not break the courage of the fiery fighter for the liberation of peoples from the fascist yoke. …“)
One hundred and ninety thousand prisoners. One hundred and ninety thousand stories.
The lady from the memorial center had told me that in pandemic-free years, relatives of former prisoners come from all over the world. The historians then retrieve the respective files from the archives. And all relatives are given a personal tour.
“Sometimes,” she continues, “people hand us a bundle of papers they found after their father or grandfather died. Old IDs, documents, a diary or a handwritten memoir. Our work won’t be over for a long time.”
Visiting a former concentration camp, one expects to be most shocked by the gas chamber. Or by the furnaces in which the corpses were burned. Or by the photos of piles of corpses. But here, the memorial has a different concept: in the basement, where the crematoria are located, relatives are allowed to place plaques, memories and photos of the victims.
The rooms are full of faces, full of names, full of lives cut short.
One hundred and ninety thousand prisoners. One hundred and ninety thousand stories.
I want to tell one of them. The story of Francisco Boix.
You may have wondered, when you saw the image of the liberation, why the poster was written in Spanish. Well, there were about 7,000 Spanish (many of them Catalan) prisoners in Mauthausen.
How did that come about? Spain was never conquered by the Nazis, was it?
It was a consequence of the Spanish Civil War. After Franco prevailed in 1939, many Spanish leftists and republicans fled across the Pyrenees to France. Some of them became German prisoners when Germany invaded France. Others fought with the French Foreign Legion against Germany and thus ended up in German captivity. The Third Reich did not want to put them in concentration camps at first, but treated them as prisoners of war. Germany even offered Franco to send them to Spain, which after all was not at war with Germany. But the Spanish dictator replied: “No thank you. These people have conspired against me, they are no longer Spaniards. Do with them whatever you want.”
That was their death sentence.
Francisco Boix was one of those Spaniards who fought against Franco and against Hitler. He was caught and sent to Mauthausen in 1941. He was also a photographer.
That saved his life.
He had to work as a photo lab assistant for the SS identification service in the camp. Propaganda photos, photos of all new prisoners, photos of deaths in the quarry, photos of executions, photos of the cruel living conditions in the camp were passing through his hands. Photos of everything.
Boix secretly made an additional print of many of these photos. Other Spanish prisoners working in the quarries outside the camp smuggled the photos outside. On the footpath through the town of Mauthausen, they noticed a woman who seemed friendlier than the other locals, who nodded at them, greeted them. The prisoners slipped the photos to this woman. Again and again. Each time at the risk of the lives of everyone involved. This woman, Anna Pointner, kept the photos hidden until 1945.
It was almost unbelievable, but Francisco Boix survived the four years in the concentration camp. Without him or his helpers ever being exposed. His photos and his testimony at the first Nuremberg Trial as well as at the Mauthausen Trial not only proved the cruel conditions of imprisonment, but also the personal knowledge about it of Albert Speer, who was photographed during his visit to the Mauthausen concentration camp.
And then, Boix and the other Spanish prisoners were not able to return to their homeland after liberation. Spain made no effort to restore their revoked citizenship. They remained stateless.
I am learning so much in the exhibition that I cannot reproduce here without going beyond the scope of the article.
About Martin Roth, who was responsible for the operation of the gas chamber and the crematorium at Mauthausen. Since 1945, he was wanted for murder. But apparently not wanted very much, because he was able to live unmolested in Germany and Austria until 1968. Only then was he sentenced to seven years in prison. From 1977 until his death in 2003, he went on summer vacation to Mauthausen every year. He liked to sit in the garden of a pub there, with a view of the former concentration camp.
About the SS, which, in the spirit of capitalism, founded its own limited company to exploit the quarries in Mauthausen. With brochures that advertised the quality of the granite from Mauthausen, Gross-Rosen and Flossenbürg. From the latter quarry, people with a terrible taste in gardening still like to get their granite today.
About the camp brothel to which women from Ravensbrück concentration camp were brought. Only a few privileged prisoners were allowed to visit the brothel. Jews were excluded. The subsequent release which had been promised to the women never happened, of course.
About the efforts of the SS to destroy all evidence in the last months. Most of the documents were burned. The killing facilities were dismantled. Good thing that Francisco Boix had hidden the photos. And good thing that Jack Taylor, an OSS secret agent, survived his imprisonment in Mauthausen concentration camp and was able to help with the US Army’s meticulous investigation.
As is so often the case when confronting National Socialism, it is above all the bureaucracy, the obsession with regulations, the orderliness of the bookkeeping – the German virtues – that are so frightening.
I have to catch some air, step outside, walk through the grass, which is now greener than it ever was in the days of the concentration camp. But everywhere I step, there is a cemetery.
Only at the fence, once electrically charged and another killing instrument, does my walk, lost in thoughts, come to a stop.
Only once did prisoners manage to break through this fence. In February 1945, Soviet prisoners of war attacked the guard towers and short-circuited the electric fence with wet blankets. 419 of them were able to leave the camp.
However, only for a short time. Many collapsed from exhaustion or died in the hail of bullets from the machine guns. The SS organized a veritable hunt for the rest. For three weeks, all surrounding forests and villages were combed to find and kill every escaped Soviet soldier. Under the cynical name “Mühlviertel Hare Hunt” the police, the fire department, the Wehrmacht, the Hitler Youth, the Volkssturm as well as the civilian population participated in the manhunt. Mass murder as a public spectacle. Those were the people who after 1945 claimed that they hadn’t known about anything.
Only eleven of the escaped Soviet soldiers survived because they were hidden by farmers or by forced laborers. These were the ones whom the majority resented after 1945, because they had shown that resistance was possible.
I walk down to the Danube, through the town. It is four kilometers to the train station, which the prisoners had to walk the other way, always uphill for them. Past pretty villas, petit-bourgeois houses, well-tended gardens.
I do the math. Those who were 20 years old back then would now be 95. There won’t be many of them left. The 60- or 70-year-olds sitting in the garden now are the ones who never asked. For fear of what might come to light. Including about their own parents.
It probably takes two or three generations for people to start asking. And sometimes even longer. On the website of the municipality of Mauthausen, the concentration camp memorial is not listed among the local sights. Neither is the memorial to Anna Pointner. But there is a proud reference to the war memorial for the Nazi soldiers who rounded up the victims for Mauthausen all over the world.
There is a graphic novel about Francisco Boix. It has an extensive and illustrated appendix, introducing the history and system of the Mauthausen concentration camp. I found this a very helpful preparation for the visit.
The disturbingly fascinating story of Enric Marco is also set against the backdrop of the Spanish connection with Mauthausen.