Don't be afraid of my book

Friday, September 16, 2016

I learned a great number of things from translating the first part of Jules Huret's l'Allemagne Moderne from French to English last year. Translating is an entirely different world compared to just reading a book, as you are essentially creating a new one and everything has to be checked. Without looking into what an author writes about in great detail it's impossible to translate a book with any degree of confidence. I'm very much looking forward to the opportunity to translate parts 2 and 3.

After publishing it though I noticed something very peculiar, and learned something else quite unexpected. Maybe it shouldn't have been unexpected, but perhaps I've spent so long in this pre-WWI world that I've forgotten how others view recent history.

The online response to the book and to pre-WWI Germany was very good. See this thread on Reddit for example when I gathered the book's images together: 3180 points, 94% positive votes, and 266 comments. Other sites picked up on it, a great deal of good discussion was had, everything I had hoped for.

But when bringing up the book in real life, or online using real names, I noticed something very odd. Nobody wants to touch the subject! German newspapers, funds, news studios, regular people I encounter, pastors, all of them seem very squeamish. One pastor at a Lutheran church I spoke with was very interested in learning German, and during the conversation I asked whether any churches he knew had a service at all similar to the ones carried out during the German Empire, how much old-school German tradition gets carried on by their church, etc. His response: "Well, we don't want to associate ourselves with that."

With what? An up-and-coming empire that, like all the others in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exchanged elbows with the others for prestige and position and was one of the fateful participants in a war for which all had some fault and which never should have happened?

Now there is a chance he was referring to Germany's treatment of Belgium during the war, but I doubt it. The war crimes during WWI (outside of the Ottoman Empire) were more of the typical wartime variety, including some committed by the UK, before the war we had the first large-scale user of concentration camps during the Second Boer War, Belgium as we know was particularly brutal as a colonial power in the Congo...and nobody says they don't want to associate themselves with that when talking about these countries during this era.

And besides, the book was published in 1912/13, and is about prewar Germany.

So where does all this shuffling of feet come from when discussing the book in person? You already know the answer to that: yes, it's Nazis. It's coming from a fear of liking Germany at any point in time, because as we know it is going to become a horror during the 1930s and into the next decade. On one side we have people with a very faint knowledge of history that think pre-WWI Germany must be sort of Nazi-like because eventually it does become Nazi Germany, and Germans themselves who are so sorry for WWII that they don't even want to bring up the subject of WWI.

Now why is this important? In my opinion having an incorrect view of this period of history leads to extremism. Let me explain.

WWII in Europe was very much a good guys vs. bad guys fight. Only Hitler spoiled this a bit by launching a surprise invasion on his ally and bringing the Soviets to our side. But on the whole it was much more black and white than most wars, to the point that when Germany lost, instead of keeping up with the postwar PR battle as losing countries usually do, they completely gave up on making any sort of defense for its actions. Which is great. But only as far back as when Nazi popularity and rule began. And without any sort of positive PR for the other, older Germany, a kind of "Germany in WWII was ruled by Nazis, so in WWI it was probably kind of Nazi" type of lazy thinking was allowed to thrive.

So how does this lead to extremism? You've seen it before on history forums where a single user is writing response after response to the others, defending Germany in WWII. Completely unheard of in real life, but on the internet you can find it. And this user is also referring to WWI as well, tying them in together, somehow trying to put together a pro-German point of view that stretches from 1945 back to before 1914, and of course the justifications he is making for Germany in WWII are ridiculous...but the ones for WWI actually look quite reasonable. Germany put up that ad in New York warning people not to board the Lusitania, the ship was carrying munitions as well as passengers, Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to call off the mobilization (Moltke said it was too late), Germany stopped unrestricted submarine warfare, and on and on. Without a correct view of history this user's points can start to confuse the reader. Was Germany actually not the bad guy...? These WWI events are often used to great effect by extremists who are very familiar with Germany's conduct in the first world war. The goal is to cloud the mind, to use the actually quite amiable Germany during Wilhelm's time to justify the other Germany's horrific acts in the next world war.

Without a clear division of these two Germanys, it can be indeed quite confusing. But with a clear division it is not: one is your standard European power, the next one a horror.  The standard European power Germany did things that standard European powers did, and the horrific one did things that horrors do.

And indeed, without a proper understanding of what made Germany and Europe during the Belle Époque such a great place to be, it is impossible to understand just why these two wars were such tragedies. If Germany was always an evil country, then switching to a slightly more evil version wouldn't be such a big deal. It would be the kind of thing that could only happen in a country like Germany, because WWII Germany is now just a bit more evil than before. But if it was actually not evil, doesn't that mean that something akin to the Nazis could show up everywhere, even in the best of countries, and doesn't that mean that we always need to be on guard against it? Isn't that one of the lessons of the war? The lesson doesn't work if Germany was always a bad guy.

If there is one lesson to be learned from each war it is this: in the first it is that even highly developed and cultured countries can slip into war with each other and need to be on constant guard against it, and in the second that all of us need to be on guard against the overthrow of democracy and establishment of dictatorial rule. 

Or even shorter: 

WWI: don't let things get out of hand
WWII: your country is capable of evil too if you let it.

So back to the Germany shown in Huret's book. The book is about a French journalist in Germany, much like a French journalist in Germany today. He rages against the French embassy's shoddy furniture, dislikes wine served with ice, sees a beach or two, wonders why Germans don't let bathers actually swim in the ocean, thinks their hospitals and milk delivery is great, loves the cleanliness of the streets, visits the factories, tells French readers back home what he sees and what he thinks they want to know. It's a book about a country by somebody from another country. You will actually dislike Germany under Nazi rule even more after reading it as you see all the cities he visits that will later be destroyed, and you will have a more visceral understanding of the tragedy of war as you wonder how many of the people he interviews are going to still be alive in a a few years, and in 25 years' time. Don't be afraid of Huret's book, and Belle Époque Germany. It's not about Nazis.

Read it all in French here if you can, and if not you can buy my English translation. Huret's century-old travelblog really is a fascinating read.


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