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April 9, 2013

Forging a future out of a pandemic of tragedy: Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath

by quaesitor
1945_-_Hamburg

The months immediately after the close of the Second World War were confusing. One minute the Allies had been dropping bombs on Germany (as Col Lewis Morgan, the protagonist in Rhidian Brook‘s The Aftermath, points out, more bombs fell on Hamburg in one weekend than fell on the London in the entire war), the next they were dropping lifeline supplies in the Berlin Airlift of ’48-’49. The disorientation this must have brought for ordinary Germans is articulated by some so-called ferals (kids living in the ruins of the city):

‘Is Tommy Christian?’ Ernst asked.
‘Tommy believes in demockery. And the King of Vindsor,’ Ozi said definitively, wanting to move on.
‘How can we trust Tommy?’ Siegfried objected. ‘One minute he’s killing us; the next time he’s handing out choccies.’ (p78)

Rhidian Brook - Aftermath

It’s a fair question. One of the terrible consequences of war is that the subsequent peace is all too often merely the absence of hostilities. The wonderful Hebraic concept of Shalom,  the peace of total harmony and union, is but a pipe-dream. Years of relentless antagonism and pervasive grief can hardly be eradicated overnight.

Yet once Rhidian Brook discovered that his grandfather shared a house for 5 years in the British zone of occupied Germany with a local family, the very human questions of The Aftermath came to the fore. How do you humanise enemies who’ve been demonised for years? How do you share, let alone compare, visceral and apparently mutually exclusive griefs? How do you build relationships of trust after so much propaganda?

Col Morgan is a battle-weary soldier who’s risen through the ranks during the war and finds himself with very different responsibilities thrust upon him during the peace. It’s 1946 and he’s now a local governor of the occupied region around Hamburg. But remarkably, he is quick to sense the only way to build a future is to trust again, despite the past, despite what his colleagues insist. One of the book’s explorations is the cost of such trust, even though it seems to be the only way to build anything.

Hamburg_after_the_1943_bombingTo Fraternize or not to Fraternize

Before Morgan’s family join him in Germany, his wife Rachael and young son Edmund prepare for their new life as a family. Reading a booklet explaining how things will be (which sounds rather like other popular official instructions available), she has to explain one of the primary injunctions to him:

‘It says we must not fraternize with the Germans. What does that mean?’
‘It means… being friendly. It means we are not to enter into relationships wit them.’
Edmund considered this. ‘Not even if we like someone?’ (p21)

The book will explore Edmund’s question at length. But because Rachel is unable to come to terms with her grief for their older son Michael (killed in a German air-raid on Cardiff), her determination to obey the letter of the instructions is hardly duty. It is driven by revulsion for the Germany that sent the bombs, so poignantly evoked here.

Even though she herself had walked from the wreckage unscathed, some spirit shrapnel lodged itself deep inside her, beyond the reach of surgeons, poisoning her thoughts and causing her to think with a limp. (p23)

But this of course gives great piquancy to the book’s setting: a city utterly destroyed by British and American bombs. And the owner of the large house into which the Morgans have been billeted is a Hamburg architect, Stefan Lubert, who himself grieves the loss of his wife during the Hamburg firestorm. So Lewis’ decision to cohabit with this family offers Brook a microcosm of formerly warring nations trying to overcome the past. The tensions described by Brook are so understandable, the dialogue so real. Here is Lewis trying to help Rachael come to terms with this – but of course she seems to interpret Lewis’ trust and empathy for the occupied as a lack of concern for their lost son (a minor theme seems to be the assumptions we incorrectly make about what others are thinking or feeling).

‘And now you make me live here with these people.’
‘Everyone here – everyone in this house – has experienced loss.’
‘I don’t care. I don’t care if everyone in the world has lost a son. The pain would be the same. I didn’t agree to this…’
‘None of us agreed to this. But we must make the best of things…’
‘The best of things. Always the best of things! You seem more concerned with the needs of our enemy.’ (p56)

But of course, they’re no longer the enemy. Certainly not once the process of denazification has been completed. Which brings us to the spectre of the past.

PersilscheinPersilschein & The Clean Slate

Those Germans who did survive the firestorms, who had endured the horrors of the Soviet conquest in particular (during which a vast proportion of women were systematically raped) now had to face their conquerors’ verdicts. Anyone with proven links to the Nazi party, let alone to the SS, Gestapo and other instruments of terror, had to be investigated and brought to justice. This mean that 1000s of people were in limbo until they had received their clearance: black (for the guilty), grey or white. The latter quickly gained the nickname of an advertising slogan of the time: Persilschein (a nice play on schein, since it can mean both a glow (presumably resulting from using Persil detergent) and also a certificate). This clearance was gold-dust immediately post-war. And it is brought very close to home in the book because Lubert is anxiously waiting his, without which he could never return to architecture and the semblance of normality. He is trapped in the limbo of factory work. And we the reader, like the Morgan family, never really know if he can be trusted. Brook uses a nice device to keep us guessing: fading on a wall around the site of an old picture now taken down. Was this a portrait of Hitler holding pride of place in the home (as in so many at the time), or something else.

But the Persilschein takes on a far greater significance – for post-war Germany was a nation longing for a reprieve, desperate for clearance from its recent history. And having just spent a week in Berlin, it seems that this is still the case. A phrase that bookends The Aftermath is stunde null, used here in this street-level view of Hamburg’s destruction:

The ghost of a tremendous noise hung over the scene. Something out of this world had undone this place and left an impossible jigsaw from which to reconstruct the old picture. There was no putting it back together again and there would be no going back to the old picture. This was Stunde Null. The Zero Hour. These people were starting from scratch and scratching a living from nothing. Two women pushed and pulled a horse cart stacked with furniture between them, while a man carrying a briefcase walked along as though in search of the office where he once worked without even a glance at the fantastic destruction that lay all around him, as if this apocalyptic architecture were the natural state of things. (p9)

It seems to me that one of the most affecting aspects of the book is that the main characters are groping for the chance for their own stunde null. If such a thing is possible. After so much loss. There is no going back – but can Lewis and Rachael, Lubert and his broken daughter Freda start again? Without plot-spoiling, it is interesting that, by the end, we meet another character who was so psychologically affected by the firestorm, that she has profound amnesia. Is she the most fortunate? The one who truly has stunde null (p306)? Is it possible to both face the past and simultaneously build a future.  It’s a question nations (e.g. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and individuals have had to grapple with throughout history.

1945_-_Hamburg

Hamburg in 1945

A Time To Tear Down, A Time to Build

The relationships between the 3 adults are naturally strained but grow more complex (again without plot-spoilers!). It is no accident, though, that the two men are both temperamentally builders. I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Teacher, who recognised that there is ‘a time for everything’, even killing before healing, tearing down before building (Eccl 3:3).

Morgan rose to high rank in a destructive war, but is determined to help rebuild his former enemy’s society. It’s not for him a strategic thing necessarily (e.g.  the USA’s Marshall Plan for European was primarily designed to prevent the spread of communism). It is about what seems right; about being human. He is quick to see the best in others and inevitably is quickly trusted by the Germans who work with and for him. It’s easy to see why his final big task (that of organising the destruction of Nazi factories and muniments in Heligoland for the benefit of the Allies was such a burden). He longs to help Germany get back on its feet.

Lupert has a similar mentality, as we might expect in an architect. But he can only begin to consider the wider future once he is liberated from limbo by his Persilschein. Once he has that,

He could see a whole new city growing out of desolation. A fine city fit for children, parents and grandparents, lovers and seekers, for the broken and the fixed, the mission and the missed, the lost and the refound. (p321)

Rhidian Brook

For the aftermath of the war was not the end of everything. The future was possible. And it is notable that even though Rachael for one seems to lose the ability to trust the divine after what she has been through (p24), Rhidian Brook ends his author’s acknowledgements at the end of the book to ‘The Author of All Things’ – and This Author’s Hand is subtly evident even in Hamburg’s desolation:

In the months after The Catastrophe, when people were finally allowed back into the city, Lubert had come here nearly every day. Although it was autumn at the time, something strange had happened to the vegetation: trees and bushes that had been burnt in the summer raids suddenly bloomed again and, completely out of season, lilac and chestnut produced blossom. The new tolerance of the soil subjected to heat allowed for a freakish colonization of the ruins by plants and flowers. (p316)

His is not a Hand that holds people back from the horrors and transgressions they commit (for instance, Rachael doesn’t experience anything other than her conscience to hold her back, on p244). Twentieth Century history is surely evidence enough of that. But He can and does redeem. And despite the huge costs it brings him, Lewis is a remarkable, if thoroughly human (and archetypally repressed) Englishman who takes initiatives of grace. He is a redemptive force in the book, for all his vulnerabilities and failings. That is what makes this story so compelling.

A rich and rewarding book

For many, the second half of the Twentieth Century is only comprehended in ‘blocks’. First you had the 2nd World War. Then you had the Cold War. In the former Germany was the enemy. In the latter, West Germany was a friend. It rarely occurs to people (if they consider it at all) how one transitioned into the other in just a few years. But the great virtue of this book is not the macro-political machinations of nation states with various strategic agendas. This is about people, individuals, with very real scars and hurts, trying to work out how to live together. That they do, by the end of The Aftermath, is deeply affecting and inspiring. Brook writes with real insight, flashes of descriptive poignancy and a real ear for dialogue.

I’ve just scratched the surface in these rather superficial musings. But I found this book quite uplifting – and feel sure that when it comes out on general release in May, it will become much-loved by many.

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