Rose bushes and concentration camps

I have concocted a (by no means) exhaustive list of over sixty British novels published between 1945 and 1960 that feature German characters. I’ve read nearly thirty and they’re slowly morphing in my mind into one never-ending and entirely implausible Berlin spy thriller filled with Nazis, Communists and the occasional friendly German (often a Jew…). A spreadsheet with plot summaries is just about keeping me sane.

Emerging out of these thousands of pages of text are, thankfully, some discernible trends and recurring figures.

The “German we love to hate” is at the top of the list. He (never she) is usually an ex- or emerging Nazi (depending on when the novel is set), but sometimes a Communist. He’s brutal, emotionally cold, cowardly and driven entirely by his politically extreme ideology.

Dr Ischenasch in D.M. Dowley’s 1952 novel exemplifies this type. Brought in to manage a failing chemical plant in a small English town, he aggressively imposes his own agenda, firing long-serving employees in the name of “efficiency” and scorning the advice of others, most of whom he dismisses as “stupid”. The downfall and eventual departure of this self-aggrandising and unpopular figure are celebrated by the whole town (not to mention the reader!).

Then there are the Nazis. Hansen (in Desmond Cory’s Pilgrim at the Gate) is representative of so many – small, weak and cowardly, he bolsters his own ego with delusional speeches, preaching his own important role in the imminent rise of Germany “to adopt its rightful position as the head of nations”.

His cruel and sadistic behaviour as a high-powered Nazi scientist make it impossible for us to laugh at his absurd theorising and gutless surrender to death as we otherwise might. In his last moments, he is described as “almost comically woebegone” – the “almost” indicating that such a malevolent character can never be comic, even darkly so.

hands of the devil

There are the faceless SS men in Tony Faramus’ romping adventure tale, Hands of the Devil, appearing at regular intervals, “cruel, gruesome and sadistic”, to thwart the escape of the French and British heroes from enemy territory.

And there’s Hugo, the apparently charming chap who enjoys entertaining the young relations of his naïve English wife. Yet on hearing of an attack of green-fly on a prized rose bush in the garden (a contrived plot device if ever I’ve seen one…), he charges outside, offering to lead a gas attack to smoke them out.

As if the reference isn’t already clear enough, he amends his technique of using heavy cigar smoke that’s bad for the roses, explaining that a lighter smoke “would do the work of extermination as well, if rather more slowly”. Ah yes, the reader thinks knowingly, a simple step for those Germans from green-fly and cigar smoke to concentration camps.

It’s perhaps no surprise to discover that this repulsive figure is so pervasive in post-war British novels. It may even go some way to explain the persistence of the Nazi stereotype in British popular culture. What seems more surprising is the “good German”, who crops up almost as regularly. More on him (or her) next time.


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