"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Winter by Len Deighton: Decline of a German family

I made several attempts to read Winter back in the 1990s.  To this day I vividly recall early chapters: Peter Winter's experience of a zeppelin raid on London, and Paul Winter's experience in a trench-raiding punishment battalion. I'm glad I was finally able to read it cover-to-cover this week.

Len Deighton's Winter [1987] is a thick wedge of history and a compelling melodrama.  Few novelists of real skill would have the guts to attempt a big canvas of the middle class German experience 1900-1945.

Most novels about the period written in the last few decades have a suffocatingly narrow horizon.  But Deighton, like Herman Wouk before him, revels in a large cast and frequent scenery changes. 

His third person point of view, often skipping among characters in a given scene, is maddening, then astonishing, and finally shattering.

Deighton pays close attention to the political vicissitudes of the Nazi party in 1923-1933, before it came to power. It is unfortunate that none of his characters is in a position to observe the Stalinist and Social Democrat failure to form a united front to defeat the fascists. [The best book on the subject is The Struggle Against Fascism in Germy by Leon Trotsky.]

Deighton has slight curiosity about the German proletariat, expressed in the evolution of secondary character Fritz Esser.  Esser starts out a partisan of Liebknecht, but Deighton leaves us in no doubt he was born to be hung.

Peter and Paul Winter, the two brothers at the heart of the novel, reside in passivity.  Granted their family wealth and position, they are still not men who put their stamp on events.  Events stamp them, pushing them along.  There are no Cain and Abel vendettas or betrayals, just everyday frustrations of deeply unsatisfied men.

The Holocaust is for the most part left off-stage, as it would have been in the experience of most Germans of the Winter brothers social layer.  But in the 1943 chapter two secondary characters confront it head one.  One is a German officer, the other an Austrian Jew.

[From Chapter: 1943].

....The train lurched to a stop. Colonel Rudolf Freiherr von Kleindorf, who'd been asleep while the train had roared through innumerable stations and rattled over countless crossings, now came awake in his narrow bunk. He turned over, but it was too narrow, and the sides of the bunk trapped his arms. When he put an arm out and hung it over the high wooden side of the bunk, his blood supply was constricted and his hand started to go dead, so he had to move again. He looked at his watch. There was only a very dim red bulb in the ceiling, but eventually he made out the time: two-twenty-five in the morning. Ugh!

He'd been dreaming about Moscow again, about his brief time as a division commander. Suppose he hadn't pulled back? Suppose he'd given the order to fight to the last man, the way the Fuhrer said every unit was to do? Well, in that case he wouldn't have been disciplined and demoted to the adjutant of a rifle regiment until getting this regimental command. No, he would be dead, together with every last man of the division. Perhaps seven months as adjutant of a rifle regiment was a cheap price to pay for the lives of so many fine young men. General Homer thought so -- he'd sent von Kleindorf a letter saying exactly that -- but it didn't entirely make up for commanding a division. He'd give almost anything for that pleasure and privilege. Colonel von Kleindorf, a prematurely aged man in his late thirties, tried to get back to sleep, but he was unable to do so, and the train still didn't move: it remained where it was except to judder and shake. Every time he dozed off, there was some mechanical noise of the sort trains made: the clanking of the coupling link chains or the sudden hiss of air in the brakes. After what seemed like hours but was really a little less than thirty minutes, he swung out of his uncomfortable sleeping space and put his feet on the floor. The floor was cold. This was an army train and its furnishing didn't extend to carpeting, not even for the little sleeping cabinet provided to the officer in charge. And if the floor was cold, the air outside would be freezing. He had on underwear with long sleeves and long legs. Some of the others slept fully dressed -- boots, too, in some cases -- but on a journey like this Rudi von Kleindorf slept in his underwear. It was a compromise. Quite a lot of things in Rudi's life were compromises. Even going into the army had been a compromise, back in 1920.

He put the clear light bulb on. It didn't provide much more illumination: these trains were designed to go right up into the army's railheads, some of them uncomfortably close to the front line. He slipped his elastic braces over his shoulders, buttoned up his flies, and got an arm into his jacket while he was stepping into his high boots. It was all second nature to him. He could dress, and even shave, before becoming fully awake. There was a folding sink in the corner. He splashed water on his face and ran a hand back through his closely cropped hair. He rubbed his face. He needed a shave, but his hair was light and he'd probably not meet anyone who mattered. He was the regimental commander and senior officer on the train.

He was reaching for the handle on the door when a knock came. It was the duty officer: Leutnant Uhl. The young officer was surprised to find von Kleindorf fully dressed. 'Herr Oberst!

How did you know?'

'Commanders know everything,' said von Kleindorf. It was what Horner used to say to him in the old days. He wondered how often he'd credited Horner with such prescience in similar circumstances.

Leutnant Uhl -- a spindly young man with eyeglasses -- said, 'There's some obstruction on the line. I have put out pickets, in case it's a guerrilla ambush. The train commander has gone back to find a signal box to telephone and find out what's wrong.'

'A signal box to telephone?' said von Kleindorf with a grim laugh. 'Does he think he's on the S-Bahn to Wannsee?'

'He thinks he'll find one,' said Uhl.

'Where are we, Uhl?'

'I don't know, Herr Oberst. Poland, I suppose, by now.'

'Not many signal boxes and telephones in Poland, Uhl. You might make a note of that for future reference.'

'I will, Herr Oberst.' Von Kleindorf liked the kid. He was not much more than twenty years old. He'd got into medical school at some absurdly young age and then, within a year of graduating, thrown it in to join the army. What a fool.

'And no partisans this close to home. But you did the right thing, Uhl. It's good practice, and I want to keep the men alert and ready. Let the guards stay there. Men on the roof?'

'Yes, Herr Oberst. A machine-gun team, too.'

'Let's go and see what the holdup is, Uhl.' Von Kleindorf put on his heavy winter overcoat and turned up the fur collar.

Cautiously the two officers climbed down from the train and moved forward in the darkness. No moon tonight: such a night would be entirely suited to an ambush. But surely it couldn't happen this far in the rear areas. On the other hand, there were such curious stories. In the rear areas SS-Einsatzgruppen did nothing except summarily execute partisans and irregulars who threatened the lines of supply, and according to what he'd heard they were slaughtering people by the thousand, so it must be dangerous. Men didn't execute suspects without good reason, did they?

There was a cold wind, especially biting up here on the railway embankment. On each side of them the land was flat as far as they could see, which was not far on this dark night. As they walked past the locomotive, they felt the warmth from its boilers and looked up at the footplate, where the driver and firemen were rimmed by the orange light of the fire. Lucky devils: they'd be the only ones warm this freezing-cold night. 'They've done nothing about finding out what's wrong,' complained Leutnant Uhl.

'Standing orders, Uhl. Drivers and firemen have to remain on the footplate while a train is stopped. There were too many cases of loco crews being lured away and killed. Then the whole train is at the mercy of attackers.'

'That's clear, Herr Oberst.'

'A foul smell in the air,' said von Kleindorf.

'The fields perhaps, Herr Oberst. Human fertilizer.'

'At this time of year? You must be a town boy, Leutnant Uhl.'

'I am, Herr Oberst.'

'What a stench! It's like a battlefield.'

They continued walking. The train track was roughly fashioned. By the light of his torch he could see the sleepers: rough balks of timber with patterns of holes to show that they'd been shifted and reused many times; crude wedges to hold the rails, and a total absence of the gravel fettling that ensured that wooden sleepers could be nicely adjusted for height. These were not like the railway tracks in Germany, so elaborate and well made. This was the East. Blocking the way ahead of them was another train. A long train, perhaps a hundred freight wagons. Painted dark green and marked with the eagle insignia of the Reichsbahn.

'What's wrong?' called von Kleindorf.

'The bloody axle, that's what's wrong!' It was the voice of an ill-tempered man dragged out of bed in the middle of the cold night.

As the two officers got closer to the men, the speaker said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, Herr Oberst.' He was a hoarse-voiced man with a Silesian accent.

'You'll have to get it moving,' said von Kleindorf. 'There are other trains close behind us.' The stench from the boxcar was almost overwhelming. He wondered if the whole train was like this. A bearded man who seemed to be in charge consulted his clipboard, flashing a light upon it to see the typed sheet. 'You're the HZ 1489? Advance party, Regimental HQ of the Panzer Division, Herr Oberst?' His voice was softer and authoritative.

'Yes: seventy-two trains close behind us,' said von Kleindorf, although he had no doubt that the railway workers knew how many trains it needed to move an armoured division.

'Can you tell me where the armour is loaded, Herr Oberst?' said the man, who then cupped his hands together and blew into them to warm them.

Von Kleindorf hesitated. The disposition of the tanks and tracked artillery on their flatbed cars was not something to be revealed to the first person who asked. These men were undoubtedly Germans, despite their thick Silesian accents, but why would they want to know?

As if reading his mind, the man explained in more detail: 'I can work ordinary freight cars, or passenger coaches, past this broken box-wagon. But your tanks will overhang their flatbeds. In the old days the smaller tanks permitted two-line working, but I can't work your large modern armour through without both up and down lines clear.'

'There is armour right behind us,' said von Kleindorf. There was a sound from inside the car --

animals, he guessed, horses or cattle.

'And we've got more armour on the train in the siding, so I can't shunt it over there,' said the bearded man and sucked his teeth reflectively. 'Then we'll have to get rid of this broken wagon,'

he said. He turned to his loud-voiced companion. 'Any ideas, Andi?'

'The nearest crane is in the yards, but if you don't mind about salvaging it, we might bring up a winch and topple it off the track and down the slope there.'

'I've got two hospital trains due,' said the bearded man. He'd taken his gloves off to write. Now he put them on again. That's the first one coming now, if I'm not mistaken. Battle casualties. That one should get priority.' The sound of a train could be heard very faintly. The man's hearing was tuned to such sounds.

'We can't wait for cranes or winches,' said von Kleindorf. 'I'll bring up one of my combat pioneer officers and we'll put a couple of sticks of dynamite under it.'

'Without damaging the track, Herr Oberst?'

'My Pioniere can crack an egg without breaking the yolk,' said von Kleindorf. 'But you'll have to empty it first. Your boxcar will be no more than matchwood. What are its contents?


The two railway workers exchanged glances. What an odd question. Did these army officers really not know? Couldn't they smell the whole train? Didn't they know that Reichsbahn trains like this were a major part of the rail traffic eastwards nowadays, and that they returned empty?

'Jews, Herr Oberst.'


'For resettlement in the East.' He shone his torch at the Reichsbahn docket clipped to the wooden side of the boxcar. Upon it was printed 'To Auschwitz-Birkenau' in large black letters. Von Kleindorf could hear them now. What he'd thought was animals was the restless movement of people, humans who must be packed together so tight that some of them could not breathe.

'Get your saw and take the locks off,' said the bearded man.

'What will we do with them?'

'Can you provide us with an army sentry, Herr Oberst?'

'I can't leave him behind, if that's what you mean,' said von Kleindorf. 'Better you get a local man.'

'We don't need a sentry,' said the man called Andi. They'll give us no trouble. They can go into the empty boxcar on the sidings.'

It was only a two-minute job to saw through the locking bolt. But it needed the strength of both railway workers to heave the door open. And then the people spewed out, to crash onto the hard, cold ground with sickening thumps.

The sudden stench of urine, excrement and death came like a blow. 'Good God!' said Leutnant Uhl, and jumped back in alarm. Even the battle-hardened von Kleindorf gasped at the sight. Women, children, old men, young women clutching babies, all tumbled out stiff, like dressmakers' dummies, with the cold. One tall fellow in a black suit hit the ground with such force that he folded up and rolled down the embankment into the ditch. And yet these wretched creatures nearest the door were the strongest ones. They were the men and women who'd fought and elbowed their way, or pushed their children, to where there was sometimes a crack of daylight and a thin draught of air.

'Raus! Raus!' shouted the bearded man. He shone his flashlight into the dark confines of the boxcar, and there was the glint of frightened eyes. More people were there, dozens of them. 'Out!

Out! Out!' But some of them couldn't get out. Some of the old people were dead. Children, too, of course. Men and women had slipped down in the crush of bodies and suffocated there. Others had fainted and gone all the way to the floor of the car, trampled underfoot until they were unrecognizable as anything but sticky, bloody bundles of old rags. Von Kleindorf felt physically sick. He turned on his heel and marched away. The young subaltern followed him. So that was the sort of resettlement the regime was offering the Jews. He pulled his cigarettes from his pocket. Anything to get rid of the sight and the smell. But the memory was a thing he'd never escape.

Boris Somlo was just losing consciousness as they began to saw through the locking bolt from the door. He was pinned in the corner of the car. He'd always hated crowds; even when his mother had taken him to the big Vienna department stores, he'd hated being crushed close to other people. But this was hell. For a long time he'd tried to hold a small boy up, too, but that was many days ago. It was before the day they gave them water and bits of bread. That was before the first time he'd lost consciousness. Where was the child now? He could have been no more than five or six years old, a solemn little fellow who had never replied to anything. Boris rubbed his face and tried to judge from his beard how many days they'd spent locked up in the cold, dark boxcar. But his beard had never been very heavy and he couldn't guess. Boris heard the railway workers' voices, too, but he couldn't make out what they were saying, and he didn't much care. He was so weak that even his hunger had abated. Nothing mattered any more. Nothing. So -- like the rest of them -- he was totally unprepared for the opening of the door.

As the door crashed open, everyone in the wagon moved, and Boris suddenly found himself swept to the doorway, watching people on each side fall into the darkness. He breathed the air, so cold it hurt his lungs, and then someone pushed from behind and he, too, was falling into the bottomless black space.

He hit the ground with a thump that took all the breath from him, but the force of landing sent him rolling down the dark embankment. At the bottom of the slope was a shallow ditch of stagnant water, its top frozen into a thin layer of ice that broke like sugar icing as he rolled over in the cold water.

Suddenly he was fully conscious, but he had very little strength left, and no determination except to scramble out of the water into the field beyond it. The warmth of the packed bodies had been keeping them all alive, and now the effect of the cold wind upon his wet clothes chilled him enough to make him gasp. He stifled a cough with his hand and crawled on. He looked back up the railway embankment to where the men with torches were shouting into the half-empty boxcar. He got to his feet and walked very slowly away into the darkness. Boris dragged one foot after the other until he'd walked the whole length of the 'resettlement transport', his body aching with cold. Beyond it there was another train. It would be sensible to get away from the railway, and into the open country. The lines of communication were always heavily guarded -- you didn't have to be a soldier to know that. But Boris could not face the open countryside in his wet clothing. He was hungry, thirsty, tired and very weak. He knew that he couldn't survive more than another half-hour or so in this weather. He stumbled along, without thinking of what he was doing or where he was going. He got to the second train without knowing why he was heading towards it, except that he could see its twinkling lights and it looked warm and inviting. It was an army train, and on the side of it there were big Red Cross signs. He approached it carefully. He'd learned now the danger that sentries represented, but there were no sentries except for two armed men on the roofs of the carriages. He supposed that hospital trains did not have manpower enough to supply sentries every time the train came to a stop.

Some of the windows had open blinds and he could see soldiers inside. The train was jammed full of men; grey-clad men were strewn everywhere, like broken soldiers thrown into a toybox. Many of them were bandaged; most of them were sleeping. There was no movement anywhere. He walked along, staying away from the locomotive. The locomotive would have men who were on duty and awake. The next carriage was fitted with bunk beds for casualties who couldn't walk. This was as crowded as the previous one, with soldiers packed together as close as possible. All the men were wrapped in grey blankets and crammed into the bunks together, looking curiously like tinned sardines.

The door of the third carriage was open, and the light spilled out. Two medical orderlies were seated on the steps, both smoking with the dedication that comes after lengthy denial. In the doorway behind the orderlies, Boris could see an open cupboard, its shelves filled with army blankets. He coveted one of those thick, warm blankets more than anything he could think of in the world.

He waited for a long time, the icy wind cutting through him like a thousand knives. Eventually the orderlies finished their cigarettes and went back into the train. He could see them through the windows, moving along the train. This was his chance, and he got up on the steps and tried the door. It was unlocked. He opened it carefully and stepped inside and up the steps. To his right was a toilet, and behind him the communicating doors to the next carriage. From here he could see right down into the train. He felt the warmth of the heating and heard the snoring, soft moans and restless movements of the injured men. No one was looking this way. He stepped into the soft yellow light and opened the cupboard. He pulled a blanket out slowly, holding the others back with his free hand. It fell out and opened. He dragged it back into the space provided by the doorway. But as he did so the train gave a jolt. From the floor nearby he heard the couplings clatter and there was a hiss of steam from the locomotive as the train jolted twice and started to move.

'Orderly! Orderly! This man needs help! He's bleeding again.' It was a shrill voice, the frightened voice of a young man.

'I'm coming, I'm coming!' An orderly had opened the communicating door from the next carriage. He stood there for a moment, and Boris could recognize him as one of the men who'd been smoking outside. The train groaned and rolled forward, clattering over the steel rails of a junction. Boris stepped back into the shadow and pulled the blanket round him to completely cover his black suit, stinking now and soiled with vomit and excrement, his and other people's. The orderly passed Boris with scarcely a glance at him. Even his disgusting smell attracted no attention here, amongst the sick and injured.

'Bleeding?' said the orderly when he got to the frightened young man. 'Where is he bleeding?'

The train was picking up speed now. It would soon be going too fast for him to jump without the possibility of a damaged leg or foot. He looked out the window. They were passing another train: a troop train filled with soldiers. They stared at him, as they stared at all the wounded, wondering if this was the way they would come back.

Blood had come from the bunk above and made a spotty pattern on the young soldier's face and the blanket. 'That's nothing,' the medical orderly said. 'I'll change his dressing in the morning.'

'I want to move,' said the frightened boy.

'If you can find a place, move,' said the orderly. He smoothed the blankets in the fussy little movements that come automatically to trained nurses.

'You've shit yourself again, haven't you?' said the orderly.

'I couldn't help it,' said the frightened boy.

'You'd better get yourself fresh pyjamas. But this is the last change you get, understand?'

'Yes,' said the boy.

The orderly came back past Boris, but before he opened the communicating door he paused to look at him. Boris met the orderly's eyes and his stomach churned in fear. 'I know your damned tricks,' the orderly said angrily. 'You're not allowed to smoke there. Get back to your bed or your compartment or wherever you're from. You know the regulations.'

Boris nodded.

The orderly slammed the heavy connecting door and disappeared into the next carriage. Boris watched the boy getting out of the bunk to get fresh pyjamas. If Boris could get army pyjamas, and hide his black suit, perhaps they'd feed him along with the rest of them. If he could get something to eat, he'd be able to think more clearly.

He looked out the window. There was another army train waiting on a siding. This one consisted of tanks chained down upon flatbed wagons. His train rumbled past them slowly, hundreds of them. It was as if the whole world were nothing but tanks....

Deighton's obsession in Winter is not with spies or bureaucratic infighting, though the novel features plenty of both.  His fascination is with Germany's social fabric, and the way repeated historical catastrophes shaped and warped it.  In the end, Deighton suggests starkly that middle class Germans on both sides of the Nazi divide could not out-run its nemesis.

4 January 2018

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