Awarded the Prix Goncourt in 2017, this stunningly exquisite, unconventional history explores several pivotal moments in the rise of Nazi Germany. The perspective is intimate; focused on conversations in closed rooms exposing the obfuscations, the bargains, the bluster, cowardice and acquiescence of historical actors. The question Vuillard poses is whether significant events follow from momentous action or if they are more likely the fumblings of the mediocre. This is a book with as much to say about the course of history past as of history unfolding. An alarm.
Winner of the 2017 Prix Goncourt, this behind-the-scenes account of the manipulation, hubris, and greed that together led to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria brilliantly dismantles the myth of an effortless victory and offers a dire warning for our current political crisis.
February 20, 1933, an unremarkable day during a harsh Berlin winter: A meeting of twenty-four German captains of industry and senior Nazi officials is being held in secret in the plush lounge of the Reichstag. They are there to extract funds for the accession to power of the National Socialist Party and its Chancellor. This opening scene sets a tone of consent that will lead to the worst possible repercussions.
March 12, 1938, the annexation of Austria is on the agenda: A grotesque day intended to make history—the newsreels capture a motorized army on the move, a terrible, inexorable power. But behind Goebbels’s splendid propaganda, an ersatz Blitzkrieg unfolds, the Panzers breaking down en masse on the roads into Austria. The true behind-the-scenes account of the Anschluss—a patchwork of minor flourishes of strength and fine words, fevered telephone calls, and vulgar threats—all reveal a starkly different picture. It is not strength of character or the determination of a people that wins the day, but rather a combination of intimidation and bluff.
With this vivid, compelling history, Éric Vuillard warns against the peril of willfully blind acquiescence, and offers a reminder that, ultimately, the worst is not inescapable.
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About the Author
Mark Polizzotti has translated more than fifty books from the French, including works by Gustave Flaubert, Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras, André Breton, and Raymond Roussel. A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the recipient of a 2016 American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for Literature, he is the author of eleven books. He directs the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Read an Excerpt
A SECRET MEETING
The sun is a cold star. Its heart, spines of ice. Its light, unforgiving. In February, the trees are dead, the river petrified, as if the springs had stopped spewing water and the sea could swallow no more. Time stands still. In the morning, not a sound, not even birdsong. Then an automobile, and another, and suddenly footsteps, unseen silhouettes. The play is about to begin, but the curtain won’t rise.
It’s Monday. The city is just beginning to stir behind its scrim of fog. People go to work as on any other day; they board the bus or trolley, thread their way onto the upper deck, then daydream in the chill. And even though the twentieth of February 1933 was not just any other day, most people spent the morning grinding away, immersed in the great, decent fallacy of work, with its small gestures that enfold a silent, conventional truth and reduce the entire epic of our lives to a diligent pantomime. The day passed, quiet and normal. And while everyone shuttled between house and factory, market and courtyard where the laundry is hung out to dry, or in the evening between office and tavern, before finally heading home—far away, far from the decent labors, far from domestic life, on the banks of the Spree, some men got out of their cars in front of a palace. Through doors obsequiously held open, they stepped from their huge black sedans and paraded in single file, dwarfed by the heavy sandstone columns. There were twenty-four of them, near the dead trees on the bank: twenty-four overcoats in black, brown, or amber; twenty-four pairs of wool-padded shoulders; twenty-four three-piece suits, and the same number of pleated trousers with wide cuffs. The shadows entered the large vestibule of the palace of the President of the Assembly—though before long, there would be no more assembly, no more president, and eventually no more parliament. Only a heap of smoking rubble.
For now, they doffed twenty-four felt hats and uncovered twenty-four bald pates or crowns of white hair. They shook hands solemnly before mounting the stage. The venerable patricians stood in the huge vestibule, exchanging casual, respectable banter, as if at the starchy opening of a garden party.
The twenty-four silhouettes conscientiously took a first stairway, then trudged up another flight, step after step, occasionally halting so as not to overtax their old hearts. They climbed, hands gripping the copper rail, eyes half-shut, without admiring the elegant banister or the vaulting, as if on a heap of invisible dead leaves. At the narrow entrance, they were ushered to the right; and there, after several paces over the checkered tiles, they scaled the thirty steps leading to the third floor. I don’t know who was first in line, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: all twenty-four had to do exactly the same thing, follow the same path, turn right around the stairwell, until finally, on their left, they entered the salon through the wide-open doors.
They say that literature gives you license. So I could, for instance, make them turn around the Penrose stairs in perpetuity, going neither up nor down, or both at the same time. And indeed, that’s pretty much the sense we get from books. The time of words—compact or fluid, dense or impenetrable, stretched out, granular—halts movement and leaves us mesmerized. Our heroes are in the palace for all eternity, as if in an enchanted castle. They are thunderstruck from the outset, petrified, frozen. The doors are simultaneously open and shut, the fanlights worn, dangling, smashed, or repainted. The stairwell gleams, but it is empty; the chandelier sparkles, but it is dead. We are everywhere in time. And so, Albert Vögler climbed the steps to the first landing, and there he raised his hand to his detachable collar, sweating, dripping with perspiration, feeling slightly dizzy. Beneath the large gilded lantern that lit the flights of stairs, he straightened his vest, undid a button, loosened his collar. Perhaps Gustav Krupp paused on the landing as well, giving Albert a compassionate word, a small apothegm on old age—showed a little solidarity, in short. Then Gustav went on his way and Albert Vögler remained there a few moments longer, alone beneath the chandelier: a huge, gold-plated vegetable with an enormous ball of light in the center. Finally, they entered the small salon. Wolf-Dietrich, private secretary to Carl von Siemens, dawdled for a moment near the French windows, letting his eyes linger on the thin coat of frost dusting the balcony. For a moment he escaped from the petty intrigues of this world, borne on cotton wool. And while the others chitchatted and puffed on their Montecristos, jabbering about the cream or taupe color of the wrappers and whether they liked their cigars smooth or spiced (though all of them were partial to fat ring gauges), absently squeezing the fine gold bands—while all of this was happening, Wolf-Dietrich stood daydreaming at the window, wavering with the bare branches and floating above the Spree.
A few steps away, admiring the delicate plaster figurines decorating the ceiling, Wilhelm von Opel raised and lowered his thick round glasses. His family was among those that had risen over the generations, going, through promotions and accumulations of estates and grandiose titles, from small landowners around the municipality of Braubach to magistrates, then burgomasters, until Adam Opel—issued from his mother’s indecipherable entrails and schooled in the tricks of the locksmith’s trade—designed a marvelous sewing machine that marked the true onset of their glory. In reality, Adam invented nothing. He got himself hired by a manufacturer, kept a low profile, then made a few improvements. He married Sophie Scheller, who brought with her a substantial dowry, and named his first sewing machine after her. At that point, production soared. It took only a few years for the sewing machine to realize its potential, enter the mainstream, become part of everyday life. Its true inventors had come along too early. Once the success of his sewing machines was a fait accompli, Adam Opel branched off into velocipedes. But one night, a strange voice slipped through the half-open door. His heart felt cold, so cold. It wasn’t the sewing machine’s actual inventors come to beg for royalties, or his workers demanding their share of the profits. It was God claiming his soul: he had to give it back.
But companies don’t die like men. They are mystical bodies that never perish. The Opel brand continued selling bicycles, then automobiles. Already at its founder’s death, the firm counted fifteen hundred employees, and it kept growing. A company is a person whose blood rushes to the head. We call these legal entities. Their lives last much longer than ours. And so, on this twentieth of February, as Wilhelm ruminated in the small salon of the palace of the President of the Reichstag, the Opel company was already an old lady. By now it was just an empire within another empire, bearing only a distant relation to Adam the patriarch’s sewing machines. And though the Opel company was a very wealthy dowager, she was nonetheless so elderly that almost no one noticed her anymore; she had faded into the landscape. By now, the Opel company was older than many states, older than Lebanon, older than Germany itself, older than most African nations, older even than Bhutan, where the gods became lost in the clouds.
One by one, then, we could approach all twenty-four of these gentlemen as they enter the palace,
flit past their collar studs and the knots of their ties, lose ourselves an instant in the trim of their mustaches, zone out among the pinstripes of their jackets, plunge into their sad eyes. And there, deep inside that yellow, bristly arnica flower, we would always find the same little door; we would pull the bell cord and be transported back in time to witness the same string of underhanded maneuvers, marriages of convenience, double dealings—the tedious saga of their exploits. By that February 20, Wilhelm von Opel, Adam’s son, had brushed the motor grease from beneath his fingernails once and for all, put away his bike, left behind his sewing machine, and now sported a nobiliary particle that encapsulated his entire family history. From the height of his sixty-two years, he cleared his throat and glanced at his watch, then looked around him with pinched lips. Hjalmar Schacht had done his job well; he would soon be appointed Director of the Reichsbank and Minister of the Economy. Around the table were Gustav Krupp, Albert Vögler, Günther Quandt, Friedrich Flick, Ernst Tengelmann, Fritz Springorum, August Rosterg, Ernst Brandi, Karl Büren, Günther Heubel, Georg von Schnitzler, Hugo Stinnes Jr., Eduard Schulte, Ludwig von Winterfeld, Wolf-Dietrich von Witzleben, Wolfgang Reuter, August Diehn, Erich Fickler, Hans von Loewenstein zu Loewenstein, Ludwig Grauert, Kurt Schmitt, August von Finck, and Dr. Stein. We’re at the nirvana of industry and finance. There they sat, silent, well-mannered, and a little numb from having waited for almost twenty minutes. The smoke from their stogies made their eyes water.
As if in meditation, several shadows paused at a mirror and straightened their ties, making themselves at home in the small salon. Somewhere, in one of his four volumes on architecture, Palladio rather nebulously defines a salon as a living room, the stage on which we play out the vaudeville of our existence. And in the celebrated Villa Godi Malinverni, starting from the Olympus Room, where nude gods cavort among the trompe l’oeil ruins, through the Room of Venus, where a child and a page escape through a painted false door, you arrive at the Main Hall, where you find, on an architrave above the entrance, the end of a prayer: “And deliver us from evil.” But in the palace of the President of the Assembly, where our little gathering was being held, you would have searched in vain for such an inscription: it was not on the program. Not the order of the day.
A few more minutes dragged by beneath the tall ceiling. They exchanged smiles. They opened leather briefcases. Now and again, Schacht raised his gold-rimmed spectacles and rubbed his nose, tongue at the edge of his lips. The guests remained quietly seated, training their crab-like eyes on the door. Whispers between two sneezes. A handkerchief was unfolded, nostrils honked in the silence; then they shifted in their seats, waiting patiently for the meeting to begin. They were old hands at meetings. All of them sat on various boards of directors or of trustees; all were members of some employers’ association or other. Not to mention the sinister family reunions of this austere and stultifying patriarchy.
In the front row, Gustav Krupp fanned his rubicund face with his glove, hawked conscientiously into his hanky: he had a cold. With age, his thin lips were beginning to form a nasty inverse crescent. He looked sad and worried. Mechanically he twisted a beautiful gold ring, through the fog of his hopes and calculations—and it’s possible that, for him, those two words had but a single meaning, as if they’d been magnetically drawn together.
Suddenly, the doors creaked, the floorboards groaned; sounds of talking in the anteroom.
The twenty-four lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly. Hjalmar Schacht swallowed his saliva; Gustav adjusted his monocle. Behind the door panels, they heard muffled voices, then a whistle blast. And finally, the President of the Reichstag, Hermann Goering himself, strode smiling into the room. This was no surprise, really, just an everyday occurrence. In the grand scheme of business, partisan struggles didn’t amount to much. Politicians and industrialists routinely dealt with each other.
Goering went around the table with a word for everyone present, seizing each hand in a debonair grip. But the President of the Reichstag had not come merely to welcome them. He mumbled a few words of greeting, then immediately launched into the upcoming elections, on March 5. The twenty-four sphinxes listened closely. The electoral campaign would be crucial, the President of the Reichstag announced. It was time to get rid of that wishy-washy regime once and for all. Economic activity demanded calm and stability. The twenty-four gentlemen nodded solemnly. The electric candles of the chandelier blinked; the great sun painted on the ceiling shone brighter than before. And if the Nazi Party won the majority, added Goering, these would be the last elections for ten years—even, he added with a laugh, for a hundred years.
A wave of approbation swept over the seats. At that moment, there was a sound of doors, and the new chancellor finally entered the room. Those who had never met him were curious to see him in person. Hitler was smiling, relaxed, not at all as they had imagined: affable, yes, even friendly, much friendlier than they would have thought. For everyone present, he had a word of thanks, a dynamic handshake. Once the introductions had been made, everyone again took their comfortable chairs. Krupp was in the first row, picking at his tiny mustache with a nervous finger. Right behind him, two directors of IG Farben, along with von Finck, Quandt, and some others, sagely crossed their legs. There was a cavernous cough. The cap of a pen produced a minuscule clink. Silence.
They listened. The basic idea was this: they had to put an end to a weak regime, ward off the Communist menace, eliminate trade unions, and allow every entrepreneur to be the führer of his own shop. The speech lasted half an hour. When Hitler had finished, Gustav stood up, took a step forward, and, on behalf of all those present, thanked him for having finally clarified the political situation. The chancellor made a quick lap around the table on his way out. They congratulated him courteously. The old industrialists seemed relieved. Once he had departed, Goering took the floor, energetically reformulating several ideas, then returned to the March 5 elections. This was a unique opportunity to break out of the impasse they were in. But to mount a successful campaign, they needed money; the Nazi Party didn’t have a blessed cent and Election Day was fast approaching. At that moment, Hjalmar Schacht rose to his feet, smiled at the assembly, and called out, “And now, gentlemen, time to pony up!”
Cavalier though it was, the invitation was hardly novel to these men, who were used to kickbacks and backhanders. Corruption is an irreducible line item in the budget of large companies, and it goes by several names: lobbying fees, gifts, political contributions. Most of the guests immediately handed over hundreds of thousands of marks. Gustav Krupp gave a million, Georg von Schnitzler four hundred thousand, and so they raked in a hefty sum. That meeting of February 20, which might seem to us a unique moment in corporate history, an unprecedented compromise with the Nazis, was in fact nothing more for the Krupps, Opels, and Siemenses than a perfectly ordinary business transaction, your basic fund-raising. All would survive the regime and go on to finance many other parties, commensurate with their level of performance. But to truly understand the meeting of February 20, 1933, to grasp its everlasting import, we must now call these men by their real names. It was not Günther Quandt, Wilhelm von Opel, Gustav Krupp, and August von Finck who were present that late afternoon, in the palace of the President of the Reichstag. We must use other designations. For “Günther Quandt” is a cryptonym; it masks something very different from the corpulent gentleman slicking down his mustache and sitting quietly in his seat around the table of honor. Close behind him is a rather more imposing silhouette, a tutelary shadow, as cold and impervious as a stone statue. Yes, hovering in all its fierce, anonymous power above Quandt and making him look stiff as a mask (but a mask that fits his face more closely than his own skin), we can see Accumulatoren-Fabrik AG, later called Varta—for as we know, legal entities have their avatars, just as ancient divinities took various forms and occasionally absorbed other divinities.
This, then, is the Quandts’ real name, their demigod identity; whereas he, Günther, is but a tiny little mound of skin and bone like you and me. When he’s gone, his sons will sit on the throne, then the sons of his sons. But the throne itself remains, even after the little mound of skin and bone has curdled in the earth. As such, these twenty-four men are not called Schnitzler, or Witzleben, or Schmitt, or Finck, or Rosterg, or Heubel, as their identity papers would have us believe. They are called BASF, Bayer, Agfa, Opel, IG Farben, Siemens, Allianz, Telefunken. By these names we shall know them. In fact, we know them very well. They are here beside us, among us. They are our cars, our washing machines, our household appliances, our clock radios, our homeowner’s insurance, our watch batteries. They are here, there, and everywhere, in all sorts of guises. Our daily life is theirs. They care for us, clothe us, light our way, carry us over the world’s highways, rock us to sleep. And the twenty-four gentlemen present at the palace of the President of the Reichstag that February 20 are none other than their proxies, the clergy of major industry; they are the high priests of Ptah. And there they stand, affectless, like twenty-four calculating machines at the gates of Hell.