Monday, January 04, 2010

Simplicius Simplicissimus: a forgotten classic


I have taught my year-long course on early modern European history 1400-1800 maybe 10 different times. From the beginning I was aware that there was a classic novel of the 30 years war called Simplicius Simplicissimus, written in German not long after the events it describes. The book is considered a valuable resource for people studying the war and the experience of soldiers in it. I never had time to get hold of it myself, since it wasn't in any of the University libraries that I frequented.

I have temporarily relocated for my sabbatical and now have been able to put my hands on the book. And you know, it is really good. It is a typical 17th-century satire where the hero is a fool, which is to say that he has a clear-eyed view of what other people do and why they do it, and the same for himself, for whom he makes no excuses. Simplicius starts out as a poor orphan, and travels through society rising and falling in wealth and status, mostly depending on his luck at any given time.

A book like this has a real chance of being absolutely deadly to modern tastes. But somehow it isn't, at least not in this translation by George Shulz-Behrend from 1965. The prose is clean and light with no fake archaic flavor. In fact, it has a real contemporary feeling, meaning fresh and contemporary by the standards of the middle 60s. Not so long ago even if you weren't born then. Despite the fact that it exposes the sins and foibles of all sorts of people, it isn't brutal as it so easily could be.

The main fault of the book is that the author, Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, throws in more digressions that I care for with the result that the book is about 20% too long and sort of runs out of steam rather than ending properly.

Image: the cover page of the 1669 edition.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

One of the best things to happen in human history

We are coming up to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, part of the greater fall of communism and the Iron Curtain in Europe. This is one of the best things that ever happened in human history. It could all have gone very wrong.

All over the web there is commentary and reminiscences, and I urge you to have a look. The Toronto Globe and Mail is not a bad place to go. Their coverage was excellent 20 years ago, and I have just finished reading an amazing article by Doug Saunders and video by the same, both discussing what happened in East Germany.

The video is here.
(Click video tab if necessary.)

The article, "Half a life ago, Katrin blew the Wall down," is here. (Click article tab if necessary.)

Some excerpts (note the lack of mythologizing about Gorbachev or Reagan):
Through the bare tile walls of her solitary-confinement cell in Leipzig, Katrin Hattenhauer could feel a rumbling. As she lay on her bare, plank bed, her petite frame shook with a vibration from the main street outside, the sound of something large and heavy and determined.

She knew, from the air of distress among her Stasi guards, that something was going on. But it was damningly hard to make the distinction: Was this the thundering surge of huge numbers of people rising against the state, or of tanks and columns of soldiers restoring order?

It was Monday, Oct. 9, 1989. In a month, it would be her 21st birthday. It seemed unlikely she would live that long. Cancer had nearly killed her five years before, and now the Stasi, the East German secret police, had told her that they wanted her dead, soon.

She had been locked in isolation for five weeks, after being picked out of a crowd of hundreds and arrested for insurrection as she carried a large, cloth banner: “For an open country with free people.”

...

Unbeknownst to Katrin Hattenhauer, East Germany had erupted that Monday, in her name. The banner she had carried, and the air of martyrdom created by the arrest of her group of unknown students, had galvanized the nation.

During her confinement, the tiny, silent peace protests they had been holding on Mondays in the square of Leipzig's St. Nicholas Church had metamorphosed into a full-scale revolt with thousands of people, then into a mass insurrection with tens of thousands, then into a national revolution, bringing a million people onto the streets, that would precipitate the end of the Berlin Wall exactly a month later, on the night of Nov. 9.

When Berlin celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Wall's breach on Monday, it will mark a symbolically important event that was neither the beginning nor the end of anything. Communism would stagger on for a month after Nov. 9, and elections and German reunification wouldn't take place until well into 1990.

Nor was the Wall's fall the event that triggered the end of East German communism. That pivotal event, the day that ripped past from future, had taken place exactly a month earlier, in Leipzig, where pressure had been building quietly, for weeks and years, in a church courtyard.

Its eruption was what Katrin Hattenhauer had felt shaking her prison-cell bed. It was the eruption she and her friends had launched.

The rumbling she felt on Oct. 9 had been the force of 70,000 people marching past and occupying the city's downtown district. Tanks, dogs and train-loads of shells had been shipped into the city that morning, and stood waiting at the train station, along with thousands of troops.

The soldiers were under direct orders from Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic, to prevent the occurrence of mass protests “from the start,” and, if provoked in any way, to respond “offensively.” Only four months earlier, tanks had cleared Beijing's Tiananmen Square of democracy protesters, killing hundreds. Mr. Honecker was not against a Chinese option. Slaughter seemed the logical outcome.

But the soldiers did not fire. They didn't even block anyone's path. Mr. Honecker was shocked, and only a few days later the magnitude of the Oct. 9 protest (and the even-larger ones encouraged by its lack of violence) would force him to resign.

Their decision not to shoot – apparently made without much discussion – owed much to the collapse of East German confidence. Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev had made it clear a year before that he wouldn't use Soviet troops to enforce communism in satellite states. Poland and Hungary had ceased to be communist earlier that year in peaceful, negotiated handovers, so they wouldn't provide troops.

But even more important was the tradition of calm, tranquil protest that began in Leipzig as “prayers for peace” with a few dozen people holding candles, expanded into the Monday demonstrations and then inspired the quiet queues of people who chanted open the Wall on Nov. 9.

On that Monday, the soldiers searched for provocations that might justify a violent response, but found none. “We were told we would be facing counterrevolutionaries,” one soldier explained later, “and we realized it was just people like us.”

...

The “peace prayer” protests (only a small fraction of the participants had religious beliefs) and environmental statements had not been intended to challenge the existence of the state. Nobody dared imagine that. But the mood in East Germany changed in 1989: Between the increasingly dramatic liberalizations occurring in the USSR under Mr. Gorbachev, the sense of economic collapse within the GDR and the quiet revolutions in Poland and Hungary, there was a desire for change.

And one of the only vehicles for change was the small circle of protesters in Leipzig.

“No one was dreaming that the Wall would fall,” Ms. Hattenhauer said. “That was unimaginable – 1989 was a year of escalation, where we had the feeling the state was getting more dangerous. People were being arrested faster and disappearing faster. Nobody had sensed that the system was kaput economically.”

By July, after news of Poland and Hungary ending communism had reached the public, the Monday protests were attracting hundreds of people. The Stasi and police would sometimes arrest and beat protesters – they had started to worry.

But the protesters became organized. There was a circle of half-a-dozen young students who became very adept at sidestepping the Stasi. Mr. Müller devised ways to stay in touch with other protest groups forming in different cities. And he developed a way to get videotapes of protests, and subtle messages of coming ones, smuggled out to the West, where they would be broadcast on TV stations that could be received in towns close to the border such as Berlin and Leipzig.

...

Three weeks after her release from prison, on Nov. 9, Katrin Hattenhauer took the train to Berlin. This was illegal, as she was still under arrest for insurrection and was not allowed to travel.

But she wanted to celebrate her 21st birthday, on Nov. 10, so she defied the Stasi and went to meet her friends at a bar on Bornholmer Strasse, near a fortified checkpoint. Later in the evening, guests started leaving because they had heard a rumour that the Wall had opened.

Nobody believed it until the bar owner himself shut down the place, ushered everyone out and made his way down the street to the crossing.

What had happened at the Wall that night, like what had happened in Leipzig in September and October, was by no means inevitable and relied entirely on the quiet accumulation of large numbers of people.

An official had announced, earlier that day, that more-liberal travel policies would soon be in effect. Without clear instructions, he mistakenly announced that they were in effect immediately. Within an hour, East Germans were rushing to the border crossings to find out if they could get visas to the West.

The bureaucratic confusion and the sheer number of people pressing at the gates, especially those at Berlin's Bernholmer Strasse checkpoint, eventually provoked the guards simply to throw up their hands, open the gates and walk away.

Shortly after that, the heroes of 1989 simply melted into the crowd. Unlike in Poland and Czechoslovakia, people such as Ms. Hattenhauer and Mr. Müller were not transformed into heads of state and cabinet ministers: There was a pre-existing German government waiting to absorb the reunified East.

Mr. Müller stayed east and had the family he had put off during the underground years, staying an environmental activist. Ms. Hattenhauer moved west and became an artist. Most of their colleagues followed similar paths: Now in their early 40s, they reminisce about the moment, half a lifetime ago, that they changed history.

“It was completely absurd: We didn't really believe it until we saw it,” Ms. Hattenhauer said while making me coffee in her flat in one of the quiet bedroom communities that make up much of the former West Berlin, now that the city's core has shifted sharply east.

“It was almost cute to see how the East Germans just went to see if it could possibly be true, and just by being there in such numbers they made it come true.

“For me, it was a sign of what could have happened had we gone to the Wall years earlier, instead of doing a typical German revolution where we all went to work during the day and then we went to the St. Nicholas Church afterwards and protested.”

She laughed at this, and reflected for a moment. “Maybe something would have happened much earlier if we'd done that, but we went about it in a very organized, very peaceful, German way, so it took a lot longer.”

It's all in the timing. And you need luck. Ask anyone who was at Tiananmen Square. Charles Kurzman's book on the Islamic revolution in Iran makes a similar point about timing, numbers, and luck.

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