The subtitle of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Hammerstein oder der Eigensinn (2008) is Eine deutsche Geschichte,and the book is a must read fro any student of modern German history. The word Eigensinn in the title is not easy to translate - obstinacy is the best English word I could come up with. But the English translation of the book is The Silences of Hammerstein (translator is Martin Chalmers).
The book is ostensibly about Kurt von Hammerstein, the commander of the German army from 1930 - 1934. Hammerstein, who had the mindset of the old Prussian military aristocracy, had nothing but contempt for Hitler and the Nazis, and yet kept his mouth shut in public after he retired in 1934, even though he could clearly see that Germany was headed to a disastrous war. Hence the English title The Silences of Hammerstein. Enzensberger has a key chapter in the book - Das Schweigen der Hammersteins - where he analyzes the silences of the extended Hammerstein family. For the book is about much more than the general; the Hammerstein children - there were seven, large families were customary among the aristocracy - play a major role in the story.
One key aspect of Hammerstein's Eigensinn - his obstinacy or idiosyncrasy - was his laissez faire attitude towards his children; they were encouraged to think for themselves and could come and go as they pleased. And so his three oldest daughters were attracted to Jewish intellectuals and the Communist Party. One daughter, Helga, lived with a revolutionary spy Leo Roth, who was later executed in one of Stalin's purges. The daughters were fearless and did not hesitate to steal documents from their father's desk and hand them over the KPD. Hammerstein's oldest sons, Kunrat and Ludwig, fought in the German army but became wrapped up with July 20 conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. How they escaped from the Gestapo and certain execution after the plot failed makes for thrilling reading. The youngest son, Franz, had no involvement in the plot whatsoever, but, together with his mother, was arrested under the Nazi policy of Sippenhaft. Along with other family members of July 20 conspirators such as the von Stauffenbergs, they were transported to Buchenwald as part of Himmler's hare-brained scheme to use them as hostages in negotiating with the advancing Allied troops. They,too, miraculously survived.
So, is Hammerstein oder der Eigensinn a book of history? A novel? Enzensberger's book is sui generis , a literary inquiry into the historical truth. The author combines photographs, historical documents, letters, transcripts from interrogations, with Totengespräche - imagined interviews with the dead. Enzensberger then intermittently injects long digressions on diverse topics such as Germany's see-saw relationship with Russia throughout history, or the idiosyncratic behavior of the German aristocracy. One of the chapters has the title Warum dieses Buch kein Roman ist (Why this book is not a novel). Enzensberger writes:
Gleichwohl ist dieses Buch kein Roman. Um einen gewagten Vergleich zu ziehen: es verfährt eher analog zur Photographie als zu Malerei.
(At the same time this book is not a novel. To draw a somewhat presumptuous analogy: the book proceeds more like a work of photography than a painting.)
So, what is the picture of Kurt von Hammerstein that emerges from this book? A hero of the anti-Hitler resistance? Hardly. There were moments he could of acted - immediately after 1933 seizure of power - but he didn't; a certain reticence seemed to stop him at key moments. On the other hand, one gets the impression that Enzensberger admires Hammerstein's "silences" more than he does the heroic activism of some of the other players, since Enzensberger spends a great deal of time writing about the futility of active resistance which usually resulted in the resister's death. Enzensberger lets Hammerstein's daughter, Marie Luise - who became a committed communist -, be his mouthpiece in a Totengespräch with her:
Marie Luise: Ich habe getan, was ich konnte.
Enzensberger: Wie Ihr Vater.
Marie Luise: Auf seine Weise. Wir waren nie miteinander einverstanden. Am Ende haben wir beide verloren. Aber manchmal denke ich, daß er recht behalten hat.
(M: I did what I could. E: Like your father, M: In his own way. We never agreed with each other. In the end, we both lost. But sometimes I think he was right.)