(See other blogs in this category, Fiction of 1939: 1-3 incl introduction).
When Mary Dunstan’s novel was published at the beginning of 1939 it met with very favourable reviews. Time & Tide (Jan 28) described it as ‘a moving and exciting story’, commenting that… ‘Her German setting altogether is excellent and includes an extraordinarily impressive picture of Munich on the night of the Anschluss celebrations’.
The TLS (Jan 28) noted the author’s intimate knowlege of the Bavarian background and the avoidance of the ‘crude presentation of the propaganda novel’. ‘The reader is taken into a typical German (not German-Jewish) family, where the father, although unable to share Nazi ideas…is yet able to appreciate the essence of Hitler’s achievement.’ In its later ‘Novels of 1939’ ( Mar 25) the TLS review added: ‘The character drawing is excellent and the book is almost as impartial as it claims to be.’ Much of the detail and atmosphere was taken from direct personal experience; after the final sentance there is a writer’s note; ‘Munich, January-June. Salperton, July-August. 1938.’ So the book was written just before the Munich Crisis of September 1938, partly in Bavaria and then finished in England.
On reading, it’s true to say that Dunstan’s novel is not a staightforward piece of anti-Nazi propaganda, giving equal weight to opposing views on Hitler and Nazi Germany. This makes the final conclusion of the book’s main character, on the need for England to awake and prepare its defences all the more telling. It is one of a number of ‘refugee’ novels published in 1939, a sub-genre of the ‘Crisis Novel’ which came to the fore in the year before the outbreak of the Second World War. However this is an England awake! story and a refugee story with several unusual twists. It is also a interesting psychological study of a family living in a period of great social and political turmoil and how they respond to these events.
The main twist in the story is provided by the fact that an Englishman, Julian Eagle, who travels to Bavaria in January 1938, is not interested in the political situation, has no views on Hitler and the Nazi Party one way or the other, and is motivated by purely selfish business interests. His aim is to persuade a former German scientist, Max Rehling, to come to England to help him develop a new fuel system for his motor manufacturing company. He declares: ‘I’ve problems enough of my own, no time for those of the world… I don’t see Nazi Germany subjectively and I haven’t any personal or acute reactions to what I hear of it, neither bitterness nor enthusiasm’ (p.27).
During the period leading up to the German Anschluss with Austria, he is slowly drawn into the drama surrounding the Bavarian family and brought to a greater understanding of the totalitarian nightmare unfolding in central Europe. Viewing at first hand the celebratory crowds marching in Munich, with banners unfurled after the German takeover of Austria, he returns to England with a new purpose: ‘There must be an end to lethargy in England. National Socialism has no conscience, that’s been proved now. It will plunge the world into war one day without a qualm for humanity, when war proves necessary to its ambitions’ (p.307).
A further twist is provided by the character of the German chemist, Max Rehling,who, despite his subsequent medical career as a psychiatrist being terminated by the Nazi Party, leaving him to end his days running a Bavarian guest house, is not anti-Nazi. This allows the author to develop an explanation for Hitler’s popular support as a natural reaction to the sense of hopelessness with the political chaos and economic destruction of the 1920s and early 30s. When considering the offer of work in England he says:
‘This is my country and I’ve no wish to spend my remaining years in any other. Because National Socialism has caused me a certain amount of inconvenience and suffering, it doesn’t follow that I’m out of sympathy with the party’s sincere efforts towards a better future for Germany or that I don’t recognise and fully appreciate the fact that wonders has been achieved to put this country on its feet. I may resent certain restrictions, but at heart I give my loyalty to the cause as any true patriot must’, (p.90).
And again…’Hitler and his party have brought order out of chaos… Because desperate ills require desperate measures, he’s had to insist upon implicit loyalty to National Socialist standards, at whatever the cost… The experiment is on such a stupendous scale that there are bound to be abuses’ (p.173-4).
The dramatic action in the story is provided by the secret relationship between the scientist’s daughter and a jewish painter who has had his passport confiscated by the local Nazi gaulieter. Experiencing at first hand the tragedy unfolding around the young couple. Julian Eagle becomes involved in their escape to Switzerland….