The Silences of Hammerstein

David Blackbourn writes:

Enzensberger’s book takes a figure from the margins of history and places him centre stage. But Hammerstein’s life is only half the story, for woven through the book is a remarkable account of his seven children. (The aristocratic predilection for large families clearly trumped the tendency for ‘mixed marriages’ – Hammerstein was Protestant, his wife Catholic – to produce small families.) The picture that emerges of Hammerstein as ‘Papus’ is mixed. Two of his daughters remember being hit, and their father’s complete silence during meals. But he could be relaxed and happy, when teaching them the names of trees, for example, or showing them how to give sugar lumps to horses. He also allowed the children into adult conversation, didn’t talk down to them and gave them a large measure of freedom – they were known for being ‘wild and rebellious’. The book has a wonderful photo of Maria Therese in her early twenties posing boldly for the camera as she sat on a motorbike on a country road around 1932. There was something seigneurial about Hammerstein’s easy-going attitude: his three eldest children were his gels, and he was damned if he cared what people thought about the way they lived their lives. ‘My children are free republicans. They can say and do what they want,’ one of them later reported him saying. A favourite motto was ‘fear is not a world-view.’ When it came to politics Hammerstein was fearless but essentially passive; the children, with his support, were spectacularly active.

(LRB 25 March 2010)

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, is one of Germany’s most respected writers, but is little known in the English-speaking world. His latest book is a collage of documentary and fiction, investigating the life of the last commander of the German army before Hitler came to power. Kurt von Hammerstein was a contradictory figure, a military man of the old school but one who retained great independence of mind and spirit: one of the ‘silences’ Enzensberger explores is Hammerstein’s refusal to condemn the actions of his children, whose ideological convictions led them into direct conflict with the Nazi regime, and Hammerstein himself probably only escaped persecution by dying in 1943. Enzensberger’s German title for this book was Hammerstein oder Der Eigensinn (Hammerstein or idiosyncrasy) and by skilfully blending fact and fiction with imaginary posthumous conversations he has produced a work as stubbornly idiosyncratic as its subject.

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