Lost masterpiece reveals truth about Nazis

Work of genius: Boschwitz wrote The Messenger in furious reaction to Kristallnacht.

Can novels teach us more than history? Reviewers claim a rediscovered novel from Nazi Germany captures the truth of its time better than almost any other work. Can fiction be “truth”?

In 1935, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz was drafted by the Wehrmacht. Fearing for his life as a German Jew, he fled from country to country with his mother. When he escaped the Nazis and reached England, he was deported to Australia and imprisoned as an enemy alien. He was freed in 1941. Soon after, his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. Boschwitz died aged 27.

Boschwitz’s tragic life sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood epic. But remarkably, it is all real history. More astonishingly, he managed to write two novels during his frenzied travels.

The second, The Passenger, was written “feverishly” in a single month in 1938 in response to Kristallnacht. It follows the Jewish scrap merchant, Otto Silbermann, as he attempts to flee the Gestapo – a plot that mirrors Boschwitz’s own doomed journey. It disappeared without trace on original publication.

A few years ago, an editor discovered Boschwitz’s original typescript and republished it in German. It became a sensation, selling over 50,000 copies. This month, The Passenger arrives in English.

It comes garlanded with praise. “A miracle” exclaimed the Süddeutsche Zeitung. German critics were particularly impressed with the novel’s evocation of its era. “If you have to choose one book of 20th-Century history,” wrote one critic, “read The Passenger.”

Their verdict might raise the hackles of historians everywhere. While Boschwitz may provide a valuable document of the time and place in which he wrote, The Passenger is a work of fiction. By definition, it tells a story that did not take place.

History, on the other hand, is about describing and interpreting things that did happen. Historians aim to provide an accurate account of the past. No matter how truthful their writing can be, the authors of fiction have no such responsibility.

Despite these distinctions, however, much of our knowledge of history is shaped through fiction. Nazi Germany is a case in point. It provided a setting for hundreds of novels, from Hans Fallada’s postmodern Alone in Berlin to 21st-Century works like Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing. Novels, writes historian Simon Schama, often deliver “a much more vivid sense of the past than an arrangement of unimpeachable data.”

Today, it can be argued that most people receive their knowledge of history through another fictional medium: cinema. There is a movie depicting almost every aspect of the Nazi regime and its atrocities, from blockbusters like Schindler’s List and The Pianist to arthouse films like Kanal and Phoenix. There are films about the rise of the Nazis, like Cabaret, and films, like Downfall, about their demise.

Although some of these novels and films are based on true stories, none are entirely historically accurate. Yet some argue that they allow us to learn more about the era they represent than bald fact. A good story, says education professor Linda Levstik, can “embed history in a narrative arc,” making it more memorable than the dry annals of history.

Books and films that date from the time they depict, such as The Passenger or Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, can do more still: they preserve their creators’ thoughts and impressions at that time, something that historians are unable to impart.

Historians might counter that this matters little if the stories presented are not true. But history’s own claims to truth are not watertight. There are many things we do not know. In his History of Richard III, the Tudor statesman Thomas More depicted the English king Richard III as a hunchback. It took until 2013, when the monarch's skeleton was unearthed in a Leicester car park, for More’s account to be proven false.

Victorian wit Oscar Wilde dismissed history as “mere gossip,” while Napoleon called it “a set of lies agreed upon.” Historians have biases, and history is remade and reshaped according to wider values of its time. The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus credited various wars to the doings of the gods. Almost no modern historians would share his views.

Can novels teach us more than history?

Telling tales

Without a doubt, say some. Historians may have the facts, but fiction can impart deeper truths that histories are unable to express. They can help us to understand how the past felt to those that experienced it. Besides, history writing itself is full of unconfirmed assumptions, mistakes based on incomplete evidence and blinkered perspectives. We should be wary of trusting it completely.

Of course not, say others. Objective knowledge trumps subjective opinion. Novels and films can impart the feeling or atmosphere of a time, but they are ultimately untethered from fact. Histories, by contrast, attempt to build up an accurate account of the past based on what is known to be true. Historians may sometimes blunder, but these errors sit within a wider pattern of truth.

You Decide

  1. Should a first-hand account of an event always be trusted over a second-hand one?
  2. Is a history book worth reading even if it is inaccurate?

Activities

  1. Choose an era or event from history, and write a short guide to it, selecting and describing five or more books, films, television series and other cultural products to help others understand it.
  2. Imagine that you are a critic from a hundred years in the future. Write a review of a recent novel or film, explaining the ways in which you think it represents the specific qualities of life in the early 21st Century.

Some People Say...

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

James Baldwin (1924 — 1987), American novelist and civil rights activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the production of history is laden with biases. Sometimes these arise through emphasis; the Whig historians of the 18th and 19th Centuries depicted history as a progression towards liberty and democracy, while Marxist historians emphasise class conflict and economics in their accounts of the past. The closely-related discipline of historiography, which has existed almost as long as history itself, concerns itself with studying the methods and motives of historians.
What do we not know?
Although narrative remains one of the most common historical techniques, there are fierce debates over its effectiveness. Influential French historian Fernand Braudel considered “event history”, which tells the story of past happenings, as less significant than the analysis of larger systems. Contemporary philosopher Alex Rosenberg has claimed that “narrative history is always wrong,” based on a human proclivity for turning history into stories rather than an accurate understanding of the past.

Word Watch

Wehrmacht
The combined armed forces of Nazi Germany. Between 1935 and 1939, 1.3 million men were conscripted — legally obliged to join.
Enemy alien
Between 1939 and 1942, the British government classified German and Italian refugees as enemy aliens. Many were imprisoned in internment camps.
Kristallnacht
On the night of 9 November 1938, Nazi agents attacked Jewish property and arrested 30,000 Jews. The name, “Crystal Night”, also known as Night of Broken Glass, refers ironically to the shards of glass from destroyed buildings.
Typescript
A typed copy of a text, as opposed to a hand-written manuscript.
Garlanded
Celebrated. A garland is a wreath of flowers and leaves, worn around the head as an honour.
Süddeutsche Zeitung
One of Germany’s largest daily newspapers, published in Munich, Bavaria.
Raise the hackles
To provoke anger. Hackles are hairs that run along the back of some mammals and birds, which stand up when alarmed or enraged.
Fiction
Something that is invented or untrue.
Unimpeachable
Not able to be doubted or questioned.
Arthouse
A catch-all term for films considered to have artistic merit, above or instead of entertainment value. Arthouses were cinemas that specialised in such fare.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.