Wednesday, April 18, 2007

April 19, 2007 -The Sorrow of Europe

Though we first met electronically via this blog, I was fortunate enough to meet author John Kinsella and his wife for lunch on their recent visit to San Francisco. Though British by nationality, John has lived in France for many years and is more accurately a citizen of the world.

Though John has written or translated 11 books (I am currently reading his novel The Lost Forest), the book I want to discuss this week is his translation of the biography of an extraordinary Swiss writer, Annemarie Schwartzenbach: The Sorrow of Europe (authored in French by Dominique Miermont).

Annemarie lived and worked in the decades prior to World War II, and her story reflects the experience of a young journalist who lived in Berlin until forced out by the Nazis, and who had befriended the son and daughter of Nobel Prize-winning German author, Thomas Mann. As a result, her book offers a ringside seat to the fascism which appealed so greatly to Germans (and many Swiss as well) after the humiliations of defeat and the "financial Armageddon" of Germany's hyper-inflationary bust.

(As the dollar drops to multi-year lows, frequent contributor U. Doran sent this link about the potential for hyper-inflation in the U.S.: As the Dollar Crashes, Gold is heading to $4,800 and Possibly Much Higher.)

Earlier this week we considered the possibilities of a "financial Armageddon" destroying most of the wealth of U.S. citizens via hyper-inflation and a collapse of the dollar (April 17), and yesterday we considered the possibility that cycles of prosperity and decline were correlated to periods of upheaval, aggression and war.

Though born to a very wealthy, conservative family, Annemarie was a Libertarian before the word was even coined (and a libertine as well). Through her brilliance (a star academic, she earned a doctorate), talent and social connections, she began writing dispatches for various Swiss newspapers and penned several novels at a young age.

Traveling in Berlin literary circles, she was soon befriended by the family of Thomas Mann. Being a world-famous author, Thomas Mann was protected by his reputation; but his offspring were not, and as their anti-fascist views became known, they had to flee Germany. Eventually, Mann himself moved to California, and finally made his own pro-liberty, anti-Nazi views public.

Being friends with the Manns provided Annemarie entree to German literary society, and this biography describes the tightening of the Nazi noose around any opposition either in the press (when it was still nominally free) or even privately.

The question for us in the U.S. today is: could severe financial hardship enable a repressive domestic form of duly elected fascism to gain hold of the minds and hearts of defeated, angry Americans seeking scapegoats for their self-induced misery? Could a wider war be sparked as financial losses extend to other parts of the world, and everyone seeks to blame someone else for their self-inflicted wounds?

It is sobering to recall that Hitler gained power in Germany with about 35% of the populace supporting the Nazis. Our Founding Fathers were deeply worried about the potential in any democracy for just this sort of "tyranny of the minority."

If we consider Terence Parker's thesis, then we must also wonder if the financial distress suffered by Germany in the Depression aligned with a peak in the cycle of domination and aggressive nationalism. As the U.S. resounds with nationalistic fervor, self-righteousness and a "prosperity" teetering on the edge of decline, it is a pattern worth pondering--and perhaps fearing.

I hope the innate optimism of the American spirit can resist these dark forces, but to say that "the sorrows of Europe" could not also become "the sorrows of America" would be a form of denial--both of the financial risks just ahead, and the temptation of those who have been ruined and humiliated to believe a demogogue's explanation that "outside forces" are responsible for their self-created losses.

Annemarie was an Artist with a capital A, deeply troubled and creative, needy and independent by turns, capable of tremendous productive work but also prone to deep depressions and addictions. Depressed by the war clouds gathering over Europe, she set off by Ford truck with another female journalist (Ella Maillart) for a road trip across Afghanistan and Iran. Her travel-based journalism also took her to Africa and the U.S.

Tragically, she died in a bicycle accident in 1942 in Switzerland at the age of 34. Her short life, richly illuminated by this translated biography, offers us a "time capsule" back to an era in which a "wealthy, civilized nation" turned first to self-righteousness and then to oppression, fascism, aggression and ultimately barbarism.

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