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29 May 2011

Von Salomon's City

Alex Kurtagic

Originally published on the eve of the National Socialist era, Die Stadt (the City) is the German title of Ernst von Salomon’s second novel, recently re-translated and re-published in English by Arktos Media under the title It Cannot be Stormed.

Von Salomon is described as one of the most enigmatic members of the Conservative Revolutionary movement that emerged in Germany during the Weimar Republic. He is most famous for his Der Fragebogen (The Questionaire), a book published in 1951 containing his ironic answers to the 131 questions he was asked while a POW of the Americans, who imprisoned him between 1945-1946. Der Fragebogen was a hot seller and instigated a wide discussion at the time.

From 1913, was a cadet, and, subsequently, from the age of 17, a member of the Freikorps, the volunteer military or paramilitary units that formed in the aftermath of the Great War, out of disillusionment with civilian life and a desire for revenge against the Communist among demobilised soldiers. During the 1920s he survived to prison sentences, the first of which was for his part in the assassination of Walther Rathenau (he provided the car for the assassins).

The author’s background is quite evident in this novel, which is about the end of the Weimar period. Indeed, it permeates the entire narrative, possibly even to the point of determining the language and phraseology—the latter, certainly during the first third of the book, is very structured, with a self-conscious use of phrasal repetition that is not, all the same and despite stereotypes about German seriousness, lacking in humour. The narrative tone and style is also extremely German. It is difficult to convey this to an English-speaking reader who is unfamiliar with the German personality; but if you have known Germans in Germany, and developed a sense of their way of approaching and looking at things, you will immediately recognise it in the text.

Aside from the total absence of political correctness in the characters’ psyche, the story itself remains depressingly contemporary: it begins with the emergence of a farmers’ movement in the face of increasing predations by the taxman at a time when Germany was still struggling to pay reparations for the war; and it continues with the involvement in the movement of Ive, the main character, and his journey as a disaffected intellectual and perennial outsider—from the underground, to the country, and to the city. The intensifying conflict between the movement and the authorities is used to highlight two contrasting mentalities, that of the country versus that of the city. And this in turn is used to explore the restless, anxious, fermenting intellectual, social, and political ambience of the period.

There is an enormous amount of deep philosophical lucubration in this novel, which is progressively mired in ever-denser text as the plot slows down and sinks into ever more fuliginous paragraphs of monumental length, tight print, and epic sentences. Thus, the leaden effect created by the reliance on reported speech and near absence of dialogue in the earlier parts of the book is progressively compounded by the subsequent reliance on heavy theoretical monologues. Had Kafka been a Weimar-era German Conservative Revolutionary, he would have written this way.

Still, there is a logic to all this, as it follows the convolution of Ive’s intellectual odyssey.

Of special interest are the scenes involving the National Socialists and their Communist opponents. Von Salomon had an ambiguous relationship with the former: initially sympathetic, he did not support them after 1933, but neither did he speak against them and indeed he spent the remainder of the National Socialist era writing film scripts. In the novel Ive has a chance to observe them up close while one of his former collaborators and acquaintances from the farmers’ movement (who changes his stripes, and his name, with nonchalant frequency) is involved with the SA. As readers we are even witnesses to one of the famous beer hall brawls.

Overall this is an intriguing work of fiction, rich with historical value (both because of the anguished intellectual ferment it reproduces and the backdrop against which the action unfolds) as well as unusual characters—or rather caricatures, because the characterisation betrays a certain Dickensian taste for humorous stereotypes. It is well worth reading if you enjoy a thoughtful and challenging novel and / or are interested in the time period and perhaps also the German character.

You can get Ernst von Salomon’s It Cannot be Stormed here.

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