POPULAR history often struggles with complexity and still more with moral ambiguity. This is partly the difficulty of the thing and partly the reading public’s desire — all our desire, if we are honest — for a simple story with clear conclusions. Good versus evil; victims and their persecutors; the black-clad Nazis and those on whom they preyed.
But history is rarely so simple. It involves all kinds of complexities and is attended by all manner of moral ambiguity. It takes an able and ambitious historian to show this: to reveal the ways in which good and evil are often inextricably intertwined. Few historians, too, are really capable of capturing the everyday difficulties of people who want to live a virtuous life in impossible circumstances.
One such set of people is the subject of this book. A small socialist community — almost a cult — the Bund grew together in the industrial valleys of the Ruhr in the 1920s. An earnest, implacable, self-improving lot, who combined a passionate commitment to world revolution with an equal enthusiasm for hill-walking and gymnastics, they never amounted to more than about 100 members; nor was their particular vision of a better world ever likely to be realised.
Founded by a charismatic teacher, the Bund was just one of many organisations established in Germany in the years after the First World War. Indeed, its combination of fierce group loyalty, its unremitting denial of individualism, and its focus on the will of the leader can make it sound like other, more sinister products of German culture at the time.
What distinguished the Bund was its high-minded attempt to reconcile the materialism of Marx with the idealism of Kant. What would make its members historically important and morally significant was their growing horror at the rise of the Nazis and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. In 1938, Kristallnacht forced them to a conclusion. As synagogues burned and Jewish homes were looted, the Bund resolved to act.
The result was a quiet campaign of support for Jewish Germans. Bund members hid some, wrote to more, and sent food and even flowers to others. Their iron discipline enabled them to hide their feelings and their activities from the authorities. It was a small-scale, ambiguous heroism in the midst of utter evil. Mark Roseman tells the story well, and asks important questions: about his subjects and our own entanglement in evil today.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
Lives Reclaimed: A story of rescue and resistance in Nazi Germany
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