The sun is a cold star. It’s heart, spines of ice. Its light, unforgiving. In February, the trees are dead, the river petrified, as if the springs had stopped spewing water and the sea could swallow no more.
These ominous lines open Éric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, which won France’s 2017 Prix Goncourt. Poetically translated by Mark Polizzotti, the book shines a light on the industrial titans and politicians behind Hitler’s might. With chilling precision and moral authority, Vuillard draws a straight line between the marching orders Hitler gave to Germany’s moguls, and the Anschluss.
Order of the Day opens in 1933 at a secret meeting in the Reichstag. Twenty-four scions of German industry attend, their names familiar from our washers, coffee makers, and elevators—Krupp, Siemens, Opel, to name a few. They are pillars of German society, fathers of German business:
They doffed twenty-four felt hats and covered twenty-four bald pates or crown of white hair …. The venerable patricians stood in the huge vestibule, exchanging casual, respectable banter, as if at the starch opening of a garden party.
The men trudge up the steps to wait in the palace of the President of the Assembly. They exchange smiles and “whispers between two sneezes …. nostrils honked in the silence.” Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag, strides into the room. “The twenty-four lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly,” nodding solemnly in agreement, as Goering announces that it’s “time to get rid of that wishy-washy regime once and for all.”
Hitler joins the assembly—affable and friendly. He clarifies the political situation. These men must pony up, which should be no problem since they are used to “kickbacks and backhanders”: “Corruption is an irreducible line item in the budget of large companies, and it goes by several names: lobbying fees, gifts, political contributions. Most of the guests immediately handed over hundreds of thousands of marks. Gustav Krupp gave a million.”
We are soon in 1937, following the annexation of the Saarland, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, and the bombing of Guernica by the Condor Legion. Vuillard probes the complicity of England’s elite:
Halifax, Lord President of the Council [England’s foreign minister], went privately to Germany at the behest of Hermann Goering, Reich Aviation Minister, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, Minister of the Interior, resident of the defunct Reichstag, and creator of the Gestapo. That’s a mouthful, yet Halifax did not bat an eyelid: the truculent, operatic figure, the notorious anti-Semite with his chestload of decorations, did not strike him as odd.
Vuillard discloses that Neville Chamberlain, England’s conciliator-in-chief, owned a number of properties in London, one of which he rented to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador to England until 1938: “From this anodyne fact … no one has drawn the slightest inference.” Vuillard cannot refrain from voicing such opinions; he’s compelled to judge the underlying facts.
Austria’s capitulation—its citizens warmly embracing the Nazis—was instrumental to the cataclysm. No matter that Hitler’s military equipment ran into massive mechanical failures lumbering into Austria. That same machine, well-greased and powerful, became the terror of Europe, financed and fueled by its capitalist backers.
Describing the Austrian leader Kurt Schuschnigg’s reactions to the Anschluss, Vuillard writes, “The border lay just ahead, and Schuschnigg was suddenly seized by apprehension. He felt as if the truth was just beyond his grasp.” (Schuschnigg was imprisoned as soon as the Nazis consolidated power in Austria, and interned for the rest of the war.)
With the insertion of his personal voice, Vuillard’s narration echoes his countryman, Laurent Binet. Binet won the 2006 Prix Goncourt for HHhH (translated into English by Sam Taylor), an account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters. Heydrich’s was the only assassination of a senior Nazi official during the war. Binet narrates historical events with meticulous attention to facts. But writing in first person, he frequently inserts himself, telling the reader what he is doing and why:
I’m now going to paint a portrait of the two heroes with much less hesitation than before, as all I need to do is quote directly from the British Army’s personnel reports.
I, too, am transfixed—because I’m reading Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, which has just appeared in French.
Whereas Binet’s personal asides are distracting and self-important, Vuillard’s glisten with righteous indignation. Vuillard’s language is beautifully and economically crafted; his judgments raise crucial questions. Commenting on the chaos and failure of German equipment at the Austrian border during the Anschluss, Vuillard offers this:
We have to remind ourselves that, at that moment, Blitzkrieg was nothing. It was just a bunch of stalled Panzers. Just a monstrous traffic jam on the Austrians highways, some furious men …. What’s astounding about this war is the remarkable triumph of bravado, from which we can infer one lesson: everyone is susceptible to a bluff.
Without a sense of hurry, Vuillard brings us to the Nuremberg trials, presenting a horrifying picture of two men once at the pinnacle of Nazi power:
At the memory of [an] overplayed exclamation, perhaps sensing how dissonant that stagey bit of dialogue was with History-capital-H, with its decency, the image it conveys of great events, Goering looked at Ribbentrop and guffawed. And Ribbentrop, too, was shaken by nervous laughter. Sitting opposite the international tribunal, opposite their judges, opposite journalists from the world over, amid the ruins, they could not help laughing.
Order of the Day is a stark examination of the price of silence, the cost of sticking to the rules to keep the peace, and the human toll when ruling elites not only go along to get along, but support the ravings of a violent and vengeful leader:
We shower History with abuse …. We never see the grimy hem, the yellowed tablecloth, the check stubs, the coffee ring. We only get to see events from their good side. And yet, if we look closely, on the photo showing Chamberlain and Daladier in Munich beside Hitler and Mussolini, just before signing the agreement, the English and French prime ministers do not look very pleased with themselves. Still, they signed.
Where are we now? Order of the Day demands that that question be asked. Wealth and power grow together. What are the risks when private capital is concentrated in quantities never before seen? The German industrial complex partnered with and profited handsomely from the Nazis. We buy our coffee makers and luxury cars and cameras and telephones and gasoline from companies that eagerly availed themselves of slave labor:
Bayer took laborers from Mauthausen. BMW hired in Dachau, Papenburg, Sachsenhasen, Natzwiler-Struhof, and Buchenwald. Daimler in Schirmeck. IG Farben recruited in Dora-Mittelbau, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Mauthausen, and operated a large factory inside the camp at Auschwitz, impudently listed as IG Auschwitz on the company’s org chart. Agfa recruited at Dachau. Shell in Neuengamme. Schneider in Buchenwald. Telefunken in Gross-Rosen, and Siemens in Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, and Auschwitz. Everyone had jumped at the chance for such cheap labor.
Today, we are again experiencing a leader with complete contempt for the law. History is, unfortunately, riddled with them. Here’s Hitler’s reaction to the weakened Austrian leader meekly trying to cite the Austrian constitution:
But the strangest part was the reaction of Hitler, who stammered in turn, “So, you have the right…” as if he couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Objections of constitutional law were beyond him.
Order of the Day looks back on a dark time for humankind, but it is also a clarion call to our current era. “Truth is scattered into many kinds of dust,” Vuillard writes. “This great jumble of misery, in which horrific events are already taking shape, is dominated by a mysterious respect for lies.”
What is the fallout from a leader whose sole means of communication is lying? Be forewarned, Vuillard cautions. Heads of state can be remarkably effective in bludgeoning perceived enemies and lying their way forward. It’s not too difficult to wreak havoc on your own people with the stroke of a pen. Vuillard suggests that if we are lucky enough to survive, it will be because the lessons of history have not been squandered on us.