Kieran Donaghue, German Lessons

German Lessons is a new novel by Canberra writer, Kieran Donaghue.

This dramatic and profound story shows us how history is lived at the personal level. In the early 1930s, Frank Hannaford, a young Australian Catholic, goes to Germany to study. He learns German, he makes friends. While the Nazis are consolidating their power, ordinary German Catholics are mostly resistant. Then the Catholic Church in Germany suddenly withdraws its opposition to National Socialism and the group of students is torn apart.

Visit Kieran’s website http://www.kierandonaghue.com to find out more about the author and the background to the story.

German Lessons is published by Palaver Press, a start-up publisher dedicated to fostering new ideas in the fields of ethics and reconciliation. Find out more at smallpressnetwork.com.au, or at http://www.palaver.com/about.

Pam Blakeley of the Vintage Reds had the pleasure of meeting Kieran and interviewing him for our website.

Interview with Kieran Donaghue, December 2019

You’ve focused on the dilemma for the Catholic Church as Nazism takes over. Why did you decide to look closely at this situation?

It goes back to the figure of Eugenio Pacelli. He became Pope Pius XII in 1939 and was Pope through the second world war and up until his death in 1958. There is substantial controversy about Pius XII and what he did, or more importantly did not do, in support of the Jews. There is significant evidence that he was aware of the Holocaust relatively early in the war, yet it seems he did very little to thwart it, though questions remain about his scope for action.  [photo: Wikimedia Commons]

I read a book called Hitler’s Pope [by John Cornwell, published 1999], a controversial title, which reviews arguments relating to Pius XII during the second world war. In reading this it became evident to me that in the early 1930s the Catholic Church was a vehement opponent of Nazism. Right up until Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933 and the subsequent election where the Nazi Party took complete control, the Catholic Church had opposed Nazism. But once the Nazis were firmly in power this opposition disappeared almost overnight.

In historical terms that’s interesting: Why did it happen? Was it inevitable? But these are questions for historians. I was more interested in the possibility of a fictional exploration of this time.

Many German Catholics supported Nazism, they wanted to get on board with the new movement, but they wanted the Catholic Church to give them an imprimatur to say it’s okay to support the Nazis. But there were a substantial number of German Catholics who felt that support for Nazism was a betrayal of their Church and their beliefs. For them, nationalism, especially the virulent nationalism advocated by National Socialism, was completely antithetical to the idea of Catholicism, which means universal, a universal Church. I thought that these contrasting reactions provided interesting potential for a story; how ordinary Catholics, not people of interest to historians, might have reacted to the Church’s about-face.

Many supporters of national socialism were young people, including young Catholics, who saw in this movement an opportunity to sacrifice themselves to something bigger, the rebirth of their country. The character Lukas in the novel exemplifies this attitude.

As Nazism arrives, the characters discuss philosophy, especially the nature of feelings, beliefs and reason. Do you think a knowledge of philosophy helps the individual to make decisions, or does it create even more possibilities?

Early versions of the book were much longer and included more about the relationship between beliefs, thoughts and feelings, a topic that greatly interests me. I see philosophy in part as the examination of concepts. It deals with questions like: What are beliefs, emotions, feelings? How do they relate to each other? Then there’s a separate psychological question of why someone believes the things he or she does. Take the climate change issue. Why is it that some people reject overwhelming evidence? I think this is largely a psychological question.

We usually consider beliefs to be a product of our intellect, and we contrast them with emotions. But I think beliefs are more closely related to feelings than we are prepared to admit. Consider what happens in our interactions with other people. Often, we have emotional reactions to the credibility of others. We find one person believable or trustworthy, another person we instantly distrust, often independently of what the person says. I think these reactions are based in feelings. The Japanese character Stormy Weather articulates this in the novel. He says that our intellect can take us one way while our feelings can take us another. Stormy is not impressed by sincerity, which is acting as your beliefs dictate. He tells the main character Frank that many Nazis are sincere and implies this is no excuse. He thinks that there is a superior capacity of the mind which enables us to examine critically our beliefs and accept or reject them.

I think the view that beliefs are closely related to feelings helps us to understand the power of propaganda, which appeals to our emotions more than to our intellect.

An ideology as I see it is a set of beliefs that tend to fit together, that reinforce each other and form a hard package. This package will provide an answer for anything and will largely be immune from outside influence. I think the emotional side of belief helps to explain why ideologies are so hard to break down, but when they do break down, they often do so suddenly and completely.

Anja is an effective character and quite different from the men. She is brave but as a woman she is excluded from decision making even in her own Catholic youth group. As a hypothetical question do you think the history of Nazi Germany would have been different if women had been equal citizens?

Anja is not a member of the Catholic group I have called the Vanguard, which was for males only. The German Catholics had separate youth groups for females, but they were less prominent than the male groups and supported traditional views of the social roles of girls and women. In the case of both the Nazi Party and the Catholic Church, women were not represented in leadership positions.

I suspect that in the membership of the Nazi party men would have significantly outnumbered women. However, I don’t think there was a marked difference between men and women in their general response to National Socialism.

I have read that the best predictor of whether someone would vote for Hitler in 1933 was not whether they were a man or a woman, a city dweller or a farmer, a capitalist or a worker, but whether they came from a Catholic area of Germany or not. Despite Germany being the home of the reformation, 30 per cent of the German population was Catholic. The Catholics had their own political party, the Centre Party, and Catholic support for this party meant that they were less likely than other Germans to vote for the Nazis.

While Nazism was in part ‘testosterone-fuelled’, attractive for young men bent on violence, it was more than that. Many were attracted to the idea of sacrifice for a larger cause that Nazism seemed to embody, the renewal of Germany and the reestablishment of a proud national identity after the humiliation of the first world war. There was a generation of Germans who had lost their fathers in the first world war. This generation seemed particularly susceptible to the call of Nazism.

At the very end of the novel, the main character Frank moves from being an observer to taking a definite stance. Is this ethics in action where a character makes the best decision possible to them under difficult, even dangerous, conditions?

I’m not sure that Frank really makes a conscious decision. He just finds himself in the church at Mass, along with the others who accept the Church hierarchy’s new position of accommodation with the Nazis. There is something there that attracts Frank, but it’s not clear that he fully understands what it is. It’s more a feeling than anything else. This gets back to the feeling component of our beliefs. Perhaps Frank believes, at least to some degree, the Nazi propaganda about the rebirth of a great nation. He feels there’s something true there.