Book: The Arsenal supporter in the Goethe Gymnasium

My German Question by Peter Gay Yale pounds 15.50
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The Jews of the Weimar Republic have had a bad press, writes Peter Gay, both "for attempting to blend into German society and for not emigrating sooner". He himself, born into an affluent, atheist and highly assimilated family, escaped Nazi persecution to a new life in America, only to be attacked by many Jews there for not being "Jewish enough". This account of his Berlin boyhood, from 1933 to 1939, mounts a spirited and largely convincing defence, an answer to the "agonising question" of "Why didn't we pack our bags and leave the day after Hitler came to power?" Yet one wonders whether he has really managed to convince himself.

The book is very good on the "mixed signals" Jews received in the early Nazi period. In 1935, Gay's Uncle Siegfried was awarded the Cross of Honour for his service in the First World War - in the name of "the Fuhrer and Chancellor". The headmaster who happily handed out racist tracts on prize days also went out of his way to ensure Gay got what he considered the best possible education. Despite a number of anti-semitic teachers, he writes, "I was never ridiculed, never harassed, never attacked ... My years in the Goethe Gymnasium attested to surviving pockets of decency in Nazi Germany, even of quiet resistance."

Such signs of decency, the sheer insanity of Hitler's rhetoric, the national record of "a century-long, almost uninterrupted improvement of relations between its Jewish and gentile populations" - all this often led those without foreign languages or obviously portable skills to discuss emigration "with a sense of urgency but no panic". They adopted survival strategies to shut out the encroaching dangers, seeking refuge in sport, stamp collecting, chocolate or whispered anti-Nazi jokes. They maintained a precarious faith in an idealised image of their homeland: "the gangsters who had taken control of the country were not Germany - we were". And the young Gay, who had never been to England but wanted "a champion that would distract my attention from a situation in which I was doomed to be a loser", suddenly decided to become an Arsenal supporter.

In retrospect it seems astonishing that his parents only began to make concrete plans to leave Germany in 1937, but "How were we to know, when the Nazis themselves did not know, that they would drastically speed up the timetable for their persecutions?" Obstacles to emigration and immigration quotas made the task of "buying asylum" doubly difficult. It took four and half years, including a long stop-over in Cuba, before the family finally landed in America.

Gay has a true historian's talent for illuminating his personal experiences with parallels from other sources. Unfortunately, his style lacks lightness of touch and sometimes slips into a Germanic ponderousness: "It is, I trust, obvious that I have written these pages about sports not to write about sports." Although the style is rather impersonal for a memoir, one also senses a raw emotional subtext.

All this comes to a head in a very uncomfortable final chapter. Gay has written a biography of Freud, a five-volume study of the Victorian bourgeoisie, an excellent introduction to Weimar culture, books on modern art, the Enlightenment and half a dozen other topics. Few would dispute either his diligence or his range. Yet he seems desperate to point out his "variety of interests", to convince us that he has managed "largely to free myself from the poisons in my past and go my own way", and to argue that his "record of hard work shows that I have not fled to hedonism to erase my past".

Such plaintive self-doubt is both embarrassing and sad, but we might find a clue to its origins in a striking reflection on the Jewish adolescents "who had somehow to come to terms with their hormones amid massive slanders of their 'race' and mounting threats to their survival, threats which were in themselves, not too subtly, offences to their manhood or conviction of desirability". Gay naturally tells us a good deal about growing up under the Nazis. Yet the strange tone of this memoir seems far more (unintentionally) revealing about the impact of his early years.