George Clare: Memoirist who recalled life in Nazi Vienna and postwar Berlin

It was an age of durability which was equated with stability... but nothing is so impermanent as permanence, nothing is so insecure as security." So wrote the memoirist George Clare of Franz-Josef's Austria in Last Waltz in Vienna (1980). In the book, the Jewish Klaar family's multifarious, self-made, well-fed, culturally abundant past in Vienna – reaching back in Clare's account to 1842 – tragically gives way to a city overcome by the rise of Nazism from which he escaped. If escape he did. Clare's subsequent transition from Klaar, and his transformation into a quintessential Englishman, was haunted by the discovery that his parents' French refuge had led to Auschwitz's gas showers.

He was born in Vienna in 1920, as Georg Klaar to a father, Ernst, who under parental pressure had surrendered literary hopes for banking. Clare, an only child, grew up amid Vienna's ever-shifting, self-destructing politics.

Clare knew that even those Jews who had assumed West European education and culture found that "full equality, inner equality, still eluded us". He saw the future as early as 1933. A family friend had been in Oranienburg concentration camp, one of the first Nazi showplaces of terror. "The Nazis had forced him to sign a document stating that he would say nothing about Oranienburg. The burn marks on his nose and cheeks, where the SA camp guards had stubbed out their cigarette ends, told the truth." More happily, at the age of 14, Clare met his future wife, Lisl Beck, at a summer camp ("I was attracted by her; she by my pyjamas").

By January 1938, Ernst knew that departure from Vienna was vital. It was difficult to achieve. The family, having decided to head to the Republic of Ireland, were turned back en route to Riga, where Clare was due to meet up with Lisl, also Ireland-bound. Several weeks were spent in Berlin, waiting to obtain the correct papers.

While there, news of a job in Paris took Ernst to the French capital, then thought to be safe from the clutches of the Nazis. After reaching Ireland, and then obtaining a French visa in Knightsbridge, Stella – waltzing like "a happily smiling young bride" – went to rejoin him. It turned out to be a fateful decision. After fleeing Paris in 1940 following the Blitzkrieg, Clare's parents were eventually deported and killed at Auschwitz.

Clare himself, duly married to Lisl, remained in Ireland and then moved to London, where his attempts to join the Army were long frustrated by the bureaucracy of the Pioneer Corps: he did not, in the end, see active service. In 1946, with the British Control Commission in Berlin, he worked in denazification, partly with Hugh Greene, later the BBC Director General, whose first address to his staff began, "I am here to make myself superfluous".

In the course of his work (described too episodically in his second volume of memoirs, Berlin Days, 1989), Clare had met the charming publisher Axel Springer, whose London-based news service he subsequently worked at for four decades. On one Sunday in the late 1960s, however, he began typing something different. As Last Waltz in Vienna (first published in German translation), it was praised by John le Carré, Graham Greene and others. A famous passage records that: "the city behaved like an aroused woman: vibrating, writhing, moaning and sighing lustfully for orgasm and release. It is not purple writing: it is an exact description of what Vienna was and felt like on Monday, 14 March 1938, as Hitler entered her... lined by hundreds of thousands of waving, jubilating Viennese, its church bells rang out their own obscene jubilate."

Clare does not reduce matters to black and white. Earlier, he saw some troop-carriers: "The men themselves were tall, young, handsome, smart and polished, and I realised, unbelievable though this may sound, that I admired these soldiers and was even proud of them. So conditioned was I, the 17-year-old Jew, by my Austro-German upbringing, so deeply engrained was all I had read, that I could not see these clean-limbed young men as my enemies. The Nazis, the SS, the SA, they were my enemies, but not the young and handsome soldiers of the Wehrmacht".

Christopher Hawtree

George Clare (Georg Klaar), author: born Vienna 21 December 1920; married 1939 Lisl Beck (marriage dissolved 1964, one son, two daughters), 1965 Christel Vorbringer (one daughter); died Newmarket 26 March 2009.

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