The art of vanishing and why the English needn't fear identity cards

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The Independent Online
TO BE unfindable and untraceable - that is an English dream! It is an idea of liberty which allows the individual to be "present" only when he or she chooses, but to retain the right and capacity to melt away. From that dream arises much of the outcry against the plan for identity cards.

Australians sometimes talk of people who have "gone through" (vanished), although whether that means driving through town and disappearing into the infinite beyond again or falling through the skin of things into the darkness beneath, I am not sure. Americans think their land big enough to vanish into, even though the Oklahoma City bombers bungled it. But it is a strange fantasy for a small, overpopulated nation like England. The Scots, Irish and Welsh, living in even smaller countries than the English, seem less worried that strangers might look them up in a book and find them at home.

When Herodotus described the Scythians, the trait which most impressed him was their aporia - their unreachability. If an invader approached, the Scythian nomads scattered into the steppes, leading the enemy on towards a confrontation that would never take place. Their culture and society had no centre, no fixed places, apart from the royal tombs which lay far on the periphery of the Scythian realm. They were, Herodotus concluded, unconquerable.

To seek aporia in Basildon or even in the Cleveland Hills is impressive too. It may be crazy, but it proves that the English chafe at their own docility. Identity cards, it is held, would fetter the individual as surely as an electronic tag on a criminal's wrist. These slices of plastic, invisibly charged with every detail of a person's movements, debts, possessions and past offences, would render the "free-born Englishman" transparent, just like those "windows into men's souls" which Queen Elizabeth I promised never to open. Look at Germany, people say, where everybody has to register changes of address and carry an identity card. Is that liberty?

But, cards or no cards, there is a great deal more aporia in Germany than in Britain. I call in evidence this strange tale about vanishing which has surfaced in the German press. It is the story of Professor Hans Schwerte, the retired and revered rector of Aachen Technical College.

Hans Schwerte came to notice soon after the war. He was a young, radical student of Germanistik - the German literary tradition. He gained a brilliant doctorate and then, advancing to the rank of lecturer, published a thesis on "Faust and the Faustian - a Chapter in German Ideology". This work seemed to many intellectuals, at the time and afterwards, to mark the moment at which German literary studies began seriously to confront their own past.

From the university of Erlangen, Schwerte moved to Aachen, on the Belgian border, where he joined the philosophy faculty of the technical college and in due course became rector. When the student insurrections of the late 1960s reached Aachen, the rector not only kept his head but took full command of the situation; earning the undying hatred of his more conservative academic colleagues, Schwerte admitted openly that many of the students' ideas were good and built them into his own programme for radical modernisation and democratic reform of higher education. Many of his students in 1968 remember him with respect and liking. The progressive rector soon won the trust of the Social-Democrat government of the Land North-Rhine Westphalia; he was appointed Land commissioner for economic relations with Belgium and the Netherlands.

When Schwerte retired, he and his wife went to live in the Bavarian mountains. And it was there, a couple of years ago, that the first anonymous letters began to arrive from Aachen. When they persisted, and when a Dutch television show got wind of them, Schwerte sat down and wrote the college's administrator a most remarkable letter.

Fifty years ago, he explained, there had been no Hans Schwerte. Instead, there was a certain Hans Ernst Schneider, born in Knigsberg. This Hans Ernst Schneider was also a literary academic, who had done his doctorate in 1935 on "Turgenev and German Literature". And this man was a Hauptsturmfhrer (Captain) in the SS, an intellectual who headed the Research Centre for the Impact of German Sciences in Heinrich Himmler's project for the study of genetic heritage. There is no evidence that he committed atrocities with his own hands, but he was in Holland during part of the Nazi occupation.

In 1945, as the Reich collapsed, Hauptsturmfhrer Dr Schneider found himself in Berlin. He got on a bicycle and rode to Lbeck, on the Baltic, and there he became somebody else. Hans Schwerte was already 36 when he was born. His first act was to get "married" - to the woman whom Schneider had married a few years before. His next was to enter the same academic profession of German literature, with another doctoral thesis.

And so this Schneider, citizen of a land with identity cards and compulsory registration, was able to perform an entirely successful vanishing trick. For half a century, nobody knew that Schwerte had been Schneider. More correctly, a few people knew - his wife, and probably a handful of friends or relations - but they said nothing. In the end somebody, somehow, smelt a rat. It may have been one of his conservative academic rivals, who decided to investigate his past. It may have been some SS veteran who saw the august rector on television. The man in question says that he has no idea. But the new identity had stuck for 50 years.

That raises the really interesting question. Can you "unmask" somebody who is 86 years old and find the man he abandoned at the age of 36? Schwerte said to a German reporter last week: "You are not looking at some old Nazi. When I left Berlin on that bike in 1945, I knew that I had to start a new life and that all this must never happen again. I wanted to help create a different Germany, and I saw two rails ahead of me which seemed to form a track: my own new identity and the new Germany."

And he did help to make a different Germany. Schwerte, the fiction, was for real. Schneider had been an SS man, but Schwerte was a courageous liberal who reformed higher education. In the polluted field of German literary criticism, he was one of the new thinkers who threw on the skip the mystical, self-pitying tradition which was the legacy not just of the Nazis but of older German nationalism.

This story is part of why I am not worried about identity cards. Only in a meek, uniform, predictable society where nothing unexpected ever happens can they become a danger to liberty. In Britain, a state full of sturdy vagabonds on the fiddle, there will always be fake cards, dud cards, ways of getting by with no card at all. In Germany, two hurricanes in a century have blown all the identity papers out of the office window - one in 1945 and the other in 1990, the year of unification. This means, at a rough calculation, that no German identities will be reliable until 2060 at the earliest.

There is no threat to that English longing for the power to vanish. That is good, for it is a longing with a fine ancestry: the Puritan yearning for obliteration and then rebirth with a new and cleaner soul. And that is how to read the case of the Aachen rector: not as a matter of dual identity, but as a rebirth made possible by the chaos of 1945.

The old man himself put it well. "What I taught was worth dedicating my life to, my life which is called Hans Schwerte and nothing else. I do not know who Schneider is. But I am going to have to stand and answer for him."