“My Country, Right or Wrong” – the slogan that sits on the lintel above the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp in Remote Sympathy. But is it a call to blind patriotism? – the harbour for those ‘just following orders.’ Is it a question asked by the worried, those citizens making small ripples in the tide of acceptance and blind-eye-turning? Is it a gambler’s toss, wondering which way the dice of history will fall? Each is a possibility in this extraordinary novel of the potential for evil lurking within us. Lurking within our tendency towards being accepted, being comfortable, being safe, and towards our having the slightest suspicion that those experiencing deprivation must somehow deserve it. As the sign on the Buchenwald gate reads: “To Each His Due.”
In 1930, Dr Lenard Weber is determined to find a way to cure the cancerous tumours that took his father, and he is inspired when visiting an art installation of the human body, realising that “ … the body wasn’t a collection of separate parts, each performing its own solitary task, but a circuit, a machine, an exquisite and collaborative machine.” He starts to work on an electricity machine to resonate in remote sympathy with a stricken body. He also embarks on a relationship with Anna, a young woman he meets at the exhibition. And eventually they marry and have a daughter, Lotte. They live happily in Frankfurt, until their life is destroyed due to Anna being Jewish.
Greta Hahn is entranced by her husband, the older, and impressive, Dietrich Hahn, and they dote on their son, Karl-Heinz. They are living a nice life in Dresden, with Dietrich on his way up the ranks of the SS. Greta is becoming used to having servants and beautiful things, when Sturmbannführer Hahn is appointed head of supplies and logistics at Buchenwald. Greta’s family is uprooted and moved to a purpose-built villa, one of a number built to house the elite staff of Buchenwald, not far from Weimar. Weimar is full of monuments to its glorious history as the birthplace of such figures as Goethe and Schiller. Buchenwald is hidden up in a forest on Ettersberg mountain. When they cleared the forest to build it, the Goethe oak, a tree that the writer liked to visit, was spared, and fenced off: “… the inmates called it Buchenwald’s first prisoner.”
The story of Remote Sympathy is told by Greta (via an ‘imaginary diary’), Dietrich Hahn (via interviews relating to his post-war trial – some sections taken verbatim from the trial of Otto Barnewald, on whom Dietrich’s character is loosely based) and Lenard Weber (via letters to Lotte). It is also told via “The Private Reflections of One Thousand Citizens of Weimar.” This last because, just as Weber observes with a body, atrocities are not the result of individuals performing their own tasks, they are a circuit, a machine, an exquisite and collaborative machine. All narrators are drawn into the concerted effort, Hahn justifying his thieving and distancing himself from the operations of the camp, as he was just in logistics. Greta enjoying the privileges of her position, and taking advantage of the facility of ordering, and re-ordering, luxury items which are made to order. She looks at the views from her window, and she has picnics with her neighbour, Emmi Wolff, and their children, only glancingly puzzled by the smell, “… fatty and smoky and too too sweet.” Weber is entangled too, stealing food for his fellow inmates and wolfing it down himself, continuing to provide hope to Greta, when he doubts there is any, but he is sure his help is all that is securing his access to information about Anna and Lotte, far off in another camp, Theresienstadt. You do not run a place like Buchenwald without the engagement of many service-providers, many favours, many trade-offs, all part of the ‘collaborative machine.’
Remote Sympathy is exquisitely plotted with a building tension. And what is behind this ever more escalating situation? There is the advancement of disease, the approach of the allies, the increasing desperation of an addicted gambler. And there is fake news: photos of “Our time at Buchenwald,” movies of the pleasant life at Theresienstadt. There is the myth of those with tainted blood, the Mischlings, whose affliction could be disappeared with an official certificate, or created to place someone you need in a camp near you. There is the fake news of propaganda, of common knowledge, of the endless justifications for your own behaviour. Even when you admit you are doing wrong, you justify it by those actions protecting those around you, never by them ensuring your own safety.
Hahn’s interviews are full of his sensible actions to ensure efficiency and the smooth running of the camp. The complicit citizens of Weimar are still outwardly in denial even when they are taken through the camp post-liberation. There is a sense that Hahn and most of the people of Weimar feel hard-done-by, that if the war had gone their way, their actions would have been merely what had been required. And this novel resonates with our current situation, where we buy cheap good quality goods, knowing they have probably been manufactured in far from ideal conditions, for far from adequate wages. When we still engage pleasantly with regimes who put ethnic minorities in ‘re-education camps’ or permanently separate children from their parents at their borders. Where we see the dangers of racism and manufactured ideas of ‘purity’ used once again to justify separation and violence.
Remote Sympathy is not unsympathetic to its characters, you feel sympathy for Greta and Weber, especially when they grow fond of each other. There are occasions of sympathy even for Dietrich, when he carefully places a snail out of harm’s way, when his concern for Greta overwhelms him. You can understand the boon the camp must have been to the businesspeople of Weimar, what a boost to the young women having handsome soldiers around. There are also moments of hope, the small, and sometimes not so small, efforts of the inmates. Their taking little pieces of the Goethe oak as talismans, one carving a chunk of it into a representation of all those who suffered in the camp. Even Hahn takes a piece – a festering splinter in his finger.
But as the story unfolds so too do the horrors, the lives lost indicated by the skills of those in the camp, or from the theatre tickets left in coat pockets. There are the children, those not wanting to be ‘dirty Jews’, those who learn how to throw stones at prisoners, those who appear to fall easily into the role of torturer. The children who are hidden, those who are lost, those whose only experiences of life have been those of nightmares. There is the view of the citizens of Weimar held by the inmates: “A skinny flotilla of strangers from a place they swore they did not know.” And there is the ever-present gnawing hunger, “Take your hunger in your arms”, the cause of despair and conflict in the camp.
Remote Sympathy is an intricate retelling of events that we are both familiar with and constantly shocked by. Shocked that in such a few years we could go from the ideal of a body resonating to health like the string of a piano vibrating “as it recognised its own frequency in my voice.” The hope of all the world being alive with energy, a world where bodies could affect each other via remote sympathy, dwindling to the arrival at a concentration camp where “There can be no sympathy here, they said.” Read it!