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Monday, 1 October 2012

Kafka's Burrow, Hitler and Bunker Mentality



Molehills in Krtiny, East Bohemia
: photo by Karelj, March 2007

I have completed the construction of my burrow, and it seems to be successful. All that can be seen from outside is a big hole; that, however, really leads nowhere; if you take a few steps you strike against natural firm rock. I can make no boast of having contrived this ruse intentionally; it is simply the remains of one of my many abortive building attempts, but finally it seemed to me advisable to leave this one hole without filling it in. True, some ruses are so subtle that they defeat themselves, I know that better than anyone, and it is certainly a risk to draw attention by this hole to the fact that there may be something in the vicinity worth inquiring into. But you do not know me if you think I am afraid, or that I build my burrow simply out of fear. At a distance of some thousand paces from this hole lies, covered by a movable layer of moss, the real entrance to the burrow; it is secured as safely as anything in this world can be secured; yet someone could step on the moss or break through it, and then my burrow would lie open, and anybody who liked -- please note, however, that quite uncommon abilities would also be required -- could make his way in and destroy everything for good. I know that very well, and even now, at the zenith of my life, I can scarcely pass an hour in complete tranquility; at that one point in the dark moss I am vulnerable, and often in my dreams I see a greedy muzzle sniffing around it persistently. It will be objected that I could quite well have filled in the entrance too, with a thin layer of hard earth on top and with loose soil further down, so that it would not cost me much trouble to dig my way out whenever I liked. But that plan is impossible; prudence itself demands that I should have a way of leaving at a moment's notice if necessary, prudence itself demands, as alas! so often, to risk one's life. All this involves very laborious calculation, and the sheer pleasure of the mind in its own keenness is often the sole reason why one keeps it up. I must have a way of leaving at a moment's notice, for, despite all my vigilance, may I not be attacked from some quite unexpected quarter? I live in peace in the inmost chamber of my house, and meanwhile the enemy may be burrowing his way slowly and stealthily straight toward me. I do not say that he has a better scent than I; probably he knows as little about me as I of him. But there are insatiable robbers who burrow blindly through the ground, and to whom the very size of my house gives hope of hitting by chance on some of its far-flung passages. I certainly have the advantage of being in my own house and knowing all the passages and how they run.  But I am growing old; I am not as strong as many others, and my enemies are countless; it could well happen that in lying from one enemy I might run into the jaws of another. Anything might happen! In any case I must have the confident knowledge that somewhere there is an exit easy to reach and quite free, where I have to do nothing whatever to get out, so that I might never -- Heaven shield us! -- suddenly feel the teeth of the pursuer in my flank while I am desperately burrowing away, even if it is at loose easy soil. And it is not only by external enemies that I am threatened. There are also enemies in the bowels of the earth. I have never seen them, but legend tells of them and I firmly believe in them. Their very victims can scarcely have seen them; they come, you hear the scratching of their claws just under you in the ground, which is their element, and already you are lost.

Franz Kafka: excerpt from The Burrow (Der Bau), uncompleted story, written winter 1923-1924, first published in Beim Bau der der Chinesischen Mauer (The Great Wall of China), 1931; translation by Edwin and Willa Muir, 1933

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Mole (Talpa europaea), close-up: photo by Michael David Hill, 2005

One can gain some insight into Kafka by observing that he attributes the most interesting forms of behavior to animals. The reader follows these animal tales for a fair distance without even noticing that they do not deal with human beings at all. Then, when the animal is identified for the first time -- as a mouse or a mole -- you are suddenly jolted and realize how far you have drifted away from the continent of human beings. As far away from it as a future society will be. Incidentally, it is worth paying attention to the kinds of animals Kafka chooses to embody his ideas. They always dwell in the interior of the earth, or, like the beetle in "Die Verwandlung" [The Metamorphosis], they are creatures that hide away on the ground, in cracks and crannies. This scurrying away seems to the author the only appropriate behavior for the isolated members of his generation and their context, with their ignorance of the law.

...Kafka, on the one hand, comes up against the law at every turn; indeed, one could even say that he bloodies his brow smashing up against the law (see the Mole [-- i.e. the narrator of "Der Bau", The Burrow]); but it is no longer the law governing the real world of things in which he lives, or any world of things whatsoever. It is the law of a new order in which all the things in which it expresses itself are misshapen, a law that deforms all things and all the people it touches.

Walter Benjamin: May-June 1931, translated by Rodney Livingstone in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934 (1999)

German WW II Atlantic Wall bunker site, Bihen, Picardie, France
: photo by Artzl (Arthur van Beveren), 31 July 2012

The main author of the most deadly clash of the century, which in almost four years of its duration would produce an almost unimaginable harvest of sorrow for families throughout central and eastern Europe and a level of destruction never experienced in human history, left Berlin around midday on 23 June [1941]. Hitler was setting out with his entourage for his new field headquarters in East Prussia. The presumption was, as it had been in earlier campaigns, that he would be there a few weeks, then return to Berlin. This was only one of his miscalculations. The 'Wolf's Lair' (Wolfsschanze) was to be his home in the main for the next three and a half years. He would finally leave it a broken man in a broken country. 

The Wolf's Lair -- another play on Hitler's favourite pseudonym from the 1920s, when he like to call himself 'Wolf' (allegedly the meaning of 'Adolf', and implying strength) -- was hidden away in the gloomy Masurian woods, about eight kilometres from the small town of Rastenburg. Hitler and his accompaniment arrived there late in the evening of 23 June. The new surroundings were not greatly welcoming. The centre-point consisted of ten bunkers, erected over the winter, camouflaged and in part protected against air-raids by two metres thickness of concrete. Hitler's bunker was at the northern end of the complex. All its windows faced north so that he could avoid the sun streaming in...

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Hitler greets staff officers at his East Prussian headquarters Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair): photographer unknown, 15 September 1943 (German Federal Archive)

[February 1942] Snow still lay on the ground at the Wolf's Lair. An icy wind gave no respite from the cold. But, at the end of February 1942, there were the first signs that spring was not far away. Hitler could not wait for the awful winter to pass... The war was all that mattered to Hitler. Yet, cocooned in the strange world of the Wolf's lair, he was increasingly severed from its realities, both at the front and at home. Detachment ruled out all vestiges of humanity. Even towards those in his own entourage who had been with him for many years, there was nothing resembling real affection, let alone friendship; genuine fondness was reserved only for his young Alsatian. Human life and suffering were of no consequence to him. He never visited a field-hospital, nor the homeless after bomb-raids. He saw no massacres, went near no concentration camp, viewed no compound of starving prisoners-of-war. His enemies were in his eyes like vermin to be stamped out. But his profound contempt for human existence extended to his own people. Decisions costing the lives of tens of thousands of his soldiers were made -- perhaps it was only thus possible to make them -- without consideration for any human plight. The hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed were merely an abstraction, the suffering a necessary and justified sacrifice in the 'heroic struggle' for the survival of the people.

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Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler inspect damage at Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair) near Rastenburg (Ketrzyn), East Prussia
: photographer unknown, 20 July 1944 (German Federal Archive)

His apartments in the Reich Chancellery largely gutted by incendiaries, Hitler now [February 1945] moved underground for much of the time, shuffling down the seemingly unending stone steps, flanked by bare concrete walls, that led to the claustrophobic, labyrinthine subterranean world of the Führer Bunker, a two-storey construction deep below the garden of the Reich Chancellery. The enormous bunker complex had been deepened in 1943 -- extending an earlier bunker (originally meant for possible future use as an air-raid shelter) dating from 1936 -- and heavily reinforced during Hitler's stay at his western headquarters. The complex was completely self-contained, with its own heating, lighting, and water-pumps run from a diesel generator. Hitler had slept there since returning to Berlin. From now on, it would provide a macabre domicile for the remaining weeks of his life...

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 Rear entrance to the Führer Bunker, in the garden of the Reich Chancellery; Hitler and Eva Braun were cremated in a shell hole in front of the emergency exit at left; the cone-shaped structure in the center served as the bunker's exhaust vent, and as a bomb shelter for the guards
: photographer unknown, July 1947 (German Federal Archive)

The mood in the bunker now [29 April 1945] sank to zero-level. Despair was now written on everyone's face. All knew it was only a matter of hours before Hitler killed himself. There was much talk of the best methods of committing suicide. Secretaries, adjutants and any others who wanted them had by now been given the brass-cased ampoules containing prussic acid supplied by Dr Ludwig Stumpfegger, the SS surgeon... Hitler's paranoia stretched now to doubts about the capsules. He had shown his Alsatian bitch Blondi more affection than any human being, possibly even Eva Braun. Now, as the end approached, he had the poison tested on Blondi. Professor Werner Haase was summoned from his duties in the nearby public air-raid shelter beneath the New Reich Chancellery building. Shortly before the afternoon briefing on 29 April, aided by Hitler's dog attendant Fritz Tornow, he forced open the dog's jaws and crushed the prussic acid capsule with a pair of pliers. The dog slumped in an instant motionless on the ground. Hitler was not present. However, he entered the room immediately afterwards. He glanced for a few seconds at the dead dog. Then, his face like a mask, he left without saying anything and shut himself in his room...

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Demolished Führer Bunker in garden of the ruined Reich Chancellery, Berlin: photo by Otto Donath, 1947 (German Federal Archive)

[That afternoon] Hitler... retreated behind the doors of his study for the last time. Eva Braun followed him almost immediately. It was half-past three... The only noise was the drone of the diesel generator... After waiting ten minutes or so, still without a sound, [Heinz] Linge took the initiative. He took Borman with him and opened the door. In the cramped study, Hitler and Eva Braun sat alongside each other on a small sofa. Eva Braun was slumped to Hitler's left. A strong whiff of bitter almonds -- the distinctive smell of prussic acid -- drifted up from her body. Hitler's head drooped lifelessly. Blood dripped from a bullet-hole in his right temple. His 7.65mm Walther pistol lay by his foot.

Ian Kershaw: from Hitler: A Biography, 2008

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Demolished Führer Bunker in garden of the ruined Reich Chancellery, Berlin: photo by Otto Donath (1898-1971), 1947 (German Federal Archive)

German WW II Atlantic Wall bunker site, Berck Nord: photo by Artzl (Arthur van Beveren), 31 July 2012


Hazen said...

Opening BTP, I find a simple photograph of molehills, and I laugh . . . and on a Monday morning in these times a good chuckle is much appreciated. Then, that mole-y face with a nose so human, peering out, blinded by the light, vulnerable, all but vision-less; a hard-working but pitiable creature, striving in darkness—and something changes.

The pictures and text are stark evidence that there is no bunker, be it mental or re-barred concrete, in which to hide. Life, or its opposite, always finds us.

Wooden Boy said...

It always gives me the shivers to encounter those occasional phrases in Benjamin so sharp with that dark prescience they hurt. He seems to have been onstitutionally unable to burrow himself away.

That mole voice: breathless, a little priggish, switching between a pride in small things and a visceral fear. Franz is undoubtedly taking the rise a bit but that laughter of his is a good light for the dark.

TC said...

The Inner Mole never tires of burrowing, until the end -- thinking of Philby, Blunt, McLean et al. The roof may cave in at any time, but once begun, the burrowing project must be carried on. Kafka's reminder that an exit strategy is essential would not be lost on any burrowing creature. The mole, the badger -- once at Devil's Tower I watched a prairie dog village in action, with hundreds of holes scattered all about, and the animals popping up and then down again all about that large field; it was evident there was an underground tunnel system with interconnected corridors. The VC and NVA had such systems, as of course did Osama and Gaddafi.

A few weeks' study of bunkers round the world made it clear that tunneling and burrowing is instinctive behavior in many species.

There is insane dark comedy in the story of the last days in the Führer Bunker, a microcosm of human denial at its highest level of intensity, with a good dose of sheer ennui mixed in: the community entertainment consisting of Hitler's endless after-dinner monologues, which often went on til dawn, while among the obedient yet exhausted audience of secretaries, all known forms of yawn-suppression were employed.

The Kafka tale, of which the ending has been lost, is a masterpiece.

Some others to be found here:

Franz Kafka: Absent-minded Window-gazing (Three Meditations)

Franz Kafka: Bachelor's Ill Luck

Franz Kafka: Before the Law

Franz Kafka / Edward S. Curtis: Divestment (The Wish to Be a Red Indian)

Franz Kafka: Excursion into the Mountains

Franz Kafka: Resolutions

Franz Kafka: The Great Wall of China

Franz Kafka: The Next Village

Franz Kafka: Up in the Gallery

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Construction of Western Tumuli

Grand idea
to be safe
the living grave
magic trick
to not really be dead
under there
like a potato
a Pharaoh.

When the time is right
or not quite right
they'll blast apart the ground
dig you up
find or not find you whole
put you in the cart
in the sack
and sell you to history
to those waiting, hungry
for panicked stories
like teachers
their walks wolfish
the way they walk
wolves gone
to Mr. Kafka's pack
or to Mr. Hitler's
to Ms. Farah Fawcett's

exposed, more
than deformed, inedible.
A junkie
safe in death, finally,
still alive: do not choose the tomb. It is a waste of time?
It is

the place of dark artistry
caving-in caving-in

great unstoppable ideas
sprouted like jungles ancient unthinkable
ghost dance
without Mr. Wovoka's
kind spirit.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

My Grandparents

Dumb fucks
hid in the bunker
for the last time
in August, 1944
by their house
across from a church
in a small town
at the foot of the alps
in Bavaria--

like everyone else
their deaths
make them nobody special
just dumb
in their dumb bodies
and me
their humble servant
who cannot seem to find them
blind and deaf to their calls.

TC said...

The classic statement on bunker logic

Susan Kay Anderson said...

"bold curiosity for the adventure ahead" (Dr. Strangelove)

I married you
Mr. Kafka
when you were still batchin' it
slapping your fore

and now your bones
spell out trouble
for the rest of time.

One cannot quite walk
to the next village
ponder the Seven Wonders

without becomming
a little claustophobic
at the window
seeing your eyes
like my mother's
chasing and swallowing

the tales you left me
widow of an insect empire
my duty to constantly
look under the roots
to check if you've been fed
or still so hungry
so nakedly married.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Oh, Blondi

I am human, after all
as modern Caesar
ruling the Western World
by factory

with you
domesticated dog
I play
the wild
to all those
wild wild wild wild wolves.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Fuehrer's Bunker

had everything
others wanted
even a dog
named Blondi

minus-plus what it took
to get it furnished

hunkered down there
just like any other old
in charge
of all the coming and goings
final notice.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Devil's Tower

place of great power
where a great burrowing
continues to aerate
the Great Plains.