Seelenbinder: The Olympian Who Defied Hitler
Steele Roberts, $35.00,
“After a certain time a life exists not for what it is in reality, but for its mythological qualities”: in that one sentence, James McNeish defines his “true” story about the German Olympic wrestler Werner Seelenbinder, who was executed because of his political opposition to Adolf Hitler. In that one sentence, McNeish also defines much of his own authorial philosophy and the tension that exists in so much history.
Just before reading Seelenbinder, I had finished Ford Madox Ford’s extraordinary novel The Good Soldier. The juxtaposition of the two made Seelenbinder even more interesting. Ford’s novel is driven by the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, McNeish’s by an unreliable narrative, which in a way is a euphemism for history.
Early on, McNeish is in Berlin wondering whether to write this book. The subject seems elusive. Will this turn out to be a second-rate German version of his acclaimed novel Lovelock? McNeish is doubtful. He has been reading a book about Seelenbinder written by an East German journalist. “It’s full of fairy tales,” says McNeish to his wife Helen. “I think it’s communist propaganda. The East Germans don’t have many heroes, did they, so they had to invent one. It’s a myth.” “But you love myths,” says Helen. “It’s your bread and butter, it’s what your books are about. ‘The currency of existence beyond the grave.’ You always say that. Think of Lovelock.”
Ah, think of Lovelock, New Zealand’s 1500-metre gold medallist from the Berlin games of 1936. Does McNeish always have to think of Lovelock, the novel for which he was nominated for the Booker Prize? Surely, at 85, he can now be allowed to move on.
And so begins the search for Seelenbinder. In some ways, one of the most extraordinary things about this book – I keep calling it a book, because it’s not quite a novel, not quite a history, not quite a biography – is that McNeish still writes as well as he ever did. McNeish describes one German functionary, the minister of sport who told Hitler that a pole vault pole was a javelin, as being possessed of a mind “of stupendous banality”. There are moments when McNeish bumps into an adjective or two, and at times they almost come as a surprise. McNeish’s prose is spare, almost gaunt, but that often helps us to see more clearly.
In The Good Soldier, Ford often drops in an image as a matter of hilarity, as a way of undermining his narrator, the American Dowell. Like Seelenbinder, The Good Soldier is powered in part by the voice of the New World describing the ways of the Old World, by the shadow of war, by people pretending to be what they are not. The narrator Dowell reckons the character Nancy was like “a phosphorescent fish in a cupboard”. McNeish describes Erich Rochler, Seelenbinder’s mysterious communist handler, as having a huge overcoat, on the verge of collapse like a tent, and a face “round, like an overripe plum”. The author can’t make up his mind about him. Is Rochler a party man stiff with communist jargon? Or is he soft at the edges, on the verge of collapse?
It is a crucial distinction, not least for Seelenbinder. Can he trust Rochler? Does McNeish trust Rochler? McNeish’s wife Helen says of Rochler, “He must have been a very good liar”, referring to Rochler’s ability to talk his way out of trouble. Although arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo several times, and imprisoned twice, Rochler will always be let go. He will survive the war apparently unscathed.
Seelenbinder is a boy from the old Poland, born at the time Peter Pan was coming out in London (more myth making), who has grown up through hunger and poverty. There has to be a better way, and the way is communism. Rochler lights the way, but does he light the way to salvation or the grave? He persuades Seelenbinder to make a broadcast denouncing Hitler should he win a medal at the Olympics. Seelenbinder is to speak the truth to the world.
But is anyone the person they are supposed to be? “Who knows?” writes McNeish. “You are now beginning to understand the difficulty a writer has, trying to sort out the contradictory information that is available. There is no modern biography.” Is anything what it purports to be? A rumour reaches Seelenbinder of a mass arrest: “It is just that, a rumour. But he does not know this. Existentially a fact and a rumour are the same. Both exist. Neither can be verified. Both, in Werner’s mind, might be true.”
Early in his research, McNeish finds a document that purports to be a petition for clemency from Seelenbinder. His wife thinks it a fake. His contact Klaus, who has baby blue eyes like so many of the unreliable characters in The Good Soldier, says, “A fake? Ach so. Falsch.”
The book is infused with a kind of foreboding which McNeish calls “Seelenbinder Sadness”. More unconscious echoes. Ford had wanted to call The Good Soldier “The Saddest Story”, but his publisher said it wouldn’t sell. At times, McNeish professes reluctance even to continue with his story. Maybe if he puts the words to paper they will confirm what actually happened. Seelenbinder will no longer be able to escape his fate. As McNeish puts it:
Like many writers I have a fear of setting down the first line of what happens next, knowing that the words are going to spread out like dye and colour everything around them. It’s a strange mystical business. Like Scheherezade, I am having to invent. Like Werner, too.
I even occasionally wondered if Seelenbinder actually existed. Maybe this was an elaborate hoax like the Hitler diaries. Maybe McNeish has invented Seelenbinder.
And, in a way, he has, of course. There are dramatic reconstructions that are no more than guesswork. There’s a hamster called Hansel, or was it a rabbit? There is an allusion, or perhaps illusion, to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin: “I’d forgotten that the massacre, depicting a failed revolution in 1905, in fact never happened.” Jack London is Seelenbinder’s hero, and therefore McNeish reckons he must have taken his girlfriend Charlotte to a prize fight. Charlotte’s hero is a sort of German Zane Grey, a pedlar of fake wild west novellas, who has never actually visited America. Did a girl, swastika brooch over her breast, really sit up at the moment of orgasm, and shout out “Heil Hitler”?
As McNeish attests, Seelenbinder becomes a sort of peephole, a lens to view Nazi atrocity, a witness to infamy and villainy. He is one of many athletes saluting in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia – Festival of Nations (1936), a false image, perhaps, before a false idol. And the crux of the story is a broadcast that never happened, words never spoken, a message never given.
But the book is as much about what Seelenbinder sees or helps McNeish to see, as what he does or fails to do. He is a glimpse of a Nazi doctor who saves the wrestler’s knee, the same doctor who does experiments on women in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. (The women have their limbs broken and are deliberately infected with glass splinters and bacteria. They die in agony.) He is a comrade of the 1722 prisoners sentenced to death in the war years for political crimes, 1691 of whom were guillotined. Hitler decided other forms of execution were too dignified. Members of the public were asked to attend by invitation. The families of the decapitated were forced to reimburse the Gestapo for the costs of the execution. The blood of the beheaded was used for transfusions.
Seelenbinder is a memorial to atrocity. Heinrich Heine, the only poet to write an ode to the guillotine, is quoted: “Dieu me pardonnera. C’est son métier”. The book ends, “It is a warm afternoon and the sun is shining.” It reminds me of my old German teacher saying; “Da es Freitag ist, und da die Sonne scheint – vocabs.” At least that is what I remember him saying. But that was 40 years ago, and memory is a better creator of myth than a guide to history.
Mark Reason is a British journalist who now works in New Zealand as a columnist for Fairfax Media.