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Herman Wouk Wrote Historical Novels. But His True Subject Was Moral Weakness.

Category: Art & Culture,Books

But the main reason the novels still feel urgent has to do with the nature of Wouk’s ambition. He didn’t set out merely to write a family saga or to smuggle a history lesson into a story. Wouk wanted to know how so many people in Europe and America allowed the Holocaust to happen. He uses the tools of the novel to anatomize the various psychological mechanisms and sociopolitical rationalizations that enabled intelligent, generally well-meaning and well-informed individuals to justify or ignore what was right in front of them.

As a novelist, Wouk could do things a historian couldn’t: enter not only the living rooms but the minds of a diverse range of characters. Take Rhoda, for instance. She is a little frivolous, easily distracted, occupied more by her private life than by politics. In other words, she is a lot like many of us. When she and Pug arrive in Berlin, she at first refuses to walk in the Tiergarten: “It was far more clean, pretty and charming than any American public park, she admitted, but the signs on the benches, juden verboten, were nauseating.” But with time, her resistance wears down: “Day by day, she reacted less to such things, seeing how commonplace they were in Berlin, and how much taken for granted. … It seemed silly to protest … she insisted that anti-Semitism was a blot on an otherwise exciting, lovely land.” As such, her resistance primarily took the form of playfully chastising high-ranking Nazis at booze-filled dinner parties.

This feels sadly right to me, the way someone with good intentions, someone not consciously monstrous, becomes nonetheless inured to cruelty and injustice in a context in which these evils are normalized. This is also the way we tend to feed our self-esteem but accomplish nothing, by railing against an injustice from a position of personal safety.

Just as unsettling is the response of a Jewish character, Aaron Jastrow, a prominent American author living in Italy. Jastrow is so attached to his self-image as an intellectual — someone too knowing and philosophical to do anything as gauche as panic — that he responds to Hitler’s rise to power with detachment, a reaction that on its face seems baffling, given that it’s 1939 and that he lives in a fascist country closely allied with Germany. “I’m impressed with Hitler’s ability to use socialist prattle when necessary, and then discard it,” Jastrow tells guests over a wine-filled lunch, weeks before the outbreak of war. “He uses doctrines as he uses money, to get things done. They’re expendable. He uses racism because that’s the pure distillate of German romantic egotism.”

Pug’s son Byron voices the reader’s discomfort: “I’m surprised you talk as calmly about Hitler as you do. Being Jewish, I mean.”

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Jastrow answers a little peevishly: “Young people — young Americans especially — aren’t aware that the tolerance for Jews in Europe is only 50 to 100 years old and that it’s never gone deep. … If Hitler does win out, the Jews will fall back to the second-class status they always had under the kings and the popes. Well, we survived 17 centuries of that. We have a lot of wisdom and doctrine for coping with it.”


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