I haven’t posted much in a while, largely because work has picked up tremendously over the past few months and I haven’t had nearly as much time to write. I was, however, prodded into action for this post by the publication by The Times last week of the obituary of Clarita von Trott, widow of the late Adam von Trott zu Salz, one of the July 20 conspirators immortalised by a number of books and films, notably Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.
The Song Before It is Sung is a roman à clef, telling a fictionalised version of the story of Adam von Trott, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, his friendship with the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and his participation in the German resistance movement that led to his role in the July 20 plot, during which Hitler was nearly assassinated and which resulted in the execution (or murder) of some 4,980 people, many of whom had nothing to do with the conspiracy.
For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, a coterie of mostly aristocratic German armed forces officers and civil servants had, by 1944, become increasingly concerned that Hitler was leading Germany to complete destruction and that, by removing him, the Allies (or at least the Western Allies) would be open to a negotiated peace, thereby salvaging at least something from the wreckage of Germany. A number of assassination attempts were either made or aborted before Claus von Stauffenberg, a staff officer, planted a bomb during a briefing session with Hitler at his Eastern Front HQ. The bomb exploded but, due to its placement and the failure by Stauffenberg to arm a second bomb, Hitler escaped serious injury. The plot began to unravel as the plotters failed to take Berlin over before Hitler and Goebbels were able to reassert control.
Hitler’s vengeance was merciless and violent. Thousands of presumed plotters were arrested and either murdered out of hand or found guilty by a show trial in the Peoples’ Court and then executed. Some plotters committed suicide rather than face arrest. Even Rommel, a peripheral figure at best in the plot and a public hero in Nazi Germany, could not avoid his fate. Given a choice between arrest and a suicide to be covered up as death from illness, he shot himself. The relatives of many of the plotters were also touched by Hitler’s rage. Using Himmler’s concept of sippenhaft, or family liability, wives were sent to concentration camps and children to orphanages.
Von Trott himself was arrested shortly after the collapse of the plot, tried by the notorious Nazi chief prosecutor, Ronald Freisler, and was executed by being hung from a meat hook in Plotzensee prison in August 1944. Prior to that, he had been a member of the German foreign office and during the ‘30s had used his diplomatic cover to try and persuade the British and American governments to stand up to Hitler.
Although the July 20 plot is central to The Song Before it is Sung, the relationship between Ilya Mendel, Justin Cartwright’s fictional Berlin, and Axel von Gottberg, von Trott’s avatar, is the main driver of the book. Although close friends, Mendel is deeply suspicious of von Gottberg’s motives in opposing Hitler. One of the key events is a letter that von Gottberg writes to the Manchester Guardian in the mid-1930s, claiming that Jews are not being treated badly in Germany. This letter causes Mendel and von Gottberg’s friendship to sour as Mendel believes his former friend has become a true Nazi. When von Gottberg asks Mendel to vouch for him on a visit to Washington, Mendel writes to the American Secretary of State, alleging that von Gottberg is not sincere, contributing to the failure of von Gottberg’s mission.
As von Gottberg moves inexorably towards his fate, he behaves with great personal courage and integrity, culminating in his execution. Nevertheless, questions still remain as to his motivation with Mendel coming to believe that he was acting out of an exaggerated sense that he had a mission to save Germany from itself. Depending on your viewpoint, von Gottberg’s story is one of a man finding a purpose and committing to it totally or it’s one of an ultimately ineffectual fantasist.
The historical part of The Song Before it is Sung is confident and full of life, reading in part like a thriller. The parts dealing with the events of July 20 are taut and compelling and Cartwright’s recounting of his trial, contrasting von Trott/Gottberg’s dignity and Freisler’s fanatic ravings is striking. Unfortunately, though, Cartwright uses the same trick as Laurent Binet in HhhH and by several other historical fiction authors and frames the historical plot with a contemporary story whose protagonist parallels in some respect the protagonist of the historical story.
In this case, the contemporary figure is Conrad Senior, a former student of Mendel and the chosen recipient of his papers. A self-confessed “ideas man”, he is at the beginning of the book a bit of a hopeless drifter, caught in a failing marriage to a doctor who has begun an affair with a colleague. As he becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about von Gottberg and writing a book about the Mendel-Gottberg friendship, his marriage breaks up and he seeks solace in an affair with a slightly wild single mother.
Paralleling von Gottberg, it’s possible to view Conrad’s story as one of growth as he finishes his book and begins to get his life back on track or, alternatively, he remains a self-obsessed dreamer. You decide.
The peculiarity of the use of this technique in The Song Before it is Sung is that, although it feels necessary to anchor the historical piece and to give it a meaning beyond just a straight narrative, the contemporary plot thread felt flimsy and a bit limp and it was much less believable to me than the parts of the book set in 1944. I found Conrad deeply irritating as a character and some of the dialogue was stagey and contrived and I am sure this have contributed to me feelings about the book.
I’m also always a bit torn when it comes to the July plotters. They were, on the whole, indubitably courageous at a personal level but I can’t help feeling uncomfortable at praising them as resisters of Hitler. The truth is that they were conservative nationalists of the old Prussian school. They were anti-Semitic as were most of their peers – although they may have seen the Holocaust (to the extent they understood what was going on) as a stain on Germany’s honour, the plight of the Jews was not their motivation. Ultimately, they were most disaffected by Hitler’s military failures and not by the fact that he had started a war and so I’m afraid I can’t see them as moral heroes or symbols of the “good German”.
So, overall, The Song Before it is Sung is a good but flawed book. I can see where the author was going with the structure but believe that the contemporary plot needed to be stronger to balance the excellent retelling of the von Gottberg/Mendel friendship and the events of July 1944. I will, however, definitely read more by Justin Cartwright and would recommend it to readers with an interest in the Second World War.
Other bloggers who have posted on this book include She Reads Novels, To Be Read and Mystic Olive Reads and Thinks,