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Eric Vuillard

L'ordre du jour (The Order of the Day)

Category: Fiction | Published: 2017 | Review Added: 11-02-2019

Rating: 4 - A top read

I read this Goncourt Prizewinning work in the original French, in which it is entitled L'ordre du jour. This term can also be rendered as 'The Agenda', which, as I hope to show, might in some respects be a better translation. Beyond this issue, it is certainly a book that is difficult to classify in terms of genre. It resembles an historical novel in that it relates a number of episodes relating to historical figures, all connected with Nazism, either as perpetrators (including Hitler himself) or as, with a very few exceptions, foreign politicians challenged by it. The narrative is also punctuated with authorial comments. It is possible therefore to speak of something between novel and historical treatise.

The alternative English title seems particular appropriate to the first section set in Berlin in early 1933, in which a number of prominent industrialists are about to be addressed by Goering. His agenda is to obtain financial support for the Nazi party, as it prepares for the March election, which was to propel Hitler to power and put an end to the Weimar Republic. Needless to say, the industrialists gathered relish the prospect of the end of what they regard as disruptive democracy and contribute accordingly. Although industry support for the Nazis was widespread, it can be pointed out that Vuillard does not refer to those sectors, often export-related, that were much less enamoured of the command economy favoured by them.

Several sections are devoted to the annexation of Austria in March 1938. Initially the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg's trepidation is described, as he crosses the frontier to meet Hitler and his henchmen in the Führer's Alpine retreat shortly before the fateful events. His main interlocutor is presented, undoubtedly accurately, as someone whose mood may vary between extreme rage and affability. In keeping with historical events, the hapless Austrian is shown as having been browbeaten by Hitler into accepting conditions, which make the loss of his country's independence largely inevitable. Despite the treatment meted out to him on this occasion, Schuschnigg is portrayed with scant sympathy. His regime is characterised correctly as a kind of clerical fascism which acts harshly against opposition, especially from the left. Moreover affinity between him and the Nazis, specifically the Austrian Nazi leader Seyss-Irquart, is suggested by an account of a friendly conversation between them about the composer Bruckner, for whom they share a common enthusiasm. Only the Austrian president of the time, Miklas, is portrayed a little more positively because of his initial resistance to the Nazi annexation.

Another politician to be lambasted is the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain along with his appeasing colleagues. Vuillard narrates at length a reception held to mark the departure of Joachim von Ribbentrop from his role as German Ambassador to Britain in order to take up the role of Foreign Minister in Berlin, which coincides with the takeover of Austria. This episode is presented as a farce when the news of the event is whispered into Chamberlain's ear and he fails to react immediately, whilst their guest and his wife, aware of what is going on, deliberately prolong their stay in order to thwart their host. Another Nazi ploy at this time recounted by Vuillard is a staged platitudinous conversation between Goering and Seyss-Irquart in which meteorological conditions are to the fore. This attempt to distract potential opponents was played at the Nuremberg trials, during which both men were sentenced to death. Whereas, as is well known, Goering escaped his death sentence by suicide, Seyss-Irquart was duly executed. In his reference to this event, Vuillard characteristically refers to an uncomfortable detail which casts a shadow over the proceedings: the American hangman John C. Woods was a person with considerable psychological problems.

If the incidents referred to above show the Nazis as effective thugs and/or manipulators there is one part of the work that shows them in a different light. The actual invasion of Austria is itself shown to have been farcical as the German military hardware, in particular the tanks, suffered multiple breakdowns just over the frontier near the city of Linz blocking the roads and the passage towards Vienna of Hitler himself, whilst jubilant Nazi-supporting Austrians were initially frustrated in their wish to express their adulation. The jubilation that eventually took place in Vienna is powerfully juxtaposed by Vuillard with accounts of Jewish humiliation and suicides.

All the episodes referred to above are narrated in a volume of some 150 pages. This brevity means that the book retains its considerable impact from beginning to end. It is a justifiably dark presentation of dark times, well worthy of the acclaim it has received. One of its greatest achievements is to point to bizarre details in the events described. Although Hitler and the Nazis had no time for the niceties of international law and no hesitation in using extreme violence, Vuillard points out that they wished to make their actions in Austria appear "legal". Hitler is portrayed as waiting impatiently for the telegram with which it had been agreed that Seyss-Irquart would "invite" German intervention. The same ploy was of course used by the Soviet Union thirty years later when it was also claimed that its forces had been invited into Czechoslovakia. Such are the quirks of history.

In his latest book Vuillard's subject is the sixteenth-century Peasants' War in Germany, another time of great bloodshed. However, on the evidence of a recent newspaper interview with the author, there may be at least one major character worthy of sympathy, the peasant leader Thomas Müntzer, whom he compares to a poet. I am, I hope understandably, looking forward to reading this work to see if it maintains the standard of the book discussed here.

Review by Stuart Parkes

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