“Dear Michel” (an excerpt from the archives)

While sifting through the papers of the Bavarian SPD leader Waldemar von Knoeringen at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Bonn a few months ago, I came across a heart-rending letter from May 22, 1946. Writing almost exactly one year after the Nazi capitulation, Knoeringen’s old comrade from the Neu Beginnen group Eugen Nerdinger tries to explain what it was like for a social democrat to survive in GermanyWaldemar von Knoeringen under Hitler, how taking part in resistance against the regime was the only thing that kept him and his friends going, and why their sole contact outside Germany, “Michel” (alias of Knoeringen, who spent 1933-45 in exile), came to symbolize everything that Nazi Germany was not: freedom, hope, courage, and socialism. But the letter also speaks of why it was so difficult for the survivor to reunite with his hero, who had returned from exile after it was all over. For Nerdinger, it’s as if an unbridgeable gap of experience now separates the two men who used to share so much in common. Letters like this one suggest the psychological trauma that survivors of Nazi persecution continued to undergo long into the postwar years. The most powerful excerpts are a bit rambling (translation mine), but they bespeak the incredible passion that lies behind the words:

Dear Michel,

[. . .]

The image of you that I carried within me that whole time was formed through various circumstances. When I saw you for the first time, I was 24 years old. I was in one of the most difficult situations of my life: disappointed by a movement [i.e. the socialist workers’ movement] that I believed in and, I realize now, that I had to thank for my entire intellectual form at the time; carried by ideals that are hard to express in words but go something like this: In a world of disintegration, poverty, humiliation, but also of the fiercest desires for justice, beauty, and love, there is only one thing that endures: friendship of man to man, friendship in danger and in the socialist idea. Friendship in the readiness to journey together till death. That was [our deceased friend] Bebo and the illegal group around us. That was — more surmised than known, but certainly instinctively felt — you.

[. . .]

In the twilight account of the underground struggle, which we were only able to survive on this [common socialist] ground, I identified you in the end with a phrase that might seem peculiar: ‘Michel is coming’ or ‘When Michel comes, then . . .’ This ‘coming’ and this ‘Michel-is-there’ became for me at the time a complex, which remained unconscious until our first reunion. Michel: that meant for us freedom, the fulfillment of a struggle waged for years, that meant life in freedom. I have always had anxiety about as well as longing for this reunion. Anxiety because, as I now realize, I projected too much into it. That’s why something had to break when we met. I know that it’s my fault. I’ve made a fetish out of you. I fused you [. . .] with a counter-image of that against which I struggled. For us I think you were the mirror image of the Führer in the opposite direction. For us you were the mirage of a life that we were willing to give up in the utmost dedication [to our cause].

[. . .]

When you came to the subject [during our reunion] of things in Germany and our current situation, I had to remain silent. Because I sensed that you come from another level of experience, from another position of judgment than us. I know that your politics go far beyond just us. But I also know that we are just as far beyond you in our human development.

[. . .]

Thinking about pain and being in pain are two completely different things. [. . .] To have lived and suffered in Germany and to have thought about Germany and its sufferers are [likewise] two completely different things. The analytical way of staying close to us [i.e. Knoeringen’s antifascist work in exile], the only that remained to you, is insufficient. The insights won from such analysis don’t offer a gram of the pigment that would be necessary to paint the atmosphere of the prison cell in which we breathed and trembled.

[. . .]

You, like a swordsman coming out of the undemolished [workers’] movement [. . .], who wants to apply its militant élan to our postwar problems; me, standing in the ashes of a burned-down life, with a compulsively metaphysical notion, that these ashes constitute the humus out of which the new must arise.

[. . .]

I was an organizer in everyday political work and election work, a youth leader, functionary, teacher, agitator, speaker, journalist. I have gone through all of these functions like through a door. I know today that all these doors have shut behind me.

[. . .]

[reflecting on the lives of his deceased comrades Bebo Wager and Hermann Frieb:] Burdened with fate, they were able to become monuments to a socialist lifestyle and thereby compelled us in a certain direction. I’d like to live and serve this end. Whether I now make posters or books as an artist or as a publisher, I’ll always be vigorously active in this spirit.

 

Eugen Nerdinger to Waldemar von Knoeringen (May 22, 1946), Nachlass Waldemar von Knoeringen Folder 142, Archiv der sozialen Demokratie, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (Bonn, Germany)

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