What really happened in the 1938 meeting when Hitler told the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg to roll over or be rolled over? Or during the dinner at 10 Downing Street where Foreign Minister Ribbentropp waxed lyrical about macaroons while watching Chamberlain receive the news that Germany had invaded Austria? In The Order of the Day by Eric Vulliard, the author has pieced together the facts, filled in the gaps and created a fascinating and frightening account of a sleepwalk into disaster.
Order of the Day won Eric Vulliard the 2017 Prix Goncourt, France’s most coveted literary prize. It’s a short collection of fictionalised stories based on documented facts. One of my favourites, if such a word can be used, was the 1933 meeting between captains of German industry and Hitler, in which Hitler promises ‘to ward off the Communist menace […] and allow every entrepreneur to be the führer of his own shop’ in return for contributions to his Nazi Party.
Behind the German names – Quandt, von Finch and Krupp – were the heads of companies we all know, Thyssen, Siemens, Bayer, Opel. Companies, Vuillard points out, have lives that go beyond the ‘skin and bone’ of their owners; they can even change the direction of history and will never be held accountable.
All these men were complicit to some extent. To claim that they didn’t see or understand what was going on is just wrong, Vuillard says. Even foreign politicians must have smelled a rat.
….[Lord] Halifax [Lord President of the Council], like the twenty-four high priests of German industry, must have been wise to Göring; he must have been familiar with his background, his career as a putschist, his penchant for fanciful uniforms, his morphine addiction, […] the crippling diagnosis of mental disorder, depression, and violent and suicidal tendencies.
Or perhaps they simply didn’t mind so much?
The comical lengths to which decorum is obeyed and the looking the other way serve as chilling warnings for our own times.
We never fall twice into the same abyss. But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.
The Order of the Day by Eric Vulliard, translated by Mark Polizzotto is published by Picador, 129 pages.