We are who we pretend

The author of 'Mother Night' wrote compassionately about his protagonist that he was a man "who served evil too openly and good too secretly, which was the crime of his time".

11 November 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American novelist Kurt Vonnegut.

This is a very bleak book, though full of brilliant black humour. "Mother Night" was written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1961 and is an edited account of the memoirs of American journalist and playswriter Howard W. Cambpell jr, whose life was affected by the fact that he lived in the Third Reich and toiled in Nazi propaganda.

The man had already settled in Germany when he was eleven years old. The year was 1923, and the future writer's father got a job at the Berlin branch of General Electric. Campbell himself - as he claimed - even grew into Germanness. And when his parents returned to the USA after the outbreak of the Second World War, he did not leave Germany. In fact, he was connected to the country through his marriage - to the actress Helga Noth, daughter of the Berlin police chief.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Campbell appeared in radio broadcasts in English in which he tried to convince Americans of Nazism. For this reason, he was declared a war criminal by the Allies. And this activity of his might have determined that he would have ended up on the gallows shortly after the defeat of the Third Reich, had it not been for the fact that... at the same time he was spying for the USA. And he had already been recruited in 1938.
Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007) in the late 1980s in New York. During World War II, the later author of "Breakfast of Champions" fought at the front in Europe. In 1944, during the Ardennes offensive, he was taken into German captivity and imprisoned in Dresden. He was held in the basement of the old slaughterhouse at night and survived the bombing of the city by the Allies, which was the inspiration for his novel "Slaughterhouse-Five". Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images
In fact, Campbell's broadcasts contained encrypted messages. "The cipher," he explained, "consisted of mannerisms, pauses, changes of accent, coughs and feigned stammers in certain key sentences. I would receive instructions from people I didn't know, telling me in which sentences of the broadcast these signals were to be found. To this day, I don't know what information was passed on through me' (the Polish version of the book is thanks to the excellent translator Lech Jęczmyk).

This extract from Campbell's confessions then reads: "I conclude from the simplicity of my instructions that I usually sent yes-no answers to questions put to the spy apparatus. Very occasionally, such as during the preparations for the Normandy invasion, I received more complicated instructions and then I had diction as if in the last stages of bilateral pneumonia."

There is no denying that the narrator of 'Mother Night' was able to report serious situations in a witty manner.

After the Second World War, Campbell was taken into American captivity. But because of his service to the US, he was secretly released after some time, although he was still guilty in the eyes of the law, as his status as an American spy had not been officially proven.

And so Campbell made his way to New York, where, in solitude and anonymity, he went through - as he described that stage of his life - 'purgatory'. Only that during this period came events that were a torment to him. For at one point Campbell became embroiled in political intrigue, the outcome of which drove him to despair. Targeted by a sense of hopelessness, he decided to turn himself in to the Israeli authorities. And he eventually ended up in prison in Jerusalem.

Was Campbell an outspoken Nazi? He put the answer to this question in the words: "We are who we pretend to be, and therefore we must be very careful who we pretend to be".

His autobiography is so amazing and passionate that it is not worth spoiling further. The thing is, however, that the man called Howard W. Cambpell jr. is a fictional character, and 'Mother Night' is simply a novel. Except that - and this is the intriguing part - there were in fact people who could pass themselves off as prototypes of its protagonist.

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This includes Lord Haw-Haw. This was the nickname given in the British media in 1939 to a group of radio presenters agitating for the Third Reich, who hosted a broadcast from Hamburg for British listeners entitled ''Germany Calling''.

The most famous of these was the American journalist William Joyce, who lived in Britain. He was initially active in the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. He was appreciated by its leader Oswald Mosley as an ardent speaker. But as time went on, he became increasingly radicalised, especially when it came to anti-Semitism. He quarrelled with Mosley and became leader of the marginal grouping the National Socialist League. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, a leak reached him that the British authorities were planning to intern him. So he fled to Germany.

In 1945, he was captured by British troops near Flensburg. In the UK, he was charged with treason (although the question of his British citizenship was controversial), sentenced to death and hanged in 1946.

However, a much more famous man than Joyce and the other radio presenters hailed by the nickname Lord Haw-Haw is Ezra Pound. This eminent American modernist poet was inspired by Far Eastern literature on the one hand, and by the 'Divine Comedy' on the other (he referred to Dante Alighieri's poem in his 'Cantos' cycle).

In the 1920s, Pound settled in Italy. He supported fascism and was a proponent of Benito Mussolini's dictatorship. During the Second World War he hosted programmes in English on Italian radio, which he addressed to his compatriots overseas. He wanted to convince them that the USA was being exploited by Jews.

Pound posed as a lover of classical Mediterranean culture. He was convinced that the civilisation founded on it - founded on the work of such giants as William Shakespeare and Johann Sebastian Bach - had been attacked by barbarians who had the law but no morals. The poet had in mind the Jews, whom he blamed for Western plutocracy on the one hand and Soviet communism on the other. He claimed that Jesus Christ had been crucified because he was spoiling their 'gesheft'. Pound spared no epithets or snide language when referring to them (terms such as 'Jewry' were standard with him). Undoubtedly, anti-Semitism took on the character of an obsession in this case.
Ezra Pound in 1969 in Venice. Photo: Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images
After the fall of Mussolini's regime, Pound was detained by Italian anti-fascist partisans. They handed him over to the Americans, who in turn placed the poet in a prisoner of war camp in Pisa. A famous episode occurred when Pound was locked in a cage there for about three weeks. He was then declared mentally ill and ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Washington, where he remained until 1958.

But in 1967, Pound made a self-criticism in a conversation with, among others, Allan Ginsberg, the American poet with Jewish roots and an icon of the hippie counterculture. Namely, he announced that he considered his worst mistake to be that he had succumbed to anti-Semitic prejudice.

It can therefore be assumed that Howard W. Campbell jr. was, however, probably different from William Joyce and Ezra Pound on one issue. It concerns espionage for the USA.

And it is significant that the author of ''Mother Night'' wrote compassionately about his protagonist that he was a man ''who served evil too openly and good too secretly, which was the crime of his time''. One just has to remember that Kurt Vonnegut himself became famous, among other things, as a master of irony. And even of self-irony.

– Filip Memches
- Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Nick Nolte as Howard Campbell in a scene from ''Mother Night'' (1996, dir. Keith Gordon), a film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel. The writer dedicated the book to Mata Hari, and took the title from Goethe's 'Faust'. Campbell also appears in Vonnegut's later novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five". Photo credit: New Line Cinema/Getty Images
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