I did a thing I’m not sure about today. It’s about totemism and maybe it’s not a bad thing in itself and I did it for a reason that isn’t bad, but I did it. And I’m not 100% happy about it.
A couple of years ago I was in Spain. A friend from university and her husband took me to a huge outdoor market, the kind of place I’ve always loved, in a little Spanish town whose population probably doubled that day. I got talking to a Moslem woman from I don’t know where. She had a cutlery stall and because I needed some pheasant shears (yes, needed. Is there a problem with that?) and because I was fascinated by the special little knife for bread rolls they like in Germany and because I asked where they were made, Solingen or somewhere else, the woman assumed I was German. I’m not.
Presumably someone who was had got rid of the Nazi Party badge on another of the stalls in the market. Or their kids had, or their grandchildren had. Great grandchildren, maybe, now. A woman whose grandfather was in the Wermacht, who describes herself as ‘the third generation of the war’ is forty this year. Her family were going to throw her grandfather’s things from that time away until she took them out of the skip her mother had put them in. Because it happened, she said. It was a real thing and it happened and forgetting it happened makes it easier for it to happen again. The little black and white and red enamelled badge was nothing to do with him. But there it was on the stall.
At one time there were 16 million members of the Nazi Party. You joined, or you didn’t, according to how you thought. Most people didn’t, evidenced by simple arithmetic. I’d never seen one. On May 10th 1945 it was very difficult to find anyone who openly said they were members of the Nazi Party, let alone wore the badge. Anyone with any sense had thrown theirs into next door’s garden.
I didn’t buy it. A week or two later I asked my friend if she’d go to the market and get it for me, as a rare thing, as evidence of the thing that happened. As part of a story that’s now forgotten, how someone ended-up in the east of Spain, a long way from home, forever. I didn’t tell my friend all of that. I should have. She went nuts at me.
And now I’ve written the screenplay Janni Schenck, about a boy who wasn’t a Nazi but got conscripted into the Hitler Youth on his thirteenth birthday, like every other German boy born when he was born. I’m trying to generate a publicity campaign for it. I used an old photo from another friend’s grandfather’s things. I think that boy died in 1944, but I don’t know and now I never will, unless I can somehow read his name on the photo and find the records. And he was SS, not Hitler Youth, as the flash on his collar tells the world.
I thought of using a friend’s young son and photographing him in a Stalhelm, but I don’t have one and don’t know anyone who does. And apart from anything, it would have to look new, because once, when the things in Janni happened, it was. I didn’t have a couple of hundred pounds to spend on an original one for a couple of photos and I didn’t want to buy a Chinese reproduction and wait month after month for something from EBay. A cap would be the answer. An M43, a Feldmutze, but the only ones I could find again were made in China and currently in Hong Kong, or silly prices. And there was that thing.
I found one today at a flea market. It was £10 and I bought it, hoping it’s ok to buy it. Hoping it doesn’t have more baggage with it than it self-evidently, unavoidably, ludicrously obviously has.
It doesn’t have a badge of any kind. It’s a very standard Wermacht grey wool M43, much too small for me. About right for a 14 year-old boy. It’s just a piece of felted cloth. But it doesn’t feel completely right, buying it. I haven’t tried it on. I’m not going to. I know what that woman’s mother felt like now. It feels wrong just having it in the house. Because it happened.