Finishing up David Irving’s Göring, I was struck by the following passage. Göring is on trial at Nuremberg, awaiting a sentence of death. He hasn’t seen his young daughter since his incarceration, I think.
Five days later, little Edda was led shyly in, unannounced. She was eight years old now. ‘Stand on a chair now,’ commanded Hermann, weeping freely, ‘so I can see how you’ve grown.’ Edda recited the ballads that she had learned and a famous poem containing the lines, ‘Above all, child, be loyal and true / And never, lips, be sullied by a lie.’ Göring tapped the glass and softly interrupted, ‘Yes, remember that, Edda: all your life long.’ … He never saw Edda again.
Göring’s story is a strange and colorful one, and a heroic one at the end. No matter what you believe of his performance or knowledge as the number two man in National Socialist Germany, his personal history resonates with me. He was a hero of the first World War, commander of the Richtofen Squadron after the Red Baron crashed, best known at this distance as the leader of the Luftwaffe in World War II and a morphine addict. Seriously wounded during the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, the drugs he was given during his recovery led to a lifelong problem which was finally only cured by a forced cold turkey at Nuremberg.
Göring had become, to many on both sides of the Second World War, a laughing matter, albeit a dangerous one. Bloated and obese long before such was fashionable or politically correct, he was also known for wearing uniforms, or costumes really, that he designed himself, often sewn from the finest silks usually used for women’s fabrics, and wearing rouge, makeup and pomade. He was known for his greed and obsession for fine things, including art that was borderline stolen or sometimes blatantly so, and for being absent from command for a good part of the War. But at Nuremberg, when he stood trial as a surrogate for Hitler in that greatest of all legal travesties, starved down to fighting weight and freed at last of his addiction, appearing to spectators for the first time in many years as the hero he had been as a much younger man, it was he who rallied the other defendants and tried to inspire them to an honorable death; or at least, not to betray the principles by which they have lived, or the others with whom they had shared their lives, in a vain attempt to avoid death or punishment, to curry respect or the favor of those who my chance or design now held power over them.
If there was a hero of the Nuremberg trials, it was Hermann Göring. But my thoughts are not so much of Göring as of his words to his young daughter. And of the perspective on life that surely should or must come as one faces his own death. My father died three years and two days ago, and I am sure that I will be thinking of him each Yule season for the rest of my life. For all that I could not be and was not the best son, at least I am happy that I was able to be there for him during his last days, as best I could, and that he was able to die at home in the company of those who knew and loved him, at the age of ninety. He fought on the other side of that War from Hermann Göring, in the other theatre; he was wounded on a fire fighter, as member of the Coast Guard, in one of those great mop-up battles after Midway, after months of ocean and dead Japanese, and on the day the War ended he was in the hospital at Pearl Harbor. He never spoke of the War much, despite it being the adventure of his life; like so many of the young men of that generation, he never (really) left the country before or after; he was a child of the Great Depression who was subsumed in the American Century that continued after the War, to end at the turn of the Millennium when the monster ate its tail.
He did most certainly raise me, his only child, to the best of his ability, and gave me every advantage he knew to give me, and stood by me when I was stupid and wasteful and unappreciative, and always loved me. And if he did not always understand the demons I sometimes faced, he had surely faced his own, which I will also never see. It is certain what without his love and commitment and his hard work, that I could not have salvaged what I have from a life so ill spent.
But at any rate I think my father died in a way that he would have been content to have known, from the outside. Not a man inclined to philosophical thought, he had begun in his last years to ask me questions about the possibility of life after death – which I had begun to suspect at that time existed, and of which, after seeing him pass, I have no doubt – and had in fact, unknown to me, had himself baptized, in his late 80’s, at the Methodist Church down the road. Since that time I have often reflected on the vantage that one must have on one’s life on the point of apparent death, and wondered what it will be like, should I have that luxury. I find it a useful exercise to put myself in that point of view, and consider what may or may not seem to be of importance. There’s been a good bit written on the topic – that at the point of death, no one wishes they had spent more time at their job and away from their loved ones, or that they had put more energy into achieving social prestige at the expense of personal satisfaction.
I have no doubt that those things are true. But to me it seems most often that the regret I fear is that I will have perceived truths and been afraid to speak them. When the truths one perceives are uncommon ones, or that incline me to beliefs that I know will be unpopular and even unacceptable, there are many justifiable reasons for apprehension, as to what effects expressions of those things may have on my own life or even on the lives of those I love. But it has come to me these last six or seven years, that I have come here by some choice, accepted and been sent here on some mission and with some purpose; and is it possible that that mission involves learning things, failing or refusing them to express them, and taking that knowledge to my grave?
It also occurs to me that we live in a both of fears that are largely self-generated. It is true, as I mentioned above, that our actions may of course have real consequences, and these do need to be considered; will expressing what I truly see and feel to be true, cost me my job, my livelihood, my personal freedom, my reputation, the love and respect of those I hold dear? Those are all real possibilities that should be considered. On the other hand, I find myself, due to the circumstances and choices of my own life, in a position unusually secure from some such fears and relatively immune to others. Probably mostly due to my own forty-year battle with my own demons, I am unmarried and childless; any consequences that I may bring down will fall almost exclusively on me alone. In my time of transition two years ago, as I came to have confidence that my livelihood and closest human relationship were not lost to me, but found myself willing to endanger even those things for the changes that I knew I had to make in myself, or allow to be made in me; at that time my greatest fear was for the health and safety of my cat, for whom alone I prayed daily. And to this day, should I bring the forces of darkness down upon my own head, it is he who I worry must, might suffer unjustly.
Not that I’m unconcerned for myself, of course. I am not without ego or love of comfort. But I think all other people have kept themselves at enough of a distance that any consequence of most of my actions would be mine alone, and for this I would be relieved and grateful. Of course, I also fear that people would turn on me. I am no extrovert who relies on the opinions of others for my own self-justification, but I am not immune to scorn, or ridicule, or loss of respect. I would not want my work mates, my acquaintances, or my family, such as it is, to think that I had gone mad, or been misled, or had scorn or hatred or contempt for them, or had become (if I had not always been) a bad person. But again, I think that these are fears of which I would desire to be more free. I do not think that on my death bed I would like to think that I had abandoned my vision so that I might be well thought of by others, or that I had totally failed to express it. I may well be glad that I did not do so clumsily, or artlessly or without regard for consequences.
I do not think that I came to this life to learn, to swallow that knowledge and those perceptions, and take them with me without sharing. Did I?
It also occurs to me that to try to observe our lives objectively, as best we can, we need to try to stand outside out history. At the point of death is one perspective from which we might best be able to do this. By this I mean something quite distinct from what we do unconsciously all the time, which is to implicitly believe that we exist at the end of history, or apart from it. For example, looking back at the life of Hermann Göring, most of us are taught to see him as a figure of evil, or perhaps a few as a hero, but above all as a man trapped in history, somehow encased in it and inseparable from it. Whereas upon reflection, anyone capable of insight must be able to see him as a husband, a father, most of all by a man formed and trapped by the decisions and circumstances of his own life. He surely had more reason than most of us to suspect that he would be a figure who would figure prominently in history, and who would in some way be remembered. Toward the end I’m pretty sure he knew how that would work out, at least in the short term.
Whereas I feel that I am not likely to be remembered at all, or if so only by a few, and only tangentially. Already at my age I feel that I am only a few connections away from being lost from human memory. But my larger point here is that we tend to accept the assumption maintained by our society, that we live at a point in time from which all truth can be seen most clearly; that the mistakes of the past are not ones that we will easily make again, and that we can see what “really” happened in past times, whereas those living in them could not. That we somehow have an objective point of view, and to that extent are somehow superior to those of the past who lived embedded in time, from which we are somehow freed. All of which is upon reflection seen to be nonsense, intellectually, but from which perspective it is emotionally, spiritually and intuitively, hard to escape.
So as I walked the streets of Berlin and Nuremberg and Munich, I was somehow able to see that I was indeed free, and responsible only to myself and to those from whom I had come, and not to those by whom I find myself surrounded in this life – to see that more clearly that I can normally see it, embedded in my normal daily existence. I could also see that my sense of normal is largely an illusion; that I, too, live in history, encased in events that will be seen and judged quite differently by the future. And now I know to hope, that in my own last moments I can know that I was true to myself; that I was honest at least with myself, and hopefully to some others, about what I truly saw and felt. And that I did not live a lie, or try to.
And on this Yule morning, as outside the warm rain falls, that I would be loyal and true, and that my lips be sullied by no more lies than necessary; and that none of them be uttered out of cowardice, or to myself.