1970’s Germany was a scary place. In 1972 nine Israeli athletes were assassinated at the Munich Olympics and five years later the notorious Baader-Meinhof group, aka the Red Army Faction, kidnapped, and later executed, a prominent German industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer as a bargaining ploy to have their leaders released from prison. Schleyer, who had been an SS officer during the War sent to Czechoslovakia to help ‘germanise’ the Czech economy, spent three years from 1945 – 48 as POW and was released after his “de-nazification.” Yet to what extent was Germany in the 1970’s truly de-nazified? If the allies had got rid of all the nazis after 1945 who would there have been to administer the law, rebuild the economy, teach the young? More importantly, who would there be to protect Europe from the Red menace gathering on their borders?
This question provides the tense backdrop to the unfolding drama in Michael Arditti’s new novel, Unity. Here is a novelist using a historian’s tools so convincingly that for the first few pages I kept hitting the Google button. Did this really happen? How many of these people really existed? I soon stopped, carried away by Arditti’s narrative force, but unnerved nonetheless. Michael Arditti, as he reminds his readers, is a novelist not a journalist. And what he relates is not a fact-filled academic account of the making of a film in Germany about Unity Mitford and her relationship with Hitler – a film abandoned following the participation of the leading actor, an upper class English woman whose uncle is the British Ambassador, in a terrorist attack in which he and she are blown to pieces. Discovering her motivation is what provides the page turning suspense. Also working on the film are a Palestinian activist as well as a left leaning actor, both of whom provide her with a crash course in international politics, however misguided. She is persuaded that the Palestinians are the new Jews – although as Arditti remarks that begs the question ‘what happened to the old Jews?’ – and that their plight is a cause worth fighting- although not necessarily dying- for.
Arditti uses letters, interviews, diaries and even footnotes (although these are far too informative and interesting to be the real thing) to convince that this is a true story he is recounting. The technique is clever and innovative. Not only is Arditti a character in his own novel – the letters are written to him and he discusses reactions to his previous books – at times you wonder if this is partly autobiography; Michael Arditti exploring his own reactions to failed love affairs, to his sexuality, to Fascism and anti-Semitism. The novel is so full of parallels and doppelgangers that it feels like walking through a house of mirrors. And the most powerful reflection of all is the one that shows how, even in the late 1970’s, Nazi Germany had inevitably poisoned present day Germany.
Anne Sebba is writing a biography of Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome.