The Stronghold

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Novel by Meyer Levin, 1965

Meyer Levin's The Stronghold (1965) is set somewhere in Bavaria, within the walls of a castle functioning as a Nazi prison for the heads of state of a mythically generic country resembling France. At the castle the prisoners have been treated humanely by the baron of the province, a Nazi whose remoteness from the realm of political and military action has left him untouched by fanaticism and also by the reality of the Nazis' genocidal war against the Jews. With the German front collapsing and the Americans rapidly approaching, the prisoners have started planning to resume their duties and, in the process, give voice to the diverse political visions for their homeland that had divided them prior to the Nazi occupation. At the center of their troubled reminiscences is the figure of the former premier Paul Vered, a highly assimilated Jew (perhaps modeled on Leon Blum) whose domestic and military policies, though finally inefficacious against Nazi aggression, are explicitly compared to the democratic socialism of the American president Roosevelt. As it so happens Vered himself arrives at the castle, having been spared the fate of the gas chambers by a Nazi lieutenant colonel named Kraus, who has fled the collapsing front with only a strongbox of jewels, a single Jew as his hostage, and vague and unrealistic hopes for a Nazi retrenchment.

Since Vered has been a witness to Buchenwald and then Auschwitz, where his wife was put to death in the gas chambers, his presence forces the prisoners to encounter the news of the Nazi genocide as more than a rumor or a piece of war propaganda. In the face of this news Levin allegorically traces in the attitude of each character a strain of European politics and the elements of anti-Semitism that reside therein, whether characters represent nationalists and Christian conservatives on the one hand or Marxist leftists on the other. The Stronghold is never an especially strong novel, but it is probably best when it addresses itself to the varieties of anti-Semitism that characterized so much of bystanding Europe. Those characters modeled on democratic socialism fare best in the novel's estimation—specifically an ambitious young minister named Remy and his wartime mistress Marianne, each of whom is loyal to Vered, and a "social action" Catholic priest named Frere Luc, who has risked his own well-being in the past to stand for the rights of the working man and now begins to examine the Catholic Church's longstanding anti-Semitism. Although the heroism of Luc's thought and actions is drawn in a sentimental vein, he is in many ways a persuasive character and clearly at the rhetorical center of Levin's novel. For as each of the characters reckons with the legacy of European anti-Semitism, it is Luc alone who has vowed to make the defeat of anti-Semitism his explicit cause. When Luc tries to enlist Vered's help, Vered responds—or is it Levin himself speaking?—that there is little Jews can do to correct Christian anti-Semitism; it is a battle the Christians must fight on their own. Wanting the memory of the Holocaust to fall heavy upon the Christian conscience, Levin also insists—perhaps recalling the politics surrounding the Catholic Church's statement on anti-Semitism at Vatican II—that the emergence of a truer form of Christianity, sensitive to the connotations of Jesus as crucified Jew, is crucial if longstanding prejudices against Jews are to be overthrown.

Most of the second half of The Stronghold falls into stock melodrama, with the two poles represented by the survivor Vered and the unapologetic Nazi Kraus. Vered functions less as a character than as ghostly principle of witness. His struggle with survivor guilt, as he wonders whether he had a right to escape "the fate of the Jews," is of little psychological interest. The question seems mostly to be a symbolic one, reminding the reader that Vered carries that other world of Auschwitz with him in his every thought and word. The other person who carries that world with him at all times is Kraus, who is quite clearly a caricature of Adolf Eichmann. Levin had traveled to Israel to cover the Eichmann trial as a freelance journalist, and the character of Kraus becomes slightly more interesting when one reads him as Levin's attempt to reject the position so often, and for the most part wrongly, attributed to Hannah Arendt that Eichmann was an ordinary, not especially hateful villain. When he comes to the castle Kraus offers to release the prisoners if they will sign a statement avowing that he and the baron have treated them well. Fully aware that this statement is intended to protect Kraus and the baron against the Allies' search for war criminals, the prisoners are inclined to accept his offer, imagining that this relatively low-ranking officer and seemingly minor character could hardly be associated with wartime atrocities. It is Vered who assures them that Kraus is none other than the man who planned and administered the Final Solution and so presents them with a moral dilemma in which their own immediate welfare is to be weighed against political conscience. After much deliberation and contention they decide to preempt Kraus and enlist the baron to their cause by making him aware of Kraus's crimes. Thereafter the baron plies Kraus with drink and a woman and soon elicits Kraus's diabolical confession of his responsibilities, as he gleefully utters a version of a statement infamously attributed to Eichmann: "I'll jump into my grave laughing, knowing I pushed six million Yupen into theirs!" To spend even two minutes in Eichmann's head is, according to Levin, to hear all of the real hate that lay hidden behind the courtroom demeanor of lies and self-deception, and so Levin makes us venture there to glimpse almost pornographically the perverse sexual fantasies and sadism of a Nazi mind. When the baron sides with his prisoners and puts Kraus under arrest, Levin offers us a fantasy of an Eichmann captured in 1944 rather than in 1961. From his prison cell Kraus imaginatively puts himself on trial and offers a creative defense in which he maintains all of his anti-Semitic zealousness and seeks to be vindicated on those very terms. Levin depicts Kraus much as the Israeli prosecution had tried to portray Eichmann, a view of himself Eichmann explicitly refused in his trial testimony. Whether Levin has imposed the requirements of melodramatic clarity or whether he believed they were to be found in history and in the Nazi mind, all of this makes for pretty clumsy fiction. To make matters worse the baron mysteriously releases Kraus before he can be brought to justice and, for most of the last portion of the novel, Kraus takes a symbolic last stand against Jews and Jew lovers by trying to recapture the castle. If he fails in this battle he also escapes a second capture and so wanders out into the world, representing not only the Eichmann who would be seized in Argentina in 1960 but also the specter of anti-Semitism that remains at large in the world.

—R. Clifton Spargo

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The Stronghold

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