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Almost a Childhood: growing up among the Nazis

Hans-Georg Behr; translated by Anthea Bell <em>Gra

Children have always had much to endure from adults, but few more than Hans-Georg Behr, author of these reminiscences of 1940s Austria. The son of a high-ranking Nazi, Behr had the dubious privilege of having his cheeks pinched by Uncles Hermann, Joseph and Albert, and even enjoyed an audience with the Fuhrer. Most of his infancy, however, was spent far away in rural Austria, as a prisoner of his mother's own little fascist regime. He was beaten for everything - for playing with the wrong children, for using the wrong words and above all for stuttering. Refuge was provided by his mother's parents, old Habsburg nobility, whose nearby estate still moved to the relaxed rhythms of the pre-war world. Here he received love and wisdom from his grandmother and - in time-honoured aristocratic fashion - explored his "bunny" with the village children.

The end of the war adds to Hans-Georg's miseries. His father is hanged at Nuremberg. His fanatical brother and sister also perish, one attacking Russian tanks with an air rifle, the other at her own hands, "so as not to be raped by niggers". His mother now has no one left but him, which only fuels her bitterness. She packs him off to a Catholic boarding school of almost mythical awfulness. The monks, their swastikas only recently buried, punish him for "having brought Hitler to Austria", taunt him for being posh while fawning over his grandparents, and preach temperance while stealing his food parcels. One is hardly surprised when the sanctimonious Father Anselm rapes him in the mouth.

Behr has, or at least pretends to have, a preternaturally good memory of his infancy. Only eight years old when the war ends, he recalls each scene in luscious detail. Particularly vivid are the depic-tions of his ancestral home, with its gentle paternalism, its festivals and holidays. Equally striking are his memories of the chaos and dilapidation of postwar Austria. Russian troops requisition and thoroughly wreck his grandparents' estate. Meanwhile American troops hand out chewing gum to children with the words: "Try that, this is culture." Hans-Georg's mother is reduced to running an inn for local rowdies. Her son has the job of making lavatory paper from the Volksstimme newspaper, softening each sheet by hand, "because Mother said that kind of thing showed the quality of a really good res-taurant". Academic history, with its vague references to "economic hardship", seldom descends to such priceless details.

Almost a Childhood is above all a document of the smooth efficiency with which postwar Austria erased the memory of its Nazi past. Behr recalls the local party group leader imploring his grandfather to protect him from the oncoming Russians, only to be given a revolver and invited to shoot himself. The man's widow takes the body home in a wheelbarrow. Such token sacrifices serve to absolve the rest of the population. Austria is recast as a nation of resisters, a victim of Prussian aggression. Hans-Georg himself, product of a German father and Austrian mother, bears unwitting witness to the Anschluss that everyone is keen to forget.

What distinguishes the book most, however, is not its content but its style. Behr attempts to eliminate from his narrative any suggestion of hindsight. Everything is presented as it might have struck him at the time, without subsequent interpretation. The resulting prose is relentlessly flat and factual, like a child's letter. This is a useful corrective to the usual tendency to project adult emotions on to children, but over 300 pages it eventually palls. It is also tricksy. Behr's adult consciousness is very much in evidence, if only implicitly, in his editing, ordering and colouring of events. Was he really as unimpressed by Hitler as he doubtless now wishes he had been?

Behr's most striking stylistic innovation is to cast himself in the third person - as "the child" and later "the boy" - employing as pronoun the impersonal "you". The effect is a sense of passive, bewildered victimhood. This, too, works well at first, but becomes increasingly grating as we enter adolescence. Deprived by narrative artifice of agency and inner life, "the boy" comes to seem not just a victim, but also a terrible drip. When finally he does fight back, setting fire to his school and run-ning away, it is hard to credit him with so much initiative. We, the readers, have been forced, through sheer trickery of style, to adopt the perspective of his tormentors.

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