“Eighty million Germans had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s nature. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large. But the practice of self-deception had become so widespread—almost a moral prerequisite for survival—that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific content of its lies has been forgotten, it is sometimes difficult not to believe that mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.” Hanna Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem, The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 1963.
That was Hanna Arendt, the great political philosopher, as she observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi organizers of the Holocaust, play out in Israel in 1963. She came to think that the “self-deception, lies, and stupidity” of the German population had played an important role in the ability of the Nazi party to dominate that nation for more than a decade and lead it into a war that caused tens of millions of deaths.
A dozen years earlier, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen was also thinking about his fellow Germans as he began writing a triptych of novels that would also explore the mindset of the nation during this same period. Pigeons on the Grass, just translated by Michael Hofmann (New Directions, 2020) but originally published in Germany in 1951, is the first of the trio. In this wonderful, often antic but deadly serious novel, we follow the actions of approximately two dozen characters through a single day in post-war Berlin. The Germans, along with a handful of their American “conquerors” who now occupy the city, shop, have coffee, run errands, pawn their valuables, and generally go about their daily lives. Everything is leading up to one main evening event: a lecture by an important American visiting poet, Edwin.
Because Koeppen offers the reader omniscient admittance to the private thinking of every character, it becomes apparent that every one of them manages to misunderstand what others are saying. The number of reasons for this varies — sometimes it can be differences of class, nationality (the Germans and Americans always misconstrue each others intentions), gender, or generation. Sometimes it’s simply stubbornness. But Koeppen seems to be telling us that we don’t actually listen to the other person very well.
Characters also misapprehend who others actually are. Phillip, a German poet, is mistaken for Edwin’s private secretary, and then his best friend, simply because they are seen in the hallway together. Richard Kirsch, the well-to-do American soldier who calls on his German relatives, is sent packing because he arrived on foot and not in a car and thus it was perceived that “he belonged to the low-caste people, and needed to be treated as such.”
Perhaps most telling example is the way in which the enthusiastic young American airman Richard Kirsch completely misreads his own father, who had served in the German military but who emigrated to America as Hitler rose to power and ultimately opened up a gun store in Ohio. Richard assumes that the gun store is a signal that there has been no break in his father’s militarism. But, in truth, his father had become a pacifist and had decided not to go to war on behalf of Hitler’s Germany because he felt “that all force was repugnant and that any conflicts were better served by talk, negotiation, and reconciliation than by gunpowder.” So why did he open a gun store in the U.S.A.? When America joined the war with Germany, his faith in his new country was so shaken that “he was left wondering about the honesty of those old American ideals.” But his father never told this to Richard and Richard had never asked and so he is in the dark about his father’s changing beliefs.
Racism is one of several minor themes that Koeppen takes up in Pigeons, which depicts the bigotry that two Black American soldiers have to contend with in Berlin. One of the characters has a German girlfriend who is desperately seeking an abortion, convinced that she cannot bear to have a Black child. And a night at a bar nearly turns deadly for the other Black soldier, when a crowd angrily assumes that it must have been he who attacked a German and stole his money.
The culmination of the day is the lecture by the poet Edwin, sponsored by America Haus, an event that turns comic, then deadly. The rather pompous theme he plans to bring to his listeners in Berlin is “immortality, the imperishableness of the spirit, the deathless soul of the West.” Edwin is partly a fraud, just seeking to “cash in on his late fame.” He shows up at the lecture hall with stage fright.
He wanted to begin with Greek and Latin antiquity, he wanted to bring in Christianity, the connection between the Biblical tradition and the Classics, he wanted to speak about the Renaissance and offer judicious praise and blame to the Rationalism of the French eighteenth century, but unfortunately, instead of words, only sounds had reached his listener’s ears, a gurgling and crackling and hissing as of some fairground entertainment. Edwin, at the lectern, did not immediately realize that the public address system in the auditorium was malfunctioning.
Before long, most of the audience is soundly asleep. Edwin ends his lecture with a reference to Gertrude Stein, who he thinks of as a “second-rate” writer. “Like pigeons on the grass,” he said, “every pigeon knew its roost, and every bird was in God’s hand.”
Edwin had spoken his last word. The speakers crackled and squawked. They went on crackling and squawkling after Edwin had finished, and the wordless crackling and squawking in their toothless mouths tore the listeners from their sleep, their dreams, and their private thoughts.
The pigeons reference comes from the libretto that Stein wrote for Virgil Thomson’s opera (for an all-Black cast) Four Saints in Three Acts, that had its premiere in 1934.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the
If they were not pigeons what were they.
If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had
heard of a third and he asked about if it was a magpie in the sky.
If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the
grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.
They might be very well they might be very well very well they might
Edwin escapes America Haus into the Berlin night, flush with enthusiasm, only to become a victim of the final misapprehension of the day. A gang of youths mistake him for “an old perv, a well-heeled old queen,” someone they knew from experience would be “quite profitable,” and they proceed to beat him up with their “big, cruel fists.”
So, what exactly is Koeppen trying to tell us when he shows us time and again that no character in his novel can overcome their initial misunderstanding or misapprehension to even inquire what the other person really thinks or to wonder if their perspective of another person is accurate? That each character lives and stays in a bubble? It seems like he is after something deeper than that. I think there is a clue a little earlier in the book at the point when a group of “schoolmistresses from Massachusetts,” led by a Miss Wescott, cross a great square “designed by Hitler to be the memorial grove of National Socialism.” They are en route to attend Edwin’s lecture. As they come across a bunch of birds sitting on the grass (pigeons, presumably, but the know-it-all Miss Wescott declares them to be sparrows), Miss Wescott ponders a bit of wishful, home-spun philosophy.
The birds are here by chance, we are here by chance, and maybe the Nazis were here by chance, Hitler was a chance, his politics were dreadful and a stupid chance, maybe the world is a dreadful and stupid chance of God’s, no one knows why we are here, the birds will fly off and we will walk on.
None of this, she suggests, is the result of human action. We are not responsible. The Germans were not responsible. The Nazis were not responsible. No one is responsible.