This is an excerpt from Gaither Stewart’s forthcoming novel: “Govar Killian”
In my time Munich was two cities. Two dimensions coexisting in the same time and space. In one, a street sausage stand or a Carnival ball or the marionette hero Kasperle counted for real reality. The second city was invisible. A clandestine city, ignored and unreal. It was an underground battleground where shadowy terrorists and plotters and spies of East and West were busily shooting, plastic bombing and cyanide poisoning, and abducting one another … thus, they thought, determining the fate of mankind.
For me at twenty - one something seemed to be going on around every corner even if it was unclear to me what it was exactly that was going on. I had dropped out of staid, conservative, jacket - and - tie Georgetown and come for that. I was headed east. Forever east, I told myself. Like the Tsalagi … toward where the sun rises. Where I had come from nothing ever seemed to be happening. And I had felt like an outsider, outside the door of its nothingness. Here I came to feel I had found a future, maybe a place I could belong.
The tenacious Müncheners were not doing what I at first thought they were doing. They were instead busily recreating their Bavarian past—an o so Catholic past! o so noble past! The imaginary city reflected in their minds. Wittelsbacher memories—castles and music and madness—Luftschlösse, Musik und Verrückheit—and! a not quite German past. Life was theater played in the present tense. Fragile was the future. Euphemistic and futile were their attempts to grasp the real past. But neither was their reality real. The national folly had been an interlude ... unfortunate and anyway nearly forgotten. It was another generation’s war. Certain memories had to be banished ... in order to survive.
I came to see that Müncheners felt as distinct in their world as did the Southerners from where I came from. No sleep lost over the division of Germany … with a fourth of the population living in another world, only linked vaguely by language. Looking east, looking south, tradition - bound Bavarians said ‘let the world come to us.’
The city’s 800th birthday had passed when I got there. The one millionth Münchener had long since been born. München - Weltstadt! was the slogan. Levo oculos meos in Montes. Their life became a stage—economic boom, music, skiing, eating and drinking, BMWs, Fasching and Oktoberfest, and Lake Garda in the summer. O, they were a tenacious people all right! Sometimes it was if neither of the two Munich’s existed in any real way. Only unreal reality counted. One city, fantasy. The other, brutal reality. Yet present and future were also relative to the ignored and dispatched past. Everything was fictive. Wishful thinking. No one seemed to know what they were doing in their eternal present or even wanted to know what was really happening to them.
At the university my friends were leftists and idealists. The weekly magazine where I worked as a flunky was conservative and commercial. And I? I was not a whit concerned about the dichotomy. I was twenty - one.
Journalists at the magazine like my new friend Gustav would say ‘We Germans have always been victims of history and time.’ He had a whiny way, an insinuating way, of speaking for all the people—present, past and future—though as I said I came to understand later that no one knew what was really happening in new Germany.
Meine Verliebte Margarete was a Communist. My love loved expressions like ‘on the objective level’ or ‘in the final analysis’ or ‘you have to analyze the concrete situation.’
She would say ‘We Germans can never look at the things that really happened in the past.’
Gustav would say ‘We Germans believe in duty and responsibility.’
Margarete would say ‘We Germans have always distorted human values with our innate sense of conformity.’
Gustav would say ‘We Germans always need order.’
Margarete would say ‘We Germans can never carry out a real revolution.’
Margarete was magical. She was from Berlin and felt she had a revolutionary tradition to maintain. She professed a philosophy of no fun, no considerations, no excuses—Protestant, I thought, in her sense of despair. Though a dreamer too she was a long - legged blond nudist rather weak in morals who loved to sit on my terrace naked. I think more because of the nudism I never really believed her claim that she was a member of a Schwabing cell of the Rote Armee Fraktion of the Baader - Meinhof group.
‘What exactly do you do for the revolution?’ I often asked her.
‘You’ll see’ she would say.
‘You want to do something extraordinary, don’t you?’ I would say.
‘My naïve Irishman Govar!’ She was right—I was politically naïve. But she approved of my aim of working as a journalist in Moscow. She had never been in East Europe—we speculated on what it was like.
Sometimes in the middle of the night there would be a light knocking at the door of my studio apartment near the university. Her knock was stealthy. Revolutionary, I imagined. She would try to act frightened but I knew it was phoney—for she was fearless. Without a word she would slip into bed ... in the way I thought she had hopped into many beds depending on the time and place in those years. I would ask what she had been doing and she might whisper she had been at a cell meeting, was maybe tailed, and did not want to risk going to her room.
I waited for her at unexpected times. Her long Teutonic legs entangled and entwined with my white Irish legs. It was a secure feeling in my early Munich years. Her clean soap and water smell meant Germany. Nights I ran my fingers over her shapely long - limbed body until the soft blond hairs on her stomach and her thighs stood on end and she turned on her female scent. Through my fingers and my nose I could feel her strength … and her restlessness. Fingerspitzengefühl. A body full of desire. But the thing about Margarete was that her very considerable physicality was overshadowed by her desire, her necessity, for talk. We would lie there in the night, I stroking her body and she talking and emanating her femininity, and torn between politics and sex we seldom wanted to sleep and many mornings we would watch the sun rise from behind the Englischer Garten or stare into the monotonously falling rain.
Munich was still quaint and old worldly, though already in the throes of its Drang to be a world city. Despite the fugitiveness of the times, despite the vagueness and ambivalence of what was happening in the world, one took it to be peace. Still, the nuclear threat was alive … and Vietnam was the image of American arrogance. Nothing seemed secure. Especially, in such circumstances, not even my own past or my own future. And in the present, it was hard to know what was really happening anywhere. Margarete and I would walk past the Siegestor down Ludwigstrasse and Maximilianstrasse and across the Isar to the Maximilianeum. There was often high water from weeks of Munich rains. It was a rushing river of bridges and fishermen and cascades and dams and sudden low water points and river islands and urban beaches for swimming. Squadrons of lost lonely gulls flying low over the rushing current accompanied us downstream on the right bank to look up at the angel monument hanging over river and city and Margarete would snicker—angels! Sundays the rounds of the downtown churches, only for the music she insisted, the Michaelskirche and the Theatinerkirche and the Peterskirche—historically Munich was so fervently Catholic it was once called the ‘Germanic Rome.’ We would eat ice cream under the poplars on the boulevards or drink beer in a Gastätte on Leopoldstrasse, the street we all loved or we would meet in the Hofgarten Café and walk in the shadows under the arches around the park and she would invariably turn conversation to the revolutionary Red Army Faktion or to the nobility of the working class or revolutionary action for the benefit of Latin American peasants or to her research for her thesis on the Bavarian Socialist Republic after World War I.
‘We can turn history around’ she would say, magnificently, I thought.
‘Human values will triumph over conformity.’
‘Our attack on the heart of the state will rally the people around us.’
‘We will transfer Vietnam to Germany.’
‘The capitalist regime will implode on itself.’
‘A Bavarian Socialist state will be a magnet for other Länder.’
‘The martyrdom of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg will not have been in vain.’
‘Socialism will triumph.’
Socialism was a new concept for me. Socialism was not an existing concept where I came from … it was hardly even a theoretical consideration … or it meant Stalinism. I liked its dangerous ring as Margarete pronounced it. But it was hard for me to know who was right. Sometimes I did not answer, maybe inwardly scoffing, but refusing to enter into polemics about what is good and what is evil or what is right or wrong. My silence must have been defensive, for what did I know?
But I the twenty - one year old had come to see: I saw this: the poor people in rich Munich seemed less poor than the poor in rural America of the South. I imagined they were also much less poor than the poor in Russia. Something was out of whack in the world. I decided I wanted to check on that … but already then I knew I would always be on the side of the underdogs.
Though I did not understand much about revolution, I read history. I began reading my Lenin and Marx. And I began to draw unclear conclusions. Sometimes I told her that terrorism and revolution in Germany did not make sense at all, that history had gotten the best of her, that those days were over and done, and that history did not repeat itself.
“Naïve Govar! Ahnungslos” she said. And she frequently pontificated: “Everyone must decide on which side he stands!” As budding revolutionaries did in those days she meant ‘either on the side of the vegetables of society and the pigs … or on the side of the revolution.’
Undaunted she would also quote Nietzsche that everything returned. She convinced me that she believed it … despite her Marxist linear ideology. For university students still infused with the ardor of 1968 the conservative government in Germany was an instrument of American imperialism. And authority was infested with ex - Nazis. In those days in Germany we looked at everyone over forty with suspicion. Nazi! Fascist! Murderer! Now I know she was right in many things.
History: Her starting point was the revolution of Munich workers on November 7, 1918 led by the bearded Berlin journalist, pure - of - purpose Kurt Eisner. We all seemed infected with his ideas. Margarete’s thesis was based on her unshakeable belief in the role of good intentions—and that only good could flow from good—and in the eventual emergence of the ideal political leader. She knew everything about Eisner’s Workers and Soldiers Councils but I did not believe she included all she knew in her dissertation. For she was unprepared for the twentieth century reality that politics is bloody business. For Eisner’s pre - Nazi regime—in the words of Max Weber run by ‘poets, semi - poets, mezzo - philosophers and schoolteachers’—ultimately came to be modeled on the Soviet system and left a trail of blood and violence behind it. She took me to see the place in Müllerstrasse where the Workers Regime executed a certain Countess Westarp and nine hostages. Poor Eisner’s electoral defeat and assassination by the anti - Semitic Bavarian aristocrat, Count Anton von Arco - Valley, in April of the next year led to a bloody military repression of the Socialist participants in Catholic Bavaria’s only political deviation to the left—we saw the cellar in the St. Georg Palais where the reactionary White Guard shot twenty - one youths of the St. Joseph Gesellenverein. Bavaria was then ready to become the seedbed of the National Socialism of Adolph Hitler.
Sometimes in a kind of desperation she would sigh and say ‘all of us are doomed to extinction by this conformist society so poor in ideals.’
As a result of that history I became plagued more and more by terrifying what if questions. And now I understand that Eisner’s purity of purpose, instead of engendering good, willy - nilly paved the way for evil. If Eisner had not left Berlin for Munich would there have still been a Bavarian Socialist State? And if not, would Hitler have still been welcomed in aristocratic Catholic Bavaria? And the history of twentieth century Europe, would it have been different? Or would the same Hitler or another Hitler have anyway emerged elsewhere?
Margarete, as I said, was very idealistic. All worker solidarity and confidence in the rosy radiant future. Her generation had the duty of remaking society—a new leader would somehow emerge to pave the way. She wrote out for me the quote from Brecht she loved: Welche Niedrigkeit würdest Du nicht begehen, um die Niedrigkeit abzuschlagen!
At the same time she continued holding to the idea of eternal recurrence though she never mentioned it among her friends.
When we met her friends in a Gasthaus or we went to the Paulanerbräu tent at the Oktoberfest or to a Carnival costume party, they never spoke of politics and capitalism and the revolution. The men talked about football and cars and women and drank great quantities of beer and steinhäger. The women talked about men and books. In the final analysis I preferred talking politics with her in bed. So that during that first year much of our time was spent in my studio where I got my first lessons in revolutionary politics—and I thought less and less about Jeanette and her secret meanings. No fun no excuses life was serious business.
But we were young ... and ours was not love. Margarete and I separated. And I only read in my Munich magazine the history of what must have been the end of her ideals. After a wave of idealism become terrorism of robbery, kidnapping and murder, the gang was arrested—vicious Andreas Baader, bewildered Ulrike Meinhof, sensitive Gudrun Ensslin and the others, idealists all—and later they died, each alone in his own Todesnacht, eleven revolutionaries died alone in their cells in the prison of Stammheim—suicides in the official version, murdered by police according to the popular version. In my version too.
Margarete vanished, I never learned where. I thought the gods had exacted their sacrifice.
Eternal recurrence! By chance I saw in the Moma in New York the exhibit of Gerhard Richter’s paintings of the Baader - Meinhof Group in jail, works adapted from police photographs. Most haunting are three paintings of Gudrun Ensslin on different occasions returning to her cell at Stammheim. In the first she looks at the camera and smiles; she is thin and pale yet the light of her idealism leaps from her eyes. In the second she turns away from the camera; she is being destroyed by forces greater than she. In the third her head hangs in defeat; she is returning to her still mysterious death. Death sentences hung in the air and in her eyes.
I wondered if Margarete came to feel such emotions—of pride, set - backs, desperation, defeat. I wondered if she saw Richter’s exhibit. I hoped her idealism did not die together with Gudrun in that Stammheim cell.
I came to understand that the past is elusive and illusory, deceptive and deceiving—untrustworthily endlessly changing and unstable. For some it is dead. Yet sometimes from the past tingles a summons to the future. Other times it could seem the future weighs on the past. If I had been born German in that period I too could have fought in the RAF for the same ideals. Like Brecht I might have committed any vileness in order to eliminate vileness. I could have been the missing leader, born to remake society. Or I too could have died in the Stammheim jail. Or if I had been born German of an earlier generation I could have been together with Rosa Luxemburg—or perhaps by a twist of destiny become a Nazi.
O, time and place, the eternal mystery. Who decides such things anyway? Who brings a Hitler to Munich? My image of the past still remains artificial and reconstructed. Like the real past, my image of it is personal. Distinct. Original. Individual. No one else sees the same past that I do. No one can know the true past of another … and no one seems to notice how we change… and our opinion of ourselves changes, depending perhaps on successes and failures.
For that reason I have never liked reading biographies. My true past is forever unknown. Cloudy to me, obscure to others. I have come to accept that there is little truth in the recorded past. History is interesting, entertaining, but largely fiction. The closest to truth are my own interpretations of what I think might have happened. Actually there is little truth in my own past. If I could only be honest! I feel so alone in relation to everyone and everything else.
Ach, Du lieber! Meine Vergangenheit! Munich itself is already so deep in my past—fugitive deceitful abstract. I honestly do not know what I was about then and there.
But my space is only mine.
My time is only my time—in only vague relation to the time of others.
There are times when each event seems absolute. Yet things go on changing dramatically, even fundamentally, from one moment to the next, so that you come to believe less and less in absolutes: you have to mistrust absolutists who demand a specific answer, who put you on the witness stand, ‘answer yes or no,’ who most definitely prefer white to black, this to that, who have the only possible reasonable answer.
I have seldom seemed to understand what was happening to me while it was happening. Now I know that. I feel nervous and unclear about what exactly is going on. If you open your eyes and see, you see everything is ambiguous, ambivalent, two - edged and paradoxical. One says that is life. I have always felt the helplessness of when you are not able to see what it is you yourself are doing. Wherever I was I have hated to choose—auswählen or choisir or scegliere or vybirat or escoger—as if I knew the correct answers and the right choices. There are things one cannot understand … one can only guess. One might have some influence on events too—some, not much—maybe as much as one grain of sand influences the level of the sea. And even if one could influence events it would probably only cause damage as our political and military leaders prove day by day. So perhaps quiet and stillness is the best strategy for the little man … trying not to disturb things and trying not to be untouchable either.
Yet you do come to feel you know something. You can intuit that something lying beyond words or thought. If you could only speak its name you would know. O, the power of words! But such things beyond words cannot be transformed into words … not even into sensations of thought images. It is the sense of the beyond ... it is the spirit in you that is greater than your body of skin and bones and water and without which you would not be a human being. Sometimes you know such things without being able to transform them into syntactical thought. You want to know more, you feel the idea dangling near you, you nearly have it in your grasp, but it swings and dangles just out of your reach, unnameable, unpronounceable, intangible.
Therefore, one thing just follows the other … so that later it seems you were just acting a part in a play.
Yet Margarete was important. Through her I came to realize that I too was a social being—another European idea that my friend Clyde mistrusted. You can live in America all your life and pay taxes and vote and believe in the Constitution and hang out the flag and be as neighborly as you like and hold garage sales and donate to the Red Cross and to missionaries in Africa and go to church on Sunday and prayer meeting on Wednesday and always fasten your seat belt and never have even an inkling as to what social justice means.
© Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is a journalist who currently makes his home in Italy. A regular contributor of both essays and fiction to Southern Cross Review, Gaither has also authored several novels published by SCR E-Books and, in print versions, by Wind River Press.