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Book Reviews

The SS Officer’s Armchair: in search of a hidden life by Daniel Lee (Cape, £20)

This book starts at a dinner party. A new acquaintance of the author described how her mother had take an armchair for repair in Holland, and the upholsterer had found a pile of Nazi documents sown into the upholstery to his consternation and to the astonishment of the chair’s owner. Daniel Lee, a historian, immediately wanted to know more – what were the papers, what was the story.
His new friend’s mother had bought the chair second hand in Czechoslovakia many years before. Soon Daniel Lee was examining the documents which had belonged to a Nazi lawyer, Robert Griesinger and was off on in pursuit of the story. Who was he? Did he survive the war? Why did he hide the papers? Did he have any living relatives?
It turns out that Griesinger was a genuine Nazi, a member of the SS, though part of their civilian branch. He was also a war criminal, but in the scale of things, not a serious player. Lee was able to trace the children of Griesinger – indeed, by then he knew more about their father than they did. Pre-war, Griesinger was active in the SS mostly in Württemberg in Swabia, and their records show that the SS behaved in many ways like, say the Rotary Club but with added marching, singing and racism. They had a community function, in one case building a new house for a member’s family who had died in an accident.
The membership rules, however, of the SS were strict – marriages had to be approved and a full family tree of the partners had to be presented to ensure there was no trace of a genetic illness or Jewish blood hidden in the background. It was still unclear what would happen later. In 1936 the – now Nazi – government even removed anti-Semitic posters for the period of the Olympics, replacing them with adverts for Coca Cola. International image still mattered and the SS did love sport.
Of course it got darker. Spoiler alert – Griesinger did not survive. He died, or was killed, in mysterious circumstances in Prague at the end of the war. His wife and children made it back to Germany, with difficulty – but he stayed at his post after it was all over and the Czech people arose against both the occupying Germans and the ethnic German community in Czechoslovakia. There were war crimes there too.
What makes this book stand out from other war books is that it concentrates on the life and career of a middle-ranking Nazi official. He was not a monster, neither was he just compromised as he was a career Nazi by choice. What also makes this book stand out is the astonishing amount of information Lee was able to find out. Every move Griesinger made was tracked, every house he lived in was examined from the outside (and sometimes from the inside) and through its extant records of residence. It seems that Germany kept everything – thus Lee was able to examine internal references and reports on Griesinger’s work. Within the dusty files of the Ministry of Economics and Labour he was able to find documents that Griesinger wrote, including, bizarrely, correspondence about recycling beer bottles in 1944 when, it appears Bulgaria was “the only country not to return bottles”. Meanwhile, across Europe…
There is also some irony – is that the right word? – that Griesinger’s father’s family came from America, migrating back to Germany. His father had been born in 1871 in New Orleans. The family had been involved in slavery, both as owners and – there’s no surprise – fathers of children. Griesinger, the Nazi, had Black relatives in America. Lee was able to trace them and met one relative, Marshall Honoré  Jnr., then in his mid-90s. Honoré fought at Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Rhine in spring 1945, penetrating deep into Germany fighting the Nazis. Here the word irony works; his unit was segregated.
 
Ross Bradshaw
The SS Officer’s Armchair is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-ss-officers-armchair-in-search-of-a-hidden-life/

Mudlarking: lost and found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

New Year – new hobby? How about mudlarking? First find a big tidal river which has a couple of thousands of years of human habitation alongside – the Thames will do nicely. Get yourself some maps and tide calendars and a knowledge of history. Get your eye in, you only have to look. And you are all set. Within minutes you’ll likely pick up a bit of an old clay pipe, some nails, and, if you are not careful, an unpleasant water-borne disease, a welly-boot full of stinking mud and be trapped by the sea coming in.
You will need a long-suffering partner – Lara Maiklem’s wife has only visited the foreshore a couple of times ever – who doesn’t mind you coming up smelling of the riverbank and stuffing your house with twenty years’ worth of bits of broken crockery, dolls’ heads and bits of metal type. For Lara is the sort of person who writes ” I came to bricks fairly late, having ignored them for many years, but they are surprisingly interesting…”
Whatever we have used, it has ended up in the Thames. Chucked in or dumped, mostly, as sewerage is a fairly modern invention. Or lost. At one time there were 12,000 wherries operating on the Thames, the taxi service of the day, and things – and sometimes people – fell overboard.
From time to time Maiklem over-uses “perhaps” in imagining who might have held the 400 year old item that has just surfaced. She is on more solid ground when she researches the real stories of coins, tokens, beads, pin-heads, pipe-bowls and the former buildings that lined the Thames giving rise to the particular rubbish outside their premises. Because mostly this is the rubbish of the past, buried in mud for hundreds of years. The mud preserved the material as it was without oxygen, which sometimes meant that items that surfaced would break down on contact with the air and fresh water.
The history of mudlarking is not a great one – it’s the story of the London poor who would scrabble for bits of metal, coal and the debris of ships and rubbish generally to survive. This at a time when the Thames was the heart of our Empire’s shipping and an open sewer. Indeed, as late as 1957 the water of the Thames was considered to be dead. Even now there are places on the foreshore where the soil contains “asbestos, lead, arsenic and cadmium. It is filled with poisons and carcinogens…” And there is our modern additions of plastic and micro-plastics too.
Maiklem is one of the mudlarkers who uses her eyes, not metal detectors, scanning the ground carefully – mostly down on her knees wearing fetid kneepads and only slightly less fetid overalls. (Please don’t sit next to me on the tube…) She is critical of the mudlarkers who use metal detectors or who dig deep in the foreshore, their holes encouraging erosion. There’s a wonderful section of photos in her book showing some of her finds – and I would like to see more.
The best story, however, is hinted at on the cover. The title page, the running heads of the book and some of the text is typeset in Dove. The owners of the Dove typeface (in the days of metal type) fell out and every bit of it was chucked in the Thames in 1916. One hundred years later a designer wanted to recreate Dove and started trawling the banks around Hammersmith where he knew it had been dumped. After twenty minutes at low tide he found the letter “i”. Of the 500,000 bits of type thrown in the river, with the help of some divers, he found 150 or so – the site had had concrete poured on it during a bridge repair. But he did not find a comma – Maiklem did.
Another reason to read this book is to learn more about the history and geography of London – the most tantalising part being the story of the Tower Beach where 1500 barges of yellow Essex sand was dumped on the foreshore in 1934 to create a “London Riviera”. In 1935 100,000 Londoners went to their own “seaside” to build sandcastles, watch Punch and Judy shows and the like. It was closed in 1971 due to concerns about pollution and all that now remains is a much smaller half-moon of yellow sand, the rest washed away by the tide.
Ross Bradshaw
Mudlarking is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/mudlarking/