Professor of Journalism Kurt Barling recently presented Her Majesty The Queen with a copy of Amy Buller’s Darkness over Germany, which he recently edited.
It was feared the book, last printed in English in 1945, had been confined to history but, not only is it being reprinted, for the first time it has been translated into German with an extensive historical introduction written by Professor Barling. Die Stern German newspaper has called it “an important book, finally in German”.
Darkness over Germany (Finsternis in Deutschland), Buller’s only book, not only offers telling insights into the relationship between Britain and Germany right up to the outbreak of war in 1939 but, argues Professor Barling, has significance today.
At a time when there is increasing pressure within British universities to limit open debate on difficult subjects, it is a reminder that an open society depends on being able to hold often passionate and conflicting discourse between students, staff and visitors. If extreme views cannot be challenged in universities, Buller has the answer for where that can lead.
In late 1943 when Britain was deep in the clutches of war Darkness over Germany was published in England urging readers to think beyond the necessity of killing Germans to the political dispensation that ought to be established in Germany once peace returned. This was not the tract of a pacifist or an apologist, and it certainly was not a text that fell foul of the censor. We must therefore assume when the book went on sale at Foyles of London it fitted into a debate thought to be worth having.
The publication of the book was applauded by, among others, William Temple, the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Bishop of Lichfield, friends of the author. Among the duties of the Bishop of Lichfield was the rather quaint responsibility of selecting a suitable monthly reading list for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the wife of George VI. Buller’s book was placed on that list and, in early 1944, as the doodle bugs began to rain down on south-east England, the author was invited to a meeting with Her Majesty The Queen to discuss what she hoped to achieve with her book.
Her Majesty The Queen described Buller to me as one of the most terrifying women she had ever met.
Born into a Baptist family in London in 1891, Buller was taken to South Africa with her sister while Britain was at the height of its Victorian Imperial power. She returned to Europe in 1911 aged 20 and between 1912 and the outbreak of the Great War she began her fascination with Germany through studies in that country and, once back in Britain, taking her degree at Birkbeck College in 1917.
In her mid-twenties Buller converted to Anglo-Catholicism and after the end of hostilities she got involved with the Student Christian Movement (SCM). It was, by all accounts, a vibrant forum for the debates that emerged from the catastrophic conflict. The younger generation proved keen to build new alliances and find a way to make this truly the war to end all wars.
There was a surge in interest in politics, ethics, religion and philosophy among university goers as they wrestled with the trauma of dramatic change across Europe brought about by that conflict. Christian fellowship among other ‘movements’ provided a forum in which men and women could come together to discuss the big issues of the times. These were not times of great gender equality and Buller proved skilful at being active and listened to in a man’s world. It is part of what makes what she wrote in Darkness over Germany so intriguing. Her Majesty The Queen described Buller to me as one of the most terrifying women she had ever met.
Darkness over Germany is not by any stretch of the imagination an academic book but it offers an extraordinary insight into the way in which she experienced Germany in the 1930s. And what an unusual insight that was. At the start of the 1930s the British intelligentsia had grown fashionably intrigued with the National Socialists and Adolf Hitler’s brand of fascism. Britain had inevitably had a long and difficult relationship with its powerful European adversary. Many people in Britain were acutely aware that the punitive Versailles settlement had remained a festering sore for German nationalists who had never recovered from the humiliation of defeat. It is a book written before hindsight could cloud recollections that she recorded as a faithful account of what she’d found in her numerous trips to Germany, including the torch-lit Nuremberg rallies.
War is not just kill or be killed, but that there has to be a plan of how to deal with the peace before victory.
But coming to terms with Hitler and his movement as it first gained and then consolidated power through its so-called revolution was not easy. Nazis were not easy people to talk or negotiate with. By the same token liberal democracy was not seen yet seen in the positive light it now is – for many the clash between communism and fascism was one where people took sides. Amy Buller’s unique knowledge of Germany, her organisational skills demonstrated while leading the SCM and her commitment to her faith were seen as ideal qualities to build trustworthy links with Germany.
Buller persisted in talking to the extremists until the moment it could no longer be legitimately done. That is when war was declared on 3 September 1939. But in the midst of the conflict she insisted in trying to understand the ideas that had radicalised German youth in particular so that the Allied governments knew how to deal with the young enemy once Nazism was militarily defeated.
Planning for peace
So here we are in 2016 and the book is just beginning to arrive in German bookshops under the name Finsternis in Deutschland. I hope it will give German readers an insight into the way some of the English were thinking about the future of Germany while Bomber Command was pursuing its air bombing campaign. It shows that it wasn’t all kill, kill, kill, although even Amy Buller acknowledged that in late 1943 there was very little other choice to bring an end to what was clearly a brutal dictatorship. It reminds us that war is not just kill or be killed, but that there has to be a plan of how to deal with the peace before victory. It also shows that at a time when extremists rule the roost it is important to recognise that those who believe in an open society must still champion those ideals, however dangerous or fruitless it seems in the midst of conflict.
A new English edition of Darkness over Germany will be published in March 2017.