The Prague Cemetery

Cemetery in Prague

It’s impossible to spend much time researching and pondering upon the whys and wherefores of music banned by the III Reich without questioning the provenance of the deluded anti-Semitism of pre-Hitler Europe. Hitlers Wien (Hitler’s Vienna), by Brigitte Hamann offers the most comprehensive survey of movements that represented a confused and confusing interaction of church, state, nationhood and cultural anti-Semitism. She, more clearly than most, explains how it was possible that a religious anti-Semite, such as Vienna’s notorious mayor Karl Lueger, should not be confused with the murderous anti-Semitism of Hitler. She also explains how Hitler linked his brand of Darwinian anti-Semitism to the populism of Karl Lueger. She lays out the frustration of Austria’s German speakers and the resentment of exclusion from Bismarck’s unification project.  Hamann is an historian with an engagingly readable style. She’s popular in the best sense of the word and she knows instinctively how to maintain her coherent narrative without submerging it in extraneous information. No serious historian should be without her, but then no serious historian would feel comfortable quoting from her popular histories. To fill this gap is Michael Wladika’s Hitler’s Vätergeneration (The Generation of Hitler’s Fathers) which offers a densely scholarly account with far more background and detail. It is not the engaging read of Hamann, but in terms of sourcing and citing documentation, it’s superior.  Both books, however, deal solely with Austria and the united German mini-states under Prussia. They both deal with questions of German nationality in the context of encroaching Slav nationalism and both place anti-Semitism in the quasi-scientific debates of the day growing out of Darwinian ideas. One reads Hamann and Wladika and understands how society came to be poisoned.

Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery goes much further. For one thing, it’s fiction. In truth, however, there is only one made-up character: the principal protagonist Simone Simonini, a figure with a slight whiff of Jewishness about his name. Eco is quoted as saying that he wished to make Simonini the most cynical and unpleasant character in fiction. He more than succeeds. He places Simonini in the middle of European events, accords him a profession that allows him to gallop alongside history and creates in him the hinge from which the pendulum of the Holocaust could swing and gain its remorseless momentum. As literature, it’s breathtakingly brilliant, as history, it goes even further. What Eco does, and he does so without any regard to the way we see things today, or the political correctness of explaining past events, is confront the reader with  such an anti-Semitic dialectic, that we understand without the parenthetical need of further explanation of how such a horror could take place.  He never states unequivocally that the things people say and think are murderous or even wrong. He lets us eavesdrop on their world, their fears and their logic.

Simonini is born in 1830 in Turin. This is convenient as it allows him to be a young man during the uprisings of 1848. His grandfather is a paranoid conservative who sees Jewish plots everywhere, whereas his father is a freedom fighter who dies fighting for Garibaldi. Simonini is educated by Jesuits and is taught how to hate through this experience. He inherits the mindless anti-Semitism of his grandfather while admitting that he’s never knowingly met a Jew. He joins a solicitor’s office, who specialises in forging papers, and providing the testimonials of false witnesses. Simonini becomes a master forger and is soon hired by an array of espionage and counter-espionage figures – all shadowy and all bent on undermining anything that threatens the status quo of the ancien regime. Eco accompanies Simonini through the unification of Italy, the Paris Communes and eventually lands him as the forger of the Dreyfus bordereau as well as the notorious Protocol of the Elders of Zion. 

At every turning, the reader is treated to a detailed explanation of each society, organisation or movement that involves in one way or another, the dark-arts of Simonini. We are given more information on the Paladins, the Carbonari and the Free Masons than we knew we needed. And this information is important, as they, along with the Church and the Jesuits were all at daggers drawn. The most common instrument to discredit such secular competition to the authority of Rome was anti-Semitism. As the century progresses, it becomes the means of maintaining civil order as, for example,  the French try and rid the army of Jews by making Dreyfus into a spy for the Prussians.

The title of the book comes from Simonini’s monstrous idea of concocting a Jewish conspiracy by using a story about a gathering of Free Masons in Alexander Dumas’ Joseph Balsamo as his model. Simonini turns it into a meeting held at midnight every hundred years by Jewish elders from around the world who meet in the Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Their aim is to plot world domination. He sells and re-sells the story to any number of different intelligence organisations and interested parties, changing the account each time to fit the individual needs of each ‘client’. Some want the Jewish elders to plot for world domination through their control of all financial institutions; others want to show Jewish domination coming from the press and universities, while others wish to show Jews as undermining the sexual values and morals of Christian society. Each conversation results in an exploration into the minds of the many different types of 19th Century anti-Semite. Eco does not spare us the realism of time and place. He offers no qualifying phrases that hint where such irrational hatred must inevitably lead. He places anti-Semitism into the logical worldview of Europe’s great-and-good and thereby demonstrates how stable societies will always need a scapegoat.

The most offensive yet sobering point in the book is when he sells his material to Russian intelligence, who quizzes him on how to neutralise Jewish sympathy. He twists and turns his document’s wording in order to make every act of charity and civic altruism appear self-servingly wicked. He pits privileged wealthy Jewish families against the poor of the ghettos and Shtetls and it is in the course of this conversation, that he hits upon the notion of the ‘Final Solution’.

The book can be read as a longwinded ‘who-done-it’ – it can be read as a work of literary brilliance, (the narrative structure is cleverly divided between Eco, Simonini and his alter-ego, a Jesuit priest) or it can be read as history. In any case, it is the most sobering representation of the history of European anti-Semitism I have yet to encounter.