chapter
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Menace

WithJoseph Rykwert

After Hitler took power in Germany, his speeches were occasionally rebroadcast by non-German radio stations. We would listen, and with help from illustrated papers could imagine the setting of the lonely toothbrush-moustachioed figure in his brown shirt and Sam Browne belt at a battery of microphones set against the background of elaborate drapes, the eagle holding a wreathed swastika over his head, the ranks of uniformed dignitaries on either side of him. To us – to my parents and even to adolescent me – the speeches seemed almost comical: the bluster, his provincial accent and contorted syntax, the mechanical ovations. And we did laugh at this figure, so improbable as a ruler of a modern, highly literate, industrial state. Our laugh was nervous and uncomfortable, though. The bluster was doubly directed against us: against Poland – all the stuff about Danzig and the Corridor – but above all, vehemently against Jews. It seemed all too blatant somehow, and my father’s German colleagues and friends assured him that Hitler could not last. Yet, while the dignitaries and the drapes and the Heil-Hitlering crowds continued to hog evermore space in illustrated papers, the menace grew insistently and our laugh grew ever edgier, until we could laugh no more.