The Devils Wall

The Devil’s Wall
The Nationalist Youth Mission of Heinz Rutha
By Mark Cornwall
Harvard University Press – £25.00

‘’After on expedition when Mautschka’s Wandervögel had marched through a Czech village and been greeted merrily by its inhabitants, he himself likened the experience to that of a garrison marching through enemy territory.’’

What is it with Germany, war and its (perhaps former) all-encompassing obsession with militaristic ambition and expansionism? Indeed, one cannot help but wonder why all things of a militaristic design has always played such an acute, if not crucial part, within Prussian and German society. More than art, more than religion, more than most things it would seem, and if nothing else, The Devil’s Wall by Mark Cornwall substantiates as much – beyond any form of doubt or question.

Although I’m not sure if it was entirely meant to.

In fact, I’m convinced the author didn’t actually set out to paint such an ideologically bleak picture of deeply entrenched German inferiority. Subliminally conveyed at best, admittedly; but nevertheless, manifested via tumultuous and endemic, if not tiresome, macho bravado. And although the 267 pages of this book are ultimately centred on Heinz Rutha, the internationally recognised pioneer of the (‘Wandervögel’) Bohemian Youth Movement during the nineteen-thirties, it is the underlying tonality and visceral acceptance of a certain Deutschland Über Alles, that I find a little disconcerting.

For instance, in the very first chapter ‘The Devil’s Wall,’ there are a disturbing number references to said dictum’s almost blind acceptance:

‘’For practical purposes, (Frantisek) Rieger would acknowledge German as the overriding administrative language across Austria, but pressed for the Czech-German relationship to be firmly adjusted in its Bohemian context […]. While the Czechs portrayed this as a matter of natural right in the face of German social dominance, it was of course perceived menacingly by many educated Germans who increasingly feared being swamped by a Czech majority who were socially-inferior.’’

Why? Why was a ‘’Czech majority’’ so readily deemed ‘’socially-inferior’’? Furthermore, who in their collective right mind would ever have the right to regard it as such?

‘’[…] the Austrian prime minister, Count Kasimir Badeni, a self-assured but idealistic individual, had published new language ordinances for Bohemia. They decreed what Czech nationalists had long coveted and Germans long dreaded: full linguistic equality in the province and the demotion of German from its unofficial status as the common administrative language.’’

Again, why? Why were the Germans in such dread of ‘’full linguistic equality’’? If the area warranted as such, which to my mind, Bohemia clearly did, then why the almost childlike uproar?

‘’Emerging political groups like the German Workers’ Party (1904) spoke provocatively about ‘’defending living space’’ against the menace of Czech migrants and directly challenged the older liberal-national generation.’’

Once more, why was the migration of Czechs considered a ‘’menace’’? Whose ‘’living space’’ was it anyway?

Continuing with a similar theme in the second chapter, ‘ A German Bohemian Education,’ Cornwall writes: ‘’However, pushed on by some fervently nationalist teachers, its underlying anti-Czech and völkisch agenda was sowing seeds in youthful minds, encouraging a mass of German boys to view themselves as a select cohort with their own mission of defending ‘’true culture’’ against alien encroachments. Rutha was one among many who was acquiringthis mindset.’’

To a certain degree, these words speak for themselves, BUT, who and what constitutes a ‘’true culture’’?

These liberally sprinkled assumptions, almost scream in ill-considered defiance of what ought to be considered common (European) sense. To be fair, Rutha’s promotion of male bonding within his, and his movement’s quest to reassert German dominance over Czech society, was, of its time. For since the end of the Second World War, a number of nations have behaved in the exact same manner. In other words, there really are no surprises when it comes to one nation wanting to rule the entire region (such as Serbia) or the entire planet (such the USA).

The Devil’s Wall is a rather esoteric book, and could as such, be considered a work of political and cryptic catharsis. That it touches on the notion that Neville Chamberlain wasn’t entirely to blame for the appeasement of Hitler at Munich – by challenging the wronged assumption that all Sudeten German nationalists were of a Nazi persuasion – is at best, something of a refreshing diversion. Although not enough to ultimately save this book form its recondite quagmire.

David Marx

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2 responses to “The Devils Wall

  1. Mark Cornwall

    Yes it is a bleak story, but also a dramatic and original one and I think most readers will be intrigued by its mixture of sex and nationalism. I think also that most careful readers will find that all the questions posed by the reviewer above are answered in the text: I do not, as the reviewer seems to imply (!), share the ideas of German elitism that the book discusses. My aim as a historian has been to get at the Sudeten German nationalist mentality of the early 20th century, and to explore for the first time how youth, homosexuality and fascism were woven together in the extraordinary anti-Czech nationalist mission of Heinz Rutha. Happy reading!

    • Hi Mark,
      I think you have captured how youth, homosexuality and fascism worked within the paramters of ani-Czech nationalism perfectly. I guess what I was essentially getting at was the rather fraught degree to which Rutha himself was so vehemently anti-Czech and pro-German. Given the outcome, I found this a little claustrophobic; although this has no bearing on your actual writing.
      Are you writing anything at the moment?
      Best,
      David

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