What do you want here? say the eyes. Stern eyes. The mouth just says, ‘Room number twelve is upstairs.’ Then she has to go, the hotel’s stern receptionist. Only loneliness is sleeping here tonight. No other guests. This is Germany’s empty east. A village in Mecklenburg. Its marketplace stares into the windows of room number twelve. The streets, sombre and empty. No lights. Not in any of the houses. Where are the people? Are they asleep? Perhaps because they’ve got colds, just like this guesthouse perhaps has a cold? Because everything – doors, walls, floor – is making groaning sounds, as if the house is coughing.
At half past twelve there’s a cough so loud that one wall must have collapsed with fever. Or is it human? I go out into the corridor to look. No one in the corridor, only Christa Wolf and Fallada. A book table. My hand reaches for the Wolf novel. Written in grey on the yellowing pages, it says the past is never dead, it’s not even past. That’s Faulkner. And yes, that’s why I’m here: the old Nazis are the new Nazis now. And I’m looking for new Nazis. Tomorrow morning, I tell Wolf, and go to sleep.
Morning looks more like evening. Grey clouds devour the blue of the sky. A shower of rain lashes down on the narrow streets. A bicycle, borrowed, is my alibi, camouflage, because there are always cyclists about around here. ‘The most beautiful cycle routes in Mecklenburg’, that’s what the Internet says. It lies. There are no cyclists. And the pedestrians still have colds.
But a few villages further on there should at least be neo-Artamans: real, authentic ur-ur-Nazis. They’re referred to as völkisch settlers, because they settle in places where nobody lives and they really believe in the blood-and-soil thing, which Heinrich Himmler also believed in, and he was an Artaman too.
The iPhone map says it’s another 18 kilometres to the völkisch settlers. But this rain is getting fiercer now, my jacket heavy and wet. A sad, silent bus shelter becomes a place to hide from the weather. The shower passes over but takes the phone network with it. The map has vanished. Memory is steering the bike now. Which is why I find myself standing not in the village of Klaber, where the Artamans supposedly settled, but in Koppelow. And Koppelow’s not wrong, either, because it’s said to be the home of a very right-wing organic farmer, one who was involved with the German nationalist NPD.
Again this emptiness, of course. No café, no supermarket, not a soul, not a neo-Nazi on the street. Just chickens in front of their henhouses. Then a man emerges from a grey house. ‘Excuse me, I’m looking for an organic farmer who lives here’, I say.
‘There aren’t any farmers here any more, they all went bankrupt,’ says the man. He wears a dirty grey jersey round his belly and a full moustache in the same grey under his nose. ‘One of them still has a few animals, but he’s made it all over to the son.’
‘Do you know this farmer and his son?’
‘All Jews, all Jews!’ says the moustachioed man.
‘What, they’re Jewish?’
‘No, it’s just an expression. Cut-throats, they are, cut-throats, the lot of them.’
When an anti-Semite suddenly calls an NPD man a Jew it’s way too warped, too perverse. Which is why I say nothing, cycle on. After an hour of ups and downs – the hills of Mecklenburg are endless – I stop in front of a pretty white house. A glance at the phone: no signal. And no idea where Klaber is, where this settlement is. But maybe the people in the house know. Maybe they’re völkisch themselves. I’m about to ring the doorbell when a dusty Ford stops outside the entrance.
‘What do you want in there?’ calls the Ford driver.
‘To ask where I am.’
‘That’s the drunkards’ house. They’re never there this time of day, they have to go and fetch booze,’ the Ford owner tells me. He adds, ‘The social workers from the People’s Solidarity put all the local untreatables in there.’ I ask him where Klaber is, but Klaber’s too far away. The Ford man explains how to get back to the village, my guesthouse. Nazis tomorrow then, I think, and cycle off – accompanied by hunger, tiredness, and mild depression. The only things that help with hunger, tiredness, and mild depression are good restaurants. But there aren’t any restaurants. ‘Just a pub that does food,’ is what the stern receptionist in the sick, empty guesthouse told me.
The pub that does food is silent. Nobody speaks while they’re eating, waiting for food, drinking. Small talk fizzles out. How do I start a conversation with these people? Maybe I’m already surrounded by far-right sympathizers and they just don’t want me to know? If not, then where do I find these far-right people? After all, the east is full of them, that’s what television reports and newspapers and statistics say.
‘How did we become the way we are today?’ asks Christa Wolf’s novel on the second evening. East Germany, the world of the Socialist Unity Party, and phony anti-fascism all swim in my head along with Wolf’s words. What are these old lies doing with these new people? You didn’t see any Nazis here in those days, just as I didn’t see any Nazis here today either. Tomorrow, then? I say to Wolf, and go to sleep.
Morning, sombre again. A different road this time, leading to the ur-ur-Nazi settlement. The road to paradise. Because a very dead poet once said of this landscape that it was paradise on earth. Paradise looks like profound depression. Everything is grey and washed-out. After two hours of cycling: Klaber at last. Just one more hill. I’m pushing the bike now. ‘Oh, is it too steep for you here?’ a man calls out in a soft northern drawl.
‘There’s supposed to be a settlement here,’ I say.
‘There’s nothing here. A few West Germans live up there,’ he says, his face suddenly dark.
‘What are they like?’ I ask.
‘I don’t talk to newcomers,’ he says, as a woman’s voice interrupts him. The man has to go in. ‘Bye,’ he says, tschüs, but without the T, very northern.
And then there it is, the settlers’ house. Red brick. A little wooden hut out front, and a sign hanging on it saying ‘Real German honey’. Is that neo-Nazi-esque? A breeding ground for Nazi terror should at least have a couple of little S’s in runic script. Nothing. Not anywhere.
Where are the settlers? ‘Hello,’ I call out to the red house. Nothing. Perhaps that was too quiet. But I can’t make it any louder, there’s something stuck in my throat. Yes: fear. Will the völkisch settlers notice that my blood is wrong, that it’s not Nordic? Fear allows me to call out quietly one more time. Then silence again. And it’s good that they’re not there, because my thoughts keep returning to blood. The sky is almost black now. Fear forces me back on my bike. Now what? A poster says it’s the autumn festival today. And I want to be around people; but perhaps the settlers will be there? Fear wrestles with curiosity. Fear loses.
At first there’s just one big table at the autumn festival. Auralia is sitting here. She’s attractive, round, and slightly flushed. But she has a problem. Auralia is from eastern Germany. Gentle fingers stroke her. A man, elderly, says, ‘They hate her for that in the West.’
‘In the West they used to think everything here was sprayed. But now? I don’t know, I’m not West German, unfortunately.’ The man is a pomologist. Auralia is a variety of apple. She’s sitting here with a hundred others. The great apple show. The West that thinks the East is all idiotic police officers, maniacal AfD voters, and neo-Nazis is so full of arrogance that even apples are discriminated against, I think. And then I realise: This trip is just that – arrogance.
The pomologist is still talking about apples. But apples are familiar, settlers aren’t. Questions, then, about neo-Artamans. ‘We don’t have anything to do with them,’ says the apple fan. And a visitor adds, ‘They’re in the east.’
‘This is the east,’ I say.
‘No, over Usedom way, that’s where they live.’
A tall, thin man with deep, beautiful wrinkles is flamboyantly pounding cabbage in a saucepan. It’s going to be sauerkraut. He says völkisch settlers are very problematic for the organic scene. He’s also part of the organic scene. ‘I can understand the blood connection to tending your own soil, but vilifying people who aren’t German – that’s crazy.’ And it’s because of these far-right eco-warriors that the tall thin man with the wrinkles avoids Mecklenburg’s organic associations. ‘The far-right are everywhere there.’
But where are they now? The tall man doesn’t know them personally. Why doesn’t anyone here know them? Maybe because rural life is family life? In the Christa Wolf book it says: ‘A family is a banding together of people of different ages and sexes for the strict concealment of embarrassing mutual secrets.’ Perhaps, I think, it’s for this reason alone that these people don’t talk about those other folk, because the principle is the same as in a family.
The family-friendly festival is over now. So it’s back to the pub that serves food. This time it’s not silent, it’s full. Two men indicate their free seat. They’re heading off shortly; I should go with them, they say. And yes, we go.
An anglers’ club with a wooden cabin, an open fire. One wall is made up entirely of trophies, the other walls were once white, the décor is minimalist. The host is called Martin. He’s thirty years old and a cook, but he’s in rehab at the moment. ‘Slipped disc, slipped disc,’ he says, after saying hello. Eleven men. And three women: discussing ‘women’s things’, as they put it. They’re talking about children, men, Douglas perfumes. One speaks with a lovely, striking Polish accent; she’s only been in Germany for two months. An equestrienne, but injured, so now a groom. Perhaps this foreigner will know the anti-foreigners and speak openly, honestly. I ask her about the far-right. ‘No, no! The people here make me a very warm heart,’ she says. That’s too foreign-friendly, it runs counter to every prejudice. I go outside to smoke. There’s Martin. The topic, my topic, AfD, of course. But Martin says the far-right and those AfD voters are in the east. Again: over Usedom way. ‘But tell me honestly, you do have a problem with refugees, don’t you?’ I ask, curious and underhand. ‘No, we don’t know them, there aren’t any here. It’s lonely here.’ He lights a cigarette. ‘But it would be nice if somebody came someday.’
Perhaps Martin means Syrians, perhaps he just means his friends: a great many of them have moved to Hamburg, to Berlin. He talks about the emptiness in the countryside, about his loneliness. ‘But I can easily keep myself busy,’ he says, by which he means fishing: the men go fishing every day, the ones who don’t have jobs, anyway. Which is most of them. That slight depression again. Bon Jovi’s yelling from the wooden cabin, and it’s time to go.
The next morning isn’t sombre like the others. It’s brutal. Head splitting from fisherman’s schnapps. Suddenly the telephone shrieks. Just a message: Martin. ‘Coming fishing with us later?’ Fishing is Martin’s salvation, that’s what he told me. And in the countryside, in these villages, everyone needs some sort of salvation, to stop them despairing of loneliness, of emptiness. Those who have nothing move away. The others look for something. The pomologists regulate varieties of apple. The drunkards drink in the pretty white house. The men from the fishing club go fishing. But if you’re neither a drunkard nor a pomologist nor a fisherman, and you don’t find anything else, perhaps all that’s left is far-right ideology. It’s very easy to become a Nazi in this countryside that was once East Germany, where supposedly there were never any Nazis, I think suddenly. And then: Would that mean you were invisible to others? Or would you just stay very well hidden? How long would you stay very well hidden? Until you found the majority who thought the same way?
I search my bag for painkillers, and take them, and also Christa Wolf, returning to the book. There it is, a Gottfried Benn quotation: ‘These eastern towns, so grey, so covered in dust – it’s impossible to interpret them that way.’ Benn and Wolf are right. I won’t find anything here.
*The translation of this short story was partly funded by the Goethe Institute.