WHOSE side are you on? Gary Lineker or the BBC bosses? That was an easy one. Ash or Kate or Humza? Harder. OK, how about Isabel Oakeshott or Matt Hancock? C’mon, you’re seriously asking us to choose between those two?
Life rarely gives us a truly binary choice between absolute good and evil.
Real life is much more nuanced and real life’s narrators are fundamentally unreliable.
Ian Buruma knows this all too well and it’s the subject of his fascinating new book about those who compromise big style, those who dance with the devil.
We meet three chancers who batted for the Axis Powers during the Second World War.
Say hello to number one: Felix Kersten, Himmler’s masseur. Also treated Rudolf Hess.
Originally a Baltic German then became a Finn. Says he stopped Himmler deporting all the Dutch to Poland.
All of them!
Says he saved the Finnish Jews from being sent to Majdanek.
This and other cock and bull stories come as no surprise when you learn about his “faith” in pseudo-medical baloney.
Kersten acts like a doctor, talks of his “practice”, earns serious money from his crapola.
A dandy and a libertine we might see Kersten as an unholy cross between Felix Krull (Thomas Mann’s fictional confidence trickster) and Stephen Ward, the doomed English osteopath involved in the Profumo affair.
Himmler uses Kersten to spy on other patients, other Nazis.
Two: Kawashima Yoshiko, the “Mata Hari of the Orient”.
Originally from an imperial Manchu family that ruled China as the Qing Dynasty. Adopted by a ronin, a Japanese samurai and possible abuser who ensures Yoshiko is educated in Tokyo.
She aspires to be a Joan of Arc figure, dresses like a man, is genderfluid avant la lettre. She has an affair with a Japanese spymaster, promotes the phoney Manchukuo republic after Japan invades mainland China. She then becomes a singing star...
And three: Friedrich Weinreb, born in Lemberg, now Lviv in Ukraine. Like Joseph Roth, he’s an Eastern Jew wandering from Vienna to Scheveningen in Holland.
Friedrich thinks he’s cleverer than everyone else. He’s a Timon of Athens figure, a misanthrope who realises he’s in acute danger as the Nazis blitzkrieg Europe. He doesn’t like the Dutch and he doesn’t like his co-religionists.
He dreams up a protection racket scam promising other Jews a way out that doesn’t exist; it makes him about $3 million in today’s money. He tells those duped that he must examine them (the women) because he’s a doctor.
Buruma is well aware of the contemporary relevance of his book and the fact that we live in another time packed with shysters who exploit the gullible.
But he’s also alert to the difficulties all three faced in their choices.
Weinreb was clearly odious but there’s no doubt he was in mortal danger. The moral complexities deepen and we’re left asking many questions about betrayal and self-preservation.
Why did the Dutch free Weinreb when other collaborators were executed? Was Yoshiko responsible for deaths after a factory fire in Shanghai? Did Kersten have a hand in Hess’s loony tune flight to Eaglesham? Did any of the three have, in Buruma’s words, “a sliver of human decency”?
All were non-conformists but some of the worst crimes of the Second World War were perpetrated by ultra-conformists. Are there common themes in the biographies?
All three targeted rich folks with psychological problems, all three acted like gurus to those “susceptible to spiritual mumbo-jumbo”, and all three knew what to say to them, what such people wanted to hear.
No spoilers as to the fate of each.
In murky times it feels like you’re swimming above the seabed with your goggles misted with stirred-up sand.
Buruma himself has firsthand knowledge of the mire and disputatious nature of the “truth” when he left as editor of The New York Review of Books.
He affirms: “Bad things can be done with good intentions, and bad people can sometimes do good.”
With this in mind, getting back to the Hancock/Oakeshott spat, one lesson from Buruma’s book is that there is a real urgency, as with the post-war investigations outlined here, for a rigorous inquiry into governmental actions/inactions during the pandemic.