Shattered: Essay # 1, Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease To Understand the World

Self finds that so many of the books she’s read this year have a bearing. For instance, the book she started the year with: My Heart, a translation from the Bosnian by Semezdin Mehmehdinovic. The author is one of those displaced immigrants who cannot feel at home, not here in America, even though he has raised a son who is so very American in his nonchalance.

And All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, by Rebecca Donner, about Donner’s great great-aunt Mildred Harnack, who was part of a plot against Hitler and was executed in 1942.

Essay # 1 in her current read, Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, is about Fritz Haber, the brilliant Jewish chemist who directed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry and is credited with the invention of Zyklon.


  • Haber had converted to Christianity at twenty-five years old. He identified so closely with his country and its customs that his sons knew nothing of their ancestry until he told them they would have to flee Germany. Haber escaped after them and sought asylum in England, but his British colleagues scorned him, aware of his instrumental role in chemical warfare. He had to leave the island not after arriving. Thenceforth, he would travel from country to country in the hope of reaching Palestine, his chest gripped with pain, his arteries incapable of delivering sufficient blood to his heart. He died in Basle in 1934, clutching the canister of nitroglycerine he needed to dilate his coronary vessels, not knowing that, years later, the Nazis would use in their gas chambers the pesticide he had helped create to murder his half-sister, his brother-in-law, his nephews and countless other Jews who died hunkered down, muscles cramping, skin covered with red and green spots, bleeding from their ears, spitting foam from their mouths, the young ones crushing the children and the elderly as they attempted to scale the heap of naked bodies and breathe a few more minutes, a few more seconds, because Zyklon B tended to pool on the floor after being dropped through hatches in the roof.

How Blondi Met Her End Along With Her Master

TRIGGER WARNING: ANIMAL CRUELTY because Führer was a tool; and also CYANIDE PILLS

Goring, Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler used these capsules to commit suicide, but many of the Nazi leaders chose to shoot themselves in the head at the same moment they bit down, afraid that they had been sabotaged, that the capsules were deliberately adulterated to provoke not the painless, instant death they desired but the slow agony they deserved. Hitler became so convinced that his dosage had been tampered with that he chose to test its effectiveness on his beloved Blondi, a German shepherd that had accompanied him to the Führerbunker, where she slept at the foot of his bed, enjoying privileges of all kinds. The Führer preferred killing his pet to letting her fall into the hands of Russian troops who had already surrounded Berlin and were inching closer to his subterranean refuge by the minute, but he was too cowardly to do it himself; he asked his personal doctor to break one of the capsules into the animal’s mouth. The dog — who had just given birth to four puppies — died instantly when the miniscule cyanide molecule, formed by one atom of nitrogen, one of carbon and one of potassium, entered her bloodstream and cut off her breath.

When We Cease to Understand the World, p. 13

This is a fascinating book.

Stay tuned.

When We Cease to Understand the World: Goring, Magical Realism and the Nuremberg Trials

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich (which, by the way, self highly recommends) stuck to factual accounts. Labatut’s strategy in When We Cease to Understand the World is completely different, using stream-of-consciousness to re-visit the Nuremberg Trials. The result is unbelievably lush and striking.

After the suicide of Hermann Goring:

The Allies attempted to wipe away all traces of his existence. They removed the shards of glass from his lips and sent his clothing, personal effects and naked body to the municipal crematorium at the Ostfriedhof cemetery in Munich, where one of the gigantic ovens was fired up to incinerate Goring, mingling his ashes with those of thousands of political prisoners and opponents of the Nazi regime decapitated at Stadelheim prison, the handicapped children and psychiatric patients murdered by the Aktion T4 euthanasia programme, and countless victims of the concentration camp system. His remains were scattered late at night in the waters of the Watzenbach, a small brook chosen from a map at random. But these efforts were in vain: to this day, collectors from all over the world continue to exchange keepsakes and belongings of the last great leader of the Nazis, commander of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s natural successor. In June 2016, an Argentine man paid more than three thousand euros for a pair of the Reichschmall’s silk underpants. Months later, that same man spent twenty-six thousand euros on the copper and zinc cylinder that had once concealed the glass vial Goring ground between his teeth on October 15, 1946.

When We Cease to Understand the World, p. 12

When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamin Labatut

Opening sentence:

  • In a medical examination on the eve of the Nuremberg Trials, the doctors found the nails of Hermann Goring’s fingers and toes stained a furious red, the consequence of his addiction to dihydrocodeine, an analgesic of which he took more than one hundred pills a day.

Perfect segue from Aftermath: Life in the Fallout from the Third Reich!


  • Former Nazi officials ensured that they received unreduced pension claims from their work for the regime. Even members of the SS received the appropriate credit from the pensions agency in spite of their membership in what was deemed to be a criminal organization. — p.307
  • For decades there was no widespread engagement with the murder of millions; that only began with the Auschwitz trials that lasted from 1963 until 1968. — p. 324

Share Your Desktop – March 2022

For her March 2022 Desktop (The host of the Share Your Desktop challenge is Clare’s Cosmos), self is having a difficult time choosing between these three:

“Life Simply Went On.”

The conscience that had failed so terribly ticked on as if nothing had happened. Hunger dictated the next steps and fear of socially uprooted, disoriented fellow men re-framed people’s morals. Zapp-zarapp, organized theft, trophy-hunting, Fringsing — that was the vocabulary of relativisation and self-exculpation. Fine distinctions were made between different kinds of stealing, designed to differentiate between protecting one’s own property and life and expropriating the property of others. A piece of coal was, once it had been personally claimed by someone, more protected by the collective sense of justice than when it merely lay on the freight train as the possession of some abstract institution. The person who took coal from a railway wagon was Fringsing; anyone who removed it from a private coal cellar was stealing. Post-war Germans liked to use animal imagery for their activities: the person who removed potatoes from a field was “hamstering” (stockpiling), while the person who stole them from the hoarding “hamsters” was a “hyena.” And wandering back and forth between them was the “wolf,” whose sociability one could never be quite sure of, since the “lone wolf” had just as frightening a reputation as the whole pack.

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, pp. 182 – 183

Sentence of the Day, 2nd Sunday of March 2022

“Germans were astonished to observe that subordinates could hand their superiors a document without rising from their chairs, and that it was possible to win a war without constantly clicking one’s heels.” — Aftermath: Life in the Aftermath of the Third Reich, 1945 – 1955, p. 151

Self finds some of the same nonchalance in Ukrainians. Who would have thought! This nonchalance is a big, big factor in the way Ukrainians have rallied the world to their side.

Stay tuned.

GIs Enter Berlin: Summer 1945

The two groups of people — American and German — encounter each other for the first time, free of the filter of government propaganda. German women check out the newcomers. Actress Hildegard Knef makes note of GIs’ “tight buttocks.” LOL

Throughout the war, America had been portrayed as “the enemy” — greedy and rapacious. Concurrently, “the American military leadership had ordered their soldiers to maintain a strict but deliberately unfriendly relationship towards the Germans . . . the Americans had always stressed civilian mass sympathy for and participation in the Nazi regime. For Americans, most Germans were fanatical Nazis and incorrigible criminals. In view of this, the American military leadership had prepared their soldiers for a ruthless subjugation of the enemy and, in April 1944, forbidden any kind of fraternisation. No handshakes, no exchange of words, not the slightest approach of any kind was permitted. As they rolled in, the GIs were all the more surprised by the friendly reception they were given by pretty women and admiring youths, and they couldn’t get enough of the grateful reactions prompted by the cigarettes and chocolate that they handed out of the jeeps in spite of the prohibition.

With the Americans, an unfamiliar army entered the country. The locals admired everything about them as they passed: their relaxed sitting postures, the confident laughter, their casual way of smoking. “The GIs’ shoulders were as wide as wardrobes, their tight buttocks as narrow as cigarette boxes,” as Hildegard Knef put it in her memoirs. They were described as bursting with health, as unusually life-affirming and, we read repeatedly in numerous eyewitness reports, as being as “naive as children.”

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955, pp. 149 – 1950

After the Victory

The Russians had lost 27 million people in the Second World War. Hitler had launched a war of destruction against the civilian population and demanded that the Wehrmacht “disregard the concept of comradeship between soldiers.” His senior commanders had vigorously enforced the directive. The Soldiers of the Soviet Army had been through terrible experience: many of them had fought for four years without a day’s leave, had gone past scenes of scorched earth, the devastated villages of their homeland and fields filled with corpses: many of them had fought for four years without a day’s leave, had gone past scenes of scorched earth. the devastated villages of their homeland and fields filled with corpses. Bewildered, they had pressed on into a conquered Germany, a country obviously much wealthier and more highly developed than their own. “I took revenge, and would take revenge again, said a Red Army soldier named Goffman, whose wife and children had been massacred near Krassno Polje. “I have seen fields scattered with dead Germans, but that isn’t enough. Many of them should die for each murdered child.”

Aftermath, Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955, pp. 144 – 145

As self reads, she can’t believe that nothing has changed. We’re still fighting wars, but instead of Germany, we’re fighting Russia.

Stay tuned.

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