"Black Banners" is the fourth and final of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's novels to have been written in, or translated into, English. Published in 1954, it has many thematic similarities to his earlier works. The plot, however, is very different. For one thing, there's quite a bit less action in these pages than in the other three books. But that just enhances the psychological aspects -- particularly the tension -- that develop. I don't think this novel would be to everyone's taste. But for a K-L fan, and particularly one familiar with his nonfiction work, there's a lot to take away from it.
The time is 1944, and the setting is the small Bavarian town of Aurolzkirchen on what was, before the Anschluss, the border with Austria. Georg, our hero, is like all K-L heroes a devout and thoughtful Catholic. Although he's a municipal official in Aurolzkirchen, he is not a Nazi and in fact is a leader in the CHV, a loose association of "folklorists" who protect downed Allied flyers by hiding them with local farmers. This makes for an interesting tension -- particularly for the American reader -- in that while strongly anti-Nazi, Georg nevertheless refuses to help those pilots escape across Allied lines, knowing they would only return to inflict more death and destruction. In fact, Georg and his friends refer to the American pilots as "chefs," for their skill baking, roasting, or frying innocent civilians to death in their firebombing raids. Further adding to the tension is that Georg's wife Pat is herself an American, who although she has bound herself to her husband and shares his love for their Bavarian home and community, nevertheless feels herself pulled between her childhood and adult loyalties.
As, again, is usual in K-L novels, quite a bit of time is spent meditating on the distinctiveness of the Catholic mindset and how Catholics should properly react to adversity. A good summary of K-L's conclusions is found when Georg tells Pat that "history is the very caricature of justice," and that the only hope that matters is the promise of union with God after death. Pat admits she wishes there was some glimmer of hope on this side of the grave too. "It is impossible to struggle without hope," she says.
"I disagree [Georg replies]. You remember the dictum of the Emperor Frederick: *Lerne leiden ohne zu klagen* -- 'Learn to suffer without complaining.' To this you have to add: *Lerne zu kämpfen ohne zu hoffen* -- 'Learn to fight without hoping.' Of course, hope is a virtue, but the hope the Church talks about has nothing to do with a 'happy end' à la Hollywood. 'They' [the Nazis] also fight without hope now. We cannot possibly sink below their level. Only the inferior man is out for a reward. The Christian is not a donkey who needs a carrot."
As someone with an interest in flags, I was particularly interested in seeing how K-L would work the title phrase into his narrative. He did so in ways I found impressive in their multiple layers. As he and his characters explain at various points, black flags have always symbolized anarchism and "piratical liberty," and yet also are signs of sorrow and mourning. And in his nonfiction work, K-L notes that black is also a traditional color of Catholicism, and especially of Catholic political parties in Europe. When a character about to die waves a black flag out a window, K-L describes it as "the forbidden, suppressed flag of death and rebellion, of sorrow, freedom and tears."
There's a lot going on in this novel, including development of themes he expands upon in his political and historical books, and even a few autobiographical points (Georg tells a story about wearing a little British sailor suit during World War One that echoes one K-L tells about himself in "Liberty or Equality"). The setting and perspective is a fascinating one, and I found the characters -- if not always deep and multi-faceted -- at least interesting and sometimes likeable. K-L made some good progress as a novelist between "The Gates of Hell" (1933) and "Black Banners" (1954), and someone interested in K-L and his ideas would find it worthwhile to see how he expressed them in what was, at least in English and at least so far (if any remain to be translated), his last novel.
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About the reviewer
Andrew S. Rogers (Cascadian)
Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
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