A Problem in Reprisals

One of the oddest war stories I’ve read is Bertaram Atkey’s A Problem in Reprisals in the Strand Magazine of March 1919.

Some French officers, including a doctor with a tragedy in his past, are billeted in a German village immediately after the War. The woman of the house is nervous of them.

The house, they notice, is full of bric-a-brac, “of easily portable dimensions”, and the doctor sees a small Buhl clock among the rest. “Mon Dieu!” he cried, “This is mine! It comes from my house! Look!”

Later, he induces the woman of the house to be hypnotised. “And when it strikes eight you are going to tell the truth.” At first she explains that the clock was a present from her husband, Heinrich, and then conveys a vision of where the clock came from – which includes her husband attempting to rape the woman in the house. She cries out,”I do not want to see…” but cannot help describing what happens. The woman in the vision shoots herself to avoid rape.

The woman in the vision  is, of course, the doctor’s wife, and the doctor is left with a moral dilemma – What to do with his  German hostess?”It rests with me to call her back to waking life, totally ignorant of her husband’s crime, adoring him as before – or to leave her in the agony of shattered love.”

“And if she wakes – knowing -?” faltered the captain.

“She will probably kill herself. she has been living in an intense love for the idealised memory of her husband. The revulsion will be overwhelming.”

Finally, the doctor decides to let her remain ignorant.

“Gnadige Frau,” he said, and the level passionless voice gave no hint to those of the language of the purport of the German words which followed, “when you wake from this sleep you will entirely forget the hideous dram through which you have passed.”

The story is a way of dealing with the questions nagging at many people’s minds in 1919 – how should the Allies deal with the defeated Germans? How much blame should be placed on the whole country for the war crimes committed by some soldiers?

The story’s overt moral is – don’t force repentance on the civilians; if they knew the worst they would lose all self-respect. Yet the structure of the story suggests something more ambiguous. One one level, the story is asking us to accept the absurd proposition that under hypnosis the woman is recalling her husband’s memories. (Though this might not have seemed quite so absurd in 1919. The latest issue of Victorian Studies has a fascinating article about late nineteenth-century belief in the idea that traumatic memory could be stored in an object – suggesting that some of the story’s readers would have taken it that under hypnosis the woman had become receptive to the history of that looted clock.)

Another way of looking at it, though, is that under hypnosis the woman reveals what she has really known all along – that the clock was looted, and probably under nasty circumstances. In this reading, what she describes is what she secretly fears, knowing the personality of her husband, Heinrich. Her fear of the French soldiers at the start of the story can be explained by her assumption that they would behave like the German soldiers she knows.

On this reading, the question becomes not “How much should we reveal to the German civilians of what their soldiers did?” but “How far should we force them to acknowledge the guilt that they were secretly complicit with?” Bertram Atkey, uses his saintly doctor to argue for leaving things be, and letting the Germans rebuild their lives without too much of the burden of guilt.

This story fits in with others that argue against revealing too much about the truth of the war (for example, Edgar Wallace’s The Magnificent Ensign Smith, which I’ve mentioned before). Yet even while such stories say “Don’t tell everyone the truth,” they do let their readers in on the truth, so the final effect is ambiguous.

Bertram Atkey is not a very good writer, but he touches on interesting themes, and wrote quite a few stories about memory and hypnosis, so I’m going to try to hunt out some of his work.

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