Annexing Austria over lunch
Books | An example of Nazi Germany’s deceptive diplomacy in the late 1930s
by Éric Vuillard
Posted 10/26/19, 08:32 am
Translated from the French, The Order of the Day is a beautifully written short book about an ugly incident, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. Author Éric Vuillard begins with a scene of the heads of major industries capitulating to Adolf Hitler in 1933: “There they stand, affectless, like 24 calculating machines at the gates of Hell.” Then we move to 1938 and the key role of Austrian Minister of the Interior Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who finally “finished his pathetic career as a walk-on at Nuremberg … who helped craft the policies that entailed the deaths of a hundred thousand Dutch Jews—this man knew nothing.”
The excerpt below, courtesy of Other Press, is Vuillard’s sketch of one other way the Nazis outwitted hapless politicians such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who realized only too late they weren’t negotiating with gentlemen.
The Order of the Day made WORLD’s short list for 2018 Book of the Year in the History category. —Marvin Olasky
Right in the middle of [a farewell] lunch [at the British prime minister’s residence for German Ambassador to England Joachim von Ribbentrop], as [Winston] Churchill relates in his memoirs, a messenger from the Foreign Office was shown in. Perhaps they were divvying up one last chicken thigh, unless they had already moved on to the corniotte pastries served with lemonade, or were sampling a tarte aux shions: ¾ cup flour, 8 tbsp. butter, one or two eggs, a pinch of salt, a little sugar, half a pint of milk, semolina, and some water to help blend it all. I’ll skip over the details of how to cook and garnish this Louhans specialty. For they made a number of French dishes at Downing Street; the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was particularly fond of them. And why shouldn’t he take an interest in cooking? It’s written, somewhere in the Historia Augusta, that the Roman Senate used to deliberate for hours about which sauce to serve with turbot. It was thus between two clinks of a fork that the Foreign Office messenger quietly handed Alexander Cadogan an envelope. There was an awkward silence. Sir Alexander seemed to be reading carefully. The conversation slowly resumed. Ribbentrop, acting as if nothing had happened, murmured a few compliments to the lady of the house. At that point, Cadogan stood up and brought the note to Chamberlain. He seemed neither surprised nor put out by what he had just read. He was pensive. Chamberlain read it in turn, looking preoccupied. During this time, Ribbentrop kept on chattering. Dessert had just been served, marinated wild strawberries Escoffier-style, a true delicacy. They were consumed eagerly and Cadogan returned to his seat, taking back the note. But Churchill, training one of his big cocker spaniel eyes on Chamberlain, noticed a deep crease between the prime minister’s brows; he surmised a worrisome development. Ribbentrop, for his part, noticed nothing. He was enjoying himself, no doubt carried away by the thrill of becoming a minister himself. At Mrs. Chamberlain’s invitation, they moved on to the drawing room.
Coffee was served. Ribbentrop then began discoursing on French wines, his specialty, and for a long while he propped up the flagging conversation. To illustrate who knows what point, he snatched up an invisible flute set atop its invisible pyramid of glasses, and with great flourish proposed a toast. The invisible flute was cool to the touch, the invisible champagne chilled to an ideal forty-three degrees Fahrenheit. His dessert knife tapped on the flute; Ribbentrop nodded and smiled. Outside it had rained and the trees were wet, the sidewalks glistening.
The Chamberlains showed some impatience, but politely. You cannot just cut short a reception of this kind, with the minister of a European power. You need tact, a way to exit gracefully. Before long, the guests, too, no doubt started to realize that something was amiss, and that a subterranean conversation was being held between Chamberlain and his wife, which drew in the other protagonists one by one: Cadogan, the Churchills, a few others. The first guests made their excuses. But the Ribbentrops remained in place, oblivious to the general malaise—he especially, whom that farewell event seemed to have intoxicated and deprived of the most rudimentary manners. They grew impatient—though again, very politely, without letting it show. They couldn’t very well throw the guest of honor out the door, now could they? He just had to realize on his own that the time had come to leave, put on his overcoat, and climb back into his big swastikaed Mercedes.
But Ribbentrop did not realize a thing, not a blessed thing; he kept on jabbering. And his wife, too, had just engaged Mrs. Chamberlain in lively conversation. The atmosphere became unreal; the guests indicated, by very subtle inflections of voice, restlessness that was barely perceptible, but that should have been discernible to a well-bred person. At such moments, we can’t help wondering if we are crazy or just overly considerate, and whether the other person feels the embarrassment we experience so keenly. But no, nothing. The brain is an airtight organ. Our eyes do not give away our thoughts, and imperceptible changes of expression are illegible to others. It’s as if our entire body were a poem that consumed us, but of which our neighbors didn’t understand a word.
Suddenly, taking the situation in hand, Chamberlain said to Ribbentrop, “I am sorry, I have to go now to attend to urgent business.” It was a bit abrupt, but it was the best way he could find of ending it. Everyone stood up, and most of the guests thanked their hosts and left Downing Street. But the Ribbentrops lingered with the few who remained. The discussion dragged on awhile longer. No one mentioned the note that Cadogan and Chamberlain had read during lunch, which floated between them like a little paper ghost, an unknown retort that everyone wanted to hear, and which was in fact the true script of that bizarre vaudeville. Finally, everyone took their leave, but not before Ribbentrop had run through his entire repertoire of insipid small talk. It’s just that the onetime amateur actor was playing one of his secret roles on the great stage of History. A former ice skater, golfer, violinist—that Ribbentrop could do anything! Everything! Even stretch out an official luncheon to absurd lengths. He was an odd duck, that one, a curious mix of ignorance and refinement. Apparently, he made awful grammatical errors—errors that his rival [Konstantin] von Neurath, when he read the memoranda that Ribbentrop composed for the Führer’s attention, scrupulously neglected to correct.
The very last guests took their leave, and the Ribbentrop couple finally cleared off. Their driver opened the door for them. Frau Ribbentrop delicately folded back her dress and they got into the car. And then they let their hair down. The Ribbentrops had a good laugh at the trick they’d played on everyone. They had, of course, noticed that once Chamberlain read the note sent by the Foreign Office, he seemed preoccupied, terribly preoccupied. And of course, the Ribbentrops knew exactly what was in that note, and had deliberately set out to make Chamberlain, and the rest of his gang, waste as much time as possible. They had prolonged the meal ad infinitum, then the coffee, then the drawing room conversations, testing the limits of reason. During that time, Chamberlain, instead of attending to urgent business, had been kept busy with tennis talk and macarons. Playing off his excessive politeness, so excessive that it was almost a sickness, a politeness that kept even affairs of state waiting, the Ribbentrops had very cleverly distracted him from his work. Because that note brought by the Foreign Office envoy, the mystery of which hovered over the entire luncheon, contained the dreadful news that German troops had just crossed into Austria.
Éric is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Rennes, France.