A fictional masterpiece of the impending horror of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” Martha Gellhorn’s 1940 “A Stricken Field” is now generally regarded as her finest book. Sadly, she did not see it that way.
A new foreword and her own 1985 afterword to a freshly republished edition show how by making an American journalist—a thinly veiled version of herself—a central character of her novel she was “troubled by a secret shame. I had used two of my own small acts in that tragedy as part of the story. It was not my tragedy and I disliked myself for taking a fictionalized share.”
She felt she had inflated herself at the expense of the many real people she had encountered (and fictionalized) who had shown true heroism in the face of the Nazi machine advancing through Czechoslovakia in 1938. Yet “A Stricken Field” draws its power from the viewpoint of one whom we know must have been a real witness to the telling details that build one upon another to choking, terrifying effect.
It is fiction that we know must be true. Gellhorn’s artistic mastery consists of impelling us through a saga that we know cannot have a happy ending, but we simply must read on.
Unfortunately for Gellhorn and this book, both were overshadowed by her war years’ relationship and marriage to Ernest Hemingway. It affected the book’s critical reception negatively, yet “A Stricken Field” has her own strong voice and is every bit as good as Hemingway at his best. (I must mention that a single paragraph of what we might call “bad Hemingway” and at least two others that ring out as “good Hemingway” stand in such relief one must wonder at their genesis.)
“A Stricken Field” is set in a single week in Prague. Thanks to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement and the meekness of the otherwise admirable Czech President Edvard Benes, Hitler’s troops have occupied the Sudetenland without firing a shot.
Fleeing ahead of them into the temporary refuge of Prague are Czech refugees, Jews and German liberals and anti-fascists, some of whom had been persona non grata in Germany since Hitler’s takeover. All have been ordered back. Some fear concentration camps, others worse.
Even though the Czechoslovakian government feigns control, the Gestapo are already arrogantly plying their awful trade. Insulated by their Western passports, Mary Douglas and her fellow writers gather in a safe, if temporary, hotel’s cocoon, part of “her own odd portable world” (like Hemingway’s “moveable feast”?).
While others spar verbally and safely pontificate, Douglas moves among the refugees, collecting information, much of which she knows cannot find a home in journalism because it can too easily be dismissed as propaganda. (“Be careful,” she tells herself, “you’re only a working journalist. It is better not to see too much, if no one will listen to you.”)
Among other places, she visits a clandestine shelter where orphaned children are carefully tended by adults so that they can live playfully with no hint of surrounding horrors. The youngsters’ voices join sweetly in singing “the old simple song about the bird who brought a letter from Mother…” All such normal, happy moments in “A Stricken Field” are tainted by what we know is to come.
Douglas admires the mutual love of native Germans Rita and Peter, who flirt daily with death in their political activities, and experiences the powerlessness of trying to help them. But they are only two among many anonymous heroes whose “faith… set them apart and gave them such stature and such dignity. They went on with… whatever work came to their hands, and they looked… drab and unmemorable, until the day they paid without question for their beliefs.”
Despite warnings, Rita slips into the basement of a building suspected of being used by the Gestapo. Like Plato’s man who can only experience reality by the shadows on the wall of a cave, Rita becomes aural witness to a Nazi interrogation, its awful sounds magnified by human imagination.
Against all this, the American journalist feels completely inadequate. She does what she can, settling ultimately for smuggling out written proof of brave acts of people she knows will otherwise be completely forgotten.
“A Stricken Field” is evidence of the power of fiction as witness. Gellhorn’s stands bravely beside, for example, Thomas Wolfe’s “I Have a Thing to Tell You”: Early, yet still too late, American cries against the Nazi terror. (Martin Northway)
“A Stricken Field”
By Martha Gellhorn; foreword by Caroline Moorehead
University of Chicago, 326 pages, $17