Review: The Order of the Day

A compellingly authentic commentary on factual events and the attitudes of real people in the run-up to the Second World War, writes Gerald Jacobs


The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard (Picador, £8.99)

Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, first published in France in 2017, is a compellingly authentic commentary on factual events and the behaviour and attitudes of real people in the run-up to the Second World War. Its publishers class it as a novel, which at first sight is confusing but does make sense. For not only does Vuillard’s cogent, storytelling narrative — in Mark Polizzotti’s resonating translation — flow like the finest fiction, but his reconstructions of actual historical meetings and conversations, though utterly convincing, are, of necessity, drawn from his creative imagination. 

The book opens, after some lyrical scene-setting, both visual and aural (it is no surprise to learn that Vuillard is a film-maker), on February 20 1933, in the salon of the President of the Reichstag, Herman Goering. 
Outside, the city of Berlin is “just beginning to stir behind its screen of fog”. Inside, twenty-four of Germany’s leading industrialists are gathered to be addressed by the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and appealed to for funds to boost the Nazi party (Gustav Krupp alone would donate a million marks).

There follows a sequence of dramatic events and encounters that lose nothing in gravity or significance by Eric Vuillard’s conveying them with a remarkable lightness of touch. As Hitler’s aggression mounts, and war looms, Vuillard portrays the capitulation, and then co-operation, of Austria’s leaders, and the hesitancy of Britain’s politicians under Neville Chamberlain. 

Among several set-pieces demonstrating political arrogance, naivety, cowardice, and collusion, Vuillard’s evocation of Lord Halifax’s visit to Herman Goering in November 1937 is firmly underlined by the writer’s cynical astonishment at Halifax not even raising an eyebrow at the absurd manner and appearance of his host — a “truculent, operatic figure” and “notorious antisemite” with “a chestload of decorations”. Surely, Vuillard asks, Halifax must have known of Goering’s background, “his penchant for fanciful uniforms, his morphine addiction, his internment in Sweden… mental disorder, depression, violent and suicidal tendencies. 

“He might,” Vuillard adds, “have seen [Goering] shooting arrows in some outlandish outfit” or “the lion cub that came to lick its master’s face… And then he met the Führer, and again… didn’t notice a thing.”

In all of this, Vuillard’s authorial voice is that of an eloquent raconteur able to blend serious exposition with colloquial and sometimes humorous observation. In a vivid dramatisation of the visit by Adolf Hitler’s Austrian counterpart Karl von Schuschnigg to the Nazi dictator’s quarters in Bavaria, in February 1938, Hitler delivers a withering attack on the hapless Schuschnigg, “screaming” that Austria’s “entire contribution to German history” was, in Vuillard’s, or perhaps  Polizzotti’s, words, “a big fat zero”. Anomalous and hardly literary though it is, the phrase perfectly catches the coarse mood of the moment. 

That particular meeting was a milestone on the road to the Nazi occupation of Austria — the Anschluss — which would be greeted by the Austrians with “indecent joy”.  Vuillard demythologises the invasion that preceded this seismic event in a description of the wholesale malfunctioning en route of the vehicles and weaponry that constituted the much-vaunted German war machine. 

And he captures further incompetence, this time on the part of the British, in a deliciously satirical scene at a luncheon in Downing Street in honour of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi government’s Foreign Minister.

Among a series of powerful and elegiac reflections with which The Order of the Day concludes. Eric Vuillard wonders how the young girls who danced and sang at Hitler’s entry into Austria recalled their emotions in later life. If one, now, in old age, should catch sight of herself on screen amid “all that jubilation from March 1938”, how would she react?

And, in contrast to those egregious celebrations, Vuillard tells of more than 1,700 suicides in a week as the Anschluss drew near. 

He selects four individual examples to represent the collective response to the dark forces closing in on European civilisation. In each of them, he characterises the victim’s death as “a crime committed by someone else”. And here, in one Frenchman’s mots justes, we are beyond fiction.

Gerald Jacobs is the literary editor of the JC

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