It required the ingenuity of a Sherlock Holmes to alter the way the Great War unfolded.
The First World War has also left traces in literature. Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, the mastermind behind Sherlock Holmes, the world’s most famous private investigator has sent his main character into battle for one last time in his story: His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes. The story features ‘an evil Prussian’ von Bork who is officially a diplomat but works as a spy to sabotage British war preparations by organizing the devil’s brew of the Irish Civil War, window breaking furies and god knows what’. The setting of the story of the story is the second of August 1914, ‘the most terrible August in the history of the world’. The German von Bork became friendly with the non-suspecting English by being a sportsman and in his 4 years of activity has stolen British military secrets and is about to pass them on to his German commanders in Berlin. Of course it is Holmes who thwarts this attempt and thus essentially alters the way the war in the end. However, since the Prussian set about his plans in a very cunning manner it is not surprising that Sherlock Holmes needs 2 years to find the German with the smoking gun. When confronted with the genius of Holmes who went through various disguises to get to von Bork, the latter is dumbfounded but has nothing to offer in his defence.This story must be considered as one of Holmes’ most nationalist stories and it should not be surprising at all. In 1914 Conan-Doyle was 55 but nonetheless volunteered for the army. He signed the ‘Authors’ Manifesto in 1914 but his sole contribution to the war effort was this little story. At the end Holmes retires to beekeeping while Watson went back to his regiment. Both were hoping that the ‘eastern wind’ from Germany will cease.
An entirely different setting is found in Angelika Felenda’s Iron Summer. It is also a crime story set in the summer of 1914, the plot is in Munich and begins with what looks like an ordinary murder investigation for DI Sebastian Reitmeyer. A young man is found dead at the banks of the river Isar. This certainly is a tragedy but nothing unusual. Yet in the course of his investigation Reitmeyer uncovers that the man has spent a considerable amount of time in a café nearby, Café Neptun, where also a lot of Bavarian officers are regulars. Moreover, the dead man turns out to be a male prostitute. It is here that the investigation begins to become tricky. Reitmeyer superior demands that the investigation should be closed as quick as possible; by law Reitmeyer must not investigate the army! The reason: most of those officers in that café were members of the Bavarian Life Guards of the king. To add more problems, this very regiment was in the preparations of its centenary, therefore any negative press was to be avoided at any costs. Of course, Reitmeyer officially closes the investigation but behind the back of his boss keeps digging and keeps finding.
Among officers of the life guards homosexuality seemed to have been wide spread and the services of the prostitute were in high demand. At one point Reitmeyer discovers photographic evidence of homosexual activities among the officers. This is a scandal, understandably and even Reitmeyer is shocked and the fact and the extent. Exactly here the 28 June 1914 happens which alters everything that was safe before. It is a turn in the plot by the author that Reitmeyer is never able to solve the case as the regiment is drafted to the front as the war breaks out in August 1914. The impression the readers get is that because of such unheard of sexual preferences and practices that were known to the military command, every effort was undertaken to get the regiment out of Munich and out of reach of the police: every scandal was to be avoided. Covering up homosexuality was the driving force to get Germany into the war!
Both works, though written at very different times; Conan-Doyle’s story was published in 1917 when the war was still holding Europe in its grip. Felenda’s story was written in 2013 and published in 2014 and of course has no propaganda about it. Rather, the novel looks at society in the early 20th century in Germany and particularly Bavaria. It sheds a light on the status of the army at the time and nourishes ideas about Germany loving its armies.
John Ramsden: Don’t Mention the War: The British and the Germans Since 1890 – The British and Modern Germany London: Abacus 2007.
Angelika Felenda: Der eiserne Sommer Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014.
Arthur Conan-Doyle: The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes London: Penguin, 2009.