‘It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I – nor for that matter anyone else – will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.’
Anne Frank wrote this on 20 June 1942, eight days after beginning what has become one of the world’s best known, best-selling books. So she was wrong. Millions of people have been interested in her unbosomings. But this is a fact that is hard to celebrate, for Anne Frank’s writing grips us for reasons beyond the text itself. At the very moment that we enjoy the words that Anne writes, we have a sense of sadness or even despair that all this verve and feeling was going to be stamped out.
There are three Anne Franks. There is the real girl born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 12 June 1929, died Bergen-Belsen, Germany 1945. There is the picture of Anne Frank that she herself created on the pages of her diary. There is the Anne Frank that is constructed by a profusion of biographical material, books, exhibitions, documentary films, reminiscences by friends of the family, a museum and, indeed this article. The gap between these three Anne Franks can give rise to troubling feelings. In Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary , which fleshes out the background to Anne’s journal and includes many family photographs, it can be almost unbearable to be reminded over and over again, that this whole business actually happened.
Here at the beginning of a decade was a middle class German family living a respectable, ordinary middle class urban life and by the end, they have been torn apart, betrayed, transported and only one family member (Anne’s father) has survived. Huge events that have left 55 million other people dead have taken place all around them and there are millions of stories here too. This invites the question, why do we return to Anne Frank?
In an angry outburst someone said to me recently, ‘Who puts up the money for the Anne Frank Exhibition?’ This is one explanation – it’s a Jewish conspiracy, ‘hogging the limelight’ as this person put it, for victim status in the Second World War. And they get heard more than anyone else because, she went on, ‘the Jews have a power base in the media’.
As we know, the first two Anne Franks did not have trouble-free lives, but even in liberal circles amongst London’s chattering classes, it seems that the third Anne Frank has problems too. So before looking again at Anne 1:The Life and Anne 2:The Diary, perhaps we have to remind ourselves of what Anne 3: The Symbol is all about.
In some ways, the Second World War was just like any other war. It was the Trojan War with tanks and bombs and guns. People who would in other circumstances have seen themselves as having a lot in common, had become clumped together in opposing nations and so for six years tried to kill as many of each other as they possibly could. They were successful. But in the midst of this banal, customary and quite usual butchery something extraordinary happened. A new invention. A fantasy: the mass elimination of groups of people identified by rulers as belonging to one ‘race’. Up until then the human race had devised mass slaughter, persecution, victimisation, enslavement and even genocide through colonisation. But no one had come up with the idea of going round asking people what place of worship they went to, or who their grandmother was and on the basis of the answer, putting them in wagons and shipping them off to a human abattoir.
This is not a Jewish problem. It is not a German problem. Anne Frank 3:The Symbol is a problem for all of us. How could it be that at one moment there could be a superb, highly developed culture with all the apparatus and checks and balances of a democratic society – democracy, justice, freedom of the press, religious toleration – and the next it could create a machine that would put into practice industrialised genocide. Anne Frank 3 may not have the answers to this question. All it can do is say, this is the documentary evidence as to what happened to this mind-blowingly ordinary family. They were not pimps, thieves, rebels, subversives, drunks, victims, tramps or terrorists. They were sober, respectable Germans doing what society says is a good and right thing: building up a family business, obeying the law, teaching their children to be polite, kind and truthful. All the things people do in order to avoid ruin and earn respect. And yet they had to go. This is what Anne Frank 3 teaches us. For her group, her tribe, her clan – it did not help to be ordinary. It was no defence to be mainstream and good. There was no special case just because you were a lively, cheeky, sad, emotional, intelligent, high achieving good-looking girl.
So Anne Frank 3 sends us digging deeper – how did such a thing happen? What were the special ingredients of mid-twentieth century Europe that nurtured such events? How can we avoid reproducing those ingredients in our daily lives so that such events cannot happen again? There is a hope that by simply getting to know the three Anne Franks it may make us all just that bit more careful and cautious. Though some may use her presence amongst us, to spout just the same sentiments that triggered off the genocide machine last time: ‘the Jews have a power base in the media …’
But what of Anne herself? How does she seem to us? Something we cannot escape from is that she was an excellent writer. So whatever we might have made of her if we had been in hiding with her, one thing we know above all else is that she has that key facility of a writer, which is to work her audience. Quite how she learnt to do that, we will never know. So, though her journal is an intimate diary full of secrets and confidences, it is also full of explanations of the ordinary day-to-day events that in a sense do not need describing if all she was doing was talking to herself. Anne herself realised this ambiguity as soon as she began writing:
‘All I think about when I’m with friends is having a good time. I can’t bring myself to talk about anything but ordinary everyday things. We don’t seem to be able to get any closer, and that’s the problem. Maybe it’s my fault that we don’t confide in each other … This is why I’ve started the diary. … To enhance the image of this long-awaited friend in my imagination, I don’t want to jot down the facts in this diary the way most people would do, but I want the diary to be my friend, and I’m going to call this friend Kitty.’ (20 June 1942)
And yet ironically, it was precisely because she invented ‘dearest’ Kitty that she could bear to write down with such detail what she ate, what people wore, what was on the radio that night. But then, in tune with what she is saying in this extract, the diary is remarkable because she ranges over her personal life, her movement of emotions between anger with her mother, love for her father, contempt for, in particular, co-dweller Mrs van Daan and her slowly burgeoning love for Peter. She also takes on issues affecting girls and women – sex education and what a girl or a woman can feel entitled to do in life. She talks about the position of Jews as Jews, in relation to Christians and of course under Nazi persecution. But she also listens to the way the war is going and shares the household’s delight when the Nazis are being beaten back. In fact, Anne Frank was one of those rare beings who see themselves as a personal, social and political creature all at the same time. We are all three and every act she makes and every thought she has is permeated with all three levels of consciousness.
In the new ‘unexpurgated’ edition of the diary, just published, which includes passages previously thought too personal, it is good to see that the Anne we already knew was ‘even more so’. Where she was interested in sex, now she is more open about her discussions with Peter and more frank (!) about her body. She explains to ‘Kitty’ what her body looks like. Where she was mocking of her co-dwellers in the hiding place, she is now more explicit and, without cross-checking in great detail, I was more aware of her irritation with her mother.
There is no doubt in my mind that Anne Frank’s diary in any of its editions is one of the key texts of European literature. It crystallizes one of the most horrific and absurd moments in human history. Anne demands to be read because we want to know more and more about how a young girl and her family lived at this time. But it also demands to be read because we want to ask ourselves the question over and over again, why did she die? Anne Frank cannot answer that question. That is for us to figure out and if we do not, we are all in peril.
The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank, The Definitive Edition , new translation edited by Otto H Frank and Mirjam Pressler, translated by Susan Massotty, Viking, 0 670 87481 7, £16.00 (forthcoming Puffin paperback, June 1997, 0 14 038562 2, £4.99)
Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary – A Photographic Remembrance , Ruud van der Rol and Rian Verhoeven for the Anne Frank House, introduction by Anna Quindlen, Puffin, 0 14 036926 0, £6.99
Anne Frank , Richard Tames, Franklin Watts ‘Lifetimes’ series (1989), 0 86313 890 X, £8.99
Michael Rosen is a poet and novelist and the presenter of Radio 4’s Treasure Island . His latest book is You Wait Till I’m Older Than You! (Viking, 0 670 86729 2, £9.99 hbk, Puffin, 0 14 ……, £3.99 pbk).