On February 20, 1933, twenty-four men, “twenty-four black, brown or cognac overcoats, twenty-four pairs of shoulders padded with wool, twenty-four three-piece suits, and the same number of trousers with darts and a wide cuff,” exit their big black sedans and enter the Reichstag lounge, on the edge of the Spree, where Hermann Goering had summoned them.
These twenty-four Nazi leaders, whose names, Krupp, Siemens, Opel, Farben, Schnitzler, Vögler, von Finck, Bayer, Rosterg, Reuter, Quandt, and Buren, evoked power and success, were, thanks to a succession of maneuvers, advantageous marriages, and dubious transactions, at "the nirvana of industry and finance."
Hermann Goering proclaims to them that the March 5 elections are imminent, and that if the Nazi party wins a majority, these March elections will be the last ones for the next ten years and even, he adds with a laugh, for a hundred years!
And then, at last, the arrival of the hero for whom they had waited too long, Adolf Hitler. The Chancellor pleasantly greets each of the twenty-four three-piece suits—without their support, his policy would have no chance of succeeding—and in a rousing speech he promises them that their victory in the March 5 elections will "ward off the Communist threat, will do away with the unions, and allow each boss to be a führer in his own business.
But to campaign and win the election will require money and "now, gentlemen," he adds, “the funds!” Krupp donates one million marks, the others follow. A tidy sum is collected.
A terrifying photo immortalized this meeting of February 20, 1933, and the unwavering support given by these twenty-four Nazi high priests to the war machine.
It is with this striking sequence, where past and future telescope into each other, that writer and filmmaker Eric Vuillard, born in 1968 in Lyon, and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, begins his story.
The Order of the Day features, via a spectacular art of dramaturgy and of the smallest detail, the main actors of the Anschluss. Hitler, surrounded by his generals, summoned several times to his residence “The Berghof,” in the heart of the Bavarian Alps, the chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg. Hitler subjects him to his ultimatums, his decrees, and repeated humiliations, inflicting on the chancellor a pressure the outcome of which is inexorable. Either he accepts everything, or Hitler invades Austria.
On March 12, 1938, Hitler, supported, acclaimed by the Austrian Nazi party, makes a triumphal entry into Vienna, and without significant opposition, annexes Austria. It's a day of jubilation. Not a single shot tempers the cheers. How sad. Called on to show their approval, 98% of Austrians vote for unification with the Great Reich!
In the face of this forced coup, this violation of international law, how do England and France react? With a diplomatic protest! With a telegram. Words.
In London, Lord Neville Chamberlain befriended the Reich ambassador, Ribbentrop, he often invites him to dinner and even rents this aristocrat one of his beautiful apartments. The day after the annexation, Chamberlain invites Ribbentrop, appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, to a farewell lunch at Downing Street.
In Paris, that day, the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, signs with some hesitation a decree relating to the controlled appellation of origin of the wines of Emeringes, and sets the budget of the National Lottery.
As for the twenty-four entrepreneurs we had seen arriving at the Reichstag in the first chapter, we encounter them again at the end: the war for them was profitable, their fortune is immense, their businesses more flourishing than ever. Even in the darkest days of the war, their factories droned on, they never lacked manpower, the SS boasted to them about the living dead of the concentration camps, whose life expectancy in these factories run at an infernal pace, did not exceed a few months.
What is striking in Eric Vuillard's story is the intensity of each of the scenes, his way of revealing a version radically different from those in history books of these tragic episodes about which we had thought we knew everything. A version sometimes grating, sometimes ironic, bitter, singular, a mixture of fright and burlesque worthy of Charlie Chaplin.
So when the fabulous German army, in an unheard-of burst of momentum, crosses the Austrian frontier, a tiny grain of sand immobilizes the vast majority of armored vehicles and heavy artillery vehicles. The road is completely blocked. The best army in the world broken down, out of gas, invites ridicule. It is a gigantic traffic jam, so monstrous that it was necessary to load these tanks onto train platforms; "It must have seemed ominous those trains rolling at night, like hearses, across Austria, their cargo of armored cars and armored vehicles."
For Eric Vuillard, the order of the day is to revisit and read and write history differently. Vuillard "seeks the truth scattered in all kinds of dust."
When Brooklyn Jews made claims for reparations for the abominations they had suffered, Krupp agreed after two years of negotiations to pay each of the survivors of the Nazi camps one thousand two hundred and fifty dollars to settle all accounts. Over time, the amount allocated became increasingly meager, and then Krupp let the last survivors know he was no longer in a position to pay; the Jews had cost too much.
Basically, the world has not changed.
Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney