In David Vaughan’s Hear My Voice, a young (Czech- and German-speaking) man travels from England to Prague to interpret for the British politician Edgar Young. The man, the novel’s narrator, arrives in Prague at the end of 1937 in the middle of the diplomatic crisis between Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany about the status of the border region known as the Sudetenland. When the narrator arrives, the crisis has drastically intensified because of the Anschluss, or unification, of Nazi Germany with Austria. The novel’s plot traces the political developments of 1938 as Nazi pressure on Czechoslovakia increases and the allied powers—England and France—back down in the face of Hitler’s demands, isolating and ultimately dooming the Czechoslovak state. The novel reaches its climax with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich, where, the prime minister believes, he has secured lasting European peace by assuaging Hitler’s lust for land and power. The novel’s narrator, like the reader, knows better—it is just the beginning of the horror.
While Hear My Voice moves over well-traveled historical ground, it does so from an interesting perspective—that of the beginning of large-scale broadcast radio. The narrator is a fly-on-the-wall as he is dispatched as an interpreter with radio journalists to cover the year’s events. This story of the emergence of radio as a source of knowledge and as a tool of propaganda is compelling—both narratively and media-historically. As the situation in the Sudetenland deteriorates, Vaughan has the German-speaking communist Gustav Beuer tell the narrator, “… the broadcasts from the Reich, they are infecting hundreds and thousands of people every day. Radio has turned them into fanatics…” After listing to Hitler’s speech at the Nuremburg party rally, the narrator reflects, “Radio had played an awful role at that moment. Like an angry god, Hitler had used radio to cast rods of hatred through the ether.” After the speech, the narrator encounters a woman whose sons have fled the Sudetenland into Germany, most likely in preparation to fight on the Nazi side. The narrator notices that the “radio was covered with a cloth that for a moment reminded me of a shroud.”
Radio is both hero and villain in Hear My Voice, or, rather, it is stubbornly neither. Its immense power can be harnessed for “good” by the likes of Alice Masaryk, the daughter of the first Czech president, by brave truth-telling reporters like William Shirer, or by intellectuals like writer Karel Čapek, who implores the Sudeten Germans to engage in cross-cultural dialogue, addressing them by radio, “Nations cannot talk to each other directly, but people can.” Sadly, these humanitarian pleas and sober reports are drowned out by the shouters, the proponents of hate and delusion—Konrad Henlein, Goebbels, and Hitler. Nefarious, too, are those who try to minimize the Nazi threat: German sympathizers, anti-Bolsheviks, and those afraid to confront the ugly realities of a radically new European politics.
Hear My Voice is more of a fictionalized history of the year 1938 and less of a novel in the traditional sense. It is propelled by historical events. Its characters are mostly real historical figures, and the fictionalized elements surrounding the narrator and his relationships are not explored with much depth. The one exception to this is the relationship between the narrator and Emmanuel Reichenberger, an anti-Nazi Sudeten German priest, with whom the narrator reconnects later in the novel. The narrator finds Reichenberger in Nuremburg in the 1950s, where the priest is engaging in an utterly repugnant form of historical revisionism, or perhaps attempting to write the first version of the history of the war, in which the German people and especially the Sudeten Germans are cast as the principle victims. The reader of Hear My Voice can only cringe as the narrator, apart from a brief account to Reichenberger of the burial of the victims of Lidice, allows the priest to have his say. Reading this scene, one imagines the bloated priest in George Grosz’s painting Pillars of Society—thus allowing one’s thoughts to spiral back to a previous stage of the rise of the racist, fascist rightwing populism (1920s) that eventually led the world into one of the bloodiest wars of all time.
Hear My Voice demonstrates the significance of reflecting on the year 1938. A new medium, radio, has created a new type of public, expanding the reach and deepening the impact of political propaganda (sound familiar?). Race-based nationalism defines identity, justifies imperialism, violence, and oppression, and eclipses ideals of common humanity, a respect for difference, and a longing for peace. In the novel, we see that many people, including those in power in politics and media, treat the events of 1938 as ordinary, when in fact everything was fundamentally other. Hear My Voice shows us that the awareness of a new reality doesn’t take a prophet. It just takes a person, like the narrator, who possesses basic common sense and a moral compass—and who pays attention to what is going on. Read this book. It reminds us about the stakes of doing nothing, of seeing what is radically new as business as usual, and about what happens when the shouters of hate and violence get their way. A year is only 365 days. 1938 became 1939. And 1939 brought war.
Publication Date: June 13, 2019