Ernst Udet, Meet Erich Landt

Erik Larson describes Martha Dodd’s, Sowing the Wind as the tale of “a good-hearted World War I flying ace” being “seduced and degraded” by Nazi brutality. [In the Garden of Beasts 359] Her tale is redolent of W. H. Auden and Igor Stravinsky’s A Rake’s Progress. No, the anti-hero does not sell his soul in the first act to a Shadow figure and spend the rest of the opera in slow descent. In Dodd’s parable, both the soul-selling and the descent (or degradation) take the entire novel to transpire. The final reckoning for Dodd’s Tom Rakewell character is more chilling than even a confinement to Bedlam.

That Tom Rakewell is Erich Landt, heavily based on the actual German aviator, Ernst Udet. Notice the phonetic and graphic similarities between the two names. Clearly, Dodd felt no need to obscure the historical source of her character whom Larson says was one of her “past lovers.” [Ibid] If anything, she was almost at pains to underscore it. The similarities with which she wrote about these two characters, actual and fictional, are striking.

Physically, Dodd described Udet as a “delicate little pudgy penguin of a man with…bright birdlike eyes,” [Through Embassy Eyes 266], while Landt “looked like a little penguin.” [Sowing the Wind 249] Of Udet’s character, Martha wrote, “He lived by and on thrills–he was an adventurer at heart, romantic, reckless, nerveless, honest, with a sense of humor unmatched by any German I have met on personal, informal terms.” [EE 261] Indeed, he was “one of the most interesting men” she met while in Germany. Others have noted Udet’s fast lifestyle and party-boy image. As for Landt, he was “a decent fellow,” according to a secondary character, and “a magnificent flyer, with incredible courage. He drinks like a fish and loves the air as he would a woman. He even has a sense of humor and he has all sorts of friends. That combination makes him quite a man!” [SW 7]

In her memoir, Dodd never says she dated Udet, but she makes clear that they were more than acquaintances when she starts sentences with, “I would sit by the hour watching him….” Elsewhere: “It was a miracle to watch how [Udet] maneuvered his car and one felt intuitively that he could handle any kind of machinery with the same confidence and brilliance of performance. He handled it lovingly and with joy….” [EE 262] And so she described her Landt, too, driving “with furious speed to the hangar. As always the handling of a machine, even a car, quieted his nerves.” [SW 242]

But flying was Udet’s–and Landt’s–true love. Dodd had the privilege of flying with the ace more than once. She described one such occasion at some length in her memoir. “We must have arisen very high because the air was icy and hard to breathe.  He sounded to me a above the roar of the engine and raised both his arms high into the air.  At first I didn’t know what had happened but I soon caught the laughing twitch of his eyes as he indicated to me that I should take the controls. I felt a very calm and not at all excited–and I had been up at this time only once before–and raised my hands too.” [EE 264] She gives her fictional character a similar experience, though related in a more concise passage: “Lina [her Dodd character] had been up with him before but never on such a mad flight in such windy weather. Today he looked bewitched at the control of his plane, his face brilliant and intense, his eyes strangely lighted.” [SW 97]

In life, Ernst Udet brought down sixty-two Allied planes during the war. He barnstormed, performing aerial acrobatics and surviving crashes for at least a dozen years between the wars. Dodd writes in her memoir: “It seemed that his life was charmed in his friends and confreres spoke almost mystically of ‘Udet’s luck.'” [EE 265] In Sowing the Wind, Landt has two brushes with death in his airplane. After the first, the plane’s designer exclaims, “I’ve never seen a man control his plane [after losing a wing] so superbly. By God! You must have a charmed life!” [SW 30] Following the second, a friend tells him, “You’ll kill yourself one of these days.” To which Landt responds, “And what better death could there be for me?” [SW 111]

Ernst Udet was a reluctant Nazi party member. It was a cost of the opportunity to develop planes for the Luftwaffe. Dodd probably did not understand the technical side of flight, but she recalled Udet “once said airplanes should have no propellers” and that he “watched fascinated and envious the flight of a feather or a bird through the air.” [EE 266] In her novel, then, she has Landt proclaim, “Propellers are wrong. They’re against the very theory of flight. A plane flies in spite of them, not because of them….” [SW 219] Was Landt/Udet anticipating the development of jet propulsion? Dodd uses the word “glider” repeatedly, which may describe Udet’s intentions, or perhaps not.

By many accounts, Udet could hold his liquor. In her memoir, Dodd remarks that alcohol, even large amounts, hardly affected Udet’s marksmanship: “His rifle and pistol shooting had an incredible degree of accuracy and even when he had drunk far too many drinks the accuracy was not even slightly impaired.” [EE 263] She alludes to the same quality in Landt in her novel, to dramatic effect: “Though he had drunk more than a pint of whiskey he seemed, as usual, completely sober. He aimed carefully, steadily at the paper target. The report sounded abnormally loud in the stillness of the early dawn. When he stared at the target he saw that his aim was gone.” [SW 206] Why the miss? Landt had just been “approached” by the Gestapo: nerves, not alcohol, affected his aim.

The historical Udet was a patriotic German but not a fervent nationalist. When he did join the party, according to Dodd, “he was forced to accept a fanatic nationalism which could never accord with his international spirit. He often said that the air knew no boundaries, had no limited domain.  He admired and respected many people of enemy countries, he was at home in any society in any nation.  Though he was a deeply patriotic man, he had a thirst for travel in other countries.” [Embassy Eyes 265] He spent most of the interwar years barnstorming in the United States.

Thus, Dodd begins her novel with her Udet character, Landt, making his long-awaited return to Germany. All the principal characters, assembled in a restaurant/bar, eagerly asking him of his plans. The chapter closes with a third-person internal monologue on his friendships, in which Landt demonstrates his open-mindedness. “One was the Frenchman, Jacques Charlot…another was Baron Wolfgang von Richter who used to be in his squadron, and the third, Fritz Wassermann, the good-natured, easy-going Jew…. He was proud of his loyal friendships for such divergent men. He wanted to include Sorokin [of Russia] among them.” (His communist loyalties tested Landt’s liberality.) [SW 11]

While Udet was internationalist in his outlook, he was also “a deeply patriotic man.” [EE 265] Dodd recognized this tension and exploited it in her fiction. As soon as we meet him, Landt says to his barroom interlocutors, “What Germany has done recently is horrible, an outrage to the world. However, she may come to her senses. If not…” [SW 9] Over the next chapters, Landt repeatedly resists calls to join the Nazi party, especially those from his zealous brother, Werner.  “There’s a lot of corruption in the party,” he says by way of justification. [SW 87]  Later he tells Sorokin, the Russian communist he would like to call friend, “I’m still disgusted with my government’s policies. You must understand that I’m not a Nazi. …I’ll never be one.” [SW 193] These words, overheard by the Gestapo through their clandestinely-installed bugs, bring serious consequences to the jovial aviator.

Landt is not a partisan but still a patriot. To his lover, Lina, he says, “I love you with all my heart, more than anything in my life, except perhaps Germany….” [emphasis mine, SW 103] And later he tells her, “You’re incapable of understanding how a German feels. I don’t serve the Nazis. Germany is my home, my country, and it will always be that, Nazis or no Nazis.” [SW 194] But Landt, like Udet before him, does eventually join the Party. It is the only way he–they–can fully serve the country they love in the capacity they have trained for: as aviation specialists.

Generaloberst Ernst Udet

When he did join the Party, Udet was eventually promoted to colonel-general. Dodd didn’t bother with nuances of nomenclature and made Landt a straight general. Both were given the perks of party membership. Udet declined them, as a rule. In Dodd’s telling, “The Nazis tried to get him to live more extravagantly but Udet did not change the mode and habits of his life, still lived in a simple flat and enjoyed his hobbies.” [EE 265] Landt, by contrast, grew “fat” on the perks. He resisted only once, when he felt he was being outright bribed. [SW 252]

“Though he never admitted it,” Martha wrote in Through Embassy Eyes, I thought Udet was miserable the last two years in Germany.” [EE 265] She means her last two years in Germany: 1936-1937. According to the historical record, his misery only increased in the two years after she left, 1938-1939, and again in the two years after she wrote those words, 1940-1941. Udet, playboy and thrill-seeker, was not well-suited to a desk job as an administrator. But O’Brien Browne, in an 1999 Aviation History article, described how the “ambitious and scheming” Erhard Milch continually sought to undercut Udet vis-vis Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Göring. Wikipedia reports that “Göring tried to deflect Hitler’s ire by blaming Udet” for the failure of the Battle of Britain. He fared no better the next year during the stalled invasion of the Soviet Union–though he had warned against the action, in the first place. On November 17, 1941, as German troops dug in for a long Russian winter, Ernst Udet put a gun to his head and ended his life. Propaganda minister Goebbels allowed a different story to be published. While testing a new aircraft for the Nazi cause, “Udet’s luck,” it was reported, finally ran out.

The real life Ernst Udet has all the makings of a tragic figure; Martha Dodd’s Erich Landt does not. He is a Tom Rakewell character, on a “rake’s progress,” a steady descent regardless of the actions he takes. His character is alternately pitied and reviled rather than grieved. In the third act, after “a year and a day,” Rakewell’s bill to Shadow comes due. He loses his sanity and ends up in Bedlam. Landt, likewise, has unwittingly sold his soul to the Nazi devil. At book’s end he is left alone–family, friends, lover have all abandoned him–to face alone “the degradation of his life.” [SW 300] Even the Nazis, like Shadow vis-a-vis Tom, withdraw their conditional protection and cast him aside. A frozen post on the Eastern Front becomes his Bedlam.

Landt is a broken man. All that is left him, at book’s end, is to break other men. Captured Soviet soldier Pyotr Andreyev is presented to Landt but refuses to talk. Landt’s ire rises to an ever higher pitch with Andreyev’s every stalwart refusal to answer his questions. Three times, Landt sends Andreyev out for torture. Each time, he returns more bruised and bloodied than before, but each time he refuses to break. His stalwart intransigence turns Landt “almost insane with rage.” [SW 310] Finally, the man whom we first met being given a hero’s welcome, the man who guarded his independence, nurtured an internationalist spirit, and treasured the freedom of flight, that man, Erich Landt, became the monster he had once so abhorred. He became, not just in name but in brutal spirit, a Nazi.

At the close of the penultimate chapter, Landt declared to his concubine, Käthe, “I don’t kill for killing’s sake. And I never intend to.” [SW 299] Before the end of the page he has brutally beaten her. Before the end of the book, twelve pages later, he has murdered a man merely to satisfy his rage. Thus was Dodd’s stark statement on the fatal attractions and consequences of Nazi party membership on the individual German.



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