In the Ruins of the Reich

The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich
Lara Feigel, Bloomsbury  464pp  £25

It is one of the most startling pictures of the end of the Second World War, taken in May 1945, soon after Hitler’s death. Lee Miller, the American photojournalist, sits in the bathtub of Hitler’s apartment in Munich. His portrait stares at her from one side, while a classical nude statue looks on from the other. At the feet of the bathtub stand her army boots, still muddy from her recent visit to Dachau.

How could the same Germans, who loved culture and enjoyed a modern standard of living, have been mass murderers responsible for the greatest crime in history? This question has agitated generations of writers, but in this fascinating book Feigel takes it in a particular direction: might literature and art also be able to cleanse the Germans?

Miller is merely one in a dramatic cast of US, British and German émigré writers and artists who Feigel follows through the rubble of occupied Germany. They range from the flamboyant Martha Gellhorn, the great war correspondent, to Marlene Dietrich, the exiled movie star, and Nobel prize-winning novelist Thomas Mann. We know a lot about each of these individuals. What is fresh and exciting about this book is that Feigel gives us a moral group portrait. She compares their hopes and disappointments about the German people, their guilt and chance of redemption.

Those who like a good story, will find plenty of drama and vivid detail. Gellhorn was upset by the corpses of the camps but she also loved to dance the night away – for nine hours at a time. Dietrich, who had become a US citizen in 1939, visited the country of her birth shortly after VE day, only to find out that her sister and brother-in-law worked with the SS in Belsen. She made sure that the British army did not throw them in jail, but nothing more. For the rest of her life, she would deny she ever had a sister.

Feigel is more than a good storyteller. She identifies two schools of thought. Miller and Mann represented one group, marked by a deep disillusionment with the Germans based on a belief in their collective guilt. Each and every German was guilty: Mann included himself in this category for not having spoken out earlier against the Nazis. To them, Germans showed no remorse and were beyond redemption. The poet Stephen Spender and the playwright Carl Zuckmayer were more hopeful. How could children have been responsible for the crimes of their fathers? The young might be saved and weaned off militarism by liberal arts and culture.

The great strength of this book may also be its one weakness. So focused is the lens on these British and American writers, that it can leave the German population a somewhat grey mass. Ultimately, we learn about Spender and Gellhorn, not the German soul. Starvation and disease, Feigel writes, made it ‘increasingly absurd’ for Germans to ‘think in terms of guilt’. This may be too simple. In 1946, shame and remorse were still a theme, as in Wolfgang Borchert’s play The Man Outside. That year more than two thirds of Germans approved of the war crimes trials. By 1950, it was the reverse. The struggle for survival played a role in this shift, but so, too, did Germans’ moralisation of their own suffering and the competition to establish their own victimhood, reinforced by the plight of the 12 million Germans expelled from the East and struggles over compensation.

Feigel has a keen eye for a catchy phrase to sum up developments, but sometimes they are too neat. After the Nuremberg trials were over in late 1946, she writes, ‘the Germans were transformed from prisoners to subjects’. Reality and morality were more complex, contradictory and murky. Germans in 1946 ranged from fanatical Nazis and soldiers who had participated in mass killings to German Jews and communists who had survived the Nazi camps. They included prisoners-of-war as well as raped women and those who had lost their family and homes during the allied bombings. By 1950, they would include over 100,000 people, mainly social democrats, who were interned in socialist East Germany.

Against the high hopes of Spender for a cultural rebirth, the allied occupation comes out very poorly. As Feigel rightly notes, by the early 1950s many higher positions in the arts as well as the civil service were once again filled by old faces. But because denazification was not complete, does not mean it was a complete failure. The vast majority of Nazi functionaries were actually punished, killed or interned: by the summer of 1946 there will still 120,000 of them in internment camps in the western zones. The confrontation with guilt retreated, but at least the space for any Nazi successor movement had been erased. It was the next generation that took on Spender’s vision of moral renewal.

Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London. 

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