Try the other wrist

Lara Feigel

  • The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s by Werner Sollors
    Harvard, 390 pp, £25.95, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 05243 7

In the spring of 1949 Klaus Mann moved from hotel room to hotel room in Amsterdam and Cannes, contemplating suicide. He was isolated and depressed and sure that the situation in postwar Germany was to blame. He was working on a novel which he intended to call The Last Day. He had already made a botched suicide attempt in Los Angeles, described in almost humorous detail by the hero of his novel, Julian: ‘Trying the other wrist. Another blade. Getting angry. Butchering … Couldn’t he find that artery? Or had he found it, after all?’ Julian proposes a Suicide Club, a League of the Desperate Ones for world-weary intellectuals to register their protest by taking their own lives. He knows he may be turning a personal crisis into a political challenge, but in a world where the personal and the political are becoming hard to separate, he thinks his death can serve as ‘a signal, a challenge, an appeal’.

During the war Mann had attempted to dream a new world into existence, first as a writer in exile in America and then as a soldier in the US army, reporting from Italy for the military press. This world would, he hoped, have its apotheosis in a liberated Germany, where anti-Nazi intellectuals like Mann himself would be empowered by the Allies to lay the cultural foundations of an enduring pan-European peace. Visiting Munich at the end of the war – still in uniform – he discovered that many of the artists he admired had compromised with the Reich. The Americans and British, he realised, were too busy trying to feed a starving population and rebuild their ruined homes to worry too much about the intellectual future of the country. The Manns’ family home had been bombed by the allies after the Nazis used it as a Lebensborn, a eugenicist brothel where Aryans were brought together to procreate. By 1947, Mann was no longer welcome either in Germany or in the US. According to his FBI file, he had been a ‘premature’ anti-fascist and was now under suspicion as a fellow-traveller, yet he was too melancholy for cold warriors in either country to take seriously. Regular calls from self-satisfied German intellectuals for his father’s return turned the ambivalence Klaus had always felt towards Thomas Mann into alienation.

When Klaus committed suicide in Cannes in May 1949, it was left to his sister Erika to spell out the meaning of the Suicide Club described in his unfinished novel. She told American audiences that the deaths of Virginia Woolf, Stefan Zweig and her brother were a kind of statement. They had died, she claimed, ‘not because they had failed in their own private or public lives’ but because the world – ‘this particular star’ – had become uninhabitable. ‘“Look out!” these dead ones keep calling to us, “Danger! You’re on the wrong road, the road to barbarism and disaster!”’

Werner Sollors was born into this world. As a baby he was carried by his mother across Germany on a five-month trek from Silesia to Thuringia. They were among the millions of Germans turned into Displaced Persons (DPs) under the terms of the Potsdam Agreement of August 1945, which redrew the boundaries of their country. Weak with hunger, they slept on straw on the floors of schools or in open-air camps. Sollors’s mother avoided being raped by Russian soldiers by keeping her small son on top of her at night. Her own mother had died after falling from an open freight train outside Dresden; on the road she learned of the death of her daughter, whom the authorities had forced her to abandon in a hospital along the way. Suicide rates were high in Germany in the years immediately after the war but most of those giving up on life were too hungry and weak to make a gesture of their deaths along the lines of the Suicide Club.

Until recently Sollors, who teaches English and African-American studies at Harvard, avoided writing about Germany, but his new book returns fascinatingly to the ruined landscape of his childhood. He argues that we’re wrong to see the Allied occupation as a prelude to the West German economic miracle. The occupation is often remembered as the moment when young Germans took to jazz and, like Sollors, aped the casual manner of the American soldiers posted in their country, but it was primarily a time of hunger and misery, as the Germans burrowed into ruins, or joined crowds of ragged DPs trekking across the country. ‘We Germans are very ill,’ an editorial in the Stuttgarter Zeitung stated in October 1945. ‘Sometimes we seem to be closer to death than to any hope of recovery. We are in danger of succumbing to a gnawing rot. The horsemen of the apocalypse have descended on us. Their hoofbeats are still ringing in our ears.’

Three months later John Dos Passos reported in Life magazine that the Americans were ‘losing the victory in Europe’. Visiting Germany as an army journalist, he found that Europeans, ‘friend and foe alike, look you accusingly in the face and tell you how bitterly they are disappointed in you as an American.’ The years that followed the German surrender were desolate both for occupiers and occupied, as Sollors illustrates with examples drawn from a curious assortment of texts and photographs that complicate and sometimes counteract the prevailing despair. Along the way, in italicised asides, he adds his own childhood memories, which are all the more striking for their brevity.

For the Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman, Cologne Cathedral loomed ‘melancholy, sooty and alone in a pile of rubble with a fresh red wound along one side which seems to bleed at twilight’. The novelist Alfred Döblin likened the ruins of the Tietz Palace, a Berlin department store, to ‘a man whose neck has been snapped with one blow, whose skull has been driven down onto his chest’. The flattened cities made onlookers think of natural disasters: Dagerman found Germany ‘drearier than the desert, wilder than a mountain-top and as far-fetched as a nightmare’. The ‘inner emigrant’ Erich Kästner thought that the splintered churches were like ‘wrecks of gigantic steamships’ hurled onto land by a cyclone. Others tried to avoid metaphor altogether. In her report for Life, Gertrude Stein kept her prose measured: ‘Off we all went to see Germany. We had seen it ruined from the air and now we saw it ruined on the ground. It certainly is ruined and not so exciting to look at.’

Photographers exploited the eerie contrasts created by the ruins. Fred Kochman photographed a nicely turned-out postman picking his way through the rubble lining Frankfurt’s city hall. In Munich, Lee Miller was photographed soaping herself in Hitler’s bath. Walter Sanders caught the wife and daughter of an American soldier drinking tea in a luxurious dining car, looking out at the train next to them, in which DPs were squashed into boxcars. Sollors has unearthed interesting and troubling material about the DPs. Visiting one of the former concentration camps in which they were housed, Louis Lyons, a Boston Globe journalist, found that Sudeten Germans had been robbed of their property ‘under the eyes of the American army’ and forced to wear yellow armbands. GIs, he imagined, would feel that ‘this is the sort of thing we were sent to Europe to end.’ In a report to Truman, Earl G. Harrison, dean of the law school of the University of Pennsylvania, complained that the US forces in Germany were treating the Jews as the Nazis had, except that they weren’t exterminating them. Three months after the war, many Jewish DPs were still in concentration camp uniforms – ‘a rather hideous striped pyjama effect’ – while others were obliged to wear SS uniforms.

Also troubling was the racial divide imposed by the US army on their rank and file. Sollors has turned up writing by Americans and Germans that worries about the US insistence on democratic equality in Europe, on the one hand, and the segregation of its own armed forces, on the other. African-American soldiers in Germany had an unexpected insight into the tolerant behaviour of their country’s former enemy. This was dramatised in two novels of 1948, by the German Hans Habe (who had returned from exile in America) and the American William Gardner Smith. Both books portray affairs between black GIs and white German women that are ultimately doomed because of the attitude of the American army. Smith’s hero finds it odd that ‘in the land of hate, I should find this one all-important phase of democracy,’ while Habe’s protagonist finds himself forced by his liberty-loving commanders to abandon his child or go underground and work as a black marketeer in the ‘democracy of desperation’.

Between three and four thousand children were born to German mothers and black American fathers in the decade after the war, most of them given up for adoption. The 1952 film Toxi opens with a mixed-race five-year-old girl being left on the doorstep of a bourgeois Hamburg family. ‘I don’t wish Toxi to play with my children,’ says Theodor, the son-in-law of the house. ‘She could have a contagious disease.’ Wilfully misunderstood by his father-in-law, Grandfather Rose, Theodor has to make his prejudice explicit: ‘I mean the race problem.’ The family is reduced to silence. Sollors analyses Toxi at length: he describes the genesis and early versions of the movie, as well as its reception, and recalls seeing it himself and wanting a mixed-race sibling. He teases out the limitations of a film that wants to redeem the anti-Semitic past by preaching tolerance towards a darker-skinned child and questions the moral credentials of the actor Paul Bildt, playing Grandfather Rose in Toxi, who had appeared in Nazi propaganda films during the war. Sollors eventually exonerates Bildt on the grounds that he was protecting his Jewish wife and daughter.

One way to deal with a compromising past was simply to pretend you’d never had Nazi sympathies. When she edited her diaries for publication in 1954, the German journalist known as ‘A Woman in Berlin’ cut a section admitting to a degree of complicity with the Nazi regime. Like many literary figures at the time, she distinguished herself from the masses who were duped by Hitler but, writing as the war ended, she remembered an encounter in Paris two years into Hitler’s rule when she’d flirted with a man in the Jardin du Luxembourg before discovering he was a Dutch Jew. ‘What did we still have to talk about?’ Looking back, she confronted her own problematic views and dismissed the claims of the people around her who professed never to have supported Hitler. ‘Was I myself in favour?’ she asked in a passage that she later excised. ‘Opposed? In any event I was in the midst of it and have inhaled the air that surrounded us and coloured us, even if we did not want it to.’ She may have been sensible to remove this passage in 1954 but when she wrote it in 1945 the occupiers at least would have approved. Allied officials found it hard to know whom to trust when the whole nation claimed always to have resisted Hitler and often felt they understood repentant Nazis better than their supposed opponents.

In the end Sollors’s ‘tales from the 1940s’ are about cultural products rather than the artists, writers and photographers who made them. Though we learn that Paul Bildt and his daughter tried to commit suicide after the Russians entered Berlin (she died and he survived) we learn no more than that. In a discussion of Martha Gellhorn’s novel Point of No Return, Sollors tells us that Gellhorn was changed by her visit to Dachau; but he doesn’t say that her fury was compounded by a failed love affair with General James Gavin, whom the Americans had put in charge of Berlin.

Germany left its mark on the work of many outsiders. Sifting through different versions of Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, much of it shot in 1947 in the Soviet-occupied zone, Sollors tracks the gradual evolution of what began as a piece of de-Nazification propaganda into a film with a thoughtful, almost forgiving view of the Germans. As the script developed, Wilder – who had left Berlin in 1933 – rewrote the part of the former Nazi nightclub singer (played unforgettably by Marlene Dietrich) as a sympathetic figure. He had created this possibility at the moment he cast Dietrich, a fellow émigré who played a crucial part in boosting American morale during the war. Indeed, the sequinned dress Dietrich wore in the film was the same gown in which she’d shivered while singing to American soldiers in Italy and Germany. Dietrich’s character, Erika, although an unrepentant Nazi, was too sexy for the occupying soldiers not to melt under her gaze – and the camera followed suit. By the time he’d finished the film, Wilder had accepted Erika’s defence that after losing her country, her possessions and her beliefs, she had a right to survive. Despite her own misgivings, Dietrich emerged triumphantly as the film’s female romantic lead.

Attitudes could also change abruptly. The Swiss photographer Werner Bischof was so upset by his tour of Germany that he stopped documenting nature and concentrated instead on human suffering. The American George Rodger went in almost the opposite direction. His shot of a small boy turning his head away as he walked past a row of naked corpses was first published in Life with the caption ‘a small boy strolls down a road lined with dead bodies near camp at Belsen.’ The editorial stress fell on the indifference of the Germans to their misdeeds; but as Sollors points out, the child seems to be averting his eyes from a sight he is too vulnerable to confront. In fact, as Rodger knew and Life’s editors in the US ignored, the boy was not German but Dutch, and had been separated from his parents and sent to Bergen-Belsen. It matters whether someone is a traumatised victim or a hardened bystander, Sollors explains, because this is the question that he and many of his contemporaries later came to ask about themselves. The ease with which a scene could acquire an entirely different meaning between exposure and publication shook Rodger’s faith in his medium. When he discovered that he could stand in Belsen and work out ‘a nice photographic composition’, he knew the time had come to stop: ‘I felt I was like the people running the camp – it didn’t mean a thing.’ He decided he would never again make war a subject of his work.

Rodger’s generation of artists and journalists were forced to ask themselves whether their work was a legitimate means of overcoming the temptation of despair. Sollors clearly feels that it was and relishes the novels, films, diaries and photos he’s discovered. Though he began the book with a gloomy epigraph borrowed from Klaus Mann, he ends with a coda on jokes: he is fascinated by the gallows humour in which Berliners in particular excelled (they called it Schändungshumor or ‘violation humour’), and which runs through the Wilder film and the diaries of ‘A Woman in Berlin’. After 12 years of Nazi pomposity, the Germans were relieved not to have to take themselves too seriously and the occupiers encouraged mockery. Together, Germans and Americans would make fun of the Hitler salute, as Wilder has Dietrich do when she hails her American protector, saying: ‘I have a new Führer now. You! Heil Johnny.’ Shortly after VE Day, the cover of Life showed a GI called Hubert Strickland saluting with a smile and a rigid, outstretched arm in front of a gigantic swastika.