German Autumn by Stig Dagerman (trans. Robin Fulton Macpherson). University of Minnesota Press, 136pp., $17.95.
Much has been written about Germany in the aftermath of World War II, especially in regards to the hunt for Nazi criminals and the amount of guilt the German people ought to express for their complicity with Hitler’s regime. However, in the last two decades or so, the voice of those speaking on behalf of German civilians—who suffered tremendously at the hands of the Allied carpet-bombing or were expelled from German territories in the East by the advancing Red Army—has become more audible. Some of these voices are borderline revisionist in nature and include the conservative German politician Erika Steinbach; others, for instance the late author W.G. Sebald, do not attempt to exonerate their countrymen but rather argue that the suffering of civilians traverses political and nationalistic dimensions and thus affects us all.
Stig Dagerman, the wunderkind of Swedish literature in the ten years before he committed suicide in 1954, was on assignment from the Swedish newspaper Expressen when he traveled around Germany in the autumn of 1946. These objective dispatches, now published in the U.S. for the first time, are laden with the misery he encounters on his trip through Germany occupied by the Western Allies (not surprisingly, he didn’t visit the Soviet zone). Having spent the war in ostensibly neutral Sweden, Dagerman rejects any notion of the survivors suffering deservingly, writing instead with equal empathy and perceptiveness of hard-headed Nazi officials and ordinary women and children. In his foreword, Mark Kurlansky ascribes Dagerman’s candor to his ability to “show compassion,” which, “required a considerable amount of courage” in Germany in 1946.
In most of these brief articles, Dagerman shows the trials and tribulations of civilians trying to make ends meet while living in ruins. Thus, the scarcity of food and shelter is juxtaposed with halting attempts to answer for past transgressions and political allegiances. It’s a difficult job, given that, as we are told time and again, the German civilians saw their post-WWII situation as totally unacceptable. As Dagerman explains, they even argue that things had been better under Hitler, blaming the occupying powers for their current condition. While a handful of the interviewees define their situation as payback for Nazi crimes, others cling staunchly to the belief that “whatever people can say about us Germans and what our soldiers have done in other countries, we have not deserved the punishment we are getting.”
Caught between the apathy and cynicism exhibited by the anti-fascists and the Nazi fellow-travelers, Dagerman reminds us as much as himself that the “journalist who backed out of the autumn cellar should have been humbler, humble in the face of suffering, however deserved it may have been, for deserved suffering is just as heavy to bear as undeserved suffering.” Yet at times his account reminds us of how the process of distinguishing between victims and perpetrators takes on absurd dimensions, as is the case of the hastily organized denazification courts. The effectiveness of these courts was questionable at best, given how many high-ranking Nazi officials were never prosecuted, but the spectacle is nonetheless indicative of the mindset of those ruined by war, where the survival instinct trumps all notions of solidarity or fairness. As Dagerman notes, some demanded an amnesty for members of the SS, calling them idealists who only served their country. We are also told that exonerating documents or testimonies were frequently bought for “a couple of hundred marks,” including from Jews who would testify that so-and-so had been nice to Jewish people during the war. The underlying narrative forms an expression of anger at a collective punishment that the Germans regarded as barbaric—clearly the connection between their punishment and similar methods inflicted by their soldiers on Nazi-occupied Europe was lost on them.
One of the most striking elements of this collection is the description of ruins that Dagerman sees everywhere. “We pause before houses where the outer wall has been ripped away, reminding us of those popular plays in which the audience can watch life being lived on several different levels simultaneously.” Paying attention to the ruble was a risky business—not only did it make Dagerman vulnerable, it also caught the attention of the locals who would immediately single him out as an outsider. “The stranger betrays himself immediately through his interest in ruins,” Dagerman notes, suggesting that the locals have become immune to the sight, then draws comparison between bombed-out German cities and Guernica and Coventry. While the connection seems apt, sometimes Dagerman’s talent for analogies betrays his project of empathizing with each individual by reducing all destruction to a common denominator, a strategy which even his interviewees rejected by pointing out that some of them were better off than others, especially those who had profited financially from their dealings with the Nazis and could now afford the best apartments. Taking the train with his guide in Hamburg, he writes, “apart from the two of us no one looks out the window to catch a glimpse of what is perhaps Europe’s most dreadful collection of ruins.” But what about Warsaw, which the Germans systematically destroyed following the Warsaw Uprising? If nothing else, Dagerman’s comment shows how little was known at the time about the true cost of WWII.
German Autumn is an important addition to war reportage, and, given the ongoing civil wars and other conflicts around the world, it is also a lasting testament to the misery inflicted on civilians by military campaigns. The ruthless German survivors Dagerman wrote about, whom he calls “Germany’s most beautiful ruins,” stand as testimony to what happens when humans fall prey to political demagoguery. The past continues to haunt Germany, but it should also serve as reminder of the true, human cost of war, borne not just by those who perish but also by those spared individuals who find themselves saddled with the enormous task of collecting the pieces and moving on. Both Steinbach and the late W.G. Sebald, holding up the mirror of the past before their countrymen, have attempted to fill in the gaps that formed whenever the post-WWII generations of Germans attempted to talk about the war with their parents and grandparents. However, while Sebald’s nuanced aim was to expose what had been hidden or erased from memory and public discourse, Steinbach’s project is geared more toward broadening our idea of who the victims were, particularly in Europe, so that in addition to Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and other people whom the Nazis deemed inferior, the German civilians be recognized for their suffering and misery. But it’s clear that Dagerman’s eyewitness account, written in 1946, achieves something greater, for while it refuses to play the blame game, it also shows that the Germans who survived the war were well aware of what had happened to them and why, which in turn goes a long way toward reminding us why the truth, however inconvenient, about both victims and perpetrates of every war and conflict must always be brought to light.
Piotr Florczyk is editor and translator of The Folding Star and Other Poems by Jacek Gutorow, Building the Barricade and Other Poems of Anna Swir, and Been and Gone: Poems of Julian Kornhauser. He lives in Los Angeles.
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