Crime and Punishment
The rediscovery of Gert Ledig's novels, first published a decade after the war but long since out of print, marks one of the real triumphs of recent German efforts to explore the past. As a young man Ledig volunteered to serve in the Wehrmacht; he was wounded on the Eastern front in 1942 and wound up in Munich, where he experienced repeated Allied air attacks. He drew on both experiences for two remarkable novels, The Stalin Front (1955) and Payback (1956), the former now available in Michael Hofmann's felicitous translation. Stylistically, the novels are somewhere between Döblin and Robbe-Grillet, leavened with a bit of Céline's fiendishly dark humor. Both novels restrict themselves to a minute description of external events as perceived by lone individuals peering out of a foxhole, a bomb shelter or a flak tower. The result is a tunnel-like apprehension of reality, alternately violent, terrifying and sordid. The only relief from this narrative claustrophobia comes in the form of brief italicized passages that offer ironically lyrical flashbacks to a previous life, or laconic biographical statements by the protagonists in grotesque contrast to their wartime identities:
I, Heinrich Wieninger, lieutenant in an anti-aircraft unit, born on 9 September 1911, trained as a cook and was due to take over our hotel on my father's 65th birthday. At the age of seven I was cutting onions with my right hand. At the age of twenty I was stroking a girl's bare shoulder with my right hand. Three years ago I used the same hand to cut off a dead man's legs. He was lying in the snow, he had frozen to death and he owned a pair of fur boots. I couldn't thaw out the whole body, so I took the boots with the chopped-off legs and put them in our dug-out. When they warmed up, the legs fell out. It was very easy.
Neither of Ledig's novels shies away from this kind of macabre, matter-of-fact description of war; both are formally challenging. Yet The Stalin Front became a popular success, whereas Payback (from which this excerpt is drawn) was denounced by reviewers as intolerable, even pornographic, and quickly disappeared from circulation. Why? The answer, I think, lies in their very different content. However disturbing its individual details, The Stalin Front is basically a cry against the horrors of war. The common soldiers behave honorably, and even the Russians are decent. (There is no mention of atrocities on either side.) The problem lies with stupid and cowardly generals; one orders the soldiers to keep fighting while fleeing in his pajamas. Ordinary German readers who had fought on the Eastern front, or had lost a husband or son there, could identify with the novel's unnamed but valiant protagonists, depicted in fierce combat with heavily armed opponents, not defenseless Russian civilians and Jews.
Payback is infinitely darker. The title itself (Vergeltung in German) is a grotesque reminder to the Germans that Hitler had promised to "pay back" the English with his "V," or Vergeltung, rockets; instead, the English paid back the Germans, and Ledig's implication is that they got what was coming to them. Even more disturbing is how the Germans behave in the midst of catastrophe. A soldier shoots three Russian slave laborers in cold blood. A man trapped in a bombed-out shelter with a young girl (who has herself refused to carry an old woman to safety) rapes her and then refuses to call for help, leading to both of their deaths. An American pilot is shot down and lynched by an angry, sadistic mob; the most fanatic of the bunch are a pimply boy who stares at the helpless victim with "the indifferent face of a child torturing an animal" and a medical doctor who beats the pilot with a poker while in a state of sexual arousal. Through it all, the narrator remains scathingly ironic about Germany and the possibility of religious consolation. "God on our side," he writes at the novel's end, mimicking a popular Nazi slogan. "But he was on the others' side as well." This was not the kind of memory that Germans wanted to cultivate in the 1950s.