Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment

A recent surge of novels and memoirs reveals for the first time the ways in which Germans suffered from Allied “total war” strategy during World War II.


Are the former Allied nations willing to acknowledge German suffering and loss during World War II? Are they willing to question the morality of the means by which they won the war, even the firebombing that laid waste to 131 German cities and towns, and killed more than half a million people (most of them women, children and the elderly)? Or was the extremity of Nazi aggression so great, the urgency to defeat Hitler so compelling, that the Allies have effectively been shielded from the kind of moral scrutiny that has been focused on the use of atomic weapons against Japan? However one might answer those questions today, for much of the postwar period the occupying nations on both sides of the Berlin wall felt little reason to justify their actions. Germans grumbled mightily among themselves, but any public airing of their grievances was subject to severe constraints and cold war manipulation. And when the German children born during or shortly after the war came of age in the heady years of the late 1960s, they demanded that Germany view the war through the lens of non-German victims, not that of its own losses. German victimhood became politically incorrect.

But the dead return; unacknowledged suffering claims its due. That seems to be the lesson of the German war memories that have washed over the new Berlin Republic in the past few years. Diaries, memoirs, historical novels, academic studies, documentaries and even feature-length films have piled up at a formidable clip, testifying to a long pent-up need for expression. Interestingly, most of these reflections do not come from conservatives or spokesmen of the far right but from former New Leftists who reshaped the politics of German memory in the late 1960s and early ’70s and adamantly opposed the attempts of Ernst Nolte and other historians in the mid-’80s to compare Hitler’s crimes to Stalin’s purges and other instances of mass slaughter. The same people who insisted on the “singularity” of Nazi atrocities and rejected the very notion of historical comparison (for fear of relativizing the Holocaust and diminishing German responsibility) now speak of the “unparalleled” destruction of German cities and openly question the morality of the Anglo-American Bomber Command.

This reversal in the politics of German memory has alarmed many observers, who worry that Germany’s current fascination with its own victimhood signals a desire to let the specificity of Nazi crimes fade into a historical continuum of other war crimes. In fact, the recent interest in German suffering represents an extension of Holocaust memory, not its demise. What has changed is the willingness of the ’68 generation to consider the full scope of wartime suffering–even that of their own parents and older relatives. Precisely because German recognition of the Holocaust is no longer in doubt, a new generation of Germans has come to understand the war in less ideological, less Manichean terms. Individual suffering, not a simple tallying of perpetrators and victims, is beginning to emerge in striking historical detail and complexity.

Which is not to say that this process of maturation has come easily or without contradictions. Consider the case of W.G. Sebald, whose 1999 book The Air War and Literature (misleadingly titled in English On the Natural History of Destruction) set off much of the current German debate. Born in 1944 in a rural mountain region untouched by the war, Sebald came to an anguished awareness of his country’s past during his student years in Freiburg and, later, in England, where he first met German-Jewish refugees. As with so many of his peers, the political awakening was also personal: His father, who had made his career as an officer in the Wehrmacht, never spoke about the war, participating in what the son angrily called a “conspiracy of silence, in every German household.” Sebald ultimately went into a self-imposed exile from the Federal Republic, devoting his academic work to “minority” writers at the margin of high German culture (Jews, but also Austrians and Swiss) and focusing much of his literary work on the Jewish victims of German aggression.

In On the Natural History of Destruction, however, Sebald turned to the Allies’ firebombing of German cities–and to the Bosch-like scenes of carnage, pain and trauma it inflicted on a largely civilian population. Why is it, he asked, that the horrendous experiences of millions of Germans left so little trace in postwar German literature (and, by extension, in the population at large)? At once accusatory and empathetic, his response is a study in the contradictory attitudes his generation developed toward their pro-Hitler mothers and fathers. On the one hand he denounces the Germans for repressing the memory of their own suffering, while on the other he insists on the traumatized victims’ “inviolable right” to remain silent. And in a paradoxical (and somewhat questionable) attempt to remedy the gap, he devotes pages of his essay to a graphic representation of the firebombing in all its horror–a descent into literalism that is notably absent from his literary evocation of Jewish suffering.

Shortly after the heated public debate over Sebald’s argument subsided, a historian named Jörg Friedrich published a 600-page study titled The Fire: Germany in the Air War, 1940-1945, which vividly and emotionally described the air war from a German perspective. Like a man with a movie camera, Friedrich takes his readers into the burning cellars and rivers, into the collapsing buildings and howling firestorms–into what he calls the “Leideform,” or specific “form of suffering,” experienced by the German population on the ground. His subsequent edited volume of photographs gives a condensed and almost unbearably explicit version of The Fire: devastated urban landscapes as far as the eye can see; neatly stacked piles of charred, rigid bodies; an incinerated, grotesquely shrunken corpse sitting in a bucket.

Intentionally or not, these photographs uncannily reprise the now familiar images of Holocaust death, and like those images they serve as both documentation and denunciation of their subject matter, in this case the Anglo-American decision to target the highly flammable medieval city centers and their largely civilian populations, not just the railways, oil refineries or munitions factories located on the periphery. What is the morality, Friedrich asks, of the so-called “morale bombing” in late February 1945 that destroyed Pforzheim, a small medieval town of no military or strategic importance, killing more than 20,000 inhabitants (a third of its population) in a few hours? What is the morality of the “science” that English strategists perfected during the course of the war to turn urban centers into raging infernos that burned or suffocated German civilians, many of them children who had no role in supporting the Nazi regime?

To raise such questions doesn’t diminish the barbarism and inhumanity of the Holocaust. Nor does it cast doubt on the need to defeat Hitler. Much of the bombing–even including, perhaps, the late destruction of Dresden in February 1945–had an explicit military rationale. (The English historian Frederick Taylor has recently argued that the city housed many small munitions factories and that its railway hub was being used to funnel German soldiers to stop the Red Army’s advance from the East.) What is more, not all of Friedrich’s methods can be defended: He deliberately appropriates Holocaust terminology to describe the Allies’ “extermination” techniques or the “crematoria” of burning buildings, and he makes copious use of traumatized contemporary witnesses, whose accounts are notoriously unreliable. But Friedrich is a provocateur, not a Holocaust denier. A former Trotskyist who has written books on Wehrmacht crimes in Russia and the scandal of Nazi judges in the Federal Republic, he knows that National Socialist ideology aspired to create an empire “cleansed” of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and the infirm, and based on a racial hierarchy in which Russians and Poles were reduced to slavery. But in exploring these questions he does indict the means by which the Allies forced Germany to surrender. The strategy of “total war,” he argues, engendered evil on both sides, and though Hitler initiated the practice, the Allies followed him down an ultimately criminal, unjustifiable path. In this sense The Fire represents the continuation of his generation’s indictment of National Socialism–except now the finger is pointed at the Allies, and sympathy is extended to the civilian Germans who were their victims.

Following the popular success of Sebald’s and Friedrich’s works, German publishers have printed (or reprinted) a number of accounts by contemporary witnesses, some of which have now been translated into English. One of the most striking is by Hans Erich Nossack, whose book The End describes in spare, unsentimental prose the firebombing of Hamburg in July 1943. Written a few months after the event, this “report” was published after the war in Germany and hovered at the margin of public memory there; it appeared in English translation for the first time last year in a somber, even funereal, edition, the text framed by blackened pages front and back. Nossack’s account owes its existence to his good fortune in having left Hamburg three days before the bombing for a summer cabin located some ten miles south of the city. From that vantage point–close enough to see the “flying fortresses” overhead and the huge fire on the horizon but far enough away to be out of physical danger–he experienced the destruction of his home as a spectator. “I was spared the fate of playing a role in it. I don’t know why,” he writes. Nossack then traveled into the bombed-out city–a modern-day Dante descending into the realm of the dead–to interview thousands of survivors who were so traumatized and confused they could barely speak or register emotion: “Those who were known to have experienced unimaginably frightful hours, who had run through fire with their clothes burning, stumbling over charred corpses…why didn’t they cry and lament? And why this indifferent tone of voice when they spoke of what they had left behind, this dispassionate manner of talking, as if telling about a terrible event from prehistoric times?”

On the other hand, Nossack has lost all of his belongings and become a refugee overnight, not just because the house he lived in no longer stands but because he has lost his relation to a lived past: the sight of St. Catherine’s tower glimpsed each time he looked up from his desk, the recordings of Handel and Palestrina he played at Christmas, the diaries recording twenty-five years of his inner life as a writer. He is confronted not with a damaged city but with the absence of every familiar landmark–not devastated streets and buildings but crude paths winding over hills of rubble. People huddle together like animals, cook food over open campfires, wander aimlessly in search of basic necessities without thought for the larger political and historical context. In the blink of an eye his world has metamorphosed into a Kafkaesque landscape that is terrifyingly unfamiliar, abstract, almost timeless: “Nothing in our surroundings recalled what we had lost…it was something else, foreign, impossible.”

Nossack has only disdain for the Nazis, whom he refers to merely as “the State” or “the powerful,” and he notes that at least initially the Hamburg survivors showed no anger toward the Allied bombers, no desire for revenge; they experienced the destruction as some ineluctable, inscrutable “fate.” Nossack sounds a rare false note by describing the catastrophe as the beginning of his “real life,” even as a bizarre kind of existential “liberty” and “fulfillment.” This mythicizing tendency may disappoint readers looking for political and social analysis–for a reflection on the origin of the war, say, or shame about Nazi policies toward Hamburg’s Jews, most of whom had fled or been deported to the death camps. Some historical details peek through the narrative, as in this passage indicating that the authorities used slave laborers to clear the buildings: “What do you want in there?” one of the guards asks Nossack while blocking his way. “We saw prisoners in striped suits working. They were supposed to stack the dead.” For the most part, however, Nossack’s report focuses on the condition of German victims trapped in brutal elementary circumstances. The literary particularity of his text lies precisely in what it doesn’t say: in the shocked, almost affectless silence of the victims for whom society, ideology, indeed time itself have become meaningless categories.

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.

For much of the cold war the mass rapes of more than a million German women and girls by Russian soldiers were a strictly guarded taboo for East and West Germany alike. (In Italy, by contrast, the sexual violence of North African troops assisting the Americans became the subject of a bestselling novel and a film with Sophia Loren.) East Germans were not allowed to publicly defame their Russian “liberators,” of course, but West Germans also balked. Consider the remarkable account of these crimes written by an anonymous female journalist in Berlin at the end of the war. She couldn’t find a publisher until 1954, and then only in the United States. When a German edition came out in Switzerland in 1959, German reviewers lambasted her “shameless immorality” and charged her with “besmirching the honor of German women.” Although photocopies of the text began to circulate in the 1970s among feminists and some members of the New Left, A Woman in Berlin was not printed in Germany until 2003. (The author was reportedly so incensed by this reception that she refused to let the book be published in Germany during her lifetime; even today readers continue to doubt the authenticity of her account.)

The diary covers a remarkable period of German history, from late April to mid-June 1945, when Germany was defeated, Hitler committed suicide and Russian troops occupied Berlin. The lawlessness of the city–its bombed-out buildings without electricity or water, its streets strewn with corpses and torched vehicles–is hard to imagine. The Russian soldiers, who had not seen their wives or girlfriends for years (the Red Army did not give home leave), went on a spree of looting and sexual revelry, raping some 100,000 Berlin women in a few weeks. The author of the diary was raped several times by different soldiers until she decided to preserve herself from random violence by choosing one officer to act as her protector–a decision made by many women, which exposed them later to charges of collaboration with the enemy. Once she finds a cultivated and kindly major, she admits that the intercourse between them is no longer rape. “Am I doing it because I like him or out of a need for love? God forbid!” But when she asks herself if she is doing it for “bacon, butter, sugar,” she acknowledges that the relationship gives her food and hence independence. What she experiences from the German men is perhaps just as damaging. When her fiancé finally returns from the front, she finds herself “cold as ice” in his arms and is glad when he is through. “For him I’ve been spoiled once and for all.” After hearing the women’s stories of their rapes, he calls them “a bunch of shameless bitches” and goes off with one of his war buddies.

Here we can see the reason this topic remained off-limits for so many years: not so much because the women were ashamed as because the men were doubly humiliated, first for having lost the war on the front, and then for having been unable to protect their wives and daughters at home. Some of the most devastating remarks in this diary concern the emasculation of German men–the “miserable and powerless” civilians who grub for food and stand idly by as the Russians claim their sexual booty; but also the returning soldiers with their “stubbly chins and sunken cheeks” who inspire only pity, “no hope or expectation.” “The Nazi world–ruled by men, glorifying the strong man–is beginning to crumble,” she remarks; the end of the war marks the “defeat of the male sex.”

Throughout the violence, hunger and loss of her apartment and friends, this remarkable woman manages to preserve her sanity by recording her observations in an astonishingly precise, unsentimental form (elegantly translated here by Philip Boehm). A professional journalist who has traveled widely and speaks some Russian, she is attentive to her surroundings as well as herself. Like Nossack she refrains from self-pity; after one of her rapes she asks the sobbing women around her, “What’s the matter, I’m alive, aren’t I? Life goes on!” But she is more politically and socially attuned than he is. She notes, for instance, that the Berliners standing in long food lines for a few scraps repeat a common Nazi saying from the “good” years before the war: “‘For all this we thank the Führer’…. Today the exact same words have precisely the opposite meaning, full of scorn and derision. I believe that’s what’s called a dialectic conversion.”

Political opportunism swells with the Russian success: “Everyone is now turning their backs on Adolf, no one was ever a supporter. Everyone was persecuted, and no one denounced anyone else.” As news of the death camps filters in at the end of her diary, she quickly latches on to the “sickness” and “insanity” of the German atrocities. “The radio just broadcast another concentration camp report. The most horrific thing is the order and the thrift: millions of human beings as fertilizer, mattress stuffing, soft soap, felt mats–Aeschylus never saw anything like that.”

Nossack and the Berlin diarist maintain an understated, factual tone that is in keeping with the trauma; they sensed that the catastrophe itself was enough, that they didn’t need exaggerated laments or special literary effects. The diary of a German soldier who fought in Russia, which will appear in English translation later this fall, A Stranger to Myself provides a telling counterexample to the spare texts of these professional writers. Drafted during the war, Willy Peter Reese is one of the few soldiers who kept an extensive diary of his experiences on the Eastern front. (The Wehrmacht discouraged the writing of diaries, fearing that valuable intelligence might fall into enemy hands.) Unskilled yet literarily ambitious, Reese gives us a wildly subjective, at times delirious, account of the hunger, arctic cold and fear that beset the German troops in the disastrous campaign against the Red Army. Very little of the world around him emerges with any sharp contours. His head is filled with Rilke and Jünger, with metaphysical speculations on death and war as “purifying,” “elevating” experiences. The brute materiality of combat and bodily need sometimes bring him back to earth, but the minute his fear or hunger wanes he reverts to misty, inward-looking ruminations. He notes almost nothing of the enemy populations around him; no Russian civilians, no Jews, no houses with kitchens and beds and children. A rare exception is his brief remark about a Russian woman whose breasts the soldiers smeared with shoe polish before making her dance for their amusement.

Was Reese a victim? A victim of Nazi propaganda, Hitler’s megalomania and the lack of military planning that sent him and millions of other young Germans to war without adequate clothing, food or medical supplies? The question seems at once too simple and grossly inappropriate. Reese remains silent about the atrocities he must have witnessed (or helped to commit) against unarmed Russians and Jews; he and millions of other Germans helped wage a criminal, racist war. However, his diary doesn’t allow us to cast him in the faceless role of “enemy” soldier and unfeeling or sadistic perpetrator. Instead we see a young, naïve man full of hopes and plans; an aspiring poet who rages against the role of “killing machine” that he has been forced into; and finally, a soldier who is oblivious to the suffering around him and does what he is told.

Uwe Timm’s recent memoir, In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS, provides a much more probing look into Hitler’s war on the Eastern front, and also provides a striking example of how closely the new politics of German memory trace the generational fault lines of the late 1960s. Timm, one of Germany’s pre-eminent novelists, joined the German Communist Party in the 1960s and participated in the student rebellion. His memoir reveals the deep personal origins of this revolt–the ambivalence toward his nationalist and militarist father, as well as the jealousy toward his older brother, who became a member of the Waffen SS at 18, died from battle wounds suffered on the Russian front and was then idolized by his parents. Born in 1940 in Hamburg (where, at the age of 3, he survived the Allied bombing described by Nossack in The End), Timm has only a few hazy memories of his brother on home leave, but he grew up after the war with his father’s constant reminders of the gap between him, the “afterthought,” and his heroic fallen brother.

It was only after the death of both his parents and his older sister that Timm felt free enough to investigate what his brother did during the war, thus exorcising this family specter by assembling a more complete, if still fragmentary, portrait based on family stories, photographs, letters and the spare war diary his brother kept from February to August 1943. Each laconic entry raises disturbing questions for Timm’s moral conscience. A casual reference to a “big louse hunt” prompts the worry that his brother was not just delousing his uniform but doing “something very different”–that is, getting rid of the Russians and Jews described by Nazi propaganda as “lice” and “vermin.” In another entry the brother describes a Russian soldier smoking cigarettes, just 250 feet away, as “fodder” for his machine gun–a remark that initially forced Timm to lay the diary aside.

Ultimately, it is the very ordinariness and lack of specific information that prove most unsettling. “I close my diary here,” his brother writes in the final entry, “because I don’t see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen.” What are these cruel things? Timm wonders. Do they refer to the victims of Nazi aggression or only to the Germans themselves? Unlike many letters posted from the front, the brother’s diary includes no anti-Semitic remarks or stereotypical phrases about the Russian or Jewish civilians. On the other hand, it never questions the SS’s systematic murder of the Russian and Jewish civilians who initially welcomed them: “It seems the people in these parts haven’t had anything to do with the SS before. They were all glad to see us, waved, brought us fruit etc., so far there’s only been Wehrmacht quartered here.” This gap in narration points to a human “ordinariness” that is “terrifying”: “[My brother’s] notes show neither a killer by conviction nor incipient resistance. What they seem to express–and this I find terrifying–is partial blindness: only what is ordinary is recorded.”

This is the point where one senses the personal stake in Timm’s memoir: the fear (without the certainty) that his own brother committed atrocities, perhaps even the fear that he might not have behaved differently in his brother’s shoes. Equally mesmerizing are the pages in which Timm delves into the fascination he still feels for his father, the bogeyman of his youthful rebellion. For before he became the emblem of everything that was wrong with Nazi Germany, his father was a resourceful and successful businessman, an elegant raconteur who could charm his female customers and his drinking buddies (and, of course, his young son). Finally, Timm’s Oedipal journey takes us back into the raw memories of earliest childhood, when he was a “mama’s boy,” raised by his mother and sister while his father was in the army and a POW camp. This father is an uncanny, unwelcome intruder; Timm’s first memory of him is of a “strange man in uniform” lying in his mother’s bed, a pistol on the bedside table, and the “smell” of his leather holster and tall, shiny boots: “I saw him lying there with his mouth open, snoring. He was on leave. If I sniff my watchband I can once again catch that smell of sweaty leather, and he, my father, is closer to me than in any of my pictorial memories.”

These are the tactile memories of childhood, more Kafkaesque than Proustian, that lie beneath the generational conflict that has etched itself so forcefully into postwar German history. It has taken a long time for the “good Germans” of 1968 to recover them, and to acknowledge the depth of their own familial connection to the horrors of the war. The fact that German memory is now focused on the dead of Dresden and Hamburg, and the raped women of Berlin, won’t neutralize Holocaust memory. That lesson is too deeply ingrained in the German psyche, and the millions of tourists who now flock to Berlin every year to visit the “Holocaust Mile”–stretching from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, past Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum–will make sure that it stays there. The real question is whether the victors of World War II will be willing to examine the historical simplifications that have long provided a consensus about the “good war.” If the recent resurgence of war memories in the new Berlin Republic has anything to tell us, surely a crucial element is the importance of individual historical experience that resists the either/or logic of victimhood. In a sense, arguing over whose victims can be counted is another way of continuing the war–a war that may truly be over only when we stop feeling the need to deny the Germans their stories of suffering and loss.

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