by George Salamon
Reviewed in this essay: The Temptation of Despair, Tales of the 1940s, by Werner Sollors. Harvard University Press, 2014, 400 pages.
“In those days I prayed for Hitler. I was still praying for him even though I listened to the BBC under my blanket. That was because I was afraid that something was coming at us that we wouldn’t be able to handle.” —Dentist, born1927, in Did You Ever See Hitler? (1975) by Walter Kempowski
THE DENTIST IN KEMPOWSKI’S BOOK of interviews was prescient. Germans in the zones of Allied occupation did not handle well what came at them in the four years of occupation, from 1945 to 1949. When the German Federal Republic was established, Germans were meant to confront the death and destruction Hitler’s Twelve-Year Reich had visited on much of Europe and finally on itself. That confrontation might have led to an examination of their own roles in and responsibilities for genocides, atrocities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity unprecedented in scope and brutality. Germans might have, as historian Ian Kershaw has summarized it, faced up to their acquiescence if not approval for escalating inhumanity to the level of the Final Solution. That reckoning was postponed, however. Instead, Germans battled despair brought on by the losses they themselves had suffered, and the deprivations and retaliations they had endured and felt they were still enduring.
That mood is what Werner Sollors attempts to capture in The Temptation of Despair, Tales of the 1940s. Jewish-American readers could learn much from what the author chooses to ignore and trivialize — and what they learn might be applied to their engagement in current American society.
Sollors, a professor of English and African-American Studies at Harvard and a child in Germany during the occupation and early years of the Federal Republic, quotes an editorial in a German paper from October 1949, describing the mood of that moment with the metaphor of illness: “We Germans are very ill. 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 upon us. Their hoofbeats are still thundering in our ears. Now we are tired, want calmness, rest, security, forgetting.” But it was neither illness nor four horsemen that had descended on Germans. Their inner rot was self-induced by years of moral blindness and passivity. And now, with their cities reduced to rubble and occupied by foreign soldiers, they succumbed to a “collective denial of the past,” as seen by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, German psychologists and authors of The Inability to Mourn (1967 German edition, 1975 in English). When questioned about Nazi crimes, Johannes Fest, father of historian and Hitler biographer Joachim Fest, snapped: “I did not want to talk about it then and I don’t want to talk about it now.”
Without mourning for their victims and themselves, there was no recovery in sight, no return to being human. “We cannot become humane until we understand our need to visit suffering and death on others,” social philosopher Hugh D. Duncan observed — but Germans were not propelled to do that until the 1960s and 1970s, when a post-Third Reich raised generation was ready to unearth what the one of their mothers and fathers had embraced and unleashed.
Sollors sticks to tales of the 1940s, and is therefore confined to showing passivity and fear, as exhibited in a photo of four Germans as they watch GIs entering their town on April 12, 1945. Germans were not capable, at that point, of a response to past or present, individually or collectively. As the Mitscherliches noted: “[W]ith the sudden reversal of his (Hitler’s) qualities, the ego of every single German individual suffered a central devaluation and impoverishment. That creates at least the prerequisite for a melancholy reaction” — and for the telling of Sollors’ tales of despair.
OBSERVERS OF THE POST-WAR GERMAN SCENE would not find a national self-examination of any depth for decades, but Sollors does not look back or ahead from the 1940s to explain why that would be. “Life is lived forward but understood backward,” Kierkegaard said, but Sollors doesn’t listen. He presents two picture postcards from and about the camps: In the first, a boy walks past piles of corpses lined up outside the Bergen-Belsen camp in April 1945, well-dressed and looking away from the bodies. He was, it turned out, a Jewish Dutch boy who survived and put on the clothes of another who did not. After unraveling the story of the boy and the photographer who took his picture, Sollors poses a series of questions, among them one about the possibility that the boy’s looking away “ultimately is not only about death and the temptation of despair but also may contain a small kernel of hope, of survival, embodied in this young figure, looking at the camera and moving forward…?”
We must move on, by all means, but adults must look at what we’re moving on from. Germans, and Sollors, recording their initial responses to the Holocaust, failed to do it. His next photograph shows readers a young boy looking at photographs on a public display labeled “These Atrocities Your Guilt” in June of 1945. As journalists in Germany at that time noted, it was “impossible to penetrate the silent masks of the natives” staring at the pictures. But here too, Sollors digs for a kernel of imaginary hope.
Germans needed liberation from silence and denial. It didn’t come as quickly as Sollors wants us to believe.
AND WHAT OF JEWISH AMERICANS who insist that the Holocaust should “never be forgotten.” Just what do they remember that could matter to them as human beings, as Americans and as Jews?
As long ago as 1988 Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld observed that “everything about (the Holocaust) already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology… Thence comes the need to bring it down to the human realm.”
The task was largely rejected because it brought anyone who attempted it face to face with an unbearable darkness. The diary of Auschwitz victim Salmon Lewental, discovered in the ashes after the war, recorded the story of a mother and her daughter about to be gassed: “She was hugging her (daughter) tightly. She spoke: ‘In an hour we shall die… My last hope will die with you.’ She sat immersed in thought, with wide-open, dimmed eyes… After some minutes she came to and continued to speak. ‘On account of you, my pain is so great that I am dying when I think of it.’ She let down her still arms and her daughter’s head sank down upon her mother’s knees. A shiver passed through the body of the young girl, she called desperately ‘Mama.’ And she spoke no more, those were her last words.”
Holocaust historian Lawrence Langer has cited this passage as one “the Holocaust was all about.” The camps were, as Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo wrote, “another world,” an anti-world which not only practiced physical destruction but the destruction of “the self as a spiritual being.” But passages like the one in Lewental’s Auschwitz diary, composing a “symphony of pain,” Langer notes, are rarely encountered by American audiences, who instead require the silver lining provided in the movie Schindler’s List, or the soap-opera framework of the 1978 television series Holocaust, to brighten a time and landscape from total blackness.
Americans may be familiar with photos of corpses taken after the camps were liberated. They may know a few numbers, “six million Jews,” and that others were persecuted and slaughtered as well, but they are sketchy about who these victims were and why they shared the fate of the Jews. They do not really understand, as British historian Richard Evans wrote, that World War II was “a racial war, in which the extermination of six million Jews… was a paramount war aim.” Almost as paramount was the killing of three million Poles, or the death of three million Soviet P.O.W.s out of the five-and-a-half million in German captivity — “Untermenschen” or subhumans all. That’s why the attempts to normalize Holocaust stories, to treat Nazi atrocities in narratives suited to traditional tales of good and evil, of suffering and salvation, don’t get what the Holocaust was about.
Primo Levi, Auschwitz inmate, was dying of thirst one day when he spotted an icicle outside the window of his barrack. He reached through the bars to grab it when a guard slapped it out of his hand. “Why?” Levi asked. “There is no why here,” (“Hier ist kein warum”) the guard shot back. To remember the Holocaust, American Jews need first to inhale it from the accounts that survived, accounts by victims and perpetrators alike. Otherwise, they will remain stuck with knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust in its Americanized versions and from the upbeat messages about humanity they sell. “Man is not human,” Levi countered, a message that goes against the American grain and liberal Zeitgeist. Unless they confront Levi, they will not understand that “where people believe absurdities, they’ll commit atrocities.”
IN MAY OF 1945, as the war in Europe ended, 3.1 million U.S. soldiers were stationed there, 1.6 million of them in Germany. (By the end of that year, the number in Germany fell to 600,000 under operation “Bring Home Daddy.”) About ten percent of these U.S. forces were African-American GIs. The army they served in would not be desegregated until July, 1948 (by executive order from President Truman), and even then desegregation proceeded slowly on the ground and even more slowly in spirit.
“For black soldiers, but especially those of the South,” writes General Colin Powell, “Germany was a breath of freedom. They could go where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and date whom they wanted, just like other people.” A breath of freedom indeed, but Werner Sollors claims that the presence of blacks in the U.S. Army’s occupation forces was much more than that, not only playing a role in the ensuing struggle for civil rights in America, but helping to liberate Germans from rigid and bigoted views of those not like themselves.
In the immediate post-war period, Germans often mocked American for lecturing about anti-Semitic hatred while continuing their own crimes against Blacks and maintaining segregation, even in the armed forces. In fact, Colin Powell’s breath of freedom was a quick one. I served at headquarters of the 4th Armored Division in Germany much of the time (1957-59) that he was platoon leader there in the 3rd Armored (1958-60). Black soldiers ate in the same mess halls and slept in the same barracks as whites — but they led separate lives once they left the post. Black GIs frequented their own beery hangouts and dated one group of German women; white GIs had separate ones for themselves. When two black soldiers entered a “whites only” establishment in Nuremberg’s old town in 1958, a rock-throwing and fist-fighting battle made headlines in the tabloids and led to the transfer of the local battalion commander.
Yet black GIs did indeed intrigue some Germans in those years. They introduced Germans to jazz, which had been reviled as primitive and degenerate “nigger music” by the Nazis. Many black GIs were generous to German children with chocolates and gum, and their cool masculinity fascinated many German women. Masters by virtue of uniform color not skin color, they exuded their power in a seemingly easy and smooth manner. Sollors insists that black GIs “taught (Germans) a new way of carrying oneself.” A German novelist explained what was meant: “They were strange soldiers: they were evidently unable to stand upright. They would generally lean against a wall, standing on one leg like storks, with the other leg bent at the knee and the sole of the foot lying flat against the wall. Others would crouch, always in the same position, their haunches on their heels; for hours on end they would sit there like frogs.” This casual body language, Sollors suggests, was transferred by Germans to the language of the mind, which loosened the tight and narrow stances and attitudes that had brought on the Hitlerian horror and catastrophe.
Yet surveys conducted in the late 1940s revealed that German views of Jews and blacks did not change much in the immediate post-war years. Germans were in shock and denial, and “exotic” black soldiers simply provided relief from physical and bureaucratic demands and needs. As for the U.S. Army “the specter of black GIs dancing with white women” in Germany “was a more powerful justification for continued segregation,” an Army report stated, even than arguments “about the inferior effectiveness of black units.”
GERMANS SUFFERED DURING AND AFTER THE HOLOCAUST YEARS because of what they did. Jews, Poles, Russians, and Roma (Gypsies) suffered because of who they were. That’s not the only difference. Suffering for God, country, or cause can lead sainthood and uplift. German soldiers on Russia’s freezing steppes died whispering “Ich sterbe damit Deutschland lebt” — “I die so that Germany may live.” Wartime suffering by soldiers and civilians also retains a piece of normalcy. Brits, during the German bombing blitz of London, endured suffering so that Britain could remain free; Germans in bomb shelters in Dresden endured suffering so the Germany could remain unconquered. Traditionally, our civilization has granted such suffering dignity and humanity. But the Holocaust turned that tradition topsy-turvy. Its victims were robbed of their humanity from the moment they were rounded up and taken to the places of their slaughter.
The suffering by Germans — the carpet-bombing of their cities, the expulsion of eleven million from territories in the East, the rapes of German women by Soviet soldiers — deserves to be chronicled and should be known by anyone interested in the history of the 20th century. But Sollors has concocted a panorama of “sufferings” without making the necessary distinctions before putting them together. The late Tony Judt explained that “The problem with historical events which are intricately interwoven [as those in Sollors’ book] is that, the better to understand their constituent elements, we have to pull them apart” before we weave them together. He therefore condemned studies of World War II and the Holocaust that turn into an “exercise in forced separation” or a “determined refusal to make any distinctions at all.”
Judt’s prescription for viewing Germans in post-Hitlerian despair is too demanding for Sollors. He allows us to see Germans in shock and denial in the 1940s, but we learn neither how they got there nor what happened to them since.
Once German cities had been rebuilt and its industries revived, Germans emerged from the cocoon of silence and denial, but not so much as cool swingers for openness and tolerance, or seekers of truth about how and why their culture of Goethe and Beethoven turned barbaric so quickly. Instead, they adhered to Bertolt Brecht’s adage: “First the stomach, then morality.” They filled their bellies during the 1950s Fresserwelle (wave of overeating), and their pocketbooks as well — “Hast du was, bist du was,” trumpeted the famous advertising slogan of a savings bank: If you’ve got some (money), you are somebody. Germans were on the way to being somebodies again.
The 1960s propelled them to initiate a national self-examination that continues until today. Its early spark-plugs were two trials: Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961) and the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt (1963-64). The latter splashed across the country’s publications the details of Greueltaten (atrocities) of this kind: “They (the Jews) had to jump into the water (in a ditch) and swim. Then they ordered a prisoner named Isaac… to drown his comrades. Finally they also ordered him to kill his own father. Isaac went berserk and started to scream. So Stark [an SS guard] shot Isaac in the water.” Similar stories filled German publications for months.
The generation of Germans born during and after the war began asking questions. They were the first Germans who tried to connect Nazi crimes to the social order in Germany, to economic and class factors, to the reality gap between values Germans pretended to and the ones they actually embraced. The youth rattled the cages of old-fashioned historiography and popular history in German journals. They built two bridges to two coming upheavals in the understanding of Hitler and Holocaust.
THE FIRST BRIDGE LED to the 1970s wave of nostalgia for Jews, so cultured and clever, so witty and warm, and so missed: “We had a sense of humor once,” a professor told the New York Times, “it was a Jewish thing.” Gone were the Jews, so Germans started the search for a German sense of humor, replacing the quest for Lebensraum their parents had pursued so fiercely. I lived in Hamburg for the 1973-74 academic year and experienced the surge of philo-Semitism that Israel’s wars have by now diminished. It was a time of mass protests in America and Europe, which inspired Germans to look beyond the Fuehrer’s psychopathology and eccentricities, and the murderous zeal of his Nazi followers. The whole wartime society, from the politics of its big industrialists to the aspirations of its poorest factory workers, from the capitulation of its universities to the resistance from its clergy and unions to National Socialism, were now examined. People asked not, “How could this happen?” but “How and why did it happen?” And of themselves they asked: “How would I have behaved?”
In the following two decades, young German historians shaped a much broader and deeper insight into what Germany’s “war generation” had perpetrated, and extended the involvement of “ordinary Germans” in the Holocaust: “From 1939 through 1944 the Wehrmacht did not wage a ‘normal or decent war,’ but rather a war of annihilation against prisoners of war, Jews, and other civilians, a war with millions of victims,” states The German Army and Genocide, a report from the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, which first toured as an exhibit and was seen by one million Germans. The report’s preface observes:
Precisely because in Germany the Holocaust was seen as the epitome of evil, it had to be ascribed to perpetrators kept rigidly apart from the rest of the population; linking it with the Wehrmacht therefore opens the floodgates and erases all distinctions, for the army included virtually everyone, and the survivors of the war became the founders of the postwar Germany.
Finally, silence and denial had to be completely abandoned, and by accepting collective responsibility — including by acquiescence and passivity — Germans could deal with the “eternal trauma” of National Socialism, the war and the Holocaust. A new Erinnerungskultur (culture of memory) could be shaped for all three, separately and together.
Nevertheless, In private life in Germany, the picture is dispiriting: “Germans, in general, are in denial about the depth of racism in their society,” the Atlanta Black Reporter discovered as recently as January 2014. Noah Sow, African-German author of Germany Black & White: Everyday Racism (2008) found that “general knowledge of white Germans about racism is somewhat comparable with the state of male ‘knowledge’ about the roles and treatment of women around 1850.”
And how have post-Holocaust attitudes toward Jews developed in Germany’s neat living rooms among family members and friends? A 2012 survey found that 15 to 20 percent of Germans harbor a “latent anti-Semitism” and about 10 percent consider Jews “lesser and worse” human beings.” Typical comments in the report included these: “The Jews have something special and peculiar about them and don’t fit in with us,” and “Even today the influence of Jews is too great.” Interviewees reported that “Jew” has become a pejorative in schoolyards. Sociologists were stunned to find that Jew-hatred flowed not just from extremist right-or-left wingers, but “from the center” of society.
AS FOR AMERICAN JEWS, they still have much to learn about how the kind of racism that drove Germany to genocide becomes an evil collectivism, and how the potential for that is universal. First, they will have to turn away from the triumphalism of feel-good movies about the Holocaust and admit that Hitler won that war, “six million to one,” as one historian put it. To get there, they will have to immerse themselves in the first two-thirds of the Holocaust — the war carried out against East European Jews, mostly with guns and mass graves — and weep for the little Jewish girl in rags from a Polish village and the gaunt, bearded Jew from a Lithuanian one, both unlike the assimilated, cultured and easily-identified-with Anne Frank. Finally, they should read the testimonies and diaries of people like Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz from 1941 to 1943, who described his job of gassing Jews in the language found on the website of Orkin pest control, explaining efficiency achieved through the use of advances in science and technology.
Then, perhaps, they should ask themselves if similar contempt for human life has not been expressed by American leaders. If American Jews examine their country’s slaughter of up to 600,000 Cambodians, possible more, by carpet-bombing B-52s between 1969 and 1973, they might come across a sentence uttered by a U.S. official at the time: “We had been told, as had everybody, that those carpet-bombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating, that nothing could survive.” Jews might then compare the “nothing could survive” policy, apparently readily accepted, with Nazi statements that sound a similar yet quite different tone.
In a speech on January 30, 1939, Hitler predicted that if war came, it would lead to “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” America did not express a desire to annihilate the Cambodian people, but ended up doing a hell of a job getting close to it. The ensuing rise of Pol Pot’s murderous, totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime then tripled or quadrupled the toll.
Germans came to believe that the Jews had to be annihilated to save Europe. American soldiers came to believe, as they burned Southeast Asian hamlets, that “We had to destroy this village to save it.” Not the same absurdities believed and atrocities committed, but absurdities and atrocities they were. Understanding how the Holocaust came about, and how its perpetrators and victims were engulfed by it, should help in making more understandable how much of America could embrace human slavery, or how the Belgians turned into barbarians in the Congo, how easily dehumanization of an “other” can spread swiftly and deeply in different cultures to then spread similar horrors. The Holocaust will stand out as a unique horror among them — but it can open our understanding of the other crimes, rather than obscure them because of its uniqueness.
As well-intentioned and decent as Sollors is, he plops German and Jewish sufferings into one grab-bag, not separating the differences before telling their “tales” in the years after the war.”Like the boy who looks at the poster documenting atrocities,” he informs us, “… I stared at many similar photographs when I was in middle school… German illustrated magazines reprinted images of the Nazi years regularly in the 1950s, and I clipped out dozens of them and made an album that included images of the Warsaw uprising and of skeletal figures at Auschwitz as well as a pamphlet about the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler.”
It’s good to have such an album, but it would have been better to show us how the history of the German people could lead to such photos. Better, too, to leave out the pictures of the “heroes” of July 20, 1944, who attempted to do away with Hitler not because of the horrors he had unleashed but because he was losing the war.
Sollors has written a comfort book about a subject that should discomfort all of us.
Seeing the Holocaust in such a context may lead American Jews to agree with Jakov Bok (the main character in Malamud’s The Fixer) that “there is no such thing as an apolitical man, especially a Jew.” The knowledge gained from study of the Holocaust should lead them to understanding why “especially a Jew.”
George Salamon taught German language and literature at Harvard, Haverford, Dartmouth, and Smith colleges. He served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. Salamon has published a study of the German-Jewish novelist Arnold Zweig and a reader in German history. He has written regularly for the Gateway Journalism Review, the New Verse News, and Jewish Currents.