Sollors W. The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2014 pp. 390.
Abstract:People guiltily facing--or avoiding--the fact of the Holocaust after one of the bloodiest wars in history and after the violent end of a twelve-year dictatorship in which basic human rights were suspended, people now living under varying Allied military rules and calorie allocations in cities bombed to smithereens, in a country much reduced in size in which millions of refugees and expellees had to be accommodated while the world has recoiled in horror from it: perhaps it is not surprising that many felt, and some succumbed to, “the temptation of despair,” a phrase derived from Georges Bernanos whose work experienced a revived interest in Germany after World War II. The Temptation of Despair retraces narratives and reexamines images and films from the early postwar period, the public memory of which has been dominated by the success story of the creation of West German democracy that emerged in the course of the 1950s; and this success story has in itself been invoked to justify later wars and military occupations. The shadow of the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camp system loomed large, in explicit reportage and public accusation as well as in countless subtler forms of representation or in simple allusions, generating questions about guilt and complicity and giving the immediate period “after Dachau” which also brought much suffering in its own right a gloomier cast than one might have expected. The writers examined in this study include: an anonymous German 1945 diarist who published the immensely popular book A Woman in Berlin about the arrival of the Red Army; the Swedish avant-garde novelist and essayist Stig Dagerman and the British liberal publisher Victor Gollancz, both of whom reported on the living conditions they found in the British zone; the German Jewish modernist Alfred Döblin, best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz who returned after the war; the American experimentalist John Dos Passos who visited and wrote about postwar Germany; the Swiss playwright Max Frisch who kept a strikingly written diary of his postwar travels; the American novelist and journalist Martha Gellhorn who was prompted by seeing Dachau shortly after liberation to imagine a private revenge plot; the returning émigré journalist Hans Habe who worked for the American occupation authorities, then wrote critical novels about them; the Anglo-Irish writer and translator James Stern who described the posting of “guilt placards” in postwar Germany in a report he composed on the basis of his (and W.H. Auden’s) participation in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey and contributed vivid metaphors to suggest the look of bombed cities; the little-known German fiction writers Kurt Ihlenfeld and Gerhart Pohl who represented facets of the experience of millions of East German refugees and expellees against the background of wartime culpability; Erich Kästner, best known as a German children’s book author with complex and contradictory experiences in Nazi Germany who revised his diary for publication, as did the Berlin cultural journalist and diarist Ursula von Kardorff; the German teacher and diarist Ernst Schneider; the Polish Jewish survivor Anna Kaletska who in 1946 gave a wire-recorded interview on her horrifying wartime experiences and her first encounter with Americans; the Dutch Jewish survivor Sieg Maandag who was photographed at Bergen-Belsen shortly after liberation and talked about that experience much later; the African American draftee, Pittsburgh Courier journalist, and novelist William Gardner Smith, the skeptical German postwar modernist Wolfgang Koeppen, the radical American short story writer and long-time resident in the American zone Kay Boyle, and the former prisoner of war Kurt Vonnegut, all of whom wrote fiction about black G.I.s in postwar Germany; the German émigré legal scholar Karl Loewenstein who wanted to see the political theorist Carl Schmitt, deeply compromised by his engagement for the Nazi regime and legal system, brought to justice; and the mother of modernism, the American expatriate Gertrude Stein who visited Germany in the year before she died and wrote a characteristically odd piece for Life magazine about it;. The German film director Robert A. Stemmle took on the complex topic of mixed-race “occupation children” in a popular film, the key scenes of which were thoroughly revised in the production process. At the peak of his career as an Oscar-winning film director, Billy Wilder went back to Germany in 1945, edited the concentration camp documentary Death Mills—and then turned toward the surprising project of creating a film comedy about denazification and fraternization in four-power-occupied Berlin, starring Marlene Dietrich. One example each of the work English-born George Rodger and Hungarian-born Robert Capa did as professional photographers for Life magazine is offered for closer examination, and Life also cropped and touched up their work. Central to this book is Tony Vaccaro who, drafted as a young Italian American G.I. and equipped with his own Argus C-3 camera, was so affected by what he witnessed that he stayed on in Germany, working for Stars and Stripes and taking thousands of photographs of people, ruins, and people in ruins. The German photographer Fred Kochmann participated with many other photographers in the development of a camera ruin aesthetic. The Polish-born Ephraim Robinson, who survived the war in the Soviet Union, documented the years 1945-1948 that he spent in a Displaced Persons camp near Frankfurt in many photographs; the Jewish American detective writer Zelda Popkin worked in that same D.P. camp and wrote a novel about it. The experience of the postwar world was strong enough to inspire some established artists to enter new periods in their own creative careers. For example, George Rodger abandoned war photography altogether, and Tony Vaccaro became a fashion and celebrity photographer. The search for appropriate story lines and images led artists to draw on long traditions of representing human suffering and requiems for the dead as well as on a novel sense of living at a moment when surrealistic nightmares and nonrepresentational modernist art more generally seemed to have become a physical reality and made up a good part of the observable world. Some were attracted by the storehouse of literature and art to understand the postwar setting—as a scene from the Deluge or the Apocalypse, for example—but they also developed many unexpected metaphors and drew on such models as Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström,” Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” or Knut Hamsun’s Hunger—while others gave voice to a weird sense of humor inspired by the seemingly unprecedented incongruities that surrounded them, and perhaps it was black humor that ultimately helped those who managed to fend off the temptation of despair.
HUP catalog: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674052437