There were many ways to purge the past, and Jähner excavates different experiments Germans pursued — in writing, in lovemaking, in abstract art. Though some people remained locked in “bastions of their bitterness,” others dived into “unimaginable sociability.” They took pleasure in music, danced when it got loud and admired the relaxed postures of American soldiers. There was hustle and bustle in the broken new places like Dresden, where 40 cubic meters of old rubble piled up for every surviving resident.

In one stanza of “Inventory,” Eich refers to his “bread bin” in which he stored his woolen socks. And, he added, “some things that I will reveal to no one,” a phrase, Jähner says, that is “perhaps the key to the whole poem,” possibly a reference to the complicity of Germans in waging war and murdering innocent Jews in Europe. An early film bore the title “The Murderers Among Us,” but this sentiment did not linger. Hannah Arendt, the American philosopher who grew up in Germany, recounted a postwar visit. Published in Commentary in October 1950, “The Aftermath of Nazi Rule” summarized her impressions: When the “other fellow” figured out she was Jewish, he paused, embarrassed and “then comes — not a personal question, such as ‘Where did you go after you left Germany?’; no sign of sympathy, such as ‘What happened to your family?’ — but a deluge of stories about how Germans have suffered.”

Germans strained to create equivalence between the suffering they had caused and what they had suffered during the bombings and expulsions, often lamenting the propensity of “mankind” to wage war. “The average German,” Arendt commented, “looks for the causes of the last war not in the acts of the Nazi regime, but in the events that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.”

In his final chapter, Jähner surveys silence on Jewish death as well as chattiness about German suffering, and he says that the “loud calls” of many Germans for an amnesty for Nazi criminals indicated that they were, in fact, “surrogates for the majority.” On the one hand, Germans evaded the crimes by making them universal, and on the other, admitted their own complicity by advocating a general amnesty. Jähner is counterintuitive but thoughtful. The amnesty, admittedly “an intolerable insolence,” was “a necessary prerequisite” for “the establishment of democracy in West Germany” because “it formed the mental basis of a new beginning.” Such a paradox of reconciliation is infuriating, yet hard to dismiss.

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