Walter Kempowski's last novel Alles umsonst (trans. All for Naught) was something of a departure for the great postwar chonicler. Most of his fiction - including Letzte Grüsse are highly autobiographical. And his epic work Echolat is a collective diary about World War II from the German perspective based on real diaries, documents, photographs and letters. But Alles umsonst is a work of historical fiction where the author has narrowed his focus to the fate of one family in East Prussia. With the precision of a Dutch master, Kempowski paints the life in this small corner of Germany, before it was swept away for good by the war.
It is the winter of 1945, the fifth winter of the war; the landscape is frozen and inhabitants of the von Globig estate Georgenhof are frozen in time. For the most part, the war has left the von Globig family unscathed: food is plentiful, the young Peter von Globig can while away his time in his room with his microscope while his mother can retreat into her bedroom and read books. Her husband was transferred from the Ostfront just in time, and is an officer in the Wehrmacht, overseeing the plundering activities in sunny and warm Italy.
The war seems distant, and the folks in this corner of Germany appear to be in denial. The von Globig household has a compulsion for keeping the doors in Georgenhof closed, as if shutting out the reality of what is to come. Some harbingers of the coming disaster make their way west from Silesia and pass through the estate; an eccentric stamp collector, a sensual female violinist who is also an ardent Nazi - they warn Katharina von Globig and her housekeeper, the energetic Tantchen, about the approaching Red Army. The family,and indeed most of the inhabitants of the area, are paralyzed, waiting for instructions from the "authorities". The tenuous idyll is finally shattered when the emotionally withdrawn Katharina is bullied by her local pastor into providing overnight shelter for a fugitive Jew. The trickle of German refugees fleeing to the west becomes a flood, and sweeps away the von Globig family along with the entire way of life. The flight to the west is a nightmare of death and destruction - for most in the novel, it was "all for naught".
Kempowski portrays a German people who are trapped: trapped to be sure by the approaching Red Army, but also trapped in way of thinking that ultimately spells doom for them. They think nothing of seeing prisoners abused as slave laborers in the frigid cold, although they have an uneasy feeling that they will have to pay a terrible price for this in the future. Basically, they are passive - unable to act even for their own self-preservation as the forces of destruction close in on them. On the other hand, Kempowski refuses to judge them; no character is completely good or evil. The pastor who risks his life for the Jew is a unpleasant man who was a leader in the Deutsche Christen movement - the Nazi perversion of the Protestant church. The local Nazi tyrant saves a young boy from certain death through an act of self-sacrifice. Kempowski simply chonicles human behavior - the heroism, the cowardice - at a moment in history when the institutions of civilization have collapsed.
Kempowski prefaces the novel with a stanza from Martin Luther's great hymn Aus tiefer Not schrei’ ich zu dir which seems to emphasize the futility of all human endeavor:
- Bei dir gilt nichts denn Gnad’ und Gunst
- Die Sünde zu vergeben.
- Es ist doch unser Thun umsonst,
- Auch in dem besten Leben.
(But love and grace with thee prevail, '/O Lord our sins forgiving /The holiest deeds can naught avail / Of all before thee living.)