The "Zero Hour" - Die Stunde Null - , the years immediately following the 1945 collapse of the Third Reich, is for me a fascinating period of German history. The great cities of Germany had been reduced to rubble, the people were forced to endure incredible deprivation and starvation conditions, yet there was also a promise of new beginning. This combination of misery and optimism has always intrigued me, which is why I keep coming back to the novels and stories of Heinrich Böll and Wolfgang Koeppen, the poetry of Günter Eich, Gottfried Benn (late phase) and Paul Celan (early phase).
Lara Feigel, a lecturer at Kings College London, has approached the Zero Hour in Germany from a different angle: the outsider perspective. The Allied governments were interested in "changing hearts and minds" of the defeated nation, and saw the arts as playing a critical role in that process. The United States and Great Britain - and later, the Soviet Union - recruited some its most renown artists, filmmakers, journalists and writers to travel to the devastated country and establish new cultural institutions, while also reporting back to their home countries on what they saw and learned. Some of these emissaries of "the American Way of Life" were famous native born American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Others were German exile writers who during the war had become American citizens, such as Thomas Mann, Carl Zuckmayer and Alfred Döblin. Their mission - To remake Germany:
"Germany was to be reborn; its citizens as well as its cities were to be reconstructed. This was a campaign for the minds of the Germans - 're-education' in the ideas of peace and civilization. So, suddenly, a generation of British and American writers, film-makers, artists, musicians and actors found themselves in the vanguard of the campaign to remake a country. The immediate postwar period was a time when culture mattered, when writers and artists were seen as fundamental in securing a peaceful postwar settlement not just in Germany bun in Europe as a whole. When UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization - was founded in November 1945 to prevent war, it guided itself by the credo that 'since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed. Often the cultural figures entering Germany in 1945 were hoping to forge not just a new denazified Germany but a new pacifist Europe."
The cultural envoys had very different reactions to what they found in Germany and to the question of "Collective Guilt". Peter de Mendelssohn had come to see the Germans as a 'band of thieves and murderers and abject criminals." Film director Billy Wilder also had little sympathy: "They burned most of my family in their damned ovens... I hope they burn in hell." Photographer Lee Miller perceived the Germans she in encountered in bombed-out Cologne as "repugnant in their servility, hypocrisy and amiability." Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's wife, never recovered from the trauma of what she saw at the Belsen death camp. Others were far more sympathetic with the plight of the German people. The poets Stephen Spender and W.H.Auden recalled their glory days in Weimar Berlin and were hopeful for a united, peaceful Europe.
At the center of The Bitter Taste of Victory is Thomas Mann and two of this children - Erika and Klaus, bound together in an almost incestuous relationship. Thomas Mann was reluctant to return to Germany but felt is was his duty. He had actively condemned the Third Reich from his villa in California, but always felt bound to the fate of the German nation (see his essay Bruder Hitler). Erika had zero sympathy with this view and is seen as a fierce anti-fascist:
"Having retained her uncompromising stance throughout twelve years of exile, Erika was certainly not prepared to mellow now. She was exhausted by her year of press camp cots and army rations; aware that her thirty-eight-year-old body was taking the same battering as the car given to her by her dead friend. She missed her parents (at home in the plush comfort of Los Angeles) and her brother Klaus (stationed in Italy reporting for the US army). But she was propelled by hatred of the Germans who had driven her family from their homes and killed many of her friends. The people who confronted her daily exhorting sympathy for the destruction of their cities or demanding additions to their stamp collections were the same Germans who had thrown chairs at her in Munich and burned thousands of the books she loved. She was determined to play whatever part she could in witnessing their humiliation and convincing them of their guilt."
All the more surprising then is her later return to Pacific Palisades where she transformed into the dutiful "Daddy's Girl."
There is much extraneous gossip in Lara Feigel's book : she spends an entire chapter on the love triangle between General James M. Gavin, Martha Gellhorn and Marlene Dietrich. And then on the extra-marital fling of Rebecca West with Francis Biddle, the primary American judge at the Nuremberg trials. Still, her description of Brecht's production of Mutter Courage in the frozen Berlin during the Soviet Blockade of 1949 is highly rewarding. Also, her bibliography is a real treasure trove.
In the end, the whole endeavor of Western artists and intellectuals transforming postwar German culture and changing "hearts and minds" was a failure. This was in part the fault of the emissaries themselves who were unable to overcome their own prejudices, but also the advent of the Cold War which pitted intellectual camps against one another and destroyed the dream of a peaceful, united Europe.
The one exception was Carl Zuckmayer, who really did engage young Germans in dialogue and changed "hearts and minds" with the tremendous success of his play Des Teufels General. Zuckmayer - more than his fellow German exiles - was better equipped to convey the advantages of liberal democracy and "The American Way" having escaped the hothouse of Hollywood to raise goats in Vermont (see my review of Zuckmayer's Vermonter Roman ). Zuckmayer's contribution to postwar reconciliation deserves a separate book.