Features » Literature


Books this Season: World War Two

Spring 2005

Fiction and Poetry / World War II / Politics / Nonfiction

It won't leave us alone. Sixty years after the end of the war, a new wave of memorial literature is sweeping Germany. We list important studies such as Götz Aly's "Hitler's Volkstaat", as well as novels, biographies and memoires.


One major reason for the acceptance of National Socialism was that simple folk benefited financially from the mass murders and raids, argues Götz Aly in "Hitler's Volksstaat" (Hitler's people's state). Aly's notion of the Third Reich as a dictatorship of accommodation certainly makes it the most unsettling book of the new year. For historian Hans Mommsen in the SZ, Aly has opened up a whole new field of research. Die Zeit classifies the study as the "late fruit of materialist historiography", while remaining cautious not to lose sight of the ideological foundations of the Nazi regime. Only economic historian J. Adam Tooze, writing in the taz, voices critique of the book. For him Aly has simply miscalculated, and his provocative contentions are "untenable". Click here for the English version of an essay by Aly summarising his views.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch's "Entfernte Verwandtschaft" (distant relatives) has sparked a hefty debate in Germany over the similarities between Italy, Germany and the USA during the 1930s. Reactions range from well-intended interest to horror. On the one side, Die Zeit is charmed by the comparison, noting "striking similarities" between the three countries. The NZZ, by contrast, categorically refuses to acknowledge any resemblances, despite what it calls Schivelbusch's "argumentative amok running". All critics agree that in his enthusiasm, Schivelbusch brushes under the carpet differences between the regimes that were certainly present at the time.

Norbert Frei's paradoxical thesis that as last eye witnesses of National Socialism disappear, the urge to visualise the period grows, has met with interest in all the feuilletons. Critics praise the book, yet the taz and the FR are not convinced that responsibility for changing perceptions of the Second World War can be entirely ascribed to the succession of generations. However, now that Frei has thrown down the gauntlet with "1945 und Wir" (1945 and us), all sides are waiting hopefully for someone to pick it up.

Letters / Diaries

After 25 years, Walter Kempowski has completed his collective diary entitled "Echolot" (Echo sounder) with the tenth volume, "Abgesang 1945" (swansong 1945). The work, a vast collage of letters, diaries, images and records, is a meticulous reconstruction of daily activities and historical events. All critics bow down to Kempowski in reverence. The last volume, documenting the final days of Hitler's regime, also constitutes an artistic climax, Gustav Seibt writes in the SZ.

Until now, only Die Zeit has paid any attention to the reprint of "Tage des Überlebens" (days of survival), the letters written by journalist Margret Boveri in Berlin between February and September 1945. One of the first women in the 20th century to break into the man's world of journalism, Boveri observed and commented on the Bavarian monarchy, the Weimar Republic, Hitler's dictatorship and occupied post-war Germany. Refusing to sit out the war in the German embassy in Madrid, Boveri made her way to Berlin in March 1944, to witness the downfall of a world city. Her letters from the besieged city, which first appeared in 1968, tell of fire storms, street battles, hunger, rape, death and despair, and of the art of survival. Haug von Kuenheim highly recommends the book to anyone wanting to gain a better idea of the time. For him, Boveri's lucid observations make it stand out from the flood of memorial literature. Heike Görtemaker's biography of Boveri "Ein deutsches Leben" (a German life), by contrast, has received much positive attention from all critics.

"A ghastly, grandiose book, a book of the century," writes Elmar Krekeler in Die Welt about "Voller Entsetzen, aber nicht verzweifelt" ("Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years") by Jewish-Romanian author Mihail Sebastian. Sebastian experienced the nationalist megalomania of his intellectual contemporaries Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu "with horror, but not without hope" (as the German translation is called), at a time when he was faced with exclusion, humiliation and a professional ban. Author Richard Wagner, writing in Die Welt, is very shaken by the book, and Die Welt critic Peter Motzan calls it "heart stopping", praising in particular the careful translation and editing work of Roland Erb and Edward Kanterian.

Heinrich Mann's journals from the September 1939 to September 1940, published together for the first time, have met with widely differing reactions. For Joachim Fest, Thomas Mann's brother was a hopeless case, for his attitude toward Stalin among other things. Yet Fest commends the journal for its insights into the times. Willi Jasper, on the other hand, defends Mann against the "traditional prejudices" of the feuilletons, pointing out that Mann's clear-sighted statements against Stalin in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin-Pact were unknown until now.


Two German marine soldiers are executed for desertion on May 10, 1945, two days after Germany's unconditional surrender. In his novel "Steilküste" (steep coast), Jochen Missfeldt attempts to approach the wartime generation in a manner free of all prejudice, carrying out the sort of literary experiment "that had become rare after 1968," as Die Zeit notes appreciatively. The taz, too, is taken by the "entrancing narration". It is fascinated by the "strangeness" with which Missfeldt sheds light on every facet of a classic example of dogged obedience.

"Kaputt" is the legendary title of a novel by Curzio Malaparte, published in Italy in 1944. The book was once as famous as it is forgotten today. Malaparte was a willing participant in all political errors of the last century, and purifies his soul of them here. Zsolnay publishers have now reprinted the book. Yaak Karsunke, writing in the FR, calls it a mysterious new edition of a bad book by a fascist seeking to clear himself of the sins of his past. For Kurt Flasch in the FAZ, the work is a publisher's bonanza, owing to its exceptional topicality in the face of current events in Ukraine, the discussion surrounding the crimes of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), and the eastern enlargement of the European Union.

Fiction and Poetry / World War II / Politics / Nonfiction - let's talk european