Germany: Surviving the Whispers

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Belvedere, Vienna
Painting by Gustav Klimt, 1912; from Gustav Klimt: The Complete Paintings, which collects his portraits, landscapes, drawings, and letters, along with newly commissioned photographs of his mosaics for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. It is edited by Tobias G. Natter and has just been published by Taschen.

In a brief acknowledgment at the end of The Life of Objects, Susanna Moore explains that the impulse to write her novel arose during her stay at the American Academy in Berlin in 2006. In a radio interview at the time of publication, she further explained that her protagonist’s Irish origins were not unlike those of her own grandmother. Such details may seem extraneous to the hermetic, almost mystical aura of her beautiful novel, and yet they provide some background to a story that runs the risk of apparent groundlessness. Why should a contemporary American, of all people, write yet another fiction about World War II?

As I, too, discovered during a recent year in that city, it is impossible to sit in a café in the western suburbs of Berlin, surrounded by burgherly, unsmiling septuagenarian and octogenarian patrons with their snowy hair and fine loden coats, and not wonder at their experience of der Zweite Weltkrieg. Unlike their parents or older cousins, these elderly people were children then, innocents in the prolonged riot of destruction and violence that befell Germany in the latter years of the conflict. In North America as in Britain, we have been raised with many vastly disparate but overwhelming narratives of suffering from World War II, stories that unfold anywhere from Denmark to China to Libya and all points in between. But until fairly recently the challenges faced by many German citizens have not been a part of what most of us have learned.

Not until I spent time in Berlin did I become clearly aware, for example, of the staggering statistics that in Hamburg, almost 50,000 people were killed in a single night of bombing in July 1943, or that in the war’s final three weeks between April 18 and May 9, 1945, there were 70,000 casualties in Berlin alone, of which approximately one third were civilians.

During the last few years, some books have given a new sense of the German war experience, among them W.G. Sebald’s lectures On the Natural History of Destruction, the belated English translation of Hans Fellada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone (2009; in German, 1947), and the anonymous diary of end-of-war brutality A Woman in Berlin (in English, 1954; reissued 2006). There have been popular autobiographical accounts by aristocratic ladies in Germany who quietly opposed the Nazi regime, including Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past Is Myself and Marie Vassiltchikov’s Berlin Diaries.

Inevitably, many stories remain to be told—and among these, many would be distinctly unpalatable—but we must welcome accounts that elucidate, for a North American reader, the complexity of human existence in compromised circumstances. Europeans, themselves survivors of such …

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