Tuesday, July 1, 2014

This Book by Werner Sollors

It is the task of this book to retrace stories and reexamine images of the end of the war and early years of military occupation in Germany, stories that were then believed to be plausible  attempts at capturing a strange and unfamiliar reality, but that have meanwhile been largely replaced by the mythic success story that seems to have swallowed up most others in public memory. These stories can be found in letters, often written in very small handwriting and up to the edge of each page so as to get the most words onto the precious sheets of paper, and at times marked by censors’ deletions; in diaries that may include strange pieces of evidence collected in apparent disbelief – diaries that were also at times altered and adjusted in later years; in official, mimeographed communications, reports, studies, and orders; in newsreel footage accompanied by blaring marchlike musical introductions and the then-so-popular agitated shouting voices of announcers; in “unabridged” or “uncensored abridged” mass media paperbacks with lurid covers and improbably exaggerated blurbs; in newspapers and illustrated magazines; and in many of the other media that were then available.

In many cases, these tales point to shared themes and experiences, to moments that seemed particularly noteworthy, aspects that were so haunting or enticing or amusing as to be present in many sources, even if viewed from rather different angles. I have made an effort to hover over such moments, describing the different reactions they provoked and the dialogues some of them inspired, or could have inspired. Some of the stories are fully told, others are often only implied; they may be verbal or visual; they may be romances or gothic horror tales, elegiac or defiant, sentimental plots or tough stories of revenge; they may be religious or secular in orientation, reactionary, conservative, liberal, or left-wing dramas. Yet they would seem to add up to a chorus of voices that articulated tales of the postwar 1940s in which people then recognized themselves.

This book does not aim for a comprehensive account of the period but for an inward understanding of a cultural moment through a close focus on a few particularly striking examples. When I use the term inward, I did not mean to refer to an inner private sphere, as distinguished from the public realm of politics, something that the German word Innerlichkeit has suggested at times. I also did not mean to imply that a Swedish report on post-war Germany or a British photograph taken there were somehow “outward”. Instead, what I was after in the works I studied was what might get lost in quick generalizations, bullet-point summaries, or abstract debates. In all parts of this book I have therefore attempted to stay close to the sources, quote extensively from texts, and examine exemplary photographs and films at very close range, not as thematic exhibits and illustrations of conclusions I arrived at earlier, but as aesthetic objects that make a moment or an issue come to life in such a way that it stays with the reader and viewer beyond any single maxim or conclusion that could be drawn from them.

This meant engaging with the writers and artists together with their metaphors and images, with the contemporary reception, and sometimes even with plot-lines that seemed implied but were aborted in a given work. I can only hope that showing the struggles and hesitations at the a stages of composition of a film script, the cropping and captioning of a photograph, or the revisions of the text of a diary   come across to the reader as an effort  to respect the dynamic quality of the forms I examined and to understand aesthetic modes of expression themselves as an active part in the historical process and not just a reflection of it. A famous quip has it that poetry is what gets lost in translation. My attempt in this book has been to hover on what would get lost in summary.

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