Marlene Dietrich, George Orwell and the rebirth of a nation

Having flattened Germany in the second world war, the Allies set about rebuilding it — with the help of Marlene Dietrich, George Orwell and Stephen Spender, according to Lara Feigel

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich Lara Feigel

Bloomsbury, pp.464, £25, ISBN: 9781408845325

The purpose of Lara Feigel’s book is to describe the ‘political mission of reconciliation and restoration’ in the devastated cities of Germany after 1945 (though no politicians were directly involved). The chief needs of the shattered population at the time were, of course, practical: food, water, sanitation and the reconstruction of buildings. But a vital supplementary effort was made to address what was left of German culture and history after the crimes and falsifications of the Nazis. The idea was that the arts should revive an alternative, peaceful and civilised way of life in the ruins of the country. It is surprising that no mention is made of the reform of German education by Robert Birley, later a progressive headmaster of Eton, even though technically it falls outside Feigel’s scope. In the long run it must have had a more important effect than the random activities described here.

Nothing can have been easy. Stephen Spender, one of the intellectuals sent on this crusade, found that ‘even the German-educated elite seemed unwilling to admit their culpability’, while many of the British officers in the Army of Occupation told him that they sympathised with the Nazis because ‘they were fellows who stood up for their country, whereas the refugees were rats who had let their country down’.

Besides Spender, we exported what were thought to be the foremost writers (or anyway journalists) of the time, with the left unsurprisingly to the fore: George Orwell, who was easily the most impressive participant; Martha Gellhorn (who played a more glorious role before and after the end of the war than her husband Ernest Hemingway); W.H. Auden; John Dos Passos; the photographer Lee Miller, who had herself photographed symbolically in Hitler’s bath and the German-American film director Billy Wilder; with the cherry on the cake provided by Marlene Dietrich, who had wisely taken American citizenship in 1939.

Other ex-Germans of high standing included Thomas Mann and his children Erika and Klaus, an actress and racing car driver turned cabaret writer, who believed that Nazism had lost its popularity not because of its inherent evil but because of its military defeat. (The Manns occupy a disproportionate part of the book, but one can see why.) Beneath the surface the crusaders discovered that Nazism was far from dead, but ‘denazification’ posed enormous difficulties. Who had actively collaborated with the regime? Who had turned a comparatively innocent blind eye? Were they nevertheless culpable, and to what extent? How should they be treated? It was impossible to lock them all up just to be on the safe side.

The answers to these questions were often fudged and dodged, so that the guilty remained unpunished. The best example of such wilful blindness is that of Richard Strauss, who had only one criticism to make of Hitler — namely that he had so seldom attended the composer’s operas. On the other hand, how to reward and harness the surviving real protesters, like Cardinal von Galen? A good idea was the appointment of two early ambassadors to London, Johnny von Herwath and Hasso von Etzdorf, who had miraculously survived implication in the July Plot against Hitler. But that was another story. Many Germans were quite simply stunned by the bombing, by fear and by defeat. After all, they remembered that Hitler had saved them from poverty, hyperinflation and hunger, whatever might have followed after 1933.

The well-intentioned crusade did make a start in these difficult conditions, especially in the rapidly improvised theatres. Apart from that, Spender achieved the feat of ‘locating meaning specifically in meaninglessness’, which may well have satisfied him more than his intended audience, not least when he clumsily misidentified a group of displaced Poles in Berlin as returning prisoners of war.

Hemingway’s mock heroics, always witnessing but never engaging in battle, are said nevertheless to have been an inspiration (also claimed, at a greater distance from the action, for Sartre). The Russians were always obstructive — but in view of their vast casualties, as well as their natural propensities, that was hardly surprising. On the general cultural front, it should be remembered that Hitler’s ravings were ultimately rooted in German Romanticism going back to Goethe and Werther. A revival of that spirit was not the aim of Spender and his companions; instead they seem to have imagined a somewhat nebulous, futuristic affair which was supposed to take shape as it went along. In those days, the press was infinitely more powerful than now. US-backed publications like Der Monat and Die Neue Zeitung, and the British Der Spiegel and Die Welt, became something that Germans could trust and be proud of.

On its own terms, this book is a considerable achievement, and is nearly always readable. Even though a start was certainly made in establishing some kind of new German culture, it would take a second place to Realpolitik; but that does not mean that it was not worthwhile.

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