A new book tells the story of a unique experiment to transform postwar Germany amid the ashes of defeat.

Once used by the Nazis as a party symbol, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate remained intact after the war, though heavily damaged (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Once used by the Nazis as a party symbol, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate remained intact after the war, though heavily damaged
“TO HELL with those bastards! They burned most of my family in their damned ovens! I hope they burn in hell!” The Austrian-born Jewish film director Billy Wilder had no doubt whatsoever as to what he thought of the Germans he saw in the postwar shattered Reich. No notions of redemption or rehabilitation crossed his mind.
Wilder, together with many prominent artists and writers, had been drawn to Germany after the Nazi defeat in 1945 either officially as serving servicemen and journalists or on their own initiative. The Allies had decided, in lieu of permanently subjugating Germany, to call up the Western culture brigade in the service of the cause, hoping its teachings of democracy, decency, and civilized intellectual endeavor could transform the German character and divert it into more peaceful channels.
Lara Feigel, a literary critic and cultural historian teaching in the English department at King’s College London, who has already published an acclaimed work on the reactions of English writers to the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign against London, asks in “The Bitter Taste of Victory” why this initiative ultimately failed, while providing a gripping account of how the experience of seeing Germany struggling from under the rubble affected the artists themselves, both in their work and in their private life.
“I have never been able to write with anything more than the left hand of my mind,” wrote the English writer and journalist Rebecca West, “the right hand has always been engaged in something to do with personal relationships.” But she believed that the left hand gained power from knowing what her right hand was doing.
It is in this spirit that Feigel provides a richly illustrated account of what these artists (including West herself) were doing with both hands, enriching their artistic work by making connections with their emotional lives. In some cases these lives were richly, and frequently adulterously, complicated, which adds to the energy and fascination of Feigel’s narrative. The married Wilder, apparently, was conducting affairs with two starlets simultaneously: in his case, two hands may not have been enough.
In retrospect, the idea of injecting culture, not Kultur, as a national character cureall, seems batty. But the key words are “in retrospect.” Comprehensive military defeat is, normally, sufficient medicine for armed aggression. But the Allies were faced with a problem: military defeat had been tried in 1918, and failed – they got Hitler instead.
The war may have been won, but for how long? When would a new menace arise from the swamps of the Teutonic mind? Also the triumph of the Allies restored faith in their belief systems. If they had defeated the Nazis with their aid, it was reasonable to suppose they would work their magic on the Germans. As the British immodestly noted, its democracy was “the most robust in the world: it is on British soil that it flourishes best, but we do export it, and, tended carefully, it grows and flourishes in diverse lands.”
Deploying artists was at least cheaper than deploying armies. The artists could expose the horrors of Nazi rule. Wilder originally wanted to make a documentary about the death camps. At the same time, they could use prewar cultural contacts, as in the case of the poets Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden who had lived in Weimar-era Berlin, to help spread Western ideas and ideals.
And then there were the émigrés, such as author Thomas Mann and his children Erika and Klaus, who could talk to Germans as one of them.
But some flaws were there from the start.
Building up great German literary men such as Goethe as the solution to Nazism was all very well, but Goethe’s legacy had done nothing to prevent the SS and Auschwitz in the first place. Each artist had his or her own ideal to promote, whether democracy, socialism, communism, or a revived pan- European culture. Also, the artists saw the Germans mostly as bombed-out refugees in rubble-strewn cities, faced with disease and starvation. It was understandable that they evoked sympathy.
“[T]o what extent can the so obviously simple and decent peasants who troop to church on Sunday mornings in decent black be responsible for the horrors of the Nazis?” asked George Orwell. Up to the hilt, was the answer from Wilder, West, and American journalist Martha Gellhorn, who was shocked to her core by what she saw at Dachau, later saying that as a result she lost her ability to hope.
It wasn’t just outsiders who thought so.
Curt Reiss, who had fled his native Germany in the 1930s and returned as an American war correspondent, claimed to have “the highest respect for Hitler, who evidently ran this country for thirteen years against the furious opposition, or at least the silent disapproval, of all its seventy-odd million inhabitants.”
Others disagreed. One notable, and surprising, opponent of ascribing collective guilt to all Germans was the Anglo-Jewish left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz. A prominent wartime voice calling attention to the Holocaust and pleading for rescue missions to save European Jewry, he campaigned and pamphleteered vigorously on behalf of the starving Germans, with some success.
Guilt gnawed at some, who compared their relatively pampered lives as part of, or guests of, the Allied administration, compared with the poverty and want all around them. And why should the younger Germans, who had never voted in an election, be responsible for Hitler’s rise to power? In the end, the dilemma of the intellectuals was rendered partly moot by politics.
Growing Cold War tensions in the late 1940s produced two Germanys, East and West. Denazification ground to a halt as the need to win the loyalties of their respective populations altered the nature of the culture war from the battle between Nazism and decency to the struggle between communism and democracy.
A few writers, such as the author Arthur Koestler, threw themselves into the new fight, but the drive to rebuild the German character was over. The artists’ moment had come and gone.
IT WAS not in vain. Feigel expertly dissects the works produced during this period.
These range from a documentary produced by the British filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, which lauded the redemptive work of the British occupying administration and depicted German children as the hope for the future, to a play, “The Devil’s General,” by the exiled German playwright Carl Zuckmayer, which captivated local audiences despite confronting them with their wartime culpability. This last work seems to me to have been the only one which influenced a wider German public with at least part of the message the Allies hoped for.
Wilder himself used his time in Germany to direct “A Foreign Affair,” a cynical, vibrant tribute to the spirit of Weimar Germany set against the background of the postwar ruins of Berlin, with Marlene Dietrich stealing the show as a cabaret singer. This might have enjoyed a similar breakthrough to that of Zuckmayer’s play, but was banned from being screened in Germany. The authorities took unkindly to the portrayal of the American administration there as venal and corrupt.
It took another generation for young West Germans to demand a reckoning with the Nazi past. Feigel gives too much credit to the role student radicals played in this process: Some turned to terrorism and extreme left-wing politics, terming the democratic West German government the “Raspberry Reich,” claiming it repressed through tolerance.
They did not pause to consider that even if it was true, there are worse ways of repression.
Despite the radicals’ best efforts, though, the change occurred. The days when twofifths of Germans thought that the Jews were partly to blame for what had happened to them during the war were over. Whether the generation that had lived through the war refused to change because they were too busy trying to survive or (more likely) preferred not to ask awkward questions of the past is an interesting question, but mostly of academic interest.
WHAT SURPRISES is the lack of reaction to the Shoah in the immediate postwar period in the wider world. Feigel dryly notes “a widespread tendency among the Allies to forget the racial specificity of Hitler’s victims.”
Even the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials rarely raised the topic.
Surprisingly, even the artists were by and large silent. Jews did surface occasionally in their creative work: in a novel Gellhorn wrote about her experiences in Germany, and in Zuckmayer’s play, for example. But for the most part, the murdered Jews sank anonymously into the ranks of the innocent dead. And if the Allies were not willing to tax the Germans with their responsibility for the Holocaust, why should the Germans feel guilt? The silence of the artists is even more extraordinary in view of the long and storied Jewish contribution to Western European civilization, including German culture, especially in the decades after the Emancipation.
Anti-Semitism was not a factor here – none of the people who feature prominently here were tainted by it.
At best, one can argue that the threat posed by Hitler to the continuance of civilization was seen by artists as so overwhelming that it seemed beside the point to focus only upon Jews. At worst, it suggests a certain indifference to their fate, even an unconscious view that Jews were, after all, irrelevant to the future of European culture.
It was wrong to murder them, of course, but Europe would not miss them.
Still, there are many pleasures in this book. Feigel takes full advantage of the literary luminaries at her disposal, and quotes their most biting and penetrative passages at length. My own favorite comes from the American writer John dos Passos, describing the ex-German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the Nuremburg trials as wearing “the uneasy trapped expression of a defaulting bank cashier.”
Be warned, though: the reader will have to endure the pages devoted to the endless domestic crises and politics swirling around the humorless household of Thomas Mann.
The family comprised fascinating and talented characters, but the grim figure of the novelist, all too conscious of what he presumed to be his moral responsibility to Germany and German letters, does not engage, and certainly cannot compete with the likes of Wilder, Dietrich and Gellhorn.
One question remains. The Cold War brought to an end this cultural experiment, but could a civilizational injection have worked in other circumstances? Likely not: national cultures may be mean, short-sighted, and even dangerous at times, but they are resistant to outside influences. They change, but usually only when generations change.
Also civilization itself may make life more worth living and more decent but be too brittle to be used as a weapon against the unwilling. It may even be a poor defense against barbarism.
The British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery during the war and who had evacuated its artistic treasures to prevent their being destroyed by German bombs, was later to note that “however complex and solid [civilization] seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.” While he was specifically referring to the Graeco-Roman world, it is hard to believe that he was not also thinking of his own, and how close it had itself come to destruction.