The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich.
The only italicized sentence in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924) is quickly forgotten by the protagonist Hans Castorp. The slanted words, "because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one's thoughts," (1) appears in his mind as he reconsiders a blizzard-induced, hallucinatory dream. Mann's resistance to death-oriented thinking comes into clearer light when his diagnosis of post-war Germany is also considered. In a 1945 speech given at the United States Library of Congress, he attested that both the "Pan-Germanism of Bismarck and the death-driven megalomania of Hitler" were the externalized expressions of the inward passion and reverie of (late) German Romanticism. (2) Yet, for Mann, these were not the expressions of two Germanys, "a good one and a bad one, but only one, whose best turned into evil through devilish cunning." (3)
The question of how to expunge odious thoughts from a collective subconscious is taken up in Lara Feigel's The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich. Feigel's study is a tripartite of historical analysis, literary criticism, and group biography; by working at such a crossroads of genre, its originality provides ample scholastic ground to the genre of "literary nonfiction." She details not only how the occupying forces undertook the reconstruction of destroyed German infrastructure in July 1945, but also how they sought to reanimate the cultural consciousness of the German body politic as they saw fit.
Feigel sets out to prove that these processes of denazification, re-education, and reconstruction of post-World War Two Germany by an international group of artists ultimately affected those artists, filmmakers, writers, and actors more so than they did Germany, or the German public, by implicitly questioning the lines between the political, the creative and the personal. The post-war lives of Marlene Dietrich, Thomas, Erika, and Klaus Mann, George Orwell, Stephen Spender, and Evelyn Waugh, among others, show how "the story of a group of writers and artists who found that the encounter with ruined Germany necessitated a period of personal reconstruction" (8). (4)
By the end of the Second World War, one fifth of the buildings in Germany had been destroyed. It was not only the widespread destruction of Germany (which Stephen Spender, a frequent subject in Feigel's body of work, described as "a reproach to the people who go on living there") that complicated the question of denazified reconstruction, but the liberation of death camps (93). Confronted with unspeakable horror, not only did the Occupying Forces' question of whether denazification remained possible persist, but the consideration entered into an even more juridical mode. George Orwell put it the most straightforwardly while working on an assignment for the Observer: "It is to what extent can the so obviously simple and gentle peasants who troop to church on Sunday mornings in decent black be responsible for the horrors of the Nazis?" (51). Erika Mann, working as an American war correspondent, was not so confident redemption was possible, unsympathetically writing to her brother Klaus, "in their [the German people's] hearts, self-deception and dishonesty, arrogance and docility, shrewdness and stupidity are repulsive mingled and combined" (19). Even if denazification were possible, after light was shed on such brutalities, were the German people, who had allowed, by either direct hand or blind eye, the perpetration of the Holocaust, deserving of moral rehabilitation?
Despite Feigel's aversion to Jean-Paul Sartre--she describes him as "impossibly idealistic"--the pages describing the debut of The Flies, Sartre's interpretation of the Electra myth, are Feigel at her best, linking literature, biography, and political philosophy to head-on consider the debate of whether or not the German people were deserving of denazification. When criticized by communist academic Alfons Steinberger's claim that The Flies "administers a gigantic pardon, a summery general absolution," Sartre insisted on a vision of the future free from the horizons of the past. (5) In a post-Nuremberg Germany, "to wallow in the past, to suffer the torment of is night and day" became "a pointless, completely negative thing;" Sartre asserted that "responsibility... can lead [me] to something else, to something positive, in other words to an essential rehabilitation, to action for a fertile, positive future." (6) By positing this ever-renewing moral future, Sartre unwittingly offered the German people a means to counteract the occupying forces' narrative of Germany's fixed moral being.
For all of its acuity, its careful attention to the lives and works of so many individuals, let alone the implications of their contributions, The Bitter Taste of Victory remains off balance in its attention. Feigel makes her case with ease, no small feat given its scope, but where the evidence of denazification influencing a group of celebrities abounds, any reaction on the part of the wider German population remains largely under-tended by her narrative. Surely it would not confound her thesis if Feigel included the German reaction, beyond that of the German elite, to these star-studded, often embroiled, incursions with similar attention. We begin to see glimpses of these reactions in the book's conclusion, as the Cold War begins, but had the common German reaction to reconstruction been sustained in greater depth throughout, we could have all the better seen salience in Feigel's thesis while divergent ideologies began to stagnate in Berlin.
Regardless, The Bitter Taste of Victory revamps our consideration of elevated, historical subjects. The persuasion of her thesis, implicitly humanizing her otherwise demiurgic cast by recounting their hopes, fears, loves, decaying marriages, suicides, patriotism, and confusion, sidesteps one pitfall potential to biography: the unintentionally myopic consideration of history through the all too precious consideration of one's subject. With such a breadth of material at hand, it would be easy for The Bitter Taste of Victory to become muddled, overburdened by sheer volume. Yet Feigel's sharp handling of her material ensures The Bitter Taste of Victory remains uniquely insightful in its conclusions, and all the more effectively demonstrates history's effect on towering figures of the 20th century.
Reviewed by Marshall McGraw
(1) Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Knopf, 1995. 588. The reverie can be distinguished from that of an outright hallucination as Castorp was in fact asleep during the scene.
(2) Qtd. in Feigel, The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. 63.
(3) Ibid. 63.
(4) The others include W. H. Auden, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, Lee Miller, Rebecca West, and Billy Wilde.
(5) Sartre's mantra "existence precedes essence" concludes actions define a subject instead of any pre-ordained nature, among other implications.
(6) Ibid. 272.
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|Title Annotation:||Reconstruction and Ricochet|
|Publication:||Evelyn Waugh Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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