In Germany, the years immediately following World War II call forward images of obliterated cities, hungry refugees, and ghostly monuments to Nazi crimes. The temptation of despair was hard to resist, and to contemporary observers the road toward democracy in the Western zones of occupation seemed rather uncertain. Drawing on a vast array of American, German, and other sources—diaries, photographs, newspaper articles, government reports, essays, works of fiction, and film—Werner Sollors makes visceral the experiences of defeat and liberation, homelessness and repatriation, concentration camps and denazification.
These tales reveal writers, visual artists, and filmmakers as well as common people struggling to express the sheer magnitude of the human catastrophe they witnessed. Some relied on traditional images of suffering and death, on Biblical scenes of the Flood and the Apocalypse. Others shaped the mangled, nightmarish landscape through abstract or surreal forms of art. Still others turned to irony and black humor to cope with the incongruities around them. Questions about guilt and complicity in a totalitarian country were raised by awareness of the Holocaust, making “After Dachau” a new epoch in Western history.
The Temptation of Despair is a book about coming to terms with the mid-1940s, the contradictory emotions of a defeated people—sorrow and anger, guilt and pride, despondency and resilience—as well as the ambiguities and paradoxes of Allied victory and occupation.
[A] deeply powerful book. It is a work of scholarship that intersperses critical analysis of movies, photographs, and memoirs of the period with Sollors’s own personal memories of being a frightened child, fleeing Silesia with his mother through a bombed-out and chaotic Germany in 1945… The Temptation of Despair belongs among the most distinguished German reckonings with its own past. Like Sebald, Sollors will have nothing to do with another kind of German reckoning—the lachrymose revanchism of the German right who seem so astonishingly indifferent to the sufferings they inflicted, so woundingly alive only to their own… The Temptation of Despair paints a picture of a society in ruins and a people at the edge of psychic collapse. But it is also a story of temptation overcome. The destroyed cities were rebuilt brick by brick, the refugee wanderers found homes and new lives… [A] wrenching book.
Elegantly written and subtly argued… The Temptation of Despair is, sub rosa, an extraordinary autobiography. In his examination of the social and cultural forces evolving out of the chaos of Germany’s Stunde Null (zero hour) in April 1945, the author looks back on the culture in which his earliest childhood was embedded. And he does so from the vantage point of a lifetime spent in America’s freedom, thinking about the fates of Jews and African Americans. Sollors’s portrait of 1945–48 Germany, like Proust’s portrait of Paris, is filtered through a sophisticated mind shaped for decades by forces antithetical to those at work on the minds of his subjects. As a consequence, Sollors’s book is not a portrait of the unsavory German reality between 1945 and 1948 (just as Recherche is not a portrait of Paris between 1871 and 1916) but the portrait of an Americanized mind in motion trying to retrieve a lost time. It is the intensity, subtlety, and suppleness of that mind that makes The Temptation of Despair a great book.
[Sollors’s] new book returns fascinatingly to the ruined landscape of his childhood. He argues that we’re wrong to see the Allied occupation as a prelude to the West German economic miracle. The occupation is often remembered as the moment when young Germans took to jazz and, like Sollors, aped the casual manner of the American soldiers posted in their country, but it was primarily a time of hunger and misery, as the Germans burrowed into ruins, or joined crowds of ragged [Displaced Persons] trekking across the country.
[A] marvelous new work on World War II–era Germany… This book [is] one of those rarities in academia: a volume that is the product of excellent scholarship, as well as deep introspection.
Anyone who reads this book will gain an important understanding of the few crucial years between Germany’s defeat and its emergence as a free country.
Another Age of Lead: Germany’s immediate post-war years. If there were such a thing as Pandora’s coffin, this book would be its unearthing and opening.
As a child Sollors was carried in his mother’s arms across war-torn Germany, played in the ruins, and witnessed the Auschwitz Trials. Now he turns his gaze to the culture that came out of World War II—film director Billy Wilder, photographer Fred Kochmann, and the bestselling A Woman in Berlin, to name just a few. The Temptation of Despair tells fascinating stories of the unfathomable odyssey that is Germany after Hitler and the Holocaust.
With attentive honesty and scrupulous openness, Sollors captures the utter untowardness of times and things in the making. The result is a complex pleasure—brave, broad, bracing, hugely intelligent, and unfailingly fresh.
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
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