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The Temptation of Despair

The Temptation of Despair

Tales of the 1940s

Werner Sollors

ISBN 9780674052437

Publication date: 04/28/2014

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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.

    —Michael Ignatieff, New Republic


  • Werner Sollors is Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

Book Details

  • 400 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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