I first read Heinrich Böll in German, in an armchair by the fireplace at the Union Hall pub in Brooklyn. My German is no more than rudimentary, so it was just as well that it was a short story: Die Blasse Anna, or Pale Anna. The novels, which I read in English, would have taken me months in the original. Even the short story took more than one sitting, but immersion in sentences that yielded their secrets teasingly, almost reluctantly, is the sort of exercise one takes on when the pressure to publish has more or less gone away.
Die Blasse Anna is the sort of story a Wehrmacht veteran who has come back to his hometown at the end of the war, coldly alienated from everybody around him. On the surface, it fits a genre of alienated-veteran literature (and cinema) that became established in modern culture after the discovery of shell-shock as a social phenomenon during the First World War. America has its own version of this culture, in narratives of the troubled Vietnam veteran. But Die Blasse Anna is different from, say, The Deer Hunter or Born on the Fourth of July, let alone Taxi Driver. In American vet-lit, the basic crisis is usually that the returned soldier, traumatized by what he experienced ‘over there,’ is alienated by the discovery that the home front has not shared – and cannot share – his trauma. People in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire have gone on with their lives, untouched by murder and fire. Relating to women presents a particular problem.
In Trummerliteratur, or the ‘rubble literature’ that came out of the ruins of German cities after the Second World War, the home front is not so much indifferent as obliterated. In an inversion of a long-standing trope of war fiction in which relatives wait for a soldier who may have vanished, the living soldier returns to find home bombed out and family dead or disappeared. There is no normalcy to battle or resume, and women can appear more or less impenetrable. As Hanna Schissler has noted, German men and women experienced the war in ways that were so different that they found it difficult to communicate those experiences to each other afterwards [Schissler, “’Normalization’ as Project: Some Thoughts on Gender Relations in West Germany During the 1950s,” 362]. Nevertheless, the devastation of the land, and the scars that mark once-beautiful women who have managed to survive, themselves contain the possibilities of communication and renewal. Die Blasse Anna is bleak but surprisingly optimistic.
What is communicated and what is renewed in postwar German fiction, including the work of not only well-known writers like Böll and Günter Grass, but also a forgotten-and-rediscovered author like Gert Ledig? Not normalcy, surely, in spite of the West German government’s explicit quest for ‘normalization.’ In his well-known analyses of the German reaction to the destruction wrought by Allied strategic bombing, S.G. Sebald wrote that Germans surrounded by rubble and corpses developed a knack for 'looking and looking away at the same time.' Even Trummerliteratur never directly faced the catastrophe of bombed-out cities, he noted. This refusal to react and remember, Sebald suggested, served many purposes: it averted naked acknowledgments of responsibility as well as claims of victimhood, accommodated shame and humiliation, anesthetized personal and collective trauma, and focused attention on heroic rebuilding as if after a natural disaster. It facilitated, therefore, a fundamentally repressed return to normalcy [Sebald, On the Natural HIstory of Destruction, ix, 1-12].
Nevertheless, I want to use this essay to ruminate about what is abnormal, or peculiar, about literature and societies that come out of total devastation and defeat. This is because postwar Germany and Japan are somewhat peculiar societies, in which the relationship between the citizen and the state is different from what is evident in America, even after Vietnam. America is, after all, a country in which war is both ubiquitous as a social and political concern, and remote as an experience. All American combat veterans are Veterans of Foreign Wars. Battle damage, dead civilians, mass rapes and refugees have been overseas phenomena since the Civil War. A nation with a massively militarized economy has not experienced total war since 1865.
It is fair to say that that innocence, as much as any cynicism, undergirds the hyper-security state in America. It has enabled a pervasive militarism in foreign policy, domestic politics and culture: not only the eagerness to use military force, but also the blank checks for ‘defense’ budgets, the cult of the Commander in Chief, the sentimental worship of soldiers, the overweening paranoia, the willingness to grant the government extraordinary powers over the citizen (to say nothing of non-citizens), the militarization of the police, and the saturation of the popular media by war porn. This is exceptional only in Giorgio Agamben's sense of the 'exception' as a murderous state of emergency imbedded within normalcy; otherwise, to greater or lesser degrees (mostly lesser), it is typical of the modern-western experience, and of the mentality of liberal-nationalist citizenship worldwide [Agamben, State of Exception, 2]. Nor, evidently, is the experience of war a sufficient antidote; the French are clearly not exempt from the national-militarist norm, Verdun notwithstanding. French nationhood did not have to be salvaged from the mud of disgrace and defeat and rebuilt from scratch in either 1918 or (more fortuitously) 1945. In the case of a country like India, which has had no war since 1858 (border clashes and imperial deployments do not count, especially in a society without a history of conscription), innocent militarism is a hallmark of the middle-class sense of arrival, the yearning for a modern rite of passage. It becomes possible then for actresses to autograph bombs about to be loaded on to fighter jets in the latest border skirmish (to the general approval of a television audience infatuated with the American Way), or armchair hawks to write breathless ‘fantasy scenarios’ in which the bloody Chinese are taken down a notch, with or without nuclear strikes.
With qualifications that should become apparent over the course of this essay, I want to suggest that in spite of Sebald's reservations (which are less exclusive than they might appear - Sebald himself made room for Ledig), postwar German culture contains, not only in its margins but also in its mainstream, something new, admirable and fragile: nationhood without an overt militarist component. It is a cultural phenomenon with powerful political implications, and a strong connection to the trajectory of the postwar (West) German state.
One explanation that has been offered for the pervasive anti-militarism that became apparent early in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany is that it reflected the very low levels of legitimacy this state enjoyed among its own citizens. West Germans, Michael Geyer argues, did not so much reject the idea of the aggressively weaponized nation-state as the idea of fighting and dying for a poor imitation of Germany [Geyer, “Cold War Angst: The Case of West-German Opposition to Rearmament and Nuclear Weapons,” 383-5]. Geyer, however, also notes that by the end of 1950s, the popular attitude had undergone a double shift, becoming more accepting of militarization in the form of conscription and the Bundeswehr, and simultaneously evolving modes of citizenship and manhood that were detached and utilitarian in their relationship to the state. The bourgeois world of family, money-making and consumerism – the culture of the West German ‘economic miracle’ – had become a refuge from the state, allowing for a military posture that was by and large defensive, i.e., geared only to the protection of private normalcy and normative privacy [Geyer, 391-2].
That peculiarly West German emphasis on a ‘return to normalcy,’ which was a pillar of Konrad Adenauer’s chancellorship, was based on constructions that were often unclear and inconsistent. What exactly was the intended point of return? Was it to the immediate pre-war period? To the Weimar republic? To the Kaiser’s Germany? Perhaps obviously, none of these possibilities can be singled out as the ‘true answer,’ and none can be entirely excluded. In the early 1950s, when Böll had begun to cement his reputation as a writer, a large majority of West Germans recalled the immediate postwar years as the worst time of their lives; in comparison, even the war years were ‘normal’ [Geyer, 383-5]. Weimar might offer a more enlightened site of nostalgia, and it did provide West Germany with its national colors. But as Peter Gay has pointed out, Weimar democracy was by and large unloved in its own time, indifferently defended even by democrats and laid waste by the inner rot of fascism [Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider, 1-22]. It could not offer West Germans an uncomplicated normalcy any more than could the imperial state that precipitated the Great War.
The quest for normalcy was only superficially an attempt to ‘restore’ something lost in the Second World War. Volker Berghann has argued, for instance, that it marked the fulfillment, rather than the restoration, of bourgeois hegemonism: that the norms of normalcy were, in fact, at least partially new. Berghann has noted that by the mid-Weimar period, a weak bourgeois economic and cultural order had emerged in Germany. This bourgeoisie – held back by business elites, the Junker military aristocracy, and its own suspicion of mass culture and mass consumption – was badly disrupted by the triple disaster of the Depression, Nazi populism and repression, and war. That disruption opened up a postwar moment pregnant with new possibilities, including both the proletarian and the fascist. What happened instead, however, is that a new ‘corporatist’ elite – inspired and backed by the US, and reinforced by Cold War imperatives – was able to move into a position of political, economic and cultural hegemony, having established parliamentary understandings with big business, organized labor and the state. They promoted a bourgeois culture that, to use Peter Alheit’s phrase, constituted an ‘everyday modernity’: it was simultaneously respectable, accommodating of artistic-intellectual nonconformity, and democratic in the sense of being organized around mass consumption [Volker Berghann, “Recasting Bourgeois Germany,” 326-40]. It is in this cultural context that Trummerliteratur might be located and unpacked.
Abnormal Literature in a Normal World
Böll’s writing is the literature of troubled normalcy as much as it is the literature of rubble. It is, in fact, a series of conversations between the normal and the broken, and about their interpenetration: a horror of normalcy that interferes, but never adequately, with the desire to leave behind the shocking abnormality of war and genocide. The normalcy of the 1950s is identified quite explicitly as a self-serving affectation of the bourgeois world. Böll’s sense of his own ambiguous place in this world is wryly laid out in Billiards At Nine O’Clock, in which a particularly respectable character instructs his wife about an annoying writer: ‘And when he phones…say I’m not at home. I find being with him unbearable and unproductive. I simply get bored with him. He’s always talking about bourgeois and non-bourgeois, and I suppose he thinks he’s the latter’ [Billiards, 281]. A similar writer flits across The Clown: ‘Nobody takes him seriously, he’s just being kept on out of charity. Only sometimes he creeps to the phone and talks a lot of nonsense’ [Clown, 230].
The obligation to ‘talk nonsense’ – i.e., sounding abnormal – is tied by Böll to the recovery of the truth of what people want in their social relations, which is itself tied to freedom from violence and oppression. The bourgeois ‘restoration’ in West Germany, Dorothee Wierlin and Elisabeth Heinemann have shown, was also a project of gender: an attempt to repair the masculinity of men damaged by wounds, defeat, disgrace and incarceration, and rattled by the autonomous economic, social and sexual roles women played during and immediately after the war (including the ‘Veronika Dankeschön’ phenomenon of women who seemed to prefer occupation troops to German veterans, and the emergence in East Germany of a female-inclusive workforce). Repair meant engineering a ‘new’ patriarchy of male breadwinners and female home-makers [Wierlin, ‘Mission to Happiness,’ 110-8; Heinemann, ‘The Hour of the Woman,’ 21-35]. Böll connects this newly fetishized domestic norm to an older, familiar, set of problems. In The Clown, he depicts a female sexuality that can be driven either by compassion (that of whores and kind women) or by obligation (that of whores and wives), but never by desire [Clown, 179]. Desire is withered and warped by grossly unjust arrangements of power, Böll suggests, whether that arrangement is in the family, the church, or the state. It is a simultaneous indictment of totalitarianism and patriarchy, an acknowledgment of their connectedness, and a reminder that the connection remains relevant even – or especially – in normal times.
Böll is clear about the gendered nature of violence and public affairs: men’s hands are for shooting, hitting, shaking hands and writing non-negotiable checks, he writes, whereas women’s hands spread butter on bread or push hair away from foreheads [Clown, 188-9]. We find an echo of this in Grass’ fascination with nurses, which is explicitly connected to guilt and atonement. Nursing (unlike doctoring, with its stench of Josef Mengele and his manly-scientist colleagues) becomes the opposite of killing – a curiously Gandhian formulation of no-nonsense caretaking unconcerned with the masculine business of political affiliations [Onion, 160]. For Grass, nursing is also mischievously eroticized, and this is a counter-erotica running against the grain of the eroticization of death in prewar German youth culture [Tin Drum, 461, 467]. It is eroticized not least by the fact it touches young men who have also been touched by death: an appeal to life (like his sister’s midwifery), not nationalist necrophilia.
This is, of course, the adoption of a very conventional dichotomy of gender, but it is a strategic adoption, drawing masculinity out beyond the family into the world of public consequences. ‘His voice had been that of the masterful husband, the true German, and his ‘Well, it’s about time’ had sounded like ‘Shoulder arms!’’ Böll writes [Clown, 201]. In spite of the images of buttered bread, Böll is uninterested in sentimentalizing women as ‘good’; his stories are full of female cheerleaders for violence. Nevertheless, women represent a sliver of comfort and a possibility of salvation, which is connected to their suffering condition in a violent patriarchy. (We see here Böll’s Catholicism coming to the surface.) Whores are not all that bad when they are women; they are, to a considerable extent, redeemed by femininity and compassion. But whorishness is something else: ‘If our era deserves a name, it would have to the called the era of prostitution,’ he writes [Clown, 234]. The respectable, in other words, are the true whores.
Billiards and The Clown are perhaps Böll’s most direct attacks on the implications of the search for normalcy in the aftermath – and the midst – of the extreme trauma. In The Clown, he slashes at the two-facedness of bourgeois memory: half-drunk, middle-aged, thoroughly respectable men who experienced the war, with its crimes and horrors, now wax nostalgic and tell each other it wasn’t all that bad [The Clown, 112]. The same people were deeply complicit in the crimes and horrors: the narrator’s mother sent his sister off to die (which functions as the central horror of the story), and there is a rather touching portrait of the reformed Nazi Herbert Kalick, who as a child tormented children and adults who were insufficiently patriotic [Clown, 18-22].
A character like Kalick, and Pelzer in Group Portrait, can be touching because Böll does not simply conjure up monsters and leave it at that. These are often monsters who see themselves as repentant, who want to rehabilitate themselves, but do not know how and are too complacent to push themselves very hard. A part of Böll’s attack on postwar respectability is his observation that returned exiles and reformed Nazis both found it easy to make big statements about reconciliation, tolerance and democracy, and to abjure grand evils like war and genocide, but ‘failed to grasp that the secret of the terror lay in the little things’: a gesture, a phrase, small cruelties and betrayals [Clown, 176]. That failure must be condemned more as a class characteristic than as an individual perversion, and for that reason, it is not entirely closed to empathy.
The German bourgeoisie, Böll writes in his memoirs, were opportunistic in their response to the Nazis and were left with no voice or even imagination of their own [What’s to Become of the Boy?, 18-22, 72]. His schoolteachers, for instance, were ‘blinded by Hindenburg – a fatal attitude of many decent Germans, patriotic not nationalistic, certainly not Nazist but very much the veteran.’ More than Hitler, Hindenburg – an icon of respectable nationalism and military heroics, and a man that Böll and his father both held responsible for the Nazi seizure of power [Boy, 10] – is the specter that hangs over the calamitous past on the edge of the present in Billiards; his is the name whispered reverently by the dying child. This well-meaning class of citizens assiduously prepared German youth for death, Böll writes, imbuing death and murder with patriotic glory: ‘In the final analysis, the fatal role played by these highly educated, unquestionably decent German high school teachers led to Stalingrad and made Auschwitz possible: that Hindenburg blindness’ [Boy, 35-6]. The cult of patriotic death that was a long-standing part of German Romanticism and that continued to thrive in the Weimar Republic [Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism, 322-51] is thus located squarely among the decent, well-intentioned bourgeoisie and its icons, and not among some raving, vicious fringe.
Because it is difficult to issue blanket condemnations of the decent and well-intentioned, the disapproving author is himself left not knowing what to ‘do’ with his disapproval. When the adolescent Henrietta dies her utterly respectable death in The Clown (shredded, it is suggested, on an anti-aircraft battery – a predicament so grotesque that it must be disinterred from the pages of Ledig’s Payback), her brother sets the house on fire in what is an accident but is also a firestorm of impotent rage and grief, in addition to being a sad, absurd parody of an air raid. Meanwhile, the mother worries about whether insurance will cover the water damage from the fire hoses [The Clown, 219-20]. But Böll is also more ready than Grass to acknowledge those whose respectability developed cracks of dissidence, like the police officer from his own youth who retired early ‘because he could no longer stand the sight of the bloody towels in his precinct’ [Boy, 14]. Having kept his own distance from the Nazis more effectively than Grass, Böll is better positioned to admire small acts of integrity. Grass tends to spread his shame around. The scarecrow is created in man's image, even when it is derived from Prussian history, he notes. 'All nations are arsenals of scarecrows. But among them it's the Germans, first and foremost, even more than the Jews, who have it in them to give the world the archetypal scarecrow someday' [Dog Years, 41, 57, 541].
For Grass, shame is pervasive because it is inseparable from the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of ‘good citizenship.’ He provides two striking examples of this connection, one apparently harmless, the other darker. The first emerges from Grass’ narrative of the epidemic of theft that breaks out in Danzig when Oskar starts breaking shop windows. Respectable citizens who would not break the glass themselves, and who would ordinarily condemn vandals and thieves, help themselves to the goods when the window is already broken [Tin Drum, 117-20]. The self-restraint of the respectable – the core of the social contract of modern citizenship – is real, Grass suggests, but it is also fragile: once the glass is broken, ethics are easily suspended, and anything from theft to genocide becomes permissible and almost irresistible.
The second is the brilliant analogy of Santa Claus and the Gasman. Germans in the 1930s, Grass writes, welcomed the Gasman thinking he was Santa Claus. Even when their faith in Santa had collapsed, they persisted with the Gasman, because he provided love, especially the self-love and patriotism of the citizen in his historical community: that warm glow of nationhood. And even when that love had shown itself to be cannibalistic and deadly, they persisted out of hope that the disaster would end at some point (but not immediately, because they could imagine no alternative), when they might resume their lives or start over. Here, Grass raises the basic moral dilemma of how to ‘stop’ being evil, and how to start over as not-evil. It is not, of course, a problem for Germans alone, but for all bourgeois citizens of militarized nation-states. Germans, ironically, have gone some way towards finding a solution via catastrophic defeat, although not entirely convincingly. Grass and Böll are among the unconvinced. Grass puts forward the analogy of sausages and books, both consumed with a willed nonchalance about the politics of their making. There is, he suggests, an inevitable not-knowing, silence and complicity, and this is a part of bourgeois citizenship in a society in which political and economic packages, ideas, and language itself, are sold like sausages [Tin Drum, 187-9].
After 1936, Böll writes, even his Hitler-hating family was advised by the block warden to display a Nazi flag, and did so. It was, Böll notes a bit defensively, a small flag, and size mattered [Boy, 37]. Such near-mandatory flag-waving, as we saw in America in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks (when patriotic goons visited ‘ethnic’ businesses to enquire ‘Where’s your flag?’), goes to the predicament of the individual confronted by the nationalism of the larger society. It is essentially a fascist predicament, and the obscurity of culpability in such circumstances is not necessarily disingenuous. It is a predicament in which the meaning of normalcy can break down, and the line between dissidence and madness can disappear completely. In The Clown (and also in Billiards), Böll writes about children whose parents did not give them enough to eat during the war even when there was food [The Clown, 154]. There is no overtly heroic political purpose in this deprivation; instead, there are suggestions of warped priorities which shade into heroics. Böll shudders about ‘children who are forever getting porridge or milk stuffed into them’ [Clown, 211], and adds: ‘I do not want my children to be forced to eat.’ This revulsion can, of course, be read as Catholic self-flagellation, i.e., an invocation of penance and asceticism. But it can also be read in terms of an analogy that Jessa Crispin made in her afterword to Billiards: the German trope of the Rabenmutter or ‘raven mother’ who refuses to feed her offspring. The depriving mother in Billiards – who, like Böll’s own mother, despises Hitler passionately – is locked up in a lunatic asylum. Her madness is inseparable from her rejection of normal indulgence and bourgeois self-absorption in a brutal, abnormal moral environment.
That mad normalcy, Böll suggests, saturates the memory on which the postwar present is built. Narrators and authors cannot escape the madness, or at any rate, a touch of panic. Maja Zehfuss has noted that any attempt to outline a monolithic German way of ‘remembering’ (or forgetting, which is after all a type of remembering) the Nazi years is likely to run into serious difficulties because of the sheer variety of experiences and agendas involved in remembering and narrating. Much of the time, the differentiation of victims from perpetrators – and hence the acquisition of a reliable moral identity by the national citizen who has emerged like a Phoenix from the conflagration – is impossible, but the exercise cannot be abandoned [Zehfuss, Wounds of Memory, 1-31, 112, 176-8].
The flipped-around nature of veracity and memory when the self is itself divided into perpetrator and victim, the silent and the loquacious, is characteristic of Böll’s work: what actually happened seems unreal in recollection, and what is remembered may not be true [Clown, 171]. In Group Portrait With Lady, he wanders among a multitude, all touched by horror, as they resume normal lives. The ‘group’ is, of course, the nation itself. In Die Blasse Anna, the landlady keeps asking the returned veteran if he knew her son, who has not returned: he keeps denying it and is not lying, but in a sense he did know him, and he loves the dead man’s disfigured fiancée. Just as uniform narratives can mask fragmented experiences, fragmentation masks secret identifications. The cacophony of sources and voices in Group Portrait, frequently unreliable and comic, and the equal unreliability and ludicrousness of the narrator’s own voice, establishes the chaotic, splintered nature of the historical-reconstructive exercise, the unavailability of objective, black-and-white and disinterested truths, especially when one is trying to tell the story of an entire society that has just gone through a paroxysm of violence, guilt and trauma and then asserted its normal, optimistic condition. (Böll foreshadows Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children in this regard, as of course does Grass.)
The basement of respectability is not uniformly bleak. Group Portrait, for instance, is permeated by a dry humor. Billiards, however, is a far darker novel, nearly consumed by loss. The desperate innocence that marks Böll’s first novel, The Train Was On Time, is not in evidence here. Billiards is populated by characters obsessed by age, experience, guilt, remorse, questions of hate and forgiveness. They inhabit a past that keeps invading the present, or rather, a present that keeps collapsing into the past. Time is a crucially important player, but whereas The Train is charged with the fear of dying young, i.e., falling out of time, Billiards is about the horror of being caught in eternity while others disappear around you, and you are either complicit in their disappearance or helpless.
The awareness of complicity generates in the conscientious individual an obligation of contrarian citizenship and a dilemma that is more persistent in Germany than in most other places. Billiards, like Michael Verhoeven’s film Das Schreckliche Mädchen, is a project of disturbing silences and normalcies in the postwar republic, digging up not so much the lies as the unspoken things in the pasts of the respectable: neighbors, local politicians, priests. The revelation of Grass’ service in the Waffen SS is relevant here, not least because it raises the question just what people are supposed to do with their complicity. Shout it from the rooftops? Turn themselves in? Self-flagellate indefinitely? For Böll, this is not straightforward even in the case of former Nazis, because the ubiquitous nature of complicity is tied up with the ubiquity of victimhood. Böll’s characters, like the wider population they represent, ‘did it’ to themselves, and they know it. They brought on the deaths of their children and parents and siblings, and to be a survivor is to live with that knowledge. This complicates their victimhood, but it does not invalidate it. Living with the knowledge of your own culpability in addition to your grief, and being unable to forgive yourself, is after all a deeper pathos than simply being the victim of somebody else’s malevolence, which is ultimately not all that different from an accident. Accidents can be talked about; the murder and rape of relatives tends to induce speechlessness. As Grass wrote, while obliquely revealing that his mother may have been raped by Soviet troops, sometimes “there are no words” [Onion, 285].
Clearly, Grass does not condemn silence unequivocally. The dignity of the individual requires reconciling the freedom to cling to a measure of privacy, with the need to bear witness. The problem is the silence of the ‘innocent’ and the safe, and one’s own silence. Regarding his youth in Nazi Germany, Grass castigates himself for having ‘failed to ask questions’ even as schoolmates and teachers disappeared around him [Onion, 15, 35]. This failure, he writes, was productive. It generated the silences – the stories that are also missing stories – that seeped into the sausages and books, permeated the willed ignorance that is both genuine and affected, and eventually secreted shame, which further produced both the urge to conceal and the imperative of revelation/confession/atonement [Onion, 110-11, 196, 206].
The simultaneity of ‘realness’ and ‘affectedness’ in the ignorance of those caught up in German collective guilt – or the guilt of My Lai, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Kashmir and the Gaza Strip – is enabled, Grass suggests, by the permissions and requirements of national citizenship. These include the nearly inescapable requirement to reinforce the silence about the culpability of one’s own group with volubility about the crimes of the other group [Onion, 236]. Grass’ preoccupation with this dilemma shapes his view that collective guilt – i.e., the guilt of nations – cannot be expiated by ‘getting over it’ [Tin Drum, 416]. Collective guilt is real and pervasive, and it is not something that one can ‘move on’ from (in the American way of ‘looking ahead, not backwards’ after the crimes of the Bush-Cheney regime). Grass read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ernst Jünger’s conventionally heroic-nationalist Storm of Steel at roughly the same time, while waiting to be called up. He later saw this simultaneity as a bracing reminder of the limited impact that elegantly arranged words can have on the ideological direction taken by young citizens. In any case, he wrote, even the literature of realist horror soon becomes banal, derivative, effectively silent [Onion, 95-7, 125]. There are no words.
Between Lvov and Cernauti: Locating Horror Between the Lines
The inadequacy of words becomes particularly acute when the writer deals directly with the war. This is not apparent on the surface. Gert Ledig’s Payback, for instance, can be read as a description of seventy minutes of an air raid on a German city; it is probably the most extraordinarily ‘realistic’ novel ever written about the experience of being under fire. Below the surface, however, it is actually anti-description, a radically new type of story-telling marked by the collapse of language, speech, sanity, thought itself – the ‘higher functions of the brain,’ as Zehfuss put it. Sebald - no lover of self-indulgent prose - noted the essential honesty of this disintegration: when extreme violence is described 'within the bounds of verbal convention,' he wrote, the effect is to ‘cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend’ [Sebald, 24-5]. In Ledig’s novel, everything is reduced to and distorted by the ticking of clocks, and humanity is essentially eradicated; what remains is ‘an animal walking upright’ until it is dead [Payback, 179]. Absurdity becomes both the honest companion and the alternative to horror. In Ledig’s The Stalin Front (in German, Die Stalinorgel, or ‘The Stalin Organ,’ which was the German soldier’s nickname for the Katyusha artillery rocket), horror lies not only in the casual brutalization of the human body, but in absurdity itself: the absurdity and duplicity of a court-martial in the middle of a chaotic retreat, carried out by officers whose officiousness barely disguises their cynicism and dishonesty [The Stalin Front, 138-41, 184-95]. Sanity is revealed to be a fragile cover, as unreliable in friends as in enemies. The murder of the Wehrmacht sergeant by a German officer unhinged by cowardice, horror and self-hate is strikingly similar to the murder, in Böll’s And Where Were You, Adam?, of the Jew Ilona Kartök by the music-loving camp commander Fiskeit, song cut off by gunfire.
Yet even the debris of thought has its place in the culture of the twentieth century. And Where Were You, Adam? is, among other things, an articulate reflection on the sudden and absurd nature of death in wartime: blown away while shitting painfully by a cesspool, blown away while fetching wine for your epicurean colonel, blown away by accidentally stepping on an unexploded bomb while surrendering, blown away after successfully deserting, blown away while singing in a state of rapture (and in a concentration camp at that). In every case, the treatment of death is unsentimental, brutal, but undeniably literary. There is, in Group Portrait, an intense account of surviving an air raid in the spring of 1945. Böll was describing the thousand-bomber attack on Cologne on March 2, 1945. Dresden and Hamburg come to mind right away, with their preserved images and narratives of burned children and shrunken adults. Implicitly and indirectly, the ghosts of Vonnegut, Heller and Ledig are invoked. Böll is writing, like other writers, about the ubiquitous horror, moral perversion and literary absurdity of modern civilization.
What then are words inadequate for? It is worth bearing in mind that it was long debated whether Dresden was a war crime, and those debates have not been resolved. There is a lingering disconnect between morality and legality at the heart of the horror/civilization, and the awareness of this disconnect is a basic marker of rubble literatures. For Böll, the direct description of reality – i.e., the normalcy of perception and narration – fails when confronted with the moral dimensions of the horror in which Germans had been involved. An indirect reference is needed. The Train Was On Time places its protagonist Andreas in a specific yet generic zone of horror, located somewhere in Galicia between the cities of Lvov and Cernauti. ‘Between Lvov and Cernauti’ is the geography of Böll's own military experience. A euphemism and an abstraction, it is also a foggy and surreal killing field dotted with death camps and emptied ghettos, pseudo-secrecy, guilt and even salvation. It crops up repeatedly in Böll’s writing, more than central France, where he also fought. In Group Portrait, the Russian prisoner, who is probably Jewish, is named Boris Lvovich Koltovsky, Koltov being another Galician town.
Böll’s choice of Galicia was not idiosyncratic. Georg Trakl, whose poems the young Böll first read just as the Nazis came to power in Germany [Boy, 9], and whose work runs through Böll’s stories like a fiercely guarded thread of anti-militarist revulsion, had gone to Galicia as a medic in the Great War, shot himself in the head almost immediately, and died soon afterwards from a self-administered drug overdose.
The wild pipe organs of the winter storm
are like a people’s grim wrath,
like the crimson surge of battle,
With shattered brows, with silver arms,
night reaches out towards the dying soldiers.
In the shadow of the autumn ash-tree
the souls of the slaughtered sigh.
A thorny wilderness winds around the city.
Along bleeding stairwells the moon chases
the terrified women.
Wild wolves have broken through the gate.
[Trakl, “The Eastern Front”]
Where exactly is this place, Galicia, the very sound of which reminds Böll of snakes and knives? A phantom on the map of postwar Europe, it is sometimes in Poland, sometimes in Austria, sometimes in Russia, sometimes in Germany, sometimes located almost entirely in Andreas’ mounting fear. It is similar, in that sense, to Conrad’s location of the ‘heart of darkness,’ and to Coppola’s idea of a lost zone of deep horror somewhere near the Vietnam-Cambodian border, assigned less to either Vietnam or Cambodia than to an American horror.
Trakl and Galicia represented darkness and death, but they also represented a slender chance of salvation.
Cold metal oozes from my forehead.
Spiders explore my heart.
There is a light that dies in my mouth.
At night I found myself in a meadow
Thick with filth and the dust of stars.
In the hazelbush
Crystal angels were ringing, again.
[Trakl, “De Profundis II”]
It is in Galicia that Andreas, the protagonist of Böll’s first novel, prays for the Jews before he disappears. Darkness cannot be honestly bypassed, Böll suggests. Grass also read Trakl – who himself had read Holderlin and Nietzsche in ways that were useless to the Nazis – as a cultural fragment retrieved from the rubble of fascism and war [Onion, 274, 304, 410]. He read Goethe too, of course. He notes the luminousness of Goethe’s poetry, but he also sees in it a certain intolerance [Tin Drum, 78]. Here, he not only anticipates Greenfeld’s point about Goethe being both for and against the Enlightenment [Greenfeld, 310-3], he suggests that intolerance lay in Goethe’s affiliation with the Enlightenment.
We see here Grass and Böll attempt to invert a basic structure of German nationalism by recapturing its ambivalence about the Enlightenment. For Grass, Trakl-and-Goethe, not to mention Rasputin-and-Goethe, represent interpenetrating, mutually implicated aspects of the modern German self (technically, Trakl was Austrian, but so was Hitler), and these selves are geographically available as East and West. One is not either luminous-Goethe or seductively-dark-Rasputin/Trakl; one is necessarily both. The Germany of Trakl and Rasputinphilia defined itself in opposition to the West, overlapped with vast areas and cultures of eastern Europe, and was disrupted by the Iron Curtain. The Second World War, when Germany literally went east, and then the East Prussian expulsions, when twelve million ethnic Germans became refugees going west, were in a sense the climactic convulsions of that earlier ‘east’ Germany. Then, even a Rhinelander like Böll could become obsessed with Galicia. Grass, of course, was already there in the east, in the immediate proximity of horror.
Like Galician towns, the trains of Böll’s first novel stand in for words. They form an intensely symbolic shorthand, traversing the east-west axis, representing but also suggesting the difficulty of representing other things: not only the ‘punctuality claim’ of fascist regimes and the technological confidence of Europe, but also sealed capsules that carry motley collections of virgins, rapists and the raped off into surreal, foggy places. They reflect also the trains carrying people into the death camps. The thoroughly respectable modern experience of train travel becomes inseparable from coercion, death, dirt, putrid air, the press of sweaty bodies, high anxiety. Anxiety-charged trains and night-and-fog imagery surface again, and repeatedly, in Billiards, like nightmares breaking through the soothing normalcy of the bourgeois world of the West German economic miracle. There is a hallucinatory quality about the stories, as if what has happened is scarcely comprehensible or describable in rational terms; one awakens from the nightmare into other nightmares.
The Architecture of Anti-Monuments
Böll was born into a family of architects. Not surprisingly, architecture surfaces repeatedly in his books: as a profession, a problem and a metaphor. Architecture was a matter of direct political significance in Böll’s Germany. His boyhood overlapped the brief ascendancy of unburdened, airy, modern Bauhaus over brooding, Romantic, neo-Gothic building, when Weimar architects like Walter Gropius sought to move beyond the culture of Wilhelmian Germany into a new civilization [Gay, 99]. His writing career paralleled the rebuilding of cities shattered by the war. And in between had come the years when overbearing architecture became a statement of Nazi ideology, and the science of building and blowing up took on additional national functions.
One function of architecture, Böll understood, is the facilitation of memory: cityscapes, churches, tombs, obelisks and arches of triumph serve to memorialize not only the private and the everyday, but also the public and the historic. This memorializing function is particularly vital to the institution of the nation state, which not only appropriates the structures of the past as its monuments, but obsessively builds its own. Every state-affiliated building becomes a potential war memorial; as Grass suggested in The Tin Drum, even a post office could be a monument waiting for its war. (Anybody who has visited an American post office, with its massively squat exterior, sheets of armored glass, interlocked bullet-proof windows and conspicuously mounted flag might agree.) These monuments have a fundamental importance within the bourgeois self-image and self-esteem: to remembering oneself as a member of a deep community whose state of beatitude is actually the state of war. This is a form of remembering that middle-class citizens of ‘lesser’ nations must learn in the process of learning nationhood, citizenship and middle-class-ness: a point that Amitav Ghosh makes brilliantly in The Shadow Lines, in which the elderly Indian nationalist becomes demented in her admiration for England’s cult of soldiers’ graves and war monuments, recognizing them as temples of nationhood. For writers like Grass and Böll, therefore, the critique of the militarized nation state and related bourgeois fetishes necessarily included an anti-monumental vision of architecture: an assault on the built-up structures of memory that could be deployed to serve the state.
Grass rejects oppressively monumental buildings (which fail to protect their occupants in any case) in favor of the light, the fragile, the whimsical and the transient: the house of cards, even cigarettes that are smoked away in minutes. When Oskar stands at the Atlantic Wall on the eve of the Normandy invasion, Grass connects the concrete of pillboxes and monuments not only to Speer and the Nazis, but to a century of boredom, barbarism and mysticism. ‘Concrete is treacherous,’ he writes. In front of this concrete, nuns are shot; in this concrete, puppies are buried alive. Postwar German architecture relies heavily and discreetly on stone scavenged from graveyards, Grass notes, and he himself worked in this trade in his days as a stone-cutter. Inevitably, he perceives a creeping reversion to monumentality, as well as unthinking and secret continuities with the Nazi past [Tin Drum, 227-30, 315-9, 324, 418]. The re-use of tombstones indicates both the deceptiveness of monumentality, and the transience of identities [Peeling the Onion, 253-5]. He perceives also that gravestones are a valued commodity in postwar Germany: death and memory are marketable assets in the economic miracle. As a writer, no less than as a stone-cutter, he is conscious of being a player in this market. And by literally imbricating old tombstones in the new buildings of West Germany, Grass evokes a forgetful, rather than memorializing, cannibalization of the past.
For Böll in particular, the location at the outset of his writing career is crucial; he is remembering from the ruins. He retains the rubble even when the rebuilding of Germany was well advanced. Billiards, published in 1959 (the same year as The Tin Drum), is almost a literal example of Trummerliteratur, with rubble taking on an undeniable moral significance in the story. Robert, the demolition expert serving in a war launched by a regime he despises, blows things up and produces rubble as a deliberate political gesture: to blow up a particular Germany, to accuse, to exact revenge, to underline the relative value of people and culture. Heinrich, his father, is a prewar builder whose buildings have become a part of the landscape of Nazi culture: he comes to hate it, but does not see it until it is too late. Joseph, the grandson, is charged with rebuilding the very structures that his grandfather built and his father destroyed, but he wants to walk away from this eminently rational, respectable, even noble task; his position leaves him unbalanced and suicidal. For all three men, the debris of Cologne becomes an anti-monument as well as a counter-monument. Ledig had already written: ‘The altar of the fatherland was made not of stone, but of rubble’ [Payback, 175].
‘Only someone at play willfully destroys,’ Grass writes in explanation of Oskar’s tendency to break glass objects [Tin Drum, 53]. He is arguing that Oskar was not playing around, and destruction was not the point. Here, Grass and Böll diverge: in Billiards, Böll is clear that destruction itself is a valid political and emotional response to fascism. The task of rebuilding thus becomes troubling because the memory of the original is troubling, implicated in absurdity and worse. In Adam, a blown-up bridge is painstakingly and lovingly rebuilt by army engineers, only to be blown up again immediately in the face of the Soviet advance. A variation on the bridge-building at the heart of David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, it highlights what might be considered the rather generic theme of ‘the absurdity of war.’ But it is also a pointed statement on the politics of building and architecture. Like so many of Böll’s characters, Feinhals – the protagonist of Adam – is an architect, whose plans for building after the war are of a decidedly non-monumental nature. ‘He had become a very mediocre architect, and he knew it,’ Böll writes, ‘but still it was nice to understand one’s craft and build simple, good houses that sometimes turned out to be quite pleasing when they were finished.’  Even that modest, unmemorable rehabilitation fails to materialize; Feinhals dies as his childhood home collapses on him. It is as if Böll hesitates to concede the viability of any rebuilding at all. Rubble remains what is real and true, a greater site of contemplation than any building. “We have to pray to console God,” Böll writes [Adam, 153]. And here is Trakl:
You great cities
built in stone
on the plain!
The man without a home,
his brow dark, follows the wind,
the naked trees on the hill.
You dying tribes!
A pale wave
breaking on the night’s beach,
[Trakl, “The West”]
Böll is deeply suspicious of anything that suggests continuity from the war into the postwar, and from Romanticized pasts into the mundane present. Yet he is also highly conscious that continuity is basic to love: love of buildings and cities and homes, of Cologne and the Rhineland, and also love of people. This tension generates the tragic in his writing. It also generates, however, the possibilities and metaphors of hope, in the form of the alternative city of the necropolis. In Group Portrait, Böll paints a picture of what is literally an underworld of derelicts who are actually (but only a little) more human than the denizens of the world above ground. In the cemeteries, cellars, and catacombs around Cologne, German deserters, Soviet POWs, Polish refugees, Jews in hiding, and even Nazis congregate, forge (in both senses of the word) documents and identities, defend each other, betray each other, love, fuck, give birth, disappear. National, political and even cultural identities become wildly fluid, Germans become Italian, Russians become German but also suspiciously Jewish, an aristocratic Rhinelander crosses back and forth between German, French, Rhenish and Jewish allegiances. There is a reflection here of Böll’s perverse sense of his own boundaries: the marginality and simmering treason of the man from a border zone, who wrote that he (‘we’) perceived the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 as ‘an occupation,’ and would have preferred to see French or British troops there [Boy, 63]. There is also an echo of the legendary no-man’s-land of the Great War, where communities of British, French and German deserters supposedly lived in warrens of abandoned trenches between the enemy lines, emerging at night to forage like zombies among the bodies of dead soldiers. After the armistice, the legend went, the zombies proved to be so threatening that they had to be gassed, i.e., re-subjugated to the logic of modern national warfare [Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 123].
Geographic marginality is a more obvious factor in Grass, whose Kashubian locations enable an off-center Germanness, with unusual, liberating and even exonerating possibilities and contingencies of perspective and identity [Tin Drum, 21]. Kashubes – people without a state, not entirely distinct from either Poles or Germans, easily dissolved and forgotten – become a model, as well as something lost. Other fragile and fantastic nations emerge in the realm of whimsy: the nation of schoolboys with Zuckertuten, or the nation of defenders of post offices, which, Grass suggests, are no more absurd and perhaps less disastrous than conventional nationalities [Tin Drum, 401]. The marginality of the Danzig man is an invaluable assert for Grass; it allows him to imagine a kind of anti-citizenship, in which Oskar becomes ‘a person upon whom, for want of any better designation, I bestow the inadequate title cosmopolitan,’ rejecting explicitly the unambiguous citizenship of Germans and Poles who ‘want everything cut and dried’ [Tin Drum, 289, 397].
Grass sees the ironic continuities between the cosmopolitanism of wartime, with its multinational SS forces, rituals of travel, and geography lessons, and that of peacetime, with its middle-class tourists and cameras [Onion, 110, 174]. The eager tourists are often the former soldiers. But typically for Grass, delinquency supplies a streak of optimism: a different, marginal, decidedly non-bourgeois cosmopolitanism of sex, comfort and indifference to national identity is also discernible (in relations between a German woman and her French-POW lover, for instance) that is preferable to both of the other kinds, and that is also, ironically, facilitated by war. That semi-subaltern, sexually manifested cosmopolitanism is evident after the war in the inter-ethnic miners’ wedding that becomes an orgy starring the bride (who is, meaningfully enough, a war widow), a sort of anti-bourgeois counter-order of lust and life. His own participation in this orgy and his low-budget hitchhiking through Italy become emblematic of this alternative cosmopolitanism. If he is aware of ‘traveler’ posturing of the Lonely Planet variety, he does not let on; he is, in that sense, earnestly and complacently bourgeois-European himself. European cosmopolitanism liberates him from German nationalism, but it also confines him within Europe.
The cemetery in Böll’s Group Portrait is both a metaphor and a refuge from Europe. Born in this world of corpses to a German woman and a Russian POW, Lev is the postwar man, or rubble-child: simultaneously a sign of optimism, i.e., of defiance of the complacent brutality of the normal world, and a walking tragedy, doomed by the traumatic circumstances in which he came into being. Lev’s mother Leni, like the soldier Andreas, is an innocent, but this is very different from the innocence of the Quiet American or the Good German; it is the stubborn, slightly deranged, highly abnormal innocence of the citizen who appears to have become innocent of nationhood and its demands. It is, in that sense, a close cousin of the madness of the Rabenmutter, located on the margin of society in graveyards and asylums.
Grass too is intrigued by the idea of country-as-graveyard and graveyard-as-country, but he approaches it differently, highlighting a movement from the Romantic pre-war cemetery where people dream about being buried (and where the German death-romance can thrive) to the cemetery where people are shot and then buried [Tin Drum, 134, 418]. Both writers dwell on the theme (and problem) of being ‘at home’ in the cemetery: working in and on the graveyard. One can work with wreaths as in Böll or headstones as in Grass, but the real work is remembering and making choices about what to do with memory, i.e., fitting the dead into life.
What kind of society, and what moral order, might emerge from the necropolis? Like Paul Fussell’s no-man’s-land, Böll’s netherworld is only superficially Romantic or paradisiacal. When Böll sees a ‘paradise’ or a community of solidarity, either in the wartime cemetery or in its recreation in Leni’s disreputable apartment building after the war, a sharp note of irony is audible in the text. Böll’s search for the solidarity of the victims of capitalism and the capitalist nation-state – migrants, workers, tenants, etc. – can certainly be called somewhat romantic, but he is himself painfully aware of this romanticism. Is solidarity enough, he asks, not at all confident that it is. Billiards is, among other things, a complicated question about democracy. I’m a democrat, the ex-Nazi Nettlinger says, and proceeds to give his daughter a sermon on democracy. Böll is sarcastic, but he is not denying Nettlinger’s democratic bona fides. He is, rather, suggesting that democracy is not incompatible with militarism and brutality. It is, in other words, not enough. Böll is not advocating a socialism that can be identified with the state; he refuses even to embrace 1968, more out of a tendency to recoil from large crowds and their big demands than anything else.
That simultaneous love and suspicion of the crowd is crucial, going to the heart of Böll’s anarchic anti-fascism. He will not identify himself as an individualist, but he is also unwilling to sacrifice the individual: the individual is preserved in the time that he has left when his duties have been performed, upon which society – not to mention the state, or capital – has no claim. The precariousness of this position is perhaps more evident to Grass than it is to Böll. In Grass’ narrative of the underground world of the miners, the depressing picture of right-wing preponderance even after the war is tempered only by the existence of real politics (in spite of its apparent sterility), and by the pragmatic and doubtful (in the best and also worst senses of the word ‘doubtful’) tolerance of the Social Democrats. Grass remains suspicious of communism. He sees the dominance of capital as an overwhelming problem, but he is not a romantic admirer of the Soviet Union; he has seen the deployment of Soviet T-34s – the same model of tank that nearly killed him in the war – against protesting workers in East Berlin in 1953 [Onion, 225-8, 365]. ‘The only faith he had was faith in certain people,’ Böll writes about Edgar, a sympathetic working-class character [Clown, 217]. The key word here is ‘certain’: it saves ‘the people’ from being enfolded in a maudlin, meaningless or murderous democratic spirit.
Rubble and Governmentality
Böll wrote about troop trains and lived to ride the high-speed rails of postwar Germany. It is, of course, to be expected that a man ambivalent about rebuilding on a monumental scale might want to wander about. The preferred mode of wandering is significant. Böll writes that he was fond of going around on a simple, lightly loaded bicycle, and adds that the Vietnam War was won on bicycles [Boy, 41, 44]. In the process, he suggests a technology of human dignity, and rejects highly mechanized, technologically inscrutable, bureaucratized civilization. As an ideological position, it has obvious similarities to the Gandhian advocacy of technological simplicity as a moral priority; it is affiliated also with Feinhals’ scaled-down architectural ambitions, and with Böll’s larger critique of governmentality in the military-industrial state.
This state is identified with the society above ground, whose defining site is not the derelict cemetery but the checkpoint, the prison camp and the bureaucrat’s register. In this world, everybody is in danger, and danger comes irrespective of nationality. Anybody can be arrested, enslaved, hanged, bombed or shot. The trope of the concentration camp spills over into peacetime, and crucially, there is no sharp line between war and peace. All of Europe is a camp, or a collection of camps, Böll implies: national-political camps and their instruments for creating order by incarcerating, separating, numbering and cataloging (but in the process, abbreviating and vanishing), enslaving and killing. This is more than a metaphor: it is worth recalling that long after the formal end of the war, millions languished and labored in POW camps across Europe. Grass too is quick to acknowledge the continuities of governmentality across 1945 and again across 1989: the tendency of the state to ‘evaluate’ its citizens and reduce them to ciphers, and to brutalize them in institutional regimens geared to produce brutes. In a related vein, he notes that even liberals outraged by organized violence are enraptured by the modern pornography of state violence to the point of accepting the penetrating, violating state as normal [Onion, 17, 31, 111-2].
No writer working in the aftermath of the Holocaust could afford to be unambiguously hostile to the recording function of modern governance. Böll is quite aware that statistics, the meat and potatoes of modern governance, serve a moral-political need to record and remember, and the psychological needs of individuals who would otherwise be overwhelmed by horror. In Billiards, numbers and formulas are for Robert Faehmel a way of maintaining a semblance of control, sanity and distance. Grass’ work is an exhortation to remember repeatedly, even (and especially) when memory is painful, charged with guilt and remorse. The ritualized onion-peeling and squeezing the pus from the headstone-maker’s boils in The Tin Drum are only the most overt examples. Elsewhere, Grass writes: ‘even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings’ [Tin Drum, 177]. He understands the unreliability of memory, which is after all Oskar’s unreliability. The hundreds of tin drums that Oskar uses up over the course of Grass’ first novel – which become The Tin Drum in the title of the book – indicate the fragmented, fictitious nature of the remembering, narrating Self. But that does not diminish the importance of the task, and the sequence of drums is infiltrated by a gift from the art student Raskolnikov, i.e., by the obsessive need to confess and atone [Tin Drum, 477, 532]. The converging drums are echoed in Grass’ later ode to his three Olivetti typewriters, which also become a single, yet undeniably multiple-fragmented, narrator-identity: ‘my everlasting Lettera,’ a modest, low-tech counter-monument like Böll’s bicycle [Onion, 400].
In spite of necessity, modesty and good intentions, however, the danger remains that counter-monuments can take on monumental functions of a decidedly ordinary variety. (It can hardly be denied that the memorialization of the Holocaust has impacted the Palestinians violently.) The problem is to remember differently, in ways that are less overtly masculine, concrete and statist. For the girl Anna in Die Blasse Anna, for instance, the past is contained in the scars on her face, left by a bomb that blew her through a glass window. Frau Faehmel, the Rabenmutter, remembers her dead children. A failed clown drunkenly remembers his dead sister. A fading photograph contains the shadow of a daily commute that will not be repeated, but it is enough to bring two of the surviving commuters together. Böll remains uneasy with the other kind of memorialization: Group Portrait, with its use of abbreviations, statistics and psychology, is an indictment of bureaucracy and governmentality in state violence, and of the social sciences in bureaucracy and governmentality. Caught but not absorbed by systematic dehumanization, Leni and Boris – Böll’s closest approximations of free Europeans – read Kafka.
They also smoke constantly, which brings me to Böll’s nearly obsessive concern with having enough cigarettes on hand. This is not, I think, merely a reflection of a love of lighting up. It has more to do with the politics of consumption and control. The Wandervogel youth movements that flourished in the Weimar period had been obsessed with clean living, which included a disdain not only for parliamentary politics, but also for alcohol and cigarettes. In Adam, Böll gives us a portrayal of a man who does not smoke: SS Captain Fiskeit, with his murderous racism, love of music, self-hate, and fear of sex, cigarettes and booze. Fiskeit is of course a caricature of the anal sociopath; he perfectly fits Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, which was no longer new when Adam was published. But he is also an excellent representative of modern citizenship, with its interlinked emphases on the docility of the body and purity of nationhood: he does not like killing, but appreciates the necessity of carrying out – and of giving – orders to kill [Adam, 102-13]. In contrast, Trakl – a morose drug addict pushed over the edge by the horror of shattered bodies – was barely able to kill himself.
Smoking, in this context, stands for a welcome and necessary disorder: untidiness, self-contamination, indifference to official standards. Between the end of the war and the monetary reforms of 1948, certainly, cigarettes functioned as a form of currency in the barter economy of the rubble. Even before the war, the young Böll was working the illegal economy of black-market cigarette peddling [Boy, 15]. (He took from this the lesson that wars solve unemployment problems and regulate the cost of cigarettes [Boy, 60].) Grass, who also worked as a cigarette trafficker in his youth (before he took up smoking), explicitly invested cigarettes with a symbolism that rejected the smugness of the ‘economic miracle.’ He was conscious of (and amused by) the existentialist affectations that smokers put on [Onion, 292] – existential bowel movements, he called them [Dog Years, 533] – but he nevertheless saw trafficked and bartered cigarettes as small icons of a pre-capitalist life of the community.
Grass was not entirely dismissive of existentialist affectation, seeing in it an aesthetic-political substance that retarded the governmentality of the postwar bourgeois restoration. For writers in the rubble, normalcy is undergirded by a horrifying obedience. For all the carnage in Ledig’s Payback, one of the most unsettling images is also almost serene: a sailor, fallen overboard in the Arctic Ocean, is passed by a convoy that will salute him but not stop for him. Sailors line up on the ships to stare at him, ‘synchronized and obedient,’ Ledig writes. ‘But he was only a tiny point on a motionless surface, and he stayed behind until no one could see him anymore’ [Payback, 178]. Ledig thus uses docility and discipline to indict a political ideology that renders the collective mechanical, obedient and important, and the individual helpless and irrelevant. (The scene also anticipates Grass’ image, in Crabwalk, of children drowning upside-down in their life-belts. [Crabwalk, 149.])
In comparison, the disreputable are preferable even when they come with Bohemian affectations. The unkempt Gypsy models and chain-smoking art students who frequented the studio of the sculptor Otto Pankok, with whom Grass studied, are its living examples: the Gypsies were, Grass notes, probably survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. ‘They were more than models,’ he insists [Onion, 311]. The Tin Drum is among other things a scathing attack on bourgeois self-governance, which Grass unequivocally links to fascism. ‘Oskar hated this single-minded hymn to cleanliness,’ he writes [Tin Drum, 85]. The desire to disinfect, in the death-camp survivor Fajngold, is simultaneously tragic, sinister and hopeless. It is when the alcoholic musician Meyn becomes a Nazi that he tries to sober up, and he nearly beats his cats to death with a poker. It only gets worse: Meyn is tried and punished by the SA for cruelty to animals, tries to make amends by participating in Kristallnacht, and is finally rehabilitated when he joins the SS. The horror of cat-bludgeoning proceeds through racism to mass murder, marked continuously by bourgeois hypocrisies [Tin Drum,182-5, 394-5]. Grass writes in Dog Years: 'And piles of bones, heaped up for the sake of purity, will melt cook boil in order that soap, pure and cheap; but even soap cannot wash pure' [Dog Years, 303]. The Stutthof concentration camp outside Danzig, within sight (and smell) of the anti-aircraft batteries where Grass did his initial military service, is also the place where the legendary soap made from human bodies may actually have had some substance. For Böll, 'stinking German cleanliness' is a sign not only of crimes that refuse to dissipate from memory and perception, but also of the shining, liberal society of the economic miracle, where state surveillance ruthlessly uncovers leftist sympathies and sexual peccadilloes but buries and protects the bloody past – the 'corpse in the vault' – in the name of order [Böll, The Safety Net, 256, 259]. The drive to violate is the other side of the drive to conceal, as Bradley Manning and Julian Assange have discovered.
Grass identifies this murderous governmentality with a peculiarly gendered ideal that is far removed from nursing or even housekeeping. It has, instead, to do with tidiness of the body. Describing the semi-comic homoeroticism of the scoutmaster (and minor Nazi) Greff, Grass connects his suspicion of cleanliness to a particular vision of nature and masculinity: ‘Greff loved the taut, the muscular, the hardened. When he meant Nature, he meant asceticism. When he said asceticism, he meant a particular type of physical culture’ [Tin Drum, 276]. While it is possible to detect a touch of homophobia here, the more important target for Grass is the worship of a masculinity that has been stripped down to a clean, hard, violent skeleton, and that is opposed to the fleshy softness – i.e., the mire – of the unmanly and feminine. ‘The Jews, being a feminine race, also have no soul,’ Grass drily observes in Dog Years, citing Otto Weininger’s influential (and much misappropriated) 1903 treatise on sex and feminine nature [Dog Years, 37]. The obsession with clean, orderly bodies thus becomes inherently violent. Neither Grass nor Böll would deny that the necessity of cleansing is a part of Germany’s postwar predicament; the filthy Klepp begins his rehabilitation with a bath [Tin Drum, 486]. The trick, they appear to be saying, is to bathe but to remain on friendly terms with dirt, and to remember dirt in a continuous exercise of memory.
The Author Beyond the Rubble
In the liberal-democratic nation state, there is an unavoidable tension between the need to remember and speak out (about rightness, and also about guilt), and the individual’s right – which is also a need – to remain silent about what she or he remembers: taciturn like Grass’ mother, and Robert Faehmel and Schrella in Billiards. Without the right to remain silent, there is no freedom of speech.
At a more complex level, questions arise about the circumstances in which speech can be free. The twentieth-century European experience with murderous demagoguery suggests, after all, that free speech is not automatically harmless nor benign. It requires cultural groundwork, towards which defeat – and rubble – can contribute. Rubble is the ‘ground’ in the groundwork. The postwar moment, for Germany and Japan, is also a moment for grappling with freedom of speech. Is it both necessary and permissible to say anything? To make any salute? To wave any flag? Defeat imposes a circumspection, a hesitation, which is not unambiguously a bad thing. In America, where there is a hypothetical insistence on the absolute right to free speech, it also remains acceptable to display the Confederate battle flag in a way that postwar Germans would not display the Nazi flag. This, in spite of the fact that the Confederacy lost the war, because that defeat was not accompanied by a larger rejection of racism. To be ideologically meaningful, defeat needs cultural and institutional follow-up, and in the American south that follow up – the Reconstruction and the Grant presidency – were aborted and discredited all too quickly in the process of the rehabilitation of the Democratic Party.
The cult of the Stars and Bars is of course sustained by the particulars of American politics, such as shifting voting patterns and the Republican Party’s ‘southern strategy.’ But it is also rooted in a culture of innocence that underlies the larger edifice of southern nostalgia: innocence of slavery and racism, innocence of dishonor, the related innocence of the Quiet American, and the wider innocence of the citizen of the militarized nation state, who cannot help being shocked by an image that Ledig presents almost as a throwaway line in Payback: newborn babies in a maternity ward, the soft skin of their heads torn away by exploding aerial mines [Payback, 199]. It is to soften the shock and preserve the innocence - to preserve, in other words, the ability to fantasize about citizenship without having to imagine scalping babies - that we have words like “collateral damage” and veterans exclusively of foreign wars. Citizenship is the sausage, encased in innocence. The power of this innocence cannot be underestimated; it has ensured, for instance, that Kurt Vonnegut never acquired the cultural purchase he might otherwise have got in his own country, and that Joseph Heller is better known for a phrase than for an idea.
Böll’s novels are, to various degrees, explorations of innocence as a problem, as much as they are about guilt. Only those who have known dishonor can know what honor is, he suggests [Billiards, 32]. Neither victory nor victimhood carries ethical possibilities of similar power. In this, he is not claiming any automatic, privileged knowledge for the defeated or the perpetrators of atrocities, but he is suggesting – ever the Catholic – that acknowledgment of guilt is a necessary first step to beatitude, which is the most desirable of all human conditions. (Böll is explicit about this in Group Portrait.) Yet for Andreas, the innocent protagonist of The Train, there is only one exit from the state of moral virginity: a further descent into a childlike innocence and then death. Böll is thus deeply ambiguous about innocence: on the one hand, it leaves Andreas open to disarmament (he has lost his rifle), remorse and kindness, but on the other hand, it also suggests a profound, shell-shocked helplessness and pessimism that makes reconstruction appear to be the work of aliens. For Böll, the sense of alienation from West German normalcy had been foreshadowed in his prewar youth: he had not considered himself superior to his ‘normal’ schoolmates, he wrote, merely alien [Boy, 48].
The question, then, is whether alienness can be brought into an ethically and culturally productive relationship with citizenship. During the 1968 convulsions, Frank Trommler has written, Böll, Grass and their colleagues suddenly lost what we would today call ‘street cred.’ (Ledig had been forgotten much earlier and had dropped out of the literary world.) The younger, strident students accused them of being ineffective Dichter, and no doubt even more gallingly, complacently bourgeois [Trommler, ‘Creating a Cocoon of Public Acquiescence: The Author-Reader Relationship in Postwar German Literature,’ 312]. Trommler does not disagree with the criticism. He argues that postwar writers – and he specifically mentions Böll and Grass – did not seriously challenge the hierarchical relationship between the author and the reader. Even as they protested against the authoritarian-restorationist trends of the Adenauer-Erhard years, they continued to assert their own authority as authors. Consequently, their relationship with readers never took on the quality of a real (i.e., equal) conversation of the sort that Jean-Paul Sartre had advocated. Instead, the German authors wrote primarily for each other, self-isolated from the reading public in cocoons like Group 47 that, ironically, reflected the esprit de corps of the youth organizations and military units which the writers had joined in their youth. Even the rituals of these societies (like the hazing-criticism at Group 47 that Grass describes in Onion) are relatable to those earlier, decidedly undemocratic, organizations [Trommler, 305].
This was a stinging attack, and before asking whether the ‘68ers (and Trommler) were being fair, it is useful to note some specific implications of the criticism. Effectiveness – i.e., political impact visible to the public – had become a criterion of assessing writers. The venerable German-cultural icon of the Dichter had been reformulated. Centered on Goethe, Rilke, Holderlin and Kleist, the cult of the Dichter – the poet as cultural hero, who inspires and represents the community – had become an accusation of undemocratic and ineffective old-guardism. The Dichter in the age of television would inevitably reinforce, or at least accept, an arrangement in which the public’s relationship to the writer was characterized by dabeisein (‘being there’), a passive receiver/observer’s position that is essentially the attitude of the television watcher. This not only kept the reader from engaging the writer more dynamically, it also generated in writers a sense that meaningful intellectual and aesthetic exchange was possible only in exclusive circles of authorship. Finally, because postwar writers felt that some experiences were too overwhelming for words, they made an aesthetic artifact of silence itself, and this could add up to acquiescence and complicity when directed at readers engaged in dabeisein [Trommler, 307-8, 315-6].
Neither Grass nor Böll could – or would – have rejected altogether the charge that they were parts of the ‘normal’ edifice of Germany. Some were more ‘normal’ than others: Grass saw Böll as an artifact of the interwar era, almost unreachably older than himself [Onion, 408]. Big novels are monumental in their own way, Grass acknowledges, inseparable from the bourgeois urge to ‘produce something stupendous’ [Onion, 422]. Grass also shares, to some extent, his critics’ dislike of intellectual self-isolation. He is dismissive of the phenomenon of ‘inner emigration,’ or responding to fascism by turning inwards personally and politically [Gay, xii, 144]. He sees it as largely a self-serving postwar posture, calculated to gather sympathy and anti-fascist credibility [Tin Drum, 111]. He was himself vulnerable to the charge of inner emigration, and he confronts this in Onion when he accounts for his SS past: inner emigration does not work; everybody is accountable and culpable.
What might work? How, in other words, might the writer situated in a society that is receptive but nevertheless engaged in complacent dabeisein raise questions of collective guilt and complicity? One suggestion lies in Grass’ use of the word ‘crabwalk’ to describe Oskar’s ‘method of locomotion’ as he approached his grandmother sideways, indirectly, to hand her the memento from Jan Bronski’s execution [Tin Drum, 239]. The crabwalk, which is also the title of Grass’ novel about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff – a ship from his boyhood – with over nine thousand lives lost, becomes a method and a metaphor of approaching submerged horror with an almost reassuring intimacy.
But paradoxically and crucially, Grass also advocates direct grappling: a Godlike willingness to intervene in the past and the present. He describes God as a diligent amateur photographer, taking pictures of his creations from on high and pasting them in albums for his own pleasures of creation and possession. When we take our own pictures, Grass suggests, it reveals the absurdity and pathos of our self-representation, but sometimes it allows us to cheat – and to control and create – by bending the rules, mixing and matching fragments of images [Tin Drum, 38-42]. It allows us – God, writer, and reader – to admit the arsonist and the fireman, Koljaiczek and Wranka, not just into the ‘same’ individual with disparate identities, but into a common photograph that suggests their shared historical awareness of suffering [Tin Drum, 42]. Here, he undermines the perpetrator-victim dichotomy as well the writer-reader hierarchy. The reader-citizen can enter without following: a photograph of the young Oskar reveals ‘in each blue eye, a will to power that needs no followers’ [Tin Drum, 48]. The determined photographer can thus subvert the Nietzsche-Nazi connection.
Böll’s case is somewhat different. Whereas Grass worked actively with the Social Democrats and thus opened himself to the accusation of participating in the politics of normalcy, Böll preferred to lurk on the edge of the churchyard, wallowing in faith and its fluctuations, and in the minutiae of sectarian differences. (The relatively secular Grass is not immune to religious navel-gazing either. This churchiness is almost bizarre for postcolonial Indians, whose proximal intelligentsia stopped wallowing in religion – and writing about wallowing – in that manner a good hundred years ago. Europeans, it would appear, had more resilient and poignant expectations of religion as a font of justice in public life.) But although Böll remained attached to the Church, it was not a ‘normal’ attachment: he became disinclined to write in lock-step with priests (nuns remained objects of mingled dread and desire), and he is deeply suspicious of the authoritarianism, conformism and hypocrisy of the Church, which mirrors the state and the army in this regard.
Böll’s contrarian Catholicism thus mirrors his contrarian citizenship. In his memoir, he downplays any suffering he may have experienced as a schoolboy in the Third Reich, noting that such suffering had become a mandatory memory for postwar German writers. His own experience, he says, was largely one of revulsion – aesthetic, political – for Nazis, and he dealt with Nazi-affiliated groups like the Hitler Youth by staying out. School was mostly uninspiring and dull; he preferred the ‘school of the streets’ [Boy, 7-8]. Emigration was unthinkable. He refuses, in other words, to assume the position of the victim, that of the blind/uncaring, that of the inmate in the institution, or that of the refugee, either before or after the end of the war. Refusal has its limits – Böll was unable to stay out of the army indefinitely, after all – but his ironic awareness of those limits marks his fictional writing about soldiers’ experiences and guilt.
It also produces the odd accidents and coincidences that are a characteristic of his work. The narrator of Die Blasse Anna compulsively remembers the girl from the tram, but does not notice her in the photograph that he has been handling every day, and she just happens to be living – disfigured and thus beatified – in the room next door. Feinhals is killed just as he reaches home, literally by the last shell to be fired, and even that shell is fired by his own side, more out of habit than in anger. These contrivances are tactical rather than naïve: positioned on the edge of society but unable to contemplate a complete separation, Böll participates by emphasizing the everyday nature of extraordinary possibilities, the apparently forgotten and elusive realities under the nose of the postwar subject.
What the Great War did, Peter Gay wrote, was sever German society’s ties to a usable past, and damage its pipelines to external influences. The producers of Weimar culture had sought to restore the broken links [Gay, 8]. This is, in a way, similar to the task of post-1945 writers like Böll and Grass, who want to fashion a new cosmopolitanism that is also German. But unlike, say, Thomas Mann, Böll and his colleagues are determined to see their war as a decisive and necessary break: a moment that had to be acknowledged and improvised upon, not ignored or repaired. Rubble is not there merely to be swept away, and the past is to be recovered as a text of caution and horror. Even the Dichter could be recovered, but as rubble. Böll’s references to Trakl (and even Holderlin) are, in this sense, a wry inversion. Trakl – lost between Lvov and Cernauti – becomes the anti-Dichter of the anti-monumental world.
At evening, when we walk the dark paths
Our own pale forms appear before us.
[Trakl, “Evening Song”]
The criticisms of ‘ineffectiveness’ and ‘self-isolation’ do not dissolve entirely. For most West Germans, Trakl did not become an icon of any kind, and Holderlin probably did not undergo a wholesale reinterpretation. But perhaps that is not the point.
More importantly, no new Dichter emerged after the war; the ‘restoration’ was clearly also a real shift. Böll and Grass cannot be said to be ineffectual and marginal on the one hand, and Dichter on the other. They formed a new margin, but the margin is valuable as a margin, not as the new center. This value is spelled out in The Tin Drum when the dwarf Bebra, who has joined the Ministry of Propaganda (and later becomes a rehabilitated member of the postwar establishment) tells Oskar: ‘We dwarfs and fools should not dance on concrete that’s been poured and hardened for giants. If only we’d stayed under the grandstands, where no one suspected our presence’ [Tin Drum, 326]. Grass proposes here not so much an entirely new norm as space on the underside of society for a freakishness that threatens to collapse the line between Selves and Others and reveal what is otherwise invisible. It is in this space that the comically earnest art students repeatedly draw the blue-eyed Oskar as a black-eyed Gypsy interned behind barbed wire, forcing but also enabling him ‘to witness all this misery’ [Tin Drum, 442-4].
Also, it is useful to remember a point that Kaspar Maase has made about the relationship between the years of the ‘restoration’ and the ‘revolution’ of 1968. A sharp dichotomy between the Adenauer era and 1968 is not quite sustainable, and the radical students who saw Böll, Grass and others as fellow-travelers of reaction missed the degree to which they themselves were following in the footsteps of the rubble writers. (In any case, Baby Boomer accusations of ‘selling out’ and claims to uncompromising radicalism are rich in irony.) 1968, Maase writes, was the culmination, not the beginning, of a democratization of German culture that began earlier in the course of a transformation in elite attitudes towards popular culture and mass consumption [Maase, “Establishing Cultural Democracy,” 428-46]. Maase does not deal with the rubble writers directly, but they are relevant to his analysis nonetheless. Before the war, a bourgeois monopoly on taste had sustained a rigid hierarchy in German society between the respectable and the popular. After the currency reform and establishment of the Federal Republic in 1948-49, the West German elites briefly revived this hierarchy as part of their restoration of bourgeois hegemony – hence the sharp anxiety triggered by a disreputable phenomenon like the Halbstarke youth gangs. Soon, however, the consumerist imperatives of the economic miracle dissolved the boundaries of popular culture, and established the principle that taste was determined more effectively by the marketplace than by elite assessment. This brought cultural forms and embodied behavior previously identified with the working class into bourgeois society. (A little further down the line, the Halbstarke were inevitably incorporated into punk-rock nostalgia.) It expanded the bourgeoisie as a cultural-economic phenomenon and appeared to consolidate its hegemony to an unprecedented degree, but it also ensured that it was a fundamentally different, democratized and open bourgeoisie – a class capable of imagining and organizing the upheavals of 1968.
The rubble writers, who were only weakly connected to older German literary traditions and relied mainly upon the war experience for their material and credentials [Trommler, 307], and who were self-consciously positioned on the edge of respectability, were undeniably a part of this democratization. The expression ‘outsider as insider’ applies to them much as it does to Peter Gay’s Weimar intellectuals and artists, but Böll and Grass were less alien in their milieu, because the milieu had changed more significantly. The ‘hunger for wholeness’ in Germany after the Great War, Gay writes, was ‘awash with hate’: paranoia, racism, fear of the city [Gay, 96]. The sharpness of the contrast with the culture of the Federal Republic, in which there was a conscious attempt to reject these responses to war and defeat, is undeniable. It shows how extremely differently Germans experienced the two world wars, and the difference between creative context of Böll and Grass and that of the Weimar writers. Like any social development, the rubble writers were both the effect and the cause of the change, cultural products as well as agents of production. They were arguably too enmeshed in the networks of capital and consumption to be uncompromising rebels, but those same networks allowed them to find an audience. Nearly every specific that Maase lists as a factor in the growth of cultural democracy in the 1950s is a central concern in the work of Böll and Grass: the weakened authority of fathers, the embrace of cosmopolitanism, the erosion of the old line between (materialistic) Western ‘civilization’ and a (superior) German ‘culture’ that, by virtue of not being a civilization, had room for savagery. It was culture by Germans but not obsessed with being German, and as such it was a part of the reformulation of postwar citizenship in transnational terms.
The extraordinary nature of West Germany and the reunified German state should not, obviously enough, be overstated. It is a nation state, it has a well-funded military, it is a member of NATO and an important part of the American empire, it has conscription. It is at best a semi-reformed statehood. It should be noted, however, that German conscription is based in part on a new, postwar, consensus that a permanent and professional military caste is undesirable. Deployed reluctantly and only after considerable public debate, and with a minimum of chest-thumping and flag-waving, the German military – like Japan’s – approximates a more or less novel relationship between army, state and citizenry. It can (and should) be argued that the unaggressive military posture is a little disingenuous, because it is adopted in the shade of somebody else’s nuclear umbrella. It should also be pointed out that what Germany, the EU and Japan have eschewed in the way of militarism, they have made up in their formidable bureaucracies and police forces. The individual is always a half-step away from the status of an insect; the governmentality that Böll recoiled from is, more than ever, an inescapable reality even for bicycle riders. Circumspection and chagrin in foreign policy may have reduced the likelihood of another Auschwitz or even a German Guantanamo, but the domestic governance of modern states has a logic that is largely autonomous of overseas imperialism. The state is its own empire.
That empire cannot be dismantled safely or without incalculable losses, but it can be mitigated, and here the half-step between the individual and the insect becomes critically important. A society is human to the extent that it preserves the visibility of that half-step, which requires sustaining a state of ideological tension between modernity and its violence. The underworld will inevitably be infiltrated by the world, but it is not without the capability to shape the world in turn. The reluctance of Böll and Grass to leave the margin for a triumphant new mainstream is a response to fascism (not to mention the Soviet policies on display in Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968), but it is also a compromise: a grappling with the liberal-bourgeois predicament, a concession of the difficulty of finding a solution within liberalism and without liberalism, an advocacy of ‘the people’ cut with a refusal to romanticize the people. It is, thus, not the creation of a social-political space in which state-sponsored misery is impossible, but the creation of space in which such misery is visible, speakable and contestable (not least through the articulated legitimacy of underworlds and alternatives), and its extremes are rendered less likely.
December 7, 2011