The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich by Lara Feigel

Reviewed by Rob Spence

feigelThis book is a companion piece to Feigel’s The Love-Charm of Bombs (reviewed here), which examined the lives of some prominent writers in London during the Blitz and afterwards. That book shows the ways in which war transformed the lives of writers and artists, both intellectually and physically, as they dealt with the horrors of the nightly bombing. As the title suggests, Feigel emphasises the aphrodisiac quality that everyday proximity to death generates. In this new book, the scene changes to Germany in the last months of the war and in its immediate aftermath, and chronicles the intersecting lives, and loves, of the British, American and German intellectuals and artists charged with rebuilding culture in the defeated land.

Feigel’s cast list is extraordinary: Klaus and Erika Mann, Rebecca West, Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, W.H. Auden, George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Lee Miller, Martha Gellhorn, Victor Gollancz, Humphrey Jennings, and many others; to say nothing of the military and administrative figures they encountered on battlefields and in beds as the war ended and the uneasy peace began. The book deals convincingly with the chaotic and often contradictory impulses that sent this varied group to the ruins of the great German cities, there to grapple with the lingering problem of Nazi guilt, and with it the guilt of the German people – a distinction that only some of them made. The positions taken by some of Feigel’s protagonists are illuminating. Erika Mann, returning from America to her homeland, is furious with the complacent amorality she sees in her compatriots; Martha Gellhorn finds it difficult to have any sympathy with the pathetic survivors in the cities, once she has experienced the concentration camps; Stephen Spender seems naively optimistic in his desire to rebuild Germany through art, and Victor Gollancz heroic in his efforts to bring food to the starving through his ‘Save Europe Now’ campaign.

Feigel skilfully interweaves the lives of these major and minor figures with an account of the last months of the war, and the first years of the peace, often illuminated by some startling statistics. It is sobering to read, for example, that in January 1945, ‘450,000 German soldiers were killed; this was more than the total number of British or American soldiers killed in all theatres during the entire war.’ Or that in Berlin, ‘of the 245,000 buildings in the city, 28,000 had been destroyed and 20,000 were so badly damaged that they could not be rebuilt.’ Or that in Cologne, ‘only 20,000 people remained out of a population of 700,000 and there was 24 million cubic metres of debris.’ These cold facts are juxtaposed with the emotional responses of the protagonists to the sights that confronted them in the flattened cities. Cologne, for Gellhorn, is not so much a city as ‘one of the great morgues of the world.’ Erika Mann, entering Berlin, finds ‘a sea of devastation, shoreless and infinite.’ The Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman saw the shattered cities as ‘ a vast dumping ground for shattered gables, free-standing house walls whose empty window holes are like wide-open eyes staring down.’

The cultural offensive that these writers and artists mounted is described in detail, with some often grimly comic sidelights: the ‘denazification’ programme, for example, which required the filling in of tedious questionnaires in which Germans had to not only state their views on Nazism, but also whether the bombing had affected their health. Feigel is scrupulous in presenting the often brutal contrast between the victors and the vanquished, detailing the banquets held for visiting luminaries when people were dying in the streets outside. All the time, of course, the tensions that would ultimately result in the Cold War are given due attention.

The plans for artistic revival, sometimes grotesquely ambitious, and often hampered by bureaucracy and censorship, are recounted fully, and sometimes this is detrimental to the reader’s experience. Feigel will summarise the action of a play or a novel at length, rather than give the key points to set it in its context, and this slows the narrative in places. Similarly, the long central account of the Nuremberg tribunal is perhaps too detailed, but even so is enlivened by the perspective of Rebecca West and the painter Laura Knight. There is also an odd chapter detailing the lives of German exiles, such as Thomas Mann and Billy Wilder in California. This seems an unnecessary diversion from the vivid scenes of Germany in ruins.

But it is the human and social dimension rather than the historical that really animates Feigel’s writing. She is adept at showing the frequently surreal lives of her principals in the heightened emotional landscape of the time. We accompany the photographer Lee Miller as she bathes in Hitler’s bath on her return from Dachau and muses on the symbolism of her muddy boots on Hitler’s white rug. We see Martha Gellhorn in a passionate affair with an American divisional commander, who later has a liaison with Marlene Dietrich. We see Rebecca West, reporting on the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, and drawn into a dalliance with the American judge, Francis Biddle, noticing the opulence of her surroundings in the midst of the devastation. These, and other stories of love and longing are what remain in the reader’s mind afterwards. It was, as West said, ‘a climate where love can flourish.’

This is a fascinating and unusual book – a sort of group biography in effect. It is also a work of considerable scholarship, replete with the trappings of academic labour: footnotes, bibliography, index. So it is disappointing to report that there are quite a few errors. In the maps that show the zones of occupation and the Berlin sectors of occupation, there are spelling mistakes; similarly, some German words are incorrectly rendered; and there is at least one regrettable homophone error. These are pedantic objections, to be sure, and they do not detract from the overall effect of a fine, well-researched and fascinating tapestry of interlocking lives in moments of extremity.

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Rob Spence blogs on books, music and anything else that appeals to him at robspence.co.uk

Lara Feigel, The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury, 2016) 978-1408845325 443pp., hardback

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