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Excerpt from ‘The Bitter Taste of Victory’ by Lara Feigel

"The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich" by Lara Feigel tours post-World War II Germany as seen by writers, artists, filmmakers and photographers. Credit: Bloomsbury

The Allies’ incursion into Germany continued with a three-week battle for Aachen, which was the first German city to surrender on 21 October. Immediately, Allied war correspondents arrived to witness the destruction wrought by their armies and airforces and to interview the defeated Germans. As participants in the Allied war effort, they were intended to produce reports indicting German brutality but instead they often ended up describing the astonishing devastation of the city. Aachen had been heavily bombed in 1943 and shelled throughout the three weeks of battle. Now 85 per cent of the town was in ruins and only 14,000 of the prewar population of 160,000 remained. In parts of the city there was row after row of plaster decorated facades still presenting a semblance of ordinary architecture while in fact there were no houses behind them; elsewhere there was mile after mile of rubble. Only the cathedral stood tall, towering eerily over a sea of ruins. When the inhabitants remained they were living in basements, frightened both of the Americans and of their German rulers, who hurled abuse at them on the radio, accusing them of cowardice for surrendering. The streets were lined with the skeletal remains of their bombed inhabitants and the whole city seemed to exude the smell of rotting flesh.

Among the first Allied visitors to Aachen was Erika Mann. Once a bohemian German actor, car racer and cabaret writer, Mann was now an American war correspondent, defiantly proud of her army uniform and Anglo-American accent. She was also the daughter of the German writer Thomas Mann, a US citizen and the most prestigious spokesman for German literature in exile. For several months she had been driving around Europe in a battered Citroën bestowed on her by a friend in the French resistance shortly before he died.

Mann had spent the early years of the war broadcasting for the BBC in London and had seen the destruction created by the London Blitz. As an American war correspondent, she had then come close to the battlefields of France, Belgium and Holland. However, nothing had prepared her for the flattened German cities. Like many returning Germans, Mann found it hard to take in the transformation of her former homeland or to believe that this ‘phantastically ruined’ wasteland had really been a city. But she had little sympathy either for the vanished buildings or for their demoralised inhabitants. She was determined not to reveal her own German identity and kept up an American persona to stop herself striking out and hitting the unrepentant Germans she now encountered. Meeting a group of German policemen currently being ‘re-educated’ by the Americans, Mann was shocked by the ‘complete lack of feeling of their collective guilt’ displayed by the men, who asked her naively what plans were being laid in Washington for German reconstruction. How did the Americans intend to strengthen the German economy? As a war correspondent had Mann come across any interesting stamps? Perhaps she could help fill the gaps in their collections?

Staggered that the Germans could be so oblivious to her own outrage, Mann asked them questions in return. As Military Government policemen, did they expect to run into trouble among Germans still wanting to display the Nazi flag? Immediately, three or four policemen assured her that the Germans were ready to abandon Nazism. Their failure to do so was explained by a familiar mantra: ‘Terror!’ ‘Dictatorship!’ ‘The Gestapo!’ It seemed to Mann that this was becoming a childish song, intoned everywhere. ‘In one breath as it were, these Germans would tell you that a) Nazism was kept alive in Germany by a mere handful of hated fanatics, while b) every German was watched over by two Nazis.’ She believed that Nazism had finally become objectionable but thought that it had lost popularity not because of its moral depravity but because of its military weakness. Germany’s leading criminals stand accused today not of being criminals but of being failures.’

Writing to her brother Klaus in the English language she had determinedly made her own, Erika said that it was ‘phantastic’ to be back in the ‘Hunland’ and that she was convinced more than ever of the hopelessness of the Germans. ‘In their hearts, self-deception and dishonesty, arrogance and docility, shrewdness and stupidity are repulsively mingled and combined.’ She was now certain that neither she nor her brother would be able to live again anywhere in Europe, which was in as bad a state morally as it was physically. This was a ‘bitter pill’ to swallow, even though she had already been loyally committed to Uncle Sam.

Erika Mann had very little patience with anyone who claimed to have been duped by the Nazis. She herself had openly mocked and resisted them even before they came to power, though in the very early days it was Klaus who was the politically orientated Mann sibling, warning the world about the dangers of fascism in 1927. Erika’s own political stance began spontaneously and passionately five years later when she recited a pacifist poem by Victor Hugo at an anti-war meeting. A group of Brownshirts broke up the gathering and threw chairs at her, denouncing her as a ‘Jewish traitress’ and ‘international agitator’. Fired from her acting role after the Nazis threatened to boycott the theatre unless she was dismissed, she felt called upon to make a stand. She was successful in suing both the theatre and a Nazi newspaper who had described her as a ‘flatfooted peace hyena’ with ‘no human physiognomy’. After examining several photographs of Erika, the judge declared that her face was in fact legally human. Galvanised into political activism, Erika opened the Pepper Mill revue in Munich on 1 January 1933, collaborating with her lover the actor Therese Giehse and a troupe of players to perform anti-Nazi satirical cabaret until the Nazis drove them out of Germany two months later.

Having retained her uncompromising stance throughout twelve years of exile, Erika was certainly not prepared to mellow now. She was exhausted by her year of press camp cots and army rations; aware that her thirty-eight-year-old body was taking the same battering as the car given to her by her dead friend. She missed her parents (at home in the plush comfort of Los Angeles) and her brother Klaus (stationed in Italy reporting for the US army). But she was propelled by hatred of the Germans who had driven her family from their homes and killed many of her friends. The people who confronted her daily exhorting sympathy for the destruction of their cities or demanding additions to their stamp collections were the same Germans who had thrown chairs at her in Munich and burned thousands of the books she loved. She was determined to play whatever part she could in witnessing their humiliation and convincing them of their guilt.

Excerpted from “The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich” by Lara Feigel, published by Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2016 by Lara Feigel.

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