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‘The Bitter Taste of Victory’ review: Lara Feigel’s book tours Germany in the wake of WWII defeat

In 1946, more than a year after the

In 1946, more than a year after the war's end, Berlin was still a city of destruction. Credit: Bettmann Archive

THE BITTER TASTE OF VICTORY: Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich, by Lara Feigel. Bloomsbury, 443 pp., $32.

It wasn’t just grunts and generals who crossed into Germany at the end of the Second World War. Along with Allied forces, a who’s who of writers, journalists, poets and filmmakers came to observe, report and reconstruct a shattered world.

What they saw shocked and bewildered them. Major cities — Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne — had been heavily bombed. The plight of ordinary Germans elicited both sympathy and rage, as these visitors grappled with the violence the Nazis had unleashed on Europe and the destruction wrought on Germany in return. Was Nazism a particularly German affliction? Were there any “good” Germans? What could be reclaimed and renewed out of the rubble?

In her superb new book, “The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich,” Lara Feigel explores these questions through the eyes of some 20 American, German and British figures as they journeyed across the apocalyptic wasteland. “A group of artists had found in the German ruins a vocabulary for exploring the struggle of their age,” Feigel observes. “[They] had encountered horrifyingly potent symbols in the bombed-out houses, the piles of debris, the wandering refugees pushing their carts at the side of ravaged roads, the skeletal figures in the concentration camps.”

The author’s dramatis personae include screen legend Marlene Dietrich, returning to her broken homeland, and director Billy Wilder; poets W.H Auden and Stephen Spender; journalists Martha Gellhorn and Rebecca West; and photographer Lee Miller. George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh have walk-on parts.

Feigel writes acutely about the soul-searching of Thomas Mann, the exiled elder statesman of German letters, and his children, who all felt the oppressive burden of squaring the achievements of German culture with the barbarism of the Nazis. Erika Mann, a rebellious bohemian who was forced to leave Germany in the ’30s, thought her countrymen and -women irredeemable; brother Klaus, working as journalist for the U.S. Army, wrote in 1945 that “the German people show no trace of a sense of responsibility, much less a sense of guilt.” (Klaus is also the subject of a new biography, “Cursed Legacy,” by Frederic Spotts.)

Wilder, viewing footage of the camps for a documentary, raged against Germans for killing his Jewish family: “They burned most of my family in their damned ovens! . . . I hope they burn in hell!” Gellhorn was traumatized by her visit to Dachau.

But the Allied victory looked less pure when viewed up close. “Are we justified in replying to their mass murder by our mass murder?” asked Auden.

As in her previous book, “The Love-charm of Bombs” — about writers’ lives in London during the Blitz — Feigel mixes big-picture storytelling with piquant biographical studies. There is plenty of gossip, from Auden’s collecting all the booze he could find — “he proceeded amid the ruins with his usual sense of entitlement,” Feigel writes — to the affairs of Dietrich and Gellhorn, who both carried on with the dashing commander of a U.S. airborne division.

Feigel’s account of the Nuremberg trials, the judicial centerpiece of the Occupation, offers a look into the private lives of Rebecca West and the presiding officials. In the dock, what remained of the Nazi leadership looked shriveled and pathetic. Boredom mixed with gloom in the city known for its Nazi spectacles. West, writing about the proceedings for The New Yorker, engaged in a passionate affair with Francis Biddle, the married American judge at the tribunal. West quipped to her editor that everybody was “either in love with someone who isn’t there or is in love with someone who is there but finds it difficult to do anything about it, for housing reasons.”

In the United States, philosopher Hannah Arendt questioned the usefulness of the trials. “The Nazi crimes, it seems to me, explode the limits of the law,” she mused. This is one of the most vexed questions that haunt Feigel’s pages. Were the Nazis beyond human, and therefore not answerable to any ordinary human institutions? “For these crimes, no punishment is severe enough,” Arendt contended.

The reconstruction of Germany was incomplete, ending with the onset of the Cold War and a country divided between East and West. While some, such as Klaus Mann, succumbed to despair, it was, perhaps surprisingly, Billy Wilder who most successfully reckoned with the bitter taste of victory. In the postwar films he set in Germany, he spoofed Germans, Americans and communists. Wilder did not forget the dark past, Feigel writes, but “he had learnt to laugh in order to survive in a ruined and desolate world.”

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