, , , , , , , ,


War stories since The Iliad ( 8th century BCE) have been told to fascinate and celebrate physical courage, mental fortitude, sacrifice for others, and victory —by men, our men.  Story tellers, listeners and readers have been drawn to stories that exalt our people and diminish theirs, praise our fighters and our endurance, and belittle theirs — as if no one has progressed beyond the infant acquisition of “theory of mind,” that those over there are much like us, that their stories are much like ours, celebrating their victory and their dominance, our defeat and our submission – about which we avoid telling stories.

It’s hard to tell a thrilling story of defeat and destruction, so war stories have until very recently been not about the totality of war, but only the moment of impact, the battle itself.  The consequences for those without weapons in their hands, those hiding in ditches, those fleeing in panic, the helpless elderly, the dying child, don’t have the requisite elements of an ear-catching story .

With very few exceptions, Euripides’ Trojan Women being an early and rare example, the consequences of war are not told in story and song, except perhaps in passing, a muted backdrop against which fame and glory shine.

Since the end of World War I, 100 years ago, stories have begun to find interest in the wider consequences of war.  With more literate soldiers, novels and journals began to appear structured around “this is what happened to me,” experiences: gas attacks, water filled trenches, few and foul rations, body parts in the mud and friends turned to bloody mist. Despite the always popular  Audie Murphy stories of one man forcing one hundred to surrender, a wider reality was written of.

Still, one can read these “fictions” and find barely a mention of those not in the trenches, those who never touched a gun, those whose interest was only the coming harvest and the birth of a grandchild, and yet who were killed with the same indiscriminate means.

World War Two novelists, like Norman Mailer The Naked and the Dead, James Jones in The Thin Red Line, while compulsively detailing the trials of soldiers in terrible campaigns, had not much time for the civilians suffering in the same battlefields.  Participant-written novels of the War in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, while being much more truthful and less celebratory of the burdens of being a soldier in war, are almost without exception, inattentive to, even unaware of, the hidden dark matter of the wars in which they fight, the stories of the civilians, from foreign food-workers for the armies, to the children blown up in errant air-strikes, to the millions in frightened exodus from the lands of their birth, now home to fighting in which they have no part.  In fact, for all their truthfulness about the combat experience they have cemented a strong sense of “combat gnosticism” in readers, that the only war stories to be believed are those written by those who have fought them.


One of the few novels to take as a matter of interest civilian stories of war is  Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing, 2006, translated by Anthea Bell,   the last novel he wrote before his death in 2007. It is a war-time story of flight, indecision and false hopes in East Prussia in 1945, then divided into swaths of Russian and Polish territory.  It is a story of the enemy, German civilians, as the fabled Wehrmacht is beginning to collapse.

It is January and cold.  The snow is coming down and the Red Army is rumored to be coming west, vengeance no doubt on their minds after the merciless assault two years earlier by the German armies into Russia and the Ukraine. In the ancestral manor, the Georgenoff, the beautiful Katharina, mother of Peter, along with  a formidable Aunt who runs the house with two Ukrainian maids and a Polish handy-man, try to keep a world away from the war.

In a perfect set-up the house becomes a way-station for people fleeing west, away from the Russians:  a political economist, walking on crutches; a young woman violinist who has been entertaining German troops; a painter who has been wandering the country for the Party, “painting what was left standing.”  Peter’s tutor, Wagner, comes daily to work with him, and tell romantic stories from the earlier war:

“Your best chance was to jump into a brand-new crater, because where a shell has gone off once another isn’t so likely to strike in the same place.”

With each visitor the tension in the house ratchets incrementally. In Auntie’s room is “…a small pen-and-ink drawing of Hitler, the Führer and Chancellor of the Reich, with his tie featuring an eagle in a swastika.”  The painter warns her to get rid of it: “What will the Russians think?”

We think we know how this confident narrative will proceed, in ample furlongs of classic realism: the imperiled gentry, the advancing Red Army, the wintry trek westward. Kempowski’s novel does contain those elements, but the anticipated grimness of a story taking place in dire circumstances is impishly subverted on the first page, when the author switches from his description of the house to the people who pass it on the road:

“All that strangers driving along the road saw of the place was the main house. They wondered who lived there: why don’t we just stop and say hello? And then with a touch of envy they wondered: why don’t we live in a house like that ourselves, a place that must be full of stories? Life is unfair, thought the passers-by.

For a story so fraught with potential fear, Kempowski adopts an effectively neutral, seemingly detached tone — as though knowing all but not emotionally invested.

The bookseller … “in spite of his stomach trouble had been called up as a reservist.  He had been told he must be ready, just in case … and if you hear the sirens going off three times, then put on your uniform and hurry to the meeting place.
And then what?
He was sixty-two years old, and this was not how he had imagine spending his old age.”

Kempowski’s prior work, after being imprisoned for eight years in East Germany for “spying” for the Americans, was the enormous Das Echolot (Echo Soundings), a 10-volume collage of diaries, letters and memoirs collected from and about Germans during the war.  Out of this obsessive gathering of collective experience be creates in the novel his own miniatures over an erupting background.

Peter is a somewhat distracted twelve year old, more interested in his microscope than in news of the war.  Katharina seems to be floating through life, even in war time. Nonetheless she agrees with her local pastor to allow a man to hide in the house over night — Why did she do this?  Perhaps “because it was thrilling”  Even good acts, the narrator tells us, sometimes have cloudy motives.

“Was she really anxious to save a human being, or did she just want to prove that she thought herself capable of something?  The wish to do something crazy, like that (secret) outing of hers with the town mayor?”

Drygolski, the local Nazi bureaucrat visits daily, Heil Hitler, to be sure nothing suspicious is going on.  Why are they killing pigs?  Are they leaving, too?  He has lost his only son on the Eastern front and his wife is now an invalid. He is offended that Katherine has only once asked about her. Less a Nazi than a small man with petty grievances he is a reminder: Nazidom was not all jackboots and savage dogs.  It functioned because many, many, found favor in its folds.

“The family’s poverty-stricken existence had ended when the National Socialists came to power … he was made head trustee of the Local Labour Front.”

Soon, the rolling thunder of heavy artillery can be heard.  More and more refugees stream past the house, the family within thinks perhaps they should go also perhaps to a wealthy uncle near Berlin.

“The wind whistled from the west … A cold, harsh, icy rain fell on the oak trees, and then came the great trek. … People on bicycle, others pulling sledges. …Only a few separate carts at first, each on its own, then more densely, one behind another. … there went a column of three hundred carts!  It was like France in 1940, when the Belgians fled before the Germans.” 197
Katharina’s husband, Eberhard, is stationed in Italy with the German army.  He makes a desperate phone call and warns his wife:

“Pack your things at once and get away from there, understand? Get away , just leave everything…First thing tomorrow morning… The Russians are coming!”

But the police arrive the next morning.  They have been told that she harbored a Jew, and is wanted for questioning. Auntie gets the wagon ready. Should they wait for Katharina?

“Sheltering a Jew? How could she do it? Dragging us all down with her!”

The small group, without Katharina, arrives at the expected haven of the uncle’s house.  He is not there. Those occupying it want nothing to do with the desperate strangers. After more days of walking, “wheels crunching over the snow,” the Polish handyman disappears. The tutor dies, falling into frigid water.  The caravan of refugees, “little old men and little old women” is strafed and bombed.  Auntie dies beside the shattered cart. Peter is picked up by SS men, searching the column for men who can shoot, those between fifteen and seventy.  “They should go and defend their country, damn it all.”

Not much happy happens in All for Nothing. In the end a few get through. What will get through to many readers, however, is that the “theory of mind” which older war stories seem to have lost, reappears.  In fact, those over there, the enemy, even being the enemy and with beliefs and actions we find abhorrent, have stories to tell, stories which are much like ours would be should war descend, heralded by promises of glory and fame, by those ignorant of what war is really like, in all its consequences.

Kempowski has a wonderful way of telling what is basically a very grim story, dipping into a characters’ thoughts, then letting them speak for themselves; in the midst of uncertainty and fear, petty quarrels continue; with rumors of armies nearby, everyday lusts still make their way;  beneath the threats of tomorrows continue the habits of today.