The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s
(Harvard University Press)
US: Apr 2014
In his introduction to The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s, author and academic Werner Sollors recounts an August 1945 meeting between American film director Billy Wilder and a German war widow in Berlin. As they chatted, the woman remarked that she was happy that the liberating Americans would fix damaged gas lines in the city, Wilder apparently responded with “I suppose it will be nice to get a warm meal again.” But the widow responded with “It’s not to cook … We will turn it on, but we won’t light it. Don’t you see? It is just to breathe it in, deep.”
So begins Sollors’ marvelous new work on World War II-era Germany, but in a completely different context and perspective then has been available before. This book is on focused on dispelling a myth and one that continues to exist: that of postwar German success. While Germany did overcome many challenges and establish many political and economic achievements after the end of hostilities in 1945, Sollors’ own research and uncovering of period sources suggests “a much murkier world, more given to looking backward than to envisioning a long-range future, let alone the hopeful mapping out of such a future.” The ‘40s, according to the author, gave us a time to observe through firsthand accounts what happens when ordinary people confront not just death, but mass death; this in turn, creates “the strong undercurrent of melancholy and despair.”
But this book is more than just a reverent look at how the German people viewed their own mortality during and after World War II: The Temptation of Despair also challenges long-held beliefs about German support for America, dissemination of material on the Holocaust, the benefits of militarism; and even facts about the war that we have come to accept as being unchallengeable.
For example, in the first chapter, Sollors gets into the thick of things immediately by suggesting that determining the end of the war is not as easy as one might think. How is it that people in Commonwealth countries observed 7 May 1945 as the end of the war, but it was 8 May in Germany and the United States, and 9 May in Russia? I am not so naïve as to belief that Sollors is the first author to challenge this idea, but his presentation shows us an author willing to confront many of the apocryphal stories and urban legends that continue to affect how we think of and frame the events of the Second World War.
Sollors, the Cabot Professor of English Literature at Harvard University and himself a German-born American émigré, is a prolific writer and seems to be the perfect person to tackle such a unique topic. Only an author as fluent in German and English as Sollors, and with the cultural and historical knowledge, could even attempt a task of uncovering sources from the era and translating them with such precision and aplomb to make this book so meticulously detailed. And while Sollors wrote this book from the perspective of those who lived it – through diaries and personal sources – this is as much a contribution to history and political science, as it is to literature.
What’s remarkable to me is that this great book was not Sollors intended outcome; rather, as he notes in the afterword, his original goal of documenting “the dissemination of American culture in Western Europe after World War II” was flipped on its head during his research. He realized that “the mood was often darker than I had known, remembered, or expected; in fact, it came as a surprise to me how gloomy the expectations for the future were, not only on the side of the defeated, but also on the side of the victors.”
Each chapter uses different source material and there’s quite an astonishing range. Sollors includes everything: photo essays; articles; diaries; novels; films; oral recordings; “ruin photographs” (pictures and postcards of the day featuring bombed-out ruins, poor children and general malaise); an intellectual face-off between Karl Lowenstein and Carl Schmitt; mass-produced fiction and films featuring black soldiers, their white lovers and in some cases, their Mischlingskinder (mixed children); and even “guilt placards”, the latter placed around Germany that showed concentration camp photographs and asked, in big German letters, “Who is guilty?”
What makes this book such a valuable contribution to media studies, as well as the humanities, is that despite the third-person and scholarly approach, it’s so intimate and personal. While reading the afterword and last chapter, titled “Coda”, the reader can see just how much the experience of writing The Temptation of Despair was a personal voyage for Sollors and a form of catharsis; his memories formed the initial basis for the book, but his research caused him to re-evaluate and re-imagine what he thought he knew about the time and the era. Thus, this book becomes one of those rarities in academia: a volume that is the product of excellent scholarship, as well as deep introspection.