[from The Guardian]
When Germany surrendered to the allies in May 1945 a debate was already under way as to how the country should be coaxed back to civilisation. For some it had gone so far down the road to infamy that there seemed no prospect of its being rescued. Others took a more compassionate view, and urged that a huge re-education programme be undertaken to expose German minds to ideas of peace and tolerance. One means of effecting this transformation was culture. Artists and writers would put shoulders to the wheel to help rehabilitate the country and its people – to cleanse its poisoned soul.
That was the theory. Lara Feigel’s absorbing book relives the era in all its uncertainty, and delves into the irreconcilable differences and contradictions that would come to thwart the project. One roadblock to the argument for renewal was the dubious efficacy of culture itself. After all, Germany had created, pre-1933, the most advanced and enduring culture in Europe. If the country of Goethe and Beethoven had failed to halt Hitler, what difference could British and American arts possibly make? The question was an especially raw one for those who had seen the concentration camps first-hand. In April 1945 Richard Dimbleby, reporting from Belsen for the BBC, struck a piteous note of horror: the starved inmates “looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they had never lived at all”. This central, unfathomable crime of the Nazis haunts those whose experiences Feigel has corralled here; some in fact regarded the entire German nation as complicitous in the crime. Repugnance took on physical symptoms. The photographer Lee Miller, recalling her visit to Dachau, found herself “grinding her teeth and snarling, filled with hate and despair”. Martha Gellhorn, also at Dachau, wrote that she had walked in there “and suffered a lifelong concussion, without recognising it”.
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