Commentary Magazine


German Fiction & Purification

Since the end of the war, the German literary world has been waiting for the great German novel, one that would sum up, and at the same time transcend, the experiences of the last generation. This concept of the great German novel is something new, for the Germans, with their history as a cohesive community, have never before felt that necessity for national self-definition which, for example, has prompted the enduring quest for the great American novel. The “typical” German novels have been the Bildungsroman and the Familienroman, which described the development of individuals and families inside a society whose stability was taken for granted.

In reality, however, this very social structure had been fatally affected, for over seventy-five years, by a series of revolutions, industrial and otherwise—and the horrors of the Nazi regime did not finally so much destroy the society as expose its inner decomposition. By 1945, the break in Germany’s intellectual and moral traditions was fully laid open, so that German self-acceptance henceforth became a problem rather than a fact of the nation’s intellectual life. More than that, the unprecedented horrors of the last stages of social decay—concentration camps, genocide, and all the rest—left such a heavy burden of guilt attached to any possible new beginning, that the search for national identity became indissolubly linked with the quest for purification.

This mixture of guilt-ridden self-exploration and an obsessive search for a new redeeming morality has furnished serious postwar German literature with the reason for its existence. And for its failure: the great German novel—the saving word—has not yet been written.

Sensitive about their failure, German writers tend to put the blame for it on their own over-involvement with the past. They are still too enmeshed in that past, they say, to transcend it (the German expression is die Vergangenheit zu bewältigen, “overcoming the past,” and the violence of the verb expresses the vehemence of their attack). But an outsider would be inclined to seek the explanation elsewhere for their failure to “overcome” the past: is it not too much, after all, to expect of the novel? Literature—art in general—cannot solve social problems; it is fortunate when it succeeds in illuminating them. The German past will be “overcome” by the German people as a people, or not at all.

Small wonder, then, that the German novel since 1945 has run up a succession of honorable failures. One of the most accomplished of these is the recent Billard um halbzehn (“Billiards at 9:30”) by Heinrich Böll, who is generally considered the most promising of the postwar German writers. The novel is the description of a day in the life of Robert Fähmel; it is also the history of three generations of the Fähmel family.

The founder of the family, Robert Fähmel’s father, had come to Cologne at the turn of the century as a poor young architect, determined to conquer the town. He succeeds—brilliantly—thanks in large part to his winning the contest to design the abbey of St. Anthony’s—henceforth the symbol of his family’s fortunes. He marries into an old family and has three sons. But his hope of building a large, vigorous dynasty fails, almost certainly as a judgment on the worldliness of his ambitions. Two of his sons die—one as a child while playing soldier (his last words are “give me a gun”) and the second, a convinced Nazi, while fighting on the Russian front.

The third son, Robert, during his student days gets involved with a cryptic proletarian sect called “the lambs.” They have sworn never to eat from the “sacrament of the buffalo”—the buffalo is the symbol of worldly authority, while the lambs, of course, represent the meek who have not yet inherited the earth. Practically all the book’s characters—and they are many—are divided into lambs or buffaloes, identified through a use of symbolism so involved and repetitious as to endanger, at times, the flow and verisimilitude of the narrative.

Robert Fähmel, the hero, is neither lamb nor buffalo in Böll’s mythology, but belongs to a rare third category. He is a “shepherd” called to “graze my lambs.” While still in school he gets mixed up in an anti-Nazi assassination plot, is whipped with barbed wire (Christ flayed with thorns?), flees the country, is amnestied (through family connections), and returns and settles down to a non-political life. During the war, he works as a demolition expert whose moment comes in 1944 when he is ordered to destroy German installations and “cultural monuments” in the path of the retreating army. His final prize is his father’s first great achievement, the abbey of St. Anthony’s, and he destroys it despite the misgivings of his superiors. Nothing seems more incongruous and contemptible to Fähmel than the scruples concerning the destruction of cultural monuments on the part of generals who never hesitated to send millions to their deaths. With the demolition of the abbey, Fähmel wants “to erect a monument for those who were not cultural monuments’ and concerning whose survival no official care had to be taken . . . a monument for the lambs whom nobody had grazed.”

Robert Fähmel’s son, then, unaware that it was his own father who had demolished St. Anthony’s, is helping to rebuild the abbey; accidentally, he learns of his father’s wartime deed. He decides to withdraw from his job—for reasons which remain obscure to him but are quite clear to the reader: the youngest member of the family refuses to be associated with the restoration of the old Germany.

All of this is squeezed into the narrative of a single day in the life of Robert Fähmel. Like every other, this day begins with billiards at half-past nine, in the sanctum of a reserved hotel room. The billiards ritual, which gives the book its title, is a retreat in the theological sense of the word, in which Fähmel, isolated from his fellow men whom he has come to despise, “communes” with God through abstract patterns created by the course of the billiard balls and “confesses” to a page boy, his sole companion, who seems to be not so much flesh and blood as an incarnation of the lamb of God.

Robert Fähmel’s day comes to a close on a falling note. Three generations of the family, shrunk and battered by the catastrophes of the last fifty years, meet for their annual reunion, to take stock, so to speak, of their own—and Germany’s—reduced fortunes. As the book closes, the last we see of the family is a grand gesture of expiation by the old man for having partaken of the sacrament of the buffalo: the anniversary cake, shaped to look like the abbey of St. Anthony’s, has been brought in, and he cuts off the church steeple and hands it on a plate to his son.

The moral of the story is only too obviously expressed in the culminating gestures of withdrawal and resignation of the three generations: the grandfather’s symbolic self-mutilation (understood as a social rather than a Freudian capitulation), the grandson’s vague, almost instinctive withdrawal from the work of restoration, and—squarely in mid-focus—the hero’s deliberate retreat from organized society into the sacred isolation of his billiard room. The family motto could read “Ohne mich,” or rather, in the mythology of shepherd, lambs, and buffaloes, “In Christ’s name—without me.”

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The religious coloration of this protest may be peculiar to Böll, but in his political and social disaffection he speaks for his generation, for the hostility and distrust which characterize the attitude of practically the entire German intelligentsia today toward the German people. Whether they are on the right, like Gerd Gaiser, the center, like Böll, or to the left, like Wolfgang Köppen, German intellectuals have in common a sense of estrangement from their society (not just from the Adenauer regime) which in some cases—as in Böll—amounts to outright revulsion and a desire to contract out. Nor is this merely the same role of “outsider” shared in our day and age by intellectuals the world over, German intellectuals exceed the common measure of alienation.

For one thing, in Germany the intellectuals have traditionally been more deeply engaged in politics than, say, their Anglo-American counterparts, so that their present exclusion from all influence is doubly painful to them. They seem indeed to feel that they let slip a unique opportunity to seize the intellectual and moral leadership of the nation. Military defeat, economic misery, and the full disclosure of the Nazi atrocities seemed in 1945 to have discredited not only the political leaders of the past but the political process itself, and the time appeared to be ripe for a new Germany founded on morals rather than politics, led by thinkers and philosophers rather than by politicians and industrialists. In the heady atmosphere compounded of hunger, remorse, and idealism, it did not seem Utopian to expect a great “cleansing” of the sins of Nazism, a national atonement which would lead to the spiritual rebirth of Germany. If the idea was admirable, it was also bound to fail. The German people found it more natural to repress their past than to atone for it, and the politicians and industrialists made their comeback to power with a rapidity and forcefulness which pushed to the sidelines the floundering intellectuals and their ideals.

Since then, the country’s amazing economic and political recovery appears to have vindicated the “nothing has happened” attitude of the German public and its leaders, while the intellectuals with their call for purification have seemingly been proved wrong. Worse than wrong: irrelevant, a nuisance, in fact The average German, his tribulations behind him and at ease in his prosperity, is annoyed by those who refuse to let the sleeping dogs of guilt lie.

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As a result, indignant and resentful intellectuals—at least those who have not come to terms with the present—have been driven into the unhealthy isolation of Böll’s hero. With many, opposition has become an automatic reflex; and it extends to aspects of German life which seem unexceptionable to the outsider. If almost to a man, the intellectuals abominate the Wirtschaftswunder—the miracle of Germany’s economic recovery—it is because they feel that it has deprived the German people of deserved punishment and the chance of a saving penance. Their lingering hostility to rearmament has, in part, a similar basis. A certain sympathy for the Russians and a corresponding anti-American animus among a large part of the German intelligentsia appear to stem from the notion that the Russians—if they rather than the Americans had taken over—would have purged the old German Adam instead of resurrecting him. (How these intellectuals reconcile such a notion with conditions in East Germany is their secret.)

Whatever the case, the gulf between the intelligentsia, particularly the writers, and the German people hurts both. The German writer, above all a man with a message, needs an audience; without this vital contact, he tends to turn crank. If Böll sees social reality in black and white terms (buffalo and lamb), if he rejects the political order as such, if he flirts with a Christian anarchism of shepherd and flock that he knows to be Utopian, if his hero finally ends up rejecting society and in almost total personal isolation—it is largely because Böll as a writer feels himself condemned to social irrelevance and ineffectiveness.

No doubt, this same despairing conviction of “not getting through” accounts also in large measure for the difficult style that is characteristic of German literature today. As if to give the public cause not to heed them, German writers have for some time now adhered to a veritable cult of obscurantism—stream-of-consciousness writing, tricky literary montages, flashbacks within flashbacks, symbolism, allegory, and the like. In fact, for all its occasional lapses into self-parody, Böll’s slightly synthetic mythology is restrained in comparison with some of the wilder and more grotesque mannerisms made use of by the youngest generation of writers.

The rationale for this style, of course, is the attempt to reflect in torn and twisted syntax the twisted essence of the world these German writers see, to create by means of a language bent away from traditional usage the feeling of social estrangement and existential alienation. Alas, this literary revolution has come thirty years late (the thirty years, more or less, during which Germany was cut off from the mainstream of world culture), its possibilities have long since been exhausted by Joyce, Faulkner, Céline, and all the others, its capacity to shock the bourgeoisie long since worn away by familiarity. The main effect of this literary resurrection in Germany is that of a pointless anachronism so that the readers merely feel imposed upon, not shocked. In a way, the datedness of the current literary idiom is also a perfect counterpart to the writers’ moral irrelevance, and both become symptomatic of the sterility of intellectuals in social isolation.

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But the German people, too, have suffered from the sterility of the intellectuals’ position. If nationwide contrition and cleansing were perhaps too much to expect, surely today’s all but universal repression of the past is an excess in the other direction. There is something foul in the spectacle of former Nazis in high public positions, and in the widespread leniency and sympathy for unrepentant anti-Semites. There is something ignoble about the nation-wide consent to sweeping the past under the rug, to killing it with silence (most German schoolchildren are not told about Hitler) or to making it respectable by white-washing. And, finally, the anti-Jewish prejudices still held by a large percentage—possibly the majority—of the German people point to a social malady far more frightening than the more obvious hypocrisy and self-righteousness which pervade German life today.

Moreover, repression does not work as it is supposed to. The past will not stay down, pieces of it are forever floating to the surface. Concentration-camp guards, murderers a hundred times over, are discovered passing for respected citizens in their communities; a doctor responsible for the “mercy-killing” of thousands of people is found practicing medicine under an assumed name—with connivance of the highest government authorities. And sometimes, as in the most recent anti-Jewish outbreaks, the anti-Semitic sickness does not wait to be discovered but breaks out on its own, frightening the patient himself, as it were, by its intensity. Thus the unexorcised past returns again and again to haunt the uneasy consciences of the community and to start once more the vicious circle of guilt and repression.

Such a policy of repression does more than perpetuate the past and poison the present—it spoils the future. For the development of the German people must depend largely on the self-image they create for themselves, and on the national goals they set for themselves, in the knowledge of both their strengths and limitations. In the folly of suppressing or perverting the memory of their past, they commit the folly of underestimating their weaknesses, above all their once-demonstrated potential for destruction and self-destruction. At the best of times in Germany, such selective forgetfulness has resulted in that shallow, self-gratulatory philistinism that blights so much of the German landscape today (and provides the goad for much of the mordant criticism from the intellectuals); and what happened under the worst times, we know already.

Obviously, it is too easy to suggest that German intellectuals and the German public could cure each other by getting together—the intellectuals providing their generation with an honest image of themselves and the public, in accepting this image, releasing the intellectuals from their profitless isolation. The German tragedy is precisely that the two sides cannot get together; the compulsions that keep them apart (self-justification on the one side, and self-accusation on the other) are stronger than any need to be drawn together, and will continue so for some time to come. Perhaps, as the Germans say, this generation is too close to the past to accomplish the liberating work of self-knowledge. It may well take a whole generation lost in the desert of confusion and compulsion to overcome a trauma such as the German people have suffered. If so, it may be the fate of Böll and his contemporaries never to write the great German novel. But by their courage and perseverance, and at great cost to themselves, they may bring the day a little closer.

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