SWANSONG 1945: A COLLECTIVE DIARY OF THE LAST DAYS OF THE THIRD REICH
By Walter Kempowski
W.W. Norton, $35, 479 pages
This is the 10th and final volume of “Echalot” — a German word for sonar, also rendered as echo soundings — a monumental collection of firsthand accounts of World War II published in the course of two decades by the distinguished postwar German novelist Walter Kempowski — the first to appear in English. Its spare German title “Absegang ‘45” has been translated into the more evocative “swansong” rather than its other meaning, “farewell,” but I think the subtitle its British publisher gave it “A Collective Diary from Hitler’s Last Birthday to V-E Day” is more telling than the U.S. one above. For this hefty book is actually divided into entries from just three days in April 1945 — the 20th, 25th and 30th — plus the day the war ended in Europe early in the next month. Its focus on four pivotal days gives added depth and texture to a harrowing account of a crumbling, disastrous regime taking a nation and everyone from its most fervent adherents to its victims into an infernal maelstrom.
Kempowski, who died in 2007, is exceptionally qualified to evoke those final days of Hitler’s Third Reich, because of his own experiences of them and their aftermath. Although still only 16 when the war ended, he had already served unenthusiastically in the Hitler Youth and was even more reluctantly conscripted into a youth auxiliary Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit. Although his family was not Nazi, it was, like so many others, patriotic and his father, a veteran of World War I, was killed by a Russian bomb while serving in East Prussia in April 1945. Although his hometown of Rostock fell in the Soviet occupation zone, at war’s end he found himself further west and worked for the U.S. Army in Wiesbaden. Returning to Rostock with his brother in 1948, he was sentenced by a Soviet Military Tribunal to 25 years in the gulag for espionage, being released after serving eight years.
That he, in fact, suffered more under the Russians than under the Nazis does not, as for so many others, blunt his condemnation of the regime under which he grew up. His portrait of Hitler’s final days, surrounded by sycophantic acolytes begging him to save himself by fleeing to the Alps while he embraces suicide and immolation, simultaneously praising Nazi achievements and its essence even as he blames his compatriots for not being strong enough to prevail, is sickening. Not the fuhrer’s imagined operatic heroic Wagnerian twilight of the gods, but rather a seedy, desperate shambles of a besieged shelter filled with toxic fear and actual poison capsules handed out by him with apologies that they are all he has left to offer those by his side.
Yet was there anyone in that bunker who could match Norwegian Nobel Literature laureate Knut Hamsun in the V-E Day eulogy from him Kempowski provides? “I’m not worthy to speak of Adolf Hitler, and his life and deeds do not lend themselves to sentimental emotion. He was a warrior, a warrior for humanity, and a herald of the gospel of justice for all nations. He was a reforming figure of the highest rank, and it was his historical fate to have to work in a time of unparalleled vulgarity that finally led to his downfall. This is how the average western European will see Adolf Hitler, and, we, his true followers, bow our heads over his death.” Talk about plus royaliste que le roi.
In his highly informed introduction, Alan Bance, professor emeritus of German at Britain’s University of Southampton, tells us that “Kempowski’s own word for his creative method was ‘collage’ ” and rightly points out his belief in “the complexity of the Germans’ response to Nazism and the war.” Indeed, we see a huge range of attitudes and reactions, but Kempowski keeps his moral compass squarely focused on the Nazis’ victims. After neutral Sweden’s Count Folke Bernadotte succeeds in his last-minute rescue of Scandinavian prisoners, the fate of those left behind even at this late stage is very different: “Conditions in the crammed holds of the ships were unbearable. There were several hundred fatalities in the harbor area, and the death toll was increasing. The 20 Jewish children abused for pseudo-medical research and 28 of their carers, along with Soviet prisoners of war, were hanged in the evening in the boiler room of the school.”
No one could accuse Kempowski of sugarcoating his history. In the final words of his own preface to this book, published in German two years before his death, he references Gustav Dore’s picture of Noah’s flood from his childhood Bible, telling us that there “no rainbow stretches above the dead.”
Here, as so often throughout this remarkable testament, he has a knack for choosing the perfect image.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.