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About Us. Brand Publishing. Times News Platforms. Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options. May 24, With a distinction prevalent in German post-Kantian philosophy, the war memoir uses narrative to transform lived experience Erlebnis into symbolically mediated experience Erfahrung. Moreover, this process of narrative interpretation has a distinct political dimension, perhaps particularly evident in German war memoirs, which involves interconnected representations of friends and enemies as well as specific strategies for managing questions of guilt and responsibility.

However, it is important to note that the war memoir is not simply a matter of manipulation and deflection of responsibility even though it is sometimes exactly that , but it involves a narrative attempt to understand, represent, and communicate the experience of war.


Each of these memoirs is set on the Eastern Front and gives voice to a similar ambivalence towards this monstrously violent campaign. However, the three writers differ markedly in terms of the narrative strategies they employ to make sense of their experiences and communicate them to an audience consisting mostly of uncomprehending civilians.

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The focal point of our analyses is war as a social experience. As we argue, each of the three memoirists struggle with these social interactions and use narrative as a means of reinstating order and meaningfulness in a social world fraught with complexity. In the context of German war memoirs, the time of the writing is crucial, and not just for the purpose of assessing whether the author is recording events more or less as they happen, or rather, at a distance and with the benefit of historical and moral hindsight.

The time of writing is also of importance because soldier memoirs tend to reflect in a very precise manner the current way in which German society as a whole handled the trauma of the war, with apologetic accounts dominating the immediate Postwar period and only gradually being replaced by more ambivalent and often guilt-ridden narratives.

This memoir was written during the war and was left unfinished when its author, a private, was killed in action in early Before being drafted, Reese seemed to have lived the life of a Thomas Mann character split between bourgeois respectability and artistic impulses: working as a bank clerk by day, he pursued his genuine, literary aspirations at night. As one would imagine, this sensitive bourgeois poet did not thrive on the Eastern Front and seems to have stood apart from his comrades. It is revealing that Reese throughout his memoir evokes a fellowship of soldiers sharing the hardships and traumas of war, yet never singles out an individual person who somehow touches him in a meaningful way.

An event occurring in the region of Rzhev in late brings out this sense of alienation with great clarity.

Professor wrote on post-WWII guilt, suffering

However, this existential dimension is further heightened when one day the routine is broken and Reese ventures out into a snowstorm, seemingly with the intention of finding the nearby field kitchen. The author quickly loses his bearings in the snowy landscape and is forced to seek refuge in a shot-up tank, severely beset, not just by the cold and the darkness, but also by exhaustion and anxiety.

Only when the snowstorm eases is he able to find his way back to the bunker by following a telephone line on the ground. The next morning he finds himself snowed in and has to be dug out by his — as always in this memoir, nameless and de-individualised — comrades who coincidentally have come to visit. Our point, however, is that his encounter with the featureless wintry landscape does not simply serve a descriptive interest, but that it is singled out as an individual dramatic episode because it supports a higher-level narrative of personal development and growth. Moreover, Reese has little to say about the war or the Nazi ideology of conquest, and even the most appalling atrocities are related dispassionately and without passing judgment What is important to the author is the individual, and the experience of war is interpreted throughout as an existential drama of disillusionment and growth.

Thus, being lost in the Russian winter changes Reese, removing him further from his pre-war life while making him more adapted to the hardships and agonies of the Eastern Front:.

Gottlob Herbert Bidermann, a Second Lieutenant, spent four years on the Eastern Front and saw ample fighting first in the Crimea, then in the Leningrad area, and finally the Baltic where his division surrendered in May Infanterie-Division , was written at some distance from the events and was first published in — that is, during a period of German Postwar history where wartime atrocities of the Wehrmacht were not widely recognised. As it happens, Bidermann openly discusses his initial attraction to Hitler and National Socialism and provides graphic detail of the horrors of the Russian campaign with the stated aim of making apparent the senselessness of war.

However, as we endeavour to show, his narrative style is less convincing in this regard and makes use of episodic writing to introduce and even legitimise a set of highly problematic conclusions. Like autobiographical writing in general, war memoirs typically adopt a dynamic temporal structure alternating between recurring events and routines and singular occurrences. These two tempi, which structuralist narratology refers to as the iterative and the singular mode, are interrelated: The iterative mode conveys the generalities of life at the front, offering opportunities for detailed description, explanations and reflection.

Conversely, the singular mode ruptures the flow of everyday existence and often epitomises experiences and value judgments that are fundamental to the memoirs as a whole Genette Shortly after the beginning of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in August , Bidermann and his comrades experience an evening of peaceful and even joyous fraternisation with local villagers close to the Dnieper River. According to the author, this moment of peaceful singing and fraternisation has brought the two groups together and seemingly offers confirmation of the well-established fact that many Ukrainians, having suffered severely under Stalin, welcomed the Germans in the opening stages of the campaign.

For Bidermann, however, the important point is that the singing fosters a symbolic bond between soldiers and civilians that makes any presumption of hostilities seem a breach of trust. Yet, the trust is in fact broken the same night — and this is clearly the point of the story.

When the merriment has died down and the soldiers have gone to sleep, the importance of the schoolteacher is revealed.

As Bidermann claims to have learned later from Russian captives, she is in fact a communist and a partisan. Later that night a Russian battalion moves in to attack. The author at this point proceeds, in a manner more typical of soldier memoirs, to offer a detailed account of the fighting that ensues. The divisional report that Bidermann includes after his dramatised account very matter-of-factly summarises the fight by stating that the Germans were successful in throwing the Russians back across the Dnieper Bidermann However, our point is that this narrative episode serves within the context of the memoir to preface and support a wide-ranging interpretation of the Russian campaign on a whole.

According to Bidermann, the Soviet civilians originally harboured no enmity against the Germans, but were gradually turned against them by Stalinist propaganda Bidermann Here, Bidermann seems to assume that a German victory on the Eastern Front was in itself a desirable outcome. More to the point, he portrays the German soldiers as honourable and fair, while the Ukrainian civilians are seen as dupes of the Soviet propaganda machine.

The war in the empty air : victims, perpetrators, and postwar Germans

The disturbing way in which Bidermann explains the German defeat in the war was perhaps not an uncommon sentiment at the time of writing. However, what gives the interpretation its power within the memoir is precisely the narrativised episode that precedes it. At the same time, the Ukrainian schoolteacher and her associates are represented as devious, full of misplaced hatred, and corrupted by communist ideology. Yet, for Klaus, the key formative experience is the time spent in Russia. As a young officer, Klaus was sent to the Eastern Front and participated in the summer offensive and its climax, the Battle of Stalingrad.