Book Review: The Bitter Taste of Victory
Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich
by Lara Feigel
Bloomsbury Press, 2016
“To arrive in Germany in the final months of the Second World War was to confront an apocalypse” – so begins Lara Feigel’s dramatic, almost decadently fascinating new book The Bitter Taste of Victory, which chronicles, among many other things, the attempts by British and American artists, writers, and filmmakers to make some sense out of the shattered world they all encountered in Allied-occupied Germany from 1945 to 1949. It was a world of near-universal devastation, with half-wrecked buildings and scorched fields stretching to the horizons, a world in which the official policies of occupation and de-Nazification clashed surrealistically with the scramble for the raw requirements of food and shelter.
The Germans themselves naturally coined a concept for the bleak romanticization of their plight: they called it Trummerliteratur, “Rubble Lit,” and on one level Feigel’s book is the longest and most perceptive example of it in modern times. In these pages, readers get the world of postwar Germany as seen through the eyes of George Orwell, W. H. Auden, Ernest Hemingway, Billy Wilder, and many others, artists and writers who simultaneously needed to meet very competitive deadlines and capture what they all knew was a pivotal denouement to the great epic struggle of their time.
Their reactions are a bizarre, arresting mixture of journalistic detachment and tangled personal involvement, precisely embodied, for instance, in Harold Nicolson’s account of what he saw at the Nuremberg trials:
As counsellor of the British embassy in Berlin in the 1920s, Nicolson had known some of the senior Nazis personally. Although he had disliked Ribbentrop, he was still unhappy to see him humiliated, while [Nazi minister of economics Hjalmar] Schacht had been a personal friend. Now like so many other visitors, Nicolson was shocked by the drabness of the defendants: ‘they have the appearance of people who have travelled in a third-class railway carriage for three successive nights.’
In some cases, the tangled personal involvements took on the qualities of bad soap opera, as in the story Feigel tells about the complicated sexual liaisons charismatic General James Gavin conducted with journalist Martha Gellhorn and actress Marlene Dietrich, a melodrama recounted here with sufficient relish to make it in many ways the most memorable part of the book:
That winter in Germany, the bleakness of the postwar world was becoming apparent. During the war, speeding between the terror of conflict and the halcyon perfection of interludes of peace, it had been easy to fall in love. Gellhorn, Gain and Dietrich may all have known that love was an illusion, but if the conjuror’s mirrors were beautiful enough then it did not seem to matter. In the spring and summer of 1945, driving in jeeps amid the ruins they had conquered, partying in the rubble of Berlin, the headiness of wartime could continue. But there was the stench of corpses in the bombed cities; there were the sickening scenes in the camps. What kind of love could be idealistic and confident enough to continue in the face of that?
The Bitter Taste of Victory is full of such piquant Trummelituratur, all of it sturdily researched and energetically if sometimes purplishly written. It’s full of celebrities vying for the regard of posterity, but its strongest narrative strand somehow ultimately manages to be its most humble: a long and pleasingly complex account of the quintessential Berliner tenacity to “crawl out of the ruins and carry on.” Any library well-stocked on triumphalist Allied overviews badly needs a copy of this book.