Stuart Taberner, Karina Berger, eds. Germans as Victims in the Literary Fiction of the Berlin Republic. Rochester: Camden House, 2009. vi + 259 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57113-393-9.
Reviewed by Undine S. Weber (Rhodes University)
Published on H-German (July, 2010)
Commissioned by Benita Blessing
No More Question Marks: Germans as Victims
The topic of Germans' wartime suffering has become an established field of inquiry in scholarship about World War II. Germans as Victims successfully negotiates this sensitive subject. Much like those treatments of German victimhood begun in the early 2000s by such scholars as Keith Bullivant, Robert Moeller, and William John, the contributors to this volume do not negate the extent of Germans' roles as perpetrators, while nonetheless emphasizing the importance of a comprehensive account of Germans' wartime experiences.
As the publishers claim on their back cover, this book is "the first in English to examine closely the variety" of texts emerging from the post-Wende "Berlin Republic" coming to terms with a particularly difficult German issue. Decades of official West German as well as East German historiography and the narratives of personal memories have also influenced the representation in fiction of memories/ remembrance of the Second World War and the Cold War, reflecting the identity formation of individuals and states; yet the topic of Germans as victims during those decades is one that has emerged comparatively recently in literary texts, possibly as a result of a development from an official German culture of guilt and shame, dominating the early decades after World War II, to one that increasingly includes undercurrents of personal narratives of wartime suffering on the side of the official perpetrators. Jason Cowley, in his article "Forgotten Victims," notes: "[Im Krebsgang] is being read not only as an elegy for the estimated 6000 people who died that night in the icy black waters of the Baltic, but as a signifier of what Die Welt is calling 'the normalisation of Germany'. This so-called normalisation is a complex and tortuous process but, in essence, what it means is that no understanding of the Nazi period and its long, dislocating aftermath can be complete without acceptance of Germany's own suffering."
Stuart Taberner and Karina Berger, in collaboration with thirteen colleagues from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany have taken on the challenge of presenting and analyzing known and not so well-known literary texts and their representation of German wartime suffering. Although each chapter stands by itself, the volume is clearly structured, with a common theme that gives the work cohesion. After the editors' introduction, two chapters on warfare and suffering in W. G. Sebald (and Gert Ledig) are the point of departure, followed by a look at literature of the 1950s in the light of today's debates. As family and generational interaction and conflict demonstrate the problems encountered in remembering, narrating, and reconciling with the catastrophes experienced during World War II, the volume proceeds by presenting texts concerning the familial sphere in (among others) Uwe Timm, Christoph Hein, Wibke Bruhns, and Hans-Ulrich Treichel. While this collection includes analyses of authors like Stephan Wackwitz and Thomas Medicus, it seems that Günter Grass, Bernhard Schlink, Uwe Timm, and W. G. Sebald, all represented with discussions of more than one of their texts, are still the established favorites when it comes to the literary representation of German wartime trauma. This judgment is by no means negative, especially as most of the readers of this book will be academics or postgraduates teaching or researching, for example, Der Vorleser (1999), Am Beispiel meines Bruders (2003), or Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (2006), and the points of discussion raised in the chapters concerning these works, as well as those in other chapters, will certainly stimulate academic debate and scholarship for years to come. It is remarkable, however, that not much mention is made of the perspective from the former German Democratic Republic (with the notable exception of Elizabeth Boa's contribution).
The only drawback to this otherwise excellent and useful volume is the increasingly common practice of rendering quotes in English only: authors working with texts in German quote either from published translations of the work in question, or translate their sources into English themselves, without providing the German original in the endnotes or an appendix. As much as this decision might save printing costs, and as convenient as this may be for undergraduates of German as a foreign language and historians without much formal knowledge of German, this tendency begs the question of academic truthfulness to a (literary) text.
The editors set out to engage the "specialist and student audience, as well as ... the general reader" (p. 13). Although I am unsure who the "general reader" might be, this book will certainly appeal to the academic readership; the volume as a whole does indeed "offer a comprehensive overview of the literary, cultural, and discursive landscape within which the Nazi past is debated in the Berlin Republic" (p. 13).
. See, for example, Keith Bullivant, "Germans as Victims?! Günter Grass' 'Crabwise (Im Krebsgang)'," South Atlantic Review 68, no. 2 (2003): 91-96; Robert G. Moeller, "Germans as Victims?: Thoughts on a Post-Cold War History of World War II's Legacies," History and Memory 17, no. 1 (2005): 147-194; and Bill Niven, ed., Germans as Victims: Remembering the Past in Contemporary Germany (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
. Gabriele Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt. Emotions of Self-Assessment (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985); and Undine S. Weber, "'Il mal seme d'Adamo': Zwischen Wolfgang Koeppen und Günter Grass. Einblicke in den Umgang mit dem nationalsozialistischen Faschismus und der Vergangenheitsbewältigung in den vergangenen 50 Jahren," Acta Germanica 33 (2006): 121-129.
. Jason Cowley, "Forgotten Victims," Mail and Guardian (April 5, 2002): 15.
. See, for example, the indispensable Hanna Schissler, ed., The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany, 1949-1968 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001); or Frank Biess, Homecomings: Returning POWs and the Legacies of Defeat in Postwar Germany (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006).
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Undine S. Weber. Review of Taberner, Stuart; Berger, Karina, eds., Germans as Victims in the Literary Fiction of the Berlin Republic.
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