“All for Nothing” by Walter Kempowski: Beyond Understanding

The Georgenhof manor house on the road to the Prussian border with Russia is falling into disrepair in the final stages of World War 2. Owner Erhard Von Globig is serving in Italy while his beautiful wife Katharina, whose dreamy vagueness, “it was all so complicated”, may be an inward escape from an unhappy marriage and the tedium of life in a rural backwater, leaves all the work to a handful of foreign servants escaped from the east, under the control of bossy spinster “Auntie”. Katharina’s inquisitive twelve-year old son Peter (probably modelled on the author himself) conveniently avoids co-option into the Hitler Youth by reason of a persistent bad throat.

With a gradual flow of refugee carts travelling from the east and rumours of a vengeful Russian invasion as Hitler loses his grip, Auntie packs a suitcase and shrewd Polish farmhand Vladimir stows items on a large cart, but that is as far as any plans get for the journey to the relative safety of “the Reich” while there is still time. A mixture of inertia, nostalgic attachment to unnecessary possessions and lack of imagination over just how bad life could become, keeps them chained to their familiar routine. And, after all, where would they go? What could they bear to leave behind?

Even when Drygalski, the bigoted deputy mayor of the local housing estate, succeeds in billeting refugee families at the Georgenhof, the Von Globigs are happy to receive them almost as a form of home entertainment. Eventually, with the refugee flight increased to a flood, sounds of gunfire and ominous lights in the eastern sky, the decision is made to leave. Yet this is too late to prevent a fateful and shameful incident. Also, despite the semblance of orderly flight with provision of soup kitchens and strict guidelines for crossing the ice on the shortcut route to safety, the imminent collapse into chaos of a defeated society seems inevitable.

An unathletic teenager during World War 2, author Walter Kempowski found it hard to accept the discipline of compulsory service under the Hitler Youth to the extent that he was transferred to a penal unit – it seems his main crime was a love of “degenerate” jazz – and later drafted as a courier into the youth branch of the Luftwaffe. His father, killed in action at the end of the war after five years of combat, owned one of the ships deployed to shuttle thousands of refugee Germans from Prussia across to Rostok where the Kempowskis lived. The teenager observed the flight in which some 300,000 people starved, froze or drowned to death or were killed by the Russians.

Found guilty by the occupying Soviets of collaboration because of his work for the American Army of Occupation, Kempowski received a 25 year sentence, but was released after 8 years and deported to the west.
His ten volume “Echolot”, “Echo Soundings” is a “collective diary” of firsthand accounts, diaries, letters, and memoirs of those who live through the war. Added to his own experiences, all this has culminated in “All For Nothing” , a wrily cynical fictionalised observation of events which shocks the reader through the unflinching objectivity which reduces both “normal daily life” and the horrors of war for civilians to the same level of banality. It was his last novel, published in 2006, sixty years after the events they describe and only a year before his death.

The author reveals human flaws in all his characters in an approach based on “personal relativism”, the theory that that there are no absolute truths, so that an individual’s morality is defined by one’s particular perspective on life, inevitably conditioned by culture, which some will blindly accept, such as, in this case, unquestioning antisemitism or conformity to “the rules”, but others kick against. Katharina Von Globig seems to rise above the enforced prejudices and regulations by swimming with the foreign maids (while exploiting them as cheap labour), listening to enemy radio channels and harbouring a Jew on the run, but does she do this out of liberal principles, or because she lives too much in a world of her own to care? Drygalski, caricature of a trumped-up Nazi bigot, exercises his petty power to make life hard for his over-privileged neighbours, yet at the end he behaves out of character in what seems like a selfless act – but is it really so?

This novel lingers in one’s thoughts, reminding me of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Française”. A bestseller in Germany where it struck a chord with a nation coming to terms with and seeking to understand a guilty past, I wonder to what extent it has suffered from translation into English. There is a repetitive, slightly “children’s storybook” turn of phrase which jarred on me, and I am unsure whether this due to choices made by Anthea Bell, the award-winning translator whose work happens to have included a good deal of children’s literature. Yet Kempowski undeniably repeats small details like a mantra – Katharina’s admirer Lothar Sarkander is rarely mentioned without his “stiff leg and duelling scars on his cheeks”. Some passages prove a bit tedious, like the initial sequence of eccentric visitors casually accepted by the family as a kind of entertainment, although there is black humour in the political economist dabbing black paint on every image of Hitler in Peter’s stamp collection – “Suppose a Russian opens the album and sees the Fuhrer grinning…?”

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