The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans

By Henningsen, Manfred | Shofar, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans


Henningsen, Manfred, Shofar


The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans, by Dagmar Barnouw. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 2005. 303 pp. $29.95.

The Germans did not begin to process their past immediately after the collapse of Nazi Germany in May 1945. That process was held back by an almost conspiratorial consensus of silence that was enabled by the material needs of reconstruction and the tensions of the Cold War. As part of the development of the German Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, the mastering of the past, German scholars, primarily historians, have in the last two decades begun to play an important role in the research of the Nazi period. This book forms part of that movement.

All Germans have lived since 1945 under the righteous verdict of belonging to a pariah nation. Germans had internalized the verdict against them by falling silent. Recently, however, prominent German figures of cultural achievements like writer Giinter Grass have faced charges about their involvement in Nazi events. In response Grass wrote a massive, soul-baring memoir (Beim Hiuten der Zwiebel, 2006) of his war and postwar experiences in order to prove that he was innocent of any criminal acts while wearing as a teenager the uniform of the Wejfe«-SS, but guilty of not having revealed his draft service in that disreputable organization. Grass' memoir is one manifestation of the attempt to come out from under the pariah stigma. Grass' earlier book Crabwalk (2002) about the sinking of the refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945, W. G. Sebald s Natural History of Destruction (2001), and especially Jôrg Friedrich's just translated book on allied strategic bombing of German cities, The Fire (2002), had earlier responded to the dearth of authentic and believable German representations of suffering. Germans had accepted and internalized the pariah verdict against them by falling silent. They neither rejected openly the verdict nor did they dare to speak about their own experiences.

The German silence contrasted with the expressive voices of the survivors of the Nazi regime of terror, which began to be heard at the trials in the 1960s and culminated in Steven Spielberg's video library of almost 50,000 Holocaust survivors-copies of all these testimonies can be found today at the German Holocaust Memorial site in Berlin. The stories of the victims and the exponentially growing literature of interpretation added enormous weight to the original pariah argument. Confronted with this experiential record, how could Germans even dare to think about their own experiences of suffering! Even if Germans had suffered, nobody wanted to hear their stories anyway. The "willing executioners" of Hitler's project, to borrow Daniel Goldhagen's powerful line, had only one experience to tell. This overwhelming silencing of Germans as "executioners" could not last forever. Dagmar Barnouw's book, The War in the Empty Air, provides evidence of Germans recovering their voices.

In 1997 Barnouw published Germany 1945: Views of War and Violence, in which she documented and interpreted the Anglo-American photographic gaze on the German reality, writing:

With few exceptions, most of them British, Allied photographers showed little interest in the German experience of total war: bombed-out cities; the trek from the east with women, children and old men-the youngest and the oldest-with a few belongings bundled together in the small hand-drawn carts that crowded all the roads of Germany; the men lost in the war-including hundred of thousands of conscripted schoolboys-or crowded into POW cages (p. xi).

The barely contained anger of a writer who personally lived as a child through the firestorm of Dresden in February 1945 colors not only Germany 1945 but also Ike War in the Empty Air.

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