Academic journal article Kritika

Ehrenburg and Grossman: Two Cosmopolitan Jewish Writers Reflect on Nazi Germany at War

Academic journal article Kritika

Ehrenburg and Grossman: Two Cosmopolitan Jewish Writers Reflect on Nazi Germany at War

Article excerpt

After the German invasion in 1941, World War II became a major, if not the major, topic of Soviet literature. Among the countless fictional works on it, however, those by Ilya Ehrenburg (Il'ia Erenburg) and Vasilii Grossman emerge as distinctive in one particular respect, their cosmopolitan perspective. I say cosmopolitan in the sense that though both writers, like the typical Soviet war novelist, sought to convey the experience of Russians going through World War II, their horizon of reference was not essentially defined by Soviet space but encompassed a more cosmopolitan, or more precisely a European, perspective. Given that most Soviet fiction about this war is intensely patriotic (1)--after all, the Soviets called it the Great Patriotic War--the war novels of these writers provide interesting studies of the interaction between the cosmopolitan and the patriotic, two categories that are far from always distinct.

The typical Soviet vcar novel, and here Konstantin Simonov's Days and Nights (Dni i nochi, 1943-44) about Stalingrad would provide a good example, is largely about military maneuvers and relations between individuals in the Red Army unit that is the novel's focus. But Ehrenburg and Grossman had larger ambitions and used military engagements as a background for presenting their own ideas about history, politics, and culture. These ideas were framed by these two writers' account of the great confrontation between the Nazis and the Soviets, which they represented as not just a military engagement but a confrontation between two culture systems that would determine who has the right to lead Europe. In adopting this approach they were inscribing their war novels into the ongoing debates about Russia/Soviet Russia's destiny, debates in which Germany has often functioned as a point of comparison. Consequently, here I first sketch in brief this larger framework.

During the decades leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, a popular account among intellectuals of the special destiny for Russia was that the country, poised as it was between Europe and Asia, could save the Europeans from the Aslan hordes. After the Bolsheviks came to power, their spokesmen, including Stalin, though inconsistent in their mission statements, in effect often re-inflected the notion that Russia would lead Europe, providing various scenarios for the Bolshevik state to dominate the continent either politically or at least ideologically. Germany was a critical factor in Soviet efforts to achieve such dominance. The Comintern was based in Berlin, and the German capital became a staging ground for Soviet ideological (if not political) expansionism. After the Nazi takeover in 1933, however, Germany began to function as the chief antagonist and competitor in the international arena.

This shift had its impact on Soviets' conceptions of their particular role within Europe. Now the "hordes" to be withstood were not to the East, or even so much the rapacious Western capitalists per se, as the fascist states and among them the Nazi in particular. In other words, they were within Europe itself. Moreover, Germany and even the German workers could no longer be seen as the main conduit for ideological expansionism, and the whole attitude toward Germany had to be revised. Party spokesmen and intellectuals were particularly troubled by the question how could a country (Germany) with such a developed communist movement and such highly "conscious" workers suddenly become so enthusiastic for determinedly anti-Bolshevik forces? How could a country of such high cultural achievement descend into one built on violence? After the invasion of June 1941, when Germany became the enemy, such philosophical and ideological questions were somewhat shelved as intellectuals became the mainstay of a propaganda effort that caricatured the Germans.

The two authors I am discussing, Grossman and Ehrenburg, played central roles in this propaganda effort, both of them by working as war correspondents for the main army newspaper, Krasnaia zvezda. …

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