Kempowski's War

By Santiáñez, Nil | German Quarterly, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Kempowski's War


Santiáñez, Nil, German Quarterly


1

Walter Kempowski's ten-volume Das Echolot. Ein kollektives Tagebuch (1993-2005) is one of the most interesting literary representations of modern warfare ever produced. A monumental montage of thousands of texts, Das Echolot offers an original and penetrating answer to the thorny question that has confronted many writers since Stendhal and Tolstoy-namely how to represent through language and literary convention a phenomenon as complex and multilayered as modern warfare. Posing as someone who, by means of a figurative sonar, charts the depths of history and detects long-forgotten voices amidst its folds and crevices, Kempowski seeks to depict the Second World War by combining excerpts from already published sources with passages and photographs taken from the unpublished material he had collected for his Archiv für unpublizierte Autobiographien und Alltagsfotografen-a unique repository created in 1980 containing about 300,000 photographs and 7,000 documents that span German history from the nineteenth century to the present.1 The resulting collage, organized in the form of a "collective diary," is a vast, multi-perspective panorama of war. Kempowski skillfully orchestrates the voices of famous individuals and completely unknown people, bringing their experiences, activities, feelings, and thoughts to the fore. Das Echolot, a work that lacks an extradiegetic narrator and does not contain a single text by Kempowski himself (although it does include a photograph of him with other members of his family; in Januar 4: 445), tacitly asks its readers not to forget the war and the genocide of the European Jews, expecting them to draw all by themselves, after reading the compiled testimonies, an ethical lesson.

Strange as this may sound given the centrality of the Second World War in the book, the scholarship devoted to Das Echolot has yet to produce an in-depth study on this work's literary treatment of war.2 To be sure, critics have referred to the war depicted in Das Echolot. Calzoni (137, 141, 150), Drews (232, 234) and Höyng (175, 185) have underscored the connection between the technique of montage and the representation of war in its totality; Krellner has written that Das Echolot "ist als Ersatz für einen großen deutschen Kriegsroman angesehen worden, der offenbar bis heute fehlt" (162); Lethen has likened it to a window "zur Wirklichkeit des Il. Weltkriegs" (323); Rehfeldt has argued that Kempowski's work has made it possible to go beyond the notion that the Second World War and the destruction of the European Jews are "unbegreifliche" and "unbeschreibbare" events (379); and zimmermann-Thiel concludes, in her review of the first four volumes of Das Echolot, that it is "a monumental work about the second World War, which is at the same time a history of German mentality under the third Reich" (3). these remarks are, however, just that: remarks made en passant, without much elaboration.3

The main objective of this essay consists precisely in reading Kempowski's masterpiece as an important instance of war writing. By analyzing the connection between the nature of the war portrayed by Kempowski on the one hand, and the work's various formal devices and ethical dimension on the other, I argue that Das Echolot is a groundbreaking response to the challenge to language and representation posed by the Second World War as it was fought on the Eastern Front. through my focus on the relationship between war, representation, and ethics, I aim to reveal the radicalism, originality, and historical importance of Kempowski's war writing, with the hope of shedding new light on a 7,700-pagelong book that deserves the attention of any reader interested in exploring an outstanding work of literature.

One striking aspect of Das Echolots treatment of war is its predominant focus on the Eastern Front of the Second World War. If the ten volumes are arranged not by their date of publication, but rather by their internal chronology, one readily notices that Kempowski essentially chronicles key episodes of the entire eastern campaign, from the eve of Germany's onslaught on the Soviet Union in the early hours of 22 June 1941 to the day after Germany's unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945. …

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