September 14, 2022 Reading Time: 7 minutes

The late Walter Kempowski is one of Germany’s best-known writers. His monumental achievement was his ten-volume Das Echolot: Ein kollektives Tagebuch (Echoes: A Collective Diary). Only the final volume Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary from Hitler’s Birthday to VE Dayhas been translated into English.

Like the other volumes in Das Echolot, Swansong contains no commentary by Kempowski. He drew on published material and unpublished testimonies from over 8000 civilians, soldiers, prisoners, writers, politicians, and artists. Kempowski arranged it all as a collage of the totalitarian German experience during World War II. He allows the documents to speak for themselves, sometimes with parallels and sometimes with contrasts such as, “the description of a boozy family celebration is followed by an entry in a file about a Jewish woman’s suicide; and a note by Hitler’s doctor about his daily injection stands next to an observation by resister Sophie Scholl on God’s goodness.” 

Kempowski wrote, “If you’re looking for a formula to describe the retrograde course of human progress, the Echolot will let you delve deep enough to find one.” The result reveals uncomfortable truths, including how much ordinary Germans knew about the Holocaust:

Kempowski had advertised widely in Germany under the heading ‘Did you know about it?’ (with ‘it’ clearly being the Holocaust). In response he received thousands of personal narratives from people who invariably wrote things like ‘No, I didn’t know about it . . . but . . .’ and then proceeded with accounts of mysterious trains going through their town at night, of mysterious smells, of rumors and talk in the neighborhood, of families disappearing overnight—all of which, in juxtaposition with other bits of evidence, told the chilling macrotale. Yes, they had known about it after all, and, in fact, everyone had known about it but had managed to convince themselves they hadn’t known about it.

Kempowski’s last novel All for Nothing, draws on his experience and historical research to tell the tale of the final months of World War II as the Soviet Army approaches East Prussia (now the Russian province of Kaliningrad). The winter is bitter. One of the largest exoduses in history is underway as 750,000 refugees flee the Red Army. In their flight along the Baltic coast, 300,000 perished. Some starve. Others fall through the ice in their horse-drawn carts. Others are bombed, or the ships they board are sunk. The fallen are dragged out of the way so others can go on. Kempowski was fifteen as he witnessed this little-known tragedy of the war unfold.

On one level, the book title is straightforward: Millions of deaths and the ruins of the war were all for nothing.

Yet, a reading of the novel reveals a more devastating truth. No one in the novel learns anything from the suffering around them; none of his characters grow or change. They have an unlimited ability to deny what is about to befall them. They held out hope that Hitler “might let [the Russians] in just a little way, but then he’d pull the strings of the sack closed and trap them.” 

Without mitigation, Kempowski exposes the egos’ banality, mendacity, and cravenness. Until their moment of death, the focus of each character is the ego’s holy trinity: me, myself, and I. 

Death is all around, but Heil Hitler still punctuates speech. Party officials still check “papers” and “register” the refugees’ belongings. Men “fifteen to seventy” are dragged away to fight and die in the last days of the war. Blood-soaked bandages are unwrapped to make sure wounds have not been faked. Nazi officials are the dregs of society, yet the population fears the power of the state that emboldens them.

Was blinding fear or false faith setting the course? “Oughtn’t everyone to be united behind the Führer?” one character asks herself as she thinks about whom to call to report a person who called Hitler, “that fellow.” People cling to memories of the good old days of the “flower wars” when the “Austrians welcomed them so enthusiastically.” “Helping a Jew” is still the highest of crimes in the eyes of the population. Jews are seen as “filthy blowflies and a pack of criminals.” 

Aldous Huxley wrote, “The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own.” If only that were utterly true. 

Many characters in Kempowski’s books are complicit enablers and not mere victims. In Swansong, Kempowski shares the observations of Danish journalist Jacob Kronika, written in April 1945, that Germans “have neither the strength nor the courage to free themselves from [Hitler’s] demonic power.” 

Senseless violence is still the norm even with the Red Army hours away. Dissidents are being executed, and locals still have time to blame them. “From all sides, onlookers shot the prisoners hostile glances. It’s the fault of people like that, they thought. They stirred everyone else up against us, they fanned the flames setting the world alight.”

And then the final haunting scene at the docks as the last ships leave: “Everyone was hoping for that miracle to happen for himself alone, and they were all surging down to the water to make the miracle come true for themselves. On board a ship to cross the sea! To Denmark. Perhaps we’ll be lucky? Strawberries and whipped cream, why not?”

They hated their suffering, but no one learned from it. They embraced Nazism; and in the end, no one came to save them. 

Learning from Kempowski

Beginning in 1933, Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, delivered annual “Our Hitler” birthday addresses. In Swansong, Kempowski quotes from Goebbels’s last annual radio address on Hitler’s birthday in April 1945. Goebbels and Hitler will commit suicide in days. Yet Goebbels is ever mendacious, claiming victory will occur and that peace and friendship are the Nazi goals:

Within a few years after the war, Germany will flourish as never before. Its ruined landscapes and provinces will be filled with new, more beautiful cities and villages in which happy people dwell. All of Europe will share in this prosperity. We will again be friends of all peoples of good will, and will work together with them to repair the grave wounds that scar the face of our noble continent. Our daily bread will grow on rich fields of grain, stilling the hunger of the millions who today suffer and starve. There will be jobs in plenitude, the deepest source of human happiness, from which will come good fortune and strength for all. Chaos will vanish. The underworld will not rule this part of the world, but rather order, peace, and prosperity. 

The belief that Goebbels sold through all those years was that a strong and wise leader could embody the will of the people and lead them to greatness. Constant claims that God was on the Nazi side punctuated that belief; Hitler and the Germans were fighting “hate-filled enemies” on the side of evil.

World War II began in September 1939. Here are some lines from Goebbels’s Hitler birthday salutes starting in April 1940, highlighting the big lie that the right leader will lead a nation to glory by personifying and delivering national goals. 

1940: “The German people see in the Führer the incarnation of its national strength and a shining example of its national goals.” 

1941: “Our people do not know, and do not even want to know, what the Führer is planning and how he will gain victory. They simply trust him.” 

1942: “If ever the German people has felt united in thought and will, then it is in this: to serve him and to obey his commands.” And then Goebbels perversely aligns Hitler’s birthday with Beethoven’s universal call for brotherhood in his Ninth Symphony: “The sounds of heroic and titanic music streaming from every German heart raises our confession to a solemn and holy height.” 

1943: “As a nation of 90 million, we lay before him our faith. We believe in a German victory because we believe in him.” 

1944: “For us, the Führer is the spokesman and the agent of the will of the whole nation.”

1945: “If it is manly and German as Führer of a great and brave people to depend wholly on oneself in this struggle, relying on one’s own strength and certainty as well as the help of divine providence in the face of an enemy who threatens with overwhelming numbers, to fight rather than to capitulate, then it is just as manly and German for a people to follow such a Führer, unconditionally and loyally, without excuse or reservation.”

But by 1945, fewer Germans were buying what Goebbels was selling, not because, as Kempowski suggests, the Germans had learned anything but merely because they were enduring great suffering.

Before the suffering began, Germans bought the Nazi dream of enabling human flourishing through totalitarian and murderous means. Goebbels was the master propagandist, and many Germans chose to be deceived. Then, as the dream crumbled, they still refused to question the false premises. No, non-believers and “International Jewry” had sabotaged them.

In 1945, again, days away from his suicide and Hitler’s, Goebbels pronounced, “The German people bore him. It chose him, it by free election made him Führer.” 

Don Boudreaux writes, “there is no ‘will of the people’ that is analogous to the will that you have or to the will that I have.” Boudreaux adds, “the results of an election are never properly identified as ‘the will of the people.’”

There is no will of the people, and thus none that Hitler could have been personifying for German citizens.

American politicians also claim mandates to personify and implement something that doesn’t exist. Recently, in Philadelphia, President Biden castigated those he claimed “do not recognize the will of the people.” Politicians make false claims because enough voters willingly accept them, and the public fails to recognize the ruinous consequences that follow from the authoritarian course they are setting. 

Americans once understood that no one is fit for power; the powers granted to the state and its political leaders must be limited and checked. Today we are closer than ever to the end of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

Today, many Americans look for a “champion,” be that Biden or Trump. Tomorrow, the names of other champions will be floated. If the economic situation worsens, these politicians will be even less likely to be committed to constitutional principles. 

Kempowski helps us realize that progress will go retrograde when people adopt illiberal beliefs. Will blinding fear and false faith set the course for the next era of American history? Has the suffering during the pandemic been all for nothing?

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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