Book review: Swansong 1945 by Walter Kempowski

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm

Swansong 1945
by Walter Kempowski

A collection of hundreds of letters, diary entries and personal stories from four crucial days at the end of the second world war, Swansong 1945 captures the exhaustion and disillusionment with the conflict, and finally the relief when it ends.

The book, which took German historian and novelist Walter Kempowski (1929-2007) 20 painstaking years to compile, chronicles the minutiae of daily life and the behind-the-scenes strategy that took place on April 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler's last birthday; April 25, when US and Soviet troops first met at the Elbe; April 30, the day Hitler committed suicide; and May 8, when Germany surrendered.

The collection is remarkable for its breadth of 400 voices, from civilians fleeing westward, Allied prisoners of war, Red Army soldiers writing letters to their mothers and world leaders including Winston Churchill. Kempowski, one of Germany's most important post-war writers, displays his storytelling skill by piecing together this patchwork of voices, allowing each to tell their story in their own words, as they saw and experienced that historic time.

This form, while at times confusing and fragmented, is immensely effective in evoking the horror, waste and selfishness of war and its impact on everyday lives.

Most of the entries are by Germans and many of them are deeply involved in the war machine, from soldiers to Hitler's henchmen, and even Hitler himself. Others are bystanders, from victimised civilians to civil servants watching their country and lives being destroyed. Their voices, page upon page, the killer's diary entry followed by a letter from a woman trying to protect her children, have powerful individual and cumulative effects.

On April 20, the day Hitler turns 56, we get a glimpse of the mundane life that carries on despite the war, with Hans Henny Jahnn writing a letter to his aunt describing the weather, the field work, the sowing of crops and birth of livestock.

Another entry, on the same day, is more telling of the inner workings of the German propaganda machine as Volkssturmmann Emil Heinze writes in his diary recounting the "loud laughter from the assembled company" when a propaganda officer makes a speech and says the Breslau can be rebuilt within weeks. "Complaints are voiced that many people are wearing civilian suits under their uniforms."

By this point everyone knows that the war is nearly over and that Germany has lost, but they are forced to carry on the madness in step with their deranged leader.

There is the strong tone of a disheartened, inevitable march towards death in the entries until May 8, when Germany surrenders. Then the entries express relief, joy and acceptance of defeat if only because it means peace. A seminarian notes the victorious celebrations with bitterness and humiliation, but most are just relieved that the war has ended. "Bliss of peace," one diarist writes.