STARRED REVIEW
April 2015

Many voices, one tragic war

By Walter Kempowski
The end of World War II in Europe brought a wide range of reactions, especially in Germany. From concentration camp prisoners to top Nazi officers, from refugees crowding the roads to soldiers eager to see the war finally over, there was a mixture of heartbreak, relief, chaos and disbelief. For German novelist Walter Kempowski, who died in 2007, researching and compiling those responses, through eyewitness accounts, letters and diaries, became a lifelong mission. The result was 10 volumes and a diary of his project’s progress.
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The end of World War II in Europe brought a wide range of reactions, especially in Germany. From concentration camp prisoners to top Nazi officers, from refugees crowding the roads to soldiers eager to see the war finally over, there was a mixture of heartbreak, relief, chaos and disbelief. For German novelist Walter Kempowski, who died in 2007, researching and compiling those responses, through eyewitness accounts, letters and diaries, became a lifelong mission. The result was 10 volumes and a diary of his project’s progress.

The first part of this extraordinary collection to be published in the United States, Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich, assembles what Kempowski called his “particles” to form a “collage” that brings four days in 1945 vividly to life: Friday, April 20, Hitler’s 56th birthday; Wednesday, April 25, when American and Soviet troops met at the Elbe; Monday, April 30, Hitler’s suicide; and Tuesday, May 8, the German surrender and VE Day. The power of the work comes from the great variety and volume of the personal accounts, many of them eloquent and moving.

The most heartbreaking entries come from concentration camp prisoners who describe the horrific conditions they were subjected to. Some of the most eloquent accounts are from Alisah Shek, daughter of a Prague civil engineer who was deported to Ausch-witz. She was held at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. “We sit here and watch: the worst thing they have done to us, is to rob us of reality, of the concept of reality. We know only a tormented, fear-filled world of cruelty, in which we are the victims of events, objects.” From Dieter Wellershoff, a German citizen: “I really can’t even grasp it. The Germany that I so loved is finished. Because it isn’t just a war that’s being lost. . . . I know just one thing, that I want to survive. I’m only nineteen years old. Everything should just be starting.” There are detailed descriptions of the last days of Hitler and his closest confidants, as recorded by his secretaries and valet. Until the very end, Hitler denied that he had started the war and claimed he had tried to stop it. 

This important book takes us beyond geography, statistics and battles and reveals the cost of war in very human terms.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Swansong 1945

Swansong 1945

By Walter Kempowski
Norton
ISBN 9780393248159

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