'Swan Song 1945' illustrates war-time suffering using ordinary German voices

As part of a 35-year project, Walter Kempowski brought together bits and pieces of German diaries, letters, and autobiographies.

Swan Song 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich By Walter Kempowski Norton 512 pp.

Say hello to Waltraut Fach. Waltraut is 20 years old. On this particular day – Friday, April 20, 1945 – Waltraut wakes to the same dreary Pomeranian morning, which he records in his diary: “We sleep on straw, have nothing to eat. Mother begs the farmers for eggs and bacon. The pickings are sparse ... did I say we’ve discovered clothes lice? So now we have an occupation to fill up our days: cracking lice and nits!”

Waltraut is not having a good start to this Friday, nor were many others in Europe on April 20, 1945. The war was doomed to grind on for another 18 days; people were dying same as they had been for the past seven years, if not at a faster clip. Heaven help if you were in Berlin. If you were in Berlin, maybe you asked for it, maybe you were giving it, maybe you were plain and simple living it, but Berlin was no place to be on Hitler’s last birthday. Marie Vassiltchikov, who was 28 years old on April 20, 1945, living in Gmunden, Austria, wrote in her diary: “Adolph’s birthday. A ridiculous speech by Goebbels: ‘The Führer is in us and we in him!’ How far does he want to take that?” Right to the grave, in eleven days.

These are two glints from Walter Kempowski’s great 35-year project, "Echolot" ("Echo or Echo Soundings") – but some background first. Kempowski was born in the Baltic port of Rostock in 1929, to an anti-Nazi family. He was recruited into the Hitler Youth, winding up in the punishment unit (his offense was a fondness for jazz). An under-ripe 16 in February 1945, he was conscripted into an anti-aircraft unit.

He worked for the US occupation forces after the war, and in 1948 he moved back to Rostock, where the Soviet military promptly arrested him (“Kempowski had given the US authorities bills of lading proving that the Soviets were taking more goods from Germany [reparations] than the Allies had agreed.”). He spent eight years in notorious Bautzen prison for espionage; then as now, whistleblowing got you the sharp end of the stick. Kempowski conceived of the "Echolot" project – gathering (mostly) ordinary people’s accounts of their personal experiences of World War II – while in Bautzen.

“Later, in Göttingen, he salvaged from the pavement a dead soldier’s diary, letters and photographs, trampled on by passersby. From this beginning, he went on during the 1970s to collect autobiographies, letters and diaries, and to commit himself to the idea that these private, ‘insignificant’ but authentic testimonies must be preserved.... He called it ‘rescuing the voices of the dead’,” writes Alan Brance in the foreword.

"Swan Song 1945" was the last, the 10th, volume in the "Echolot" project. Like Günter Grass and others, Kempowski jumped the taboo on exploring the misery the Third Reich brought to the everyman and everywoman in Germany. "Echolot" would have no special pleading, no dodging responsibility and remorse, nor would it let guilt quash the impulse to investigate the wartime suffering of the German people, an orphaned misery that has been, of course, adopted by ultraconservatives.

"Swan Song 1945" is solely comprised of squib-length entries from these raw, primary sources, hundreds of them. Kempowski doesn’t insert himself into the proceedings, doesn’t set a table of surrounding circumstances for the reader to tuck into for perspective. If you want Wilhelm Reich or Carl Jung to come to your aid, you will have to bring them along as your guests. Jung’s synchronicity of meaningful coincidences would be a good choice, for in this polyphonic conversation of individual voices there is a lot of acausal elbow rubbing. This is a collective diary, but as it unrolls it becomes an artfully composed collage, revealing hidden contours in the multitude of takes on the day in a life.

Kempowski has chosen specific days to consider: April 20, 1945, Hitler’s birthday; April 25, the Allies meeting at the Elbe; April 30, Hitler’s suicide; and May 8, German surrender.

The chapter headings tell us the day of the week – April 20 was a Friday – the number of days that have passed since the beginning of the war (April 20: 2,059, so many the number needs a comma), and the number of days left (18 days). In this alone, the day becomes accessible.

The writing is contemporary, which gives us a sense of presence. Consider Vassiltchikov above, with her modern sass, or the timeless ache of hunger: “So we stole herring from the work place, hiding them in our stockings or even weaving them into the braids on our heads,” writes forced-laborer Polina Moiseeva in Hamburg. Occasionally Hitler or Martin Bormann or Joseph Goebbels will wander into the picture, or a journalist or photographer, a politician or two, none of them having the grip of forced-laborer Nina Mursina in Namslau: “We also have real Gypsies from Romania working with us. Ludmila abandoned her child with them. When we found out we were shocked.”

Kempowski has assembled the entries to build upon one another almost furtively, seemingly disparate as they become more and more loaded with associations. The musician Erich Zimmermann of Heubude wrote that “These fellows stayed in the house for three days and nights. They had lodged themselves in the cellar, where they did the cooking and fried rabbits in our pots, which you could smell all over the house.”

You are knocked sideways by the natterings of seminarian Hildegard Holzwarth in Prague: “Today it is the Führer’s birthday. What a day of celebrations that used to be. This year the day is a day of mourning. Führer!”

There is a deserter who is to be covered in quicklime; a bird’s nest made of the soft, thin threads of tin scattered by pilots to confuse anti-aircraft fire; there is a terrible chorus of rape narratives.

Edmund Wilson complains about the smell of a London shop, “on the shelves of whose open windows were laid out rows and rows of dead crows.” Frau Gretka of Tünzenhausen was cycling to a neighbor’s farm: “On the way there I found myself in the middle of quite a large column of strangely dressed men: grey and blue or grey and green (I can’t remember exactly) striped uniform and headgear.” Another unknown concentration camp inmate, near Bad Tölz: “Individual comrades now tried to make their escape when darkness fell...Volkssturm and Werwolf killed most of them with bullets to the back of the head.”

"Swan Song" is not a book to skim; immersion delivers the effect of something akin to living theater, but endlessly exegetic and fascinating. Existential illumination doesn’t come easy, but Kempowski fashions the words of others into a stirring, concerted immanency, where a time and place are very much there.

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