Reading Log 2019 #3: All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

This one was recommended to me by a buddy who shares my fascination with Central Europe’s experience in the 20th Century. I consume a lot of fiction and non-fiction on this topic.

As I’ve gotten older, I find myself less interested in the march of armies or the words of politicians in this era; that story is exhaustively documented, and I’ve ingested enough of it to where I think I’m solid on that front. Now, I find myself much more interested in how regular folks got on (or, more often, didn’t) during these cataclysmic upheavals and their aftermaths. And All for Nothing falls squarely into that wheelhouse.

The book traces the story of a fading aristocratic estate in Eastern Prussia that is in the direct path of the final Soviet offensive that ended up ending the Third Reich entirely. Starting in January 1945 and carrying through into the summer, with tons of flashbacks as well, we follow the story primarily through the eyes of the 12 year old protagonist, Peter, who is apparently loosely-based on the author himself, though the book is fiction.

The story is intimate, and goes into obsessive, almost repetitive detail on what the family does to sustain and entertain itself during this period. Nursery rhymes are repeated in the text over and over, lists of possessions and foodstuffs appear on the regular, in great detail… the overall effect is to hammer home what was being consumed, destroyed, never to return in the all-encompassing fire of the Reich’s Gotterdammerung, all of the family and friend connections and rich material history that would be rendered into ash.

As the story proceeds, it is not just the family that is affected. Refugees fleeing the Red Army steamroller just east of the manor start appearing, and either choose themselves to ask for shelter, increasingly, are imposed upon Peter’s family by the Nazi potentate who is in charge of this district. We get to see how various classes of lives are affected by this calamity; these characters weave in and out of the story, first spending some time at the Manor and then being met again under even worse circumstances as the family itself finally flees home and joins the massive, hopeless exodus clogging the roads of East Prussia in search of an escape that is no longer open to most of them.

In the background but important are the various foreigners who didn’t exactly choose to be at the manor; from the Ukrainian domestic workers who were basically enslaved by Peter’s father as he performed his duties of brutal resource extraction for the Reich’s war machine and sent to do labor at his home, to the Polish POW who tends to the manor’s small farm and its animals, to the variety of POWs and forced laborers from all over occupied Europe who are stabled up the road in a former hotel and who become an increasingly (and understandably) menacing presence.

As should be needless to say, it’s not a pleasant story, there is no happy ending, and, by the later chapters, the tempo of Bad Shit Happening increases to the point that this reader was actually somewhat depressed upon finishing the book.

Kempowski is apparently a big deal in Germany. After surviving the war, the Soviets accused him of being an American spy and tossed him into prison for eight years before releasing and deporting him to the west. He spent the rest of his life writing novels set in this lost era, and embarking upon a project to collect the diaries and writings of East Prussians and their war experiences, which he did to the point of having to put an addition onto his house to store the collected materials.

This novel shows why he and his work is important. For very understandable reasons, the rest of the world isn’t inclined to get weepy over the fate of Germans in 1945. Large swaths of the planet was ash and rubble due to wars started by Germany and her allies, tens of millions were dead all over, and if a few of those millions were freshly-killed Germans, well, Jesus, wasn’t that just the bare beginnings of justice anyways?

Maybe yes. The point of this book isn’t to judge the suffering, it is simply to record it; it’s up to the reader to decide if any individual act of suffering or pain requires any further analysis beyond “this person is suffering”; the strength of this work and others like it is in forcing the reader to examine their own feelings on the nature of suffering; can it ever be deserved? Should it always be alleviated? The author here isn’t going to tell you one way or the other; his job is just to document that suffering happened.

Given that, I think the essential question this book asks of the reader is: is suffering quantfiable beyond “survived it or not”? Is a moment of extreme pain more or less worthy of a witness’ sympathy if we know that the sufferer themself caused great pain to others earlier on? If so, how far out do the circles of complicty range?

It’s a tough question with no clear answer; sure, it’s easy to say “fuck that guy” when “that guy” is a brutal Nazi functionary who has spent the entire war out of harm’s way behind the front ruthlessly stripping conquered peasants of their very sustenance if not killing them outright and he’s finally getting his just desserts; less so when it’s a 12 year old child caught in the gears of two insanely violent war machines meshing into each other.

The writing doesn’t demand that the reader come up with an answer either way; the prose is dry, matter-of-fact, and laden with description. While scenes of the characters experiencing sentiment are common, these are presented unemotionally, relying instead on a factual “these are things that happened” recitation that eventually becomes numbing. The first death of a major character (I don’t think it’s a spoiler in THIS kind of book to mention that death occurs) is presented so dryly that I had to reread it a few times to make sure that what was being described was what actually had happened.

There’s a weight to this kind of presentation; all of the dry retelling of individually unremakable happenings slowly turning into life-changing, usually for the worse, events, ends up creating a slowly-building atmosphere of just complete, oppressive dread in the reader. It’s clear that the other shoe, that ALL of the other shoes, are going to drop at some point, and by the time it does, ending the book in a basically non-stop parade of increasingly-worse horrors, you’re almost relieved to be getting on with it.

I liked this book a lot, but don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone I care about and presumably would prefer to be happy than sad. It’s a sad book about a massive human disaster almost entirely brought upon the victims by their own complicitly in equally horrific, but different, disasters. And the book doesn’t even try to impute a moral or lesson to all of this suffering; it’s just a chronicle of it. At best, one comes away with a strong feeling of “we should do everything in our power to prevent anything like this from ever happening again”, but that is clearly a lesson lost to our current times so there is no solace to be found even in that.