Remembering World War II and after with Christa Wolf

Hitler's Arch, Munich 1951
Hitler’s Arch, Munich 1951
Christa Wolf
Christa Wolf
Memorial Day brings tangled memories of wars and their aftermaths. Wars have defined the last hundred years of America’s history—of the whole world’s history. Every generation has its defining war, and those of us who have lived through them never completely forget.

Christa Wolf, one of the best known novelists of postwar East Germany, died in 2011, but her voice is still alive. I have been reading her last book, City of Angels: Or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud, a novel, more of a memoir really, of a year spent in Los Angeles in 1993 as a Getty fellow. Wolf was struggling to come to terms with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany. During that year the German authorities released a file documenting some interviews she had with the Stasi thirty years earlier. Her friends, her readers, and she herself were devastated by the revelation that she had been interviewed by the secret police and had apparently cooperated with them and talked to them about other writers.

My attitude toward Wolf was shaped by her earlier books documenting her childhood in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. She and I share a birthday, March 18, although not in the same year. She was born in 1929, close to me in age, and while she and her family lived through WWII in Germany, I was living through it in New York City. Her 1976 book Patterns of Childhood brought a jolt of recognition when I read it because for the first time I felt what a different person I could have become if I had grown up in Germany rather than America.

The first time I went to Europe, on a student trip in 1951, several countries, and especially Germany, still showed many traces of war. To our group of American students, the war seemed long in the past, but we saw some of its reality then in the broken buildings, the armed guards at the border of the Eastern Zone, and the rationing that still lingered in the UK. As I looked at the faces of people in the streets of Germany I wondered what they thought of us and whether they would ever forget the bitter hatred that divided us from them for so many years.

Now, reading City of Angels, I am more conscious than ever of how long wars linger in memories and attitudes. No one ever leaves a war behind even though we do not remember exactly how we felt or even what we did during different times. How did I feel about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war? I am sure I never questioned it, neither did my parents. We believed our government was always right and Japan and Germany were always wrong. Yet people who lived through that internment will never forget. And most Americans agree now that it was unnecessary and cruel.

On this Memorial Day, the idea that stays in my mind and keeps me from enjoying a holiday is knowing that during the years since World War II, America has fought so many wars and created so many bitter memories for new generations. War has become our permanent state. Children who have grown up with drone attacks killing their families and friends and with sudden outbursts of gunfire on streets they walk down to school, will never forget. Seventy years from now the memories will still be there poisoning their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Sometimes it is good to go back and look at a war through the eyes of someone on the other side. Were they really so different? Were all the bombings and the imprisonments and the frenzy of anti-Communist rhetoric really necessary? The world goes on just about the same as ever—no better and probably no worse. There are evil deeds that must be punished, and individuals who should be kept out of society, but is mass killing ever the answer? We need to spend more time listening to the people who suffer and are displaced because of our endless, often pointless, quarrels. Those are the voices we need this Memorial Day, not the speeches of glib politicians.

Christa Wolf’s books, City of Angels, Patterns of Childhood, and several others are available in most libraries, a few bookstores, and of course on Amazon. Another book I highly recommend is a collection of poetry by German women called After Every War, translated by the Irish-born poet Eavan Boland, who teaches at Stanford University. You will find some unforgettable voices of people who lived through the turmoil of two world wars and commemorate the losses those brought. I can’t forget the words of Rose Auslander, “My key/has lost its house.” (I can’t quote the whole poem, because of Copyright rules, but it is worth searching out and reading.)

Today we remember the losses that all wars bring. Let’s try to put an end to the continuing losses we are causing year after year after year.

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