Kirkus Star


Email this review


The role of intellectuals in the French Resistance, how they came to it and what they made of it, has been gone over before (by H. Stuart Hughes, in The Obstructed Path, and by others). But Wilkinson, who teaches history and literature at Harvard, also--and significantly--surveys the same situation in Germany and Italy. What he comes up with is a portrait of men and women who, before the war, worked in isolation or in small groups and shared a distaste for bourgeois culture. Their sometimes-amorphous opposition to that culture became focused with the coming of the war; and their activities on behalf of their respective resistance movements fused them, mostly for the first time, with their countrymen. After the war, they tried to further their new-found positions as spokesmen and advance the humanist concerns of the Resistance, but postwar political realities, and the loss of an enforced social solidarity, spelled their defeat. The pattern suits France best of all; and Wilkinson tells the tale with an ease that makes it almost fresh as he follows Sartre or Camus or Beauvoir through their writings toward different expressions of the primacy of the individual, the necessity of choosing sides, the suspicion of the state and of administrators. All these ideas are framed against the experience of the Resistance which gave them a glimpse of a society bound together by purpose and choice. Then, the realities of different interests and of organized political movements intruded, and the intellectuals paid the price for their lack of connection to particular groups; they remained an intellectual opposition, without any concrete program for realizing their humanist aims. The background in Italy was different, and Wilkinson recounts the bankruptcy of Italian culture under fascism in the Thirties, a vacuum filled by a fascination with America on the part of intellectuals like Cesare Pavese. But the outcome was similar once the Italian Resistance was formed in 1943. Writers like Silone, Carlo Levi, and Elio Vittorini--whose post-war Il Politecnico was the Italian counterpart to Sartre's Les Temps Modernes--also thought they would lead a renewal modeled on their wartime opposition, also without success. The German case is more complicated and less successfully integrated by Wilkinson. For one thing, the largest number of German intellectuals were in exile during the war; for another, there was no armed German resistance. Also, Germany was no occupied, and the prime problem for postwar intellectuals was that of guilt. But as tenuous as the connections are, Wilkinson does a service by focusing on the intellectuals who formed an ""opposition"" within Germany--like Wolfgang Borchert, whose 1946 story ""The Dandelion"" echoed the French Resistance's insistence on the individual as the moral judge; or the poet Gunter Eich, who, like Borchert, Boll, and the majority of the writers discussed here, served in the Wehrmacht. But whereas in Italy and France strong parties of the left and right squeezed out the Resistance humanists, in Germany the crucial factor was the one-sided, partially imposed, effort at economic renewal. A stylish, discerning, well-rounded work of intellectual history--on a par with (most recently) Robert Wohl's The Generation of 1914.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press