Numerous artists, journalists, and novelists have chronicled the Allies’ attempt to denazify and democratize Germany after the country’s surrender in 1945. Rather than let the vast body of literature about that period intimidate her, author Lara Feigel used it to her advantage. Her new book, The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich, is both a cultural history of the Allied occupation of Germany and a group biography of the artists and writers, like Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, and Stephen Spender, who covered and participated in it. Both in content and form, it’s a busy, ambitious book. “I wanted to create stories that readers want to read in bed and have an intimate relationship to, which I think we don’t often feel with history,” Feigel said over the phone.
To streamline a book that buzzes through several German cities and the lives of over a dozen biographical subjects, Feigel needed a character who could pull her readers through the arcs of a historical narrative. “You have wonderful cameos from people like George Orwell, but I wanted to find people who stayed long enough that we could care about what happens to them,” she said. Klaus Mann, the German-born novelist, Thomas Mann’s son, and a wanderer in postwar Europe, became her marker. “He goes from seeing the end of the war as a moment of triumph and hope that’s not only going to create a new Germany but a new world, to being completely disillusioned at the Cold War agenda that had allowed people who had openly sympathized with the Nazis to become the heirs of the new regime,” she explains.
Profound skepticism about the ability of Germans to be re-educated, and disappointment over the goals and implementation of the Allied plan to achieve democratization through culture pervade the thoughts of most of Feigel’s characters. “The disillusionment of [Stephen] Spender and [W.H.] Auden, of [Billy] Wilder and the Manns does still matter, primarily as a missed opportunity....At that moment when throughout Europe all there was to lose had been lost, there was a chance for peace to be seen as a matter of a nation’s collective mental strength as well as its military might,” she writes in the coda. When asked about the chapter’s mournful tone, Feigel said that after following her characters through the trajectory of Germany from the end of the war to its Cold War state, she couldn’t help but assume some of their despair.
What’s more, Feigel can see this history catching up to the European Union today. “It’s another moment in which people are being flummoxed and disappointed that all the idealism can fall apart in front of economics,” she says. “The arguments made for leaving Europe are coldly economic and it seems to be forgotten that [European unity] was once the great ideal.”
Yet what the intimate viewpoint of The Bitter Taste of Victory largely and crucially imparts is the contingency of history, which leaves space for hope. In her book, Feigel turns her attention to what some historians would dismiss as trifles—such as the love triangle of Marlene Dietrich, Martha Gellhorn, and James M. Gavin, a commander in the American Army. For Feigel, it matters that Hermann Göring tried to force Rudolf Hess to eat part of his biscuit during one session of the Nuremberg Trials. “Human details allow us to see the provisionality of history,” Feigel says, “to eliminate hindsight, to keep hold of the overarching narrative, but to see that in any moment it could go another way because there’s a messiness in the texture of the everyday.”
Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.