What is it the legacy that humankind has been living with since 1945? We were once convinced that time was the agent of change. But in the past decade or two, our experience of time has been transformed. Technology preserves and inundates us with the past, and we perceive our future as a set of converging and threatening inevitabilities: nuclear annihilation, global warming, overpopulation. Overwhelmed by these horizons, we live in an ever broadening present. In identifying the prevailing mood of the post-World War II decade as that of "latency," Gumbrecht returns to the era when this change in the pace and structure of time emerged and shows how it shaped the trajectory of his own postwar generation.
Those born after 1945, and especially those born in Germany, would have liked nothing more than to put the catastrophic events and explosions of the past behind them, but that possibility remained foreclosed or just out of reach. World literatures and cultures of the postwar years reveal this to have been a broadly shared predicament: they hint at promises unfulfilled and obsess over dishonesty and bad faith; they transmit the sensation of confinement and the inability to advance.
After 1945 belies its theme of entrapment. Gumbrecht has never been limited by narrow disciplinary boundaries, and his latest inquiry is both far-ranging and experimental. It combines autobiography with German history and world-historical analysis, offering insightful reflections on Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, detailed exegesis of the thought of Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre, and surprising reflections on cultural phenomena ranging from Edith Piaf to the Kinsey Report. This personal and philosophical take on the last century is of immediate relevance to our identity today.
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About the Author
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is Albert Guérard Professor in Literature at Stanford University. His books in English include In 1926 (1998), Production of Presence (Stanford, 2004), In Praise of Athletic Beauty (2006), and Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung (Stanford, 2012).
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Latency as Origin of the Present
By Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Stanford University PressCopyright © 2013 Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
All rights reserved.
EMERGENCE OF LATENCY?
A Generation's Beginning
June 15, 1948, was a bright yet muggy Tuesday in Bavaria. what would become of Germany appeared altogether uncertain: the nation's immediate past weighed heavily, even if people hardly talked about it. Nobody seemed aware—perhaps no one really cared—that just one week later the future would be determined. The front page of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung—Muenchner Nachrichten aus Politik, Kultur, Wirtschaft und Sport looked much the same then as it does now, except that on this day it featured a black-and-white photograph of Carl Zuckmayer (a German-born author who had become American) with his wife and his daughter, and the price was just twenty Pfennig. At the top of the page, five articles presented the key political news of the moment, in Germany and abroad, in a strangely detached fashion. It was announced that preparations for currency reform (Waehrungsreform) in the three zones occupied by Allied forces had now been finished; all that remained was to wait for official word about the exact date the new monetary order would go into effect. Another article covered a campaign speech President truman had delivered in Berkeley, California, where he appealed to the Soviet Union not to abandon the collective effort to secure the democratic future of a united Germany. (In all likelihood, the western allies and Soviet Union were equally inclined to partition the country, even though, for reasons of political gamesmanship, each side had to impute the plan to the other one.) two brief items reported that the French Parliament was hesitant to ratify the initial political steps necessary to establish a west German state, despite the decision reached thirteen days earlier in London by the other western allies and Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg. Finally, the American Military Governor, General Clay, was quoted in a press conference promising that the United States would make every effort to assure "east German representation" in the new state. Four of these five articles were composed in the neutral style typical of press agencies—indeed, they came from AP, Dena-Reuter, and UP. The sole item to be written by newspaper staff, although it discussed imminent economic reform—and therefore a matter of vital existential concern—may well have struck the most dispassionate tone of all. Elsewhere on the page, two other features adopted a somewhat livelier—and occasionally aggressive—style, even though they addressed topics warranting greater tact and reserve from the German editors. The first was the well-known column on the left (which still runs today) entitled "Das Streiflicht" ["the side-light"]. On June 15, 1948, the column voiced criticism of American geopolitical strategy; in particular, it objected to the fact that the U.S., through a foreign Legion approved by the Senate, was lending support to the Jewish State, which had been founded in the former British protectorate one month and one day earlier. With unabashed anti-Semitism concealed by a pacifistic veneer, Streiflicht mocked sixty-four non-Jewish Germans who had volunteered to fight for the cause and been rejected by Israeli authorities: "We Germans could not have wished for a better way to rid ourselves of the lingering element of military aggression in our society." the most space—and self-congratulatory enthusiasm—was devoted to the "Second International youth Manifestation" taking place in Munich, where fourteen hundred participants had gathered from twenty-one countries. the guests of honor included thirty German prisoners of war the French authorities had released for the occasion. Carl Zuckmayer received thundering applause when he declared that the youngest generation of Germans could not be held responsible for the most recent chapter of the nation's past. The following day, as part of the "Manifestation," the University of Munich was scheduled to confer, with full academic pomp and ceremony, an honorary doctorate upon the French novelist Jules Romains. Surprisingly, a belated delegation was announced from Spain—from a country, that is, where the military government (which had supported Hitler) was completely isolated from the emergent political order in western Europe. This delegation received a particularly emotional welcome.
The young people gathered in Munich, the newspaper reported, "spoke of their German friends with great respect"; they wanted to be "good neighbors," and they were "even impressed by the quality of the rationed food supply." the matter of obtaining food—where and how to do so—was a concern of the first order for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and its readers. A lengthy article on page three (of the four pages comprising that day's edition) discussed the legally sanctioned opportunity to buy meat from diseased animals [Freibank]; it made light of the physical needs the measure implied by describing, with ironic undertones, more than three thousand persons waiting in line. Culture, like food, received attention in terms of supply and quantity. Under the rubric, "High tide for Cabarets," three evenings of political cabaret in Munich were written up. The paper also reported on several new productions of classical dramas—plays by Lope de Vega and Henri de Montherlant, whose works were ubiquitous at the time. (without a doubt, French culture enjoyed unrivaled prestige, as had always been the case in Germany before 1933.) the newspaper also ran a story on the exhibition at Haus der Kunst—opened by none other than General Clay—featuring works by renaissance masters that American authorities had returned to the State of Bavaria. Even for a paper of just four pages, the sports section occupied little space, at least by today's standards. It opened with the program of a boxing contest—boxing was probably the most popular sport in Germany then—that involved the cities of Zurich and Munich; the article applauded the event as a generous gesture on the part of the Swiss to end the ban on German athletes at international events. In contrast, a strangely elegaic tone permeated the soccer coverage: "The team from Mannheim, despite a more mature style, did not manage a single goal; Munich 1860 scored once. One hopes that their offense, which left so much to be desired, will return to form one day." The bottom half of the same page was completely filled by ads for vacant positions. The most sought-after parties were men and women competent in business, administration, and typewriting, and "girls" to work as housekeepers (Alleinmaedchen). That day, the paper ran no ads from people seeking employment.
Without knowledge of local and historical context, a reader would have been hard pressed to imagine that the Sueddeutsche published on June 15, 1948, was written, printed, and distributed in a city whose urban center still lay in ruins from air raids. This city had been the official home of the German National Socialist Workers' Party—the party of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler—which had unleashed upon humanity crimes of unprecedented technological perfection. It would have been even more difficult for the average reader to find signs of the truly miraculous (more than simply "dramatic") turnaround that Munich and the country as a whole were soon to experience. It seems that those who had survived the war were so busy scrambling to survive in the new, everyday reality of peace that they could not appreciate their own achievements. Still less, it seems, could they gauge their own blindness. On that day late in spring, when the horrors of the past stood to one side and future success lay on the other, life likely felt as flat and pointedly featureless as the music broadcast on the American forces Network—for example, Benny Goodman's "On a Slow Boat to China."
* * *
The new currency, called Deutsche Mark, began to circulate under rainy skies in the American, British, and French zones on Sunday, June 20, 1948. Each citizen had the right to exchange up to forty old Reichsmark for the same amount in new money. A further allocation of twenty marks was scheduled for August. Larger amounts of cash could be traded at the rate of a hundred (old) to five (new); for checking and savings accounts, as well as outstanding payments, the rate stood at ten to one. Rationing restrictions were lifted on more than four hundred kinds of goods. Although the measures were accompanied by fear and a rise in unemployment, they proved effective in cutting ties to a debilitating part of the country's past and paved the way for the "economic miracle" that would set the existential tone for the first years of the federal republic.
The speed of Waehrungsreform in the west caught the administration of the country's eastern half off-guard. Three days later, in order to protect the Soviet zone from being inundated with old—and now worthless—Reichsmarks, currency reform was implemented here, too. Economic transition in the East differed from its Western counterpart inasmuch as the authorities pursued the objective of social justice by offering better exchange rates to people with smaller amounts of money at their disposal. One day later, on Thursday, June 24—intensifying a tendency to intervene politically and militarily in response to world-political threats—the Soviet Union interrupted all land, rail, and water traffic between the western part of Germany and Berlin. Despite doubts that were logistical, technical, and, above all, strategic in nature, General Clay, with the support of the British authorities, immediately ordered that an air bridge to Berlin be struck. Within a few weeks, two hundred sixty-nine British and three hundred fourteen American aircraft were making some five hundred and fifty flights a day. These missions, which went from Frankfurt, Hannover, and Hamburg to three west Berlin airports (Tempelhof, Gatow, and, beginning in December, Tegel), reestablished control over the former capital's western sectors and secured the survival of its population. Within less than a hundred hours between June 20 and June 24, 1948, the postwar had ended, and the Cold War (which had already been discerned as a nightmarish possibility for world affairs) began to materialize as the new reality. Before the end of the month, the Committee of the eastern European Communist Parties under the leadership of the Soviet Union (Kominform)—seemingly obsessed with drawing sharp divisions on the political landscape—had excluded Yugoslavia's Communist Party on the grounds that it harbored "Anti-Soviet and Anti-Internationalist attitudes." Less than two months later, the countries occupying the west German zones announced the surprising decision that deliberations about the new constitution would take place in Bonn, a small university town near Cologne.
* * *
If, in the few weeks it took for the contours of a new world order to become visible, people seemed strangely unaware of the tensions that shaped their actions, the final months of the war had witnessed scenes of grotesque simultaneities and hysteria. Consider, for example, the chilling photograph from April 1945, in which Adolf Hitler—looking frail and much older than his fifty-six years—shakes hands with a line of boys in uniform, as if they were real soldiers, as if he still had any military (or even paternal) authority, as if the war were not long lost, and as if the youths actually believed there was any point to sacrificing their lives. Does this "as if" concern our impression, today, that certain gestures seem out of place, unsuited to the environment in which they occurred? Or is the "as if" an approximate formula (however inadequate) for the combination of helplessness and cynicism that marked the moment itself and the way it was experienced? Is it possible that, by the spring of 1945, Hitler still believed in his calling? Is it possible that the boys trusted him? Were the Germans who—a few days after unconditional surrender—were forced to walk through the concentration camps that their government and fellow citizens had built, actually being sincere when they claimed to have been unaware of these massive engines of death? what were my parents thinking when they sent friends and relatives cards of handmade paper (Buettenpapier) inscribed with Gothic letters to announce their engagement party on April 20, 1945? Even though they were not particularly active in the Party, this was Hitler's birthday, and festivities were scheduled to take place in Dortmund, where one of the fiercest battles of the war had raged until only a few days before. Did they see any problem at all? Did it cross their minds that the damaged houses where they would be sleeping, eating, and having sex were somehow mismatched with the overly formal invitation cards? Or did they act as if nothing were happening because the abyss was simply too deep—and too near—to confront? Did ignorance enable them to survive? was Hitler or anyone else in his piteous, subterranean Bunker really convinced, "philosophically" or "religiously" (if such adverbs are admissible in this context), when they claimed it was necessary and just for the German "race" to perish—to be physically destroyed and removed from the face of the planet—because it had proven weaker than other "races" and therefore unworthy of dominance?
* * *
The grotesque stridency of the final stage of war was fated to disappear after the unconditional surrender of May 8, 1945. However, the "as if" of aggressively ignoring continued among survivors as the conditions of life grew worse than anyone could have anticipated. Such was the impression that the twenty-three year old Swedish journalist Stig Dagerman (Deutscher Herbst '46) took away from his visit to Germany. Dagerman came during the autumn of 1946 to report on the situation—in all likelihood, one without historic or existential precedent—in a series of thirteen articles that appeared in Stockholm the following year. In merciless detail, Dagerman described the everyday life of a family inhabiting a ground-floor apartment that was permanently flooded. To say they were living under "prehistoric conditions" would be insufficient: they were people from a modern civilization who had been violently pushed back into cave life. Every step posed a risk, they had learned how to sleep without moving, and the threat of disease lurked everywhere. Instead of going to school or exercising a profession, children and grown-ups had to hunt for food; they spent their days gathering fuel for fire; occasionally, they bartered what they had found for clothing. No one had the time, energy, or desire to consider what might have caused their situation. Life was simply a matter of escaping death, every day. The few Germans who had the luxury of an occasional pause accepted, without protest, that the Allies held absolute control over what had been "their" country. At the same time, it must have felt natural for them to tell the foreign observer that they were being treated unfairly. Were they speaking truthfully and in good faith when they asked Dagerman whether they were responsible for Hitler and twelve years of Nazi rule? Were they acting honestly when they observed that the Germans, after their own military victories, had never treated other nations with comparable severity?
With the exception of the Nuremberg trials, the Allies let German lawyers "with a clean record" preside over "de-nazification"—a process that provided the inevitable condition for reentry into professional and civic life. Dagerman took a dim view of this logistical decision. While he did not accuse the new civil servants (who, for the most part, had exercised the same profession before 1945) of blatant injustice or cronyism, he found that they lacked the passion and dedication necessary to detect and punish the crimes of the past; he thought they were failing to make a break comparable to the split that was to occur in the economic system some eighteen months later. Finally, Dagerman noticed mounting tension between two generations of Germans. Those between the ages of fifteen and thirty clearly blamed their older siblings and parents—that is, the people who had been in charge of the country between 1933 and 1945—for jeopardizing the present and future. In contrast—and more surprisingly—many older Germans believed that the younger generation should have protected (or even freed) the nation from Nazi rule. As Dagerman observed, no one really felt responsible.
Excerpted from AFTER 1945 by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. Copyright © 2013 by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Table of Contents
One Car Away from Death: An Overture 1
1 Emergence of Latency? A Generations Beginning 5
2 Forms of Latency 31
3 No Exit and No Entry 39
4 Bad Faith / Interrogations 71
5 Derailment / Containers 112
6 Effects of Latency 152
7 Unconcealment of Latency? My Story with Time 160
The Form of This Book 211