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Sister Mary Murderous

Favorite genres are traditional mystery, police procedurals, espionage, Eurocrime, literary fiction and nonfiction history, especially WW2 and Cold War.  I write about crime fiction at Read Me Deadly (www.readmedeadly.com)

Looking through a kaleidoscope at four key days in World War II's last weeks in Europe

Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich - Walter Kempowski, Shaun Whiteside

Swansong 1945 is a translation of the last volume in Walter Kempowski’s 10-volume compilation of contemporary documents (including diaries, reports, interviews, letters, notes, newspaper articles and more) from a wide range of people, documenting World War II from those individual points of view.  The viewpoints range from forced laborers, prisoners and infantrymen with the Allied and Axis armies to generals and heads of state.


During World War II, Kempowski (who was born in 1929 and died in 2007) was a teenager living in Rostock in Germany’s northeast.  He was a fan of jazz music and not so much of his required membership in the Hitler Youth, where he was punished for his bad attitude.  Toward the end of the war, he was drafted into a unit providing messenger services for anti-aircraft facilities.  His father was killed in action on the eastern front less than two weeks before the war’s end in Europe.


Three years later, while visiting his family in his home town of Rostock, in northeastern Germany (which was, of course, part of the Soviet occupation zone) he and his brother and mother were imprisoned as western spies. After eight years, he was released and was allowed to move to West Germany.


In a series of autobiographical novels, Kempowski wrote about his own experiences during and after the war, but he wanted to do something more, something that would present a fully faceted view from those who lived through it.  In the 1980s, he placed ads in German newspapers asking people to send him whatever types of documents they might have that would show what they were doing and thinking during the war.  The response was strong, and he used a mix of those responses and published materials to compile Das Echolot: Ein Collectives Tagebuch (The Sonar: A Collective Diary), from 1993 to 2005.  It appears that Swansong 1945 is the only one of the series to be translated into English (at least so far).


Along with Kempowski’s novels, Das Echolot is a key work in what is known in German as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, roughly translated as coming to terms with the past.  This word is used, in general, to mean analyzing, discussing openly and dealing with the responsibility of Germany for World War II and the Holocaust.


The subtitle of Swansong 1945, saying that this is a collective diary of the “last days” of the Third Reich is more accurate than you might think.  The entries reproduced in this volume are all from just four days in the last weeks of the war: April 20, 1945, which was Hitler’s 56th (and last) birthday; April 25, the first meeting of US and Soviet troops in Germany; April 30, the date of Hitler’s suicide in the Berlin bunker; and May 8, which marked Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies.


By presenting this birds-eye view of those tumultuous last days of the war, Kempowski powerfully demonstrates just how chaotic it was, how rapidly events changed and how difficult it was to come by accurate and up-to-date information.  Some people are fooled by Goebbels’s propaganda, while others record their doubts and even ridicule the Reichsminister.  If you know your World War II history already, many of the passages will jump out at you.  There are several entries from ordinary Germans upon hearing about the Allies’ finding the horrific conditions in the concentration/death camps.  More than once, the Germans say it’s dreadful, but what about the atrocities of the Poles against the Germans that started the war.  Of course, we know that those atrocities were staged, and that knowledge is a terrible demonstration of the success of Joseph Goebbels’ deadly cynicism.


Some observations, about the weather, food and the like, remind us that even in the midst of what historian Max Hastings calls “the greatest and most terrible event in human history,” daily life goes on.  This kaleidoscopic view of the last days of the war makes a fascinating and illuminating supplement to traditional history and, with one caveat (which I discuss below), I recommend it to anyone with an interest in learning about the war’s end in Europe.


I do wish Kempowski had included some brief biographies of some of the people whose diary entries are included in the book.  A person’s name is given and, most often, the caption will say something like “forced laborer,” “British/American/Red Army soldier,” and so on.  But, inexplicably, it says nothing after many names, including names like “Bernard Law Montgomery.”  Yes, of course, most people who read this book know that’s the British Field Marshal, but it still seems strange not to note that.  And it should be expected that there will be some readers who don’t know who Montgomery is.


The omission of biographic information is more problematic with people like Marie “Missie” Vassiltchikov and Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.  There is no indication that Vassiltchikov was a Russian princess who fled to Germany after the Russian Revolution, worked at various German government offices during the war and was well-acquainted with several members of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler.  Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg was the cultured Hamburg mother of five children, all living abroad, who wrote a long series of unsent letters to her children during the war. I knew about Vassiltchikov and Wolff-Mönckeberg already, but how many readers won’t know their stories?  And I’m sure there are other names in the book that don’t mean anything to me but whose back stories would add more richness to the reading. I wish Kempowski had starred at least some of these names and put brief bios of them in an appendix.


If it were not for the omission of brief biographical notes, I would have given the book five stars.