Occupied Americans:
Kay Boyle's Tales of Postwar Germany

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2011, Volume 10, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2011/tang.htm

 

Edward Tang
University of Alabama


Stories abounded amid the rubble of postwar Germany. Since the end of the Second World War, editors of American periodicals sensed the reportorial possibilities, dispatching correspondents as well as fiction writers, essayists, and photographers to capture the look and feel of a shattered nation. These publications often provided middlebrow readers with anecdotal coverage that personalized, and in many ways, critiqued the larger structural objectives of US foreign policy makers regarding the occupation of Germany. Particularly during the mid to late 1940s, a host of Americans recounted for popular consumption their thoughts on reconstruction efforts overseas. Influential editors such as Norman Cousins for the Saturday Review of Literature and Demaree Bess for the Saturday Evening Post interviewed Germans and other Europeans to assess the state of US involvement. A slew of journalists filed reports on the social consequences of postwar developments for Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, Collier’s, and others. Authors known more for their fiction or poetry also added their voices. Life commissioned Gertrude Stein and John Dos Passos for assignments in the American Zone. The New Yorker hired Jean Stafford and Kay Boyle for similar purposes.

These American weeklies and monthlies presented for millions of readers a cultural narrative of new global responsibilities, replete with human-interest stories that suggested broader political and economic consequences. Thrust from its prewar isolationism, the United States now had to rehabilitate Germany and Japan, nurture anticommunist partnerships, and ensure the security of global markets. These objectives, however, came with a host of postwar uncertainties. Public opinion polls in the late 1940s showed that a great majority of Americans were willing to engage in international alliances and humanitarian projects; respondents grasped that their nation had the power and moral obligation to do so. Yet these surveys also disclosed prevalent feelings that the war had created insurmountable problems: food, housing, and employment shortages at home and abroad, as well as threats of future military conflicts (“Quarter’s Polls” 301-3; Strunk 760, 782-83). Reporters for American periodicals shared these mixed sentiments, bringing into US living rooms their observations on the muddled realities of overseas involvements. Altogether these writers avoided any sense of triumph over a fascist power; the sight of bomb-damaged cities and morose, starving Germans served to temper these feelings. Negotiations and frictions with the French, British, and Russian occupiers also complicated matters. Many of these American reporters thus spoke to underlying doubts and anxieties regarding their nation’s attempts to denazify and democratize Germany for a more stable postwar era, one already rife with new geopolitical tensions.

No writer among this group portrayed the ambiguities of occupying postwar Germany more deeply and evocatively than the expatriate Kay Boyle. A popular American novelist, poet, and essayist, she was born in St. Paul, Minnesota; raised in Cincinnati, Ohio; educated there as well as in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; wrote in New York; then moved to Europe where she lived and traveled through the 1920s, achieving widespread renown for her writings by the 1930s. The years spent in Germany between 1948 and 1953 offered an auspicious moment for her work when she followed her husband, Joseph von Franckenstein, an antifascist émigré who was then with the US civilian occupation forces there (Spanier 174-76). Boyle’s writings in many ways served to educate American mainstream readers about conditions in postwar Germany, from which she weighed the possibilities and shortcomings of American occupation beyond political or economic concerns. Although Boyle wrote nonfictional reports, her short stories on postwar Germany presented a more imaginative expanse in which to craft her thoughts on the rebuilding process, especially regarding the under appreciated influence of artists and intellectuals. If Germany were to realize the errors of militarizing its society, she opined, then an occupation by the US Army would not provide the appropriate lessons in hewing toward more peaceful aspirations. For Boyle, the rehabilitation of democratically oriented arts proved the most essential to counteracting martial tendencies.

Boyle’s ideas on the societal role of intellectuals and artists coincide with how the critic Edward Said defined this group. For Said, the intellectual particularly “is an individual endowed with the faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public” (11). Said viewed as too limiting Antonio Gramsci’s proposal that intellectuals comprised a professional class with specific managerial, scientific, or educational functions. Instead, intellectuals more generally challenge orthodoxies “despite all sorts of barriers” to reconsider the workings of power that might curtail the realization of such ideals as freedom and justice (12). More directly applied to postwar Germany, but comparable to Said’s thinking, the sociologist Bernhard Giesen noted that an intellectual/artist like Thomas Mann “spoke of an ‘invisible nation’ whose duty had never been to power, but always to culture” (145). This “invisible nation,” or collective of emigrant German writers, stood outside the official structures of the governing state and, because of this independent status, felt compelled to confront the horrors of the Nazi past through their literature. Culture in this way became the liberating force from which to create a new national identity. As an intellectual/artist in her own right, Boyle shared these sentiments. Hers, however, were more complicated in that she desired to demilitarize the mindsets of both the occupied and occupier in postwar Germany through the strength of cultural expressions.

Having lived in occupied Germany longer than most American writers, Boyle was well aware that her views collided with several hard realities. The sheer destruction of Germany made for difficult living, if not for resuscitating creativity and erudition. Melvin Lasky, writing for the Partisan Review in January 1948, remarked that for German intellectual life, “There is neither state nor culture, only a ruined, poverty-stricken, brutalized people, with little to eat, everything to fear, nothing to hope for” (60). Hollywood studios conveyed this sensibility to the American public when the directors Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann went abroad to record the urban devastation as background material for their respective films, A Foreign Affair and The Search. Box office hits in 1948, each work introduced US audiences to a desperate European populace focused solely on survival. Both films raised troubling questions about the limits of American responsibilities in the international arena. Part of the issue concerned people’s ambivalence toward Germany. Like many observers who traveled there, Boyle confessed to retaining hard feelings against most Germans while tacking toward compassion for a few others. If she held out hope for a humanitarian recovery, it appeared only as a fleeting possibility in her work because she recognized what the Nazis in their destructive tendencies nearly eviscerated from German national memory: a prewar past in which the arts had flourished.

Boyle’s concern with developing cultural inspiration and leadership applied as well to Americans in Germany. Corresponding with a friend in December 1948, she suggested: “An occupation by intellectuals would give the Germans an awareness of their past monstrosities, a hatred of brutality, a realization of what a new future might be - give them a hope of resurrection, an understanding of atonement” (qtd. in Spanier 176). The US military, indeed anyone in uniform, was too full of ambitions, grudges, and vanities, and could not evaluate sacred or secular values as cultural spokespersons did with their art and literature (176). Boyle advanced through several of her fictional characters the microcosmic, face-to-face prospects for another way to reorient Germany that, in the process, would transform the moral consciousness of both Germans and Americans. Fragile and idealistic as this strategy sounded, Boyle also had her doubts about the capabilities of both groups. Yet this tension between her desire for and uncertainty about the rebuilding of Germany formed the basis for some of her best short fiction.

Most of these writings (published in the New Yorker, the Nation, Harper’s Magazine and others in the late 1940s to early 1950s) appeared together in 1951 as The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany. As a foreign correspondent for the New Yorker, Boyle founded much of this writing on her encounters with Germans from all walks of life as well as with American soldiers and civilians. The book’s introduction, first published in the New Yorker in September 1950, established the main thematic concern of her stories by recounting the real-life criminal trial of one Heinrich Baab, a former Gestapo henchman. Baab never served on any battlefront; he instead showcased his skills during the war by interrogating, torturing, and deporting Jewish locals from Frankfurt to labor and concentration camps. A Frankfurt court, composed of all Germans, indicted and sentenced him to hard labor for fifty-six cases of murder between 1938 and 1943. To Boyle, Baab’s presence among his German accusers and defenders posed a problematic question, one considered by many others as well. “Of what, and of how many, was this man Baab a representative, this man who was, as were the greatest musicians, a pure product of Germany?” she asked (8). Boyle wanted to comprehend this curious duality from which Germans could produce a Bach or Beethoven on the one hand, and Hitler with his brutalizing followers like Baab on the other. These latter personae had emerged from that symbolic “smoking mountain,” a phrase borrowed from the exiled German writer Theodor Plievier for the book’s epigraph. Despite all its heralded accomplishments, observed Plievier, Germany’s populace “ceased to exist as a people” during the Nazi era, becoming nothing more than fuel for a volcanic force that spewed its destruction across a nation and then a continent.

Admitting to a disheartened state of mind upon entering Germany, Boyle reluctantly committed herself “to a painstaking and almost completely loveless search for another face” of that country (2). The task would prove difficult, she acknowledged, given that past German thinkers from Goethe to Thomas Mann had struggled with the contradictory tendencies of their compatriots while confronting these dualities within themselves. “For decades,” Boyle continued, “German philosophers and German poets and men of letters have wrung their disavowal of the German people from the depths of their commitment to that people” (3). Here Boyle’s frustrations when meeting postwar Germans offered parallels to earlier and contemporary German intellectuals’ renunciations of, and obligations to, those among whom they lived. Boyle’s quest was all the more challenging when Americans, full of their own inconsistencies and shortcomings, had to govern a defeated population. Less interested in the intricacies of political and economic reforms, Boyle constructed a fictional world in which American occupiers sometimes could experience shifts, however small, in their own moral perceptions and actions if they most effectively were to reconstruct Germany. As both author and activist, Boyle was always mindful that grappling with German contradictions meant facing American ones as well.

War and its aftermath, as the literary scholar Edward Uehling suggests about several of Boyle’s stories, contribute to the failures of language and understanding that highlight a lack of moral courage, ending in “spiritual sterility” among the victors, the vanquished, and those caught among them (376). Boyle’s concerns in this period, however, proceeded beyond the deficiencies of language and the abilities to communicate. The tales divulge other, more contextual critiques aimed specifically at the American military presence in Germany and at Germans too self-involved in their own deprivations to admit any responsibility for the broader sufferings they had caused. Her portrayals of German and American postwar encounters thus disclosed for a New York Times book reviewer in 1951 the social complexities inherent in the US occupation of Germany. Boyle’s stories, in this sense, were “a powerful agent for revealing truths” regarding not only the difficulties in reconstructing Germany but also the ambivalence stirred within American readers about what their fellow countrymen were doing there (Moore 208).

Boyle was not alone in her thinking or her experiences. Numerous American periodicals calculated for their readers the human costs of rebuilding a former enemy nation, contributing to the larger narrative that shifted between expressing responsibility for and uncertainty in overseas affairs. Maintaining that balance was not easy. The German faces other American writers often sought were filled with reluctance, hardness, and affliction. “Almost all classes of Germans hate Americans with increasing violence,” one reporter for Reader’s Digest noted in 1946. “And they cling, without contrition, to arrogant militarism, anti-Semitism, and other Nazi ideas” (Sondern 87). If Heinrich Babb embodied this undying attitude for Boyle, the Digest’s correspondent perceived it everywhere among the conquered public. This continuing uneasiness between Americans and Germans stemmed from lingering mutual hatreds stoked by the war, but also from the demolished surroundings in which Germans had to live. John Dos Passos described the scene for Life: “People in city clothes with city faces…trot busily about among the high rubbish [piles], dart into punched-out doorways under tottering walls. They behave horribly like ants when you have kicked over an anthill” (105). The debased, insect-like behavior of Germans functioning in economic scarcity amid the ruins contrasted sharply against the material abundance, complacency, and comfort of Americans in the occupation forces.

Yet whatever differences in living standards, the ubiquitous rubble of Germany somehow exerted a degenerative influence on both occupied and occupier. Supplied with virtually anything they needed, green American recruits who never experienced combat now engaged in the black market and bullied or fraternized with German civilians. These salacious activities prompted one writer for Newsweek to conclude in 1947: “Put bluntly, the American Army in Germany is still floundering in a moral quagmire,” even with its lifting of the fraternization ban (48). Another correspondent for Collier’s likewise asserted that a “sort of insidious moral corruption has spread among us…like an occupational disease” (Morgan 16). These reported interactions between Germans and Americans boded ill for both camps, disclosing a rising apprehension that touched reading audiences back in the United States. Involvement in Germany meant not only enduring the wartime hatreds of an occupied population but also seducing Americans to participate in morally compromising practices.

Boyle herself derided the behavior of American G.I.s in a short story, “Army of Occupation,” which appeared in the New Yorker in 1947 (but not included in The Smoking Mountain). Here drunken military personnel returning to duty on a train from Paris to Frankfurt harass a woman who is an American correspondent and fellow passenger. The “occupational disease,” as the Collier’s writer phrased it, infects even Americans’ relations with one another. Boyle describes the gendered space within the railroad car, forming part of “a man’s train,” as cramped and dangerous (Fifty Stories 440). The intoxicated soldiers dominate the woman reporter by their size and strength, first blocking her way in the corridor and then boxing her in a compartment. Once finding her seat among three G.I.s, the young woman participates little in their conversation, thinking instead through interior monologues how she can endure their taunting invitations to drink with them until reaching their destination. Turning inward, she tries to reassure herself: “There’re other people on this train, like people you know…People who understand words” (453). As a writer, the woman cherishes words to communicate, but cannot openly do so when soldiers hold sway. The G.I.s’ oppressive behavior toward a female civilian not only emphasizes their unwillingness to comprehend but also implies an aptitude for broader, more concerted efforts in terrorizing Americans as well as already vanquished Germans. Resorting to unruly and unthinking force thus coincides with the impending failures of occupation.

Boyle’s desire for an alternative Germany from which to build a more hopeful, redemptive nation lay neither in its Nazi past nor in what she saw as the corrupted goals and behaviors of American occupiers. Instead, the key to rehabilitating German society and culture rested in artistic and intellectual achievements disassociated from military endeavors. A burgeoning creative atmosphere, even if nostalgically reconstructed from the remains of a pre-Nazi past, would prove beneficial not only for German moral consciousness but also for Americans persistently absorbed in exercising their power and influence in Germany. Boyle’s subtle portrayal of relations among particular Americans and Germans in this vein appears in two stories from The Smoking Mountain that have received only minor critical attention: “Frankfurt in Our Blood” and “Aufwiedersehen Abend.” These tales best encapsulate her longing for both groups, if they were soulfully alert and able enough, to regenerate one another. Her stories thus complicated the mythic idea that American innocents abroad could reform a broken world.

“Frankfurt in Our Blood,” first published in the Nation in October 1949, tells the story of two women on the Orient Express traveling from Paris to Frankfurt. The tale stands in distinct contrast to “Army of Occupation.” Written two years later, “Frankfurt in Our Blood” is a more contemplative work that reflects Boyle’s faint upsurge of hope in postwar developments. Gone from this story are those in military uniform who exert undisciplined power. Civilians traveling to Frankfurt instead share meals and conversations that reveal their aspirations, doubts, and memories that mutually affect one another’s views on what Germany signifies for them. The two unnamed women, strangers to one another, tentatively engage each other in the dining car. The younger woman is a rather self-involved, almost innocent American who wears a “blue cotton short-sleeved dress, as simple as a schoolgirl’s” (120). She desires to experience the vivacity of Paris, even to be anywhere on the continent near that city to absorb its cultural pleasures. The only way for her to achieve this objective, however, is from working as a civilian for the US War Department in Frankfurt, a dark and demolished place she loathes but reluctantly returns to after weekend sojourns in the City of Light. Her older dining companion, a German Jewish refugee with “flesh, hair, clothing, [and] eyes…all of the same worn faded gray,” is revisiting the city of her youth, having spent the last fifteen years exiled in China (120). The aged woman is an interstitial being, the German fascists having displaced her in the early 1930s, and now the Chinese communists forcing her to leave another country in the late 1940s. She is going back to Frankfurt, explaining to the American: “there does not seem any other place for me to go” (125). The pair’s placement at the dining table reinforces their initial outlooks: the young woman facing the forward direction of the train and thus her uncertain future, the elder looking back from whence she came, reminiscing about the past.

The young American admits that she sees Germany as “this alien, evil thing,” an “isolated territory, like a leper’s colony, an infected island” (122-23). She later declares that the Nazis transformed it into something “ailing and evil and no longer free” (123). The repeated association of illness with ill will underlines the woman’s insistence that neither Americans nor Germans, each with their own failings, can eradicate an ingrained moral corruption within Germany. As outlined earlier in the introduction to The Smoking Mountain, this view of a diseased nation recalls Boyle’s own hesitancy about removing herself from France, where she had been staying with her children, to join a husband in his occupation duties. “The mere act of entering this occupied country,” she writes, “imposes inexorable demands upon the heart and reason” (2). Surveying the ruined urban landscapes, the author expresses shock at the scale of destruction created by Allied bombing; the horrifying sights tug at her emotions. At the same time, Boyle resorts to the clinical language of a physician, here in the midst of a moral diagnosis. “[O]ne comes to know, without pity,” she emphasizes, “that the ruthless cause which produced these effects is still intact [even] if only these walls…have been destroyed” (2-3). Nazism, she wants her readers to know, is still alive and well, feeding like a virus on the contorted remnants of Germany. A version of Boyle’s younger self, fictionalized in “Frankfurt in Our Blood,” restates the author’s contentions.

The older woman in response offers not so much a corrective to the young American’s views but a more extensive portrait of Germany. She proceeds further into its history that selectively references the Weimar Republic during the 1920s. Whatever this period’s economic instabilities and political faults, the intellectuals, artists, musicians, labor unions and others had prospered in their sustenance of German democratic practices. The returning exile reveals that her husband was a professor who died in 1934, just when the fascists solidified power in Germany. “He was very wise to choose that year to die in,” the woman intones with a bittersweet smile, knowing that because of their Jewish faith, he was fortunate enough to miss the atrocities from which she and their sons had to flee. Before then, however, was a time of cultural thriving. She describes for her young listener the allure of Frankfurt prior to Hitler: “There was my husband’s work in the university, and there were other professors, and there were artists, too, writers, countless friends.” Here the arts supplied an intellectual vitality to the city, and as a conveyor of this communal memory, the elderly refugee proposes a counter-history to that of Nazi barbarism. She continues: “There we had meetings, discussions, and not only among intellectuals, but among men of the free crafts, the guilds, the unions. For Frankfurt was once the heart of liberal Germany.” Escaping to China with two of her sons (where they temporarily remain while another two perished in Dachau), the woman tried to preserve in her memories this particular Frankfurt with “its culture, its wisdom, its democratic history” (124). Recollecting this brand of democracy, once exemplified by German cultural producers, and as Boyle implies, not the kind imposed by American military rule, is the aged exile’s gift to posterity.

The American passenger initially begrudges the elder’s memories as “a certain kind of wealth” when the latter reminisces about being a child and a bride in Frankfurt. Regarding her own prospects, however, the youth complains: “I have absolutely nothing except for the things I want to be” (122). Instead of embodying the stereotypical American characteristics of optimism and progress, Boyle’s protagonist sees only a bleak and uncertain future in Frankfurt as Paris recedes further and further away from her. Yet when the exile talks about her own past torments and her alternative vision of Germany, these memories stir compassion and a new understanding within the young American, impelling her to consider how “the city they travelled [sic] toward took on another aspect.” Rather than hearing the doleful German voices that relentlessly bemoan the destruction of hearths and homes, the youthful woman now imagines something more sublime. Her elder companion evokes the wondrous landscape of the Taunus hills outside of Frankfurt, where “she and the others, the professors, the artists, the writers, the free men of Frankfurt who had seen freedom die” once had strolled amid the restorative balm of springtime (125).

Indeed these memories soothe the old refugee’s nerves as the train advances ever closer toward her hometown. “I am not afraid of my memories,” she asserts. “I am afraid of hearing what the living now have to say.” The American already knows what the Germans are expressing in their anger and despondency, but replies, “We can listen to other things” (126). The two collectively nourish themselves from the returning exile’s remembrances of a past filled with the yearnings and achievements of democratically minded German thinkers. Throughout this brief encounter, the pair voices their anxieties but also manages to assure one another with yet indiscernible dreams for the future. Boyle suggests that at least a template of creative accomplishments exists, but will German civilians and American occupiers make use of it? For the moment, the victories occur within slight turns of consciousness. The homecoming German expatriate makes her nation’s pre-Nazi past serviceable, even enchanting, to the American occupation worker. Meanwhile the younger woman inspires and comforts the elder, telling her about the undestroyed parts of Frankfurt that had been treasured staples of the refugee’s youth. The Palm Garden, with its greenhouses of tropical plants, remains undamaged, the American reports. Nature once again appears as an important symbol of regeneration. If the memories of intellectuals hiking the Taunus hills in springtime represent a useful past for the American, then the promise of the Palm Garden offers an encouraging future for the exile. The women’s talk of exotic flowers and trees that closes the story not only marks the possibilities for growth and new beginnings but also how outsiders, the “exotics” typified by returning natives and American occupiers alike, can blossom together in hostile, desolated settings.

 “Aufwiedersehen Abend” similarly presents noteworthy, small-scale encounters that disclose the possibilities for American-German relations. Initially published in Harper’s Magazine in April 1951, the story is one of Boyle’s last short works on postwar Germany, being as well the concluding piece in The Smoking Mountain. The tale in this way synthesizes Boyle’s range of attitudes about American occupation and German responses to it. “Aufwiedersehen Abend” introduces a young American, Rod Murray, who is a civilian working for the military government in a small and ancient university town. What distinguishes this character from the rest of the Americans is that he is not looking for profit or power. He is instead one of the few “odd ones,” the “fanatics” who, ever restless after the war’s colossal violence, “severed themselves for their home towns, and their people, and the girls they would go back and marry in the end” (245). Having fought in the war, Murray now feels a responsibility in providing for a more peaceful future. 

Recalling the introduction to The Smoking Mountain, in which Boyle proclaims her “loveless search for another face” of Germany other than those associated with Nazism (2), Rod Murray also seeks “the look of sincerity in other men’s faces.” Unlike the author’s reluctant exploration, however, Murray’s is full of missionary zeal. He places himself “on the common errand of reorientation” in his “quest for the freedom-loving and the enlightened” (246). This “reorientation” at first involves steering the German mindset, however immovable, toward more democratic sensibilities. Murray’s naïve desire to change others’ thoughts and experiences informs his dedication to the ideals, if not the practices, of occupation. Yet the reader learns that the young man, as a former bomber pilot, is also doing penance for unleashing a level of wartime destruction toward which he contributed no small part. His search for absolution, then, “could know no respite until it reached some kind of end” (246). Only when Murray encounters a German musician with a poetic soul in the story’s finale does the American acquire some possibility of attaining enlightened fulfillment, of becoming reoriented himself.

The path to reach this goal comes with its share of obstacles. Instituting a democratic system in the American Zone while ensuring the goals of denazification constantly eludes and frustrates Murray, particularly when he has little to no support from either the military government or the German villagers. Boyle provides a failing example of each process, in which the participants rebuff Murray’s activism. The incidents reveal the author’s varying degrees of condemnation of both Americans and Germans, which at times includes her main protagonist. Boyle first considers how Germans take to democracy. At town hall meetings, the district officials relay whatever decisions or developments they know about to the shopkeepers and farmers, and the assemblies then conclude. Murray, however, declares his objections that the town leaders must entertain questions from the people. “Say, this is an open forum!” he shouts, much to the curiosity or embarrassment of those present. Burning with such passion, the young American desires these proceedings to adhere to his vision of how they should work, being someone “who had been brought up among community chests, and cooperatives in the Midwest” (247). The occupied Germans, who have their own ways of doing things, respond by quietly exiting their town halls, wondering at Murray’s oddness. No one seems to understand his fervor, including those unseen or unheard from in the military government who inexplicably had reallocated their energies to other unstated matters.

Rod Murray’s alienation from both his employers and the German populace becomes further apparent in another public forum, a denazification trial of a former newspaper editor. In the crowded courtroom, Murray again is the lone American observer who cares enough about such an event, in which “a lean, distinguished, white-haired gentleman” stands trial for supporting the Nazi cause during the war. Because the defendant is “a celebrated and respected man,” the onlookers applaud his insouciance toward the court proceedings (254). The editor’s stature, however, is only part of his attraction; the other is what he mentally fashions for his followers: “printed words [that] had for so long made plausible, and continued to make plausible even in defeat, the legend of their own ascendancy” (255). This particular intellectual both embodies and emanates a mythic, lost cause narrative that resonates with other Germans, enflaming a resistant pride that complicates American occupation objectives.

The Americans themselves must share some of the blame for the locals’ refractory attitude. The German judge and prosecutor in this case possess no legal training, having received the military government’s backing solely because of their “political integrity.” Many in the legal profession had lost their positions because of their past ties to the Nazis. The court’s legitimacy is then open to question, particularly with a young judge who is “unfitted…for this or any other role which the Occupation might authorize him to play” (256). The prosecutor, with “sharp, sad features,” is not even a local, but a refugee from Rostock, a part of the communist German Democratic Republic (255). His alien background and accent only arouse the spectators’ hostility. The sole witness against the defendant, an antifascist editor who had suffered while in Nazi hands, presents a chubby figure with thick glasses and a strangely high-pitched voice resulting from having his windpipe broken from beatings administered at Dachau, the guards literally having tried to crush his freedom of speech. To the crowd, the grotesque sights and sounds of inwardly conscientious men are no match for the superficially genteel yet morally bankrupt defendant.

As the German audience grows more restive in its catcalls and mocking laughter, the judge cannot control its rising indignation and clears the courtroom when someone shouts in ultimate defiance, “Heil Hitler!” (259). Denazification is a travesty because the court, rather than the defendant, is on trial. Just as perverse, the spectators, the real grotesques here, already exercised their democratic obligations by supporting the gentleman-editor, to them an appealing figure of past Nazi identity and authority. Rod Murray, shocked and helpless at this outcome, can only stand in sympathy alongside the judge, prosecutor, and witness as they watch everyone else triumphantly disperse. This exit of recalcitrant Germans that the young American sees is a maddening replay of events from the earlier mentioned town halls. To Boyle, the intertwined processes of democratization and denazification simply have failed.

 The story focuses as well on the crippling after effects of war on German artists and intellectuals. When Murray gets assigned to provide entertainment for a US military official’s farewell party, or Aufwiedersehen Abend (“farewell evening”) as he phrases it in his “imitation German” (249), he comes across a macabre variety of dancers and musicians. A headmistress of a dancing school, where he hopes to hire performers, presents a chilling figure, a medieval-like personage with mysterious shape-shifting powers. The woman is not only “stooped, bowed and evil,” something akin to “a bird of prey” (250), but she also likes to keep time to music “by tapping her wooden leg, or her cloven hoof, or her broomstick” (253). Unlike the antifascist grotesques from the denazification trial, who at least attempt to come to terms with their nation’s abhorrent past, the old schoolmistress grumbles about the loss of “a big house in Hamburg, with three fine reception rooms, all good enough for royalty” (249). The dancers whom Murray eventually hires from the schoolmistress, a young man and his wife, are so diminutive and frail from malnourishment that he initially mistakes them for children. As they entertain the faceless crowd of American officials and their spouses, Murray and the revelers are sickened by the performers’ appearance, “for they were far too thin to making this spectacle of themselves.” During a highlight of the dance, the young woman’s “bony stalks of her white arms lifted, like the arms of those who already perished reaching from the grave” (272). So discomforting is the performance, the sight of emaciated dancers amid the gaiety of well-fed Americans, that no one in the gathering can look at them. Such is the ghastly state of postwar Germany and its arts.

Three musicians accompany the dancers, and not until Murray converses with the unnamed violinist among them does the young American realize the possibilities for reconfiguring his own perceptions of war and its consequences. The violinist, similar in age to Murray, stands out from the rest of the entertainers because his philosophical demeanor transcends material wants or a broader sense of national desolation. He alone “looked up and smiled at the sight of the wisteria, and the hanging silver cardboard stars” in the reception hall (268), his delight stirred by a heightened awareness of the approaching spring and thus of rejuvenation. That he is a musician, a poet, and a medical student signifies his power to heal both physically and spiritually. Like the aged exile from “Frankfurt in Our Blood,” the violinist carries wartime hurts but also precious knowledge gained from them. For the old refugee in the previous story, her memories of intellectuals and artists in prewar Germany have an incandescent power to overcome postwar darkness and despair. The musician here conveys to Murray the possibilities for both German and American redemption. The revelation lies in his disfigured face, nearly half scarred and scooped out from wounds sustained during an air raid, but which is, ironically, “the look of sincerity in other men’s faces” that Murray had been seeking (246). Boyle associates the violinist’s horrific countenance with Germany’s intellectual past and present, first comparing it to a “lonely statue of Schiller” and then as a “classic, rather noble head” that yet revealed “the face of a broken statue” (269). Schiller the poet embodies the history of German artistic achievement, and the violinist certainly recalls this past. At the same time, the musician also represents what is possible; that while mutilated by war, he maintains the poetic sensibilities inherited from Schiller.

Explaining this phenomenon further, the violinist merges poetic and medical imagery that not only provides hope for the future but also contests past Nazi efforts to militarize German society. He suggests to Murray that when recovering from a reparative operation, “a man’s face does not stay the way that surgery makes it” (270). After a few months, the face physically changes to reflect a person’s inner being. Even if an army surgeon works on a wounded soldier and provides this patient with “a warrior’s face,” one embraced by the Nazi war machine, that visage will still transform itself back to “a poet’s face” with “the old mark of loneliness on it” (270-71). Boyle’s wording again evokes a comparison of the violinist to the “lonely statue” of Schiller, one disregarded in the march to war. The statue’s hard surface, however, becomes in this latter metaphor a malleable blending of bone, muscle, and tissue that settles into another artistic form. Broken as the musician’s face is, it shuns being “a warrior’s face,” revealing the tenacious survival of poetry and art over the Nazis’ desire for military conquest. Indeed the violinist’s contention returns to mind the duality of German behavior that captured Boyle’s interest when covering Heinrich Baab’s trial, in which she juxtaposes German abilities for military violence with musical innovation. In the concluding tale, the internal struggles of the nation between the warrior and the poet, embodied in the violinist’s features, disclose the power and potential of art emerging victorious.

The violinist’s example gains resonance when the young American suddenly realizes that this wounded face, revealing to him the “sincerity of other men’s faces,” may have been the consequence of a bombing raid in which he had participated. Inwardly processing this information, Murray in the end desires that “if the others, the Germans and the Americans alike, were to go away and leave them together for a little while, it was possible that something quite simple and comprehensible might still be said” (272). The story’s last line serves as a fitting summary of Boyle’s attitude toward American-German relations in the early postwar era. Although the conversation between Murray and the violinist is more anticipated than actual, it highlights Boyle’s guarded hope for a more pronounced presence of artistic and intellectual sensibilities in the reconstruction of Germany. Like the young American woman in “Frankfurt in Our Blood,” Murray experiences a slight alteration in consciousness that becomes more complicated but also further enriched by a German’s visionary tale.

Here Boyle created for American readers narratives that offered prospects for a new type of alliance that coincided with, and often challenged, the nation’s strategies in its postwar global responsibilities. That both stories end with moments of unrealized possibilities creates an ambiguous, cautionary tone. Yet these conclusions speak as well to Boyle’s sympathies with those who may acquire enlightenment through the arts, sometimes in unexpected ways.

 

Works Cited

Boyle, Kay. The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany. New York: McGraw- Hill, 1950-51.

---. Fifty Stories. New York: Doubleday, 1980.

Dos Passos, John. “Report on the Occupation.” Life (11 March 1946): 104-6+.

“The GI Legacy in Germany.” Newsweek (16 June 1947): 48-50.

Giesen, Bernhard. Intellectuals and the German Nation: Collective Identity in an Axial Age. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Lasky, Melvin J. “Berlin Letter.” Partisan Review (Jan. 1948): 60-8.

Moore, Harry T. “In Germany the Ruins Still Smolder.” New York Times Book Review (22 April 1951): 208.

Morgan, Edward P. “Heels Among the Heroes.” Collier’s (19 Oct. 1946): 16-17+.

“The Quarter’s Polls.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 11 (1947): 277-318.

Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Sondern, Frederic Jr. “We Are Bungling the Job in Germany.” Reader’s Digest (Feb. 1946): 87-92.

Spanier, Sandra Whipple. Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986.

Strunk, Mildred, ed. “The Quarter’s Polls.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 12 (1948-49): 754-783.

Uehling, Edward M. “Tails, You Lose: Kay Boyle’s War Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 34 (1988): 375-383.

 

 
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