Walter Kempowski

Photo: Walter Kempowski /public domain
I’d never heard of Walter Kempowski until this fall. Coinciding with Remembrance Day, I’ve now finished my third book by this noted German author, who is relatively unknown in the English world. The first novel I read, in the original German, was released in 1992. Mark und Bein tells the story of a young journalist, Jonathan, who takes advantage of an opportunity to follow a road race throughout parts of Poland that once belonged to East Prussia. Having done my own cycle trip through parts of the former East Prussia, I was immediately hooked. With a strong undercurrent of wit and irony, the author contrasts the bitter history of a lost East Prussia with the ramshackle present, still caught in a bit of a time warp.  I loved the characters, the tone, the setting and the issues and so I had to read some more.

Günther Grass Blaues Sofa 
Next, I read Kempowski’s All for Nothing which was originally published in Germany in 2006 as Alles Umsonst.  Again set in East Prussia, this book focuses on the last months of the war. It’s a time period and a location that I’ve become familiar with through my own research and family memories. My new book, coming out next spring, begins at the end of the war. For Germans, the end of the war was difficult. Hitler might have committed suicide, but the German people had to figure out how to live with their shame and loss. 

All for Nothing has put Walter Kempowski, alongside Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll, as one of the great novelists exploring Germany’s experiences of the Second World War.  Böll has long been one of my absolute favourite German writers. Both he and Grass received the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Böll in 1972 and Grass in 1999). Kempowski was supposedly disappointed that he didn't receive that particular award, however, he got many others. It's been thirty years since I've been so engrossed in books by German authors, ever since I finished my MA in German back in the eighties, and it's a treat to revisit these authors, those times and to discover new German authors.

Heinrich Böll Bundesarchiv,
B 145 Bild-F062164-0004 / Hoffmann, Harald / CC-BY-SA 3.0

I finished Kempowski’s Swansong 1945 in the final hours of Remembrance Day. This book is not a novel. It’s a collection of diaries entries from people as diverse as Field Marshal Keitel and Hitler, to Thomas Mann, Albert Schweitzer and unknown prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors and an international motley of prisoners of war. The diary entries are limited to 3 days:  April 20th, (Hitler’s 56th birthday), April 30th, (Hitler’s suicide) and May 9th (capitulation). At one point, I almost stopped reading. The entries are so disjointed and the material so dark, that I felt stuck. But I’m glad I kept going because it’s the juxtaposition of entries that gives the book its power. It’s the kind of Second World War resource that I can see myself returning to again and again. However, there are more Kempowski books to read and I am quite grateful to have discovered his work. Swan Song 1945 is only the final chapter (more than 400 pages) of Echolot (English: Echo Soundings), a ten-volume chronicle that he produced, documenting personal reflections on the Second World War. 

Walter Kempowski was born in Rostock in 1929 and died in 2007.  As a youth, he spent eight years in Soviet custody for supporting American efforts at the end of the war.  His efforts to collect such diverse points of view make his work both incredibly humble and powerful. 


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