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The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans

av Dagmar Barnouw

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Sixty years after the defeat of the Nazis and the discovery of Auschwitz, the impact of WWII on the German people remains a subject that is difficult to broach in public discourse. The experiences of Germans civilians were little studied, as if the memories of the defeated were not deserving of preservation. In Germany 1945, an examination of Allied photography of postwar Germany, Dagmar Barnouw demonstrated one of the means by which the victors sought to impose the burden of responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust on the German people as a whole. Now, in The War in the Empty Air, she demonstrates how deeply that narrative took hold and the silence it imposed. In Germany, the re-emergence of memories of wartime suffering is being met with intense public debate. In the United States, the recent translation and publication of Crabwalk by Günter Grass and The Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald offer evidence that these submerged memories are surfacing. Taking account of these developments, Barnouw examines this debate about the validity and importance of German memories of war and the events that have occasioned it. Steering her path between the notions of "victim" and "perpetrator," Barnouw seeks a place where acknowledgment of both the horror of Auschwitz and the suffering of the non-Jewish Germans can, together, create a more complete historical remembrance for postwar generations. Dagmar Barnouw is Professor of German and Comparative Literature, University of Southern California, and author of Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity, Germany 1945, and Naipaul's Strangers (all Indiana University Press), among other books of cultural criticism.… (mer)
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Tacked on to the end of Dagmar Barnouw's analyses of photographs taken during the immediate aftermath of Germany's defeat in World War II is a chapter on the Historikerstreit of the late 1980s and 1990s. It is by far the best chapter in the book, except for the forced exegesis of Amos Oz' Fima, which is tacked on to this tacked on chapter. It gets to the heart of the matter about which Barnouw was most concerned. Should the Holocaust be considered a sanctified historical event beyond all subsequent interpretation or historiographical study? Barnouw herself is firmly placed in what would be considered the revisionist camp. And her photographic analysis is case #1 in her argument.

Barnouw goes to great lengths to promote what she sees as an alternative to the traditional reading of postwar Germany and its people. She wants their suffering acknowledged and the common postwar reading of German attitudes as "arrogant, indifferent, and unvanquished" to be seen as "stunned, fearful, and unsure" of the future. How she goes about it is taking the postwar still photos of US Army Signal Corps photographers, professional celebrity photographers (such as Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White) and German photographers and re-visioning them to demonstrate her thesis. Unfortunately, in doing so, she takes an entirely subjective point of view in her analyses. Her examination of the photos can easily be read from a different perspective. And her formal analysis, which eschews the critical language of photographic analysis, is often simply wrong. The composition and line of sight and vectoring of photos does not lead where she says it does. And she inadequately deals with issues of foregrounding, perspectivism, vanishing points, depth of field, and off camera space, all of which are missing entirely from her work. Finally, she fails to examine just what drove, for example, US Army photographic units' rules of composition and framing. There was no exploration of army field manuals, technical manuals, or equipment manuals pertaining to Signal Corps photography. She does not seem to realize that the first army manual on this subject actually predates the Spanish-American War. Instead, Barnouw creates stories. Some of them are intriguing and appealing. But much of it is imagined in her head and present no place else.

A final word on the Historikerstreit. There seems to be some sort of consensus that the study of Nazi Germany has always revolved around the Holocaust, at least until the so-called conflict among German historians beginning in the mid 1980s. I think this is a misreading and that Barnouw is forgetting the initial studies on the topic that were dominant from the late 1940s until the mid 1970s, when, indeed, there was a shift to what Barnouw would call transhistorical centering on the Holocaust. But before that, historians such as Gerhard Ritter, Edmond Vermeil, Alan Bullock, Gordon Craig, Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., Wolfgang Sauer, and even Ralf Dahrendorf and David Schoenbaum were concentrated on the How and Why of Nazism, not the Holocaust itself. Barnouw makes no mention of these historians or their positions and theses. For that, her work seems fundamentally flawed. ( )
  PaulCornelius | Apr 12, 2020 |
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Sixty years after the defeat of the Nazis and the discovery of Auschwitz, the impact of WWII on the German people remains a subject that is difficult to broach in public discourse. The experiences of Germans civilians were little studied, as if the memories of the defeated were not deserving of preservation. In Germany 1945, an examination of Allied photography of postwar Germany, Dagmar Barnouw demonstrated one of the means by which the victors sought to impose the burden of responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust on the German people as a whole. Now, in The War in the Empty Air, she demonstrates how deeply that narrative took hold and the silence it imposed. In Germany, the re-emergence of memories of wartime suffering is being met with intense public debate. In the United States, the recent translation and publication of Crabwalk by Günter Grass and The Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald offer evidence that these submerged memories are surfacing. Taking account of these developments, Barnouw examines this debate about the validity and importance of German memories of war and the events that have occasioned it. Steering her path between the notions of "victim" and "perpetrator," Barnouw seeks a place where acknowledgment of both the horror of Auschwitz and the suffering of the non-Jewish Germans can, together, create a more complete historical remembrance for postwar generations. Dagmar Barnouw is Professor of German and Comparative Literature, University of Southern California, and author of Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity, Germany 1945, and Naipaul's Strangers (all Indiana University Press), among other books of cultural criticism.

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