9th May 2009
Stephen Spender was one of a group of highly influential left-wing writers and artists who came to prominence in Britain in the 1930s, including W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood. After the war he was a notable public intellectual, editor of the magazine Encounter, and received numerous honours and awards, including Poet Laureate of the United States in 1965, and a knighthood in Britain in 1983.
In more recent years his reputation as a poet has declined. See for example this review, in the electronic magazine Slate, of a recent biography of Spender:
“Fairly or unfairly, Spender's reputation as a toady has steadily consolidated, while his reputation as a poet has steadily declined.”
I am no expert on Spender and can’t comment on whether this view of his poetry and personality is justified or not, but I’ve recently read his book European Witness, an account of two visits he made to Germany immediately after the Second World War, in July and August, and September and October 1945.
In some ways, European Witness tells a similar story to other British and American accounts of Germany after the war, such as Patrick Gordon-Walker’s The Lid Lifts, and Humphrey Jennings’ documentary film ‘A Defeated People’, but Spender seemed to have had a knack of making explicit, what other observers alluded to but rarely, if ever, said directly.
I’ve written on this blog before, about the shock many British observers felt at the scale of destruction in Germany - far worse than anything at home. It wasn’t just the physical destruction of the cities they found shocking, but the apparent collapse and demoralization of the people. Humphrey Jennings expressed this in stark terms in a letter he wrote to his wife Cicely, when filming in Germany in September 1945:
“… the problem of the German character and nation … seeing, watching, working with the Germans en masse – terrified, rabbit-eyed, over-willing, too friendly, without an inch of what we call character among a thousand … a nation of near zombies with all the parts of human beings but really no soul – no oneness of personality to hold the parts together and shine out of the eyes. The eyes indeed are the worst the most telltale part – no shine, often no focus – the mouth drawn down with overwork and over-determination …”
Jennings was unusual in expressing this so directly and visually. Spender, writing in European Witness, a book for publication, was more literary, but some of the language he used - parasites sucking at a dead corpse - was just as vivid:
“Now it requires a real effort of the imagination to think back to that Cologne which I knew well ten years ago. Everything has gone. In this the destruction of Germany is quite different from even the worst that has happened in England (though not different from Poland and from parts of Russia). In England there are holes, gaps and wounds, but the surrounding life of the people themselves has filled them up, creating a scar which will heal. In towns such as Cologne and those of the Ruhr, something quite different has happened. The external destruction is so great that it cannot be healed and the surrounding life of the rest of the country cannot flow into and resuscitate the city which is not only battered but also dismembered and cut off from the rest of Germany and from Europe. The ruin of the city is reflected in the internal ruin of its inhabitants who, instead of being lives that can form a scar over the city’s wounds, are parasites sucking at a dead carcase, digging among the ruins for hidden food, doing business at their black market near the Cathedral - the commerce of destruction instead of production.
The people who live there seem quite dissociated from Cologne. They resemble rather a tribe of wanderers who have discovered a ruined city in a desert and who are camping there, living in the cellars and hunting amongst the ruins for the booty, relics of a dead civilization.
The great city looks like a corpse and stinks like one also, with all the garbage which has not been cleared away, all the bodies still buried under heaps of stones and iron.”
It’s easy now, looking back with hindsight, to think that reconstruction and economic recovery – the economic miracle - followed almost inevitably from the ruins of war. For contemporary British observers in 1945, it was very far from obvious. Their expectation was the opposite - that what had been destroyed was lost for ever and could never be rebuilt. According to Spender this sense of hopelessness, and despair at the future, affected the occupiers, as well as the occupied:
“The effect of these corpse-towns is a grave discouragement which influences everyone living and working in Germany, the occupying forces as much as the German. The destruction is serious in more senses than one. It is a climax of deliberate effort, an achievement of our civilization, the most striking result of co-operation between nations in the twentieth century. It is the shape created by our century as the Gothic cathedral is the shape created by the Middle Ages…. The city is dead and the inhabitants only haunt the cellars and basements. Without the city they are rats in the cellars, or bats wheeling around the towers of the cathedral…. The destruction of the city itself, with all its past as well as its present, is like a reproach to the people who go on living there.”
It made him feel sick, as he described in a chapter in the book, entitled Nausea:
“A few days later, I experienced a sensation which is as difficult to describe as a strong taste or a disagreeable smell or a violent action, because, although it was a mental condition, its effects were so physical. It is worth endeavouring to describe however, because although I may have felt this rather more acutely than others, I believe that the condition is a mental one which is partly the result of the occupation, and from which many people in the occupying Armies suffer. Other people would probably explain the horror – the longing to get away at all costs – which affects the majority of the members of the Forces occupying Germany as a result of the ruined surroundings, the lack of entertainment and the generally depressing atmosphere. But I think that subtler and deeper than this is a sense of hopelessness which is bred of the relationship of Occupiers and Occupied.
The first symptoms of the illness were violent homesickness accompanied by a sensation of panic that I would never get out of Germany…. Such sensations are acuter than most physical pain and, although they do not last, whilst they go on it is of little use telling oneself, what is most certainly true, that one will be better to-morrow, because they have the force of a vision…”
In some ways therefore, although the war had ended and Nazi Germany had been defeated, things were no better than they had been before. The ambitions of modern nation states, the destructive power of war, and the possible consequences of this in the future for everyone, for the victors as well as for the defeated, were starkly obvious in the ruins of the German cities and a demoralised and hopeless people. The Cologne and Berlin of today could all too easily be the London, Paris or Brussels of tomorrow. According to Spender, there was no German problem now, only the problem of the disunity of the Allies.
“Germany, instead of being a place where the ‘German problem’ is being solved has become a scene where the disunity of the Allies is projected and one more demonstration of the fact that modern states were incapable, during what is called peace, of sacrificing national sovereignty in order to avert foreseen disasters.”
The foreboding he had felt in 1931, before the rise of the Nazis, had not been dispelled by victory in war, as the potential for further and even worse destruction was all too obvious and the ruins of Germany could become the ruins of the whole of Europe. Just as there had been, in his words, “enormous power for good or for evil” in Weimar Germany, the future in 1945 was not inevitable, but required a conscious choice. In summary, as he wrote at the end of the chapter, his “sense of nausea on certain days in Bonn”, was due to:
“… a real potentiality in my environment, as vivid as the potentialities of Nazism in 1931. This was the potentiality of the ruin of Germany to become the ruins of the whole of Europe: of the people of Brussels and Paris, London and New York, to become the herds wandering in their thousands across a continent, reduced to eating scraps and grass. It was the sense as I walked along the streets of Bonn with a wind blowing putrescent dust of ruins as stinging as pepper into my nostrils, that the whole of our civilization was protected by such eggshell walls which could be blown down in a day. It was a sense of two futures within modern humanity, like the two worlds within Faust’s breast, one a future of confidence between people in a world of such happiness as can reasonably be organized within the conditions of human existence, the other a world given over to destruction and hatred. Both these potentialities were real: but the constructive one required resolution, unity, will, acceptance of guilt, and a conscious choice to determine our future, the destructive one was to be got by going on as we have done now ever since 1918.”
(London: Hamish Hamilton, 1946)
For other views of Stephen Spender see:
John Xiros Cooper
“The Crow on the Crematorium Chimney”: Germany, Summer, 1945
'Stephen Spender's Jewish roots'
Stephen Spender, Toady: Was there any substance to his politics and art?