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Special Topics in Liberal Studies
Ruth Schwertfeger, Professor, FLL/German / 414.229.4547

From the Ruins: Tracing and Reweaving Stories of War

Shortly after the Second World War ended, Heinrich Boll who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature famously declared that the task of German writers was to find redemption in the ruins. While it is true that the burden of history fell particularly hard on German writers, after the full extent of atrocities committed under the Nazi regime became public the business of making sense of the war became a major preoccupation for artists and intellectuals in every nation that was touched directly or indirectly by the war. Though it would be impossible to cover the spectrum of material globally, it is possible to look at how representative figures in three nations—Germany, France, and the US—have processed the story of the war over the past half century.

The focus of our seminar will be interdisciplinary in approach and include representations from literature—fiction, memoirs, poetry—social and military histories, as well as readings from philosophy, psychology, and theory of translation. The unifying factor will be a search for the threads, often redemptive, that have shaped the larger tapestry of the war and its enduring impact.

In general, post-war literature of the mid-1940s and 1950s shows a tendency to construct stories that present a binary view of history—e.g. a "good" and "bad" France where resisters are pitted against collaborators, or Nazi Germany as a monolith of villains that was finally brought to trial at Nuremberg by the heroic Allies. We will examine how historians in the late 1960s and 1970s challenged the model of competing histories and investigate the implications that these confrontations with the past exercised on the telling of war stories.

One of the questions that we want to address in documents published in the US is: in what ways does translation affect the reception of war stories? This is particularly relevant to translations from German and French that were widely distributed in the US. We will read from philosopher Walter Benjamin's theory of translation to help navigate meaning and text. Some translations into English were further appropriated by Hollywood or Broadway and emerged with brand new threads. The most egregious example in the Anne Frank story, which was given an optimistic thrust deemed appropriate in the prevailing zeitgeist of the 1950s. This was also true for translations of German author Franz Werfel, whose play about the occupation of France was transformed so cheerfully on the American stage that Werfel himself had to intervene. Does this reflect an obsessive desire to find "redemption in the ruins" even in the US?

A more recent phenomenon is the existence of two versions of the same story. The current film Valkyrie, starring Hollywood icon Tom Cruise, presents the story of an attempt to assassinate Hitler. Its German alternative is the memoir of Marion von Yorck (now in English translation) who tells the story of the plot from an inside perspective. We will examine other examples which show that the telling of these stories is complex, multifaceted, and ongoing. The recent issue of a letter from Kurt Vonnegut to his father sheds new light on his earlier masterpiece about the firebombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five. Likewise, Gunter Grass's admission of membership as a youth in the SS has spawned fierce debate about his earlier works that were unequivocally moral in tone, thereby begging the question: does Grass's admission change how we read his writings?

Sample Texts: Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator; Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome; W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants; Studs Terkel, The Good War; Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect.

Thursday, 6:00-8:40pm
Curtin 939

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