London Conference

For two days, the project team at King’s College London gathered together a group of international experts from disciplines as varied as history, fine art, music, literature, and film to present their latest work and shed new light on culture in the British and American zones of occupied Germany immediately after the Second World War.

Lara Feigel introduced the different strands of work currently in progress on the Beyond Enemy Lines project: Feigel’s latest book, The Bitter Taste of Victory (Bloomsbury, January 2016), examines the cultural transformation of Germany during the occupation period. By tracing the involvement of individuals such as Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, W.H. Auden, Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, and Stephen Spender in the occupation effort, Feigel examines the phenomenon of “outsider rubble literature” and these figures’ increasing disillusionment with developments in postwar Germany.

Elaine Morley’s strand of the project focuses on the role of cultural organizations such as PEN and UNESCO in the postwar cultural reconstruction efforts. Examining individuals who were central to the founding of these organizations and their subsequent work in occupied Germany, Morley finds that several of them acted as “reverse cultural diplomats” – originally sent to Germany to promote other nations’ cultural achievements, but in fact focusing increasingly on explaining German culture to readers and audiences back home. Her conference contribution highlighted UNESCO’s initial difficulties in gaining access to occupied Germany, and the problematic notion of transferring the victors’ culture onto the defeated.

Emily Oliver is investigating cultural life within the British and American zones of occupation by examining contemporary newspaper and journal articles. Each chapter of her monograph places a case study from a different cultural medium (literature, film, theatre, and radio) in relation to its contemporary social, political, and economic context. As an example of this, Oliver’s conference paper focused on the enormous popularity of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind among women in occupied Germany, analysing what led many women to identify with the protagonist, and what the reading experience may have offered them during the hardships of the occupation period.

The two PhD students on the project are furthering their work on literature and film during the occupation: While Julia Vossen is conducting a comparative study of German and English rubble literature in the immediate postwar period, Hanja Dämon is examining the difficult and contradictory new beginnings of the German film industry under British and American occupation.

The first panel of the conference focused on “Refashioning German Identity” through film (Daniel Wolpert), music (Abby Anderton), and anthropological writing (Sabine Kalff). Drawing on examples such as the early DEFA film Woyzeck, concert performances of Beethoven, and Margaret Boveri’s controversial Amerikafibel, participants discussed the difficulties in tracing reception of particular works through source material such as images, reviews, diaries, and letters. The panel also offered an opportunity to contrast the degree of political involvement for different cultural media, as well as their target audiences.

Stephen Brockmann presented the first keynote lecture on “Establishing Cultural Fronts in East and West Germany” by unpicking two commonly held postwar beliefs: 1) that culture was transformative, 2) that culture itself was in need of transformation. Brockmann showed that the Kulturbund, led by figures who had survived both Nazism and Stalinist purges, initially pursued a Popular Front strategy which sought to avoid differences among left-wing factions, until the German Writer’s Congress of 1947 caused a long-term rift, cementing the divide between East and West.

On the panel “Images of Occupation”, art historian John-Paul Stonard discussed the public resistance to modern art in postwar Germany, and the concomitant need to rehabilitate artists who had suffered under the Third Reich. Werner Sollors presented the highly contradictory uses of the Fragebogen (questionnaire) as a denazification tool, which based the degree of Germans’ involvement with the regime not on their actions, but on membership in Nazi organisations. Meanwhile, Giles MacDonogh tackled the vexed question of what to do with surviving Nazi art, such as paintings and the statuary from the Reichskanzlei – a question which continues to plague modern-day Germany.

Under the rubric “Literary Circulation”, Chris Knowles showed the cultural interactions involved in creating postwar German news magazines such as Heute and Der Spiegel, based on their American and British precursors Time, Life, and News Review. Focusing on one of the most prominent examples of postwar literature, Wolfgang Borchert’s play Draußen vor der Tür (The Man Outside), Erwin Warkentin examined the different acts of British censorship involved in transforming the script into a radio play deemed appropriate for German audiences.

Jennifer Fay’s keynote lecture on the topic of “Film Style and Democratic Fictions” tackled head-on the question of what constitutes “democratic art”. Contrasting the US film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with the German Der Apfel ist ab (1948), Fay carefully distinguished between form and content, examining the ways in which both films deal with choice as the bedrock of democratic fiction.

The conference closed with reflections on “A European Germany” in the aftermath of the Second World War. Helmut Peitsch and Dirk Wiemann’s work demonstrated how anti-fascism was gradually transformed into anti-totalitarianism over the course of several cultural conferences during the postwar period.

We would like to thank all participants for their great variety of contributions, which made for productive and stimulating discussions. The organisers are now busy gathering together the conference proceedings in two special issues of journals: a 2016 issue of Comparative Critical Studies on “The Transformative Power of Culture in Occupied Germany” (ed. Elaine Morley and Lara Feigel), and a 2017 issue of German Life and Letters under the title “Peddling Fictions in Occupied Germany” (ed. Emily Oliver and Lara Feigel).

In the meantime, we are already planning our next conference, which will take place in Venice in the summer of 2016!