Occupation/Liberation: Cultural Representations of 1944-45 and its Legacy

Three members of the ‘Beyond Enemy Lines’ team recently comprised a panel at a conference at the University of Bristol which focused on the themes of occupation and liberation at the end of World War II. The conference sought, inter alia, to salvage some of the complexities of the various occupations and liberations as registered in literary artefacts from the period. At first glance our panel might have appeared anomalous – most of the other papers were concerned with literary representations of occupation and liberation by/from the Nazi Germany, whereas the King’s panel tried to give some sense of the German experience of liberation from the Nazis and of the supervening Allied occupation. However, it was fascinating to see that in France and America in the period immediately after the war, writers like Jean Genet, the Hussards and Norman Mailer railed against their governments’ self-serving anti-German propagandistic renderings of the liberation of Europe from the Nazi yoke. These critical authors proffered alternative narratives of the period; however, their work was suppressed, and, in some instances, the authors persecuted.

Each of the ‘Beyond Enemy Lines’ papers offered responses to aspects of the Anglo-American occupation – the response of a returning Jewish film maker, the response of the German audience to a Dickens adaptation, and the response of one of the leading German cultural critics. Lara Feigel’s paper discussed Billy Wilder’s return to Germany in the service of the liberating and occupying US forces. It considered Wilder’s relationship to Germany and the Germans by examining the circumstances leading to his volte-face vis a vis the Germans (within two months Wilder went from wanting to teach the Germans a lesson to wanting to make a film to entertain them). Feigel argued that A Foreign Affair is both a cinematic response to occupation, and an act of liberation. Emily Oliver offered another perspective on the occupation of Germany through film by discussing the screening of David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) in the British zone. The release of the film in Germany led to riots due to the anti-Semitic characterisation of Fagin – Alec Guinness wears heavy make-up and a prosthetic nose resembling the anti-Semitic sketches of the character which accompanied the first edition of Dickens’ book. Despite the fact that one of the aims of the occupation was denazification, the depiction of one of the film’s main characters seemed to reinforce Nazi stereotypes of Jews. Through the prism of Anglophone and Germanophone cultural criticism from T.S.Eliot and E.R. Curtius, my own paper furnished another perspective on the occupation. While their countries waged a savage war, Eliot and Curtius enjoyed both a personal and professional relationship based on mutual respect and shared intellectual interests and objectives. Things turned somewhat sour, however, after the war, when Eliot slighted Germany’s great Olympian, J.W. von Goethe. Curtius suspected that Eliot’s irreverence was political and responded by upbraiding his erstwhile intellectual ally and charging him with ignorance and an unwillingness to engage with foreign cultures, especially the culture of the country which Britain and America were then occupying.

These papers complicate the narrative of occupation and liberation in Europe as a simplistic story of the triumph of good over evil. Returnee artists sent to Germany, like Billy Wilder, for example, found themselves at odds with the policies of their governments. The ‘democratising’, ‘denazifying’ cultural products which the allied occupiers and offered up to German citizens was not always accepted as such, as in the case of Lean’s film. Furthermore, while Ernst Robert Curtius welcomed the Allied victory over the Nazis and the occupation as an opportunity to finally end Germany’s cultural isolation, he was ultimately disappointed with what he perceived as a continued lack of openness to other cultures on the part of the liberators.

Bristol, September 2014