Aftermath of Totalitarianism in Germany

The intent of this paper is to gain an insider’s perspective of the aftermath of totalitarianism in Germany through the examination of the literary works of Thomas Bernhard ‘Correction’ and Paul Celan’s poems such as; ‘Aspen tree’, ‘Nearness of graves’, ‘Fugue of death’ and ‘There was earth’.

Insider’s Perspective of the Aftermath of Totalitarianism in Germany

Upon examining Thomas Bernhard’s ‘correction’, one is drawn to a supposition that its central theme of ‘correction’, is symbolic of the deconstruction of Austria’s history so as to negate its sympathetic association with the Nazi regime, and its participation in the Nazi war, and transform it into a ‘victim’ of Nazism. The reason for this supposition is clearly seen when the main character, Roithamer, hangs himself after his sister’s dies suddenly. She dies from shock and the incestuous implications of her brother, Roithamer building a cone shaped house for her. After her death, Roithamer, inconsolable, consequently hangs himself and leaves his legacy to the narrator of the novel. Upon arrival at Hoeller’s home to collect the papers that had been willed to him by Roithamer, the narrator discovers the manuscript containing Roithamer’s legacy. The original manuscript has been corrected several times by Roithamer and has been reduced to a completely different version in its retelling of events. The narrator is quick to recognize the manuscript as a masterpiece in its entirety but he admits that it cannot be published in the state that Roithamer had left it in before his demise. The third part of the novel takes an absurd and dramatic turn as the narrator appears to get lost in attempt to make the manuscript whole again. His second person voice is completely dissolved and integrated in to Roithamer’s text as it becomes apparent that the manuscript is being ‘corrected’ once again. What follows is an obsessive recounting of the construction of the cone shaped house and an eventual rationalization of suicide.

The correction of the manuscript is symbolic of the correction of Austrian history after the fall of totalitarian rule in Germany. The Austrian government, upon realizing the extent of the wrongs committed by the tyranny of Adolf Hitler during the Nazi regime, sought to deny and silence facts about their involvement with this regime in an attempt to consolidate the Austrian society and heal the wounds of the past. They rewrote the Austrian origin and claimed that although they shared a common language with the Germans, they were not German genetically, that they had different religious beliefs and a comparatively dissimilar ancestry. The anti-Semitism of Leopold Kunshak as well as Remer’s insincere praise of Hitler were quickly rendered inconsequential in the new Austria. The Austrian Nazi criminals such as Adolf Eichmann, Odilo Globocnik and Ernst Kaltenbrunner were quickly labelled ‘German occupiers’.

This ‘correction’ of the Austrian heritage was perhaps the reason that the story line of Bernhard’s work seems so mad and absurd, it seems to draw attention to this kind of ‘correction’ that does not imply any sort of improvement but merely serves to rationalize and silence the guilt of participating in the propagation of an ideology that had such fatal and devastating consequences. As a tool to examine the aftermath of totalitarianism, Bernhard’s novel is draws the reader from the effects in Germany and takes us across the border to Austria where the aspects of their history that were regarded as insignificant in historical texts were now of vital importance in their quest to distance themselves from Germany, from totalitarianism and from facing the consequences of their sympathy towards Hitler and his ideology. The absurd nature of this ‘correction’, comes out in the obsessive way in which the narrator retells the death of Roithamer’s sister, the intent behind the construction of the cone shaped house and the reason for Roithamer’s suicide and the rationality behind it. One would think that it would have been better to admit to the folly of all the absurdities committed by Roithamer but quite to the contrary, the narrator goes to great lengths to sanitize the character of Roithamer, make him a rational and innocent victim of circumstances. This sanitation is what seems to have occurred in the rewriting of Austrian history as an aftermath of the totalitarian rule in Germany, and it is this rewritten history that created the loopholes that will haunt generations of Austrians for eternity.

Paul Celan’s on the other hand, is the embodiment of the trauma caused by totalitarian rule. In his works ‘Aspen tree’, ‘Nearness of graves’ and ‘Fugue of death, a tale of the survivor aspect of totalitarianism emerges as he is continuously haunted by a residual survivor’s guilt arising from his inability to save his parents from being assassinated by the Nazis and the guilt from his own survival, which he considers an injustice. In ‘Aspen tree’, Celan calls to the elements of nature and tries to embody them in to the image of his mother albeit in vain. The psychological torture experienced by survivors of the totalitarian regime comes out clearly in these lines,

“My mother’s heart was ripped by lead.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?

My gentle mother cannot return.”

It is clear that Celan is in a constant state of grieving for his mother and is constantly seeking to communicate with her in order to relieve himself of the guilt he suffers from letting her die so painfully when in ‘Nearness of graves’ he writes;

            “Can none of the aspens and none of the willows,

            Allow you their solace, remove all your sorrows.”

Celan also brings to light another consequence of totalitarianism especially for the surviving Jewish scholars. He is constantly facing a dilemma within himself on whether to subjugate to his mother’s assassins by continuing his use of German for his work or to embrace this language due to the fact that it was his mother’s language. This state of dilemma is apparent in ‘Nearness of graves’ when Celan writes,

            “Can you bear, Mother, as once on a time

            The gentle, the German, the pain laden rhyme?”

Celan, in his obsession with the German language, attempts to purge the German language of the evil and darkness it had acquired when the Nazi regime had made it an accomplice to the Nazi ideology by utilizing it in the formulation of Nazi slogans and slurs. He does thus by infusing it with the Hebrew language, the language of the people that the totalitarian regime had attempted to exterminate. Despite these attempts to make sense of his traumatic past, Celan repeatedly relives his experiences in his poems such as; ‘Fugue of death’, in which, the central themes of the torturous labor and dehumanization suffered by the Jews in concentration camps comes to life and this, shows the reader the effects of psychological distress as an aftermath of totalitarianism. In this work, Celan repeatedly references ‘black milk’ which is symbolic of the torture that the Jews underwent in the hands of the Nazi guards in concentration camps who were ruthless, brutal and cruel to the point of being cynical. He describes his experience at the concentration camp by writing about how the Nazi guards would whistle the Jews out the same way he would whistle out the dogs, command them and make them dance as they witness the execution of one of their fellow prisoners.

The dehumanization, implied by the Nazi ideology, comes across clearer in the poem ‘There was earth’, where Celan points how the Jews were denied subjectivity to the point of being left without names and with no other occupation than to dig mechanically. This kind of torturous labor haunts Celan even after the fall of totalitarianism, he repeatedly references the labor, the dehumanization and the death of his parents in an attempt to cleanse his tortured soul from the damage that an oppressive regime had left on it. Celan, wrote from a position that can best be described as the paradigm of human existence in the aftermath of the totalitarian regime in Germany. He embodied the recurring trauma experienced by Jews during their exile, dislocation, dehumanization, torture and the accompanying state of mourning in this new phase in their lives. Poets such as Celan, attempted through their poetry, to take refuge in the solace provided for by writing and benefit from the catharsis that can arise from this form of self-expression.

From his poetry, one can see that Celan suffered an overwhelming degree of obsessive paranoia and depression that became worse as he progressed in age. He was constantly grieving, sad and stuck at the moment in time where he had returned to his house and found his parents gone, when he had received the news that his mother had been killed at a concentration camp and when he himself had been subject to the inimitable vehemence of Nazi cruelty. Despite his attempt to relive his experiences through his poetry in order to offer some clarity to his situation, he fails to make sense of his trauma and its implications and eventually succumbs to it by drowning himself in the Seine at the young age of 49. His work ‘A turn of breath’, is testament of the struggle with the psychological trauma caused by the aftermath holocaust and the need to alleviate the debilitating symptoms of this trauma through reuniting with lost loved ones through death as he writes;

“With the persecuted in late,

            But unconcealed

            And radiant



From the works of Thomas Bernhard and Paul Celan, one is able to grasp, albeit slightly, at an insider’s perspective of the effects of a totalitarian rule. Bernhard’s criticism of Austria’s decision to victimize itself after the fall of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime is exemplary when he incorporates in his work a storyline that seems almost too ridiculous to believe in order to draw attention to the folly that was being committed by Austrian authorities at the time. Erasing a piece of history from literary works does not erase it from history and lies do not facilitate the healing of emotional wounds but only serve to exacerbate and prolong this process, and provides an atmosphere where these wounds reopen unexpectedly and result in a crisis within the nation. Paul Celan’s inability to escape his horrible past even through his poetry, is testament of the burden bestowed upon the survivor of a totalitarian regime and the fatal consequences of being unable to bear this heavy burden.

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