book review - linder
Princes of the Trenches: Narrating the German Experience of the First World War. By Ann P. Linder. Columbia, SC: Camden House. Pp. 205. £38.00.
What is it about German War literature that makes it seem so strange to the average English reader? So strange that beyond Remarque's classic Im Westen Nichts Neues it remains, despite the republication of Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel in 1994, virtually unknown outside Germany. Ann Linder's answer is that Britain and Germany developed different "national myths" about the War. She suggests that the German myth of comradeship and spiritual development in the trenches, especially when read in the aftermath of the Third Reich, has lead an Anglophone world brought up on Owens and Sassoon to reject and avoid this crucial area of literary production. In response, Linder has set herself the task of rescuing these texts from obscurity and making them comprehensible by setting them in their cultural and historical context. However, the context she sets them in is a little too homogenous. She argues that German culture consisted almost solely of a Romantic, völkisch irrationalism, obsessed with Erlebnis and Bildung, convinced with an Idealist fervour of its own spiritual superiority. This is surely to exaggerate the role of one vociferous, albeit substantial, aspect of Wilhelmine society in order to ease an integrative account of the war narratives. Admittedly, as Linder shows with her thorough account of an impressive range of German war narrative, both autobiographical and fictional, there is much that unites the Remarques and the Jüngers, the Renns and the Schauweckers - the hatred for the Etappenschwein, the desolation of industrialised warfare, a positive notion of personal change and the insistence that somehow it all had to be invested with meaning. However, her wide ranging analysis strives a little too hard to fit these disparate authors into an overly narrow, unitary account of German culture and she consequently tends to blur the considerable differences between the writers she examines. Even her most perceptive chapter which addresses the issue of literary form and the overwhelming popularity of the Bildungsroman for war prose insists on integrating this form into an organicist whole. Indeed, Linder seems at times to be taking the conservatives' insistence on one culture at face value and producing it for them in retrospect. It is only in her last chapter that she deals with the fact that most of these books were produced in the charged political atmosphere of the late Weimar republic and thus finally confronts their differences. It is a feeling for the complex and subtle relationship of experience, memory, politics and writing that is missing from this otherwise thoroughly researched book which, does, in the end, succeed in presenting a readable and accessible study of a little known area to an English speaking readership.
© John King, 2017. Last updated Thu, 20th May 2010.