Authors of historical novels seek to highlight and deepen a moment in history, whether through the eyes of an ordinary individual, a historical figure, or an observer. At times these authors take on the perspective of a Nazi or slave owner by choosing a protagonist who rubs against historical conventions. The protagonists of these novels aren’t by necessity less sympathetic for their misguided sensibilities, but their creation requires a special sensitivity to historical events, research, and issues of craft. The author’s governing intelligence must be evident throughout the telling of the novelthe extent to which the author intrudes upon the story can vary. The author who takes on the inimical point of view, particularly regarding World War II, has to question and support his or her choice of material. The act of defining the inimical is difficult. In order to label someone inimical, one has to assume one is on the correct side of empirical moral law, the bright side of justice. To the Nazis, Bolshevists, Jews, Freemasons and others were inimical, even villainous. The Nazis were convinced of their moral rectitude, riding into battle with belt buckles imprinted with Gott Mit Uns or God Is With Us. Ridding Germany of Jews was not simply a matter of convenience to them, but a cleansing of Germany’s society and, in turn, its soul.
A Nazi protagonist who acts in accordance with the conventions of his time is inimical to uspersecuting Jews, participating in and encouraging violence against the innocent, supporting the National Socialist agenda. But within the expectations of National Socialism, he is behaving within its moral boundaries. One could argue that the very act of delineating inimical from “correct” is a judgment lacking nuance. One of the lessons of the horrors of World War II is the sad example of what is decidedly acceptable for a society and what is not. For the purposes of this paper, the definition of inimical is seen through the long lens of history rather than through the micro-focus of the characters’ perspectives. Both Ella Leffland and Heinrich Böll have chosen the inimical point of view to illuminate World War II Germany through the eyes of the guilty, risking misinterpretation, narrator-author confusion, or outright condemnation.
The first question all novelists should ask themselves, but historical novelists employing an inimical narrator in particular, is what is to be gained by telling this story? How can one balance this story so that the victims’ plight is not overlooked? And what effect is this story going to have on the reader? Both Böll and Leffland have grappled with these questions, resulting in strong, complex, and challenging literature.
The Devil and Ella Leffland
In The Knight, Death and the Devil, Ella Leffland combines the ordinary individual, the observer, and the historical figure in Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. In doing so, she creates a multifaceted and emotionally involving novel. Göring emerges as not only a compelling protagonist in a story, but also as a historical figure, replete with moral complexity and faced with choices that defined him during the Third Reich. By placing Göring himself against the background of German history, she deepens the reader’s understanding of not so much how Göring was shaped in a kind of psuedo-psychological cause-and-effect exercise, but how he was cultivated by the circumstances of his upbringing, how the person he was becoming was groomed by the culture of Germany in the early twentieth century. The following description poignantly and effectively describes the child Göring:
It was wrong to blame the fates. He himself had sunk into a swamp of sentimentality and indulgence, and the boy was now horribly spoiled. Not that he was a bad chapthat was the problem, you could never be angry with him, he was such a generous, good-hearted little soul, such a pleasure to be around, with his cheerful, handsome little face, so open and earnest in his waysbut headstrong, exhausting. 1
The extensive backstory of The Knight, Death and the Devil, as exemplified in the above passage, deepens the novel and places not only the reader in a fuller context, but also gives a sense of Göring’s context as well. To immerse the reader in a sense of German history beyond the world wars, Leffland begins with the eighteenth century, foreshadowing the Germany that would rise against its neighbors:
With the passage of time the surface scars sank away, but the country was horribly crippled and lagged far behind the rest of Europe. For Germany, the eighteenth century opened to a bitter sense of impotence, and to a corrosive distrust and envy of its powerful neighbors.2
Leffland could easily be describing the condition of immediate pre-World War I Germany, post-World War I Germany, or Germany in the direct aftermath of the Second World War, before the Economic Miracle. The intelligence with which Leffland crafts the novel around Göring, placing him within the larger landscape, supports her choice of point of view, but the question remains: Of all the victims of the Third Reich with their dramatic stories of escape, loss, and destruction, why would an author seek to address the conflict from the other side? Leffland’s authorial integrity provides part of the reason. Her sensitive rendering of World War II Germany through the eyes of Göring, her careful research, her intimate familiarity with both Göring and the world around him, lend the well-trodden World War II story a sense of revelation. There is much to be gained by exploring another viewparticularly one as carefully crafted as Leffland’sas a new way of seeing, a deeper understanding, a broader perspective. How better to understand the acts of the perpetrators than by inhabiting them, thinking their thoughts, working through their complexities?
Leffland has a nuanced approach to the nature of the men who perpetrated the crimes of the Holocaust. She connects Göring, who is insulated from the horrors of the Holocaust by power, yet no less culpable, and his victims, who suffered under policies he helped create and implement. For example, Leffland breaks from describing meetings between Göring and Hitler and the bombing of Cologne and Germany’s expansion into Poland with the quiet, personal account of a little girl named Ida and her family’s arrival at Auschwitz:
She felt her mother’s arm clasp her protectively to her side, so tightly that it hurt her ribs, and in the painfully crushing embrace she sensed all her mother’s sharpness of the entire day, it was the sharpness of terror. There was no sound as they walked along the sun-warmed dirt; everyone had grown absolutely silent. Inside the farm building they were handed towels and bars of soap. They went inside a large whitewashed shower room, many, many women, filling most of the room, standing crowded together with their towels and bars of soap. ‘Shall I take out my barrettes, Mutti?’ she asked. Her mother put her hand to her daughter’s head, touching the wild hair that sprang up from under the two white barrettes….Suddenly, their menfolk came pouring in through the door as naked as themselves, everything crammed and confused and horrifying as the door slammed shut and the lights went out.3
Her sensitivity is apparent in this section. Without melodrama or sentimentality, she demonstrates how the policies Göring helped implement affect even the most innocent victims. By balancing the political and personal, drawing these parallels, she is able to freely explore Göring’s consciousness without showing herself to be sympathetic to the policies of Fascism. She defines her role as the novelist by paying attention to detail, balancing Göring’s enthusiasms with their consequences, and showing the toll his policies takenot only on Jews or Germanybut on him, as well.
In writing about WWII Germany from the inimical point of view, context becomes critical. Ella Leffland shows her deep concern with context by backing up her front story with informative expository passages about German history. Her deft use of exposition keeps the reader from feeling too removed from the larger arc of the novel. She also employs the points of view of people surrounding Göring, telling his story largely through impressions and observations of friends and associates, victims and detractors, rather than from inside his experience. For example, Göring’s grief over his beloved Carin’s death is portrayed through Magda Goebbels’ point of view:
With the passage of months Göring had become more his usual outgoing self, at least superficially; for Magda knew from experience that his eyes were apt to drift away in the middle of conversation, as if into some other world, and then you were very much aware of the black mourning band around his sleeve.4
She uses a very distant narrator and large sections of expository prose to maintain the roving eye and scope of her novel. As a dispassionate exploration of Göring’s life, she inhabits his first person limited point of view only infrequently, and even then, almost cryptically. The overall effect of this technique is one of completeness, but there are moments within The Knight, Death and the Devil in which Leffland would have done well to embody Göring, climbing deeper inside him. For example, Göring is shot during the beer hall putsch of 1923:
He felt a thud against his body, another as he struck the wet paving stones, and was aware that the racketing din continued, that everyone had dropped flat, like an infantry battalion ducking as one, that through the noise there came the cries of those hit, that someone in a dark coat, Ludendorff, was getting back up, and that he himself was crawling to the side of the street, toward one of the lions, pulling himself along on his elbows, the lower half of his body dragging behind in bright, electric, paralyzing pain. 5
This defining moment for Göring and the Nazi movement requires more texture and detail than Leffland allows. The story of the Beer Hall Putsch is, in a sense, an encapsulation of the story of the rise of National Socialism in Germanya scruffy street fight of marginalized, frustrated, militaristic young men who were nearly defeated by the Bolshevists in Munich, but rose out of the ashes to take control for twelve long years. Shot, but not destroyed. Temporarily dampened but gathering, emboldened, for a return. To leave this moment outside of Göring’s five senses seems dismissive, as if the entire moment is slight, only a blip in the story. The implications of that gunshot for Göring and for the Nazis are much larger than Leffland indicates. For example, as a result of his gunshot, Göring becomes addicted to morphine, setting off a lifelong addiction to painkillers. It would have been informative as a reader to know how that addiction shaped his experience, if his narcotic haze led him to turn on his formerly tolerant past and turn him toward anti-Semitism.
There are sections in The Knight, Death and the Devil in which this expository distance works exceptionally well, creating maximum impact. The following distillation of the events leading to First World War from Göring’s nursemaid’s point of view is beautifully articulated via Leffland’s imagination:
The confusion of it: Austria, Russia, France, England, Germany, telegrams crackling among them: conferences, messengers, ambassadors running to and froand that was the most confusing thing of all, that no one wanted war. No, every government, even that of Russia, was doing all in its power to keep war from happening. It was beyond comprehension, a chaos, and as the days grew hotter, the suffocating air was filled with rumors of cavalry patrols already stationed at every frontier, of huge armies preparing, and this while their governments struggled frantically for peace. No, it could not be grasped, it was a whirlpool, something mad and rushing, a collapse of nature.6
Leffland also incorporates some richly textured moments from within Göring’s experience. These moments are few in the book, and deliberately so. When they occur, they do so with tremendous impact. The following description is a quiet, simple moment of Göring getting dressed:
That morning he had put on his uniform for the first time in four years; it smelled slightly of camphor as he stood in it, and slightly of metal polish. The decorations had not needed much rubbing. That was a task he had kept up over the years, bringing them out from time to time, holding each one in his palm while slowly rubbing the cloth until the luster was released anew. He was aware of their familiar weight across his left breast. They had the exact feel of a hand resting there lightly.7
This passage is imbued with warmththe regular polishing of his medals, the loving way he rubs them with the cloth against his palm, the familiar weight across his left breastGöring is more than just a veteran returning to his duties in the new Reich. He’s a quiet, contemplative, wounded, even deserving man in this moment. The reader abandons all preconceptions of Göring as a Reich leader and monster and sits inside him for a moment, gazing out at the sheen of the medals, the melancholy of experience, the hope of returning to the uniform. Had the novel incorporated too many more of these moments, Leffland may have flirted with making Göring too human, coming across as an apologist or revisionist, risking melodrama and sentimentality. Another example of Leffland’s complex portrait of Göring is in the following passage, in which Hitler creates the position of Reichsmarschall just for Göring, and presents him with the collar tabs of his new rank at a ceremony:
And as Hitler turned and handed him up a small box, Göring’s pride and satisfaction were so open and unguarded, so great, that the journalists felt touched, old murderer that he wasone didn’t forget that in ’34 it had been he who had dispatched so many to the firing squad during the Röhm Purge. It was hard to reconcile the ruthless Göring. Hitler’s Fist, Hardboiled Hermann, the Iron Man, with this happy and terribly human fellow who, like a child on its birthday, could not deny himself little sneaking glances under the lid of the box as Hitler resumed his speech. One could understand why he was so popular with the people, for one could feel it oneself: a kind of streaming warmth, something as simple and contagious as the beneficence of a sunny summer morning.8
Nowhere else in the book does Leffland make a clearer statement about her approach to Göring: childlike, full of wonder and enthusiasm, gentle and ruthless. Not only does she describe her own path to Göring, she also reveals Germany’s warmth toward him, his popularity, despite his bloodthirsty betrayal of some of his close associates. Leffland reflects in her novel that in research she came across not one Göring, but many. She shows him as a kaleidoscope of these characteristics, from tender, avuncular figure toward children to the screaming, angry mouthpiece of Hitler’s government. Göring offers great evidence of an eccentrica rotating supply of pet lion cubs, a fascination with gemstone healing, an addiction to narcotics. What would have helped with my impressions of Göring is if Leffland had shown, for example, how his addiction affected his leadership. How popping twenty paracodeine tablets a day influenced his moods, his perceptions, his eccentricities from within his experience. She explores his addiction through the eyes of first Carin, then his valet Robert, and occasionally others, but had she inhabited him, his addiction would have seemed less just another inexplicable eccentricity and would have had a stronger tether to Göring, the man.
In her afterward, Leffland describes to what extent she fictionalized characters, events, letters, journal entries, and speeches, and radio announcements. The letters and diary entries are crafted with such authority, that she demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the time period and the people she’s writing about. Through Göring, the war is the centerpiece of the novel, the unifying element, the thread that pulls her characters together. This thoughtful use of research and creation of ephemera lend her novel the kind of necessary authority that a historical novel told from this point of view requires.
The narrator’s voice, the point of view, the protagonist’s obsession combine to reflect the author’s approach to the narrative. For Leffland, this mind is distant, controlled, almost careful in what it reveals, avoiding conjecture as much as possible, and wary of simplistic causality. As with the Reichsmarschall ceremony scene above, she plays with the delicate balance of gentility and heartlessness that define who Göring was, getting at a truth that is greater than documentary and deeper than personal accounts. Employing the tools of fiction, Leffland has left her reader with a vivid portrait, a sense of understanding.
In order to successfully complete this portrait, she has to balance all the elements of his character without painting him as one elemental typemaniacal or quirky or gentle or anti-Semitic. In addition, she has to fold in her research, based on interviews, letters, the diaries of those around him, and other ephemera, and incorporate this research quietly, effectively, without drawing attention to it as researched. Historical novelists frequently have this challenge, but Leffland’s challenge is particularly daunting, because she isn’t simply evoking a place in time, she’s presenting a whole portrait of a man from scattered and conflicting pieces of information. To rise to this challenge, Leffland writes from the points of view of people who surrounded Göring, situations that involved him, the historical backdrop behind him. Employing journal entries, journalistic accounts of political maneuvers, and the deeply personal experiences of Göring’s friends and family members, Leffland cleverly and completely assembles a portrait that doesn’t satisfy every question, but keeps a mystery at the center. Heinrich Böll, by contrast, employs memory and experience rather than research. Neither is more authentic, neither is more effective. Both Böll and Leffland seek to present and explore rather than judge or explain.
Auxiliary Angel: Heinrich Böll
As a soldier-turned-writer, Heinrich Böll explored the perspective of ordinary Germans as if exorcising a demon, returning over-and-over to the rubble that greeted him as he came home from the war. Conscious of the tremendous moral and social implications about his milieu, he considered himself to be a historical novelist: “Every novel, unless it is Utopian, is historical, even the so-called ‘contemporary novel.’ The inevitable lag time between writing and publishing is in itself enough to turn the thematic material into history.”9
In his stories and novels, Heinrich Böll focuses on the individual rather than the Reich leadership, seeking out areas of culpability and innocence within ordinary Germans. His protagonists are often characters caught within their given circumstances, soldiers adrift in the chaos, confusion, and defeat of the war. Böll accompanied his manuscript of The Silent Angel with a description of the novel for the publishers:
The narrative begins on the day of the capitulation and fades to the beginning of the war in the second chapter; nothing is told about the war itself, and hardly anything is said about the postwar period, that El Dorado of the black market and corruption: the novel simply portrays the people of the time and their hunger, telling a love story in a clear and austere style corresponding to the laconic nature of the generation which has ‘come home,’ a generation that knows there is no home for them on this earth.10
In order to place these characters in their time and place, Böll has to inhabit them, to puzzle through their individual conflicts, their roles in the war, the ways in which they were impressed upon by their surroundings. His characters are neither hapless victims of circumstance nor are they steely-eyed perpetrators. They occupy a complex space of survival and guiltboth collective guiltand the pressure of individual transgressions. In The Silent Angel, Hans Schnitzler is on a mission to return the coat of Sergeant Gompertz who was in battle with him. Gompertz was executed in his place, setting in motion Hans’s search for redemption. His mission is to unburden himself by telling her the story, to deliver Gompertz’s coat with the will sewn into lining, and to attempt to rebuild his life, knowing that Gompertz died for him. His redemption is his love for Regina, his desire allowing for hope. But, as with Germany, Hans carries the stain of Gompertz’s death with him, his cowardice haunting him. These characters are forced to maneuver through Böll’s starkly realistic and melancholy landscape.
In his novella And Where Were You, Adam? Böll’s characterization of an officer arresting the protagonist, Feinhals, reflects the sense of defeat, drudgery, and nonchalance that typifies his characters’ experiences. The officer who arrests the protagonist is not a simplistically guilty character. He is “following orders.” The offhanded, routine way in which he performs his task speaks to Böll’s theme that even those who were bored, nonchalant, depressed, and following zealous leaders were culpable:
These men in their steel helmets held death in the palm of their hand, death was in their little pistols, their unsmiling faces, and even if these two men didn’t want to call upon death, there were thousands standing behind them who were only too glad to give death a chance, with gallows and machine pistolsdeath was at their beck and call. The officer looked at him, said nothing, just held out his hand. The officer was tired, couldn’t have cared less, really; he did his job mechanically, probably it bored him, but he did it, and he did it consistently and seriously.11
Böll’s desire to explore through the eyes of Germans can be partly explained by his personal experience as a former German soldier, and also as a novelist who felt that much still needed to be examined about Germany in the aftermath of World War II. In his essay “Trying to Close the Gap,” he writes: “Against the controversial dates in German historyJanuary 30, 1933; June 30, 1944; July 20, 1944whole libraries of research an analysis have piled up and still many things remain obscure, inexplicable.”12
Böll’s answer to that gap in our consciousness about World War II was to focus on the individuals, without judgment or prejudice. To do so is to accept the inimical perspective, to humanize Germans even as they perpetuate the war. In his defense, Böll’s characters are rarely drawn within the simplistic parameters of typical Nazis. Frequently, they stand outside the expectations of the Reich. His sense of context is strictly internal, personal. In Enter and Exit, the position of the narrator as a soldier is simply a matter of fact. In part one, his resistance to being a soldier is deep within his own youthful rebellion against authority, not as a moral reaction against fighting in support of the Third Reich:
Probably the chaplain thought I was suffering from lust, or that I was an anticlerical Nazi; but I was neither suffering from lust, nor was I anticlerical or a Nazi. I simply needed company, and not male company, either, and that was so simple that it was terribly complicated; of course there were loose women in town as well as prostitutes (it was a Catholic town), but the loose women and the prostitutes were always offended if you weren’t suffering from lust.13
In part two, the same narrator is repatriating from a prisoner of war camp, his melancholy and reflection indicative of his long years at the front. Despite the presence of the war in his consciousness, he, too, is just a soldier trying to make sense of the ruins that greet him. He is a man whose singular desire is to make a phone call to his wife:
What struck me most of all, in the post office and as I walked slowly on through Bonn, was the fact that nowhere was there a student wearing colored ribbons, and the smells: everyone smelled terrible, all the rooms smelled terrible, and I could see why the girl was so crazy about the soap; I went to the station, tried to find out how I could get to Oberkerschenbach (that was where the one I married lived), but nobody could tell me; all I knew was that it was a little place somewhere in the Eifel district not too far from Bonn…14
Böll’s characters emerge from a context that is almost incidental, a place without historical perspective, a moral compass that is guided by history, but with stories told from their own, specific experiences. In his novella And Where Were You, Adam? the war surrounds, swallows, consumes the characters, and yet their individual experiences are the focus of the story, not the war, not troop movements or ration cards, but the air of defeat, the desperation that characterized the German mentality at the end of the war, and the effects of that defeat and desperation on the soldiers left fighting for a lost cause.
There were a great many sergeants in the German Armywith enough stars to decorate the sky of some thick-witted underworldand a great many sergeants called Schneider, and of these quite a number who had been christened Alois, but at this particular time only one of these sergeants called Alois Schneider was station in the Hungarian village of Szokarhely….15
The interchangeable quality of the name Schneider, the profusion of sergeants, the generic quality of the name Alois Schneider, serve to underscore the lack of emphasis on the war. By highlighting the characters’ indirect relationship with combat, Böll keeps their individuality and specificity as characters, preventing the reader from stereotyping them just as Wehrmact soldiers or Nazis. This approach allows for a complex and honest portrayal of characters who would be easy to stereotype.
At times, this incidental context feels so interior as to appear almost naïve. For example, in The Train Was On Time, Böll writes about soldiers taking trains to the Front and facing their almost inevitable deaths:
Out of the small talk of unreflecting speech, usually from among those halting, colorless good-byes exchanged beside trains on their way to death, it falls back on the speaker like a leaden wave, and he becomes aware of the force, both frightening and intoxicating, of the workings of fate.16
Böll seems completely unconscious that the connotation of trains and good-byes and fate during World War II Germany evoke for most readers not soldiers going to battle, but the victims of the Holocaust boarding trains to their almost-certain doom. The description of “unreflecting speech” and “colorless good-byes” and evocation of “the workings of fate” without any reference to cattle cars or camps seems almost naïve, so interior as to be potentially insensitive. Böll makes it clear in his essays and fiction that he is not attempting to perpetuate the “we were victims, too” drumbeat of post-WWII Germany. In fact, he was clearly concerned about this interior he explored, and earnest in his desire to show his characters’ interiors against the larger historical background. The German perspective is lost in much of our retelling of WWII. How do we understand the conflict in all its dimensions without that point of view? As with Leffland, Böll struggles with the marginalized perspective. In his essay, “In Defense of Rubble Literature,” he describes the danger of looking too far inward, demarcating the line between writing from one’s experience and writing from so far inside that one is blind to experience:
The blind-man’s-bluff writer looks inward, constructs his own world. Early in this century, a young man in prison in southern Germany wrote a great fat book: the young man was not a writer, nor did he ever become one, but he wrote a great fat book that enjoyed the protection of being unreadable yet sold millions of copies: it compared with the Bible! It was the work of a man whose eyes had seen nothing, who harbored nothing but hate and torment, loathing and much else that was repulsivethis man wrote a book, and we need only open our eyes to see all around us the destruction attributable to this man, whose name was Adolf Hitler and who had eyes to see with: his images were warped, his style was intolerablehe saw the world not with a human eye but in the distortion created by his inner self.17
For Böll, the approach is experiential, translating his own experience of war, his grappling with the plight of being German, his feelings of innocence and culpability, which lead to a deeply personal exploration. World War II serves as a background, a quiet pulse behind the immediate circumstances of his characters’ lives, but it is, nonetheless, the reason for telling these stories. Though the following scene from A Soldier’s Legacy is deep within the consciousness of the narrator Wenk, the war, referred to only as “it” as the cause of the despair and the accompanying inexplicable thirst:
Some of the men had been at it since 1940. But even those who had known it only for a few months were beginning to show signs of despair. Despair is the hope of the flesh, my dear sir. There is a kind of despair that, even if it exists only in the mind, is a wild, sensual pleasure. Despair has something of the substance of a movie. One drinks it, it is sweet, sweet, so sweet that one wants to drink up a whole sea of it, but the more one drinks the thirstier one becomes, the more convinced that this thirst is unquenchable, that perhaps here on earth one is already in Hell, for Hell might somehow be that perpetual thirst.18
The novella is addressed to Wenk’s comrade’s brother as an explanation of the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death. The use of first person addressing the second lends the novella intimacy, so that even within this summary, Wenk remains present through the use of dear sir. The repetition of sweet, sweet is also suggestive of a present and immediate voice, a voice that feels close, as if from Böll’s own consciousness. Böll is also deeply inside his protagonist Wilhelm in Absent Without Leave. As with A Soldier’s Legacy and Enter and Exit, the point of view is first person. Wilhelm describes the death of his brother-in-law, shot as a deserter in 1945:
I never liked him, but, when the trumpets sound on the Day of Judgment, I wish him a kiss from the gentlest of all the angels of Judgment, from an auxiliary angel who is not entitled to blow trumpets, just to polish them. I wish Anton redemption from his simulated wickedness, from his failure to be understood and his failure to understand. May the angel give him back what even he must once have had: innocence.19
Here, Böll has married the personal to the political, Wilhelm’s wish for Anton is also Böll’s wish for his country and his fellow countrymen: redemption and rediscovery of innocence. A deeply personal moment for Wilhelm, who was close to Anton’s brother, Engelbert, this is also a personal moment for Böll, who is seeking that innocence and redemption not only in post war Germany, but within himself through his fiction.
Böll and Leffland: Beyond Victims and Villains
Ella Leffland’s Göring is not unlike Böll’s Wenk or Schnitzler. A man drafted into his circumstances, Göring is revealed as intelligent, complex, and previously dismissed as a cold hearted Nazi. Likewise, Göring is precisely the kind of character Böll liked to portraya man muddling through the grisly circumstances of war and trying to make the best of things, to survive, even if it means sacrificing his bravery, identity, dignity. What sets Leffland and Böll apart is her desire to explore the world of World War II Germany through the eyes of a member of the leadership, and through the perspectives of those around him, while Böll was preoccupied by the draftee, the enlisted man, the war widow struggling to get enough to eat in bombed-out Berlin in 1945.
As accomplished writers, both Böll and Leffland recreated World War II Germany in stark, honest terms, avoiding any kind of romanticizing. This revealing approach allows for the inimical point of view, because they are setting themselves apart from revisionists who would portray Germany as a more orderly, healthier place under Hitler. It is clear to the reader that neither Leffland nor Böll would seek to defend the Nazi perspective. This does not mean that Leffland is barred from writing Göring as sympathetic. Her Göring is, at times, heartbreaking in his boyish enthusiasm, his warmth, and his grief. But it is clear in reading The Knight, Death and the Devil that Leffland is no Nazi herself. Her mind is present, her intelligence apparent, her sensitivity to the elements of storytelling sufficient to reassure the reader that while Göring is a worthy subject, his judgment was more often wrong than correct, his ambition naked, his greed palpable.
Böll’s protagonists, on the other hand, are humbler than Göring, but no less compelling or vivid. Placed within their grinding boredom and at the mercy of corrupt clergy and generals, they aren’t manifestations of the political life of Germany so much as they are embodiment of the paralysis Germans felt as the war turned against them and they began to lose. Their sadness, desperation, and confusion speak to Böll’s own experience as he returned home to the rubble of the war. As with Leffland, Böll is conscious of his position in relation to his storytelling. He is careful to portray even the coldest of his characters with an understanding that speaks of complexity, rather than simplistic stereotyping.
Leffland and Böll challenge the readers’ expectations by exploring territory that many writers may consider off limits. The danger in portraying men like Göring or Schnitzler is that a reader may not see the author’s hand at work, may skim the premise and condemn the work as Nazi propaganda or revisionist. Another criticism is that World War II has been explored and overexposed. If nothing else, Böll and Leffland prove definitively that these stories are not only compelling, but necessary. That to define this point of view, no matter how unpopular, is to broaden our understanding of a very complex and difficult timea time that is not just about villains and victims. Through their powerful abilities as writers, they shed light on a little-seen corner of the World War II experiencethat of perpetratorsand, as readers, we are all the richer for it.
1 Ella Leffland, The Knight, Death and the Devil (New York: William Morrow, 1990) 31.
2 Leffland 23
3 Leffland 589
4 Leffland 204
5 Leffland 151
6 Leffland 76-77
7 Leffland 135-136
8 Leffland 491
9 Heinrich Böll, Missing Persons and Other Essays, trans. Leila Vennewitz
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977) 59.
10 Böll, The Silent Angel vii
11 Böll, Adam and the Train 79
12 Böll, Missing Persons and Other Essays 60
13 Böll, Absent Without Leave 114
14 Böll, Absent Without Leave 144
15 Böll, Adam and the Train 22
16 Böll, Adam and the Train 160
17 Böll, Missing Persons and Other Essays 130
18 Böll, A Soldier’s Legacy 34
19 Böll, Absent Without Leave 45
Böll, Heinrich. Absent Without Leave: Absent Without Leave and Enter and Exit
Two Novellas by Heinrich Böll. Trans. Leila Vennewitz. New York:
---, Adam and the Train: Two Novellas by Heinrich Böll. Trans. Leila
Vennewitz. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
---, A Soldier’s Legacy. Trans. Leila Vennewitz. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
---, Missing Persons and Other Essays. Trans. Leila Vennewitz. New York:
---, The Silent Angel. Trans. Breon Mitchell. New York: Picador, 1992.
Leffland, Ella. The Knight, Death and the Devil. New York: William