The majority of Germans wanted only to leave the past behind in the 1950s and ’60s. But Kempowski insisted on asking uncomfortable questions about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. He was among the few to recognize in his work that along with German guilt there was German suffering. At the time, references to German victims were viewed as an expression of right-wing revisionism; now they are rightly understood as crucial to understanding the war. “Swansong 1945” is full of descriptions of the horrors of the final weeks of World War II, with its concentration-camp survivors staggering through the German countryside on death marches, countless suicides among soldiers and civilians, the plague of rapes by the Soviet troops intent on revenge for German atrocities, and the continuing senseless fighting.
Among the many descriptions of human misery is a diary entry written by a German doctor who was called to a German military hospital train: “no bandages, no tablets, no medication. They are calling for help from all the trucks. I am dragged with some difficulty into a cattle truck. A picture of misery: blind in both eyes, one leg amputated, shot to the lung, coughing blood, hectic appearance. A woman shot in the arm. Next to her, her child with a bullet in the back and the beginning of scarlet fever. . . . No leadership left. Like these wounded, the whole nation is being led towards the downfall, towards suffering and misery.” Hitler, meantime, was insisting to some of his entourage that the German people deserved this agony because they proved themselves too weak.