When he began the research for his new book about Germany in the years directly after World War II, Harvard professor Werner Sollors says he intended to focus on the lighter aspects of Germans’ encounter with Americans in the 1940s and ’50s: genial GIs, children lining up for candy and gum, the “fraternizing” between American men and German women. Born in 1943, Sollors spent his formative childhood years in a village near Frankfurt. His childhood fascination with things American led, indirectly, to his earning a PhD in American studies (in Berlin), writing a dissertation on the poet Amiri Baraka, and eventually moving across the Atlantic to teach in the United States.
But as he worked on the project, he soon realized that was not the kind of book he had on his hands. The diaries, novels, reportage, photographs, and films he was examining were permeated with darkness. Germans at the time didn’t want to look back at the war, not only because of the overwhelming defeat—which involved the leveling of cities and the widespread rape of German women by Soviet troops—but because of the monstrousness of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. Yet they saw nothing to look forward to either, given the destruction of the institutions necessary for a functioning state and economy. The story of that time, he found, was the story of a people stuck in a kind of bleak limbo.