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An African-American studies professor’s bleak postwar Germany

Harvard’s Werner Sollors looks back at the defeated nation of his childhood

After the end of the war in Berlin in 1945 - US-American soldiers distribute sweets to German children. (Berliner Verlag/Archiv/Corbis)Corbis/Archiv/Corbis

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.


While the World War II literature is vast and Germany’s post-war democratization and economic “miracle” well-known, the period immediately after the war remains underexplored, Sollors argues in “The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s.” Yet that period also sowed the seeds for Europe’s rebirth as a remarkably peaceful and productive part of the world in the second half of the 20th century.

The book also stakes out new territory for Sollors, who is the longest-tenured member of Harvard’s African and African American studies department—at a low point in its institutional history he was the lone member—and also an English professor. Though deeply informed by his family history, the book is far more scholarly than it is a memoir; in the book, his personal reminiscences occur only within brackets.

Ideas spoke with Sollors by phone from his home in Cambridge. The interview has been edited and condensed.

IDEAS: You make clear that Germans were fascinated by American GIs—and that, as a young boy, you shared that fascination. What was different or attractive to a young German boy about these soldiers?


SOLLORS: I remember as a child, adults usually looked fairly stern when you walked around a town, and the GIs had a more radiant way toward children. I wrote about going into a house that was requisitioned and the soldiers just said, “Come on in.” And there was someone playing on the pianola, and the house was a mess. We got some white bread, and stuff like that. It just seemed like an alternative world.

IDEAS: You lost your sister and your grandmother in the war’s immediate aftermath. Was your family touched by the dark psychology of the era?

SOLLORS: It’s not in the book, but my mother had a little poem in which she wrote something like, “Two people are alive: my husband and my son. But I have the pull of two people who are dead: my daughter and my mother. And sometimes I feel I want to go and join my daughter and my mother.” Which is not something that I remember her articulating to me.

Werner Sollors as a child, with his doll Maxi.

IDEAS: Most Americans either don’t know about or have largely forgotten about the forced resettlement of Germans after the war. Your own family was forced to move from their home in an area that became Poland. But while the episode is still strong in German memory, is it difficult to talk about?

SOLLORS: I’m not sure with the younger generation. In Germany also, it’s probably ancient history now. But for the older people in Germany it became a politically charged issue. Taking about it made you out to be a conservative who would not want to talk about the horrors of World War II, instead wanting to talk about German victims, German suffering. But in America what surprised me was how much reportage there actually was, during the contemporary moment, about it—very critical and humanitarian.

IDEAS: One of the more poignant asides is when you mention that your mother was possibly saved from being raped, during your family’s time as refugees, because she was holding you.


SOLLORS: She just said that she had me on top of her and the Russians didn’t approach her. But there was something happening every night....There were these mass camps [with] women and children....Then at night the soldiers would get drunk, and they would come.

IDEAS: Black troops made up a significant, or at least prominent, part of the American presence in Germany. They had a strong effect on you, as a boy, and you even write that the black experience in Germany contributed to the civil rights movement in the United States. How so?

SOLLORS: You know, the Army had a very Southern feeling to it. Blacks certainly did not have many leading positions in the Army. They were in the transportation corps and taking care of quartermaster stuff. So there was, first of all, a lot of contact between black solders and the German population. At the same time, they had a stark recognition of living in an army that had quite a few Jim Crow rules. Linking up with German civilians on a more equal basis than in the legally segregated mode that the Army mirrored from the Southern states—that created a living sense of an alternative way of arranging relations between black and white.

IDEAS: There’s an extraordinary picture in the book—a sweet picture of you, as a small child, holding a black doll knit by your mother and beaming.

SOLLORS: I came across that when I was doing research for the book....My mother had just little remnants of wool. We just had a single sock left or some pieces of wool. My whole outfit, too, was just little pieces of different colored wool. She called it the “parrot outfit.” She made these rag dolls for me. That was my favorite. It had a name which was my middle name too, Maxi.


IDEAS: Do you know why the figure was black?

SOLLORS: I think it was just modeling of the black soldiers in the village.

IDEAS: You observe that writers and photographers at the time all seemed to comment on one particular aspect of the German urban landscape: how people’s homes were ripped open and put on display. That kind of scene drove home to them just how vanquished the German people were.

SOLLORS: You see things that you ordinarily never see, because people actually eked out a living in semi-ruins. I mean bathtubs, toilets, paintings hanging there, still some settee in a corner. So it’s a strange feeling, like you’re looking at a theater stage but it’s really where people either still live or where they lived before the building was so unsafe that they couldn’t stay there any more.

I think every diarist and visitor wrote about that particular motif. They were “like doll’s houses,” “like stage sets,” you can think of all kinds of metaphors of seeing a house that this kind of wounded state.

Christopher Shea is a contributing writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education and a former Ideas columnist.