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The Suffering of the Guilty

By Aaron Thier
The New Republic

Dagerman_German coverIN 1946, THE Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman traveled to Germany to write a series of articles about the civilian population in the aftermath of war. He was only twenty-three, but he had published two novels and he was already among the most famous Scandinavian writers of his generation. The book that resulted from this trip was published the following year and is available to us now, in a new translation by Robin Fulton Macpherson, as German Autumn.

Dagerman’s subject is “the suffering of the guilty,” to borrow W.G. Sebald’s phrase. It is a subject that presents him with both moral and literary problems. How compassionate should one be if “the sufferings of the Germans … are the undoubted results of a German war of aggression that failed”? And how, given the circumstances, should one write about that suffering? He begins in a flooded basement, where a mother stands ankle-deep in water and cooks potatoes for her tubercular children. This woman is a German—a potential Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, and at the very least a member of the national group that most people hold collectively responsible for the war. Should he write with that fact in mind, and should his horror at her suffering be mitigated by the suspicion that it may be deserved? Should he describe what he sees in the context of guilt and retribution, or should he remain in the water and tell us what it feels like to stand there?

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German Autumn