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Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing: An Unlikely Comedy Set in the Collapse of The Third Reich

By Oscar Mardell.

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing, translated by Anthea Bell (New York Review Books, 2018)


Of all the monsters outed in the last five years, none caused me quite as much hurt as Rolf Harris. My brother and I grew up with our mother in Wales – about as far away as you could get from our father in New Zealand. There were complications in the child support payments (depending on which of my parents you ask, either they were made directly to my mother, and so not recorded officially, or they were not made at all – at least, not regularly enough to cover the cost of my brother’s nappies). So a warrant was issued for Dad’s arrest, and he wasn’t able to visit us anymore. Rolf Harris (whose own father, incidentally, was from Cardiff) was about the only representative of the Southern Hemisphere in our lives – except, that is, for some abominably racist adverts for Kia Ora juice. As such, Harris allowed my classmates to make a little more sense of me. “Why is Oscar behaving like that?” “Because his father is in the antipodes – like Rolf Harris.” Of course, the four million inhabitants of New Zealand would be loath to discover that an Australian had stood in for them, but the two countries were close enough – geographically and linguistically – for Animal Hospital to feel like the next best thing to having one’s father around. When Harris was convicted of indecent assault in 2014, it felt like a personal betrayal.

The feeling was aggravated by the fact that it isn’t exactly easy to separate Harris’ crimes from his oeuvre. Caravaggio produced some wonderful paintings; he also murdered a man by cutting off his testicles. The two facts – at least in my mind – have little bearing on one another, and can be siphoned off with ease, safely filed away in their separate categories. But the distinction is harder to produce in the case of Harris, an entertainer and a molester of children. Was his brilliant proficiency in the one merely an alibi for the other? And was the molestation, moreover, inherent in the entertainment? In the wake of Harris’ arrest, it has certainly been hard to view Jake the Peg in quite the same way: the third leg is now, unquestionably, a phallus, and the thousands of children watching gleefully the world over, willing participants in something akin to a public exposure, a mass flashing. I felt violated – obviously, not in the same way, or to the same degree, as Harris’ actual victims – but symbolically violated, if you will.

I found consolation in a bad joke which the Welsh comedian Rhys Ifans had made at an anti-slavery benefit concert at London’s Forum seven years earlier. “Why is paedophilia so popular?” asked Ifans. “Because kids are so fucking sexy.” Of course, the joke is ethically unacceptable: it makes light of intense suffering, and it does so by suggesting that responsibility for that suffering lies not in the perversity of the offenders, but in the very bodies of their victims. Ifans’ comic inversion (or perhaps, attempt at comic inversion) temporarily posits that the paedophile’s view is the norm rather than the aberration (and for this reason, Ifan’s joke fell on deaf ears, and his publicist had to offer an apology). But, if the joke is funny, this is only because it takes for granted that that view is ethically unacceptable – the comedy is lost, turns instantly to menace, if we think for a second that Ifans is in earnest, or that he is normalising views which people elsewhere hold in earnest. It was the joke’s simultaneous acknowledgement and disavowal of the seriousness of paedophilia that enabled me to sustain, on the one hand, my disgust for Harris’ crimes, and on the other, my nostalgia for such masterworks as Two Little Boys. And in my head, I had to extend the joke – or, at least, its sentiment – into a whole sketch. Harris stands with Jimmy Savile at the mouth of Hell while Satan decides which circle each of them should be consigned for eternity. Savile points accusingly at Harris and yells, “All I did was indulge in a spot of innocuous kiddie-fiddling; this sick freak went and invented the Goddamn wobble-board!” The scene, I think, evolved from a quip made by one of my classmates after our mathematics teacher was jailed for filming students in the showers: “If the choice was between that and his calculus class, I’d take the shower.” For some reason, the blemish on Harris’ career, like that on Mr. G’s, seemed like less of a betrayal when that career was ironically posited as the principal crime for which he’d be remembered. Such are the healing properties of cynicism.

On the face of it, Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing is void of even the blackest humour. The novel is set against the disastrous evacuation of East Prussia in the closing months of World War II. As the Red Army advances westward, the roads fill with some 750,000 German refugees, nearly half of whom will perish in their desperate flight. In the middle of the chaos stands the decaying manor house of the von Globigs, a newly-aristocratic family trying obstinately to preserve the tedium of domestic normality – that is, until midway through the novel, when the front arrives at the von Globigs’ doorstep and forces them to join the caravan. The first half of All for Nothing, then, is deliberately dull; the second, with its unflinching depiction of German suffering, unrepentantly bleak. And yet, its function  approximates that of Ifans’ paedophilia gag. By temporarily positing the German view of WWII as the norm and not the aberration, All for Nothing allows us to sustain both our disgust for the crimes of the Third Reich and our enjoyment of those parts of German kultur which that regime might otherwise have ruined.


For decades, the consensus on Germany’s wartime suffering has been that it is best not spoken about. Any tragedy that had befallen the nation was not only just deserts, but negligible, moreover, in comparison to the devastation which it had wrought upon the rest of the world. As W.G. Sebald put it in now-famous lecture delivered in 1997, Germany’s ”quasi-natural reflex, engendered by feelings of shame and a wish to defy the victors, was to keep quiet and look the other way”. And the swarm of letters which Sebald received in response confirmed that the global intelligentsia was quite content for this to be the case. But, in one respect, even Sebald was prone to avert his gaze: throughout his lecture, he made it crystal clear that German suffering did not interest him. For him, only a ‘Natural History’ – a view void of ethical or sympathetic considerations – could give politically correct expression to the destruction of a nation which had forsaken all moral responsibility.

Six years later, the danger of Sebald’s position was demonstrated by Günther Grass’s Im Krebsgang – which appeared in English translation in 2003 as Crabwalk. The novel discusses the sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff – a Kraft durch Freude cruise ship turned refugee carrier which was torpedoed by Soviet submarine S-13 on January 30, 1945. Some 9,300 passengers – most of them the very civilians who’d fled from East Prussia – were killed, making the disaster one of the worst in maritime history. Grass’ frank description of the tragedy, and of its effect on subsequent generations of German families, is said to have brought tears even to Marcel Reich-Ranicki – Germany’s so-called ‘Pope of Literature’ (who was once pictured on Der Spiegel tearing Grass’s Ein weites Feld in half). In The New York Times, Grass explained to Alan Riding that his intention had been ”to take the subject away from the extreme right…they said the tragedy of the Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn’t. It was terrible, but it was a result of war. It was not a planned act.“ Or, as the Old Man in Grass’ novel puts it: “we should never have kept silent about all that suffering simply because our own guilt was overpowering and our professions of regret paramount for all those years, for we abandoned the suppressed reality to the right wingers.” And clearly, one of the aims of All for Nothing is to do the same, to prevent the tragic loss of life in East Prussia from being misappropriated by those who would have us imagine it as a war crime.

In 2002, a similar motivation drove the left-wing Holocaust researcher and former neo-Nazi hunter Jörg Friedrich to write Der Brand – an historical account of the allies’ firebombing campaigns on German cities which was published in English as The Fire in 2006. But Der Brand differs from Im Krebsgang in two significant ways. Firstly, the book was lapped up by the far-right, and while Friedrich is certainly no revanchist, less yet a Holocaust denier, he is, to some extent, responsible for that reception. Not only did he serialise parts of Der Brand in the right-wing tabloid Bild-Zeiling, he also employed what Ian Buruma described in the New York Review of Books as “odd terminology”: “Cellars are described to as Krematorien, an RAF bomber group as Einsatzgruppe, and the destruction of libraries as Bücherverbrennug, or book-burning.” The implicit suggestion, whether Friedrich intended it or not, is that Allied and Axis violence were mirror images of, and so morally equal to, one another. Secondly, Der Brand seems to have an additional purpose, not undertaken by Grass. The beginning of the book is given to photographs showcasing the beauty of German cities before the war; the end, to a long lament for the German books destroyed in libraries and archives. Friedrich’s “aim”, continues Buruma,

seems to be not only to wrest the history of Germany suffering from the clutch of the far-right but to rescue again the glories of German history from the twelve years of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. And this, despite the pitfalls that Friedrich has not always been able to dodge, seems a perfectly respectable thing to do.

Since the publication of Der Brand, however, it has become clear that, far from “a perfectly respectable thing to do”, this “aim” has itself been taken up by the far-right. In June of 2018, Alexander Gauland, co-leader of Alternative für Deutschland declared that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a bird shit in over 1,000 years of successful German History”. Speaking to a gathering of the party’s youth movement, he explained, “We have a glorious history and it, dear friends, lasted longer than those blasted twelve years.” Chancellor Merkel drew attention to the recklessness of Gauland’s comments, writing on Twitter that “50 million victims of war, the Holocaust and total war are just bird shit” for Gauland and his party. What Merkel might have added is that Garland’s logic was precisely the same as that which saw Brock Turner –  a promising swimmer who sexually penetrated a woman with his fingers while she lay unconscious behind a dumpster – assigned only six months in jail, of which he served three before being granted parole. Or that which is routinely deployed by those who would simply “rescue” the careers of famous paedophiles from their offences. To attempt to preserve some “glory” by relativizing the “bird shit” is to find in the one a licence to disregard the other.



As if in anticipation of Gauland’s rhetoric, All for Nothing opens with the following epigraph:

To save our souls from sin, dear Lord, 
Our lives are all in vain, 
Only Thy grace and Holy Word
Obliterate its stain.
– Martin Luther (1524)

In this context, Luther’s words are deeply provocative. Were the horrors of the Third Reich merely another manifestation of Original Sin? And can their “stain” be “obliterated”, therefore? Can the “bird shit” simply be washed away? And if so, by what? God’s “grace and holy word”?

God doesn’t loom particularly large in All for Nothing. The only character who might be taken for His representative is one Pastor Brahms, whose very name signifies that His presence is doubtful: Johannes Brahms famously confided in Antonín Dvořák that he was an agnostic, and refused, moreover, to include any reference to “the redeeming death of the Lord” in Ein Deutsche Requiem. Pastor Brahms is considered “fractious” because he refused to bless the Nazi troops invading Poland, but the Pastor is tolerated on account of the belief that “it was very German to be fractious…Martin Luther had been a fractious person’. One thing that Brahm’s doesn’t have in common with Luther is the latter’s anti-Semitism. Instead, he does what most of today’s readers would recognise as the truly Christian thing to do and arranges for a Jewish refugee to be housed in the Georgenhof; but the Jew is discovered, and Pastor Brahms is locked away in a cell in Königsberg and beaten up. His faith, it seems, like so much in Kempowski’s novel, was “for nothing”.

Accordingly, Nazism’s “stain” on German Kultur proves harder to “obliterate” than the likes of Garland would have us think. Any attempt to simply wipe the Reich off the rest of German history is complicated by the tremendous success with which the former appropriated the latter. Kempowski first introduces the idea when he has a Nazi violinist describe “a book from which her father would sometimes quote: Goethe, Schiller, Dietrich Eckhart.” This list, of course, is suspect. Not only does it suggest that Eckhart – a terrible writer, but one of the founders of the proto-Nazi Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and huge influence on Hitler – comfortably ranks alongside Goethe and Schiller; it also suggests that Goethe and Schiller are themselves proto-Nazis, fascists avant la letter. Furthermore, All for Nothing is littered with allusions to Nazi rewritings of German history, particularly in film: Veit Harlan’s Der große König (1942), in which Otto Gebühr plays Fredrick the Great; the same director’s Immensee: ein deutsches Volkslied (1943), an adaptation of the Nineteenth Century novella by Theodor Storm; Carl Froelich’s A Lovely Night at the Ball (1939), in which Zarah Leander plays a fictional lover of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; Frederic Zelnik’s The Emperor Waltz (1933); Hans Steinhoff’s Rembrandt (1942); Géza von Cziffra’s The White Dream (1943) –  the list is a long one. But the Third Reich didn’t just rewrite the thousand-odd years of German history which preceded it; perhaps more worryingly, it also found in those years the basis of its own authority. Having discovered a book on German Cathedrals, Baron Drygalski, an ardent Nazi, yells, “Now this…this is the kind of thing you should be teaching!” Clearly, he sees in those buildings proof of the inherent superiority of the German people, and of the legitimacy, therefore, of the Reich. We later learn that the book has marked “all for nothing”: not only was the beauty of those edifices unable to prevent them from being destroyed by the Allied bombers, it was also unable to stop them from being usurped by the Nazi propaganda machine.

Tasked with teaching this Kultur to Peter – the youngest of the von Globigs – is one Dr Wagner, whose own name signifies the nature of the problem. Richard Wagner – the other titan of Nineteenth-Century German music –  was not only, like Luther, a rabid anti-Semite, but the favourite composer of Adolf Hitler. His operas were played at Dachau in a bid to “re-educate” political prisoners, and for this reason they have never been performed in Israel. Today, the question facing those of us who identify as fans of Wagner’s work is this: can we separate the anti-Semitism from the music, or is Nazism somehow latent in Der Ring des Nibelungen? Kempowski’s implication, I think, is that all German Kultur faces a version of this same question: can we separate 1,000 years of German history from the twelve years of the Reich? Or is that regime somehow anticipated within that history?

The second to last chapter in All for Nothing describes a museum being emptied by the German militia. The image is haunting precisely because, if we wipe away everything in German history that has been tarnished by Nazism’s stain or recruited as evidence of its legitimacy, then an empty museum – that is, a gaping void in place of Germany’s cultural heritage – is precisely what is left. And it is in this chapter that the novel’s only approximation of a traditional joke appears. Some Nazi soldiers are carrying out of the museum ‘The Battle of Tannenburg’ – “a propaganda painting depicting German heroism in the First World War” which happens to have “a tear in the canvas”. “We didn’t do that,” say the soldiers, “It was already there.” If Nazism is imagined as a tear in Kultur; then were the Nazis themselves solely responsible? Or, perhaps even more worryingly, was that tear “already there”? But the question is a false one: neither blaming nor excusing the Nazis is going to fix the hole. And it is a version of this question which admirers of the works of sex offenders are having to ask themselves. If Rolf Harris’ perversity is imagined as a tear in his oeuvre, a gaping hole which prevents us from enjoying his work, then is that tear solely attributable to Harris’ actual crimes?  Or was it already there – that is, inherent in that work? Again, neither blaming nor excusing Harris will restore the joyful innocence with which I first experienced Jake the Peg.


The solution which All for Nothing appears to propose is that, instead of attempting to wipe away Nazism’s ‘stain’, we must simply change the way that we view it. The final chapter of the novel shows Peter von Globig boarding a refugee carrier by himself. His aunt has been killed, his mother has been lost in the caravan, and Baron Drygalski – who had been accompanying him – doesn’t board. Peter, then, has become one of the Wolfskinder, the German children orphaned by the War. And this image is haunting because, if a gaping void is to replace their cultural heritage, all Germans are, in a manner of speaking, Wolfskinder, orphans detached from their ancestry. But if detachment is Peter’s loss, it is also, in a strange way, his salvation. It is no accident that his most prized possession is a microscope. The instrument is introduced at the very start of the novel, when Peter suggests at a boring party that the attendees use it to “look at flies’ legs”; by the end, Peter is using it to examine his dead aunt’s blood – where he finds “nothing mysterious”. What Kempowski seems to be implying here is that, in the face of the “stain” left by Nazism, Germany at large must scrutinise its “blood” – the ancestral lines reaching back through millennia and the Reich – with scientific detachment, with a gaze, like that endorsed by Sebald, void of ethical or sympathetic considerations. Kempowski’s prose certainly embodies this detachment. As James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, All for Nothing

is written in free indirect discourse, which is to say that the novelist’s prose closely identifies itself with the perspective and the language of a particular character… The effect is a kind of uncertain omniscience, which allows the novelist not only to move easily among his characters but to blend their thoughts, when need be, into a collective anxiety. 

Only, I would change “uncertain” to “aloof”. All for Nothing is narrated not by a confused spectator, but a disinterested observer – one who is able to scrutinise the innermost thoughts of the German people without imposing authorial judgement.

Only from such a position does Nazi history cease to look “mysterious” – that is, like an abnormality which might deny us access to the rest of kultur. Instead of attempting to erase Germany’s national shame from its national pride, Kempowski appears to be positing, one ought not entertain any national feeling at all; the “bird shit” on “1,000 years of successful German history” becomes less obtrusive, less of an obstacle to our taking pleasure from those years, when, ironically, we subtract from the equation any feeling we might have toward those years. Only when we feel the eponymous “Nothing” might we, in turn, regain access to the “All”. Of course, the strategy is only effective because it takes for granted that a view void of ethical considerations could not even begin to evaluate Nazi crimes, that such a view would not see the “stain” at all. And the moment at which we start to think that Kempowski is earnestly advocating a purely scientific view of all of German history is the moment at which that view becomes the unfeeling gaze of a Nazi apologist. It is the same redemptive cynicism to be found in Ifans’ joke: a simultaneous recognition and disavowal of the seriousness of an atrocity, only here the stakes are larger.

Then again, to [mis]quote the Welsh model Mandy Rice-Davies, Kempowski “would [say that], wouldn’t he”. The author’s own history is not exactly free of “bird shit”. During the period in which All for Nothing is set, Kempowski was serving in a courier unit of the Flakhelfer, a youth auxiliary of the Luftwaffe. It is, probably, then, a matter of personal interest to him that his own career is not overshadowed by Nazism’s “stain”. And perhaps this is what prevented him from taking his position to what seems like its logical end. All for Nothing is quite happy to posit an ironic detachment from ethical concerns, but never, it seems, a comic inversion of them. In my head, the only way to satisfactorily marry my loathing for even the faintest whiff of fascism with my life-long adoration of Wagner’s music has been to imagine a satirical post-script to Kempowski’s novel. A mob of Nazi goons have made it into Beyreuth festival and are evidently dissatisfied. One gestures furiously toward the stage, yelling, “We only came here to indulge in a spot of innocuous Jew-bashing, as our ancestors have done for a thousand years; those thugs up there are ruining our fun with their shitty noise.” Perhaps you had to have not been there.


Oscar Mardell

Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 8th, 2019.