WALTER KEMPOWSKI’S TADELLÖSER & WOLFF:
“FAMILY VALUES” IN THE THIRD REICH (1992)
[I have revised this piece a little from its original form and corrected a few mistakes. This is plain text sans footnotes links. When I have the time, I will restore them and also fix up the formatting. ]
The autobiographical novel, Tadellöser & Wolff, first published in 1971, tells the story of a family living through the events of the Third Reich and WW II in the port city of Rostock, Germany. In 1938, the boy Walter, age ten, walks past the burnt-out synagogue on the way to school and notes nothing more than that the six-sided star has been broken and that some little dogs are barking. The Jews disappear gradually.
The Kempowski family tries to enjoy a vacation to the Harz Mountain region at the time of the German march into Poland in 1939. A playmate of Walter’s at the resort tells him about traveling by train across the Polish Corridor, the window blinds shut against the reality of the Invasion. At their vacation destination the Kempowskis experience bitter disappointment at their reception as merely ordinary guests instead of the important people they imagine themselves to be. Their trivial concerns at a time when their country had just commenced waging pre-emptive war against its neighbor seems remarkable, odd, even comical.
A Danish guestworker in the father's shipping firm marries Ulla, Walter’s
beloved older sister, and takes her away to safety in Denmark. The father,
initially rejected for service, is drafted. Rostock, a strategically important harbor
on the Baltic Sea, is bombed twice in 1942. The older brother, Robert, is also
drafted and sent to the Russian front. Walter endures the trials of the Gymnasium
(the academic high school) and the Hitler Youth. He rebels against Nazi
discipline and is punished with a year’s detention. Sent to putative safety in
Hamburg, he instead experiences the Allied bombing there. The Russians enter
Rostock and, as the novel ends, the father is missing in action on the eastern
front. The future looks dark indeed.
Tadellöser & Wolff is not a Bildsroman. The characters don’t develop or change. They do things and things happen to them in a picaresque fashion. None of them are what is referred to as “rounded characters.” The Kempowskis are like actors on a stage. Emotions erupt, anger especially, but they seem “in the air” rather than character traits. They explain nothing. T &W lacks any kind of framing device. It simply begins, then things happen, and then it ends. It has an eidetic quality.
We are presented with something like a series of movie clips with spaces
between them, arranged without regard to their natural affinities or meanings. We
get description and dialogue as reported by Walter but no internal dialogue. This
lack of connection, in spite of its factual surface, gives the narrative a stiff and
artificial quality, even when the speech and action appear lively. The narrative
remains under tight chronological control for the most part as it marches through
its incidents. Like marionettes, the characters perform their roles in episode after
episode, closely observed as to dress, manner, and speech, with only one
“break out” in the entire book of believable emotion, when the sister Ulla leaves the family and Walter is desolated. The overall effect is of the impersonation of life, rather thanthe evocation of a worked-through past existence.
Walter, the narrator and alter ego of Kempowski the author, tells the story. He
acts as observer but not as commentator; he sees a lot but otherwise takes a
rather passive role in the scenario. Kempowski’s use of the past tense
rather than the present tense implies a fixed pattern of events, a history. No
present musings by the author disturb the flow. Kempowski’s narrative seems,
fixed, stilted, and prescriptive; he strives to evoke a past which, due to
Kempowski’s"perfect pitch" in his rendition of the speech, mannerisms and
setting of Walter's milieu, could stand as a historical re-creation of one family's
life in the Third Reich and which allows of no further interpretation.
The question arises naturally: why was this odd work such a success, indeed a
best-seller, in 1971, and why does it continue to sell well? In 1975, it was even
made into a television series seen by 27,000,000 people in Germany and
England, more than viewed the series Holocaust. Commenting in "Spiegel"
magazine at the time of the novel's publication, the critic Rolf Becker regarded
Tadellöser & Wolff as a satirical comedy about the stupidity and short-
sightedness of average Germans. Becker saw the Kempowskis condemning
themselves on every page in their smugness, lack of critical reasoning ability,
obliviousness, conformity. However, in Becker's eyes, unlikable though they
might have been, and as guilty as he perceived them to be because of their
refusal to take responsibility, these were not bad people, "no Nazis," just the kind
of people who, like so many others, thought Hitler was a miracle worker and a
"hell of a guy" until things started going wrong. Such a critical approach to
Tadellöser & Wolff invited readers to feel superior to the Kempowskis, to see
them as buffoons or even as characters in a slapstick film, and allowed them to
distance themselves from the people and events described.
In line with the growing reputation of this work, Alfs and Rabes writing in 1985
struck a more serious note in their extensive quantitative study of critical
response to Tadellöser & Wolff. They provided a study and analysis of the press
reception at the time of the original publication in l971 and found overwhelmingly
favorable reviews over a large geographical and political spectrum.3
Critics in general recognized the Kempowskis as typical of many families who lived in
Nazi Germany--shortsighted but not evil. One important exception was the
negative reaction of the very influential liberal critic "Momos," Walter Jens, in the
weekly newspaper "Die Zeit." He titled his piece, "Von Folter und Verbrennung
keine Rede" (No Mention of Torture and Cremation).4
Findings on general reader response show that older people perceived the book as quite accurate and evocative of the times, whereas young people regarded it as a cover-up. Later responses to Tadellöser & Wolff, as Kempowski finished his work of
chronicling the life of his family in several more volumes, reflect a change of
critical climate. Tadellöser & Wolff and the other books in this family saga have
been elevated as the record of a family who suffered, survived, and bridged the
Third Reich, beginning as merchants and soldiers in a semi-feudal society and
emerging after great wartime and post-war trials as successful and up to date in
every way. The Kempowskis, caught up in the great sweep of historical change,
have become representative of contemporary Germany, and their story has
taken on mythical-historical dimensions. What started out as a family project has
become representative of a whole section of German society.
As the ongoing German project of family and national historical restoration and
revision proceeds, Kempowski’s reputation has risen commensurately, and he
has joined the canon of modern German authors. He appears in a typical high-
school level textbook, alongside his contemporaries, Günter Grass, Heinrich Boll,
Christa Wolf, and others who, unlike him, are well known in other countries. Few
of Kempowski’s works have been published in foreign languages, and Tadellöser
& Wolff remains untranslated. Therefore, there is at this time no way to gauge a
possible response to this work outside of Germany.
The Kempowskis in Social-Historical Context
To the extent that the Kempowskis shared in the fate of most Germans,
Tadellöser & Wolff can be related to social history. Those who experienced life in
Nazi Germany can fill in the gaps in Kempowski’snarrative as they wish; those who come later only note an absence which must somehow be filled. The main problem this text creates centers in the selection, arrangement and omission of content.
These gaps raise many questions in my mind: What was the combination of
social and personal factors that led so many to fail in their moral duty to oppose a
criminal government? What role did they themselves play in the active
persecution of perceived enemies of the state? What did they hope to gain from
supporting the Hitler state? It may not be possible to answer these questions
once and for all, not least because of post-war projects undertaken to protect
guilty individuals after the war, projects which continue unabated to this day. And
finding ultimate answers is not the purpose of my critique, in any case. Rather,
what I want to look at here is the reluctance on the part of elements of German
society to admit to being anything but victims of "Hitler" and the "Nazis."
Naturally, the Kempowskis had no way to foresee the consequences of assenting
to Nazi rule and were no doubt “swept up” in the Nazi state before they had time
to realize what they had gotten themselves into. They were accustomed to
bureaucratic control, the military, and other systems which bore down hard on
everyone's freedom, and as long as they were not targets of active persecution,
they did not object to the Nazi program. Furthermore, like others of their class,
they had no positive experience of democracy after the trials of the Weimar years
to rouse them to defend democracy. Rather, the Kempowskis blamed
democracy for their troubles. The modernizing process, with its dislocations, took
place with dramatic suddenness in Germany; the difference between Walter and
his parents and grandparents was very great. The older Kempowskis hearkened
back to the "good old Imperial days" under the Kaiser, when they had been very
important people in town. The authoritarian system worked well for them, since they were the order givers, not the order takers. The two grandfathers seemed incredibly old-fashioned--one a decrepit Junker with his shipping firm; the other a Hamburg"aristocrat" of Huguenot descent. Herr and Frau Kempowski, by contrast, lived in an upstairs
flat instead of a grand house and deeply resented their reduced circumstances. The need to ingratiate themselves to Walter’s grandfather, the old Jünker, a stingy old fellow who would grudgingly give the boys a few coins to go the the movies after forcing the family to listen to his interminable music making and boring tales, must be remarked on. These people hated each other, but they were family. And family meant social standing, money, possessions. Why would they stick together otherwise? In Walter’s case, his lifelong loyalty seems remarkable in the face of his anger at his parents and grandparents. I do think he has worked all his life to gain the love of his “bleiche Mutter.”
It is difficult to understand what the Kempowskis hoped for from the Party, since the author does not provide this information. In can guess that The Kempowskis may have hoped to have their debts forgiven and to find sources of cheap labor, as the Nazi party smashed the unions. Above all, there would be "areassertion of traditional values of authority and obedience." A narrow educationand restricted social world hampered the Kempowskis. They had no overview;they were people who thought mostly in local and personal terms, even thoughthey participated in Nazi-run organizations, belonged to the church, owned abusiness and sent their men to the army. With whatever reservations, theyparticipated fully in the Nazi agenda. The father was SA, the children HJ (Hitler
Youth) and BDM (German Girls' League). Their geographical world went as far west as Hamburg, where the Huguenot grandfather,r a family monument, lived, and as far west as the Harz Mountains, where they vacationed. The father had had his war adventures in Belgium, where he stole objects to bring back to his family. None of these matters are more than described in T & W, since putatively this is a book written from the young Walter’s perspective.
So this is a book about Walter, from his point of view, but his identity is hard to pin down. Nothing in the book happens that could have taken place outside of the lifeworld of this young person. So such things as the signs saying “Juden Verboten” are noted but not interpreted. Walter had a hard time of it, and his own childish and later adolescent preoccupations concerned him above all. For him to be depicted as a young person with a social conscience and a desire to resist would be false. How unlikely this would be for someone of his background almost goes without saying. In this as in most ways, Kempowski is scrupulously honest.
But Walter and his brother were not without spirit. In the manner of the young and powerless, Walter and his brother Robert responded to the pressures of life in the Third Reich with ineffectual rebellion. Walter, in particular, was a slacker, who made room for himself with malingering, playing hooky, and other underhanded strategies.
These youth were not interested in self-sacrifice but rather, like their peers in other
countries, longed for fun and freedom. Group outings and other Hitler Jugend activities had some appeal, but mass entertainment, dancing, smoking, wearing modern
clothing and fraternizing with the opposite sex had more, and it was these drives
that brought young people like Walter and Robert into conflict with family, school
and the HJ. Walter and his brother Robert were in many ways like young people
all over the Western world in the 30's. They enjoyed jazz and American films.
The Kempowski boys dressed in a casual bohemian fashion with the manners to match, which had a double payoff--this made them seem up-to-date and thus gained them some admiration from their peers, and it enraged their parents.
The Kempowskis Up Close and Personal
In this Youtube clip, we see the rawness of life as people tried to find some pleasure in a world falling about but succeeding mostly in making life hell for each other.
This two and a half minute segment masterfully depicts the strains of living a normal family life in those times and is about all most people could stomach. I found it hard to watch. Showing the father in his Nazi uniform broke a long-standing taboo against any such depictions of everyday Nazism.
As Kempowski depicts in the book, The children were yelled at and often beaten. In point of fact the whole family appeared to be at their wits’ end most of the time, and the father's temper eventually deteriorated to the point where he became a little Hitler in his own home.And when Herr Kempowski left the family to join Hitler's army, it became impossible to achieve any level of "togetherness," even of the screaming, fighting, and hitting variety.
The definitive break came on Christmas of 1942, which was also
shortly before the turning point of the war, the January 1943 defeat at Stalingrad.
Although stationed in Germany, Herr Kempowski stayed on duty, guarding his
Soviet prisoner work slaves and celebrating the holiday with his war comrades
and an attractive "noblewoman" he had met. He sent his family a Christmas
goose and a chilly message,"Von Frau von Eickstedt. Mit den besten Grüßen. Er
müsse leider das Fest bei der Truppe verleben. Ein Kameradschaftsabend sei
anberaumt." Was11 ("'From Mrs. von Eickstedt. With her best greetings. He must
unfortunately celebrate the feast with the troops. A Hitler Youth evening had
been scheduled.'"). Clearly, the Hitler Gemeinschaft and the flirtation with a noblewoman meant more to Kempowski than his own family did. By now he was just a degenerate with a horrible temper.
On this occasion, Frau Kempowski’s evocations of the spirit of Christmas and her hope that other nations would understand some day the special meaning of this holiday to Germans, that "tiefe innerliche Fröhlichkeit," 12("deep inner joy"), with the implied claim of German "soul," seemed both hollow and pathetic. Christmas, a time to praise God for the peace and prosperity owed a righteous Christian family in the comfort of a prosperous home had lost all its meaning as the Kempowskis faced the dark years to come with a father who could not even be counted on for love and protection. As Ms. Kemposki put it, "Was würde noch alles vor ihnen liegen. Soviel Schweres. Noch nie sei die
Zukunft so dunkel wie jetzt." ("What would we have lying before us. So much
difficulty. Never before had the future looked as dark as [it did] now.) This was
the moment when, like so many others, everyone knew Germany would lose, although hardly anyone dared to say so yet in public. 14
Clearly, the Kempowskis had never objected initially to the negative values in the Nazi
program for social change. They favored German supremacy and expressed
anti-Semitic sentiments, most often verbalized by his mother, showing that she
regarded Jews as class and national enemies. On the trip to the Harz Mountains
we get this example of her banal anti-Semitism:
In der 1. Klasse lag ein dicker Mann auf den Polstern, der las einen
englischen Kriminalroman. "The Pools of Silence." Zu dem gingen wir rein.
Lässig nahm er die Beine runter.
"I gitt," flüsterte meine Mutter, "wie so'n dicker jüdischer Spion…"
(In first class a fat man lay on the upholstered bench, reading an English
mystery novel. "The Pools of Silence." We went into him. He casually
lowered his legs.
"My goodness," my mother whispered, "just like a fat Jewish spy.")
This ignorant, narrow, resentful woman believed that such a person, a Jew, an
outsider, did not deserve first class accommodations that she and her family
could barely afford. Kempowski’s use of the English title, "The Pools of Silence," underscores the silence around the issue of ordinary Germans' role in the destruction of the Jews. And the notion of a man reading English in the first class department as a sign of aliens entitled to the best of everything, the things that rightfully belonged to Germans of the best sort such as herself. Her mixture of notions of gentility combined with her crude notions and language are remarkable.
& Wolff, 75.
No one in this family ever expressed ideals of equality, fairness, justice. Rather,
they resented the downfall of their own family and hoped for better days. They
looked upon their current life as beneath their station, and the mother, a woman
who had been brought up in a household with servants, now forced to take care
of the needs of a family of five with (eventually) not even a maid, complained
constantly about her domestic labors. The only other possible household help in
a rigidly sex-role divided family would have been Ulla, the daughter, but like so
many others, she took advantage of Bund deutsche Mädel (the girl’s auxiliary of the Hitler Youth) activities to escape the domestic confines, as did many other young women at that time. (Ironically, a regime that postulated breeding and domesticity for women helped some women to expandtheir social roles.) Her mother at any rate found the generosity to help her leave Germany by being kind to her Danish young man, who married Ulla and took her to safety in Denmark.
Could they have done more, been better people? I don’t think it for me or anyone not there to point the finger of self-righteousness. They did not have the 20/20 hindsight that we do. Still it is hard to sympathize with them. Frau Kempowski herself
mouthed the respectable platitudes of her kind and felt no larger moral responsibility.
What Herr Kempowski did as a soldier in Belgium and as a Nazi soldier are closely held secrets; hints of misdeeds rise up but never take clear form.
In spite of his unsuccessful attempts at becoming part of the Nazi state (too old, a member of the discredited and disempowered SA) Herr Kempowski
supported its program of aggression.When manpower became short, and he was inducted into the military, he then went on to participate in Nazi crimes, such as the supervision of Russian slave laborers and participating in Nazi kangaroo courts. And he eventually died, putatively serving his country.
As to the children: While the HJ provided some outlets from family pressures,
and the BDM gave young women achance to enjoy a measure of freedom, the boys Robert and Walter avoided such
activities in favor of their American jazz records, their jazz club, and their easy
flirtations with girls. In this way they showed their internationalism and lack of
identification with the image of youth promulgated by the Nazis. This rebellion did
not, however, cause them to actively oppose the Nazi State: Robert the "swing
youth" served on the eastern front in the last days of the war. Modernization and
the war effort went hand in hand. Modern young men put civilian life on the shelf
and went to war all over the world. The young Kempowskis, adaptable and up-to-
date, would also find their way as post-war consumers who could put the Nazi
past behind them.
The Kempowskis in the Context of Denial
Today, most Germans say they were anti-Nazi. No doubt far more objected to
Nazism after 1942, when it became clear that Germany would lose the war, when
Hitler's charisma had begun to fade. There was plenty of grumbling; however,
grumbling is not resistance. There was hardly any political resistance, which
seems remarkable. Millions of people, the small fish, the ones who merely stole,
denounced, used slave labor, maybe even did a certain amount of killing, were
doing nothing out of the ordinary for the time. Certainly, everyday citizens blamed
the "big" Nazis when things started going badly wrong. They did not blame
themselves but felt that they too were victims of "Hitler."
The strenuous denial syndrome of the Germans, post-1945, their avowal that
Nazism was nothing but an aberration in the cultural life of an otherwise perfectly
normal but superior people (Kulturvolk) has succeeded in turning away most
critical inquiry into the emotional defects and outright criminality of perpetrators
and their families.
The rapid restoration of the material base of life in Germany with the help of the Marshall Plan and the very hard work of the Germans themselves, and the resumption of "normal" life, created a new false front for a people who had learned to deny the past. They prided themselves on turning failure into success. Many even claimed that they had really won,
because they had been saved from "Hitler." Frau Kempowski
expressed this idea as Rostock filled with refugees and soldiers on the run from the Russians:
Und die Nazis im Eimer, dieses Pack.
Den Krieg hätten wir gewonnen, das sei klar.
"Wie, mein Grethelein?" fragte mein Großvater.…
"Ich sage: den Krieg haben wir gewonnen. Die Kirche und die guten
(And the Nazis are finished, that bunch.
We should have won, that's clear.
"What, my little Grethel?" asked my Grandfather.…
"I say, we have won the war. The church and the powers for good!")
The position of Germans as Nazi supporters and pious German patriots
switched to a massive denial of the realities of defeat and humiliation.
Kempowski shows how rapidly this change took place, from one sentence to the
next in his mother’s mouth. This telling passage shows how millions could with
alacrity put the past behind, proclaim their innocence, and turn to the task of
rebuilding Germany. Like so many, the Kempowskis faced the future with no
acknowledgment of their guilt. They styled themselves instead as indomitable
survivors of "the Nazis."
Alexander and Margarete Misterlich elaborate on the post-war mechanisms of
denial and show that Germans have resisted doing what was most necessary:
"…zu verstehen, was sich in diesem Jahrhundert in unserem Land zugetrangen
hat, und womöglich daraus zu lernen."
(…to understand what took place in our
country and wherever possible to learn from this). This resistance among
perpetrators and their children does not consist only of the attempt to cover up
crimes--although much of the post-war effort and continued effort goes into this
project. It also consists of a rigid self-censorship which forbids any constructive
re-working of the past. Adorno and others remark angrily on the recalcitrance of
Nazis behind the "slick facade of everyday life…"
and in particular warn that in the absence of any real acknowledgment of criminal behavior, the evil mechanisms which led to the Nazi disaster still exist, waiting for the moment to awaken from their dormancy and go on the march again. As Adorno says,
"Inwardly, the defeat has been as little ratified as after 1918."21
The claim of victory in defeat, the rebuilding, the restoration of a German cultural
life without the Jews, has provided a full agenda to post-war Germans, which has
kept them too busy to mourn. This defense mechanism, only now breaking down,
kept German society on an even keel for 45 years, with time out for the student
rebellions of the late 60's, although the lack of common courtesy and sympathy (a hangover from the rude manners of the Third Reich)
continued to plague everyday life. Showing their adaptability, in the east,
Germans became good Communists and in the west, good democrats, with the
same alacrity with which they had become good Nazis.
Re-unification has put enormous strain on the pocketbooks of former West
Germans and deprived East Germans of the womb-to-tomb stability of a full-
employment economy. As the situation deteriorates, verbal and physical attacks
against foreigners and refugees have shown a side of German social existence
that many have wished to deny--the inability to compromise, to work things out
amicably, to tolerate difference, or uncertainty and ambiguity--all the buried
problems have again surfaced. Some of the worst disturbances have taken place
in Kempowski’svery own hometown of Rostock.
Writing at a later date, 2007, I must add that Germans have managed to do a great job overall in unifying and stabilizing their country. They seem now like a typical European democracy. I could not have foreseen such success when I wrote this piece in the early 90’s. Germans have benefited greatly by the new freedoms that re-unification and the common market have brought to them. If they are more insecure as a result, they are no more so than the other countries of Western Europe.
The Kempowskis do not find out until 1946 that Herr Kempowski
has been killed in action.
Rolf Becker,"Rolf Becker über Walter Kempowski: Tadellöser &Wolff. Herr Hitler müsse es
wissen." Der Spiegel 18 (April 26, 1971)179.
Günter Alfs, Manfred Rabes, Genauso war es… Kempowskis Familiengeschichte "Tadellöser
& Wolff" im Urteil des Publikums. (Oldenburg, Heinz Holzberg Verlag, 1982)106-108.
See Helmuth Nürnberger. Geschichte der deutschen Literatur (Munich, Bayerischer Schulbuch
Kempowski, Tadellöser & Wolff, 71.
This particular Christmas had a tremendous impact on Kempowski, as it must have had on
others. see "Der Herr der Tagebücher," Der Spiegel 53 (Dec. 28,1992), 156-163, for a
description of Kempowski’s grandiose current project to re-create that moment in history,
Christmas 1942, as Germans from Hitler to Hausfraus experienced it, in photographs, letters to
and from the front, and in personal reminiscences.
See the work of the journalist Jörg Friedrich, Die kalte Amnestie: NS-Täter in der
Bundesrepublik (Frankfurt, a. M: Fischer, 1984), for an exhaustive account of the light sentences
and outright acquittals that German courts meted out to Nazis.
Kempowski, Tadellöser & Wolff, 475.
Alexander and Margarete Misterlich, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern: Grundlagen kollectiven
Verhaltens. (Leipzig, Reclam Verlag, 1990), 10.
Theodor W. Adorno,"What Does Coming to Terms with the Past Mean?" In Bitburg in Moral
and Political Perspective, Ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman (Bloomington IN, Indiana University Press,
See A. & M. Misterlich, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern,12.