Autumn in Hell

by John E. Riutta

When what was left of the German leadership finally surrendered to the Allied forces in 1945, Germany was a devastated nation – politically, economically, socially, and physically. Its population, terrorized by the supporters of the cult of personality of its totalitarian leader, had already suffered over a decade of fear and privation. Then in 1945 with the destruction of the remainder of the National Socialist government the control of the nation shifted to the occupying English, American, Russian, and French forces who, in their eagerness to “de-Nazify” the country (as well as to exact punishment upon it), set in place a host of tribunals and regulations that had the result of making life for the average German citizen worse than it had even been during the war.

It was into this man-made hell that that the editor of the Swedish newspaper Expressen in the autumn of 1946 sent the twenty-four year old Stig Dagerman. Already a writer of some note, Dagerman was charged with seeking out the truth about the daily lives of the German people to discover how they were faring and to discover if there was any truth behind the reports that continued to be published in the presses of the victorious Allied nations of the continuation of Nazi sentiments among the citizenry. A better choice for this assignment is now difficult to imagine, for the essays Dagerman wrote, collected and published in Swedish in 1947 as Tysk Höst and now for the first time published in an American edition titled German Autumn by the University of Minnesota Press, about his travels along the rubble-strewn streets, into the flooded cellars, and along the over-crowded and barely functioning railways of post-war Germany are a testament like few others ever written to the horrors of both war and its aftermath upon the civilians of a defeated nation.

By not allowing himself to remain safely ensconced in the hotels, restaurants, and bars that were filled with reporters safely protected from the reality of post-war German life by the “No German Citizens Allowed” signs prominently posted on the doors of these establishments, Dagerman was able to witness the desolation, hopelessness, squalor and crime into which had fallen what only a few years previous had been a modern (although admittedly still economically hobbled by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the previous war) European middle-class culture. Where his fellow journalists form the international press fell back upon such hackneyed phrases as “indescribable suffering,” Dagerman declared boldly that such suffering can and must be described – then he did precisely that.

From his reports the reader is brought into the flooded cellars of otherwise destroyed buildings and shown just how the German people were surviving on scavenged rotten potatoes boiled in fetid water. Into the half-standing train stations where young German girls sold their bodies for whatever they could get to the occupying Allied soldiers. Into the curiously intact apartments of the well-connected former party members and the inventory-filled rooms of the black marketeers. And into the kabuki-like Spruchkammern where multitudes of petty offenses (some valid, others little more than acts of personal or business-motivated revenge) reportedly committed primarily by insignificant functionaries of the former regime were tried and penalties imposed. It is a chronicle of suffering; a portrait of a broken nation in the midst of being even further broken down by, in some cases, the very people and organizations self-charged with setting it back in order.

As a document for establishing a more fully rounded understanding of just what happened in Germany following the war, German Autumn is of immense value; however it has the power to be even more. Despite the advancement of military technologies since the end of World War II that political and military leaders praise for the purported reduction of casualties among soldiers, the effects of war – be it civil, regional, or international – upon the civilian population residing in the areas where it is fought remain overwhelmingly the same as Dagerman depicted them in post-war Germany: people starve, children sicken and die, families are uprooted and torn apart. One need only look to Afghanistan, Syria, Central African Republic, or Gaza to see these same effects. Unfortunately, for these aforementioned modern-day wars, there are precious few Stig Dagermans carrying reports of this suffering to the rest of the world; and even when such a like-spirited soul does, too few are paying attention to their words.


German AutumnTitle: German Autumn

Author: Stig Dagerman, translated by Robin Fulton Macpherson with a foreword by Mark Kurlansky

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

ISBN: 978-0-8166-7752-8

Format: paperback

Date of Publication: October 2011