[BOA Editions: 40 Years of Connecting Writers with Readers in the Friedlander Lobby at the Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester]
In Displaying the life and thoughts of a humanist scientist, I said spending time at the University of Rochester means feasting on an ever replenished smorgasbord of historical, philosophical, literary and visual delights.
Following Researching the Daguerreotype at the University of Rochester: Nanotechnology Meets Local History (see Bringing back the mid 19th Century at the University of Rochester), the current exhibit in the Rush Rhees Friedlander Lobby is no exception: BOA Editions: 40 Years of Connecting Writers with Readers.
Digging into both the BOA archives and the Rush Rhees Rare Book collection, curators Travis Johansen and Phyllis Andrews have created a fascinating tapestry of 40 years of literary activity, embroidered with assorted artifacts, vintage photos, art work, as well as writer’s and reader’s statements on their own creative processes. The exhibit runs to July 29th.
As seen in Blessing the Boats , the celebration was kicked off with an evening of readings from a wide range of authors published by BOA over the decades: Francis Ponge’s 1982 “Rain” (read by U of R’s James Longenbach to Delmore Schwartz’s 1992 “Baudelaire” (read by the D & C’s Jeff Spevak) to William Heyen’s 1996 “Legend” (read by himself) to Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” from Blessing the Boats (read by Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren).
Prominently displayed in the exhibit is The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress (1977) by W.D. Snodgrass, the first publication bearing the BOA imprint. The Führer Bunker received tremendous critical attention and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, optioned for the stage by Joseph Papp, and produced by Wynn Handman for The American Place Theater. In 1995, BOA published The Führer Bunker: The Complete Cycle that includes over forty additional poems.
Having read The Führer Bunker:The Complete Cycle at some point but only dimly recalling, I enhanced the visit to the Friedlander Lobby by revisiting the work that had so consumed Snodgrass for 40 years.
For many, the rise and fall of the Third Reich and Adolph Hitler is an endlessly compelling subject. I have read just some of the too-numerous-to-list Hitler biographies, post mortems like The German Generals Speak, and every related issue of Ballantine’s Illustrated History of World War II.
The period of greatest fascination is from the beginning of the Ardennes Offense (The Battle of the Bulge) on December 16th, 1944 to the end on May 8th, 1945 (and even beyond to May 23rd when Admiral Doenitz’ post-Reich Flensburg Government finally capitulated in Schleswig Holstein).
As Ballantine’s tells us, (right) a negotiated peace in Fall 1944 could have left Germany largely intact. But Hitler launched his doomed offensive into Belgium — the Panzer Lehr Division failed to capture Allied gasoline dumps and ran out fuel far short of the Meuse — and then went underground into the Berlin Bunker on January 16th, 1945.
And in those final months — the Wehrmacht fought so stubbornly as to launch another doomed offensive, die Frühlingserwachen — day by day German civilization broke down completely, even as almost to the end newspapers were printed, radio shows broadcasted, the telephones worked, and the Berlin Orchestra played its last concert on April 12th three weeks before Gotterdammerung.
Why are people so fascinated with the Third Reich, and especially the passion play of a wedding, infanticide and suicides in das Bunker?
Outside the Friedlander Lobby, I ran into Paul Burgett (of the Paul J. Burgett Intercultural Center). At one point in his career, Paul also waded through the Hitler tomes on the groaning shelves of Rush Rhees, saying he got his hands on everything he could find, including The Führer Bunker.
As we spoke, several themes emerged. First, there is the lure of fantastical conspiratorial theories that Hitler survived the war, fed by novels such as They Saved Hitler’s Brain which imagines Hitler’s brain in the body of a women who screams at climax: ICH BIN DER FUHRER.
More relevantly for Paul is the chilling but necessary exploration of the depths of human evil. As described by Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, how could much of the German nation go along with the Final Solution?
And the figure of Hitler himself who Paul thinks hypnotically attracts our attention even in repulsion.
By the time the subterranean passion play reaches the cruelest month of April, as Paul said: “it’s like a horror movie we’ve seen before. We know how it ends.”
Eva and Adolph will marry on the eve of their deaths. Valets Linge and Axmann will find Eva supine on the couch, unblemished by a bullet courtesy of Himmler’s cyanide.
Magda will poison her children one by one, then play solitaire before Joseph shoots her in the heart before his own bullet to the temple.
A macabre fascination with the details is inescapably there.
But more deeply, we also want to know: what does the downfall of one of the world’s greatest megalomaniacs and his cabal — their destructive fantasies attracting but always more strongly repelling us — look like ?
And on a visceral level, we thought there must be some element of schadenfreude (a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people).
We know, of course, the just deserts of the Nazis are more that fully deserved. Perhaps the element of shadenfreude is that we perhaps over relish the pleasure watching the hubris, vainglory and pomposity return to bite to its bearer. And must remind ourselves that none of us are immune from the descent into evil.
(A schadenfreude that Paul admits wanting to feel just a little in November if another megalomaniac — of a far, far lower scale — falls down.)
Before reading the poems, I watched Downfall (2005) and the well-received 1981 made-for-tv movie The Bunker starring Anthony Hopkins. I also read three prominent accounts of the Hitler’s end: The Last Days of Hitler (1947) by H.R. Trevor Roper, The Bunker by James P.O’Donnell (1978) and Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich (2002, first published in 1947) by Joachim Fest. The 1981 film was based on O’Donnel’s work; Downfall relied heavily on Fest.
To begin, to provide historical context, an overview of Snodgrass’ poems and some biographical background, below are excerpts from Matthew Boswell’s The Holocaust Poetry of John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and W.D. Snodgrass (2005) PhD thesis, University of Sheffield. In the captions of selected poems is analysis by Boswell as well as from “Scanning Evil,” a review of The Complete Cycle by J.S. Renau in Contemporary Poetry Review (July 2010).
Following his inglorious return to Berlin from his western command centre in Ziegenberg in January 1945, Hitler transferred his living quarters to an underground bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery; with the territorial boundaries of the Reich rapidly contracting, and the Russians closing in on the capital, the dictator now sought an escape from the constant air raids that were disrupting his sleep and distracting him from his work. The bunker to which he withdrew was created by the extensive reconstruction of an old bomb shelter – a lengthy project which had been completed in the summer of 1944: the original shelter had been deepened, with a whole second tier added, and encased by a sixteen and a half feet thick shell of reinforced concrete. Hitler occupied the lower, and slightly larger, of the two storeys, which subsequently became known as the Fuehrer Bunker. It consisted of eighteen small, dimly lit rooms built either side of a central passage. By April, as the German military position deteriorated even further, Hitler was also holding his twice-daily staff conferences in the bunker. Immured in this tenebrous complex, he now emerged into daylight only to walk his dog, Blondi, in the crater-filled Chancellery gardens, or to have lunch with his secretaries.
For those members of Hitler’s inner circle who had joined him underground, life was chaotic and strained. As Alan Bullock puts it in his biography Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1952):
The physical atmosphere of the bunker was oppressive, but this was nothing compared to the pressure of the psychological atmosphere. The incessant air-raids, the knowledge that the Russians were now in the city, nervous exhaustion, fear, and despair produced a tension bordering on hysteria, which was heightened by propinquity to a man whose changes of mood were not only unpredictable but affected the lives of all those in the shelter.
Hitler continued to live an increasingly bizarre subterranean existence throughout April, deploying battalions of non-existent troops, clinging to a long-held belief that a split among the Allies was inevitable, and ordering extempore dismissals, executions and promotions, until he shot himself on April 30.
In W. D. Snodgrass’s cycle of poems The Fuehrer Bunker (1995), a series of dramatic monologues spoken by prominent Nazis during the last days of the Reich, the tumultuous atmosphere of the bunker becomes the backdrop for a poetic exploration of the genocidal mentality, with the underground chamber standing as a central symbol for the buried histories and repressed psychological energies that the poems unearth. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s compelling film Downfall (2005), which also retells the story of Hitler’s final days in the bunker, deploys a realist aesthetic to portray key events in the fall of the Reich; while the film is a character study of Hitler and his secretary, Traudl Junge, the style means that it lacks inwardness, and viewers are left with no real insight into the main characters’ past histories or motivations: the point is to show as closely as possible what happened, not to ask why. In The Fuehrer Bunker, on the other hand, the besieged hideout is, in the words of the fictional Goebbels, less a representation of a real historical space than a kind of “confession booth/ Where liars face up to blank truth.”
The Origins and Objectives of The Fuehrer Bunker
Snodgrass had long aspired to dramatise events in the Fuehrer Bunker, and to recreate the personalities of the highest-ranking, most infamous Nazis. He has commented:
As soon as the war was over, I began reading the Nazi books and memoirs. I really wanted to know what the hell could somebody think, or feel, that would make them feel those acts were necessary. How could they even think they were possible?
In the late 1940s he tried to write a play based on Hugh Trevor-Roper’s investigative report into the death of Hitler, The Last Days of Hitler (1947). The play was never completed (by Snodgrass’s own admission, at the time he ‘wasn’t very good’), but its grounding in Trevor-Roper’s documentary report, and above all its overt theatricality, were to become central elements of the ambitious poetic cycle on which he began work in the early 1970s.
Trevor-Roper has himself described the events leading up to Hitler’s death as ‘a carefully produced theatrical piece’ consistent with the dictator’s whole previous history, which had been ‘consciously theatrical, perhaps even operatic’. The dramatic character of the last days in the bunker was reflected in Snodgrass’s chosen poetic form, what he has called an ‘oratorio or speech cantata’. Like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954), the cycle is a kind of ‘play for voices’ (though Snodgrass does not make use of Thomas’s dialogic technique). For this form Snodgrass has frequently registered his indebtedness to Henri Coulette’s The War of the Secret Agents (1966), another series of dramatic monologues set in World War II and based on real-life events. Coulette’s poly-voiced poem tells the story of the betrayal of a group of secret agents by the British government: sent to Paris, where many of them were eventually murdered by the Gestapo, the agents were unaware that they were being used to distract the German intelligence forces, so that the real secret agents – the ‘underground beneath the underground’ – would not get caught.
Not only the form of The War of the Secret Agents, but also its themes of political intrigue and personal betrayal, influenced The Fuehrer Bunker. In its elaborate narrative plotting, its focus on court intrigues and rivalries, and its depiction of the downfall of flawed over-reachers, Snodgrass’s volume might even be said to resemble a Jacobean tragedy. Paul Gaston has termed The Fuehrer Bunker ‘a tragedy of evil’, and Snodgrass has himself compared his technique of juxtaposing highly stylised passages with more realistic scenes to King Lear. There are also elements of Greek tragedy in the poet’s use of a formal chorus, and in his concerted exploration of the relation between political events and family life; and Snodgrass draws extensively on Freud’s theoretical reading of the ‘family drama’ played out in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex to explore the unconscious motivations of his characters. In an interview with Gaston, he explained this eagerness to give military events a domestic context: ‘We create our political systems and our armies in the terms that the family has set out for us. The same drives that make us make families make us make nations.’
While The Fuehrer Bunker has been performed on the stage on several occasions, it should not, however, be thought of as a play; this is very much a verse cycle, and its drama is most elaborately performed on the page. For the volume Snodgrass created what he termed ‘a compendium of verse forms’, whereby ‘each speaker has a kind of verse form that is typical of his or her personality’. The result is one of the most elaborately stylised and inventive aesthetic representations of Nazism, with the form, mise-en-page, and even the typography of the poems embodying the differing psychological states of the main characters.
Also, here is Renau’s concluding commentary:
Snodgrass’s great contribution to American verse is his ability to create a “reflexive” poetry where the artifact of the poem is difficult to separate from the poet’s process of self-examination. Presumably, the reader must follow suit, and whereas The Führer Bunker is concerned, it is a mental exercise that many readers refuse to carry out. In this sense, The Führer Bunker is less about Nazis and more about Everyman’s potential for evil. Without deferring to disco-era reader-response criticism, there is something to be said for the reader’s expectations in encountering The Führer Bunker. And most of the bluster that passes for criticism concerning the volume ultimately says more about us than Snodgrass’s poetry. The dirty little trick of The Führer Bunker was in creating Nazis who resemble us, not to attenuate their sins, but to magnify ours. That this strategy flies in the face of the smug and the lazy, particularly 25 years after the book’s initial publication, is surely a good indication of its relevance and its ability to strike a nerve.
But poems must stand or fall as artifacts, too. On this point, The Führer Bunker does not display the consistency of great poems. [Still], Magda Goebbels’s poem of 19 April, 1945, is as moving and well-conceived as any poem of the post-war period
* * *
Later, Boswell asks a fundamental question. In his portraits of evil — if all too human — what has Snodgrass added to the volumes and volumes devoted to Third Reich from whose sheer mass no single example can escape?
Boswell highlights Snodgrass’ conviction that individual psychology can be a determining force in history. This premise — once called The Great Man theory of history — is problematic, if not naive.
Renau reinforces the point in discussing the Chorus — voices of the German people experiencing the destruction outside the Bunker — that frames and interrupts the monologues spoken by the leading Nazi figures.
But the choral voice does not embody or miniaturize German (or Western European) society, thereby losing some of its ability to dramatize the tensions between the individual speakers and the society they inhabit. Fitting, that, given the realities of totalitarian fascism, its secret police squads, indoctrination programs, and brutal suppression of dissent.
Renau sees the Chorus failing to adequately make visible the destructive outcomes taking place outside the megalomaniacal vainglory of the Bunker.
For all their poetic artistry, even more so than Renau, Boswell concludes Snodgrass’ poems fall short in producing deep illumination into the Nazi era:
What The Fuehrer Bunker ultimately lacks, however, at least as far as its success as a contribution to historical understanding goes, is precisely prose’s formal capacity to investigate the complex sociological and economic factors that underlie historical events. The many monographs, biographies, and historical studies of Hitler and Nazism suggest that individual psychology alone cannot account for the totality of the genocide. Broader political, historical and socio-economic factors determine why the destructive psychological forces and ‘horrifying powers’ which Snodgrass associates with the Nazi period, and which he feels we ‘hold […] in check only very tentatively’, might erupt with such deadly consequence in one particular place and time. In The Fuehrer Bunker, however, the rather unsatisfying assumption seems to be that genocide can break into the world merely as a result of one man’s destructive volition.
By contrast, the German film Downfall (2005) (mentioned by Boswell) both inhabits the Bunker but also (as Snodgrass does not) dramatizes much of the Battle of Berlin itself.
In cinematic sweep, we are taken above ground to the frontlines: the slaughter of untrained Hitler Youth and Volkssturm fighters, suicide squads hanging civilian accused of cowardice, other civilians committing suicide before the Russians arrive, a makeshift hospital in the Reichstag where forgotten old women await their doom, grisly amputations and more suicides in the crowded subway tunnels. The whole walpurgisnacht set against the rubble and flames of dying Berlin.
At the same time, for all its “realist aesthetic” (Boswell), Downfall cannot do what Snodgrass’ interior monologues can. For all its vivid renderings, I agreed with Boswell who concludes the film: “lacks inwardness, and viewers are left with no real insight into the main characters’ past histories or motivations.”
A more interesting film/poems pairing can be found in The Bunker (1981) starring Anthony Hopkins. The movie is based on James P.O’Donnell’s The Bunker (1978) published just one year after A Cycle of Poems in Progress.
O’Donnel spent decades interviewing eyewitnesses: surviving Wehrmacht officers and member of Hitler’s civilian staff. As O’Donnell says, the memory of the eyewitness is inevitably distorting and distorted, but in narrating the story through their accounts O’Donnell believes he found “psychological truth.”
The Bunker also spends much time on ancillary figures with much of the plot taking place in the engineering and telecommunications rooms. Albert Speer — who haltingly planned to assassinate Hitler by infusing poison gas into his quarters — is prominently featured. The film is superior to the 1973 “Hitler: The Last Ten Days” in which Alec Guiness plays Hitler at times wittily leading dinner conversations as Berlin burns.
Made for tv, The Bunker is more playlike than filmic. All the relatively slow paced action takes place in the Bunker compound in which the Roman architecture and motifs of the Reichstag are emphasized. Hitler is Nero fiddling; while Speer is Brutus. Unlike Downfall, the mood is much more subdued. Hitler’s rantings are limited to his outburst in which he declares to his generals (with the staff listening outside): Das Krieg ist verloren (the war is lost).
SS General Feigelein’s (Eva Braun’s brother in law) death by firing squad for attempting to flee Berlin and align with Himmler is represented as a fleeting image of a meathook (another execution device used in the Battle of Berlin).
Magda Goebbels infanticide is not shown. Rather, just as the last Bunker inhabitants are fleeing on May 1st, one man opens the door to a fleeting image of the Goebbel’s children dead in their beds.
By shifting focus from the intense psychodrama and Freudian family romance of the Inner Circle — Adolph, Eva, Magda and Joseph — the movie allows us to imagine ourselves as those “ordinary German” eyewitnesses.
The viewer sees that he or she could conceivably have been a cook, a valet, an engineer, guard, a radio transmitter, a civil servant called in to perform the Hitler’s marriage, or secretary Traudl Junge taking dictation of Hitler’s and Goebbel’s last words.
How complicit would we feel as we stood in line as Hitler and Eva shook our hands and hugged us one by one on their way to cyanide and a pistol shot? As the Third Reich gave way to West Germany.
Reading and watching The Führer Bunker and The Bunker together allows a kind of full and powerful aesthetic experience. The interiors of an ultimately realist drama overlapping with the post-modern language, genre and psychological games of Snodgrass.
Cast against the drumbeat of the Russian advance portrayed — even if subdued — in The Bunker, Snodgrass presents inner consciousness and personality as shattered, scattered and illuminated in the simultaneously claustrophobic yet expressively expansive symbolic Bunker.
I didn’t expect the The Führer Bunker to be any kind of final word. And I know enough about the subject to see the limitations of the poems as a seminal contribution to historical understanding by investigating the complex sociological and economic factors that underlie historical events (Boswell).
But revisiting The Führer Bunker and the groaning shelves of Rush Rhees devoted to das Dritte Reich was a valuable excursion.
A similarly valuable excursion can be made to the Friedlander Lobby before BOA Editions: 40 Years of Connecting Writers with Readers closes on July 29th.
ALSO ON THE UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER