Extract from: War Diary. With Letters From Jack Hamesh
INGEBORG BACHMANN, EDITED BY HANS HÖL L ER, TRANSLATED BY MIKE MITCHELL
‘The Loveliest Summer’ and What Preceded It‘ The different conditions leading to Bachmann’s loneliness (even though she had a ‘nice home’) are documented in her diary. The first part, the actual ‘war’ diary, describes how, along with other young women, she withdrew from militarized Nazi society and its dictatorship of terror in education and headed instead for freedom. Her courage and her refusal to compromise are allied to her books: in the garden of the Klagenfurt house she read, with death all around her, Rilke’s Stundenbuch (Book of Hours) and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). And she was prepared to desert when she found herself exposed to the murderous consequences of Nazi education in the teacher-training college: ‘These grown-ups, these high-and-mighty “educators”, who want to let us get killed’ .
The second part of Bachmann’s diary—written around the end of May and in June 1945—is about the immediate post-war period in Obervellach. She fled to the village above Hermagor, to the small house her father had inherited, with her mother (Olga Bachmann, née Haas, 1901–98), her sister Isolde (b. 1928) and her brother Heinz (b. 1939). Her father (Matthias Bachmann, 1895–1973), a teacher by profession, had been an officer in the army since the beginning of the war; he rejoined the family in August 1945 after a brief period as a prisoner of war with the Americans.
Bachmann’s early short story ‘Das Honditschkreuz. Eine Erzählung aus dem Jahre 1813’ (The Honditsch Cross: A Story from 1813; 1943) is set in that area of southern Carinthia; the cross of the title is not far from her home. As a seventeen-year-old, she situated her story—about the world of war and the Nazi ideology of a border war—in the region of her homeland closest to her: Obervellach in the Gail valley is the land of her childhood. In Das Buch Franza, her childhood myth is called ‘Galicia’ and the chapter in which Franza remembers the time of liberation from war and Nazi rule in the spring and summer of 1945 is called ‘Return to Galicia’.
‘Das Honditschkreuz’ is set during the war of liberation against Napoleon and it mainly takes place in the mixed-language area of Obervellach and Hermagor. The young writer is less concerned with the liberation from Napoleonic rule than with the mania of nationalism which makes people take leave of their senses and turns them into madmen and murderers. Here, for the first time in Bachmann’s writing, we find the longing to cross fixed frontiers, the image of the bridge as an ideal and the portrayal of war as a place of murder. She completed the story in 1943, the same year in which the Nazi ‘Borderland Exhibition’—which marshalled all aspects of the military ideology of a frontier struggle— took place in Klagenfurt.
Part of Bachmann’s distancing from the ‘German racial community’, which preceded her meeting with Hamesh, was to read books banned and burnt by the Nazis. They became a shibboleth by which the soldier of the British Army who had returned to Austria, and the eighteen-year-old student who had just completed secondary school, recognized each other. It was the books from the world of yesterday which suddenly changed the conversation between them: in her diary entry for 14 June 1945 , she wrote, ‘suddenly everything was quite different’. The same entry reveals how a future opened up for her: how she became aware that what was happening must never be lost; that it must become a measure of her future life. She publicly acknowledged her friendship with Hamesh and declared that she’d ‘walk up and down through Vellach and through Hermagor ten times over with him, even if everyone gets in a stew about it,’ yes, ‘especially then’ because both in the village and in the town people still took offence at ‘the Jew’.
In their first conversation about books she has read she mentions Mann, Zweig, Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, and Hamesh is surprised to find someone who has read ‘all that despite her Nazi upbringing’. Her diary shows how attentively she listened to him and to his completely different life story. In her description, the end of the 14 June meeting is like a dream picture of a new coming together after the catastrophe, like a picture Chagall never painted: after a Jew, driven out of Austria in 1938, has kissed her hand, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a Carinthian Nazi family climbs up into an apple tree that night and cries, thinking she never wants to wash her hand again.
It was as if the books began to live, for those that Bachmann had read and those Hamesh gave her to read (‘Marx and Adler’, writing branded by the Nazis as ‘Jewish-Bolshevist’) and, above all, the way they read together, all show the new openness of the world after the military liberation from Nazi rule. Hamesh, born in Vienna in 1920—where, it is possible, he was called Jakob Fünfer since ‘hamesh’ means ‘five’ in Hebrew—told her the story of his flight from Austria, which she recorded in her diary. In 1938, he managed to flee to England in a kindertransport with other Jewish children even though he was already eighteen. She asks him when there’s something she hasn’t heard of and she realizes that, with ‘the Jew’ and these books, she is moving away from the world she grew up in and that her mother would faint if she heard them talking.
It was in people like her, willing to distance themselves from what they had heard and to listen to other stories, that the survivors of the Shoah put their hope after 1945. Several years after he met Bachmann in 1948 post-war Vienna, Paul Celan recalled the poem ‘In Ägypten’ (In Egypt) that he had dedicated to her: for him, she was the ‘foundation of life’, ‘also because you are and remain the justification for my speaking’
The Break with the Wartime World of her Father’s Generation
The first part of the diary, from the last months of the war in Klagenfurt, contains the description of Bachmann’s desertion from a country kept under occupation by the ‘high-and-mighty “educators” ’. The final sentence is: ‘No, there’s no point in talking to grown-ups any more’ .
The ‘hated teacher-training college’, for which she had to register in order to avoid being assigned to compulsory labour in Poland—presumably it was the National Labour Service—was an organizing centre of the Nazi ideology of homeland and ethnic nationality. The name ‘Anderluh’ mentioned several times in the diary represents the way in which Nazi education and ethnic German culture had gone completely over the top during Hitler’s ‘total war’. The person Bachmann probably had in mind is Anton Anderluh (1896–1975), principal of the teacher-training college in Klagenfurt from 1938 to 1945. He was well known as an expert on folk song, conductor of many male and female voice choirs, head of the Gau committee for folk music in Carinthia, regional head of the Reich Chamber of Music for Carinthia and, as established by a commission set up by the Klagenfurt senate in June 2008, ‘more’ than just a ‘follower of the Nazi regime of terror’.
After the First World War, the border conflicts and the politically exploited ‘defensive struggle’ against Yugoslavia’s territorial claims meant that enthusiasm for ‘home defence’ was particularly strong in Carinthia. This made it easy for Nazi officials to steer the patriotic sentiments towards support for the war effort. The murderous consequences of this ethnic cult of the homeland is the subject of the so-called dream chapter in Bachmann’s Malina. In it, the ‘origin’ of the destruction is seen in the ‘topography’ of a Carinthian landscape. The theme of this first nightmarish scene—unmistakably the Wörthersee near Klagenfurt— is the hushing up of the crimes committed at that spot. The dreaming woman has a suspicion of ‘which lake it might be’: the soulful male voice choirs, once standing on the ice in the middle of the lake, are now gone. And the lake, which cannot be seen, is fringed with the many graveyards. Her
father is standing beside her; he takes his hand off her shoulder when the gravedigger comes up to them. He tries to forbid the man from speaking; and, after moving his lips soundlessly for a while, he speaks only one sentence: ‘That is the graveyard of the murdered daughters./He shouldn’t have told me that and I cried bitter tears.’
The war diary, in which Bachmann describes the destructive nature of her father’s generation, is fundamental to understanding the passages on the father-daughter drama developed in the subsequent dream scenes of Malina, and which explode into a panorama of violence that in some mysterious way brings them together in an ominous silence. ‘My father, I say to him, I wouldn’t have betrayed you, I wouldn’t have told anyone,’ Bachmann writes in the dream of the great gas chamber of the world, the one immediately after the Carinthia dream.
The father-son theme of late nineteenth/early twentieth century literature is, in Bachmann’s writing, overwritten by the murder of the daughter. After 1945, we can no longer ignore the fact that the war of the fathers and sons was not fought outside the family but, rather, destroyed the foundations of civilian and family life. In the war diary, the focus is still on the murderous Nazi educators outside the family; but the later the book, the more urgent is Bachmann’s debate with the ‘father’, whom she presents as a social institution, a ‘great figure’, a ‘figure that carries out what society carries out.’ However, as she writes ‘my father’ (or ‘our family’ elsewhere), we are compelled to see ourselves included in this literary discussion on the connection between fathers and violence and on families who remain silent.
A text that has only survived in fragments and that confronts us, in the fictional first-person narrator, with the dilemma of talking about ‘our family’, was probably written while Bachmann worked on Todesarten (Manners of Death) in the second half of the 1960s. The narrative fragment Der Tod wird kommen (Death will come) is about the impossibility of betraying one’s own family ‘with its festering boils’, even though we are ‘allowed to see more of our family’ than ‘of any other’: ‘I have acquired a big eye for our family, a big ear for its languages, acquired a big silence about so much that is to be hushed up from the immediate proximity.’
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