In the autumn of 1946, Stig Dagerman, wunderkind of Swedish letters at the age of twenty-three, was sent to Germany by the Swedish newspaper Expressen. Dagerman was a too-bright filament that burned out quickly. He had already written two novels and been proclaimed in Sweden as the premier genius of a new generation. The year after he wrote German Autumn he would publish a collection of short stories and his first play was produced in Stockholm to dazzling success. The next year he wrote two more plays and a third novel. The next year he came out with a fourth novel and wrote a fourth play. Except for this last play, which the author himself disliked, all of these works, including German Autumn, were widely regarded as brilliant.
But then he couldn’t write anymore.
Dagerman was twenty-six and used up. He undertook projects, he kept trying, but he could not write. In 1954, age thirty-one, he gassed himself to death in his car parked in his garage. Recent research suggests he may have been suffering from clinical depression or bipolar disorder with possible manic episodes.
Dagerman’s extraordinary gift was his ability to empathize. He came from a poor rural background; his grandparents raise him because he was abandoned by his parents. A deranged man stabbed his grandfather to death, and his grandmother died soon after from the shock. When Dagerman heard of the murder he tried to write a poem about his feelings. He couldn’t do it, but he regarded that experience as his beginning as a writer. “Something was born,” he wrote. “Something that I believe was the desire to be a writer; that is to say, to be able to tell of what it is to mourn, to have been loved, to be left lonely . . . ” He said his grandmother had “the courage to show love.” Stig Dagerman had the courage to show compassion, and in Germany in 1946 that required a considerable amount of courage.
When Heinrich Heine returned from exile in France in 1843 he found Hamburg shattered from war damage and described it as “a poodle halfway shorn.” When Dagerman arrived in 1946 such flippancy would have been unimaginable because in the intervening hundred years the human capacity for destruction had greatly advanced. Dagerman described Hamburg as “a landscape of ruins drearier than the desert, wilder than a mountain-top, and as farfetched as a nightmare.” That same year Mann had warned, “It is impossible to demand of the abused nations of Europe, of the world, that they shall draw a neat dividing line between ‘Nazism’ and the German people.”
Dagerman didn’t try. He was not neutral: he had a history of active antifascism from his teenage years, when most of the world was not speaking out against the new German regime. But he did not consider passing judgment on these people part of his role. He was a young man who understood deprivation, hunger, and loss. These were human beings who had lost everything, who were living in the flooded, chilly basements of bombed-out buildings, looking for scraps of food. Journalists working in Germany found a strong vein of Nazi sentiment, and Dagerman found such people as well, but he criticized journalists for regarding “the Germans as one solid block, irradiating Nazi chill, and not as a multitude of starving and freezing individuals.” Dagerman found, in the words of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, perpetrators, victims, and bystanders— concentration camp survivors and SS members all crawling through the same rubble, all people in deplorable conditions.
Dagerman’s compassion was no small accomplishment. On my many trips to Germany I have always sought out the victims, discovered a few perpetrators, and been deeply disturbed by the knowledge that most of the people I saw were bystanders. I felt as Mann wrote that “the lack of a sense of the evil of the obviously and unequivocally wicked will always be a crime”—an unforgiveable one. Twenty-five years after Dagerman’s German autumn I was on a transatlantic ship (they were still transportation then), and a suave, silver-haired man from Munich standing at a bar said to me that “the fire bombing of Dresden was the greatest atrocity of World War II.” I did not want to speak to this man again. He had actually lived through the Nazi years in Germany and thought the Allied bombing, horrendous as it was, was the greatest atrocity.
Twenty years later I was in Dresden, the center still in ruins, reporting on the efforts of the newly unified Germany to at last rebuild that historic baroque city. Dresdeners tried to evoke my sympathy, but they kept leading me to archives that showed the destruction and what it was like before. Before was the problem—all those photographs of plump and happy Germans cheering swastikaed mass murderers. This is not easily overlooked and I’m not sure it should be overlooked. But Dagerman understood what was at stake. He quoted Victor Gollancz, a Jewish publisher in London who had only recently made his own visit to Germany that autumn and warned that “the values of the West are in danger.” Gollancz, a far more active antifascist than Dagerman and one of the few to speak loudly of the Holocaust during the war, was so disturbed by the conditions he found in Germany that he published that year a book about it, Our Threatened Values. Like Gollancz, Dagerman believed that compassion had to be preserved, that it was vital to maintain “the capacity to react in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved.”
Had we listened, had we felt more compassion, had we felt more troubled by the human suffering that was caused by our bombs, perhaps we would have spoken out louder and not ourselves been bystanders to the bombing of Hanoi and of Baghdad. World War II had been more brutal to civilians than warfare had ever been before. In the wars since then, the percentage of civilians on the conflict’s casualty list has been steadily rising.
German Autumn is a very important book and it is crucial that an English language version is now available for Americans. We need this book. Karl Jaspers, the German psychiatrist turned philosopher, wrote, “We wish to understand history as a whole, in order to understand ourselves.”
Stig Dagerman (1923–1954) was regarded as the most talented young writer of the Swedish postwar generation. By age twenty-six he had published four novels, a collection of short stories, and four full-length plays, in addition to German Autumn.
Mark Kurlansky is a New York Times best-selling author of many books, including Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History.
"German Autumn is one of the best collections ever written about the aftermath of war. It is on par with John Reed’s classic articles from the Soviet Union as well as with Edgar Snow’s articles about the great political revolution in China. It should be compulsory reading for all young people who might consider becoming a journalist, and it is as alive as it was when first published in 1947. Read it."—Henning Mankell
"Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion."—Graham Greene