IN HER TRAVEL BOOK, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon (1941), Rebecca West, a journalist and literary critic for The New Republic, offered some stark views on the human condition:

Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.

Germany after World War II resembled that love for ruin. Images from the time show the full-blown annihilation of cities, towns, and farmland. Over 3.6 million homes and a fifth of the country’s buildings were destroyed. Roads, rail tracks, bridges, and phone lines, lay charred and tangled. Power stations had been leveled, plunging the country into darkness. Erika Mann described Berlin as a “lunar landscape — a sea of devastation, shoreless and infinite.” The average calorie intake there fell to 1,412 per day (it was 2,445 between 1940 and 1941), and disease from rotting corpses was endemic. Martha Gellhorn said Cologne was “one of the great morgues of the world.”

Through this blasted landscape labored millions of displaced victims: orphaned children, women who had lost husbands, men who had lost wives; refugees from concentration camps — shaven, skeletal, and hollow-eyed — who had lost everything. To walk these ruins, to witness the human flotsam, George Orwell wrote, was “to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation.”

Physical destruction was the most immediate sign of this apocalypse. But the unseen human costs were also catastrophic. In 1945, Stephen Spender visited the mayor of Cologne, and future postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. Spender described the city’s broken terrain, the “damp, hollow, stinking emptiness of gutted interiors,” and the inhabitants who resembled “parasites sucking at a dead carcass.” But Adenauer pointed to a different kind of devastation: “You can’t have failed to notice that the Nazis have laid German culture just as flat as the ruins of the Rhineland and the Ruhr. Fifteen years of Nazi rule have left Germany a spiritual desert.”

After July 1945, the Occupying Powers — Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States — not only undertook to repair German properties and infrastructure. They also planned to resuscitate the body politic via the redemptive power of art. Literature and film were thought essential to creating a passive and stable nation, shorn of its militarist traditions. Programs of reeducation and de-Nazification aimed to expunge Nazism from German life and entrench a new democratic order. Like O’Brien’s last promise to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): “We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”

The coercive force behind the “squeeze” is relevant. As Lara Feigel discusses in The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich, her intelligent and moving book about the writers and filmmakers who traveled to Germany between 1945 and 1949, postwar planners had to balance reeducation, on the one hand, and punishment on the other. The Nazis and their supporters had been defeated, but the scale of their crimes obliged the governments of liberated Europe to seek retribution.

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Germans had little sense of how the rest of the world saw them in the 1940s. The miseries of postwar life — shortages in food, housing, medicine, and money — overlay thoughts about their victims, and they were haunted more by military defeat than atrocities committed in their name. When Brecht’s play The Threepenny Opera opened in Berlin in 1945, audiences cheered the line, “first comes food, then morality.” The Nuremberg Trials were resented as a “victors’ justice,” while cinema audiences turned away from the films they were required to watch on Dachau and Buchenwald.

Erika Mann, an American war correspondent at the time, was disturbed by the lack of collective guilt among her former compatriots. “In their hearts,” she wrote to her brother, Klaus, “self-deception and dishonesty, arrogance and docility, shrewdness and stupidity are repulsively mingled.” The American photographer Lee Miller was another exasperated witness, scorning Germans for ignoring their part in Europe’s destruction: “What kind of detachment are they able to find, from what kind of escape zones in the unventilated alleys of their brains are they able to conjure up the idea that they are liberated instead of conquered people?”

It wasn’t clear whether German self-pity signified a deliberate refusal to grieve or a genuine incapacity to feel. In her 1950 “Report from Germany,” Hannah Arendt noted that the “apparent heartlessness” suggested a refusal to come to terms with what happened. Many assumed Nazism was the naked expression of deep-rooted elements in the national character. Allied culture — anything from public manners to high art — would help purge those. Within the policy of reeducation, then, was the same civilizing agenda as that of European colonialism in Africa and Asia.

Erika Mann’s view that all Germans were guilty, remorseless, and beyond redemption, derived from personal tragedy: the Nazis had forced her family into exile in the 1930s, and had murdered many of her friends. Lee Miller’s cynicism followed a visit to a concentration camp, after which she stayed at Hitler’s abandoned apartment in Munich — the domestic scene making him “less fabulous and therefore more terrible.” (Miller’s act of vengeance was to pose in Hitler’s bath; her boots caked in the dirt of Dachau, sullying the fresh white towel in the foreground.)

Feigel is excellent at defining the moral and intellectual distinctions between this group and other writers and filmmakers who were both more forgiving and more hopeful of German redemption. If Gellhorn, Mann, and Miller were determined to ascribe evil to the whole nation, writers like W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and James Stern sought some meaning in the ruins beyond pure rage.

Spender was sent in 1945 to assess the state of German universities. He emphasized the shared cultural heritage between Britain and Germany, and encouraged writers to develop new literary movements based on tolerance and individualism. Auden and Stern interviewed civilians about the Allied bombing campaign. Recognizing how stunned Germans were by defeat, they appealed for compassion and artistic collaboration. The filmmaker Humphrey Jennings found hope in youth — not all innocence was lost, he thought, and A Defeated People ends with children dancing in the street. The exiled playwright Carl Zuckmayer, who had spent the war in Vermont, thought that democracy could never flourish in the prevailing conditions of occupation. It had to be created through exhibitions, film, and theater that would enable Germans and Americans to appreciate each other’s way of life.

What these artists shared was a belief in the inherent goodness of Germans, the perception that people had complex responses to defeat and occupation, and that culture could teach humanist values and guide them away from fascism and servility, and toward democracy and individualism.

One of Feigel’s most illuminating discussions is on existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre. Feigel isn’t sympathetic to the French philosopher, describing his ideas in this postwar context as “impossibly idealistic,” but she acknowledges the far-reaching influence of his writings. This started with his play The Flies, which opened in Berlin in 1948. The principal idea of Sartre’s thought that “existence precedes essence” — that we create ourselves through what we do and the choices we make — appealed to a population looking to start afresh. The theory, according to one communist academic Feigel quotes, Alfons Steinberger, constituted for the Germans “a summary general absolution.”

The irony was that Sartre’s ideas issued from the writings of Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger. German philosophy, as well as literature, music, and film, had inspired European culture for centuries. And although it had done nothing to deter Germans from Nazism, it wasn’t clear why American and British culture were any better suited to the task of shaping a new, pacified, and humane people. In The Other Germany (1940), Klaus and Erika Mann explained that Germans loved “to stress the difference between their own concept of Kultur and the Western concept of ‘civilization.’” The latter was considered superficial and “materialistic,” while Kultur amounted to “civilization without the political instinct.”

That Kultur had relapsed into barbarism was one argument against its revival in the postwar order. Since the 18th century, Kultur had allowed artists to detach themselves from politics, a position even Thomas Mann defended during World War I. Yet by the time he condemned the Nazis in 1936, Mann admitted that artists should do everything they could to champion democracy. After the war, Mann — along with his son Klaus, Zuckmayer, and others — advocated that Germans could learn to be democratic through their own artistic traditions, summoning Goethe as the symbol of a unified, progressive culture.

Thomas Mann is a major presence in Feigel’s narrative. He was one of the few German authors whose work spanned almost half the century, and his Doctor Faustus was the first great postwar German novel. In one chapter, Feigel takes us to California, where Mann made his home beginning in 1942. Shifting the narrative to the West Coast doesn’t disrupt the flow and focus of her account — she is an exceptional storyteller, braiding the chronicles of exiled writers with life back in Germany. And the move is an intelligent way of showing that postwar cultural history has to be considered in a transcontinental light.

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Rebuilding Germany also provided the chance to reconfigure Europe into a more peaceful and integrated union. Klaus Mann, Orwell, Spender, and Zuckmayer, were quick to recognize that Germany was a European problem: its fate, and how the Allies treated it, would impact on the whole world. As Zuckmayer said:

The consequences we inflict on the Germans today, we will inflict on ourselves. The cultural reconstruction of Germany and its reorientation is not a question of “Charity” but of reason and self-preservation.

Allied officials understood this, too. According to the British Zone Review, the spiritual regeneration of Germany would constitute the “most durable guarantee of the peace.” Institutions were designed in the same spirit: when UNESCO was established in 1945, its guiding axiom was that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

The ideal of a united Europe had a long intellectual tradition, stretching back to the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century. In the 17th century, Maximilien de Béthune, duke of Sully, advocated bringing European powers under a single “High Christian Republic.” In the 18th century, when the problem of peace became more critical, thinkers like the Abbé de Saint-Pierre argued for a confederacy of states yoked together by commerce. Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795) paid close attention to the internal nature of states, stipulating they had to have republican constitutions. While in the 19th century, Fichte thought peace was contingent on the self-sufficiency of national economies, in the 20th century the League of Nations was a bold attempt to unite and pacify the world — a project underpinned in theory, if not in practice, by Wilson’s liberal internationalism.

Although Feigel’s protagonists like Spender and Mann didn’t operate at the same theoretical level as these thinkers, they nonetheless inhabited the same tradition of early thinking about European unification. Where others thought this should derive from religion, commerce, monetary policy, or institutions, though, they believed it should be based on a shared artistic heritage — the transcendent nature of culture and ideas that would replace chauvinism with a common sense of humanity.

In wanting to establish a non-nationalistic “European spirit,” Spender and Mann echoed the sentiments of Stefan Zweig, who believed in a “supranational consciousness” of Europeans. For Spender, only by reintegrating Germany back into the intellectual life of the continent would Europe realize the shared values inherent in its architecture, painting, and literature. As Feigel writes, “Spender turned the rubble into a figure of collective destruction,” from which could emerge a “collective act of creation that would take the form of forging a European community.”

Feigel identifies 1946, toward the end of the Nuremburg Trials, as the moment when these dreams of continental union and the genuine desire to reeducate Germans were supplanted by Cold War politics. The divisions between the eastern and western zones of Germany became more entrenched and the occupiers poured more money into funding cultural activities. Berlin became the battleground in what Feigel calls a “cultural arms race.” The average German was no longer treated as an enemy to be supressed, but a passive subject for shaping into Homo Sovieticus or Homo Capitalus. As one American Information Policy edict declared: “we should […] admit frankly that we are now in the business of propaganda.”

Copies of Melvin Lasky’s The Month were in the payloads of American planes during the Berlin Airlift. Inspired by Partisan Review, the magazine’s first edition carried articles by staunch anticommunists like Bertrand Russell, Arthur Koestler, Richard Crossman, and Spender, and its central purpose was to be a demonstration that

behind the official representatives of American democracy lies a great and progressive culture, with a richness of achievements in the arts, in literature, in philosophy, in all the aspects of culture which unite the free traditions of Europe and America.

Allied culture did have a significant bearing on German art, music, literature, and fashion, and they created publications, including Der Spiegel and Die Welt, that continue to flourish. But for many of Feigel’s protagonists (as opposed to Horkheimer and Adorno, who took aim at the Americanization of German culture in Dialectic of Enlightenment [1944]), this influence was skin-deep, far from the awesome spiritual renewal they had envisioned.

Feigel’s book is one of the most original recreations of postwar Germany we have, but her story isn’t really about Germany or Germans. The latter are lost, spectral presences skulking behind a sharply drawn cast of artist-liberators. If there is one criticism of Feigel’s study it’s that we seldom hear from those receiving Allied redemption.

The Bitter Taste of Victory matches her other book, The Love-charm of Bombs (2013), a fascinating group biography that chronicles the lives and loves of five prominent writers in a war-torn London. Here we have something similar: a story of individuals who, in the end, had less effect on Germany that it had on them. It is a moving tale of personal reconstruction amid national wreckage. Whether it is Spender, homesick and struggling to make sense of the chaos, the aging bitterness of Erika Mann, the emotional awakening of filmmaker Billy Wilder, Martha Gellhorn’s metamorphic experience at Dachau, or the failed love affair between Marlene Dietrich and US commander James M. Gavin, Feigel shows how each of them was broken by helplessness and heartbreak.

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Thomas Mann said that what was needed was not “a German Europe but a European Germany.” European integration aimed to defang the fatherland and contain its historic power, while at the same time incorporating the country’s economic and military force into the western bulwark against the Soviet Union. Both the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and the London Agreement of 1953, brought the German arsenal under multilateral control. The Single European Act of 1987, followed by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and the Treaty of Amsterdam five years later, bound Germany and other Union members into an ever-denser matrix of laws, institutions, and financial arrangements.

Far from containing Germany’s power, though, European integration has increased it. It has no dreams of continental supremacy, and there’s certainly no threat of a “Fourth Reich,” but the German Question — how to ensure a strong European center that doesn’t tend toward hegemony — remains unanswered. German dominance has led to what Wolfgang Streeck has called “hegemonic self-righteousness”: Berlin thinks that what is good for Germany is good for Europe.

Postwar elites never thought that abstract appeals to “culture,” “humanism,” or “civilization” across national borders would bind states together; rather, they turned to the logic of interdependence through finance, and the free movement of goods and services. European union was conceived from above, based on strategies for economic growth and efficiency, managed by technocrats with little regard for the demands of national electorates. This Europe looks very different from the ideals of someone like Stephen Spender, who argued for a European community that took a cultural rather than political form. Today the EU is soulless, and unable to rouse the affinities of its citizens. So perhaps Spender was right. As Jean Monnet, one its architects, supposedly said: “If I were starting over, I would begin with culture.”

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Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic. His work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review, and the Guardian, among others.