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The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich
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Buddy Reads > The Bitter Taste of Victory by Lara Feigel (Sept/Oct 2018)

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Susan | 10642 comments Mod
As the Second World War neared its conclusion, Germany was a nation reduced to rubble: 3.6 million German homes had been destroyed leaving 7.5 million people homeless; an apocalyptic landscape of flattened cities and desolate wastelands.

In May 1945 Germany surrendered, and Britain, America, Soviet Russia and France set about rebuilding their zones of occupation. Most urgent for the Allies in this divided, defeated country were food, water and sanitation, but from the start they were anxious to provide for the minds as well as the physical needs of the German people. Reconstruction was to be cultural as well as practical: denazification and re-education would be key to future peace and the arts crucial in modelling alternative, less militaristic, ways of life. Germany was to be reborn; its citizens as well as its cities were to be reconstructed; the mindset of the Third Reich was to be obliterated.

When, later that year, twenty-two senior Nazis were put in the dock at Nuremberg, writers and artists including Rebecca West, Evelyn Waugh, John Dos Passos and Laura Knight were there to tell the world about a trial intended to ensure that tyrannous dictators could never again enslave the people of Europe. And over the next four years, many of the foremost writers and filmmakers of their generation were dispatched by Britain and America to help rebuild the country their governments had spent years bombing. Among them, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Marlene Dietrich, George Orwell, Lee Miller, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Billy Wilder and Humphrey Jennings.

The Bitter Taste of Victory traces the experiences of these figures and through their individual stories offers an entirely fresh view of post-war Europe. Never before told, this is a brilliant, important and utterly mesmerising history of cultural transformation.

Author Lara Feigel is the author of The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War The Love-charm of Bombs Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel which was very popular with many of us.

This Buddy Read will open in Mid-September. If you do not read the book, do please still join us for a discussion about life, "In the Ruins of the Reich."

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
Who else is reading this one? I really enjoyed The Love-charm of Bombs, and so really want to read this sequel, which moves from the London Blitz to the experiences of British and American writers and film-makers in Germany immediately after the war.

Even if you're not reading along, as Susan says, please do join in the discussion about life in post-war Germany. This should be a very interesting follow-up to the Berlin-themed books we read recently.

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
The cover of the edition I'm reading, with Marlene Dietrich (such a brilliant actress and singer) sitting on the ground next to discarded items, reminds me of the film she made with Billy Wilder, A Foreign Affair, where you see the ruins of Berlin.

So far, I've only read the introduction by Lara Feigel about her family history and how her Jewish and Dutch relatives suffered during the War. She is a very good writer and I'm looking forward to this.

message 4: by Judy (last edited Sep 14, 2018 10:27PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I've now read the introduction and the first chapter, which has a lot of interesting material about Hemingway and Gellhorn, though it does jump about a bit. Can't get over that telegram that Hemingway sent to Gellhorn, "Are you a war correspondent or a wife in my bed?"

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
I read it, Judy. I preferred The Love Charm of Bombs and felt this followed too many characters. Still, this was fascinating and I especially found the parts about the Nuremberg trials fascinating. I am keen to read more about this - possibly A Train of Powder A Train of Powder by Rebecca West

I always enjoy the ways that books lead you on to other books.

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments Judy wrote: "Who else is reading this one? ..."

I'll be reading this, I have a couple of books to finish over the weekend so will probably start next week. I won a copy in a competition last year so it's been waiting for me for a while and this Buddy Read is a good opportunity to dive in at last

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
Good news that you are joining in, Pamela. I received a copy as a gift a while ago and it has been waiting for me too!

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
Susan, I've liked the Rebecca West books that I've read so far, but have only read fiction by her up to now. Will be interested to hear what you think if you do read Train of Powder.

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
One of the really interesting things to me, in reading this book, was how some of those involved felt that the Germans made excuses and did their best to evade responsibility. Erica Mann, for example, was one who was infuriated by the German response to news of the concentration camps.

As we saw, in The Dancing Bear, after the war, Germans had their own issues to deal with. Even in Nuremberg, the general public reaction seemed to be that this was irrelevant to their lives.

Others, such as publishers, Victor Gollancz (who was, in fact, Jewish), took a wider view and started a, "Save Europe Now," campaign (he would have been a Remainer, I am sure!). He wanted to treat England's former enemy with compassion.

I wonder whether, for Mann, who was forced to leave Europe, and who had been in Germany before the war, she realised that many Germans did really know what was going on? Were the Allies right to make Germans visit the camps, watch films or be lectured? Or should they have concentrated on the humanitarian disaster overcoming the population?

message 10: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I haven't got very far with the book yet, interesting questions, Susan. I certainly think tackling the humanitarian disaster had to be a priority as well as education.

Gollancz was a very interesting character - I knew publisher James MacGibbon, who worked for him at one time, and he said Gollancz used to phone him up in a temper about work at 3am. So very driven - I will be interested to read about his Save Europe Now campaign.

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
I suppose that I was a little surprised in The Dancing Bear at the way the issues I mention above were not dealt with. Of course, you could have sympathy with the people you see, but, surely those there at the time would have had some feelings of disbelief at what happened and asked themselves whether locals, they were talking to, were, in some way involved? It must have coloured the way many people saw Germany after the war, when the reality of the Holocaust became apparent.

message 12: by Greg (new)

Greg | 134 comments I'll be keeping up with this discussion and join in the conversation. I will get a copy of the book.
The Hemingway comment: I wonder about the context he said it. Straight or a light wind-up?

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
I think it was straight, Greg. Their marriage was falling apart and he wanted someone who would flatter his ego and not have their own career.

message 14: by Greg (new)

Greg | 134 comments That is disappointing. Sounds like a bore. I recently read Islands in the Stream, his last novel which is a favourite of mine now. A good mix of outdoors and the sea, and more cerebral questions, and hard realities to face. Alcohol was never far from the conversation throughout the novel in three different parts.
The drinking references I found tiresome.

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
People who drink a lot are tiresome, most of the time...

message 16: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
Good to hear that you are reading this too, Greg. I’m getting a bit further into it now and finding it interesting.

message 17: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I’ve just read the part about Lee Miller being photographed in Hitler’s bath and was surprised to find the photo wasn’t included in the book. Fortunately though it is available online - I can’t give a link on my phone but there is also a good article about her on the Daily Telegraph website.

Susan | 10642 comments Mod

Here's a link, Judy.

I wonder if they put the picture of Hitler by the bathtub? I kind of hope that he didn't put it there. I know he was a megalomaniac, but having a photo of yourself at the side of the bath is a bit creepy!

Also, it is disturbing to think this photo was actually taken on the day that Hitler committed suicide.

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments That photo of Lee Miller is in my copy of the book, maybe it's not in all editions then?

message 20: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
Sorry Pamela, the photo is in my copy after all - I had not spotted some of the pictures. Many thanks for posting the links, Susan.

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments Oh good, you would definitely be missing something without the photos

message 22: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I'm now up to the terrible winter of 1945-46, where tens of thousands died of hunger and cold - clearly by this point the humanitarian crisis had to be the priority. This is so tragic and devastating, it's hard to care about the love lives of Gellhorn and Dietrich woven into this section.

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
It really did seem as though the Allies were expecting a lot. They seemed to want soldiers, etc. not to even talk to the Germans, but the reality was that they were witnessing the horrors of famine, refugees and terrible poverty; plus the aftermath of all that bombing.

message 24: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
Yes, I agree, Susan - This book really shows how terrible and widespread the suffering was, and why people like the author of The Dancing Bear ignored edicts about not fraternising with residents.

Pamela (bibliohound) | 534 comments I think that the Allies attitudes were different depending on whether they had been involved previously with the concentration camps or had come to Germany specifically to be involved in the reconstruction.

I can completely understand Billy Wilder seeing the German reaction as callous and dismissive, while Feigel suggests that maybe they were just worn down by war and occupation till they were only thinking of survival. Still, the response to the concentration camp films was quite staggering.

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
I agree, Pamela, and it was interesting to have all those different points of view. I really felt for Erika Mann, who had been forced from her home and was, justifiably, quite resentful.

It was also interesting to read of Dietrich's shock, at finding her sister worked running a cinema for the SS. Yes, she helped get her and her husband to go free, but then she never spoke to her again, which just said everything.

message 27: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I think there are different accounts of her relationship with her sister, but she was clearly very shocked. Dietrich is one of my favourite actresses so it is fascinating to read about her experiences at this time.

message 28: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I've just been reading about the Nuremburg trials and was surprised by all the love affairs going on at the time, such as Rebecca West with one of the judges - it seems so incongruous in this terrible context. Has anyone read her account of the trials?

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
No, but I would love to. I have read other books about Nuremburg, but would be fascinated to read her account - especially as it was written at the time. It seemed as though everyone decided to fall in love, as they were just surrounded by death, as a life-affirming attempt not to think about things. As the author says, none of these relationships would last.

If anyone thinks that the Rebecca West can be fitted in as a buddy read sometime - maybe next year now - I would love to read it.

message 30: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I have access to her Nuremberg book, A Train of Powder, via Scribd and may try to read it while my memories of this book are still fairly fresh, so I would be up for a discussion.

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
Sounds good. I do have The Magic Mountain coming up, which is very long though! When were you thinking of?

message 32: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I haven’t worked out when I can get to it yet - will have a look at my reading plans! Also hoping to read The Magic Mountain.

message 33: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb | 10397 comments Mod
Heck of a cover.....

message 34: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
Getting towards the end - overall, I think this book is good, but not quite as good as Feigel's previous book, The Love-charm of bombs, because she does jump around a lot and it can feel rather fragmented.

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
I agree, Judy. I had exactly the same thoughts, although I am glad that I read it.

I see that Lara Feigel has written another book Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing about Doris Lessing, but, as I haven't read anything by her, I am not tempted to give it a try.

message 36: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I’ve read one by Lessing which was very good (The Golden Notebook) but I’d want to read a lot more before trying a bio.

message 37: by Greg (new)

Greg | 134 comments I've read one by Doris Lessing, 'The Wind Blows Away Our Words", 1987 or thereabouts. About when Russia invaded Afganistan. A superpower against the Muhjahadin. "We cry to you for help, but the wind blows away our words." Muhjahadin Commander, Peshawar, 1986.
The war was covered by western journalists but governments turned a blind eye.
A very good book, but made me disgusted at the hypocrisy.

message 38: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
I've now finished - just mulling over a review. I was increasingly disappointed by the later sections and overall didn't think this was anywhere near as good as The Love-charm of Bombs.

I think the author repeats herself a lot and also stays rather distant from individual experiences, which were such a strength of the previous book. Still very interesting and I'm glad to have read it, but I had expected more.

message 39: by Val (new) - rated it 2 stars

Val | 1709 comments I am not really getting on with this at all, which is a shame as I enjoyed her The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War. I think the difference is that the writers in the London book were sharing the experiences of those around them, whereas in Germany they are outsiders and remain so.

message 40: by Judy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4674 comments Mod
Yes, I think that's what I felt too, Val - this reminds me, I haven't got round to writing a review of it yet! I felt we didn't really get a feel of what life was like for the people around the writers, as they were isolated from it, and I got a bit fed up with the lumping together of everyone else as "the Germans".

Susan | 10642 comments Mod
I did enjoy it, but nowhere near as much as Love Charm of Bombs...

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