All for Nothing

“All for Nothing” is the final published book by German author Walter Kempowski, prior to his death in 2007.

With the backdrop a tiny village in the icy winter of January 1945 in East Prussian, the story is told via the viewpoints of multiple ‘protagonists’: Katharina von Globig, a beautiful housewife married to a moderately successful but wealthy, Nazi party officer, she was mostly reclusive and valued her privacy, and lamented her dead daughter, and an absent, illicit lover. Peter, her 12 year old son, was also relatively reclusive, and passively avoided any service in the village’s Hitler Youth. Auntie, a sharp-witted, 60 year-old spinster who ran the family’s estate. Dr. Wagner, also never married and getting long in the tooth, tutors the boy, as all the schools are shuttered due to the war. Drygalski, the Nazi across the street, ensuring paperwork, and the community, is in order according to the Reich’s standards. And multiple other characters, who weave in and out of the story.

Historically, in the winter of 1945, Germany, and its emperialism, nationalism, and genocidal efforts were crumbling. In East Prussia, the Russian front was moving westward as the German forces fell. Three quarters of a million refugees moved westward towards the perceived safety of central Germany; almost half of the refugees (mostly women, children, and the elderly) would perish due to cold, hunger, illness, drowning, bombing, and other catastrophes associated with the mass exodus and being exposed to the elements.

What struck me about Kempowski’s novel was the sense of the author’s passive objectivity during this time period wrought with fasicim, war, death, famine, bitter cold, and scarcity. He did not offer his viewpoint, only the story.

Each character was his or her own world, almost solipsistic. They peered into an uncertain future, which almost certainly had only one outcome, and waited as if that future were not to come at all. Indeed, even as the refugees appeared in a haggared, steady flow of carts on the road that passed their residence, the characters seemed to only vaguely consider that they, too, would become one of those unfortunate souls. As the thunder of gunfire and cannon filled the sky, they continued with the pretense of their daily activities.

The characters were neither all “good” nor “bad”, and the author did not direct any bias or commentary towards either quality. Katharina was bored, self involved, and enjoyed the remnants of wealth, title, and status from the bygone days of feudalism. Yet, she provided the refuge her home to a stranger in a manner that ultimately destroyed her. Auntie was rigid, bitter of her years of service to the von Globig family, and guilty of petty theft, but was clever and empathic enough to serve as the basis of as much safety to Peter. Peter fabricated involved stories about his flight westward. A country preacher takes bodies from alongside the road, and prepares them for burial come spring, yet robs the corpses of their rings. Even Drygalski, the Nazi, consumed by envy, an inferiority complex, and, well, being a Nazi, commits a puzzling action at the end.

Paradoxically, the characters lament that “Nothing is easy” as the stark realities of war pierce their familiar bubble. Was it “All for Nothing”, when “Nothing is easy”? In other words, is it easy to create nothing, when we work for all of it so hard?

As mentioned, the author didn’t provide his biases or perspectives, he offered the story. This leaves it to us, the reader, to interpret. Here is mine.

At the singular level of the typical individual, we are neither good nor bad. We just are human. We steal, we lie. We have envy of our neighbors. We judge each other. We provide shelter and bread for those in need. We want for others’ safety, as we want for our own. We experience hardship, and we contribute to the hardship of others. We have underlying, often implicit, qualities of beauty and kindness that are often difficult for us to see in ourselves; whether or not these qualities are easy for others to see is probably based on the lenses of that particular individual. We are simple, yet complicated. We contribute, mindfully or not, to forces and movements much larger than our individual self, often outside of our control. We live in a state of imperfect or even dubious morality.

As such, I believe that the vast majority of us are neither 100% good, nor 100% bad. I believe that, yes, we do hide from the truth at times, but ultimately the truth will stare us in the face, come time. I believe that, often times, we struggle so much, only to achieve nothing. Sometimes by recognizing this, we can learn, and thus achieve ‘Something’ after all.

So, in our stuggles’ wake are left with the open questions of “Will we learn?”, “Will we remember?”, “Will we repeat all over again?”, “Will it be all for Nothing?”.