How Literature Bridges the Gap Between Different Time Periods

Updated: Nov 14

Or: An attempt to make reading more appealing, to show what it does for us, its indispensable contribution to history, and to give you a chance to appreciate how much time of the day you already spend gathering information by looking at screens. Just like you are doing now!

Reading is an activity that accompanies our everyday lives. Most of us only associate reading with physically picking up a book and plunking ourselves down somewhere comfy. But really, smartphones and computers have completely revolutionized the way we can “read.” While it’s such a fundamental part of our lives, I can’t help but be surprised whenever I hear someone claim that they don’t like reading all too much.

By stating this, I mean to draw your attention to the time that you actually spend reading. Whether you count that as “quality reading time” or not is up to you, nevertheless, it is time spent reading and thus you can give yourself a pat on the back!

Over the past few months, I’ve spent quite some time reading up on World War II and its aftermath. The purpose of these texts is not only to bridge the gap between these decades, but also to fill the hole that the increasing disappearance of contemporary witnesses, as they are slowly dying off, is leaving.

Remembering times of great human atrocities isn’t something we can just move past. It is our responsibility to find ways that will keep this time in our recent memory and make us deal with it in a contemporary and modern way. The commemorative memory of nations and the individuals living within these nations is formed by how we perceive and teach history and that is again formed by the way in which we deal with our past in general.

In Austria it took quite some time until we faced our past with Nationalsozialismus and the part this country played in it - only in 1986, 41 years after WWII, when Kurt Waldheim became president, Austrians finally faced these questions. Up until then the Opfermythos (victim-myth) was the popular way to deal with that part of the country’s past. The Opfermythos refers to the widespread way of thinking that Austria in fact was the first victim of Nazi Germany which was actually first stated in the Tripartite Declaration on Austria in 1943.

“The Governments of the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States of America are agreed that Austria, the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination.” (1)

Austria then adopted this exact phrasing and thereby delayed having any sort of discussion or closer examination of the joint responsibility and situation as a whole. It was easy to use excuses like saying every Austrian just fulfilled their duties, which was the one Waldheim famously used as well.

“Ich habe im Krieg nichts anderes getan als hunderttausende andere Österreicher, nämlich, meine Pflicht als Soldat erfüllt.” (2)


“I’ve done nothing else during the war that one hundred thousand other Austrians haven’t done, which is fulfilling my duty as a soldier.”

It is exactly this sort of ignorance that leads to the trivialisation of participation and complicity which then leads to never having to face or deal with any form of responsibility.

Considering this, one must notice how necessary and absolutely essential it is to keep discourse about topics that might have slipped the commemorative memory or been altered to benefit a national memory alive and around. We can’t just choose the bits and pieces of our past that fill us with pride and glory. The failings are just as much part of our present as our gains are and they can’t just be left out of our collective memory simply because they are more difficult to deal with and require a lot more time to process. It is here where literature steps in and helps bridge those gaps. Not only do stories allow us to connect with topics much easier but they also fall back on our empathy and thus force us to dive into situations that we have personally probably never been exposed to. It doesn’t really matter if what we read is entirely autobiographical, fictional or documental, there is always a true core to these stories that we know to be genuine and with which we bond.

With the disappearance of contemporary witnesses it is the responsibility of the media to find ways to keep these stories alive and to anchor them within our commemorative memory. Film and literature are the perfect solution to this issue since they enable us to put memories and stories on record and pass these experiences and knowledge on to the following generations. Literature and the arts in general have the power to reflect on different time periods. Reflecting on what happened, how it was dealt with and how it is being remembered are important tools to use in order to question our current understanding of our past and position within the present. After all, it is our past and we can’t detach ourselves from it.

The following books have all been released within the last couple of years. They count as contemporary German literature (except for one French book) and it might thus be the case that not all have been translated as of yet. I am also aware that I focused on only one historic example, but this is applicable to more than just Austria’s dealing with WWII. So please, please take a moment, pick a book or research any topic that might interest you and read about it. I guarantee you that afterwards your view and insight will have changed tremendously. Ultimately it is up to us to stay informed and to question our environment. Which better way to do that than by engaging with the arts?

Book recommendations:

Uwe Timm - In My Brother’s Shadow (2003)

Alexander Kluge - 30 April 1945: The Day Hitler Shot Himself and Germany's Integration with the West Began (2015)

Eric Vuillard - The Order of the Day (2017)

Arno Geiger - Unter der Drachenwand (2018) (no translation available yet, one of my favourites from this list though)

Susanne Fritz - Wie kommt der Krieg ins Kind (2018)

Erich Hackl - On the Rope (2020) (Orig.: Am Seil, 2018)

(Ticker says I’ve only used “read/ing” 16 times btw.)



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