Katy Burnett

The Next Spring Like This Will Be in a Hundred Years


ISSUE 95 | SYMPTOMS | JUL 2020

After the events of one day have been repeated for two hundred pages, it’s something of a relief to drop back into linear time. The postscript of Alexander Kluge’s pseudodocumentarian novel 30 April 1945: The Day Hitler Shot Himself and Germany’s Integration with the West Began is a writer’s diary. It’s August 2013 and Kluge, a theorist, filmmaker, and student of Adorno, worries that his attempt to pin down one day in history won’t work. “It is hard to connect the confusing but concrete facts of 30 April 1945 with the ‘perspective’ from much later years that this ‘zero hour’ contained the seed of a new beginning,” he writes. What he’s pulled from the affective experience of this date remains inconclusive. The Reich is like an airplane in the moment the engine has failed but the vessel is still borne up by its wings, filled with busy, uncanny silence where we should hear a steady drone. Where will it fall? And what’s happening to the people inside?

By April 30, 1945, Nazi Germany has all but officially surrendered. The Reich has abandoned its citizens, throwing a contemptuous backward glance before collapsing entirely. Kluge tells the story through a series of fictional vignettes, anecdotes, interviews, and other ephemera. In the chaos few characters repeat; most appear only for an instant, suspended mid-motion in war crimes, banal activities, or dreams for the future. The people in this book are named and unnamed, described by an omniscient narrator or speaking in their own voices. Their personal qualities don’t usually emerge as relevant: they’re objects of history and share little in common but the historical moment.

Kluge is interested in what happens to people at the moment a state fails. He’s already tried to work through April 1945 in a 1977 novel called Air Raid about a U.S. Air Force attack on his hometown of Halberstadt. 2500 people died and the city center was reduced to a crater. Kluge, 13 years old at the time, was present for the attack. In 30 April 1945 Kluge returns to Halberstadt for a chapter. Can we assume that he has shared his “real” memories? His own eyewitness account is not privileged over the accounts of others. Written in the first person and present tense, it mingles with the voices of invented people and becomes anonymous. I’m reminded of a commonly shared piece of dream advice: that recording dreams in the present tense leads to more complete recollection. But there’s no way to prove that dreams happen, either.

Rereading Kluge in spring 2020, with the volume knob turned up on history, I’m struck by the humility of his experiment. In the postscript he’s haunted by the “dominance of the present which is rooted in all earlier times.” Even memory requires a subject that remembers in the historically specific present. To disrupt the hold of the present he returns to the same day over and over from different perspectives. Until we reach the postscript time repeats or gets stuck, like a skipping record. Progression fails and history keeps looping back to one day. The writer’s diary postscript almost seems like a qualification or an apology for Kluge’s own limited subject position. Like any other, this diary accumulates experience over time, and it also refuses to settle on a finalized interpretation of April 30.

I think about this novel all the time, like a specific dream I return to every night. In the book it’s 75 years ago, almost to the day. Spring 1945 acts as a container to hold spring 2020. In Halberstadt, lush grass is beginning to grow along the edges of a bomb crater, a remnant of an attack on the Junkers factory on February 14th, 1945. In Oakland, where I’m sheltering in place, roses are in bloom. When I walk down the middle of the street at night their smell presses in towards me. When I put on my mask it disappears. In the book the setting is frozen and all the people, mostly already somehow incriminated, are fleeing or hiding. Their movement feels diametrically opposed to my confinement and the writing I do about it feels like a dream journal.

Local news and virus developments alike take on a feeling of hearsay and get jumbled with accounts I’m reading from 75 years ago. Trapped in Berlin, a small radio team shelters in a flak tower close to the zoo. They rig up a studio, though it’s difficult to transmit through concrete, and play hits like “The Next Spring Like This Will Be in a Hundred Years.” The broadcast quality is bad, continually interrupted by shots from heavy flak guns, but it’s not safe for the crew to leave. I follow San Francisco Chronicle updates about case counts and COVID-infected tigers until they put up a paywall. The newsfeed, like this novel, is characterized by volume and variation of news rather than overarching analysis. In both texts the state is quickly failing and there’s a feeling like more is going on than we’re being told.

Something I notice about the uncertainty of the present moment is that it feels like it won’t stop. It’s hard to find the threshold; there’s always another breaking news update at the top of the page. It makes the container of one day in history feel kind of soothing. It’s a metric, a guiding principle, a shape, a way to easily sort events into “before” and “after” and avoid getting overwhelmed.

At every level COVID-19 discourse has been dominated by images of overwhelm. A symptom first troubles an individual body, and it feels like a personal problem, but your infection has the power to infect anybody, and it’s happening to you before you recognize it yourself. One body can’t hold it; it spreads through the system and then out to others. Public health plans are created with the knowledge that sick people often do not recognize themselves or their capacities to cause harm, and with knowledge that our health care infrastructure cannot handle too many patients at once. And so a symptom doesn’t belong to an individual and signifies more than itself. When a symptom develops it marks the state’s prioritization of capital over human lives and connects the sick person to the body of every other sick person who has not been kept safe.

The systems of the state do continue to work for the benefit of some. A transport train lies burnt out beside a stretch of railway close to the Slovak border. The train’s cargo was a large order of candles intended for the Eastern front in the winter of 1941. The shipment, judged less essential than others, had been delayed for a few years and was finally OKed for delivery. But there is no Eastern front anymore, and the train had been hit by fighter bombers, and under the carriages pools a large mass of melted wax. How was this delivery still in motion on the last working day of the Reich, wonders a historian. The answer: “Much that had been left unfinished was still meant to be taken care of.” As W.G. Sebald summarizes Kluge’s analysis of the Halberstadt bombing, “so much intelligence, capital, and labor went into the planning of destruction that, under the pressure of all the accumulated potential, it had to happen in the end.”

We see a similar power relation in an April 30 anecdote set in Wolfsburg, home of the Volkswagen plant. American troops had passed Wolfsburg by, leading to a power vacuum in the factory town, where migrant workers had looted a provisions depot. Afraid of further unrest, a plant manager drives south to make contact with U.S. troops and request they occupy the town. The interests of capital transition invisibly into the new era, and it happens first in places like Wolfsburg where a state will always be available to protect them. Profiteers disappear behind the story of the factory and candle transport. They are not individuals in this story in the same way as the other people we meet en route.

American-occupied Halberstadt, on the other hand, is not a consolidated center of capital. “The U.S. Infantry was not trained in the administration of a town,” explains Kluge. “The best way of forcing people to obey was to leave them alone.” Children loot objects and furniture from bombed-out houses and organize them in exposed basements to create cozy new environments. Ad hoc babysitting cooperatives form and a barter economy flourishes. “An extreme increase in freedom, partly due to the extent of the destruction,” remembers Kluge. The spirit of mutual aid reminds me of systems that sprang up in the first days of the pandemic.

Kluge finally alights on a guiding principle. “What I find striking about this day is an almost complete CHANGE IN THE MINDS OF THE SURVIVORS (anticipating Hitler’s death, but independent of it). Here one sees a new opening to the Western world that would later define the economic miracle.” The survivors change their minds by accepting the German surrender, noting their place in it, and locating the exit nearest their wartime situation–or like the children of Halberstadt, in the power vacuum they can begin to invent their own reality. The chaos doesn’t stop, it only shifts its trajectory.

In the postscript Kluge briefly invokes the 2004 film Downfall, an obsessively researched account of Hitler’s final days. He finds it “claustrophobic and focused inward on our country.” Like the Reich, the film forms a vortex around Hitler and breaks apart after his suicide. Kluge isn’t interested in this great man theory of history, but in the movements of the systems that lumber along through the work of many individuals. I’ve started to think about sickness in the same way: it’s a distraction to understand it as an individual issue rather than something systemic. The common thoughts and experiences we’re having in this era of reduced safety, the things everybody is doing or thinking or writing about, are also evidence of the failures of the state.

The most hopeful scenes in Kluge’s book are moments of collaboration, conversation, and world-building. On April 30 on the other side of the world the United Nations is meeting in San Francisco. Across the Bay in Oakland another group of delegates convenes at the International Congress of Labor Organizations. Like me, Kluge feels more at home in Oakland, and a light sadness hovers over the text as he describes this fictional counterweight to the organization of the UN. Structural change takes time and intention. Would better international coordination among the Left have been able to slow down the capitalist machine?

And what can we do to establish this kind of momentum now? A friend shares with me a passage from Walter Benjamin: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train–namely, the human race–to activate the emergency brake.” I’m inspired by the Black Panther Party, another organization once based a mile or so from where I’m typing this now, and their line about “survival pending revolution.” Sewing masks and growing vegetables and delivering medicine to immunocompromised neighbors certainly fall under this category. Safety is something we can work to give each other. But a revolution would be turning the machine that would kill us around entirely and forcing it off the tracks. To summon the power to do this requires the imagination and solidarity of everybody who’s left.

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