All for Nothing - Alles Umsonst


I've been reading Walter Kempowski's 2006 novel All for Nothing, the last book in his monumental attempt to record the experience of German people during the Second World War. In a different genre, it has something of the same feel as W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, about the effects of the British and American carpet-bombing of German cities. All for Nothing, however, is about what the Germans called the East Front.  Specifically it's about the final stages in East Prussia, when the Red Army at last reached the Reich and three-quarters of a million civilians fled westwards.


I have an interest in the Second World War - I was born in it. I don't think many Australians now have much sense of what it was like, beyond heroic stories of the Kokoda track, the Bridge over the River Kwai, or the sands of Tobruk. Or the brave Spitfire pilots saving the Empire, or the Americans landing on Omaha beach. Few know anything about the fighting between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army from June 1941 to April 1945. This was not only where most of the WWII deaths occurred, it was where the outcome of the war as a whole was settled.


There were moments of concentrated slaughter - the battles for Smolensk in 1941, Stalingrad in 1942, Kursk in 1943, or Operation Bagration in 1944 (at the same time as Operation Overlord, and much bigger). These get written about sometimes as if they were events like Napoleon marching his troops off to some picturesque valley to meet and beat the Austrians, then sitting down to dinner and a treaty. The reality was four years of continuous industrialized war along an enormous front from the Arctic to the Caucasus, mostly fought out by artillery, moved from place to place by tank armies, with huge destruction of buildings and cities and an unbelievable casualty list. The historians differ a bit, and the exact figure can never be known, but the deaths on the Soviet side, civilians as well as soldiers, are credibly reported as upwards of twenty-five million. To that we can add something like ten million among the Germans and their allies. Total deaths: four or five times the entire population of Australia at the time.


Kempowski's novel isn't a 'war novel' in the conventional sense - it has no battle scenes at all. It's about the destruction of a family and its small community in the evacuation of East Prussia, as they are separated, killed by bombing from the air or by their own regime's police violence. It's understated, and very moving. Not easy reading; worth knowing about.

Back to Top