Depravity at Sea: Das Boot and the Challenge of Coming to Terms with the Past

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Haverford College. Department of History
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At the end of World War II Germany was faced with an identity crisis that would permeate the succeeding decades and strongly influence the question of what it means to be German. This crisis revolved around the Germans' collaboration with the National Socialist regime between 1933 and 1945. Despite attempts by the Allies to institute a top-down formula of denazification, no program was able to impose Vergangenheitsbewaltigung(the process of coming to terms with the past), and Germany experienced years of collective amnesia, in which the Second World War was a taboo topic, and avoided at all costs. The impetus for such a process would have to come from within Germany, however, and did so in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, as German youth began questioning their parents about the war and their roles in it. I argue that Das Boot, a novelization of a submarine's patrol at sea, was a symptom of the gradual conservative shift that occurred over the course of the 1970s, and contributed to the collective denial of guilt and re-definition of the German soldier as a victim that reappeared in the 1970s after a period of submersion. Both the novel (Lothar-Gunther Buchheim 1973) and the movie (Dir. Wolfgang Petersen 1981) versions contrasted sharply with the assertions of veterans who extolled their heroism and the glory of war. In opposition to this myth of heroism, Das Boot depicted the German submariner as a victim of both the Allies, against whom he hardly stood a chance, and of the Nazi High Command, which sent them to war without consideration for their lives. I examine how both versions of the story disassociate their protagonists from the Nazi ideology in order to define them as separate entities and avoid having to come to terms with the full measure of their guilt. Both works additionally display their conservative, militaristic roots through their interpretations of masculinity and its relation to technology and violence. Petersen's film employs a militaristic interpretation of masculinity, but only in his objectification of the male body, and the subordination of the individual to work as a small cog in the machine and carry out one's duty. Buchheim's text, on the other hand, exhibits a violently sexual masculinity that predominated in fascist Germany. His descriptions of masculine symbols are accompanied by graphic scenes of sex and rape, indicating his abiding need for his masculinity to subjugate the feminine in order to assert his dominance and achieve the sexual pleasure that he cannot acquire anywhere outside of combat. This form of masculinity that Buchheim displays indicates a disturbing attraction to violent sexuality, and betrays an ideological connection to the Third Reich that drastically alters the context of his novel. In light of his history as a Nazi propagandist, Buchheim's vehement denigration of the National Socialist government begins to appear more to assuage his nagging guilt, than to honestly depict the traumatic lives of the men who served in the "iron wolves." Das Boot is a story that attempts to address the German issue of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, but ultimately falls short, settling for a rewriting of history, rather than a true confrontation of German guilt.