The Effects of the Bombings in World War Two in Literature and Society. A Comparison between Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. (Yvonne Karsmakers)


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Chapter 4: Vergeltung and Catch-22: Two Sides of One Coin?


After Sebald claimed that the bombings of World War Two never received a decent place in German literature, it is remarkable to find a German and an American novel – the bombed and the bomber crews – both written long before Sebald wrote his Luftkrieg und Literatur, which deal with the bombings in a literary way. Although Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 both focus on the air raids of World War Two, their general theme, style, genre and use of characters, structure and comic elements are quite different. In this chapter, I will resume and discuss the differences and similarities of both works, starting with the reception, followed by themes, characters and structure, comic elements and religion and ending with their use of clichés and metaphors.



4.1 Reception of Vergeltung and Catch-22


Vergeltung and Catch-22 both received very unenthusiastic responses when they came out in 1956 and 1961 respectively. The German audience did not wish to be confronted with their war-past and the traumas connected with it, which Vergeltung was “stirring up.” The American audience, says John W. Aldridge in his article “Catch-22 Twenty-five Years Later,” might not have taken well to Catch-22 because


they had, after all, been conditioned by the second world war novels of Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, John Horne Burns, James Jones, and others to expect that the authentic technique for treating war experience is harshly documentary realism. […] Coming into this context Catch-22 clearly seemed anomalous and more than a trifle ominous. (Aldridge, 1987: 380)


This “harshly documented realism” resembles the style in which Gert Ledig wrote Vergeltung, which would put him on one line with the “traditional novels.” However, judging by the response of Ledig’s audience in 1956, (“abominable perversity,” Rheinischer Merkur, quoted in the epilogue of the 1999 German edition of Vergeltung), Vergeltung was perhaps too harshly realistic, while Catch-22 was too “absurd.” One could say that Vergeltung was written in the style that the American audience was expecting, rather than the style the German  audience could accept. An American audiencewhose members belonged to one of the victorious Allied Forces, would have less problems with reading about the experiences of a city under fire, written with realism, because they were less traumatised than the German audience was.

However, both novels were “rediscovered”: Catch-22 in 1962-63 and Vergeltung in 1999. It took new wars and new bombings to make the audience look past the frame of World War Two and interest readers for these novels. Catch-22 seemed to reflect the madness and chaos of the Vietnam War:


It was undoubtedly this recognition that the book was something far broader in scope than a mere indictment of war- a recognition perhaps arrived at only subconsciously by most readers in 1961- that gives it such pertinence to readers who discovered it over the next decade. For with the seemingly eternal and mindless escalation of the war in Vietnam, history had at last caught up with the book and caused it to be more and more widely recognised as a deadly accurate metaphorical portrait of the nightmarish conditions in which the country appeared to be engulfed. (Aldridge, 1987: 382)


Vergeltung found a new audience in 1999 when the world was watching the war in Kosovo. Bombings once again gained public interest when Vergeltung went into reprint. The German audience of 1999 had more distance from World War Two and could read it from “an American point of view” (with detachment). The “disappearance” of Vergeltung and Ledig’s other works from the public eye shows how Ledig’s audience was not ready for his work yet. Vergeltung and Catch-22, two novels about the bombings in World War Two, became bestsellers after their audience was capable of placing the novels in their own timeframe.



4.2 Themes in Vergeltung and Catch-22


The title of Vergeltung explains the theme of the novel best: payback. The characters all want payback, from each other, from their government, from the enemy. At the same time, Ledig shows how futile payback really is, for it only causes a vicious circle: the one on whom payback is exercised will want payback as well. Vergeltung expresses the feeling of helplessness of the victims of the bombings, but also that of the pilot stranded behind enemy lines. Vergeltung is a protest against war.

            Catch-22 is also a protest against war, but in a different way. It shows the capitalist side of war, of making a profit from the war industry. It is also a protest against bureaucracy:


The central symbol, Catch-22, which is after all, the ultimate expression of sabotaged expectations, is the cruel disparity between the humanitarian ideals by which life is supposed to be directed and the manipulative lies on which the bureaucratic system is actually based. (Aldridge, 1987: 384)


Both novels describe war as a human catastrophy. They show soldiers who can no longer discern what or who they are fighting for, and who just want to get out of the terrible and hopeless situation they are in. In this respect, the victims of the bombing and the bomber crews are placed on the same line. They have the same main goal: staying alive.



4.3 Characters and Structure in Vergeltung and Catch-22


The characters in Vergeltung all have equally large parts and none of them are more important than the others. Almost all of them die during the development of the story. The different characters appear and die without the reader really getting to know them. All the information about their personality is taken from the short biographies in between the narration and the description of their last hour. This use of the characters signifies how little a human life means in times of war: all characters, whether they are “guilty” or “innocent,” die in the hour of the bombings and then they become nameless dead. Catch-22 does have a main character, Yossarian. Where Vergeltung focuses on several characters and what happens to them, Catch-22 follows the life of one man. The reader gets a lot of information about Yossarian, how he feels and what he thinks about the people around him. Quite the opposite is true for Vergeltung: the biographies are neutral, and the characters are only followed in their final hour. There is no information about how they felt before the hour in which they die, or what kind of persons they were. Catch-22, written from the American point of view that focuses on individualism, gives background information about all the characters.

The clarity in the characters that Catch-22 has, however, is clouded by the structure of the novel. The time lapses and flashbacks, and the almost complete lack of any time-indication whatsoever gives Catch-22 an erratic pace. The reader has to find his way through the labyrinth of Yossarian’s associations in the same way as Yossarian himself does when he tries to escape the “catch.”  Vergeltung has a set time-frame, which is even indicated at the beginning and the end of the novel: “13:01 Central European Time,” (1) “Central European Time: 14:10” (199). Its structure is clear-cut and consists of small episodes featuring different characters, which all take place at the same time.

Both authors use different means to express the chaos of war: Gert Ledig uses many different characters, and Joseph Heller uses a (seemingly) chaotic chronology. They show different aspects of the war: Ledig shows how much can happen within one hour and to many different kinds of people, and Heller shows what happens to the mind of a single man (or crew) at war. Both authors deal with man’s psychology in times of war. In Vergeltung, characters seek justice and revenge. Their fear of the bombings drives them to things they would not normally do. In Catch-22 it becomes clear how Yossarian stops caring about his missions and how he finally deserts from the air force because it cannot function with people like Milo Minderbinder, who are only after profit. His desertion is his own choice, however. Yossarian chooses to “stay alive” (or try to stay alive) by deserting from the army. He has a moral choice – while the characters in Vergeltung all seem to be doomed. Almost every one of them dies, and those who do not die “will die tomorrow”. (“Anyone left could wait until tomorrow,” Ledig, 2003: 3). Their fate is sealed, no matter how they behave or what they do. The novels represent a different outlook on life. The American view is more existentialist: Yossarian has a choice, he needs to decide his own fate. The German view is determinist: the characters’ fate is already decided.



4.4 Comic elements in Vergeltung and Catch-22


Gert Ledig and Joseph Heller use comedy in a very different way. Ledig uses irony. The comic effect is not in the descriptions, which are rather cold and emotionless, but in the events themselves (corpses being bombed, and letters arriving after the person who wrote them has died). Heller uses paradoxes and black humour. Both authors create a certain distance to the characters, so that the reader may think about what exactly is “behind” the humour. John W. Aldridge says in Catch-22 Twenty-five Years Later that the readers of Catch-22 understood the underlying meaning of Heller’s humour and found it rather disturbing:


Many readers must have sensed that beneath the comic surfaces Heller was saying something outrageous, unforgivably outrageous, not just about the idiocy of war but about our whole way of life and the system of false values on which it is based. The horror he exposed was not confined to the battlefield or the bombing mission but permeated the entire labyrinth structure of established power. (381)


Ledig’s almost journalistic descriptions and Heller’s paradoxes convey the same message: the madness and desperation of people at war, whether they be Germans, Americans, bomber crews or people being bombed. One could say Catch-22 is “funnier” because the paradoxes are absurd, and it is more satire than realism, but it does not fail to hit the mark: the parallel between Yossarian’s absurd world and the real world is very clear.



4.5 Religion and Clichés in Vergeltung and Catch-22


Vergeltung and Catch-22 are very similar in their outlook on religion and in their use of clichés. None of the characters are “miraculously saved” and they have all but given up faith in the face of danger. In both novels, a priest doubts his faith. In Vergeltung, the priest (who remains unnamed) dies bitterly, waiting for salvation. In Catch-22, the priest (Chapman) claims to have found his faith again at the end of the novel when it turns out Orr has survived his plane crash. The priest in Vergeltung is German, and the priest in Catch-22 American – yet both feel that God has forsaken “their side.” Gert Ledig says about this in Vergeltung: “God on our side. But he was on the other’s side as well” (Vergeltung, 199). Or, as Yossarian says, He is on neither side: “He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us” (Catch-22, 206).

            Both novels avoid standard metaphors or clichés to express horror. There is no mention of the “Day of Judgement” or “Apocalypse” except for the occurrences mentioned in chapters 2 and 3, which are not used in the way Sebald describes it in Luftkrieg und Literatur as stereotypical phrases (Sebald, 1999: 32). This means that both Ledig and Heller have found ways to describe what “could not be described” without falling back into clichés. Geoffrey Hartman claims in “Shoah and Intellectual Witnesses”, that the survivors of the war, who cannot remember what happened or express themselves about it because they are so traumatised, need literature and film to help them process their trauma:


Diejenigen, die sich aufgrund eines massiven Traumas nicht erinneren können oder da sie Orte und Menschen verloren haben, deren Namen und Fotos sie noch immer verfolgen, müssen ein Teil der verlorenen Lebensdichte (oder der Besonderheit des Todes) dadurch zurückgewinnen, daß sie diese in ihrer Imagination wiederherstellen. (Hartmann, 2001: 41)


Those, who because of massive trauma cannot remember or have lost people or places, whose names and pictures still haunt them, need to regain a part of the lost intensity of life (or the distinctiveness of death) by reconstructing them in their imagination.


Nicht vorhandene Erinnerungen mußten erzetzt werden. (Hartmann, 2001: 38)


Missing memories need to be replaced.


He claims authors who have not experienced the war the way the victims have, but are, through research and imagination, able to reconstruct the experience, could help the victims remember. He says:


Ich untersuche die Möglichkeit intellektueller Zeugenschaft sowohl derjenigen, welche die NS-Zeit nicht direkt miterlebt haben, als auch der Überlebenden, deren Schriften bemerkenswert und beispielhaft sind. (36)


I am researching the possibility of intellectual testimonies of those who have not experienced the fascist era as well as those survivors whose writings are notable and exemplary.


The “intellectual witness”


zeugt für den Zeugen, er empfängt aktiv Wörter, welche die Dunkelheit des Ereignisses widerspiegeln. [...] Der intellektuelle Zeuge springt ein für dieses “Du” oder “Wir”, indem er Verantwortung für die Worte der Überlebenden oder Augenzeugen übernimmt. (52)


testifies for the witnesses, he actively intuits words that mirror the darkness of the experience. […] The intellectual witness fills in for the “you” or “us,” by taking on responsibility for the words of the survivors or eye-witnesses.


Gert Ledig fought at Stalingrad in World War Two and Joseph Heller served in the U.S. Air Force as a bombardier in Italy and flew sixty missions. They are direct witnesses as well as intellectual witnesses – they are direct witnesses of World War Two, and intellectual witnesses of bombings (in Ledig’s case) and, from the viewpoint of many readers, unintendedly,  the Vietnam War (in Heller’s case). Both authors describe what happened in a way that people who have experienced it can recognise it, and perhaps find new ways of dealing with their past: “Catch-22 as a novel had influenced our thinking, but Vietnam as Catch-22 itself affected our immediate existence” (Pratt, 1991: 93). Jan Assmann uses the term “cultural memory”:


Durch Erinnerung wird Geschichte zum Mythos. Dadurch wird sie nicht unwirklich, sondern im Gegenteil erst Wirklichkeit im Sinne einer fortdauernden normativen und formativen Kraft. (Assmann, 1997: 52)


History becomes myth through remembrance. This does not make it surreal, on the contrary, it makes it real in the sense of a lasting normative and formative power.


Ledig and Heller have contributed to the cultural memory. Their work translated the unexpressable war experiences of the survors into “myth,” making it accesible to both survivors and post-war generations.


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