What are you supposed to say when the world is coming to an end?

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WHAT is it like, to watch the world ending? For some people, it was only the war that ended 50 years ago. For others, though, it seemed as if everything - human beings, cities, beliefs, the names of landscapes, even nations - was collapsing and being buried for ever.

The German paper I read runs daily a selection of items from the same day in 1945. It is a collage: official bulletins, scraps from letters home, diary entries, fragments of memoir. No commentary is needed. Germany was dying, and everybody knew it. Some supposed there might be life after death, while others pretended not to care. But everybody knew.

"In the western areas of East Prussia the enemy made advances to the north and north-east against bitter resistance . . . after intense street- fighting, Insterburg was lost." That is the Wehrmacht situation report. "This morning, my birthday, news finally arrived [from Dresden]. Two letters and two postcards at once, dirty and tattered. They are alive and well and the flat is actually still there. As the windows were blown in and the rooms are full of soot and freezing cold, my parents are sleeping in the passage.'' That's from the diary of the writer Erich Kaestner. Another writer, Thomas Mann, is in Californian exile; his diary in Pacific Palisades starts: "Got up at 9.30. Yogurt for breakfast. Worked on Chapter 25 [of Dr Faustus] some more . . . The Russians are advancing on Elbing".

The world is coming to an end. The terrible comet glares brighter as it begins its final plunge towards the earth. What are you supposed to say or write or think? The novelist Ernst Juenger had a dream; he was running along an underground train tunnel, clasping a white dove and a black bat to his breast, and sometimes they escaped before returning to his embrace. It seemed to him that he loved the bat most. Hans-Georg Zimmermann, a boy in Koenigsberg, noted that the Freytags had popped into his shelter and said that in their shelter a child had been blown to bits by a toy dropped by Russian aircraft. "In the evening we played cards. I lost."

In East Prussia, Count von Lehndorff was watching the whole countryside in flight, a procession of horse-drawn carts reaching to the western horizon. In his headquarters, Adolf Hitler was wrangling with Goering and General Guderian about why Russian defectors were allowed to wear German uniform. "They ought to have Cossack uniforms and badges, to show they are fighting for us. Anyway, that's much more romantic. I mean, it would never come into an Englishman's head to stick an Indian into English clothes. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. If we had any character, we wouldn't go round popping German helmets on foreigners." In Dresden, Hans Schroeter had hurried home to see that his "dear ones" were safe. "Unfortunately, this was not the case, they were lying in the street in front of the house, Number 38, as peaceful as if they were asleep."

The seals of the Book of Revelation were opening; the star Wormwood was rising. What was left of the cities flared away to ash, while across the countryside moved packs of half-crazed marauders seeking plunder and vengeance. Foreign soldiers, seeking recreation between their labours of dividing up the country, stealing its treasures and arresting its administrators, raped tens of thousands of women. There was no food, no news, no law, no Germany. In these islands, we do not understand what the end of the world feels like. The writing vet "James Herriot" died last week and the radio carried his gentle voice reflecting on his own life: "I grew up, I fell in love, I had children, I went off to the war and came back - just like everyone else." "Went off to"? Came back "like everyone else"? At the end of a century like our own, that was a voice from a most fortunate country.

Being fortunate is nothing whatever to be ashamed of. The virtues of tolerance and kindness grow best in nations which have been lucky in their history. But the Germans, whose leaders had already stamped the 20th century with its hallmark of brutality and greed, were not fortunate and were not spared. The state collapsed. Twelve million people were driven from their homes and became refugees. Part of the country was annexed by other states, and what remained was split into zones of foreign occupation.

At the time, the British said to one another: "That'll teach them!" But what do such things teach, except fear and self-pity? For many Germans, the post-war experience of being ragged, dirty and hungry was so humiliating that it blocked out concern for what the rest of Europe had suffered under the Nazis. In a more subtle way, the "Collapse" revived an old German mistrust of authority: the suspicion that all rulers were servants of Satan and that all states were flimsy constructions perched over an abyss. As a contrast to blind faith in the Third Reich, when all mistrust had been flung aside, this was certainly welcome. But it was not the best mental climate in which to plant a confident liberal democracy.

What the Germans did learn was something much more elementary. They discovered that worlds don't end. Fifty years ago today, senior Nazis in the path of the approaching Red Army were persuading their families to sit on the sofa in the living room, take a last look at the Goebbels wireless set ("People's Receiver") on the sideboard and the Fuehrer`s portrait on the wall, and swallow their cyanide pills. Those who did not feel like cyanide were starved and raped and plundered and flung out of their own homes as the comet finally hit the earth.

But then came a day when they looked around and registered that they were still alive. The guns had stopped. The voices screaming about final victory and heroic sacrifice had gone silent. Instead, birds could be heard in the splintered trees, and women passing bricks to one another in the rubble were singing unpolitical songs. People thought: "How tough we are! If we can survive this, then we can do anything!"

That was the Stunde Null - the Zero Hour, when the clock suddenly starts ticking again among the ruins, when the first chalked word appears on a blackboard wiped clean. What had ended, it turned out, was not a world or a nation but just a Reich. So the survivors built a different country from zero, and if it is not the best-possible Germany, it is the best-so-far Germany by a very long way.

Starting from zero is something we know nothing about. Britons travel with heavy luggage, stuffed with family silver and the moth-eaten mantles of prophets. But if we lost that luggage, like King John losing his baggage- train in the Wash, would we know how to start again? Would Britain survive in us, a crowd of half-naked people with empty hands? Or is Britishness just a lot of inherited tat rattling about in a suitcase - something loseable?

That is another discussion. For the moment I want to think about my friend the Countess Doenhoff. It was in January frosts that she mounted her horse in East Prussia and rode off west. Her tenants begged her to leave: the Bolsheviks would kill her, whereas they would spare ordinary working folk (they were wrong about that, it turned out).

So she rode for weeks across the end of the world, and when she got stiffly off her horse at the house of friends in Westphalia, she saw that it was spring. Later, she wrote: "The ploughs stood ready in the dusty fields. Everywhere were the signs of a new beginning. Was it possible for life to go on as if nothing had happened?"