Ingeborg Bachmann's War Diary

Series 3 No. 3 - Metamorphoses

Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘War Diary’ covers a period stretching from the late summer of 1944 to June 1945.  In September 1944 Ingeborg was an eighteen-year old Abitur student at the Klagenfurt high school for girls, known as the Ursulinen-Gymnasium. She lived, mostly alone, in the family’s small house in Hensel Street. Her father was an army officer doing war-service in the East and his visits on home leave were infrequent. Since 1943 Ingeborg’s mother, her younger sister Isolde and her four-year-old brother Heinz (Heinerle) had been living mainly in the family’s other house in Obervellach in the Gail valley, west of Villach and well clear of Klagenfurt with its frequent and increasingly heavy air-raids.

At this stage, like many of her contemporaries, Ingeborg faced the prospect of having to do a bazooka training course followed by some form of war-service. As a girl student she could claim exemption by agreeing to do teacher training and signing away her entitlement to higher education. Helped by a family friend, she got a place at the teacher training college. Here the course was dominated by National Socialist ideology, anathema to Ingeborg who was used to the relatively benign atmosphere of the Ursulinen-Gymnasium. Still, her studies at the college continued until early 1945 when, with the collapse of Nazi Germany imminent, and unwilling as she was to go on digging anti-tank ditches, she left the bomb-damaged Klagenfurt house to rejoin the rest of the family in Obervellach.

Her experience at the teacher training college was hardly a catalyst in the development of her anti-Nazism, the foundations of which had already been laid in 1938 when as an eleven-year old she experienced the trauma of Hitler’s annexation of Austria. She was not actually there on 12 March 1938 to see the triumphant entry of German troops into Klagenfurt, but the ‘bawling, singing and marching’ she found so repellent went on for weeks and left her mind permanently scarred.

In 1944 Mathias Bachmann was badly wounded in east Poland. After hospital treatment and home leave he returned to the front only to be caught up in the German collapse outside Prague. Avoiding capture by the Red Army, he surrendered to the Americans and was soon, probably in August 1945, back home in Obervellach. Unable because of his Nazi past to resume his teaching career, he nevertheless decided to finance the university education of his two daughters by mortgaging the Obervellach house. So it was that at the end of 1945 Ingeborg was able to start her studies in Innsbruck and later continue them in Vienna.

The manuscript contains references to persons who, for good reasons, are not identified by name. The Bachmann family wish to maintain this discretion.

Confusingly, only the later entries in the diary are properly dated.

Issi is one of Ingeborg’s school-friends and not be confused with Isi, her sister Isolde.

In the rhetorical flourish at the start of the third paragraph Ingeborg is recalling these lines from Rilke’s Book of Hours: ‘Was wirst du tun, Gott, wenn ich sterbe? / Ich bin dein Krug (wenn ich zerscherbe?) / Ich bin dein Trank (wenn ich verderbe?) / Bin dein Gewand und dein Gewerbe, / mit mir verlierst du deinen Sinn.‘

Ali was the neighbours’ dog.

Ingeborg is rightly dismissive of the suggestion that the acronym FSS might point to a link with the Secret Service. It stands for Field Security Section. Field Security was a branch of the Army Intelligence Corps and was concerned in Austria with denazification, frontier control and the gathering of intelligence.

The questionnaire completed by Ingeborg was standard and designed to establish whether the interviewee had been a member of the Nazi Party or any of its subsidiaries, including of course the League of German Girls (BDM: Bund Deutscher Mädel). The latter, affiliated to the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend), had as its mission the National Socialist upbringing of girls between the ages of 14 and 21.

Jews with backgrounds like that of Jack Hamesh were numerous in Field Security. By defying local anti-Semitic bigots and maintaining her friendship with Jack, Ingeborg showed great courage. After his demob she kept in touch with him till 1946/47 when he is thought to have emigrated to Palestine.

War Diary

Dear diary, I’ve been rescued. I don’t have to go to Poland or do bazooka training. Daddy was here and went with me from Vellach to Klagenfurt; he went to see Dr Hasler, who advised him to get me signed up straightaway at the teacher training college, for teachers are in short supply. I could never even have dreamt that one day the detested teacher training college would be my salvation. I was immediately registered and enrolled as a final year student, on a fast-track course, and you have to teach while still being taught yourself. Everything went smoothly at the Regional Office. The only nasty bit was being seen by the assessor for girls doing teacher training and so exempt from war-service under the emergency scheme. I was there twice, the first time she wasn’t there, I could scarcely recall her or her face, All I remember was her making the dreadful pronouncement that I would have to behave myself, otherwise it would be all up with me in spite of my good report. And that she said ‘Mädel’ with a very long ‘ ä’. This time too she tried to appeal to my better nature, but I got in there first, since I knew from talking to Hasler what line to take and I said I was sure now I wasn’t of degree calibre and so I wanted to be a teacher, also because for the war-effort teaching children was more important – and I added: for the children too. That shut her up. The only thing was I knew you had to sign a form declaring under oath that you were renouncing any claim to a university education. I hesitated for a moment and then I signed. No, I am sure that in this country I shall never continue my studies, not with this war still going on. What madness to hesitate even for an instant! Today we had the first lesson at school. I was almost glad to be back again. But can you call it school? I think the girls in my class are all fanatics. After the first lesson the air-raid warning went and that was that. But Wilma – she used to be in my class – is also on the course. She did the same thing as me. She didn’t come with me, but biked over to Annabichl and then home, and so now here I am, stretched out at our favourite spot by the edge of the forest. Issi brought the flour mush from the chemist’s and we’re fetching water from the stream to stir into it. Sunshine. She’s asleep, sunning herself. After five hours still no all-clear. Still no bombs. Once a couple of fighter-bombers came in low and fired a burst or two …

The Russians are in Vienna and probably already somewhere in Styria. I have talked it all over with Issi. It is not at all simple. She doesn’t know whether she can get something out of the poisons cupboard. We are both scared of the Russians. Of course, I don’t believe everything I’m told, but no one can foretell what they will do with us, whether they will leave us here or take us to Siberia. You have to expect the worst.

What will you do, God, if I die …. I’m not going up into the shelter again. The Tschörners are already dead and a day later, Ali also met his end. Our Ali. There is nobody left in the street. The days are so sunny. I’ve put a chair in the garden and I read. I’ve made up my mind to go on reading when the bombs are falling. The Book of Hours is already crumpled and messy. It is a great comfort to me. And Baudelaire! Bientot nous tomberons dans les froides tenebres, adieu vive clarte. I no longer need to look at the book. Yesterday we had the biggest raid ever. The first formation flew over, the second dropped its bombs. The droning noise was so powerful that it took my breath away and then I did go down into the basement, which in our little house was ridiculous as it wouldn’t withstand even a small bomb, let alone one weighing 100 kg. They say it looks terrible in the city, and even here it’s like the end of the world. But I’m not scared, only when the bombs fall there’s this physical sensation, a sort of stomach cramp. But in my mind I have made my will. Maybe it’s sinful just to stay sitting there, staring into the sun. But I cannot go into the shelter for hours at a time, with the water running down the rock walls and the air so bad that you nearly faint. There is a ban on talking because of the air, but the silence of those abject masses of people is unbearable too. The thought of perishing with them like cattle is dreadful. At least let it be in the garden. In the sun.

This morning A. said we’re not allowed out any more when the air-raid warning goes. He’s like a madman. This morning he saw that Wilma was wearing her little silver pendant with its crucifix and was so enraged that he nearly threw her downstairs. At 7 o’clock tomorrow we all have to go out into the Annabichl fields to dig trenches. ‘Klagenfurt must be defended to the last man and to the last woman,’ he bawled. I immediately talked the matter over with Wilma. She has to join her brothers and sisters. They have been bombed out and their mother is in bed somewhere, dreadfully ill. I shall go there on my own and see how things are and, if need be, invent some excuse for her. Issi, dear sweet Issi, consoled me. We went again to the edge of the wood and in the end even had a laugh. The ‘cover supremo’ was there again, crawling around in the bushes 20 metres from us like a startled weasel. Whenever low-flying aircraft strafed the trains he stuck his head out of the bushes, shouting hysterically, Take cover, ladies! Take cover, ladies! And Issi, who nearly chokes when she can’t stop laughing, finally gasped and said, ‘What a well brought-up young man!’ Then she told me the latest jokes from the chemist’s and we had cold potatoes. Tomorrow we must really be on our toes.

All the kids were there to do the shovelling, but not a single member of staff. Nor A., needless to say. The prefects were in charge of course, and anyway no one in this flock of sheep showed any awareness of the effrontery of our role-models, the teachers. In my rage I poked around with my shovel in the hard ground. I didn’t feel at all ill but must have looked quite pale, because half an hour later the girl next to me said, ‘Are you feeling sick?’ I mumbled something indistinct and kept thinking to myself what they are doing to us cries out to heaven. The adults, our esteemed ‘mentors’ who want to get us killed. When the alarm went some of the younger ones got agitated, far and wide no houses or cellars, and all those factories in the vicinity. Nearby there was a wooden shed and a bomb-damaged nursery garden. My bike was there and I said I needed to sit down for a bit. As ill luck would have it a short while before a few older Hitler Youth Leaders turned up to check the trenches, yelling ‘Get on with it!’ In spite of that I got away, leaned against the side of the shed and, since no one could see me properly, jumped on the bike and rode off. Bombs were already falling in Pischeldorf Street. I lay down in an old crater in the meadow and then half an hour later went to call on Wilma.

Wilma seems calmer. The two of us are not going back to school. In any case we are not yet known to all the teachers. A. probably doesn’t know me at all. And Hasler definitely won’t say anything. Wilma is afraid we could be shot as deserters. But in all this turmoil I think we can rule out any chance of people bothering about us.

In the cellar I have got together the most important things. I’ll take them with me to the Gailtal when the time comes. But for now I shall stay here. I found Liselotte in a box. I put her into her frilly pink dress and she is lying in bed with me. She can’t say ‘Mama’ any more, and neither can I. Oh, Mummy, Mummy! And Heinerle, my angel. No post. Nothing.

Talking to the grown-ups has become pointless.

Everyone living within ten kilometres of the frontier needs a pass. Vellach is still within the frontier zone. If you want a pass or are looking for a job you have to go to the FSS. I don’t know what that means, lots of them say ‘Secret Service’, but of course that’s nonsense. I was there today and it was quickly my turn. There were two Englishmen in the office, one of them really wild-looking, with a beard; he’s said to be from South Africa. The other is small and a bit ugly, glasses, speaks German fluently with a Viennese accent. The South African speaks it worse, very haltingly. The little one made me fill in a questionnaire, then he looked at it and said: ‘So you’ve done your matric.’ I think he was surprised because all the others are peasant girls. Then he said: ‘BDM, of course’. Suddenly I felt quite sick and couldn’t say a word and just nodded. I could have told him that I am probably no longer listed, because I didn’t join at 14, never even took the oath, and later too never got roped in or went along of my own accord. But I don’t know what came over me. I thought too they probably all tell him they were never members or only because they were forced, and straightaway I also thought he wouldn’t believe a word of it. Finally, he said ‘Think again very carefully about whether you were a leader or not. We’re bound to find out if you were.’ I managed to say ‘No’. But I believe I turned quite red and in desperation even redder. Why you should turn red and tremble when you are telling the truth is beyond me.

Yesterday I enquired about my pass. The South African was the only one there so I’ll have to go back; it will take me a day or two to get the pass. Close to the local government offices, by the greengrocer’s, the other one suddenly got off a bike. He still remembered my name and was totally changed, no longer sarcastic, embarrassed rather. His name is Jack Hamesh. I was quite embarrassed too. He asked me where I live in Vellach and he walked with me as far as the bridge. I don’t know why he wanted to talk to me. He asked if Uncle Christl is related to me, and of course I said ‘Yes’, adding that just about everybody called Bachmann is related to us. Why Uncle Christl ended up in a camp, when it was the G.s and the M.s who were the most fanatical Nazis, I don’t know; everybody thinks that the G.s, who own the only shops in the village, must be behind all this. Now they are all denouncing one another, especially the Nazis as a group, because they all think that this way they can get off lightly. Of course I didn’t say a word about what I thought, he would definitely not have understood and after all I scarcely know him. I don’t know either what he wants from me.

11 June. L. has fallen in love with an Englishman, he is tremendously tall and gangling and is called Bob. She says he is very rich and was brought up in Oxford. He’s all she can talk about. Yesterday she said she had just one wish, to get away from here and go to England. She’s hoping, I think, that he will marry her. But marriage between Austrian girls and Englishmen is prohibited by the military government. She says the hardships here will never end and that she has gone through too much, can’t take any more, and wants a life for herself. I can understand her only too well but get angry with her too, because she thinks I also ought to marry an Englishman and get away from here. Of course I want to get away, but only in order to study, and I don’t want to get married and not even to an Englishman, just for the sake of a few tins of food and some silk stockings. Most of the Englishmen here are very nice and decent, I think. But I am much too young. Arthur and Bill are really very nice and we talk and laugh a lot together. In the garden we often play Tailor, Tailor, Lend Me Your Scissors and Look Behind You . Arthur keeps giving Heinerle chocolate, and a few days ago he called on Mummy, who is still in bed, and put tea and biscuits onto her bedspread. She calls him ‘Redilocks’, because he has such ginger hair, and likes him best. I think he also is in love with L., Bill is too, but Arthur more so, and I think too that Arthur is terribly jealous of Bob. Bob is quite standoffish. We once exchanged a couple of words but never again and even then it didn’t amount to much: it was just to thank him for letting L. have the car so that she could fetch Mummy from hospital.

14 June. My mind is in a whirl still. Jack Hamesh was here again, this time he came in a jeep. Everyone in the village was gawping of course and S. came across the stream twice to look into the garden. I took him into the garden because Mummy is in bed upstairs. We sat on the bench and to begin with I was trembling again so badly that he must have thought I was mad or had something on my conscience or whatever. And I just don’t know why. I no longer know what we talked about first, but then all at once it was about books, about Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig and Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal. I was so happy, he knows everything, and he told me he would never have thought he might meet a young girl in Austria who in spite of her Nazi upbringing had read all that. And suddenly everything was quite different, and I told him all about the books. He told me that he was taken to England in 1938 in a Kindertransport with other Jewish children. Actually he was already 18 years old at the time, but an uncle managed to arrange it, his parents were already dead. Now I know too why he speaks such good German. Then he joined the British army and in the occupation zones lots of former Germans and Austrians are now working in the offices of the FSS, on account of the language and because they know the conditions in the country better. We talked till evening, and he kissed my hand before he left. Nobody ever kissed my hand before. I am so mixed up and happy, and when he’d gone I climbed the apple tree in our garden, it was already dark, and I cried my eyes out and thought to myself that I would never wash my hand again.

Jack comes every day now, and I’ve never talked so much in my life. We talk mostly about Weltanschauung and history. He’s very good at explaining, and I’m no longer in the least embarrassed by him. I always ask him if it’s something I haven’t yet heard about. At the moment we’re doing socialism and communism (and of course if Mummy were to hear the word ‘communism’ she would faint!), but you must have detailed knowledge of everything and study. I’m reading Marx’s Capital and a book by Adler. I’ve told Jack that I’d like to study philosophy, and he takes me very seriously and thinks that is right for me. But I’ve kept quiet about the poems.

L. has borrowed my shoes, because of Bob. I’m happy to lend them to her now and then, but now she’s wearing them all the time and I have to go around in my old house shoes, even when Jack comes. Mummy thinks that’s very inconsiderate of her. Jack thinks she is very clever and she calls round sometimes if she’s got time, then it’s more fun. I think that like everyone else he likes her, but I don’t mind. You can’t talk sensibly to her at all now, she’s up there in the clouds. I begin to doubt if she will ever be a good doctor, for dancing and having a good time and flirting are much more important for her. She is quite changed. I think also that her father is worried. Bob has given her a car, and so now she has two, an official Red Cross car and one of her own, and Bill, who has gone all moody, often acts as her chauffeur and drives her around. He is so naïve and kind.

So that’s the way things are. They are all talking about me and of course that goes for all my relatives too. ‘She’s going out with that Jew.’ And Mummy is quite tense because of all the gossip, and she can’t understand what it all means for me! She avoids the subject and so today when we were cooking, I brought it up and told her nothing is ever said between us that could not be heard by a third person, that she herself must know this and was best able to sense it herself. After all, she knows me! But it’s not about that but about ‘me and the Jew’. And I told her that I shall walk up and down through Hermagor and Vellach with him ten times in a row and if that upsets them, so much the better.

This is the loveliest summer of my life, and if I live to be a hundred this spring and summer will still be the loveliest. ‘Not much real sign of peace’ is what they all say, but for me peace is peace! People are so terribly stupid. Did they really expect that such a catastrophe would be followed by some kind of earthly paradise? That the British would have nothing better on their minds than making our lives a bed of roses? Goodness me, even a few months ago who would have thought that we would even survive? Now I can go up the Goria again every day, just to be alone and dream, how marvellous to dream! I shall study, work, write! I am alive, I am alive. My God, to be free and alive, even without shoes, without bread and butter, without stockings, without …. Oh, what more can I say? This is a splendid time!

We don’t talk about Daddy any more. I don’t, because of Mummy, and she doesn’t, because of us. If only he had really been in Prague … Jack says that the Americans and the British are already releasing lots of prisoners, but of course nothing is known about the Russians. Basically nothing at all is known. From Vienna there are rumours of looting and rape, it’s awful. Shall I be able to get to Vienna at all? When? How? I can’t stay here for ever, waiting and waiting. There is nothing for me to do here, nothing to learn. If the universities don’t open soon. I’ll have to look for a job. Maybe with the British, so that we have something to eat. There is less and less. Yesterday we got our ration of horse meat and two of the three tins were bad. Thank goodness for Aunty Rosa! So we do at least have milk for Heinerle, but already he looks like a tiny skeleton. I don’t understand it, for we’re doing all we can for him.

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