The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s, the title of Werner Sollors’s distinguished volume devoted to the immediate post–world war period in Germany—that is, the last five years of the decade—manages to be both vague and lurid. Its strangeness, moreover, is linked to the fact that for all the focus the author brings to the years of the American occupation of Germany, the title itself is borrowed from a French Catholic novel by the eminent right-wing polemicist and sometime celebrant of radical anti-Semitism, Georges Bernanos. The novel, published in 1926, is Sous le soleil de Satan (whose second section is titled “La Tentation du désespoir”), and it periodically resurfaces in Sollors’s book as if to say that German history at its most tragic was in fact written within the medium of French literature, specifically by way of its obsession with Bernanos’s novel.

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