The Smoking Mountain, by Kay Boyle (1951; 1963)

Cover of 1963 edition of The Smoking Mountain
In 1948, the American writer Kay Boyle left France, where she had spent most of the previous 25 years to live in Germany. Germany was then an occupied country, split between the Soviets, French, British, and Americans into four zones of military administration. Whether she was making amends for sitting out France’s own time of occupation in the safety of America, or spurred by the call of The New Yorker editor Harold Ross for “fiction from Germany,” or just interested in a unique place in time, Boyle was to find in the experience the inspiration to write the dozen stories and articles collected in The Smoking Mountain.

Boyle took her title from a passage by the German novelist and anti-Nazi journalist, Theodor Plievier: “…the people ceased to exist as a people and became nothing but fuel for the monstrous, smoking mountain, the individual became nothing but wood, peat,
fuel oil, and finally a black flake spewed up out of the flames.” The Germany she witnessed was barely beginning to recover. Most city centers were still fields of rubble. Gaunt men, women, and children still tramped along the roads, either fleeing from the Soviet zone or trying to return to homes and families they left during the war. As William Shirer wrote in his foreword to the 1963 edition of The Smoking Mountain, the Germany of 1948 “is not a pretty place for human beings, either the conquered or the conquerors. The cities are largely a mass of ruins, the rubble piled high wherever you look. The Germans, who have lost another great war they expected to win, are understandably still in a daze.”

Frankfurt, 1947
Frankfurt, 1947

Many of the men, former soldiers often returning from POW camps outside Germany seemed more like ghosts than living beings. One of Boyle’s Americans describes an itinerant ex-POW digging up potatoes for a few pfennig as “a figure so eloquent in its suffering, so dramatically conceived, that it might have been a portrait done in sombre oils, the dark, despairing eyes, not of a living man but of an El Greco head, following him now from where the canvas was placed upon a museum’s shadowy wall.” Another finds it difficult to enjoy the folk dances being performed for a party of American occupation VIPs when he notices how close they are to starvation:

It seemed to him that the threads of their necks must snap in two, unable to bear the weight of the fleshless skulls they carried, and that their bones would pierce the carnival lace and tinsel of their disguise, and expose them for the skeletons they were. He could hear the girl’s hand striking the tambourine with which she danced, and he could not bring himself to turn his head and see again the bony stalks of her white arms lifted, like the arms of those who have already perished reaching from the grave. And the young man, in his matador’s suit and his cracked, black, patent-leather pumps, danced his desperate, intricate steps before her, his legs as brittle and thin as sticks of kindling in his cotton stockings, the brass coins jingling with avarice on his tricorner hat. And no one else looked at them, it seemed to Rod Murray; no one else dared watch them as they danced away across the parquet floor.

Frankfurt American Post Exchange, mid-1950s

In glaring contrast is the wealth and health of the Americans and their Post Exchanges, clubs, cocktail parties, and commissaries:

But once you stepped from the German city street, and into the Commissary, here, for better or worse, was the look of home. Metal push-wagons waited in a double row in the overheated entranceway, as they waited in the chain stores of any Stateside city you might name. Mrs. Furley showed her identification to the German girl seated at the desk, and picked up a meat number, and then she moved on with the others, as she had day after day of the year that had just elapsed—moved on with the young women in their saddleback shoes and bobby socks, pushing her wagon as they pushed theirs before them, moved into the thick of it with the matrons, the teen-age girls, the displaced grandmothers, some of them newly come from the States, who clung to the handles of their vehicles as if to the last remaining vestiges of a civilization they had always known….

On the shelves which lined and bisected the vast low hall were stacked the familiar cans and bottles—the names of Campbell, and Heinz, and Van Camp, and Fould, and Kellogg, to reassure the exiled, and beans and pancakes illustrated in color so that the fears of the lost and the bewildered might be allayed.

For some Americans, however, life on post in Germany was better than life back home. In “Home,” a black G.I. befriends a skinny Germany boy he spots shivering in the rain, takes him into the Post Exchange, and buys him a new set of clothes, including a warm coat and sturdy shoes. When the German clerk checking him out chastises the G.I. for spoiling the boy, he replies, “Well, at home … at home, ma’am, I never had much occasion to do for other people, so I was glad to have had this opportunity offered me,”

The best piece, however, is the introduction—at over seventy pages by far the longest in the book. In large part, it reprints Boyle’s account for The New Yorker of the trial of Heinrich Baab, a thuggish low-ranking member of the S.S. known as “The Terror of the Frankfurt Jews.” Unlike the Nuremberg Trials and other tribunals conducted by the Occupation forces, Baab’s trial took place in a German court, with German judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense attorney. And unlike most of the victims of the high-ranking Nazis tried in Nuremberg, many of Baab’s victims sat in court and watched their former persecutor as he sat in the dock. “If they were not actually the murdered,” Boyle writes, “they were those whose annihilation had been attempted, or they were of the flesh and blood of those who had died.”

As Boyle describes him, Baab seems more intent on snacking than on the proceedings:

He had a pallid, bloated face, this forty-one year-old Frankfurt citizen, and he wore a khaki shirt, the collar of which seemed tight around his fleshy neck. His broad rayon tie, which had apparently been striped in yellow and brown in its time, was now faded, and his heavy head, with the front half of the skull naked of hair, hung sideways. For, despite the fact that he was on trial for the murder of fifty-six other Frankfurt citizens, he was concerned with some kind of tidbit, some kind of nut, which his fingers kept shelling out of sight below the panels of the dock. With his head inclined at this angle, the polished area of his broad, flat skull was mercilessly exposed, and his blunt-fingered heavy hand could be seen only at those moments when he contrived to slip a nut into his mouth. As he prepared the next morsel of food for consumption, his sagging jowls went surreptitiously into motion, and his glance moved carefully around the courtroom as he chewed.

In Baab’s trial, Boyle saw “the pattern for a revolution which has not taken place, the outline for action which might spring not from an outraged national honor, but from the outrage of a deeper, wider honor.” At the time when The Smoking Mountain was first published by McGraw-Hill in 1951, her assessment was that Germany was still holding back from this revolution, not yet ready to “be brought to accept a national responsibility?” By the time the book was republished by Alfred A. Knopf in 1963, Shirer considered that Boyle’s Germany “is a Germany which no longer exists. The rubble has long since been cleared, the cities and factories rebuilt, the Germans become prosperous and independent and confident…” In reality, though, the wounds of war do not heal just from having the rubble cleared and shiny new buildings erected in its place. One thing I’ve come to appreciate from living in Europe for many years is that the experience of war, defeat, and occupation makes it much harder to look at the world in black and white terms like “good” and “bad”: survival usually involves more subtle nuances of grey. For anyone who’s forgotten that, Kay Boyle’s The Smoking Mountain offers an effective reminder.


The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Germany During the Occupation, by Kay Boyle
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963

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