And where were You, Adam? (Wo Warst Du, Adam?)
AND WHERE WERE YOU, ADAM? (Wo warst du, Adam?)
Novel by Heinrich Böll, 1951
And Where Were You, Adam?, first published in English translation as Adam, Where Art Thou? in 1955 and later as And Where Were You, Adam? in 1973, is part of Heinrich Böll's literary output from 1947 to 1952, which draws extensively from autobiographical events during his time as a soldier in World War II. It was originally published in German as Wo warst du, Adam? in 1951. In nine loosely connected chapters, the novel discusses the fate of the protagonist Feinhals and of his fellow soldiers on the eastern front in the closing months of the war. What characterizes all of Böll's war literature is the fact that there are no heroes; his protagonists are ordinary, downtrodden soldiers who lack control over their lives and whose deaths are usually presented as being completely pointless, often painful, and always ugly. In keeping with his condemnation of war, Böll's style is realistic; he saw the war not as an exciting adventure but as an illness "like typhoid."
Böll prefaces And Where Were You, Adam? with two quotations: one from Antoine de Saint-Exupery which likens war to typhoid; the other from Theodor Haecker which provides the title of the work and suggests that the basic problem of German contemporary society is that it uses the war as an alibi—" 'And where were you, Adam?' 'I was in the World War."' For Böll, Adam's excuse is typical of society's refusal to accept responsibility for its actions; this is also true for such seemingly sympathetic characters as Feinhals and his fellow soldiers who are conscripted into serving a cause that they regard as senseless. Unfortunately, their passivity—or inability to take action—allows the truly destructive elements in society to rise, in this case, Nazism, which leads inexorably to the Holocaust.
Böll depicts the horror of the Holocaust in an encounter between SS Captain Filskeit, leader of an extermination camp, and the baptized Jewish girl, Ilona. Böll cynically portrays Filskeit as an unattractive pyknic type with latent homosexual tendencies who is a fanatic believer in the Nazi doctrine of the superiority of the racial purity, beauty, and superiority of the Aryan race. His detailed characterization of Filskeit is an extended satire of Nazi characteristics in general: an exaggerated respect for order, slavish following of superiors' commands, and a shallow love of art. Filskeit loves choral music and creates a choir in every camp he is sent to during the war. When Ilona arrives, Filskeit orders her to sing while he recruits members for his shrinking choir from the Jews sent to him. As she sings the "All Saints Litany," Filskeit recognizes the fallacy of the Nazi ideology of the racial superiority of the Aryan race that had been central to his life. In Ilona he finds what he had in vain sought in himself: "beauty and nobility and racial perfection, combined with something that completely paralyzed him: faith." His reaction is true to his distorted human nature: he shoots the young woman and orders the extermination of the rest of the Jews.
This episode (developed in chapters five and seven of the novel) is the most explicit example of Böll's attitude to the Holocaust. If at times Böll seems to accuse all Germans of responsibility for its occurrence, he qualifies this charge in his portrayal of ordinary Germans who preserve their humanity in the face of widespread brutality. When the soldier Feinhals meets Ilona, their love for each other transcends questions of race or nationality. His senseless death at the novel's end echoes Ilona's and underlines the inhumanity of the Nazi regime as represented by the Holocaust.