Was the great American author sympathetic to Nazism?
Among the many words written about J.D. Salinger’s coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye, none were more flattering than German author Hermann Hesse’s book review in 1953. “Whether one reads the novel as the individual story of a half-grown problem child or as the allegory of a whole country and people, one will be led by the author along the beautiful road from dislike to understanding, from disgust to love,” the 76-year-old Hesse wrote. “In a problematic world and time, poetry can achieve nothing higher.”
The review was especially significant because Hesse was seen at the time as the reigning master of the bildungsroman genre, the coming-of-age story pioneered in German literature by Goethe. His enthusiastic review amounted to a kind of passing of the torch – and to a 34-year-old American Jew, no less, who had never published a novel before. Not a small compliment, that.
Salinger’s relationship to Germany, however, went beyond his indebtedness to its literary tradition. In 1937 and 1938, the 18-year-old Salinger moved to Europe where he studied the German language in Vienna. Fearing antisemitism, his father brought him home after ten months. Just in time, too. Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna as Salinger was sailing for New York.
A few years later, the young writer was back in Europe serving in the US Army during World War II. Assigned to counterintelligence, he was among the earliest American soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp — most likely Kaufering near the town of Landsberg where Hitler had written Mein Kampf in the 1920s.
When Salinger arrived in the recently abandoned camp, he confronted piles of corpses. Many were charred in smoldering ruins because SS guards had sprayed gasoline on the huts of sick prisoners and lit them on fire.
Salinger would have seen burnt bodies in their last agonizing moments as they tried to escape the inferno. “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live,” he later told his daughter Margaret Salinger.
Although battle-hardened, these early American witnesses of the Holocaust were nevertheless unprepared for the grotesque sights and smells of the death camps. The haunting experience seemed to have triggered a nervous breakdown in Salinger. Soon after, he checked himself into a psychiatric clinic in Nuremberg.
After the war, he lived in the ancient town of Gunzenhausen in southern Germany. There he continued his counterintelligence work with the US Army tracking down local Nazis, while privately editing chapters of The Catcher in the Rye. In a few months he would marry a pretty German woman named Sylvia Welter who “hated Jews as much as he hated Nazis,” according to Salinger’s daughter. Their curious marriage, which was frowned upon by both their families, ended soon after the young couple moved to Manhattan, but Salinger’s bitterness about it remained for years afterward. When looking back on his first wife, he would call her “Saliva” rather than “Sylvia.”
In J.D. Salinger and the Nazis, literary critic Eberhard Alsen explores these biographical facts, seeking “to find out why Salinger, who grew up in a Jewish family, did not mention the Holocaust in any of his stories and why he deals with Jewish themes in only two of his thirty-five published stories.”
Alsen’s answer is disquieting. His main thesis is that Salinger “eventually came to feel more hostile toward the US Army than toward the Nazis.” Salinger’s stories, he claims, “demonstrate a nonjudgmental and even sympathetic attitude toward his Nazi characters while depicting American soldiers as unlikeable.” But it is impossible not to notice that his thesis rests upon very wobbly grounds.
Alsen begins by saying that Salinger never mentioned the Holocaust in his fiction, and then goes on to attribute all sorts of disturbing meanings to this alleged silence. Yet this fundamental assumption of the book is demonstrably untrue.
Salinger did write about the Holocaust, and movingly too. “A Girl I Knew” (1948) is his very beautiful short story about an American boy’s love for a Viennese Jewish girl —“she was probably the first appreciable thing of beauty I had seen that struck me as wholly legitimate” — who is later murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. The story plainly depicts the distress and moral revulsion that the Final Solution had on Salinger.
As to Salinger’s purported nonjudgmental stance toward the Nazis, Alsen simply misunderstands American diction of the 1940s, as, for example, when he makes a big deal out of the fact that Salinger’s characters refer to German soldiers as “Krauts” rather than the supposedly more insulting “Nazis.” His contention is that, by not calling them “Nazis,” Salinger’s characters display “their lack of rancor toward the enemies.”
Alsen’s interpretation is backwards. Calling them “Nazis” would have been at the time just an accurate description. “Kraut” was the derogatory term for a German that was commonly used by American soldiers during both world wars. Salinger chose what was then the most widely understood ethnic slur against the German people.
When it comes to Salinger’s attitude toward the United States and its army, Alsen omits biographical evidence of his patriotism; in some cases, Alsen even distorts the literary record to try to prove his thesis. His deceptive citation from “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” is a case in point:
In part one of ‘For Esmé’ Salinger never mentions the Nazis or the Germans…. Instead of anti-Nazi statements, this part of the story contains a number of negative statements about American GIs…. Sergeant X reports that a thirteen-year-old British girl named Esmé who befriends him at a tea shop says that most of the Americans soldiers she’s seen ‘act like animals.’ As she explains: ‘They’re forever punching one another about, and insulting everyone…. One of them threw an empty whiskey bottle through my aunt’s window.’
Alsen ends there, omitting key information. Here is the conversation between Sergeant X and Esmé:
‘You seem quite intelligent for an American,’ my guest [Esmé] mused.
I [Sergeant X] told her that was a pretty snobbish thing to say, if you thought about it at all, and that I hoped it was unworthy of her.
She blushed—automatically conferring on me the social poise I’d been missing. ‘Well. Most of the Americans I’ve seen act like animals. They’re forever punching one another about, and insulting everyone, and—You know what one of them did?’
I shook my head.
‘One of them threw an empty whiskey bottle through my aunt’s window. Fortunately, the window was open. But does that sound very intelligent to you?’
It didn’t especially, but I didn’t say so. I said that many soldiers, all over the world, were a long way from home, and that few of them had had many real advantages in life. I said I’d thought that most people could figure that out for themselves.
Put in context, the dialogue is a defense of American GIs in which Sergeant X takes Esmé to task for her anti-Americanism and class snobbery. There is compelling testimonial evidence that Salinger held these pro-American sentiments in his own personal life, both before and after the war.
One such piece of evidence comes from Brigadier General Alfred Sanelli, a school friend from Salinger’s days at Valley Forge Military Academy: “You expect a person of [Salinger’s] personality to have a cynicism and not to have this loyalty and fervent love of country that he displays in his letters to General Baker,” Sanelli recalls. “If he had said some complaints about the war, that it was unjust, that it was terrible and so on, bordering on being a draft dodger, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But I was so gratified to know that he did have this loyalty and patriotism and did want to get involved in this enormous human experience of World War II.”
Loyalty to his army friends remained long after the war in Europe. John Fitzgerald, a son of Salinger’s close army pal, says that Salinger “corresponded for nearly 65 years” with his buddies in the counterintelligence corps and that there was “really a bond.”
Salinger’s daughter Margaret substantiates Fitzgerald’s comments in her memoir. “What I was never in doubt about was that my father was a soldier,” she says. “The stories he told, the clothes he wore, the bend of his nose from where he’d broken it diving out of a Jeep under sniper fire, his deaf ear from a mortar shell exploding too near, the Jeep he drove, his oldest friends such as John Keenan, who had been his Jeep partner throughout five campaigns of the war, the guns we used when he taught me how to shoot, his GI watch, the army surplus water and green cans of emergency supplies we kept in the cellar, the medals he showed my brother and me when we begged him to, nearly everything I could see and touch and hear about my father said soldier.”
What Margaret depicts is not the deportment of a man ashamed of his country and its military. She further indicates that he wasn’t keen on the hippie counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, reporting, for example, “when he’d pick me up from school as he did on occasion, he’d survey my schoolmates waiting for buses or rides and decry the ‘joiners, followers, and sheep’ all wearing ‘the uniform of fashionable nonconformity.’” She goes on to relate that he passionately supported the Vietnam war:
One afternoon he lost it completely. I had drawn a small peace symbol on my leg with a pen in study hall. ‘Oh, my God!’ he cried out, and put his hands over his eyes as if he had seen something so awful he couldn’t bear to look. Then he stuck out his finger, jabbing in the general direction of my leg. ‘What… the hell… is that?’ he said slowly, flatly, spitting out the words with contempt. Man, my stomach went crazy. ‘Nothing. I don’t know. What?’ I thought he was going to hit me. ‘Christ almighty. Do you have any idea what would happen if we pulled out of Vietnam? A bloodbath,’ he yelled. ‘That’s what would happen, the communists would come in and there’d be a bloodbath. You don’t know them, you don’t know what they’re capable of.
Here Salinger’s “fervent love of country” appears unhinged. But he wasn’t entirely wrong, at least not about the bloodbath. After Saigon fell to the communists in 1975, over a million refugees fled, tens of thousands dying by starvation or drowning. A million more were executed or thrown into prisons and concentration camps. Then came the Cambodian genocide. In just two years, nearly twice as many Southeast Asian civilians perished at communist hands as all those killed during ten years of heavy American involvement (1965-74).
Maybe that is why Margaret Salinger added that, although her father’s outburst had scared her at the time, “I kind of understand now, why seeing your daughter wearing a peace symbol could feel like seeing a swastika, an attack on everything you and your army buddies had fought and died for.”
These accounts of J.D. Salinger from people who intimately knew him paint a consistent portrait. In the two major wars within his adult lifetime, World War II and the Cold War, he came down squarely on the side of the United States and its armed forces. Neither his fiction nor his personal life lends much credence to Alsen’s claim that “Salinger was more antagonistic toward the US Army than toward the Nazis.”
All that said, Salinger’s relationship to Germany is an immensely interesting literary and historical question, and it remains an understudied area in the scholarship. Alsen’s book is, in that respect, thankfully rich with new information about this momentous period in the great writer’s life. His main thesis, however, is a false and defamatory portrayal of an American war veteran who, by most accounts, viscerally opposed Nazism and other totalitarian ideologies.