Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2023

All For Nothing (2006), by Walter Kempowski, translated by Anthea Bell

Cover of All for NothingWinner of an English PEN award and a bestseller in Germany, All for Nothing (2006) by Walter Kempowski (1929-2007) tells the story of a wealthy family sitting out the war in comfortable isolation in East Prussia while the Soviet Army on the border moves inexorably towards the capture of Berlin.

The Georgenhof estate is a small one and is in decline. The family was ennobled only in 1905 under the civil service aristocracy set up under the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Old Herr von Globig had bought the estate after WW1 and extended it with more pastures and woodland. (These details will strike a chord with German readers who may ask themselves how he managed to do that when everyone else was suffering under punitive war reparations.)

Whatever about that, his successor sold off nearly all the land and invested in English steel shares and a Romanian rice-flour factory, both of which became valueless at the outbreak of war.  But life is still comfortable enough.  Nominal head of the household in the absence of her husband is Katharina, placid mother of 12 year-old Peter (evading the Hitler Youth with a persistent cough), and wife to Eberhard von Globig (who is currently drawing an officer’s salary in an administrative post far from the front in Italy as a Sonderführer).  Peter’s sister Elfie had died of scarlet fever two years ago, reminding the reader that grief is ever-present, not just in war.  The real head of the household is Auntie, an unpaid and undervalued housekeeper originally from Silesia.

Silesia is an historical region first annexed by Germany in 1742 but (mostly) restored to Poland and Czechoslovakia after WW1; it was then occupied by Germany in WW2 and (mostly) restored to Poland afterwards. These historical details would also be known to German readers who would recognise Auntie as a survivor who has the resilience to cope with evacuation and forced expulsions but who cherishes nostalgic memories and hopes of return.

As it turns out, however, resilience is not enough.

Dr Wagner is a daily visitor who gives Peter private tuition. He thinks of himself as a valued member of the household, but learns that he is not.

The household also includes workers whose loyalty is ambiguous because they are from areas which have see-sawed between Soviet and German occupation. There is the Pole Vladimir who manages the horses and the outdoor work, and two Ukrainian women Vera and Sonya who do the household labour under the stern eye of Auntie.

And across the road, keeping a vigilant eye on things is Drygalski, who had joined the Nazi Party in its early days and fancies himself as deputy mayor of the new housing development which had been built for the 1936 Olympic Games. He takes a keen interest in the stream of refugees, especially those that enjoy the hospitality of the Georgenhof.  It is he who maintains bureaucratic standards, documenting arrivals and departures, checking papers and issuing permits to continue on to what everyone believes is the safety of Berlin. At first he seems to be a caricature: he is loath to billet the refugees with the von Globigs because despite his jealousy he respects the ordered nature of German society.  But he has a son lost on the battlefields, and a wife prostrated by grief.  And in the concluding pages of this novel he rises to the occasion in a truly selfless act. Kempowski is determined that the reader will see each of his characters as fully human.  They are all flawed human beings caught up in a catastrophe beyond their comprehension.

With meaningful snippets of information all the way through, the narration builds the sense of an impending doom while conveying the perspectives of all the characters, even the minor ones.  When the first of the Georgenhof’s visitors arrives — a political economist, so he says — he scrutinises his hosts very carefully but manages to stay under Auntie’s radar.  As he enthuses over a framed photo of Eberhard, Katharina explains that her husband was one of the specialists helping to keep supplies to the German population going, draining the resources of the eastern agricultural territories for the benefit of the Greater German Reich.  

This war was very different from the war of 1914-18, when the Germans had subsisted on turnips.  This time bad feeling was not to be stirred up among the people unnecessarily; they would be allowed access to an adequate diet.  Bread, butter, meat, whole freight trains full of melons. They came from the Ukraine, from Byelorussia — all kinds of good things were to be had there.  Wheat, sunflower oil, who knew what else?  But now it all lay in ruins, smoke rising from their fields. (p.12)

Katharina doesn’t know that the smoke rising from the fields derives from the scorched earth policy of the German Army in retreat.  And it does not occur to her to consider the diet of the local people in what had been occupied Ukraine and Byelorussia.  After all, Eberhard is in sunny Italy, busily confiscating wine and olive oil to be sent away… and sometimes able to abstract something for the family’s private use, brown sugar, for instance, several hundredweight of brown sugar. 

But Auntie is alert to the value of that sugar,  When Katharina offers Dr Schünemann some ginger biscuits left over from Christmas…

Oh, not those, Auntie might well be thinking, those were the good ones. but she let it pass; after all, the guest was an academic. (p.23)

The tone shifts when finally, despite months of denial, the remnants of the family decide to evacuate.  In Katharina’s absence — imprisoned for helping a Jew though, really, she had no idea what she was doing — Auntie takes charge.

The chaos of evacuation reminded me of Irene Nemirovsky’s portrayal of the evacuation of Paris in Suite Française. People take all kinds of Stuff, because they have no idea of what lies ahead.  Wealthy people take more Stuff because they have it and they have no understanding of what might be needed for survival.  Or of what might be left to them after the looters have done what they do for their own survival.  Or of what might have value as a family heirloom.

I look around my house and wonder what I might take if all that might remain to me is what was in my pocket.

All for Nothing was also reviewed at The Guardian

Author: Walter Kempowski
Title: All For Nothing (Alles Umsonst)
Publisher: Granta Books, 2016, first published 2006
ISBN: 9781847087218, pbk., 343 pages
Source: Personal library



  1. I am tempted.


    • It’s very, very good in the way that it makes you care about the characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds really well done, with the characters fully realised and the building tension. I’m sure I’ve read other translations by Anthea Bell which I enjoyed, her name is so familiar. I’ll definitely look out for this!


    • Anthea Bell is one of the best. I’ve read about a dozen of her translations and although I don’t have German so I can’t really tell, they seem flawless to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really must read something by Kempowski, he is a very renowned author in Germany. Thanks for the review.


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