IN 1946, THE Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman traveled to Germany to write a series of articles about the civilian population in the aftermath of war. He was only twenty-three, but he had published two novels and he was already among the most famous Scandinavian writers of his generation. The book that resulted from this trip was published the following year and is available to us now, in a new translation by Robin Fulton Macpherson, as German Autumn.

Dagerman’s subject is “the suffering of the guilty,” to borrow W.G. Sebald’s phrase. It is a subject that presents him with both moral and literary problems. How compassionate should one be if “the sufferings of the Germans … are the undoubted results of a German war of aggression that failed”? And how, given the circumstances, should one write about that suffering? He begins in a flooded basement, where a mother stands ankle-deep in water and cooks potatoes for her tubercular children. This woman is a German—a potential Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, and at the very least a member of the national group that most people hold collectively responsible for the war. Should he write with that fact in mind, and should his horror at her suffering be mitigated by the suspicion that it may be deserved? Should he describe what he sees in the context of guilt and retribution, or should he remain in the water and tell us what it feels like to stand there?

There are guilty people out there, to be sure, and they must account for their crimes. “Of the cruelties … practiced by Germans,” Dagerman writes, “there can be only one opinion.” The problem is that “the German distress is collective whereas the German cruelties were, despite everything, not so.” It is never justifiable, in this extraordinary situation or in any other, to assign blame collectively and to justify collective suffering on that basis. “A moral judgment that condemns the accused to an inhuman existence—that is to an existence which lowers rather than raises the human worth of those who are judged—denies what ought to be the unspoken object of earthly justice and has itself removed the basis for its right to exist.”

So Dagerman will stay in the flooded basement and meet that wretched mother on her own terms. He will stay there not just because he is an extraordinarily compassionate writer, but also because it is only in the basement that he can hope to say anything true and real about the basement. He summarizes the problem this way:

Doctors who talk to foreign interviewers about the eating habits of these families say that what they boil up in their pans is indescribable. It is not indescribable at all, any more than their whole manner of existing is indescribable. The anonymous meat which in one way or another they come across, or the dirty vegetables which they find God knows where, are profoundly unsavory, but the unsavory is not indescribable—only unsavory.

A way of seeing is for Dagerman a way of thinking: the person who holds himself aloof, who speaks of “these families” without getting to know them, who finds the food “indescribable,” is the same one who is likely to see, in this mother’s admission that things were better under Hitler, proof that Nazism is alive in Germany. And this is the person who is therefore likely to assign some measure of guilt to that mother; who will say that her suffering is deserved.

Everywhere he goes, Dagerman finds the same wretchedness. Everywhere “the air tingles with hysteria.” He meets people living in Hamburg’s old Gestapo prison, an elderly couple living on a goods train, a man thrilled to have moved his family into a school lavatory. He meets people who console themselves by insisting that their own city is the most ruined, and people who wonder if the weeds sprouting in the rubble are an example of progress or decline. Banal and degrading tragedies are enacted on every page. One woman succeeds in filling four sacks of potatoes only to discover that she can’t get back on the train with more than one—her family may starve as a result. Another woman has a picture that shows “a Norwegian fjord—or the Danube at Seibenbrugen” and asks Dagerman to “come home and say which, to save her from longing in the wrong direction.” The most fortunate people eat cake made of “ersatz bread” with “counterfeited cream” on top. Dagerman describes all of it with a ferocious lucidity that does not admit hyperbole or sentimentality. He is concerned to tell the truth, to show the world as it is, because only then can a clear idea be formed of what ought to happen next—how “justice” ought to be administered or not administered.

At the heart of the book are two chapters about the “de-Nazification” trials going on everywhere in Germany at the time. Here “we can feel a cold draught from the time of terror, a fragment of history so far invisible can flare into life for a few short, charged moments and make the air tremble in the raw court-room.” Here each man must account for his behavior during the war, and here it should be possible to say who is guilty and who is not—who deserves to suffer and who does not. But nearly every defendant can illustrate the mortal necessity of his actions. Each one can summon witnesses “who certify that he listened to foreign radio stations” and “Jewish witnesses who have seen him behaving in a friendly manner towards Jews.” He can so confuse the issue of his own guilt and of guilt in general that the trial deteriorates into Kafkaesque absurdity. All Dagerman knows for certain, by the end, is that anyone who can demonstrate a connection to the allied powers will have his case thrown out. The trials are therefore a recapitulation of the war years: another occasion on which a man must wear a certain hat and say a certain thing to ensure his safety.

Dagerman does not advocate a policy of leniency toward those who have been enthusiastic members of the Nazi party, but that is not the point. The point is that the de-Nazification trials don’t work; they do not produce the results they are supposed to produce. And as long as that’s true, it doesn’t matter that they’re undertaken in the right spirit or that the principle behind them is thought to be sound. For Dagerman, in fact, it’s a crime to value abstract ideas more highly than the experience to be gained from lived experience. This is what the war teaches. This is what distinguishes fanatical political regimes from regimes that are not fanatical, and it is what ought to distinguish the Nazis from those who seek to follow them.

But these are hard lessons. Vengeance is, after all, a kind of elemental need. In the aftermath of World War II, when the crime had been so great and the need for vengeance was so powerfully felt, it was a remarkable writer indeed who refused to indulge the rage and disgust he must have felt. In certain respects, Dagerman resembles Primo Levi, who from utter and complete debasement—from misery that does seem indescribable—was able to learn compassion, understanding, love. And if Dagerman’s story ends, like Levi’s, in suicide, that is a tragedy and a great loss, but it isn’t more than that. It doesn’t mean that we should approach German Autumn with some degree of circumspection or that we need to question the value and importance of the lessons it has to teach. If Dagerman had to suffer so dreadfully in order to bring us this message of hope and compassion, all the more reason that we should learn those lessons well.

Aaron Thier is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Florida.