Elisabeth Åsbrink (trans. Fiona Graham)


The time is not quite what it ought to be.
On 1 January 1947, The Times informs the people of Great Britain that they cannot rely on their clocks. To be quite certain that the time is what it purports to be, they are to tune in to the BBC, which will broadcast extra bulletins in order to keep track of it.
Electric clocks are affected by the frequent power cuts. Mechanical ones also need overhauling. Maybe it’s the cold. Maybe things will improve.
The war has seen nearly 50,000 tonnes of bombs dropped on London by the Luftwaffe. More than 4.5 million buildings in Britain are damaged. Some towns have been all but wiped out, such as the Scottish port whose air raids even got a name of their own: the Clydebank Blitz.
All across Europe, there is damage. The Austrian city Wiener Neustadt once had 4000 buildings; now only 18 are intact. A third of the houses in Budapest are uninhabitable. In France, 460,000 buildings are in ruins. In the Soviet Union, 1700 small towns and villages have been demolished. In Germany, around 3.6 million apartments have been blitzed — a fifth of the country’s homes. Half the homes in Berlin itself are derelict. In Germany as a whole, over 18 million people are homeless. A further 10 million in Ukraine have no roof over their heads. All of them have to cope with having only limited access to water and a sporadic electricity supply.
Human rights are non-existent, and hardly anyone has heard of the crime of genocide. Those who survived have only just begun to count their dead. Many travel home, without finding it; others travel anywhere except back where they come from.
Europe’s countryside has been razed and plundered, and tracts of land are flooded by sabotaged dams. Fields, woodland, farmsteads — lives, food, livelihoods — lie under ash, covered in sludge.
Greece lost a third of its forests during the German occupation. Over a thousand villages there have been burned to the ground. In Yugoslavia, over half the country’s livestock have been slaughtered, and the plundering of grain, milk, and wool has left the economy in ruins. Not only did Hitler’s and Stalin’s armies wreak destruction as they advanced, but they were ordered to destroy everything in their path when they retreated. This scorched-earth tactic was intended to leave nothing behind for the enemy’s troops. In the words of Heinrich Himmler: ‘Not one person, no cattle, no quintal of grain, no railway track must remain behind … The enemy must find a country totally burned and destroyed.’
Now, after the war, everyone is on the look out for watches — stealing, hiding, mislaying, or losing them. The time remains indeterminate. When it’s eight in the evening in Berlin, it’s seven in Dresden, but nine in Bremen. Russian time prevails in the Russian zone, while the British impose summer time on their part of Germany. If someone asks what time the clock says, most will say it’s gone. The clock, that is — or do they mean time itself?

1947 Elisabeth Åsbrink (tr. Fiona Graham)