(1900-83) IN ENGLISH
Seghers' best-known novels in English translation were published by 1950 (with
the exception of A Price on His Head). Their historical period concludes
with the end of the Second World War. Although some of her main characters are
underground members of the Party (which is implicitly the Communist Party), Anna
Seghers' novels are narratives and not arguments for 'the leading role of the
village in Brittany is the setting of her first short novel, Revolt of the
Fishermen of Santa Barbara (1929). Johann Hull travels to Santa Barbara on a
little coastal steamer one October after the revolt of Port Sebastian in April
which has left him a wanted man.
in the air. A drove of sheep bleated, locked up next to the engine room. The
smell of the salt air and the animals mingled with the smell of oil from the
engines, but to him it seemed pleasant and right for the crossing. Over the
railing, Hull watched the white scar being ripped into the sea by the ship,
then heal again only to be ripped open anew and again to heal in a never-
ending process. (pp10-11)
have a very meagre subsistence. Hull urges them to send messengers to St Ble,
Wyk and St Elnor to bring the fishermen there to a meeting. The men seek at
least a three-fifths share, seven pfennigs a kilo and a new wage scale before
they sail in the new season. At first the strike is solid, then the other
villages go back. In the end the men have to sail on the shipowners' old terms
but the women notice " something new in their men's eyes, deep down at the
bottom of them, something firm, dark, like the congealed sediment at the bottom
of emptied vessels." (p98)
The story is
full of incident, a fisherman's assault on the shipowner's son, the arrest of
the wrong man for the assault, the attack on the shipowners' offices, the fights
with the 'outsiders' brought into Santa Barbara to try to sail the boats and
with the soldiers, the sabotage of the Marie Farere, the first vessel to sail,
the shooting of two fishermen, and finally, Hull's arrest.
A Price on
His Head (1960) re-creates
life in a poor peasant community in 1932, before and immediately after the
November elections to the Reichstag. Only one farmer has a pair of horses. The
work is exhausting and there is no surplus for security. Andreas Bastian says,
"With us, if an egg's got a crack and leaks out, right away it means a pinch of
salt less, a needle less or no thread." (p167) Instalment payments are
impossible to keep up e.g. a milk separator is re-possessed. The relations of
production are well-defined in the description of Christian Kunkel, a young Nazi
chef d'entreprise, " He himself toiled all day, and he slave-drove his three
helpers, mother, brother and sister." (p131)
develop their organisation among the farmers. There are conflicts with the
Communists. Farmer Zillich addresses a farmers meeting:
the enemy left, the Jews are sucking dry from the inside of the country.
Once before in his life, Zillich shouldered a gun and now he's carrying it
again. And those who have no gun, at least have their pitchfork, which isn't
a bad weapon with which to chase out the Jews and Red rabble from a German
has the 'price on his head', 500 marks. He had stabbed a policeman to death
during a hunger march in Leipzig earlier in the year. Schulz works for Bastian
for his keep; his position in the family is tenuous since he is only the
nephew-in-law of Bastian's wife by her previous marriage. He is given away by
Koesslin, an unemployed gardener, who works for Kunkel for his keep also, and
has become a Nazi supporter. Several others had seen the poster and had not
given him away for various reasons.
Seventh Cross (1942) is
Anna Seghers' best-known work-filmed by Fred Zinneman The framework of the
novel is a week early in October 1937 in the area of Mainz where the author was
born. Seven men from a punishment squad escape from Barrack 111 of Westhofen
Concentration Camp at 5.45 on a Monday morning. The Commandant swears that they
will all be captured and crucified on seven plane trees in front of the Barrack
before the end of the week.
builds up the contrast between the immemorial countryside and the events which
are about to happen. Franz Mamet cycles to his work as a stenciller at the Dye
Works in Hoechst through the traditional autumn scene of apple and pear picking
and shepherding. He has worked on his uncle's farm in the township of
Schmiedtheim in the Lower Taunus for 'paltry pocket-money' for three or four
years after years of unemployment until the first of September that year when he
had started work in the factory. To Franz, 'belonging' simply meant
"...belonging to that piece of soil, to those people, and to that early shift
bound for Hoechst - above all, to the living." (p7)
creates the tension in several scenes at the beginning against this background.
Marnet leaves for work a few minutes early to get ahead of the rush of cyclists
from the other Taunus townships. He is annoyed to find that a fellow-worker is
waiting for him at a refreshment stall to tell him that "something's happened
this morning": there's extra security at the bridges. Since he has only been a
few weeks at the Dye Works "...he had not yet got over a strong feeling of
tension, even fear, at the beginning of the day."(p13) At work, Waigand filters
a message to him, "Have you heard? In the Westhofen C.C." (p14) In the canteen
at noon, he hears that Waigand has been arrested. At the end of the break Anton
felts him, "Over there on the Rhine, in Westhofen, some fellows have bolted,
some kind of punishment squad." (p16)
A few minutes
after the escape George Heisler clings to an embankment above a swamp with
guards and dogs six feet above him. He is clearly designed to be the most
important character. Almost immediately, Albert Beutler is re-captured.
is continued in the Commandant's Office. Fahrenberg regards the escape as a
nightmare, "...an event which must never be allowed to happen."(p20) The
inefficiency of the new wiring between his office and his bedroom brings him
back to reality.
The novel is
the story of the re-capture or death or surrender of six. But George Heisler
escapes to Holland on the Wilhelmine with papers made out in the name of
the nephew of a captain on a Dutch tugboat. He has survived through a series of
disguises, hides and lifts and with the help of several comrades. His escape
heartens the other prisoners: "All of us felt how ruthlessly and fearfully
outward powers could strike to the very core of man, but at the same time we
felt that at the very core there was something that was unassailable and
inviolable." (p322) The trees have been cut down for firewood by the new
Visa (1942) is the story,
or rather a number of interwoven stories, of refugees who are trying to leave
Marseille between the Fall of France in 1940 and the spring of 1941. The 'I' of
the story is a German engine-fitter who has escaped from a camp also in 1937 by
swimming the Rhine. He has now escaped from a French camp near Rouen at the time
of the invasion of France.
In Paris he
is asked to deliver a letter to Weidel, a German writer, from his wife. At
Weidel's hotel he is informed that Weidel has taken his own life and has been
buried but that he has left behind a suitcase. He offers to take charge of the
suitcase and reads the novel and the letters it contains and also the letter he
had been asked to deliver. In the letter his wife asked him to join her in
Marseille though she had previously written that their life together was
finished. She enclosed a Mexican visa.
On the way to
Marseille the narrator is able to obtain a spare refugee certificate in the name
of Seidler who no longer required it. At the Mexican Consulate in Marseille it
is assumed that 'Seidler' is Weidel and that Weidel is his pseudonym. In the
name of Weidel the narrator obtains an American transit permit, an exit visa and
he has met Marie, Weidel's widow, who still thinks her husband is alive. She also
obtains all the necessary papers on the strength of the applications of the
narrator whom the authorities think is her husband. At the last moment the
narrator decides against sailing. Later he hears the Montreal has gone down.
In the chain
of visas, the transit visa is the most important since it gives permission to
cross the territory of another country to get to the port of departure or
arrival. The chain is best expressed in the case of the conductor who has been
offered a job with a famous orchestra in Caracas.
he'd had a contract, got a visa on the strength of the contract, and a transit
on the strength of the visa. Getting an exit visa, however, had taken so long
that his transit had expired, and then his visa, and his contract had been
cancelled. Last week he had been given his exit visa; now he was waiting
momentarily for an extension of his contract, which would automatically extend
his visa. On the visa depended whether he could get a new transit. (p41)
The kind of
situation described in Transit Visa cost Walter Benjamin his life. In her
introduction to Benjamin's Illuminations Hannah Arendt writes:
the efforts of the Institute (for Social research) in New York, Benjamin was
among the first to receive such a visa (an emergency visa) in Marseille.
Also, he quickly obtained a Spanish transit visa to enable him to get to
Lisbon and board a ship there. However, he did not have a French exit visa,
which at that time was still required and which the French government, eager
to please the Gestapo, invariably denied to German refugees. (London,1970,
able to walk to Port Bou, the Spanish border town, only to learn that Spain had
closed the border that same day and that the border officials did not honour
visas made out in Marseille. That night, 26 September 1940, Benjamin took his
Serge's Les Derniers Temps (Paris, 1951, 250 and 287) and Jean Malaquais'
Planete Sans Visa (Paris, 1947) refer to the same problems.
Visa the narrator comments, "The twilight of time had come" (122) with the
invasion of Paris. Serge's novel is translated as The Long Dusk (New York
and Toronto, 1946). Anna Seghers, her husband and two children and Victor Serge
and his son sailed from Marseilles to Mexico.
Stay Young (1950) was
written after Anna Seghers' return to Germany in 1947. Characters introduced in
the first few pages are dramatised in different crises between the end of the
First World War and the end of the Second World War.
summarily shot by Lieutenant Wenzlow on the way from Wannsee to Nowawes where he
would have been questioned about his part in the Spartacist upsing He had been
captured when White Guards stormed the Royal Stables. He is unable to see Marie
again and does not know that she is pregnant. Hans is born in March 1920.
Although he meets Martin, his father's friend, who is identified by Marie since
he had come with Erwin to the Anchor cafe where she worked, he never learns that
Martin knew his father or that Marie's husband, Geschke, is not his father.
Eastern Front at the end of the Second World War Hans is shot along with five
other German soldiers who have been planning to desert to the Russians. He does
not know that Emmi, his girl friend, is pregnant with his child who is unborn at
the end of the war.
von Klemm's car had not had a flat tyre, Erwin would have gone to Nowawes under
guard. Von Klemm and his two lieutenants had been officers in the White Guards.
Wenzlow was Klemm's brother-in-law and Lieven, his frlend. Klemm requisitioned
the car the prisoner was travelling in and gave the order Macht Schluss! to
Wenzlow. (Let him have it!) Klemm's chauffeur drove the three officers and the
guard to Nowawes while the other chauffeur took Klemm's car back.
also on the Eastern Front in the Second Word War and shoots himself when he
knows that Germany has lost the war with the same invocation, this time to
himself, Macht Schluss'
body of the novel cannot maintain the tension of the opening and closing scenes
over five hundred pages which re-create the resentment over the Occupation of
the Rhineland and reparations, the Kapp and Munich putsche, Communist risings,
the Dawes and Young plans, Reichstag fire ... as well as personal crises in the
references are given to the following editions:
the Fishermen of Santa Barbara
and A Price on His Head, translated by Jack and Renate Mitchell and Eva
Whiff respectively, Seven Seas Publishers, Berlin, 1960.
Seventh Cross, translated
by James A. Galston, Hamish Hamilton London, 1943.
Visa , translated by James
A. Galston, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1945.
Stay Young was published
by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1950. The dates given in the text are the dates of
the first publication in English; the first translation of Revolt of the
Fishermen was by Margaret Goldsmith.
Excursion of the Dead Girls,
written in Mexico in 1946 while the author was recovering from a fever, is a
reminiscence of her outing with her High School class on the Rhine with
reflections on the fates of the girls and of the boys they had met who were out
with their own class. Of her two best friends, Marianne had refused to help
Leni's child when Leni and her husband were arrested. Marianne's husband had
reported Leni's husband to the authorities. Leni died in a camp and Marianne
died in a raid. Leni's child survived in a Nazi reform home. The Excursion of
the Dead Girls was translated by Elizabeth Rutschi Herrmann and Edna
Huttermager Spitz and included in their edition of German Women Writers of
the Twentieth Century, Pergamon Press, 1978.
There are six
stories in Benito's Blue and Other Stories, translated by Joan Becker,
Berlin, 1973, which relate to the same historical period as Anna Seghers'