Anna 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 Party'.
A fishing 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.
The fishermen 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)
The Nazis develop their organisation among the farmers. There are conflicts with the Communists. Farmer Zillich addresses a farmers meeting:
Johann Schulz 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.
The 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.
Anna Seghers 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)
The novelist 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.
The tension 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 Commandant.
Transit 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 a ticket.
In Marseilles 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.
Once before 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:
Benjamin was 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 own life.
Victor Serge's Les Derniers Temps (Paris, 1951, 250 and 287) and Jean Malaquais' Planete Sans Visa (Paris, 1947) refer to the same problems.
In Transit 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.
The Dead 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.
Erwin is 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.
On the 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.
If Hauptmann 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.
Wenzlow is 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'
Obviously the 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 characters' lives.
Page references are given to the following editions:
Revolt of 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.
The Seventh Cross, translated by James A. Galston, Hamish Hamilton London, 1943.
Transit Visa , translated by James A. Galston, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1945.
The Dead 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.
The 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' best-known novels.