Forgotten novel A War of Words

For years, Siegfried Lenz’s 1951 novel The Turncoat, which tells the story of a German soldier who defects to the Soviets, went unpublished because of Cold War sensitivities. But it turns out it actually reveals more about German nationalism.
Siegfried Lenz lent many autobiographical touches to his novels.

A few years before his death in 2014, the German author Siegfried Lenz spoke about the unpublished manuscripts that filled his drawers. The works spoke to him when he wrote them, he said, “but not anymore." For the same reason, Mr. Lenz chose not to write a preface or an epilogue when his 1951 debut novel "Habichte in der Luft" (Hawks in the Air) was republished years after it first appeared.

"It was all so distant, so inaccessible,” he said. “It was so tedious to reappropriate something that had once been and still was mine,” Mr. Lenz admitted in one of his few autobiographical works.

And so, contrary to a recent claim in the German weekly Der Spiegel, it’s not a particular “sensation” that Mr. Lenz’s unpublished book "The Turncoat" was released one and a half years after his death. The completely finished novel was found among his effects. It was actually his second work, then titled “...da gibt’s ein Wiedersehen” (There WillBe a Reunion). The novel’s existence, however, was widely unknown.

Lenz always remained silent about the book. That's probably because he found it strange to re-read his work, often overcome by a need to edit. Moreover, he was reluctant to give away autobiographical information. And yet the story surrounding the novel’s creation, rejection and late publication is almost as revealing as the novel itself.

The story is based around West Germany’s fragile post-war mentality. It begins on the battlefields, at a front somewhere between Poland and the Ukraine. Here, numerous partisan attacks cause the gradual decimation of a group of German soldiers.

Could the publishers tell the tragic story of a war hero who defected, going from the Germans to the Soviets?

The second half of the novel is about a German defector who joins the Red Army. His life in Soviet-run East Germany after the war is everything but victorious. A few days before the end of the war, his conscience has him shoot his brother-in-law. The ex-soldier suffers from the mistrust that reigns in the new regime, where people are treated as replaceable parts of a machine. Many disappear in the recurring purges.

Mr. Lenz used the money he earned from his first novel "Habichte in der Luft" to finance a trip to north Africa with his wife Liselotte. Upon his return in April 1951, Mr. Lenz began writing "The Turncoat." He must have written quickly because the novel’s first chapter appeared in newspaper Die Zeit’s extensive book review of World War II literature later the same year.

It received high praise. In January 1952, Mr. Lenz sent the novel’s complete 16 chapters to his publisher Hoffmann & Campe. These chapters serve as the basis of the recently published version.

But after reading the complete work, editor Otto Görner went from celebrating to dismissing the young author’s work. The trained Germanist and folklorist had initially raved about how the novel "grabbed the reader by his neck,” and he was especially enthralled by the chapter centering on partisan warfare. But after receiving the second version he lost interest, commenting that "such a novel could have come out in 1946," but “today no one would want to be the one who published it.”

Mr. Lenz began revising the second part of his novel. He rewrote some chapters entirely. The young author attempted to show the story’s hero, Walter Proska, and his struggle to fight "on the side of the righteous" as accurately as possible. "Proska could bear the consequences of his decisions,” he wrote. “But he had never aimed his automatic rifle at one of his former comrades.”

At the time, the Cold War was in full swing and Hoffmann & Campe trusted their external editors’ worries regarding the current political mood. Could they tell the tragic story of a war hero who defected, going from the Germans to the Soviets? All of Mr. Lenz’s views on death, morality and Germanness came to life in Proska’s German comrade Wolfgang, nicknamed “muffin,” who motivated Proska to defect.

"But still, somehow, nationalistic resentment is contagious,” Wolfgang says in the book. “This resentment is the root of German pride and the source of this goddamn German consciousness of feeling like the chosen people." All this seemed to provoke too much discourse at a time when, on the one hand, Germany’s division was finally starting to manifest itself and, on the other hand, the young West German state was trying to focus on a brighter future rather than dwelling on the past.

In a letter to Mr. Lenz, Mr. Görner asked the author to "finally place some serious thought into the possibilities that lie in the novel, based on its content." The 26-year-old author was sure to have done just that.


Quelle: dpa
The Turncoat (Der Überläufer) went unpublished for more than 60 years.
(Source: dpa)


In response, he kindly yet firmly rejected Mr. Görner’s assertions. He emphasized this was the only novel he was able to write. In conclusion, he saw his novel as "training" and as “the conditio sine qua non for any young writer." These were Mr. Lenz’s last words on the matter despite the plan to possibly turn the novel’s so-called “partisan part” into its own novella.

Did Mr. Lenz ever take another look at his unpublished novel? Or feel the desire "to intervene, rewrite, redesign the characters and restructure the events" as he did with "Habichte in der Luft"?

"The Turncoat" is an impressive, but not outstanding, novel. It is more acclaimed than "Duell mit dem Schatten" (Duel with the Shadow), Lenz’s official second novel. It was published in 1953 and the author later called it "a failure on every level.” But it was also the work of a young author in search of his artistic style and voice, still exploring conceptual possibilities.

It took some time before Mr. Lenz recognized that defection was the topic he cared about most. Many scenes centered around the German hideout (a "fortress" the soldiers dubbed "Waldesruh") appear to be incoherently lined up, rather than connected by an intentional dramatic composition.

The young Mr. Lenz let Proska’s time with the Red Army come to life in isolated narrative fragments. At times the story even takes place in Lyck, Mr. Lenz’s birthplace in former Prussia, now the town of Elk in Poland. But “The Turncoat” is not an autobiography.

Like Proska, Mr. Lenz deserted the German army but he fled to Denmark only a few days before the German capitulation on May 8. In general, Mr. Lenz let his personal experiences come to life only after adding color to them in his work.

As a young author, Mr. Lenz tested himself. One of his chapters reads as a homage to Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Lenz drew inspiration from Hemingway’s "The Old Man and the Sea” and told the story of a Polish soldier and a giant pike. He used nature symbolism and built Kafka references into a fictitious office he set in the Soviet Zone. He went off on existentialist tangents and let his character nicknamed “muffin” talk about how important it was to “revise afflicted resolutions, identify the damage done and to fill remaining gaps of understanding.”

Sentences like this one stand out in Mr. Lenz’s typically clear, immediate prose. In general, his characters are realistic, they are life-like, conversing with other characters, at times even in the Polish-German dialect. In some passages, Mr. Lenz reaches the height of his artistic abilities, his imagery on point.

Mr. Lenz always came back to 1945, a year he remembered so vividly himself. And Proska would later become the heroic protagonist prototype: a guilty-yet-innocent loser who only wants what’s best. Skilfully, Mr. Lenz helps readers find gentle sympathy for the likes of Proska, a man who took action and then finally learned, "There is no action without suffering."


This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]