After last week’s look at two books by male authors, this week’s German Literature Month reviews will balance the scales somewhat with a couple of reviews looking at two famous twentieth-century female writers from Germany. Today’s choice is a bonafide classic, a 1930s novel that comes across at first glance as a German version of The Great Escape. However, it’s actually a far more nuanced work, allowing us to see how a whole society has been coopted into a very dangerous system.
Anna Seghers’ Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross) begins with an escape from a prison camp in the south-west of Germany. Seven inmates have managed to break out, and while the escape is noticed very quickly, the short time before the discovery allows most of them to get away from the camp and think about where to go next. Our focus is on Georg Heisler, a young man whom beatings have aged prematurely, as he crawls through ditches and hides in corners, nursing the hand he wounded fleeing from guards, and while not all of the escapees make it out of the camp’s vicinity, our friend does manage to slip through the net of police and guards, making it to the nearby city of Mainz.
However, if he thought his flight would be easy once away from KZ Westhofen, he soon realises his mistake. We’re a few years into the Nazi era, and the society Georg finds himself in is one where the wrong word can see you carted off for interrogation, never to return. Hungry, bleeding and exhausted, the prisoner stands out like a sore thumb, and it’s only the certainty of the fate that awaits him should he be captured that keeps him moving on, hoping for some help. It’s fortunate, then, that not everyone is happy with Germany’s new direction, and as it turns out, there are more people out there willing to help, or at least turn a blind eye, than he might have thought.
Das siebte Kreuz is an impressive slow-burning story of a man adrift in a dangerous society, and while the only other Seghers work I’ve read, Transit, was a book I liked but didn’t really love, this one was absorbing throughout. The early chapters are marked by the adrenalin rush of pursuit and the constant fear of capture, with the reader feeling Georg’s pain and fear, blood and sweat, hunger and nausea. Here, the writer describes the haunted psychology of a man on the run, and his inability to relax, even when relatively secure:
Furcht, das ist es, wenn eine bestimmte Vorstellung anfängt, alles anderes zu überwuchern. Aus heitrem Himmel, mitten auf diesem stillen Weg, wo gar keine Augen auf ihn gerichtet waren, traf es ihn! Ein neuer Anfall von Furcht, eine Art Wechselfieber, das freilich in immer längeren Abständen wiederkehrte.
p.110 (atb, 2011)
Fear, that’s what happens when a certain idea begins to overwhelm all others. Out of the blue, in the middle of this quiet path where no eyes were looking in his direction, that’s where it hit him! A new attack of fear, a sort of intermittent fever that returned at, admittedly, ever longer intervals.
*** (my translation)
Georg is frequently paralysed by these crippling panic attacks as well as occasional bouts of despair, knowing that what he’s experienced so far is only a fraction of what he must go through if he’s to come out of the ordeal alive.
As fascinating as that all is, I’m not sure how it would hold up over four-hundred pages, but cleverly, it doesn’t have to. Gradually, the scope widens, revealing a book that’s less about one man’s struggles and more about the society he’s reentering. Georg’s escape allows Seghers to show us what life was like in 1930s Germany (even if she had already escaped to Mexico), where along with a few souls keeping up a silent, frustrated struggle, and those happily joining the SA (Hitler’s brownshirts) in the hope of personal gain, the majority are living in fear. If only they keep their heads down and ignore what’shappening around them, who knows? Perhaps everything will turn out all right after all.
While the main strand follows the prisoner’s path, others introduce us to people he knows. There’s Franz, a former friend who lost contact with Georg before his arrest; Elli, the wife Georg casually abandoned after she became pregnant with his child; and Paul, a childhood companion who still thinks fondly of their carefree youth. Gradually, we see the effect Georg’s escape has on their lives, whether he crosses their path or not, as they realise that they are tainted by association, with the police expecting the prisoner to make contact at any time. For these characters, and many others, the news of the escape ushers in a dangerous period in their lives as they wonder how to react if they are called upon to help out, all the while squirming under the attention of those shadowing them in the street.
Often we see the black-and-white of life under Nazi rule, but that’s not human nature, and it’s the many shades of grey that are more interesting, with many people busy going about their lives still not wanting to kick a man when he’s down. When Georg leaves some old clothes behind in a cathedral, the priest quickly burns them in an oven rather than reporting them, and a Jewish doctor who treats his hand gratis simply ‘forgets’ about him (and the fee he’s owed). One young man who initially fumes at having his new jacket stolen even denies that it’s his when the police find it, thus confusing the investigation. Yes, there are those only to eager to bring the escapee to justice (and earn a bit of money to boot), but not everyone is prepared to pay the moral price. Perhaps the clearest example of this is when two men in a café see the escapee rushing out after a quick snack:
»Das war sicher Georg«, fuhr der erste fort, ganz offen, außer sich. »Ja, der Heisler, ja, der Geflüchtete.« Da sagte der andere mit einem halben Lächeln, mit einem schrägen Blick: »Gott! Du hättest dir was verdienen können.«
»Hätt ich? Hättest du?« (p.214)
“That was definitely Georg,” the first man continued, clearly, beside himself. “Yes, Heisler, you know, the escapee.” At that, the other, with a half-smile and a sideways glance, said: “My God! You could have really made some money for yourself there.”
“Could I? Could you?” ***
It’s a poignant moment where the two men realise that it’s far better not to act against their natural instincts, one that actually helps builds trust between them.
Of course, there are two sides to every story, and in between the scenes with Georg and his friends, we also get to see what’s happening back at the camp. Here, the sadistic Kommandant Fahrenberg, devastated by the mass escape, is slowly going mad as he hopes for news of the prisoners’ capture. By contrast, Overkamp, the cool, calm police interrogator, questions those captured in the hope of finding the prisoners still at large, with few willing to reveal any secrets, hoping that every minute they hold out takes their friends closer to freedom. Of course, the defining scenes here are those that give the book its name, as Fahrenberg decides to top seven of the trees outside his window and turn them into crosses. Every day, the prisoners line up and watch as the captured inmates are tied to the crosses, a ritual designed to strike fear into their hearts and crush all remaining thoughts of resistance…
…and yet, as both the prisoners and the guards well know, this is theatre that will only have its full effect once the seventh cross is occupied, and the longer Georg remains at large, the greater the joy at the sight of the empty spot. As one of the prisoners remarks:
Während die Starken sich ruhig einmal irren können, ohne etwas zu verlieren, weil selbst die mächtigen Menschen noch Menschen sind – ja sogar ihre Irrtümer machen sie nur noch menschlicher -, darf sich, wer sich als Allmacht aufspielt, niemals irren, weil es entweder Allmacht ist oder gar nichts. Wenn ein noch so winziger Streich gelang gegen die Allmacht des Feindes, dann war schon alles gelungen. (pp.163/4)
While the strong can afford to make mistakes from time to time without losing anything from it, for even powerful people are still just people – indeed, their mistakes make them even more human -, those who set themselves up to be almighty cannot ever allow themselves to err, as it is either omnipotence or nothing. If even the tiniest of all blows succeeds against the omnipotence of the foe, then everything succeeds. ***
The message of Das siebte Kreuz, then, is that even in the darkest of all hours, when it seems as if all is lost, there’s still hope as long as the power of the authorities shows itself to be fallible. It’s an idea that was to be tested to its limits over the ensuing decade, but eventually even those that consider themselves to be omnipotent have to admit their limits and failures.
There’s a recent English-language version of The Seventh Cross, published by Virago Modern Classics and translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo (who is also responsible for bringing Judith Hermann’s work into English).