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blue gentians

Reclaiming a Literary Giant

Ernst Wiechert, the master novelist who survived Buchenwald

Daniel Hallock

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Detail from a van Gogh still life of novels lying on a table.

Editors’ Picks Issue 3

Plough’s editors share their best reads of recent weeks. This issue (Plough Quarterly No. 3, Winter 2015) they feature books by Brian Zahnd, Rufus Burrow, Aaron D. Cobb, Vladimir Pozner and Scot McKnight.

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  • Christopher Holt

    A deeply human story of loss and restitution. "That which the locust hath eaten shall be restored." I read it in small sections because I wanted to postpone the end. Thank you, Plough, for taking the risk at this time in our history by publishing a spiritual novel of such poignancy.

“It may happen that a nation ceases to distinguish between good and evil,” warned Ernst Wiechert, a German novelist and professor, in a 1935 speech to his students, many of whom were already enthusiastic National Socialists. “It may then be that it will win a gladiator’s glory…but the scales will already have been hung above this people.” The text of Wiechert’s talk, titled “Address to the German Youth,” was baked into a loaf of bread and smuggled out of the country for publication by anti-Nazi refugees in Moscow.

At the time of Wiechert’s speech, his country was slipping blindly into Hitler-worship. At first, although Wiechert refused to lend his popularity as a novelist to the Nazi cause, he kept his criticism veiled. “He is a sorcerer,” complained an official in Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda, “but he refuses to use his magic on our side.” That changed two years later, however, when Wiechert heard news of the arrest of Martin Niemöller, the famous Lutheran pastor who resisted Nazi control of the German Protestant church. Incensed, he wrote an open letter criticizing the government and announcing his support of Niemöller and his family.

Wiechert paid for this bold act of defiance with four months in the Buchenwald concentration camp. On his release, Goebbels threatened to have him killed if he publicly protested again. Wiechert was blacklisted; no publisher would risk releasing a new book by him until after the war. The single exception was Das einfache Leben (“The Simple Life”) in 1939, a celebration of life in nature with similarities to Thoreau’s Walden. To Goebbels’s fury, the censor’s suppression order for this book failed to reach the publisher before it went to press, and in just three years it sold over a quarter million copies.

After the war, on November 11, 1945, Wiechert made another “Address to the German Youth,” calling for national repentance and castigating those who sought to glorify German war heroes:

The heroes and martyrs of these last years are not those returning with victor’s laurels from countries we defeated. Rather, they are those who have died and suffered ruin behind prison bars and barbed wire, to Germany’s honor. For this kind of honor was the only kind to be had.

Such words fell harshly on the ears of those post-war Germans who wished to forget the crimes in which they had been complicit. Wiechert increasingly lost his popularity among readers, and even fellow writers, many of them socialist, turned their backs on him, charging him with back-to-nature romanticism and “Old Prussian pietism” (in the words of Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács). Frustrated, Wiechert left Germany for Switzerland in 1948, where he died two years later. Gradually his books went out of print in Germany (though not in Poland) and dropped out of the literary canon. A courageous voice was silenced again.

blue gentians
John Singer Sargent, Blue Gentians

While a prisoner in Buchenwald, Wiechert was put to work as a stone carrier and later assigned to the camp’s “surface drainage crew.” As Alfred Werner later reported in an obituary in Commentary, the once-celebrated author, then nearing fifty, became weak and tubercular, his hands and feet grossly swollen. He was shocked to the core by the horror he had witnessed. He “felt a crack run through God’s image [man], a crack that would never heal.”

If this healing never came to Wiechert personally, he dreamed of it. When he died in 1950, he left a startlingly honest novel that portrays what such redemption might look like. Published posthumously, Tidings is a novel of Dostoyevskian depth which portrays an inner journey. While spare in historical detail, it is populated with characters both victimized and complicit, all striving toward restoration.

First published as Missa sine nomine – “Mass without a name” – the novel is set in the Rhön Mountains of central Germany after the end of the Second World War. Baron Amadeus, the main character, is one of three brothers of German nobility who have been separated by the war. The novel opens with Amadeus on the road home from concentration camp, still wearing his striped camp uniform. He reaches the family castle to find it inhabited by American troops while his brothers live in a small shepherd’s hut. Amadeus is reunited with his brothers, but is inwardly isolated by the suffering he has witnessed and experienced, and by his own guilt: although gentle by nature, he had shot and killed “the hangman” of the camp. He tells his brothers:

I have killed…with this hand…and what is more…I would kill again at any time, if one of the faces which smiled while they tortured appeared here. There something within me changed; something that I had was taken away from me.…You have remained the same.

But no one is untouched by the war. The oldest brother, tormented by the memory of the night when he abandoned the peasant families in his charge to the onslaught of troops, seeks to make reparation by tending to the displaced persons who occupy the family castle. The second looks for healing in the land itself, by working the soil and allowing nature to cleanse his soul.

Scarred by the atrocities of the war, all the characters – and the natural world they inhabit – grow toward restoration. Only Amadeus, despite the compassionate ministrations of his brothers, seems unable even to make an attempt at finding peace.

Then peace pursues him in the form of a young woman who – stripped of conscience by the brutal philosophies that she was raised with and pregnant with the child of a fugitive Nazi official – attempts to kill him. After the attempt she loses her mind, and Amadeus finds himself compelled, by a remaining spark of decency, to protect her as she awaits the birth of her child. Amadeus is led slowly toward love and sacrifice, and toward the God who was born as a helpless child in a manger, consoled and challenged by a cast of fellow sufferers.

Jakob, an old Jewish salesman whose family perished in the fires of the Holocaust, counsels Amadeus:

If an old man is allowed to speak…he would kindly beg the gentleman to let the Lord our God live in his face.… The Holy One, blessed be He…is wandering and looks for a place where He can rest. He looks into the faces of men and goes past. The face of Herr Baron is not yet a place where He can rest. The face of Herr Baron is still occupied by the dead and by himself. You must put aside all that belongs to yourself.

A parson named Wittkopp, who has also lost wife and child to the war, speaks to Amadeus of the privilege of caring for the shattered young woman:

You are the only one…on whom such an obligation could be laid.…You must not do it out of generosity. You must realize how much you owe to the poor girl for the opportunity to perfect yourself. Without her it might have been impossible for you.

Tidings closes with an otherworldly peace, as Amadeus allows himself to imagine a world in which the innocent spirit of little children might thrive once more:

All the anguish of the dark hours behind the barbed wire…where he had been at the gates of hell; where not only suffering, horror and death had revealed themselves, but what was more – where man had revealed himself. He who had overcome this…who had not lost the image of man and the image of God with it forever – he could now well stand still, when the girl’s cheek rested on his shoulder…He could slowly enlarge the small circle of life, without an effort because it was his lot – his lot that the children from the castle now came more and more frequently to his hut, and that he could bring a little gladness into their needy lives.…All the wonderful things, little things which had lit up the world of his own childhood, and which had been forgotten in a time when only searchlights and great conflagrations had lit up the dark scene, and for which no one outside the pherd’s hut had time.…

The novel’s pages are imbued with poetic beauty and intensity, exploring the mystical work of God in the heart and soul in the aftermath of unimaginable suffering. It is the condensed wisdom of Wiechert’s own personal anguish and hard-won faith, like gold refined in the fire.

Ernst Wiechert, courtesy of University of Lodz Repository Ernst Wiechert (courtesy of University of Lodz Repository)
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Contributed By photo of Daniel Hallock Daniel Hallock

Daniel Hallock has published three books with Plough. Described by The Nation as “part narrator and part reporter, with all skills polished,” Hallock has drawn praise for his writing from the likes of Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn.

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