Writing for Memory: Anna Seghers, History, Literature, and Complicity in the Third Reich

By Maier-Katkin, Birgit | CLIO, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Writing for Memory: Anna Seghers, History, Literature, and Complicity in the Third Reich


Maier-Katkin, Birgit, CLIO


In her novella The Excursion of the Dead Girls, (1) Anna Seghers addresses the historical event of Nazism through literature. While commemorating the lives of deceased classmates and teachers, she strives to illuminate the Nazi past and to link the lives and behaviors of ordinary Germans to the politics of the fascist government. Seghers's story reveals the mechanisms by which Nazi ideas, rhetoric, and policies infiltrated and transformed daily patterns of behavior and action. It describes moments of decision or indifference in an everyday context, when, in the first half of the twentieth century, the lives of classmates become entangled in the grand political events of the times. The novella depicts communal and individual conflict, shedding light not only on victims and oblivious bystanders, but also on Nazi supporters who willingly helped to facilitate the brutality of the regime. Although there has been sustained interest in complicitous behavior among Germans since 1945, the topic recently has found increased attention among scholars in literature and history. (2) Current research shows that almost sixty years after the collapse of fascism, complicity with the Nazi regime is an essential element of German national history, challenging survivors of the period and subsequent generations to comprehend historical events and work toward reconciliation. In addition, new research reveals that, despite considerable previous scholarship on Nazi Germany, new questions keep surfacing about the involvement of Hitler's Germans. What, for example, were the mechanisms by which widespread support for Hitler operated to transform Nazi rhetoric into daily patterns of behavior? What were the Germans who did not hold official government positions doing and thinking while the great crimes were being committed? How did Nazi politics infiltrate personal lives, relationships, attitudes, and the meaning of community and citizenship?

Intimate details of daily life are not readily accessible in historical documents; most Germans who lived through the period chose to be silent, preferring not to discuss their initial attraction to Hitler or their subsequent behavior. Limited access to survivors, whose ranks are slowly diminishing, and a general lack of historical data on this issue present the risk of never fully comprehending the effects of fascism on decisionmaking, interpersonal relationships, and the lives of ordinary people. The fact remains, however, that, while some citizens of the Nazi state may have been oblivious, apathetic, or perhaps even resistant, many were complicitous. This essay asserts that certain questions about the involvement of ordinary Germans should be investigated not only in the context of historical documents and objectifiable data; they also could benefit from literary analyses. Consequently, it examines literature not only as informed by historical understanding, but also as an informing historical discourse. Seghers's story depicts a collection of people who traditionally escape historical recordkeeping. As members of the unknown masses, the classmates on the excursion emerge as historical participants while the author focuses on their experience of Nazi Germany.

The novella depicts characters whose lives revolve around real historical events of the period extending from before the First World War to 1943. The story begins on a hot summer afternoon in Mexico in the early forties. In the shade of an old Rancho, the first-person narrator dozes off and hears someone call out her name (Netty). Then in a dream-like state, the storyteller finds herself transported in space and time to a school trip she had taken in Germany during the years before World War I. As the story unfolds, Netty blends vignettes, observations, and comments about the experiences of her classmates not only on that trip but also as young adults during World War I, Weimar, and as grown women and men during the time of fascism. …

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