Anna Seghers Critical Essays

Netty Reiling


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although the publication of Anna Seghers’s first major work, The Revolt of the Fishermen, coincided with her decision to join the Communist Party, her fiction exhibits an ambivalence that does not fit the mold of revolutionary and proletarian literature. As the critic Fritz J. Raddatz has noted, the level of political consciousness attained by the figures in Seghers’s fictional universe often remains below that of the author, who has been unswerving in her support of communism. In particular, Seghers’s male protagonists rarely conform to the stereotype of the class-conscious, proletarian hero whose dedication to the cause and moral integrity are beyond question.

The author is less interested in the socioeconomic determinants of character than in the depiction of a shadowy world that is derived from both Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevski.

The Revolt of the Fishermen

The Revolt of the Fishermen begins with a statement about an abortive uprising: But long after the soldiers had been withdrawn and the fishermen were at sea again, the revolt remained sitting on the empty, white, summery and bare market place and thought quietly of his own, those whom he had born, bred, taken care of, and sheltered for that which was best for them.

Whereas Marxist critics interpret both this anthropomorphic passage and the text as a whole in terms of future successful uprisings, the lack of any concrete historical and geographical details and the narrator’s dispassionate stance tend to create a mood of ambivalence and resignation. The same fishing vessel that had been severely damaged by the fisherman Andreas, who single-handedly attempted to prevent strikebreakers from gaining the upper hand, is the first one to be taken out fishing again after the strike has been definitely crushed; this is indicative of futility rather than hope.

Like Andreas, the strike leader, Hull, is a vitalistic rebel who joins the fishermen only when the uprising is imminent. Hull is not a class-conscious revolutionary in the strict sense; in his vitalistic orientation, Hull resembles George Heisler, the hero of The Seventh Cross.

The Seventh Cross

Among the seven men who have escaped the concentration camp, Heisler is by no means the one who is most dedicated to the proletarian cause. Rather than the steadfast and determined union representative, Wallau, Heisler is the only fugitive who is not recaptured and who manages to flee Germany. Thus the last of the seven crosses that have been erected in the concentration camp for the purpose of crucifying the caught fugitives remains empty and becomes a symbol of hope and resistance.

Not Heisler, but his former friend, Franz Marnet, whose girlfriend Heisler had taken away from him only to abandon her later, formulates the maxim that can serve as a justification for the fight against the Nazis. His “desire for justice,” Marnet claims, changed his life and caused him to join the revolutionary movement. Although Heisler possesses the will for survival, his ultimately successful escape is only in part the result of his own resourcefulness; he is dependent on both chance and the solidarity of those who, in disregard of the danger to themselves, help him along the way. The novel, then, is concerned not only with Heisler and his fellow inmates’ suspenseful flight but also with the depiction of life within Germany under Nazism.

The characters in the large cast demonstrate varying attitudes toward the new rulers—from active support to indifference and outright resistance. In this way, the author avoided an undifferentiated portrayal that equated the Nazis with the German people as a whole. Actually, Heisler’s escape serves as the catalyst for the revival of human decency in the face of brute force. The worker Paul Röder, for example, although he benefits in a modest way from the Nazis’ social measures, does not hesitate to hide Heisler. Seghers’s ambivalent socialism is evident from the fact that, like Röder, many of her figures act out of a sense of basic humanism rather than an ideological motivation.

Unlike The Revolt of the Fishermen, The Seventh Cross does not end in complete defeat. When the empty seventh cross was taken down, the unidentified narrator reports in the prologue, the concentration camp inmates reacted with “a weak, strange smileof hope and scorn, of powerlessness and boldness.” In the epilogue, the narrator evokes that “unassailable” and “inviolate” inner sphere of man that gives him the strength to resist powerful forces—an indication that for the author the category of hope could not be grasped exclusively in terms of the contemporary political situation. One of the initial passages of the novel, in fact, establishes a historical framework that transcends the time of action. Seghers applies the historical perspective to intimate that the Third Reich is only a passing, if particularly brutal, episode in the...

(The entire section is 2054 words.)