Anna Seghers Seghers, Anna (Pseudonym of Netty Reiling Radvanyi) - Essay

Netty Reiling

Seghers, Anna (Pseudonym of Netty Reiling Radvanyi)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seghers, Anna (Pseudonym of Netty Reiling Radvanyi) 1900–

Anna Seghers, a leading anti-Fascist author in the 1930s and a fugitive from the Nazis, is an East German novelist and short story writer. The Seventh Cross is her best known work.

In Anna Seghers' The Seventh Cross, a novel dealing with the escape of seven men from a Nazi concentration camp, the traditional tricks of the fugitive [are presented]. The hero, George, crawls through ditches, disguises himself as a workingman by carrying a piece of machinery out of a shed, joins a crowd at church, changes his clothing. These ancient devices are inevitable in a getaway, which, like other arts, derives many of its inspirations from legends, dreams, and tales heard in childhood.

But The Seventh Cross has an additional dimension. For the outcome of this escape is not dependent upon the relative skills of the fugitive and his professional pursuers but upon the behavior of society itself.

According to Nazi theory, an individual escape is inconceivable. "No longer does our country offer a haven for criminals," says the commander of Westhoven Concentration Camp. "Our people is healthy; it shakes off the diseased and kills the insane." The "total" ideal is that society shall ceaselessly fold over and re-absorb each of its parts, like a protozoan its food. And the pulsations of this Wholeness will prevent concealment by constantly turning out on the surface what has been absorbed within. No sooner do the fugitives from the concentration camp come into contact with the Germany outside the fence than this rhythm begins. People go out of their way to turn over clues to the authorities…. But movements are also started in the other direction—unless Germany contained these counter-forces to the maelstrom of the state, George's attempt would be hopeless.

The result is that in Nazi Germany the fugitive is no longer practicing an individual art, but has become the "representative" and instigator of a social process. The escape takes on tremendous importance as a test of how much courage, resourcefulness, and desire for freedom still exist in the country.

Anna Seghers makes it clear that Odyssean talents are not enough to complete the getaway. Of the seven men who made the break, two were better fitted than George by training and temperament to reach the border. Wallau was an expert in the psychology of escape, a student of the attitudes the fugitive must be able to assume in tight places…. Yet Wallau gets caught, as does Belloni, one of the country's best acrobats, who could swing from roof to roof and who knew where to lay hands on costumes. Either of these would make a more efficient hero for the conventional escape story than the too-human George. But their skill is of no avail when the community fails them. It is George who gets away—because through a series of lucky chances he manages to hold out long enough to allow several strangers (who do not know they are going to do it) to join together on his side.

Thus a jail break in a totalitarian state turns into a social struggle, a small revolution. The Gestapo itself has ordained that it shall not be a purely professional contest—it commands each citizen to choose between becoming a policeman or a potential fugitive, an informer or an accessory. By its own will, the Gestapo makes society a party to the escape.

Through ruling out escape as an individual art, totalitarianism converts it into the social art of revolt. The Seventh Cross shows how the approach of the fugitive, or even the mere appearance of his picture in the newspapers, forces scores of people to go over their pasts and to make a decision that will determine the character of their entire future existence. The zigzag of the escaper's path becomes a huge scratch on the surface of towns and villages.

As with literature and painting, the totalitarian state forces the art of evasion to become involved in politics. Self-extrication proves to be a group act—and its story a drama of moral pathos, instead of a picaresque saga of skill and playacting. (pp. 299-300)

Harold Rosenberg, "On the Art of Escape" (1943), in his Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, and Politics (© 1973 by Harold Rosenberg; reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press), The University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. 298-300.

Anna Seghers was attracted to communism by emotional rather than intellectual considerations. On her sixtieth birthday she confessed that methodical thinking was foreign to her; intellectual processes to her were always something strange, erratic, and mysterious. This is shown in her books, where the emotional always dominates. For her, communism is not a philosophical system or a political program, but rather a matter of faith and feeling, of devotion to a noble cause. Intuition, not intellect, has always been her guide. (p. 67)

The anonymous individual who marches along ecstatically and is ready to make a senseless sacrifice is a type that appears later in many of Anna Seghers's books. She is fond of portraying simple beings who think very little and feel very deeply, who have an unshakable belief and never doubt. They are not capable of judging accurately what is happening to them. The will power of nearly all her heroes is overwhelmed by an unknown powerful force—a force that drives them to do unusual deeds, to bear patiently unspeakable sufferings, and to make even the supreme sacrifice. The question of the reasonableness of the sacrifice is never broached. Even where there is a complete failure, the death of the martyr is a symbol of future triumph. One cannot help thinking of the saying, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." (pp. 67-8)

Anna Seghers at times uses highly symbolic and metaphorical language. The entire narrative [of The Revolt of the Fisherman of St. Barbara], in fact, is a mythology of social revolt. (p. 68)

Invariably Anna Seghers's heroes are the lowly, the poor, and the slow-witted. Despite their obvious inability to cope with the problems they face, they have, like the ancient martyrs, a vision of future glory. They bring to mind the Biblical promise, "The meek shall inherit the earth."…

Many of the East German writers had little to offer in the way of originality in style in the beginning. The favorite format was that of the autobiographical novel or documentary report. Anna Seghers, however, employed the techniques she had learned in the West; there are evident influences of Joyce, Dos Passos, and Hemingway in her novels. The plain, realistic structure of her narratives is often embellished by lyrical and metaphorical passages in an almost expressionistic style. The atmosphere that she creates is not a cheerful one; bitterness, melancholy, and gloom predominate. Her simple-minded heroes face crises and disasters; they go through suffering, anguish, and fear. (p. 70)

[In The Seventh Cross (1942),] Anna Seghers displays unusual artistry in her descriptions of the Rhine Valley and its people, which undoubtedly recalled many fond memories of her own childhood and youth in that area. In giving her imagination free reign, she disregarded any possible concerns about ideology. With much skill she was able to portray realistically a poetic vision.

In her next novel, Transit (1943), she did just the opposite: she transformed a real and concrete world into a poetic vision…. Based on personal experiences, the novel is essentially autobiographical. Described is the struggle of despairing refugees in their efforts to obtain visas and passports ("transit"), and their constant confrontation with a complicated and matter-of-fact bureaucracy. The situation is so hopeless that even Anna Seghers begins to lose faith. The only thing that sustains her is a presentiment of her own indestructability. Even reality loses its substance; it seems unintelligible. It cannot be depicted realistically. Life is like a nightmare: the feverish activity of the city crowded with refugees is a symbol of the absurdity of existence to which the hapless individual is delivered.

East German critics were distrubed by the book. They did not like the comparison of reality to a nightmare and the stress on the irrationality of existence. It seemed related to the Weltanschauung of Franz Kafka….

[Transit] was not in Anna Seghers's characteristic manner; it was practically existentialist. She recovered her usual point of view, however, soon thereafter. With the aid of the League of American Authors she left Marseilles and went to Mexico where a number of communist writers in exile had formed a colony. Her new surroundings influenced her thinking. She rewrote the final chapters of Transit, so that the book closes on a highly optimistic note. (p. 74)

Die Entscheidung demonstrates the complete capitulation of Anna Seghers to the party and the collapse of a great talent. She is a classic example of the very errors she denounced at the Authors' Congress in 1956, when she warned against the over-stress on political ideology and the use of stereotypes. (p. 77)

Theodore Huebener, "Anna Seghers," in The Literature of East Germany (copyright © 1970 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission), Frederick Ungar, 1970, pp. 66-7.

One of the best novels about the exile situation [from Nazi Germany], Anna Seghers's … Transit (1943), mirrors the chaos incited in Marseilles by the approaching German troops. The mortal terror of the emigrants lining up in the consulates for the certificates and visas which hold the power of life and death over the applicants dominates the picture. In most of her novels, Anna Seghers attempts to depict an historical situation by adding individual fates and numerous characters to a total picture of the epoch. Although there is often an outstanding protagonist, he is always embedded in the background of his social class. Before the Nazis took power, Anna Seghers had become a member of the Communist party. Her commitment to the revolutionary cause is strongly felt in all her works.

She first earned recognition with the narration The Revolt of the Fishermen of Santa Barbara (1928), which exemplifies her best prose writing and immediately won her the coveted Kleist Prize. The story describes the uprising of exploited fishermen against the capitalistic ship owners and the suppression of their revolt by the army. Anna Seghers achieved her greatest success with her novel The Seventh Cross (1942), which recounts the escape of seven men from a concentration camp. The commander of the camp orders seven crosses erected in the courtyard to which the recaptured men are affixed as a deterrent to the other prisoners. One of them, however, a young Communist, succeeds in fleeing with the help of party comrades who work against the fascist regime in the underground. The seventh cross thus remains vacant and becomes the symbol of hope for the inmates of the camp since, day by day, the vacant cross exemplifies the impotence of the regime.

Anna Seghers took up residence in Mexico; after the war she returned to East Germany where she is recognized as one of the most representative writers of the Communist state. The novels written after her return, however, do not compare with the vigor and the intensity of artistic expression which characterize those written in exile. (pp. 358-59)

Diether H. Haenicke, "Literature Since 1933," in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971, pp. 350-404.

A new work by Anna Seghers, the doyenne of East German letters, is something of an occasion. The reverential tone of the official reviews of Sonderbare Begegnungen in the East German press testifies to the high esteem in which she is held there. In the West, however, her earlier, justified, reputation has suffered a steady decline since her change of roles from opposition to establishment figure in the postwar period. The ideological commitment has remained, indeed intensified (she has been a Communist Party member since 1929), but the creative talent evident in [her early] notable works … has declined.

The three stories contained in Sonderbare Begegnungen merely provide further confirmation of this picture, for the Western reader at any rate. Their one-dimensional moral framework and self-conscious naivety of plot and characterization appeal little to either the imagination or the intellect—a child's eye view of the world expressed in appropriate narrative form. Each story is constructed round a "sonderbare Begegnung", a strange or unlikely encounter in varied circumstances and against different backgrounds….

The rather rambling plot … [of the first story allows] Seghers to drive home with surpassing unsubtlety the moral of the inhumanity of war, the futility of religion and the need for art in a materialist world.

"Der Treffpunkt", written in a rather different vein, is an easily recognizable piece of socialist realism, East-German style…. The clandestine meetings, escapes and concealments provide the narrative with a certain degree of tension, which, however, in no way compensates for the routine treatment of this well-worn scenario, the author's shallow characterization and her heavy-handed didacticism.

Finally, "Die Reisebegegnung" describes with anachronistic daring a literary discussion between Franz Kafka, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Gogol, who meet (the last two by arrangement) in a Prague cafe. Their conversation covers such questions as the relationship between realism and fantasy in literature and the social responsibilities of the writer. The dialogue is backed up by a variety of biographical snippets to lend colour to the proceedings. Hoffmann emerges as the model of what a true writer should be, since his work expresses both imaginative freedom and an awareness of the writer's moral duty to society. Gogol and Kafka, however, both fail on the latter count….

The idea of confronting three writers of different ages and backgrounds offers promising dialectical possibilities, but they are scarcely realized. The arguments are primitively stated and developed and the principals themselves almost unrecognizable. As a statement of Anna Seghers's literary credo in her later years, the story has a certain minor historical interest but little more can be said for it. The book as a whole serves as a depressing reminder of the extent of the present East-West cultural divide, yet it would be a mistake to draw general conclusions about contemporary East German writing from this particular book. (p. 229)

"In One Dimension," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 8, 1974.