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||Anna Seghers (1900-1983) - original name Netty Radványi, née Reiling|
German novelist, essayist, short story writer who is best remembered for her novels about the persecution of Jews and other groups in Nazi Germany. Seghers gained international fame with The Seventh Cross (1942) and Transit (1944), story about the fate of a group of German refugees in southern France. Her pseudonym was taken from the Dutch painter and etcher Hercules Seghers (1589/90-1638), whose fantastic landscape graphics she admired while studying in Heidelberg. Seghers wrote her most significant books while in exile.
"Im Gefangenenlager, in der Schule hatte Lohmer gelernt, wir die Geschichte der Menschen geworden ist und die neue Gesellschaft, in der er jetzt lebt. Er hatte gelernt, warum die Sowjetunion die ist, die sie ist. All die Lügen, die Hitler ihnen eingebleubt hatte, waren dort von ihm abgefallen. Er war gesund und frei geworden, stark und klar." (in Der Mann und sein Name, 1952)
Anna Seghers (pseudonym of Netty Reiling Radványi) was born in Mainz into a cultured Jewish family. Influenced by her father, Isidor Reiling, an antique dealer and art expert, she exhibited an early interest in art. Seghers studied at the University of Heidelberg, and wrote her doctoral thesis on aspects of Jews and Jewishness in the Work of Rembrandt. While still a student, Seghers joined a group of left-wing intellectuals. In 1925 she married the Hungarian writer and sociologist Lászlo Radványi (also known as Johann-Lorenz Schmidt), one of the members of the Budapest Sunday Circle, who became the director of the Marxist Workers' School in Berlin. In the hope to escape violence between SA Stormtroopers and Communists, the family moved to Wilmersdorf in 1928.
When Seghers joined the Communist Party and the Union of Proletarian and Revolutionary Writers, she made the final break with her bourgeois origins. Under the chairmanship of Johannes R. Becher, the organization of communist writers was developed as a political and social weapon. Her debut as writer Seghers made with the novella Aufstand der Fischer von St. Barbara (1928, The Revolt of the Fishermen), which tells of the spontaneous insurrection of Breton fishermen against a monopoly. Seghers's view was realistic without making the subject polemic, but she did not have much personal experiences about hard work or fishing. She paid much attention to details, reflecting in this the ideas of Neue Sachlichkeit (new factualism). In this story Seghers formed her key themes – that people must cooperate to fight oppression and rebellion gives meaning to one's life, even in death. The book gained public acclaim, was awarded the Kleist-Preis, and filmed in Russia by German radical theatre director Erwin Piscator (1893-1966).
Seghers's collection of short stories about poverty-stricken workers, Auf dem Wege zur amerikanischen Botschaft und andere Erzählungen (1930), showed her interest from Dostoyevsky to the ninetieth century revolutionary dramatist Georg Büchner. Releasing the revolutionary energy was central theme in Die Gefährten (1932) and Der Weg durch den Februar (1935) – the latter dealt with the Engelbert Dollfuss uprising in Austria in 1934. Dollfuss, a World War I hero and politician, was assassinated by Austrian Nazis during their attempt at a coup d'etat. Seghers made much research work for the background of her novels.
Seghers seldom talked about his own person and work. Moreover, late in her life she frequently suffered from memory lapses. In Paris she often sat in her favorite cafe, absorbed in her writing – a sign for her friends not to bother her. Seghers knew Walter Benjamin, who admired her remarkable abilities as a speaker. He said once to Brecht's assistant and collaborator Margarete Steffin: "Last week Seghers spoke in commemoration of Büchner. Once again I was struck by how much better she is speaking than writing [for such occasions]." (in Anna Seghers: The Mythic Dimension by Helen Fehervary, 2001, p. 149)
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Seghers's writings were
blacklisted and he was briefly arrested. She fled to France with his
family, joining the other German exiles. During the notorious Chrystal
Night her parents' antique shop was damaged in Mainz. Her father died
in 1940, after he was ordered to sell his property and move to a
"Judenhaus". Seghers's mother died in a Polish concentration camp.
Seghers lived in Paris until the occupation of northern France
by German forces. In March 1941 Seghers departed Marseille with her two
children and husband aboard the ship Captain Paul Lemerle.
family eventually settled in Mexico. Its capital became one of the
largest centres of Communist émigrés. It had even given refuge to the
Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated in his home in
a suburb of Mexico City by a Soviet agent. Seghers never commented in
public on Trotsky's death. While on a Mexico City street, Seghers was
hit by a passing vehicle. The details of the accident, which left her
unconscious for weeks, have never been fully explained, although the
official medical report ruled out foul play. (Anna
Seghers: The Mythic Dimension by Helen
Fehervary, 2001, p. 258) Moreover, as a result from a brain injury, Segers suffered from amnesia. Her autobiographical piece, 'Der Ausflug den toten
Mädchen' (The Dead Girls’ Outing) was written during her recovery. In this tale she returned to her youth as in her later work Die Überfahrt (1971).
Das siebte Kreuz (1942, The Seventh Cross), Seghers's most famous novel, on which she worked in France between 1937 and 1939. Seghers had never been in a concentration camp but she interviewed refuges; their experiences served as material for her book. Hunted by Gestapo in Paris, Seghers had destroyed the manuscript, but she had, however, send a copy to her friend to the Unites States, where the novel turned out to be a bestseller. Its first edition was published by El Libro Libre, established by German exiles in Mexico. In 1947 The Seventh Cross received the Büchner Prize. When it was reissued in 1962, the new edition stirred a hostile reaction in West Germany, but a renewed interest in the book began in the 1970s.
The Seventh Cross was made into a Hollywood film, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Spencer Tracy. The story depicted seven Germans, who escape from a concentration camp, and are pursued by the Gestapo. Nazis set up in the camp seven crosses to wait for the refuges. Four of them are captured, the fifth dies naturally when he is reaching his native region, the sixth loses his hope and returns to the camp, but the seventh cross remains empty. Fred Zinnemann made a strong statement about a cynic who regains hope when others risk their lives to save him. In the book Seghers used firsthand knowledge and eyewitness reports of Nazi terror, and bundled together the parallel threads of plot.
The Klub Heinrich Heine, which Seghers chaired, was an important organization of antifascist activity in Mexico. Along with other German-speaking exiles, she founded the political and cultural monthly Freies Deutschland (Free Germany). Its contributors included such notables as Heinrich and Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger. The journal was distributed throughout Latin America. Seghers firmly believed that as a writer she could advocate the cause of the proletariat, but she became disillusioned when the German workers did not stop the Nazi takeover. Seghers's attempts to secure visas for her mother Hedwig Reiling failed and she perished in 1942 in Piski, a ghetto near Lublin. Five letters survived from her mother.
While living in Mexico, Seghers wrote a political thriller, Transit
(1944), set in Marseille, the last asylum for exiles searching for a
way out of Europe. The narrator has taken the identificication papers
of an another man, a writer named Weiter, who has committed
suicide, and wanders in Marseille as a stranger among other strangers.
The writer's character was based on the Moravian-born Jewish physician
and novelist Ernst Weiss (1882-1940), whom Seghers had known in Paris.
Weiss had been a friend of Franz Kafka and stundent of Sigmund Freud.
When German troops marched into the city in June 1940, he slashed his
wrists in his hotel. Weiss' novel about Hitler's (referred to with the initials A.H.) psychiatric treatment
at the end of World War I, Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness), was completed in 1938 but not published until 1963.
In summer 1950, Seghers moved from West Berlin to German Democratic Republic, not to her native Mainz, but East Berlin. Die Toten bleiben jung (1949, The Dead Stay Young), written at the end of the war, portayed martyred communists in a world of reactionaries and good revolutionaries. 'Sagen von Unirdischen', from the volume Sonderbare Begegnungen (1972) was a science fiction story, and the novella Steinzeit (1975) was about the psychological and physical delf-destruction of an American Vietnam veteran. Die Hochzeit von Haiti (1949), Das Licht auf dem Galgen (1961), and Karibische geschichten (1962) were set in the Caribbean. For these works she studied its history and became interested in the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the black governor of Santo Domingo during the times of the French Revolution. Das Licht auf dem Galgen (The Light on the Gallows), which in part was Seghers's response to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, inspired Heiner Müller's play Der Auftrag in the 1970s. Seghers returned again in the Caribbean scene in Drei Frauen aus Haiti (1980). Usually her protagonists were men, but in this work they were women.
A loyal GDR citizen, Seghers participated
actively in the cultural and political development of the new socialist
state. She was appointed vice-president of Kulturbundes zur
demokratische Erneuerung Deutschland and during the following
decades she represented DDR in numerous international conferences.
Her political compromises between her socialist ideals and realities in
the early 1950s possibly resulted from her need to keep her Western
travel privileges to visit her children, who were studying in Paris.
Moreover, at that time her husband still remained in Mexico. Brecht noted in 1947 that Seghers looked distressed and in a
letter to Georg Lukács
she complained that
she felt like she was in the middle of a glacial period. Perhaps
reflecting her mixed emotions, Seghers depicted in a short story from
1957 (Der gerechte Richter) a veteran Communist, who is sentenced to
prison, but who keeps his faith in Communism after his release.
Following the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the
Günter Grass sent her an open letter, pleading he to denounce the
construction of the Wall. She never replied to Grass. From
1952 to 1978 Seghers served as president of the German Writers Union in
the German Democratic Republic. There is no evidence that he acted as
an informant for the Stasi, as many other writers did under pressure,
including Christa Wolf and Heiner Müller. Her disappointment with
Stalinist practices in the GDR she recorded in a private
document. Seghers died in East-Berlin on June 1,
1983. After the fall of communism, a debate flared up around her role
in a show trial of Walter Janka in 1957. Janka was wrongly accused of
treason against the state. Erich Loest, who was also arrested in 1957
and who then spent seven
and a half years in a prison, argued later that Seghers had tried to
use her influence to help Janka.
When Seghers exchanged letters in the late 1930s with the Hungarian-born literary theoretician Georg Lukács about the nature of realism in literature, she questioned his rejection of formal experiment. Lukács condemned Joyce as an exponent of "the psychological or surrealist introspection of the decadents", whose fiction paved way to formalism, subjectivism and irrationalism. In DDR Party leader Walter Ulbricht called for "the struggle of the Party against formalist aesthetic conceptions." Seghers abandoned modernist techniques, and her role as a critical chronicler of her times and totalitarian politics, and developed a simpler, terser literary style in accordance with the canon of socialist realism. Later on feminist critics have accused her of describing women in essentially subordinate position to male hero, who is seen as the primary agent for building a new socialist order. In addition to her Communist affiliation, Seghers's silence in the late 1950s in the Stalinist trial of Walter Janka, the director of Aufbau publishing company, clouded her reputation in the West Germany. This period of her life was examined by Walter Janka in Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit (1989).
Seghers believed that justice and humanistic culture can be built only on the grounds of socialism and communism. When Brecht was too distant character for the younger generation of women writers, Seghers became a "mother figure" for many. She was a mentor to the novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Christa Wolf, who devoted several essays to her. Birgit Maier-Katkin has argued that "At the core of Seghers' work, one finds a strong interest in the dialectics of individual and society; this concern culminates in the author's lifelong quest to search for the function and role of art in lived reality and during times of social change." (in Silence and Acts of Memory: A Postwar Discourse on Literature, History, Anna Seghers, and Women in the Third Reich by Birgit Maier-Katkin, 2007, p. 26)
For further reading: Anna Seghers: The Challenge of History, edited by Helen Fehervary, Christiane Zehl Romero, Amy Kepple Strawser (2020); Silence and Acts of Memory: A Postwar Discourse on Literature, History, Anna Seghers, and Women in the Third Reich by Birgit Maier-Katkin (2007); Die Kritik des realen DDR-Sozialismus im Werk Anna Seghers: 'Die Entscheidung' und 'Das Vertrauen' by Loreto Vilar (2004); Anna Seghers: The Mythic Dimension by Helen Fehervary (2001); Anna Seghers, ed. F. Wagner et al. (1994); Anna Segers in Perspective, ed. Ian Wallace (1994); Anna Seghers by C. Zehl Romero (1993); Anna Seghers im Exil by A. Stephan (1993); Anna Seghers by A. Schrade (1993); Anna Seghers by Ute Brandes (1992); Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit by Walter Janka (1989); Anna Seghers by Kurt Batt (1980); The bourgeois proletarian by L.A. Bangerter (1980); Zu Anna Seghers by Christa Wolf (Sinn und Form, Oktober 1980); Der Kurs auf die Realität by F. Wagner (1978); Anna Seghers by K. Sauer (1978); Ideologie und Mythos by E. Haas (1975); Anna Seghers, Ihr Leben und Werk by H. Neugebauer (1970); other studies: W. Buthge (1982); C. Degemann (1985); K.J. LaBahn (1985). See also: Anne Fried