Commentary Magazine


Der Tod in Rom, by Wolfgang Koeppen

The Hand of the Past
by Theodore Frankel
Der Tod in Rom. By Wolfgang Koep-pen. Scherz & Goverts (Stuttgart). 254 pp. $2.20.

This disquieting book with its derivative title represents perhaps the most honest attempt on the part of Germany’s younger generation to find itself. Sparing neither himself nor any other German, Wolfgang Koeppen, a young writer of considerable maturity and gifts, explores with painful self-consciousness and admirable precision the mind of a Germany still stunned by the Nazi past and all the more bewildered by the confused demands of the present.

The two eras are represented by the two generations of a German family as they meet, partly by accident, for a family reunion in Rome. The setting is of importance: tendencies which might have been restrained in the cold North expand in the indulgent climate of Italy till they can be seen in all their sickness and decadence.

The old generation is represented by Oberbuergermeister Friedrich Wilhelm Pfaffrath and by his brother-in-law, the notorious Nazi Judejahn, two hardened specimens of the old Germany, Pfaffrath, a stolid civil service careerist, is the embodiment of all the nationalist bigots who, without being Nazis themselves, supported Hitler and who now, having survived and prospered, are still unregenerate and not above occasional nostalgia for the discipline and order of the “good old days.” Judejahn is the real McCoy, a mass murderer and killer, Hitler’s general and henchman. In hiding since the end of the war, he feels that things are now “back to normal” in Germany and, with the connivance of Pfaffrath, hopes to come back.

The younger generation consists of Pfaffrath’s two sons, Siegfried and Dietrich, and of Judejahn’s son, Adolf. Dietrich runs in the old groove, but Siegfried and Adolf have attempted to break out of the family mold, Siegfried by writing atonal music and Adolf by becoming a priest.

It is the struggle—and ultimately the failure—of these two young men to free themselves from the domination of their past which provides the action and the tragedy of this book. Their defeat is not caused by failure to understand what they struggle against; seldom, if ever, has that which is most objectionable in the German character and psyche been described with so much insight, accuracy, and objectivity.

Here is what Siegfried Pfaffrath says of his parents: “No, I don’t approve of their life, because they tortured others with their ideas and through their ideas . . . because they started a war, because they caused suffering, because they wrought destruction without end, because they turned the Fatherland into a country of intolerance, stupidity, megalomania, prison and the gallows. Because they killed or remained comfortably in their homes though they knew that people were being killed.” And when he is asked, “Don’t you think it can happen again?” he answers, “Of course I do.”

Nor is there any illusion about the real character of the Nazis. “Judejahn was afraid,” Koeppen writes. “He was afraid somebody might find out that, at heart, he was only a frightened little boy who had arrogated greatness to himself. Secretly he heard a voice, not the voice of God, but the thin, hungry and progress-believing voice of his father, the school teacher who whispered, ‘You are stupid, you haven’t done your homework, you are an inflated zero.’ It was good therefore that he had always kept in the shadow of one greater than himself, that he had remained a satellite. . . . He had not yet grasped that the sun which had given him light and the right to kill, had itself been only a fake, a bad pupil, a frightened little boy . . . a bubble which had finally burst.”

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And yet, the author’s clear-eyed disenchantment notwithstanding, Judejahn is still surrounded by an aura of mystery, and of the power over life and death, which clings to him like the memory of the blood he has spilled. Thus, when he telephones his brother-in-law “. . . he said, This is Judejahn,’ but pronounced the modest name so that power, violence, and death vibrated over the wires.”

Even after defeat, even while he is still among the outcast, Judejahn is still capable of dominance; is, in fact, the only one who actively imposes his will on life, while the younger generation can only conform or, in protest, save themselves at the cost of sterility. This can be seen very clearly in their sexual relations, which for Koeppen, as for Faulkner, function also as the symbols of social relations. It is only Judejahn who can possess and satisfy a woman, while the younger men have abdicated. Siegfried is a homosexual, Adolf a priest (and priesthood here is a symbol of sexual abstinence rather than of faith), and Dietrich, the young conformist, too timid even to buy a woman, can do no better than to masturbate.

The same point is also made in explicitly political terms. Siegfried thinks: “Why shouldn’t Adolf and I be allies against those who are unscrupulous and who want their stupidity to rule, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns? Perhaps we could change Germany. But even while I thought this it did not seem possible to change Germany.” And again: “If there were a Fatherland without hullabaloo, without flags or parades . . . pleasant relations among people, a country without coercion . . . would it not be my Fatherland too? But I shall not find it, I do not believe in it.”

And so Siegfried retreats into his unpopular music and Adolf, though of little faith, tries to escape to God, while Pfaffrath administers Germany and Judejahn schemes to get back.

This attitude, though it mirrors quite faithfully the frame of mind of a large part of the German youth, has been attacked as defeatist, especially by those who esteem the author for his honesty and his anti-Nazi convictions. Why should it be, it has been asked, that so many of the young generation are so afraid of life and responsibility that they surrender Germany without a struggle to the Pfaffraths and the Judejahns? After all, they no longer believe that the Nazis were supermen, they know them for the cowards and criminals they really were. Why then the continued awe, the premature resignation, the lasting submission?

An answer is attempted in another of Siegfried’s self-searching meditations: “The Judejahn of my youth had been terrible. Now I thought him a scarecrow. Why, then, did I not break with him? After all, I was free.”

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But, of course, he is not free of him and it is the whole point of this book to demonstrate the fact and the nature of this dependence. Siegfried and his contemporaries may know, superficially and with their intellects, that the Judejahns of the past were stupid and, in the end, ineffectual bullies, but in their bowels they still tremble with the reflexes of a lifetime of obedience and fear. We are reminded, time and again, that for this generation of Germans the Nazis are not just brown uniforms out of a history book, but are their fathers, and though the young may reject them, they have been crippled by them for life. Never, perhaps, has there been a generation so brutally overwhelmed and harmed by their elders as today’s Germans. Their emotions and ideas, their image of themselves and of the world were first molded and then shattered through a dozen years of unremitting indoctrination, six years of war, and finally the defeat and fall of their gods. It is only natural that they are confused, timid, and easily given to despair. It is their final defeat that even in breaking away they are forced into dependence and negation, since they are shaped in their very rebellion by those against whom they must revolt to be free. Small wonder, then, that they cannot react to the Judejahns as to corpses who were once ordinary men, but see them as bloodstained ghosts who, bigger than life, are even in death a threat to their sons.

This dependence is so deeply rooted that it corrodes even salvation, which is so conceived that it plays into the hands of evil. “We cannot change Germany,” Siegfried says, “we can only change ourselves.” Each individual must work out his personal destiny in the terrifying loneliness of his own soul and in utter isolation from a society corrupted in its totality. Each man must free himself so completely of the Judejahn within that he transcends even the necessity of defining himself in opposition to him. This is what Siegfried attempts in his strange music and Adolf in his uncertain way to God, but it is a long and painful pilgrimage without certainty—and possibly without hope—of success. The worst of it is that Siegfried knows that, while he must save his soul, the real Pfaffraths will once again inherit Germany.

This is a terrifying attitude, but it is true and honest and without alibis and apparently represents the feelings and the situation of many young Germans. Amidst all the self-congratulatory talk of miraculous recoveries, it strikes the outsider as a frightening sign that in the new Germany, as in the old, too many of the good still inhibit themselves in relation to power because they see no way of reconciling their struggle for personal salvation with the fight for the public weal, and thus remain aloof from public affairs, to Germany’s cost and that of the world.

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