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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 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. The family eventually settled in Mexico. Its capital became one of the largest centres of Communist émigrés. Das siebte Kreuz (1942, The Seventh Cross), Seghers's most famous work, was written in France between 1937 and 1939. Seghers had never been in a concentration camp but she interviewed refuges and collected their experiences in 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 work was a bestseller. The first edition of the novel was published by El Libro Libre, a publishing house established by German exiles in Mexico. In 1947 the book 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 Seventh Cross 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.

After World War II Seghers returned Germany, settling in East Berlin. Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen (1946), a short story written in Mexico, returned to her youth as her later work Die Überfahrt (1971). Die Toten bleiben jung (1949, The Dead Stay Young) 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 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. However, 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. From 1952 to 1978 Seghers served as president of the German Writers Union in the German Democratic Republic. Seghers died in East-Berlin on June 1, 1983.

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: 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

Selected works:

  • Jude und Judentum im Werke Rembrandts, 1924 (dissertation, as Netty Reiling)
  • Aufstand der Fischer von St. Barbara, 1928
    - The Revolt of the Fishermen (translated by Margaret Goldsmith, 1929)
    - St. Barbaran kalastajien kapina (suom. Elvi Sinervo, 1954)
    - Films: Vostaniye rybakov / The Revolt of the Fishermen, 1934, dir. Erwin Piscator, starring Alexej Dikij, Emma Zesarskaja, Sergei Martinson, Dimitri Konsowski; TV film 1988, dir. Thomas Langhoff, starring Hansjürgen Hürrig, Ulrike Krumbiegel, Tobias Langhoff, Ulrich Thein
  • Auf dem Wege zur amerikanischen Botschaft und andere Erzählungen, 1930
  • Die Gefährten, 1932
  • Der Kopflohn, 1933
    - A Price on His Head (in The Revolt of the Fishermen of Santa Barbara and A Price on His Head, trs. J. and R. Mitchell, and E.Wulff, 1960)
  • Der Weg durch den Februar, 1935
  • Ernst Thaelman: What He Stands For, 1935
  • Die Rettung, 1937
  • Das siebte Kreuz, 1942
    - The Seventh Cross (translated by James A. Galston, 1942)
    - Seitsemäs risti (suom. Elvi Sinervo, 1961)
    - Film:  The Seventh Cross, 1944, dir. Fred Zinnemann, starring Spencer Tracy, Signe Hasso, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Agnes Moorehead
  • Visado de tránsito, 1944
    - Transit (translated by James A. Galston, 1944)
    - Film in 1991, dir. René Allio, screenplay René Allio, Jean Jourdheuil, starring Sebastian Koch, Claudia Messner, Rüdiger Vogler, Magali Leiris
  • Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen, 1946
    - The Excursion of the Dead Girls (in German Women Writers of the Twentieth Century, editedand translated Elizabeth Rutschi Herrmann and Edna Huttenmaier Spitz, 1978)
  • Das Ende: Erzählung, 1948
  • Sowjetmenschen, 1948
  • Die Toten bleiben jung, 1949
    - The Dead Stay Young (tr. anon., 1950)
    - Kuolleet pysyvät nuorina (suom. Elvi Sinervo ja Ilkka Ryömä, 1962)
    - Film: Die Toten bleiben jung, 1968, prod. by Deutsche Film, dir. Joachim Kunert, starring Barbara Dittus, Günter Wolf, Klaus-Peter Pleßow, Klaus Piontek
  • Die Hochzeit von Haiti, 1949
  • Die Rückkehr, 1949
  • Die Linie, 1950
  • Crisanta, 1950
  • Friedensgeschichten , 1950
  • Die Kinder, 1951
  • Der Mann und sein Name, 1952
  • Der erste Schritt, 1953
  • Frieden der Welt. Ansprachen und Aufsätze 1947-1953, 1953
  • Der Bienenstock, 1953
  • Brot und Salz, 1958
  • Die Entscheidung, 1959
  • Anna Seghers. Eine Auswahl aus ihrem Werk, 1960 (edited by Lothar Pohl and Wilhelm Wittkopp)
  • Das Licht auf dem Galgen, 1961
    - Film: Das Licht auf dem Galgen, 1976, prod. by Deutsche Film (DEFA), dir. Helmut Nitzschke, screenplay by Gert Billing and Helmut Nitzschke,starring Alexander Lang, Amza Pellea, Jürgen Holtz, Erwin Geschonneck
  • Karibische Geschichten, 1962
  • Über Tolstoi - Über Dostojewski, 1963
  • Das Neue und das Bleibende, 1964
  • Erzählungen, 1964
    - Films: Das Duell in 1965, prod. by Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF), dir. Joachim Kunert; Überfahrt in 1971, prod. by Fernsehen der DDR, dir. Fritz Bornemann; Die grosse Reise der Agathe Schweigert in 1972, prod. by Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF), dir. Joachim Kunert, starring Helga Göring; Das Schilfrohr in 1974, prod. by Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF), dir. Joachim Kunert; Józia - Die Tochter der Delegierten in 1977, prod. by Deutsche Film (DEFA), dir. Wojciech Fiwek; Katharina: oder Die Kunst, Arbeit zu finden in 1995, dir. Barbara Trottnow, starring Heidi Ecks; Der gerechte Richter in 2000, dir. Thorsten C. Fischer
  • Die Kraft der Schwachen, 1965
  • Geschichten von heute und gestern, 1966
  • Das wirkliche Blau, 1967
    - TV film: Das wirkliche Blau, 1986, dir. Christa Mühl, starring Henry Hübchen, Marijam Agischewa, Arno Wyzniewski, Gojko Mitic
  • Das Vertrauen, 1968
  • Glauben an Irdisches, 1969
  • Briefe an Leser, 1970
  • Über Kunstwerk und Wirklichkeit, 1970-79 (4 vols., edited by Sigrid Bock)
  • Überfahrt, 1971
    - TV film: Die Überfahrt, 1984, prod. by Fernsehen der DDR, dir. Fritz Bornemann, starring Edwin Fernandez, Alfred Müller and Alicia Pedroso, Walter Plathe
  • Benito's Blue and Nine Other Stories, 1973 (translated by Joan Becker)
  • Sonderbare Begegnungen, 1973
  • Willkommen, Zukunft!: Reden, Essays u. Aufsätze über Kunst u. Wirklichkeit, 1975
  • Gesammelte Werke in Einzelausgaben, 1977-1980 (14 vols.)
  • Steinzeit. Wiederbegegnung, 1977
  • Das Argonautenschiff, 1978
  • Die Macht der Worte. Reden. Schriften. Briefe, 1979 (edited by Sina Witt)
  • Drei Frauen aus Haiti, 1980
  • Woher sie kommen, wohin sie gehen: Essays aus vier Jahrzehnten, 1980 (ed. Manfred Behn)
  • Aufsätze, Ansprachen, Essays 1927-1953, 1954-1979, 1980 (2 vols.)
  • Was ein Volk denkt und fühlt, spricht sein Schriftsteller aus, 1982
  • Gewöhnliches und gefährliches Leben: ein Briefwechsel aus der Zeit des Exils, 1939-1946, 1986
  • Der gerechte Richter, 1990
  • Der letzte Mann der Höhle: Erzählungen 1924-1933, 1994
  • Sämtliche Erzählungen 1924-1980, 1994 (6 vols.)
  • Werkausgabe, 2000- (24 vols., edited by Helen Fehervary and Bernhard Spies)
  • Hier im Volk der kalten Herzen. Briefwechsel 1947, 2000 (edited by Christel Berger)
  • Und ich brauch doch so schrecklich Freude: Tagebuch 1924/1925, 2003 (edited by Christiane Zehl Romero)


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