Too Eastern for the West Germans, Too Western for the East Germans – A Biography of Wolfgang Langhoff
“Den Kommunismus mit der Seele suchen” (Communism with a Soul), Esther Slevogt’s book about the actor, theatre director and general director Wolfgang Langhoff, is more than a classical artist biography. Without neglecting the individual side of her subject’s life, the Berlin theatre critic discovers in this man of the theatre, born in 1901, “a key figure for understanding the German history” of that era and has presented us with a bonanza of biographic literature.
At the age of 21, the merchant’s son Wolfgang Langhoff decides to become an actor. Before him lies a brilliant time (it is 1922) as a “young hero and lover” at the theatres of Königsberg, Wiesbaden and Düsseldorf. On the side, the celebrated stage performer begins to read Karl Marx, joins the German Communist Party and in 1930 founds, together with young workers, the agitprop theatre group Nordwest ran. On February 28, 1933, one day after the Reichstag fire, Langhoff is one of the first to be arrested by the Nazis and carried off to prison and then to a concentration camp. When he is released on Easter 1934, he flees to Zurich with his wife Renate and describes, in his famous report Die Moorsoldaten (The Peat Bog Soldiers), his imprisonment in a concentration camp. In 1946 Langhoff finally returns to Germany, where he is offered the general directorship of the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin.
“Was I a good comrade?”
Now the communist and artist is confident that his dream of a meaningful life in harmony with the Party, for which he was nearly beaten to death in the Düsseldorf prison Ulmer Höh and had to endure serious maltreatment and humiliation in the concentration camps Börgermoor and Lichtenburg, will at last be fulfilled. But Langhoff’s story is one, as Slevogt writes, of “a man who, as a communist, was too Eastern for the West Germans, and who, as an immigrant from the West and communist patriot, was too Western for the East Germans”. In other words, Langhoff soon fell into disfavor with the leading cadres of the politburo. After years of grueling petty fights and intra-party indignities, he is finally removed from his post as general director of the Deutsches Theater because of his 1963 production of Peter Hacks’s Die Sorgen und die Macht (Anxieties and Power). He dies three years later. The actress Mathilde Daneger, who frequently visited the lung cancer stricken man in the clinic in the last months of his life, remembers with tears in her eyes the question Langhoff asked her on his death bed: “Was I a good comrade?”
An astute work on the history of the twentieth century
Slevogt has subtitled her Langhoff biography The Life of a German Artist in the Twentieth Century. ”. She keeps her promise. And she succeeds at something very rare: without neglecting the individual side of the artist’s personality, she discovers in Langhoff “a key figure for understanding Germany history” of that era. Her descriptions of the background are so knowledgeable and precise in detail that the reviewer of the Frankfurter Rundschau, Regine Sylvester, has called the nearly five-hundred page work a “landmark book” and rightly recommends it to those “seeking a truthful work on contemporary history”. Slevogt approaches the ideological and existential struggles that shaped Langhoff’s life, and which are hardly any longer intelligible to present generations, not only very knowledgeably and reflectively, but also with the literal freedom from prejudice characteristic of the serious searcher for knowledge: Den Kommunismus mit der Seele suchen is one of those exhilarating examples of biographical literature that formulates questions at the highest level rather than misrepresenting the subject by cheap lumping together and patronizing the reader with purportedly watertight interpretations.
Wealth of material and new details
Immense research work forms the foundation of this successful book. The list of reference at the end comprises nearly fifteen closely printed pages: Slevogt visited not only countless archives so as to rifle through piles of biographical, political and artistic contemporary documents, but also spoke extensively with Langhoff’s friends, colleagues and relatives, particularly his sons Matthias and Thomas, who were themselves influential theater directors. In this way the book brings new or lesser known aspects to light: that around 1919 Langhoff was briefly a member of the Medem Freikorp, a revanchist soldiers association that fought against the Bolsheviks in the Baltic region, he confided only to his party cadre dossier, where he sought to explain the fact as an adolescent “desire for experience”. In addition, and only to mention one example of the fine shading of the research, Slevogt follows the fates of Langhoff’s colleagues, friends and fellow prisoners through the Nazi period and Cold War, retaining a fundamental many-sidedness: along with reports of the show trials in the Eastern bloc, there is also information about the communists imprisoned in West Germany.
Supplementing the historical and theater-historical excursions, Slevogt’s picture of Langhoff is rounded off by very personal details. For example, we learn that (according to his personal file) the then 24 year-old actor, playing a young hero at the Wiesbaden Theater, once appeared for a performance “in a not entirely sober state”, or how the Langhoffs’ flat in their Zurich exile was the contact point for emigrants. Slevogt describes how after the war Langhoff’s wife, Renate, had an elegant evening gown made for her with extra large, plastic-lined pockets, so that she could inconspicuously smuggle food from receptions for her sons at home, and how Langhoff’s son Thomas was given his first pair of jeans by Bertolt Brecht. The result is a highly complex mosaic that is, on the one hand, borne by a great respect for the subject but, on the other hand, suppresses neither critical questions nor biographical ruptures and contradictions. At a reading of Slevogt’s book about his father at the Deutsche Theater, Thomas Langhoff, who died in February 2012, is reported by the Berliner Zeitung to have simply called the work “great”. It released him from the duty, he said, to write his own memoirs.
The author is a theater critic and journalist. She writes for various publications, including Spiegel online, the Berliner Tagesspiegel and Theater heute. She is a member of the jury of the Capital City Culture Fund and the Berlin Theater Meeting.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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