On the Death of Siegfried Lenz An outstanding storyteller with a vast impact

Siegfried Lenz and Klaus-Dieter Lehmann in Helsinki in 2013
Siegfried Lenz and Klaus-Dieter Lehmann in Helsinki in 2013 | Photo: Kalle Kervinen

Germany has lost a great writer, the Goethe-Institut an important ambassador to the world. We mourn Siegfried Lenz, an author who stood for intellectual independence and literary commitment. Obituary by Klaus-Dieter Lehmann

I grew up with Siegfried Lenz: So zärtlich war Suleyken (1955), The German Lesson (1968), The Heritage (1978), most recently A Minute’s Silence (2008) and The Mask (2011). He was surely one of the most significant writers of post-war and contemporary literature.

He was one of the first writers in the German-speaking world to whom the reappraisal of the National Socialist era was a very personal concern. With this approach and his outstanding storytelling, he had a vast impact. He broke the prevailing silence about the Nazi era, challenged contaminated terms and made the speechlessness between the post-war era generations a theme of his work. These were the themes that the people demanded. The German Lesson alone had a first edition of 700,000 copies and was translated into more than thirty languages.

Siegfried Lenz was, however, also one of the first to write about flight and expulsion in his book The Heritage: a risky topic. But with prudence and sensitivity he lent credibility to this European issue. His personality was greatly formed by his intellectual independence and his literary commitment. For the Goethe-Institut he was an important ambassador to the world who did a great service for the reputation of modern German literature, but also for Germany’s return to the international community. For this, we are deeply grateful to him.

I experienced him very personally and closely once again in Helsinki at the book fair in October 2013, and although in a wheelchair, he was in great shape. The Goethe-Institut in Finland was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and the Helsinki Book Fair had chosen Germany as the guest of honour. Siegfried Lenz was an astounding presence both during the long nights spent at the institute intensively discussing many topics and during the fair events. Many hundreds of mostly young people came to the reading and discussion of his book A Minute’s Silence. These were not the curious wanting to catch a glimpse of the classic literary figure; these were his readers seeking an encounter with him. He was met with perceptible waves of appreciation and warmth. It was a moving event not only for the audience, but in particular for Siegfried Lenz himself.

It is all the more difficult to grasp that he is gone. To the very last, he had a great deal to tell us.