Siegfried Lenz’s “The German Lesson”
What constitutes being human

The author Siegfried Lenz;
The author Siegfried Lenz; | Photo (detail): © Ingrid von Kruse

A contemporary literary classic: Siegfried Lenz’s novel “The German Lesson” is a prime example of how humans behave in a dictatorship and is still a popular texts in schools even today.

When Siegfried Lenz died in 2014, it was estimated that over 30 million copies of his works had been sold worldwide. His oeuvre comprises 14 novels, 120 short stories, numerous novellas and dramas for radio and theatre. They have been translated into at least 35 languages. Many of his short stories, especially the bizarre East Prussian stories from his volume of novellas So zärtlich war Suleyken (So Tender Was Suleyken), are prescribed reading in schools. Published in 1968, The German Lesson has become one of the most internationally prominent novels in German contemporary literature. Its relevance even today is also evident from the fact that new translations are still being published, such as a new Spanish translation by Ernesto Calabuig which will be released by the Spanish publishing house Impedimenta in the autumn of 2016.

The novel is still on the sixth form reading lists at German grammar schools today. And yet the label “compulsory reading for schools” always has a somewhat limiting connotation. Authors who are read at school and who are considered to be “educationally worthwhile” are often not read with much curiosity. They are prescribed reading, an enjoyable read being followed up by the precise opposite – a test on a classic with essay questions such as the following: What is the relationship between the brothers Klaas and Siggi Jepsen? What ultimately provokes their resistance to their parents and the dictatorship? From where does the painter Nansen draw his strength to resist; explore the particular role played by art in a dictatorship. And of course, the typical question: What is the relationship between the framing and the embedded narratives; explore in this context the term “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (the process of coming to terms with the past).

Memory and the present day

Set in 1954, the framing narrative in The German Lesson does in fact begin with just such a prescribed German essay. 20-year-old Siggi Jepsen, an inmate of a juvenile detention centre, finds himself unable to write an essay on the subject of “The Joys of Duty”. The topic stirs up too many memories for him; he does not know where to begin, so he hands in a blank exercise book. Siggi is placed in solitary confinement until he has completed the essay on the same subject. Then the memories start to flow, and once he has begun he cannot stop until the whole story has been told. His narrative begins in 1943 when Siggi was nine years old. He accompanies his father, the policeman Jens Ole Jepsen, to the latter’s childhood friend, the painter Max Ludwig Nansen. The policeman is to inform Nansen that the Nazis have banned him from painting. In the subsequent weeks and months he relentlessly monitors Nansen’s compliance with the ban and even attempts to employ his son as an informer.

Siggi, on the other hand, feels drawn to the painter, who ignores the ban: “I will continue to paint. I will paint invisible pictures. There will be so much light in them that you will not recognize anything.” The boy helps to hide Nansen’s paintings and becomes increasingly remote from his loveless family that has become paralysed by its principles. At the end of the novel, the main story and the framing narrative coincide nearly ten years after the war: Siggi has successfully completed the essay he was required to write as a punishment and is being released early for good behaviour.

Memorable images, virtuoso language

Few books survive compulsory school reading status completely unscathed, and at worst all that remains is the memory of a boring mandatory exercise. The better ones create a memory that never quite fades, however. The images from The German Lesson will certainly remain with young readers for longer than the analysis of the character constellations they were required to undertake in their essays, or the questions about morally unimpeachable attitudes in a dictatorship. We have for example the storm-bent trees of North Frisia, the hunting clouds, the rain showers and the houses cowering behind hedges, all of which Lenz describes in his virtuoso and powerful language.

When the novel appeared in 1968, it precisely captured the attitudes of a young generation that was rebelling against the wartime generation. They wanted to call their parents and grandparents to account for living a lie, and for suppressing, covering up and concealing their guilt. “I am here to represent my old man, the policeman of Rugbüll”, is what Lenz has his young detention centre inmate say.

German history without politicizing

Ever since its publication, the novel has been accused of various things: of portraying National Socialism as an idyll, of reducing the totalitarian dictatorship to one rather harmless phase, and of not using the word Jew even once in the whole book. A few years ago it emerged that the artist Emil Nolde, who was Lenz’s role model for his painter Nansen, was by no means a resolute anti-Nazi: this shook the image of the staunch resistance man portrayed in the book. And yet even these debates still show insufficient distance to the events.

As the generation that was directly involved in the war dies off, it is also possible to view the novel from a greater historical distance. Precisely because Lenz does not make the German wars of aggression and the Holocaust the focus of his story, the novel can be seen as being embedded within a historical context and yet a prime example of how humans behave under the conditions of a dictatorship. It narrates German history but does not politicize it, asking rather – as all great novels do – what constitutes being human, why we fall short of being good and make ourselves guilty – in Rugbüll and elsewhere.

In 2016, a previously unpublished novel by Siegfried Lenz appeared that he had written in 1951: “Der Überläufer” (i.e. The Turncoat). The book’s existence was virtually unknown; the manuscript, which he had revised multiple times, was found in his estate. This novel is also set during the Second World War and the post-war years. It tells of the madness of the war in Eastern Europe and of a German soldier who joins the Red Army and has to live with the guilt of having shot and killed his brother-in-law.