Die Denunziation

views updated


Novella by Gert Hofmann, 1979

Gert Hofmann's first major work of fiction was Die Denunziation ("The Denunciation"), published in German in 1979. Along with Rolf Hochhuth 's1978 novel Eine Liebe in Deutschland, it constituted one of the few serious case studies in postwar German literature of denunciation under the Nazi regime. Unlike other authors who used references to denunciations in order to characterize in a somewhat clichéd way the poisonous moral climate during the Nazi regime, Hofmann delved deeply into the manifold impact of denunciations as they affected individual victims during the course of their entire lives.

In the novella an anonymous report of the harmless activities of the half-Jewish tailor L. Silberstein sets off a chain of events that destroy two families in the last year of the war. Silberstein, who is said to have given free lessons in tailoring, "had for such a long time and in such a miraculous manner eluded the attention of the bureaucrats or had been tolerated by them." One day in early May 1944, however, he is betrayed and "removed from the city for the purposes of liquidation." Shortly thereafter, his wife commits suicide by drowning. The German family Hecht is also affected by the denunciation of the tailor. Mr. Hecht, presumably because he has commented on the deportation of Silberstein and because of denunciation, is sent to a penal battalion on the Eastern Front and is killed within a month. Although the text is not explicit about the point, it suggests that his wife, who had taken lessons with Silberstein, is also reported to the authorities by an anonymous denouncer. She drowns herself as well. The Hechts' 14-year-old twins, Karl and Wilhelm, are separated and never see each other again.

These events are reconstructed 31 years later by one of the twin sons, Karl Hecht, now a successful lawyer in West Germany, living and working in the same small town where he grew up. Upon hearing "news of the sudden passing" of his brother, Wilhelm, who has died in a mental hospital in New York, Karl spends the night awake, reminiscing about the events leading to their separation, browsing through his brother's notes, and at the same time preparing for the next day's trial, which deals with a case of denunciation. The narrative line seems to be held together by Karl's perspective, but it is at the same time disjointed, elliptic, and full of uncompleted sentences and fragmented thoughts. Karl's feelings and observations are recorded in the form of a letter to a mysterious colleague named Flohta, whose voice is also interjected into the narrative in the form of comments on the letter, thus bringing an additional sense of disorientation.

Hofmann called Die Denunziation a Novelle, and his work owes a great part of its effect and success to the ways in which it both conforms with and transgresses the conventions of the genre. The initial denunciation seems to be that "unheard-of event," a key element of the traditional novella, that occurs abruptly and disrupts the normal flow of life. The act of betrayal is presented as a source of irreparable ruptures as well as a poisonous web that envelopes the personal tragedies and moral failures of both brothers. Yet in Hofmann's work, unlike the traditional novella, there seem to be far more denunciations—both in the Nazi past and in the narrative present of the 1970s—each of them triggering a new set of ruptures and thus conveying a sense of the endless repetition of history and of the impossibility of an exit and a closure. Not only is Silberstein betrayed, but Hecht's father and mother are as well for their presumed sympathy with Silberstein. In addition, the original denunciation of Silberstein is mirrored in the lawsuit that Karl Hecht is participating in 30 years later. In this case a teacher, Wilhelm Treterle, is charged with assaulting a citizen whom Treterle has accused of denouncing him. Treterle, as with the Hecht brothers, finds it impossible to prove the exact terms and perpetrators of the denunciation against him and becomes a victim of the establishment.

As he compares and contrasts the lives of each of the brothers after their separation, Hofmann pronounces his moral verdict both on the shameful Nazi past and on the various ways in which postwar generations have come to terms with it. Wilhelm Hecht left Germany when he was very young and traveled around the world in a restless effort to find the "truth" about the denunciation. That has been his way of dealing with the original trauma. Failing to locate the "guilty persons," Wilhelm has not succeeded in healing the ruptures in his own life either and dies after a mental breakdown. Karl Hecht, however, has remained in the same town, become a prominent lawyer, and participated in the economic miracle in West Germany. In other words, he has sought to recover from the shock of his initial childhood trauma by relentlessly trying to forget the events of 1944.

Both models of coping with the tragic past—repression or self-absorbed explorations—are doomed to end in fiasco. The death of both brothers—the one of insanity in a New York hospital and the other of heart failure at his home after a long night of reminiscing over repressed experiences—underscore Hofmann's pessimistic view of his generation's attitude toward the Holocaust. As long as German society continues to condone anonymous denunciations and to tolerate the persecution of people who are perceived as racially or socially different, the hope of a meaningful closure of the past does not exist.

—Mila Ganeva