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Heym, Stefan

HEYM, STEFAN

HEYM, STEFAN (Helmut Flieg ; 1913–2001), German novelist, biographer, and political writer. Heym was born in Chemnitz, Saxony. Following his publication of an aggressive, anti-nationalist poem in the local Social Democratie daily Volksstimme, he was expelled from secondary school in 1931. He went to Berlin as a freelance writer for left-wing periodicals and, following Hitler's rise to power, fled to Czecho-slovakia early in 1933. After a two-year stay in Prague, he was admitted to the United States on a refugee visa and studied literature at the University of Chicago, quickly acquiring an admirable command of the English language, in which he subsequently wrote all his works, some of which he himself translated into German.

Heym identified himself with much of the Communist Party's ideology and in 1937, at the early age of 24, he was appointed editor of the American Communist Party's German-language organ Deutsches Volksecho, holding the position until the paper closed down in the fall of 1939. In the meantime, he has also published a pamphlet entitled Nazis in the U.S.A. (1938). His first major anti-Nazi novel, Hostages (1942), became a best-seller and was made into a film.

In 1943, Heym enlisted in the U.S. Army and was attached to its Psychological Warfare Branch. Though regarded by his superiors with a certain distrust because of his communist associations, he was charged with the publication of Der Ruf, a literary periodical for German prisoners of war in the U.S. He was given a responsible post at Radio Luxembourg at the time of the Allied advance into Germany and, after the occupation, and editorial position on the Munich Neue Zeitung. Eventually, disagreement with the paper's largely American-oriented policy, as well as his criticism of U.S. cold war methods, led to his resignation from the U.S. Army in a fit of anger and bitterness, amidst controversial publicity. Renouncing his U.S. citizenship in 1952, he joined a group of pro-communist German émigré authors who decided to settle in the Soviet-dominated area of Europe.

However, while Heym's earlier American books, such as The Crusaders (1948) – according to the New York Times "the best book on World War Two" – and The Eyes of Reason (1951), had been very critical of many aspects of American history and life, he soon fell foul of the East German authorities because of his refusal to toe the party line. Thus his novel Der Tag X, which dealt with June 17, 1953 (the day of the East Berlin rising against the Communist government), was never published in the German Democratic Republic. He also angered the East German government in 1956, when he challenged Walter Ulbricht at the Fourth Congress of the German Writers' Union, and in 1960 when he published Schatten und Licht, a collection of short stories which was said by one of his East German critics, Guenter Ebert, to have deprived him of the right to be called a socialist writer.

Eventually, Heym turned to historical subjects in the hope that he might be allowed to voice his criticism of the Eastern bloc régimes in a somewhat subtler and more indirect way. These books include The Lenz Papers (1963), on the workers' revolt of 1848–49 in Baden; the biography Ferdinand Lassalle (1969); Schmaehschrift oder Koenigin gegen Defoe (1970), on Daniel Defoe's censorship troubles in England; and, finally, The King David Report (1972), which – in his own words – is based on the biblical narrative but examines the Bible from a Marxist point of view. This last work shows how King Solomon's court historian Ethan is ready to comply with an official request to construct a national myth to replace historical truth. The topicality of this highly ironical novel and Heym's implied rejection of any personality cult is so clearly evident that its sale was prohibited in the German Democratic Republic. However, the author himself repeatedly declared that he was critical not only of certain developments in the Eastern bloc, but even more so of those in the West, and that he identified himself with the basic concepts of his new socialist homeland. In 1952, Heym was awarded the East German Heinrich Mann Prize and, in 1959, the (East) German National Prize for Arts and Literature.

In reaction to the publication of his anti-Stalinist novel Collin in West Germany, Heym was expelled in June 1979 from the East German writers' federation and forbidden to earn his livelihood as a writer "for making critical statements about the communist system." Henceforth, Heym shifted his activities more and more to West Germany, though he remained a citizen of the gdr. In 1981 he published his novel Ahasve, which retells the story of the "Wandering Jew" within the setting of the "Cold War" and its permanent nuclear threat by switching back and forth from the 15th century to the present. His anti-dogmatic thought was further underscored by his novel Schwarzenberg (1984), which dealt with a Socialist republic founded on the soil of a country the Allied forces forgot to occupy at the end of World War ii.

It was this vision of an "alternative," non-totalitarian socialism that earned Heym his special status in the turmoil of German reunification in 1989, when he became one of the most prominent speakers at East German demonstrations, defending Socialist thought both against its Stalinist misinterpretation and against West German capitalism.

In 1994, Heym entered the political system as a candidate for the pds, the successor party of the former Communist Party (sed). He was elected and made the opening speech at the 13th Bundestag as its oldest member – a speech that was boycotted by the majority faction of the Christian Democrats. Heym resigned a year later. At the same time, he published his last big novel on the Trotzkyist activist Karl Radek, who was expelled from Germany in 1919 and – because of his opposition to Stalin – was finally given a prison sentence of ten years, during which he died (in 1939). Heym died while attending a conference on Heinrich Heine in Jerusalem.

add. bibliography:

P. Hutchinson, Stefan Heym: Socialist, Dissenter, Jew (2003); H. Gellermann, Stefan HeymJudentum und Sozialismus (2002); M. Tait, Stefan Heym's Historical Fiction (2001).

[Erich Gottgetreu /

Philipp Theisohn (2nd ed.)]

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