Seghers, Anna (1900–1983)

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Seghers, Anna (1900–1983)

German writer, leading literary figure in exile during the Nazi years and one of the most significant writers in Communist East Germany, whose career extended from the Weimar era to the 1970s. Name variations: Netty Reiling; Netty Radvanyi or Radványi. Pronunciation: AH-na SAYG-hers. Born Netti Reiling in Mainz, Germany, on November 19, 1900; died in East Berlin on June 1, 1983: daughter of Isidor Reiling (an art dealer); attended the universities of Heidelberg and Cologne; Ph.D. in the History of Art, Heidelberg, 1924; married László Radványi, in 1925; children: Peter (b. 1926); Ruth (b. 1928).

Entered University of Heidelberg (1919); won Kleist prize (1928); joined Communist Party (1928); fled Germany after Hitler came to power (1933); fled France (1940); arrived in Mexico (1941); returned to Germany (1947); won Büchner prize (1947); served as chair of East German Writers' Union (1950–1977); given honorary doctorate, University of Mainz (1977); awarded honorary citizenship by the city of Mainz (1981).

Major works:

Aufstand der Fischer von St. Barbara (The Revolt of the Fishermen of Santa Barbara, 1928); Die Gefährten (The Comrades, 1932); Der Weg durch den Februar (1935); Das Siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross, 1942); The Excursion of the Dead Girls (1946); Transit (1948); The Dead Stay Young (1949); The Decision (1959); Trust (1968); Crossing (1971); Encounter While Travelling (1972); Peculiar Meetings (1973).

Anna Seghers stands as a notable literary figure whose life and work were closely tied to the turmoil in her native Germany. She began her writing in the 1920s, emerged as one of the most productive and successful German writers in exile during the Nazi era, and then returned to postwar Germany to play an important role in the cultural life of East Germany. She was a committed Communist who saw the need for writers to involve themselves in creating a new society. At the same time, she sometimes found her literary interests taking her in directions that led Marxist critics to question her ideological orthodoxy.

Germany in the 20th century went through tumultuous changes that affected every one of its inhabitants. Defeated in World War I, imperial Germany was transformed into the unstable Weimar Republic in the years from 1919 to 1933. Communist efforts to take power failed on several occasions during the first postwar years, and they left the German population bitterly divided between those who favored such radical change from the Left and those who opposed it. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 set the stage for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to come to power in 1933. The Nazis identified Communists and Jews as criminals and traitors within the German population, responsible for all of the nation's agonies starting with the defeat in World War I. From the onset of the Nazi era, large numbers of Germans were imprisoned or forced into exile.

The defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II brought the country under foreign military occupation—with the United States, Britain, and France controlling northern, western, and southern Germany, while the Soviet Union occupied the eastern region. The victorious wartime alliance broke down rapidly after 1945, the western zones of occupation were united into a new West German state in 1949, while the Soviet zone of occupation was transformed into a Communist state, the German Democratic Republic. The Communist revolution that had failed after World War I thus succeeded in the Soviet zone under Russian direction.

She does not write in order to describe, but in order, by describing, to change things.

—Martin Kane

The division of Germany, and the consequent need for Germans on both sides of the dividing line to choose between a Communist and a non-Communist future, sharpened with the passage of time. An initial revolt against Communist authorities took place in East Germany in June 1953. The physical division of Germany and the final barrier to East Germans wishing to come to the West was completed in August 1961 with the erection of the Berlin Wall. Relations between the two Germanies remained strongly hostile until the early 1970s.

German history deeply affected many German writers. In traditional Marxist ideology, literature is a tool to be used in bringing Communist governments to power and in the construction of a Communist society. Thus, writers and artists like Seghers who belonged to Communist parties such as the German one founded in 1919 were expected to implant a Marxist view of history and society into their work. An issue for such representatives of the world of cultural creation was the degree to which the complexities and possibilities of their fields of work had to be subordinated to politics: were they first of all teachers helping to bring this new political order to power? After the creation of an East German state, such figures of the cultural world had to react to a harsh and often intolerant government that threatened to punish those who did not support the existing system with sufficient zeal.

The future Anna Seghers was born Netty Reiling in Mainz on November 19, 1900. She was the daughter of a distinguished middle-class Jewish family; her father was an antique dealer and curator of the art collection of the Mainz Cathedral. During a secure childhood in the years before World War I, Seghers spent holidays in Holland and Belgium, and her mother introduced her to classic German literature. A shy and quiet child, she was apparently the contented product of a bourgeois environment. Nonetheless, in an interview published in 1967, she recalled her childhood concerns for the poor and the politically repressed.

She followed the customary German student career of attending several universities, beginning her studies in art history and Chinese culture at Heidelberg, moving to Cologne, then returning to Heidelberg to complete her doctorate. Her dissertation topic was Judaism in the works of Rembrandt. Scholars who have analyzed her literary career have suggested that elements of Chinese culture as well as the artistic techniques of Rembrandt can be found reflected in her work.

The universities of Weimar Germany were gathering points for refugees from the failed Communist revolutions of Eastern Europe. It seems likely that this was the environment in which the young woman's political interests became intertwined with Marxist ideology. Her links to Eastern Europe became personal in 1925 when she married a Hungarian sociologist, László Radványi. She had two children in the space of the next three years as she turned her interests to literature, enjoying a spectacular early success when her first novella, The Revolt of the Fishermen of Santa Barbara, won the prestigious Kleist Prize in 1928. By that time Netty Reiling had taken the pen name of Anna Seghers (a minor artist who was a contemporary of Rembrandt), which she would use for the remainder of her life.

Seghers' political allegiance became a permanent influence on her work by the early 1930s. She had joined the Communist Party in 1928 and made the first of her many visits to the Soviet Union at the start of the 1930s. Her first major novel, The Comrades (1932), expressed her political sympathies clearly for the first time. With a multitude of characters and five separate plots, it describes revolutionary activity in a dozen different countries in the decade following World War II.

Although the details are uncertain, Seghers apparently was arrested and confined for a brief time following the Nazi rise to power in 1933, then left for exile in Paris. Like many other German authors, she discovered that her books could no longer be published or circulated in her own country. Unlike many other refugees from Nazi Germany who were stunned into silence by their expulsion, however, Seghers maintained a high level of literary productivity, writing six novels and other works between 1933 and 1947. She immersed herself in the European political scene of the '30s, visiting Austria after the repression of the 1934 workers' uprising there and going to Spain during the first year of that country's Civil War.

Although her work throughout the 1930s was grounded in sympathy for the working class and Marxist ideals, she nonetheless found herself at odds with Marxist literary critics. In a notable exchange with Georg Lukács, Seghers agreed that literature was a political weapon. Nonetheless, she expressed her objections to rules that restricted literary technique to a sterile realism. Throughout much of her career, Seghers was to arouse the concerns of more orthodox Marxists by her interest in individual psychology and her failure to present simple, heroic characters who could symbolize Communist revolution and the construction of a Marxist society.

Two of her most highly regarded works of literature came out of the tumultuous atmosphere of Europe in the 1930s. Between 1938 and 1940, she wrote her most famous novel, The Seventh Cross. First published in an English translation in 1942, it was set in her native Rhineland and recounted the fate of seven escapees from a Nazi concentration camp. Without direct experience of life in Nazi Germany, Seghers drew on the stories painted for her by fellow refugees. By showing how one fugitive was ultimately able to evade recapture, Seghers

presented a panoramic picture of German society under Nazism.

A basic theme of the novel was the transitory nature of Nazism and the inevitable future triumph of the healthy proletarian elements in German life. Critics have noted the Christian symbolism of the crosses on which the recaptured escapees were hung to die in this work by a committed Communist. Some of the critical acclaim for the book derives from its picture of Georg Heisler, the fugitive whose successful escape symbolized the futility of Hitler's dictatorship. He is a flawed and complex figure. By contrast, Ernst Wallau, the model Communist in the book, who is recaptured and murdered by the Nazi authorities at the concentration camp, appears only as a secondary character. The book was acclaimed by critics and became the basis for a memorable U.S. film starring Spencer Tracy as Heisler.

In 1940, Seghers and her family fled the German invasion of France. With her husband in an internment camp, she and her children tried unsuccessfully to escape from Paris for the safety of the south, but they were overtaken by the invaders and forced to return for a stay in Paris under German occupation. They reached unoccupied France several months later. While in Paris, she took the daring step of speaking to young soldiers in the army of occupation to understand their feelings as Germans serving a Nazi government.

The entire family managed to secure passage out of Europe. By a circuitous route through the islands of the Caribbean and the United States, Seghers, her husband, and their children made their way to Mexico in 1941. She recalled the grueling experience while writing a friend, "I feel as though I had been dead for a year." The four of them spent the next six years in Mexico.

The novel Transit (1948) was a work that came directly out of Seghers' personal experiences in making this perilous passage. It considers, in a manner that critics have compared with Franz Kafka's The Trial and The Castle, the psychological pain of desperate individuals confronting an uncaring bureaucracy. Like The Seventh Cross and its Christian symbolism, Transit's evocation of existential despair takes Seghers far from the narrow pattern followed by many of her fellow Marxist writers. Critic Martin Kane has suggested that her unwavering Marxist commitment throughout the 1930s may have crumbled temporarily in the face of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 and the unbroken string of political and military successes Germany's Nazi government was achieving.

The exiled author received a stream of tragic news while in Mexico. Her mother died in a Nazi concentration camp; her native city of Mainz was badly damaged by Allied bombing. She herself was almost fatally injured when an automobile struck her in Mexico City. Nonetheless, her literary and political energies continued to express themselves. She wrote a highly regarded novella, The Excursion of the Dead Girls, during 1943 and 1944 that was set in her native Mainz, again containing autobiographical elements. Told from the perspective of a narrator in Mexico, it recounts the diverse fates of a group of German schoolgirls and their teacher as some of them become Nazis and others the victims of the Nazis in later life.

Anna Seghers and her husband returned to Germany in April 1947. She was, as one critic has written, one of a group of returning writers and artists who were "convinced that their work would have a vital role to play in the creation of a new socialist society." Her most respected novel, The Seventh Cross, was published in German in East Berlin, and she enjoyed a period of acclaim in both the Communist and non-Communist zones of Germany. She also received the prestigious West German literary Büchner prize in Darmstadt. In short order, however, her commitment to the creation of a Communist state in the Soviet zone of occupation and her open criticism of West Germany's rearmament and orientation toward the United States tied her future life and work to East Germany.

Critic Kane has described her literary career from the late 1940s to the close of the 1960s as one dominated by "unswerving commitment" to the East German state, a "taking up of cudgels on behalf of the new society in the making." In this endeavor, she seemingly followed the maxim that public misgivings about the difficulties of building a Communist society would provide ammunition to anti-Communist forces which she had spent her career opposing. As her biographer Lowell Bangerter put it, the price she paid was to sacrifice "the humanism that informs her best early narratives."

Her first major work published in East Germany was another panoramic study of German life. She had begun to write The Dead Stay Young while in Mexico. This was the first of a trilogy of novels containing an examination of Germany from the close of World War I to the 1950s. In it, she used individual characters to personify the deep political divisions and conflicts.

In 1959, she published the second volume, The Decision, which became the object of intense criticism in West Germany and which stands as the most controversial of her writings. An influential West German review of the book accused her of "intellectual capitulation." Containing 80 main characters, it contrasts life in East and West Germany as the two societies grew apart in the years from 1947 to 1953. Her characters are presented as representatives of their social classes, and the book's educational purpose is to show the differences between East and West in a way that stresses the moral and political superiority of the Communist part of Germany. English critic Peter Hutchinson saw it as a typical product of East German didactic literature: Seghers made her characters crude representative figures drawn from East and West German society, and she constantly interjected her voice as author into the narrative to make sure readers drew the proper conclusions from the story.

As head of the Writers' Union and as one of East Germany's most famous authors, Seghers was the object of sharp criticism in West Germany for her excessive devotion to a brutal political regime. In a noted example, she decided to remain silent while one of her publishers, Walter Janka, was tried in 1957 and sentenced to five years in prison on a trumped-up charge of conspiring against the East German state. Similarly, when West German writers called upon her to condemn the building of the wall separating East and West Berlin in 1961, she gave no reply. By 1962, a proposal to publish The Seventh Cross for the first time in West Germany aroused protests in the literary community there.

Seghers' direct statements on political issues pointed in the same direction. As she said in the early 1970s, one must give up smaller freedoms in order to reach a larger freedom. Overall, she personified the committed literary figure who sees herself as a teacher helping to create a new society. Bangerter has described her literary goal by noting: "Seghers compels the reader to choose between the evils of the past and the optimistic promises of a specific kind of future." Other Western literary critics have noted how her work is characterized by the personification of virtue in East Germany and its citizens and the personification of evil and aggression in West Germany.

Her novel Trust, published in 1968, was a continuation of the historical depiction of the split in West and East Germany. It has been criticized for being even more didactic than The Decision and displaying her complete surrender to the requirements of socialist realism. It deals with such controversial issues as the accusations that Jewish doctors in the Kremlin tried to poison Communist leaders in 1952 and the East German workers' revolt of 1953. Even though the book points up the insensitivity of the political system, Seghers nonetheless calls on the individual citizen to endure it in the interest of building a Communist society. By the late 1960s, some East German writers had moved beyond the stilted techniques the book employs, but Seghers continued to write in a style that had been established 20 years earlier.

Within this picture of a politically committed artist, there were some hints of a writer chafing under excessive political control. In early 1956 at the East German Fourth Writers' Congress, for example, she joined with a number of her colleagues in criticizing the supervision political authorities exercised over their work. Moreover, her work was sometimes criticized in East Germany as insufficiently orthodox in both its techniques and themes.

By the early 1970s, as relations between the two Germanies improved, there was public discussion in West Germany of honoring her as a distinguished citizen of Mainz, her birthplace. Protests deferred the awarding of the honor at that time, but she received an honorary degree from the University of Mainz in 1977. In 1981, Seghers received the accolade of being named a distinguished citizen of her home city in the Rhineland.

The changing political climate of the 1970s may have encouraged her to widen her literary scope. She was by this time a conservative luminary on the East German cultural scene with other writers moving ahead far more rapidly in using novel techniques. In the novella Crossing, she introduced the theme of a love story, an element that had been conspicuously missing from her earlier writing. Two years later in the short story "Encounter While Travelling" (1972), she produced an uncharacteristically romantic work picturing a fictional meeting of three great literary figures: Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and E.T.A. Hoffmann. Other works produced at this time took up the techniques of science fiction. In 1977, after a tenure of 25 years, she gave up her position as head of the Writers' Congress.

Anna Seghers died of unspecified causes in Berlin on June 1, 1983. Controversy over her political positions and her literary work continues. The memoirs of Walter Janka, which were published in 1989, reopened the question of her willingness to subordinate all to the needs of the East German state. On the other hand, recent gatherings of scholars in reunified Germany have led to a reexamination of her political views and her literary orthodoxy. Some of her newly discovered, unpublished work reflects a critical view of government actions in East Germany in the 1950s. New views of her published writing have led some critics to emphasize her use of devices like a Latin American setting as a shield against the political pressures of Communist orthodoxy. Thus they suggest that the position she expressed in her debate with Lukács in the late 1930s on the autonomy of literature can be found as an influence on her writing even in the period after 1949.


Bangerter, Lowell A. The Bourgeois Proletarian; A Study of Anna Seghers. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1980.

Hutchinson, Peter. Literary Presentations of Divided Germany: The Development of a Central Theme in East German Fiction, 1945–1970. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Kane, Martin, ed. Socialism and the Literary Imagination: Essays on East German Writers. NY: Berg, 1991.

suggested reading:

Demetz, Peter. After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies, Austria, and Switzerland. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

LaBahn, Kathleen J. Anna Segher's Exile Literature: The Mexican Years (1941–1947). NY: Peter Lang, 1986.

Reid, J.H. Writing Without Taboos: The New East German Literature. NY: Berg, 1990.

Williams, Rhys W., Stephen Parker, and Colin Riordan, eds. German Writers and the Cold War, 1945–1961. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1992.

related media:

The Revolt of the Fishermen, filmed in Moscow by Erwin Piscator, 1934.

The Seventh Cross (film), starring Spencer Tracy, Signe Hasso, Jessica Tandy , Hume Cronyn, and Agnes Moorehead , directed by Fred Zinnemann, with a screenplay by Helen Deutsch and costumes by Irene , MGM, 1944.

Neil Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California