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Anna Seghers (1900-1983) - original name Netty Radványi, née Reiling

 

German novelist, essayist, short story writer who is best remembered for her novels about the persecution of Jews and other groups in Nazi Germany. She gained international fame with The Seventh Cross (1942) and Transit (1944), story about the fate of a group of German refugees in southern France. Seghers's major themes were social injustice and political upheavals of modern age. Her pseudonym was taken from the Dutch painter and etcher Hercules Seghers (1589/90-1638), whose fantastic landscape graphics she admired while studying in Heidelberg. Seghers wrote her most significant books while in exile.

"Im Gefangenenlager, in der Schule hatte Lohmer gelernt, wir die Geschichte der Menschen geworden ist und die neue Gesellschaft, in der er jetzt lebt. Er hatte gelernt, warum die Sowjetunion die ist, die sie ist. All die Lügen, die Hitler ihnen eingebleubt hatte, waren dort von ihm abgefallen. Er war gesund und frei geworden, stark und klar." (from Der Mann und sein Name, 1952)

Anna Seghers (pseudonym of Netty Radványi) was born in Mainz into a cultured Jewish family. Influenced by her father, an antique dealer and art expert, she exhibited an early interest in art. Seghers studied at the University of Heidelberg, and wrote her doctoral thesis on ASPECTS OF JEWS AND JEWISHNESS IN THE WORK OF REMBRANDT. While still a student, Seghers joined a group of left-wing intellectuals. In 1925 she married the Hungarian writer and sociologist Lászlo Radványi.

In 1928 Seghers joined the Communist Party and the Union of Proletarian and Revolutionary Writers, which marked the final break with her bourgeois origins. Under the chairmanship of Johannes R. Becher, the organization of communist writers was developed as a political and social weapon. In the same year she made her debut as writer with the novella DER AUFSTAND DER FISCHER VON ST. BARBARA (The Revolt of the Fishermen), a story which tells of the spontaneous insurrection of Breton fishermen against a monopoly. Seghers's view was realistic without making the subject polemic, but she did not have much personal experiences about hard work or fishing. She paid much attention to details, reflecting in this the ideas of Neue Sachlichkeit (new factualism). In this story Seghers formed her key themes - that people must cooperate to fight oppression and rebellion gives meaning to one's life, even in death. The book gained public acclaim and was awarded the Kleist-Preis. The Revolt of the Fishermen was filmed in Russia by German radical theatre director Erwin Piscator (1893-1966).

In 1930 Seghers published a collection of short stories about poverty-stricken workers, AUF DEM WEGE ZUR AMERIKANIOSCHEN BOTSCHAFT, UND ANDERE ERZÄHLUNGEN, which showed her interest from Dostoevsky to the ninetieth century revolutionary dramatist Georg Büchner. Releasing the revolutionary energy was central theme in DIE GEFÄHRTEN (1932) and DER WEG DURCH DEN FEBRUARY (1934) - the latter dealt with the Engelbert Dollfuss uprising in Austria in 1934. Dollfuss, a World War I hero and politician, was assassinated by Austrian Nazis during their attempt at a coup d'etat. Seghers made much research work for the background of her novels. She seldom wrote about her own life. In Paris she often sat in her favorite cafe, absorbed in her writing - a sign for her friends not to bother her.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Seghers's writings were prohibited and she was briefly arrested. She fled to France in 1933 with his faily, joining the other German exiles. In 1934 she went to Vienna and during the civil war she was in Spain. She lived in Paris until the invasion of Northern France in 1940, whereupon she made her way to Marseilles, and eventually settled in 1941 in Mexico. She also spent two weeks in Santo Domingo. There she wrote her most famous work, DAS SIEBTE KREUZ (1942, The Seventh Cross). She had never been in a concentration camp but she interviewed refuges and collected their experiences in her book. Hunted by Gestapo in Paris, Seghers destroyed the manuscript of The Seventh Cross. She had, however, send a copy to her friend in the Unites States. There the work was a huge success.

The Seventh Cross was made into a successful Hollywood film, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Spencer Tracy. The story depicted seven Germans, who escape from a concentration camp, and are pursued by the Gestapo. Nazis set up in the camp seven crosses to wait for the refuges. Four of them are captured, the fifth dies naturally when he is reaching his native region, the sixth loses his hope and returns to the camp, but the seventh cross remains empty. In the film Fred Zinnemann made a strong statement about a cynic who regains hope when others risk their lives to save him. In the book Seghers used firsthand knowledge and eyewitness reports of Nazi terror, and bundled together the parallel threads of plot to create a novel of many facets.

Seghers firmly believed that as a writer she could advocate the cause of the proletariat, but she became disillusioned when the German workers did not stop the Nazi takeover. In 1942 she heard that her mother had perished in a concentration camp. After World War II Seghers returned to East-Berlin. In 1946 appeared DER AUSFLUG DER TOTEN MÄDCHEN, which draw material from her youth as her later work DIE ÜBERFAHRTS (1971). DIE TOTEN BLEIBEN JUNG (1949, The Dead Stay Young) portayed martyred communists in a world of reactionaries and good revolutionaries. 'Sagen von Unirdischen', from the volume SONDERBARE BEGEGNIÚNGEN (1972) was a science fiction story, and the novella STEINZEIT (1975) was about the psychological and physical delf-destruction of an American Vietnam veteran. DIE HOCHZEIT VON HAITI (1949), DAS LICHT AUF DEM GALGEN (1961), and KARIBISCHE GESCHICTEN, (1962) were set in the Caribbean. For these works she studied its history and became interested in the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the black governor of Santo Domingo during the times of the French Revolution. Das Licht auf dem Galgen inspired Heiner Müller's play Der Auftrag in the 1970s. Seghers returned again in the Caribbean in DREI FRAUEN AUD HAITI (1980). Usually her protagonists were men, but in this work they were women.

Seghers participated actively in the cultural and political development of the new socialist state. However, Brecht noted in 1947 that Seghers looked distressed and in a letter to Georg Lukács she complained that she felt like she was in the middle of a glacial period. Perhaps reflecting her mixed emotions, Seghers depicted in a short story from 1957 (Der gerechte Richter) a veteran Communist, who is sentenced to prison, but who keeps his faith in Communism after his release.

Seghers was appointed vice-president of Kulturbundes zur demokratische Erneuerung Deutschland. and during the following decades she participated in numerous international conferences, representing DDR. From 1952 to 1978 she was the president of the writers' union. Seghers died in East-Berlin on June 1, 1983.

Seghers believed that justice and humanistic culture can be built only on the grounds of socialism and communism. In DDR Seghers devoted herself to developing a simpler, terser literary style in accordance with the canon of socialist realism. Feminist criticism has accused her of describing women in essentially subordinate position to male hero, who is seen as the primary agent for building a new socialist order. However, her stature has not been adequately recognized in the West after the fall of DDR. When Brecht was too distant character for the younger generation of women writers, Seghers became a "mother figure" for many. Her work inspired among others Christa Wolf . Seghers's silence in the late 1950s in the Stalinist trial of Walter Janka, the director of Aufbau publishing company, has shadowed her reputation among leftist intellectuals. This period of her life was examined by Walter Janka in Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit (1989).

For further reading: Anna Seghers, ed. by F. Wagner et al (1994); Anna Segers in Perspective, ed. by Ian Wallace (1994); Anna Seghers by C. Zehl Romero (1993); Anna Seghers im Exil by A. Stephan (1993); Anna Seghers by A. Schrade (1993); Anna Seghers by Ute Brandes (1992); Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit by Walter Janka (1989); Anna Seghers by Kurt Batt (1980); The bourgeois proletarian by L.A. Bangerter (1980); Zu Anna Seghers by Christa Wolf (Sinn und Form, Oktober 1980); Der Kurs auf die Realität by F. Wagner (1978); Anna Seghers by K. Sauer (1978); Ideologie und Mythos by E. Haas (1975); Anna Seghers, Ihr Leben und Werk by H. Neugebauer (1970); - other studies by W. Buthge (1982); C. Degemann (1985); K.J. LaBahn (1985) - See also: Anne Fried

SELECTED WORKS:

  • DER AUFSTAND DER FISCHER VON ST. BARBARA, 1928 - The Revolt of the Fishermen - St. Barbaran kalastajien kapina - film Vostaniye rybakov / The Revolt of the Fishermen in 1934 by Erwin Piscator, starring Alexej Dikij, Emma Zesarskaja, Sergei Martinson, Dimitri Konsowski
  • AUF DEM WEGE ZUR AMERIKANISCHEN BOTSCHAFT, 1930
  • DIE GEFÄHRTEN, 1932
  • DER KOPFFLOHN, 1933 - A Price on His Head
  • DER WEG DURCH FEBRUAR, 1935
  • ERNST THAELMANN: WHAT HE STANDS FOR, 1935
  • DIE RETTUNG, 1937
  • DAS SIEBTE KREUZ, 1942 - The Seventh Cross - film in 1957, dir. by Fred Zinnemann, starring Spencer Tracy, Signe Hasso, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Agnes Moorehead - Seitsemäs risti (suom. Elvi Sinervo)
  • VISADO DE TRÁNSITO, 1944 - Transit Visa
  • DER AUSFLUG DER TOTEN MÄDCHEN, 1946
  • DAS ENDE, 1948
  • SOWJETMENSCHEN, 1948
  • DIE TOTEN BLEIBEN JUNG, 1949 - The Dead Stay Young - Kuolleet pysyvät nuorina
  • DIE HOCHZEIT VON HAITI, 1949
  • DIE RÜCKKEHR, 1949
  • DIE LINIE, 1950
  • CRISANTA, 1950
  • FRIEDENSGESCHICHTEN, 1950
  • DIE KINDER, 1951
  • DER MAN UND SEIN NAME, 1952
  • DER ERSTE SCHRITT, 1953
  • FRIEDEN DER WELT, 1953
  • DIE BIENENSTOCK, 1953
  • BROT UND SALZ, 1958
  • DIE ENTSCHEIDUNG, 1959
  • DAS LICHT AUF DEM GALGEN, 1961
  • KARIBISCHE GESCHICTEN, 1962
  • ÜBER TOLSTOI - ÜBER DOSTOJEWSKIJ, 1963
  • DAS NEUE UND DAS BLEIBENDE, 1964
  • ERZÄHLUNGEN, 1964
  • DIE KRAFT DER SCHWACHEN, 1965
  • GESCHICHTEN VON HEUTE UND GESTERN, 1966
  • DAS WIRKLICHE BLAU, 1967
  • DAS VERTRAUEN, 1968
  • GLAUBEN AN IRDISCHES, 1969
  • BRIEFE AN LESER, 1970
  • ÜBER KUNSTWERK UND WIRKLICHKEIT, 1970-79 (4 vols.)
  • ÜBERFAHRT, 1971
  • Benito's Blue and Nine Other Stories, 1973
  • SONDERBARE BEGEGNUNGEN, 1973
  • WILLKOMMEN, ZUKUFT!, 1975
  • STEINZEIT, WIEDERBEGEGNUNG, 1977
  • DAS ARGONAUTENSCHIFF, 1978
  • DIE MACHT DER WORTE, 1979
  • DREI FRAUEN AUS HAITI, 1980
  • GESAMMELTE WERKE, 1951-55, 1975-80
  • AUFSÄTZE, ANSPRACHEN, ESSAYS 1927-1953, 1954-1979, 1980 (2 vols.)
  • WAS EIN VOLK DENKT UND FÜHLT, SPRICHT SEIN SCHRIFTSTELLER AUS, 1982
  • GEWÖHNLICHES UND GEFÄHRLICHES LEBEN, 1986
  • DER GERECHTE RICHTER, 1990
  • DER LETZTE MAN DER HÖHLE, 1994


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