Das Treibhaus; The Hothouse
Das Treibhaus; The Hothouse (1953)
Das Treibhaus; The Hothouse is a probing political satire and a miniature modernist triumph. It is set in Bonn, the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), in the early 1950s. Its context is the rearmament of Germany under the government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (Chancellor from 1949-1963) of the CDU (Christliche Demokratische Union; Christian Democratic Union). The novel’s main protagonist is Keetenheuve, a leading member of the main opposition party, the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; Social Democratic Party of Germany). Keentenheuve, recently widowed, is no ordinary politician: he likes to translate foreign poetry (Baudelaire and E. E. Cummings) into German.
Keetenheuve is tormented by the horrors of war and is determined to oppose rearmament, but no one else in the West German political establishment seems to care. Speaking out against rearmament in the Bundestag (parliament) in Chapter Five, Keetenheuve reflects bitterly that most people prefer to watch football matches than parliamentary debates. Parliaments decide about matters of life and death; nobody’s life depends on a football match; and yet many people are bored by politics, and tremble with excitement at football (pp. 163-64).
Keetenheuve also reflects that the members of the older generation (especially politicians and generals) always sacrifice the younger generation. But when he meets Lena, a young refugee from East Germany, he does precisely that.
In Chapter One Keetenheuve takes the train to Bonn after having been to his wife Elke’s funeral. He had met Elke in 1945 when she was sixteen. Her father was a Nazi Gauleiter, and her parents had committed suicide with poison capsules. Keetenheuve blames himself for Elke’s death: he had neglected her and she had turned to drink and drugs.
In Chapter Two Keetenheuve arrives in Berlin and encounters his political opponent Korodin. He joins a tour of the Bundestag and he visits two journalists, Mergentheim and Dana.
In Chapter Three Keetenheuve goes to see Knurrewahn, his party chief and leader of the opposition (SPD). They meet with occupying allied generals. They agree to use the allied generals’ plan – to ratify the division of Germany – in order to embarrass the Chancellor in the Bundestag. Frost-Forestier offers Keetenheuve the consulate in Guatemala. Keetenheuve eats lunch in Bad Godesberg and has an imaginary conversation with Hitler and Stendhal. Then Keetenheuve visits the American High Commission.
In Chapter Four Keetenheuve attends a committee on housing. He considers the consulate in Guatemala but rejects it. After work he can’t bear going home so he goes to a cinema and several bars. In a bar he meets two Salvation Army women, Gerda and Lena. Meanwhile Frost-Forestier obtains a copy of the papers from Keetenheuve’s desk. Keetenheuve goes to a beauty contest and a disco, and then finally home.
In Chapter Five we see Keetenheuve and other MPs (members of parliament) wake up and head into parliament for the big vote on rearmament. Keetenheuve makes a speech against it but hardly anyone listens. The allied generals’ plan has already been published by Mergentheim; the Chancellor was forewarned in any case and has already received official denials from Paris and London. The vote is cast and Keetenheuve loses, as he knew he would. Keetenheuve drinks wine and meets up with Lena and Gerda. He has sex with Lena in a ruined building. He imagines the young soldiers of two world wars and their mothers; he sees squatting German eagles with bloodstained beaks. Then he throws himself off a bridge.
A film version of the novel, directed by Peter Goedel, was produced in 1987.
Wolfgang Koeppen, The Hothouse, trans. by Michael Hofmann (New York: Norton, 2002)
Treibhaus. Yearbook for Literature of the 1950s [in German]