[This page by Douglas Irving]
Anna Seghers (1900-1983)
Anna Seghers is one of Germany’s most important and influential writers whose life’s work spanned, and to an extent chronicled, the greater part of the 20th century. Her writing is simple and clear but contains poetic moments reminiscent of the powerful illuminations in Rembrandt’s paintings which Seghers studied as an art student. Seghers’s writing is highly politicised but simultaneously highly aesthetic and innovative, influenced and imbued by the many myths, legends and fairytales she read as a child. While Seghers uses the German language richly, her sometimes brittle writing demands attention and effort from the reader, bringing great rewards.
Seghers was born in 1900, under the name Netty Reiling, to well-to-do Jewish parents in Mainz on the river Rhine, an area she would often reference in her writing. Her committed socialist-communist, anti-fascist standpoint has its roots in her years spent studying history of art, sinology and history in Heidelberg, where she left behind bourgeois roots and became committed to proletarian ideals, in a meeting of minds with many Eastern European intellectuals and Marxist thinkers, amongst them the Hungarian economist, László Radványi, whom Seghers married in 1925. He would be her life-long partner, and closest advisor.
Anna Seghers’s first widely-lauded literary success came in 1928 when she was awarded the prestigious Kleist prize for her story Der Aufstand der Fischer von Santa Barbara; The Revolt of the Fishermen of Santa Barbara, cementing her status as a revolutionary writer in the last years of the Weimar Republic.
Seghers was a founding member of the Organisation of Proletarian Writers, formed in Berlin in 1928, with a mandate to change readers through their writing. She joined the Communist party, rejected her religious Jewish beliefs, and joined a circle of secular, Marxist Jews with a socially critical, internationalist standpoint.
Writing for Seghers was work, as important as any other task carried out by the proletariat, her goal being to capture and represent reality as a lived experience, in order that through this representation the reader may change. Characteristic of her writing is its realism and attention to detail, nowhere more so than in Transit (1944), in which she writes from first-hand experience of the intricacies, complexities and absurdities of bureaucracy for those escaping Nazi Germany.
Her other famous novel of this period, Das siebte Kreuz; The Seventh Cross, is considered one of the greatest works of exile literature, completed in Paris in 1939 and first published in 1942. The 1942 English translation quickly became a bestseller before going on to be filmed by Hollywood. Once again Seghers uses her personal experiences and encounters to portray the rise of National Socialism and its effect on the German people.
Blacklisted in 1933 when Hitler came to power, on the triple count of being Jewish, a communist and a revolutionary writer, Seghers first went into exile in France, where she was a key figure in the wider network of exiled anti-fascist German writers and thinkers – which included Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin – giving lectures to the international writers’ congress; as a highly-regarded female writer and literary thinker she would often take the stage next to famous male writers such as Thomas Mann, and became a close friend and collaborator to Pablo Neruda, and in particular Jorge Amado.
From Marseille, she and her family finally found passage aboard a ship across the Atlantic, eventually reaching Mexico where they would remain until 1947. For Anna Seghers, exile proved a prolific ground for literary creation, allowing her to produce some of her most acclaimed work (aforementioned), motivated by deep concern over events unfolding in her home country. With her gaze firmly focussed upon Germany, Seghers wrote one of her finest novellas, the autobiographical Der Ausflug der Toten Mädchen; The Dead Girls’ Outing in 1943-44.
Seghers’s writing career can be divided into two halves, the second coniciding with her return to Germany in 1947 (being awarded the Georg Büchner prize in recognition of her services to German literature, reflecting her many writerly achievements while in exile) and subsequent settling in, and commitment to the building of, the German Democratic Republic.
In East Berlin Seghers was required to write according to state guidelines pertaining to socialist realism. Although Seghers shared other GDR writers’ frustrations with the government, her commitment to a socialist utopian ideal and ultimately her loyalty to her state remained steadfast, leading some critics, in particular those from the west, to suggest she compromised her art for the sake of this loyalty. It is also the case that Seghers was forced to make personal sacrifices for the regime, as staying in the GDR meant for instance being unable to visit her son and grandchildren in Paris.
Undoubtedly, Seghers’s work is imbued with socialist ideals, but it has to be remembered that the author, along with so many, had lived through life-threatening experiences. Her commitment to socialism was first and foremost motivated by her opposition to fascism and, after 1945, by the concern that fascism could be allowed to rise again.
Reading Anna Seghers’s works nowadays is a powerful experience for readers unfamiliar with the times Seghers lived through. Her intense interest and preoccupation with the individual and their struggle to find their place in society resonates deeply on a human level today. Her protagonists are always only ever ordinary, even down-trodden people. It is also fascinating to see how Seghers, during her GDR period, strives to balance the requirement to adhere to a socialist realist literary dogma whilst at the same time creating works of genuine literary achievement, both in terms of style, form and subject matter.
Seghers’s support of authorial innovation led her to enage in life-long debate with those who advocated a dogmatic approach to socialist realism, in particular and most famously with Georg Lukács. Not only did she herself innovate, she was a public supporter of other emerging writers whom she shrewdly defended for their bold, brave and experimental approach. She thus became a mentor for the second generation of German writers, in particular Christa Wolf, for whom she was an inspirational figure – as writer, woman and mother. Their close, complex relationship is worthy of closer study.
Seghers was welcomed back with open arms by the GDR government. She became a literary figurehead both at home and abroad, as president of the GDR Writers’ union, from 1952 to 1978. During this time she undertook an ambitious and exhausting project to write a trilogy of novels charting the emergence and rise of a German socialist society: Der Toten Bleiben Jung; The Dead Stay Young (1949), Die Entscheidung; The Decision (1959), and Das Vertrauen; Trust (1968)). Apart from the first book, which was translated into English in 1950, this energy-sapping endeavour did not meet with universal critical acclaim, and it seems apparent that after completing this epic project, more and more of Seghers’s time and attention turned to the part of the world that had afforded her refuge from fascism, namely Latin America. Many of her later works are concerned with that continent. In the late forties she had published two novellas set in the Caribbean: Wiedereinführung der Sklaverei in Guadeloupe; Reintroduction of Slavery in Guadeloupe (1948) and Die Hochzeit von Haiti; The Wedding in Haiti (1949). These were partly written in response to Kleist’s Die Verlobung in St Domingo; The Betrothal in St. Domingo (1811). This trilogy was completed in 1962 with the further publication of Das Light aus den Galgen; The Light on the Gallows. In all three stories Seghers dwells on themes of slavery, colonialism and revolution, to which she returns in her final work published in her lifetime, Drei Frauen aus Haiti; Three Women from Haiti (1980).
In her later period Seghers remained highly productive despite recurring health issues, and continued to demonstrate her mastery of the novella and short story form. From this period, Das Wirkliche Blau; Benito’s Blue and Nine other Stories (1967) deserves attention; Überfahrt. Eine Liebesgeschichte; Crossing: A Love Story (1971), set aboard a cargo ship returning from Brazil to the GDR, has been noted for its skillful narrative structure; Steinzeit; Stone Age (1975/77), set in the Colombian jungle, deals with the psychological breakdown of a Vietnam veteran; and Drei Frauen aus Haiti; Three Women from Haiti (1980), a collection of three short, interconnected stories which highlight Seghers’s minimalist, spare writing style. All these illustrate Seghers’s struggle to simultaneously promote socialist ideas whilst maintaining artistic integrity and promoting innovation, being required to ‘speak with a closed mouth’.
In 1978 she was finally granted release from her duties as president of the GDR writers’ union and became its honorary president. By now in declining physical health, her husband also died in this year. Anna Seghers died on 1 June 1983 in Berlin, where she is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery.
Seghers’s sometimes polemical representation of women throughout her career is of great interest and represents an important contribution to 1970s German Frauenliteratur (Women’s Literature). As ‘a woman novelist depicting an essentially masculine world’, she concentrates primarily on the psychological aspects of the male psyche in her main protagonists. Of particular interest, therefore, for their portrayal of women protagonists are several stories within the collection Die Kraft der Schwachen; The Power of the Weak (1965); as well as Crisanta (1951); Wiederbegegnung; Re-encounter (1977); and the aforementioned Drei Frauen aus Haiti (1980).
Seghers is a compelling, somewhat enigmatic literary figure, whose lifelong political enagement informs her writing, without subsuming its poetic quality. Whilst fulfilling her public role as literary figurehead and spokesperson for writers in the GDR for over two decades, she remained a private person. It is perhaps in her prose writing that Seghers reveals most about her own personal experiences, ideas, ideals and goals, which was why she encouraged readers to read her work ‘attentively’. For this reason it is important that more of her work should be made available in English translation for attentive readers.
Works by Anna Seghers:
Die Legende von der Reue des Bischofs Jehan d’ Aigremont von St. Anne in Rouen; The Legend of Bishop Jehan d’ Aigremont of St. Anne in Rouen’s Remorse (1924), short story
Die Toten auf der Insel Djal. Eine Sage aus dem Holländischen; The Dead on the Island of Djal. A Dutch Legend (1924), short story
Jans muß Sterben; Jans Must Die (1925, published 2000), short story
Grubetsch; Grubetsch (1927), short story
Aufstand der Fischer von St. Barbara; The Revolt of the Fishermen of St. Barbara (1928) – Margret Goldsmith, trans. The Revolt of the Fishermen (London: Matthews and Marrot, 1929), novella
Auf dem Wege zur amerikanischen Botschaft und andere Erzählungen; On the way to the American Embassay and Other Stories (1930)
Der Führerschein; The Driving Licence (1932), short story
Die Gefährtin; The Companions (1932), novel
Der Kopflohn. Roman aus einem deutschen Dorf im Spätsommer 1932; A Price on his Head: A Novel from a German Village in Late Summer, 1932 (1933) – Eva Wulf, trans. A Price on his Head. Two Novelettes (Berlin: Seven Seas, 1960)
Der Weg durch den Februar; The Way Through February (1935)
Die Rettung; The Rescue (1937)
Der Prozeß der Jeanne d’Arc zu Rouen 1431; The Trial of Joan of Arc in Rouen in 1431 (1937), radio play
Die Schönsten Sagen vom Räuber Woynok; The Finest Legends of Robber Woynok (1938)
Sagen von Artemis; Legends of Artemis (1938)
Das Obdach; The Shelter (1941)
Das Siebte Kreuz; The Seventh Cross (1942) – James A. Galston, trans. The Seventh Cross (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1942; reprinted 1987), novel. First published in German in Mexico by a Mexican publisher who didn’t have the German letters on their typewriter (!)
Post ins Gelobte Land; Post to the Promised Land (1945)
Das Ende; The End (1945)
Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen; The Dead Girls’ Outing (1946), novella – Elizabeth R. Hermann and Edna H. Spitz, trans., ‘The Excursion of the Dead Girls’, German Writers of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Elizabeth Hermann and Edna Spitz (New York: Pergamon, 1978)
Die Saboteure; the Saboteurs (1946) – Minna E. Lieber, trans., ‘The Saboteurs’ in Mainstream 2 (1947), pp. 261-304
Transit (1948) – first German-language edition
Wiedereinführung der Sklaverei in Guadeloupe; Reintroduction of Slavery in Guadeloupe (1948), novella
Die Hochzeit von Haiti; The Wedding in Haiti (1949), novella
Die Toten Bleiben Jung; The Dead Stay Young (1949)
Die Entscheidung; The Decision (1959)
Das Licht auf den Galgen. Eine karibische Geschichte aus der Zeit der Französischen Revolution; The Light on the Gallows: A Caribbean Story from the Time of the French Revolution (1960)
Die Kraft der Schwachen. Neun Erzählungen; The Power of the Weak: Nine Stories (1965) – Joan Becker, trans., Benito’s Blue and Nine Other Stories (Berlin: Seven Seas Publishing, 1973)
Das Wirkliche Blau. Eine Geschichte aus Mexiko; The Real Blue: A Mexican Story (1967) – Joan Becker, trans., Benito’s Blue and Nine Other Stories (Berlin: Seven Seas Publishing, 1973)
Das Vertrauen; Trust (1968)
Überfahrt. Eine Liebesgeschichte; Crossing: A Love Story (1971), novella – Douglas Irving, unpublished translation (2014); published extract in: Exchanges: A Journal of Literary Translation, Winter 2015
Sonderbare Begegnungen; Unusual Encounters (1973)
Steinzeit; Stone Age (1975), novella – Douglas Irving, unpublished translation (2014)
Wiederbegegnung; Re-encounter (1977), novella
Drei Frauen aus Haiti; Three Women from Haiti (1980) - Anna Seghers, Three Women from Haiti, translated by Douglas Irving (New Orleans: Dialogos, 2019)
Der gerechte Richter; The Fair Judge (1956-64; published 1990)
There are myriad other short stories (over 60 in total), as well as her essays on art, politics, society, literature, and the correspondence.
Other English translations
David Fernbach, trans., ‘A Correspondence with Anna Seghers [1938/9]’, in George Lukács, Essays on Realism (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1980), pp. 167-97
Minna E. Lieber, trans., ‘The Task of Art’, in New Masses, 19 Dec 1949
Further Reading in English
R. C. Andrews, ‘An East German Novelist: Anna Seghers’, German Life and Letters 8:2, (1955), 121-29
Lowell A. Bangerter, The Bourgeois Proletarian: A Study of Anna Seghers (Bonn: Bouvier, 1980)
Lowell A. Bangerter, ‘Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf’, The Germanic Review 68:3 (1993), 127-32
Helen Fehervary, Anna Seghers: The Mythic Dimension (Michigan: Ann Arbor, 2001)
Helen Fehervary, Christiane Zehl Romero and Amy Kepple Strawser (eds.), Anna Seghers: The Challenge of History, German Monitor Volume 80 (Leiden: Brill, 2019)
Julia Hell, Post-Fascist Fantasies: Psychoanalysis, History and the Literature of East Germany (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 64-102: ‘Stalinist Motherhood, or the Hollow Spaces of Emotion: Netty Reiling / Anna Seghers’
Carolyn R. Hodges, ‘The Power of the Oppressed: The Evolution of the Black Character in Anna Seghers’ Caribbean Fiction’, Studies in GDR Culture and Society, ed. by Margy Gerber (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), pp. 185-98
Marike Janzen, Writing to Change the World: Anna Seghers, Authorship, and International Solidarity in the Twentieth Century (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018)
Walter Jens, ‘Laudiato for Anna Seghers’, in Socialism and the Literary Imagination: Essays on East German Writers, ed. by Martin Kane (Providence: Berg, 1991), Chapter 2, pp. 21-28
Martin Kane, ‘Visions for a New Society: Anna Seghers in the GDR’, in Socialism and the Literary Imagination: Essays on East German Writers, ed. by Martin Kane (Providence: Berg, 1991), Chapter 3, pp. 29-40
Sima Kappeler, ‘Historical Visions: Anna Seghers on the Revolution in Haiti’, in Insiders and Outsiders: Jewish and Gentile Culture in Germany and Austria, ed. by Dagmar C. G. Lorenz and Gabriele Weinberger (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), pp. 66-72
Birgit Maier-Katkin, Silence and Acts of Memory: A Postwar Discourse on Literature, History, Anna Seghers, and Women in the Third Reich (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2007)
Laurel Plapp, Zionism and Revolution in European-Jewish Literature (New York: Routledge, 2008), Chapter 3: ‘Le Parfum des Antilles: The Caribbean Revolutions in the Works of Anna Seghers and André Schwarz-Bart’
Cettina Rapisarda, ‘Women and Peace in Literature and Politics. The Example of Anna Seghers’, in German Writers and the Cold War 1945-61, ed. by Rhys W. Williams (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 159-79
Arlene A. Teraoka, East, West, and Others: The Third World in Postwar German Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), Chapter 1: ‘Race, Revolution and Writing: Caribbean Texts by Anna Seghers’, pp. 7-26
Jürgen Thomaneck, ‘Anna Seghers and the Janka Trial: A Case Study in Intellectual Obfuscation’, German Life and Letters 46:2 (1993), 156-61
J.K.A. Thomaneck, ‘Anna Seghers’, in The Writer and Society in the GDR, ed. by Ian Wallace (Tayport: Hutton Press Ltd., 1984), pp. 67-82
Ian Wallace (ed.), Anna Seghers in Perspective (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998)
Jennifer Marston William, Killing Time: Waiting Hierarchies in the Twentieth-Century German Novel (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2010), Chapter 3 on Seghers, Transit, pp. 96-121
Christa Wolf, ‘Faith in the Terrestrial’, in Wolf, The Reader and the Writer: Essays, Sketches, Memories, trans. by Joan Becker (Berlin: Seven Seas Publishing, 1977), pp. 111-37
Christiane Zehl Romero, ‘Remembrance of Things Future’, in Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays, ed. by Marilyn Sibley Fries (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989)
Web Links in English
Christiane Zehl Romero: a short English-language biography of Anna Seghers
Katharina Gerstenberger review of Birgit Maier-Katkin, Silence and Acts of Memory (2007); focuses on The Seventh Cross and The Outing of the Dead Girls
Useful information about English translations of Seghers’s work pre-1950
Further Reading in German
Anna Seghers, Ausgewählte Erzählungen, ed. by Christa Wolf, with an afterword, (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1984)
Anna Seghers, Glauben an Irdisches: Essays aus vier Jahrzehnten, ed. and afterword by Christa Wolf (Leipzig: Reclam, 1969)
J.K.A. Thomaneck, ‘DDR-Literatur in englischer Übersetzung. Seghers und Bobrowski’, Zeitschrift für Germanistik 83:3 (1983), 382-88
Frank Wagner et al. (eds.), Anna Seghers: Eine Biographie in Bildern (Berlin: Aufbau, 1994)
Christiane Zehl Romero, Anna Seghers. Eine Biographie 1900-1947 (Berlin: Aufbau, 2000)
Christiane Zehl Romero, Anna Seghers. Eine Biographie 1947-1983 (Berlin: Aufbau, 2003)
Web Links in German
Website of the Anna Seghers Society, dedicated to preserving and promoting an interest in Seghers’s life and work
Anna Seghers page at the University of Potsdam