Das siebte Kreuz; The Seventh Cross

[This page by Douglas Irving]

Das Siebte Kreuz; The Seventh Cross (1942)

Considered a classic work of exile literature, The Seventh Cross (1942) was completed by Seghers in 1939 whilst still in France. It tells the story of the escape of seven prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp in the mid-1930s, when such camps were used for the detention, torture and often murder of political dissenters, before they became used for the mass extermination of Jews and other minorities during World War Two.

Seghers delivers a gripping adventure story whilst simultaneously detailing in depth the circumstances under which ordinary German citizens became caught up in Nazi ideology. She does not allow her committed communist, anti-fascist stance to interfere with a realistic, objective portrayal of the times.

The tense narrative reflects the urgency and precariousness of the situation under which it was written, Seghers herself in exile and uprooted, learning first-hand from witnesses of the conditions back home in Germany, even from camp-escapees who wished their story to be told.

The Seventh Cross became an international bestseller after first being made available in English translation in 1942, and then being made into a film by MGM in 1944, directed by Fred Zinnemann, and starring Spencer Tracy in the lead role. It was one of the few films of this period to deal with the existence of Nazi concentration camps. The Seventh Cross made Anna Seghers into an author of international renown.

Whilst there are tendential elements and a clear moral aspect to the story, these do not swamp the narrative, which is primarily a depiction of everyday rural life, albeit with the ever-present shadow of the concentration camp hanging over everything and everyone.

One striking aspect of Seghers’s balanced portrayal is the characterisation of Nazi concentration camp guards.

As with Transit, Seghers begins her narrative with enigmatic clues as to the story’s theme, and finishes with an ending that connects back to the start of her story. The main protagonist, Georg Heisler, in common with many other main protagonists in Seghers’s work, is not a straightforward heroic figure. Circumstances dictate he is a passive hero, more a heroic symbol of resistance, reliant upon the goodwill of others for his survival.

Through insightful psychological descriptions – which add to the tension of the narrative – Seghers effectively conveys the terrible dilemmas faced by ordinary people being forced to make political choices that will irrevocably affect their lives and those of their friends and family. Through her vivid, deeply human, non-judgmental portrayal of countless individual characters she explains the pressures experienced and choices faced by ordinary people under Nazism. She avoids black and white, good and bad representations; this is highlighted in her portrayal of the Nazi prison guards, providing an important, albeit truly shocking, anchor to the development of the narrative, as one by one the seven prisoners are either recaptured or killed and the action switches back to the concentration camp.

An important aspect of the story is the poetic beauty of the descriptions of the countryside around Seghers’s home town on Mainz on the river Rhine. Seghers was of course acutely aware of the threat to her homeland, and as an exile herself could not but help evoke her love of her homeland, its people and its language. It is a theme Seghers would return to throughout her career, (see for instance Crossing: A Love Story) namely a determination to reclaim Germany and the German language from Nazism, not as Vaterland but as Heimatland. At the same time, references to fascist activity in other European nations (for instance, the Spanish Civil War) remind us that Seghers’s view is an informed, international one, promoting the need for an anti-fascist stance on a global level. This is presented in The Seventh Cross in the form of an underground, hidden network of communist resistance, inspired to act to save one man.

Written before the full horrors of the Nazi regime unfolded in the Second World War, ‘the book she wrote was intended to rally all Germans to resistance through their feelings of human decency, sympathy and solidarity’ ( - Dorothy Rosenberg, Afterword to Seghers, The Seventh Cross, trans. by James A. Galston, New York, 1987). As it was, the book only became available to a German readership after the war, first being published in East Berlin in 1946, thus too late to have a chance of provoking the reaction Seghers intended. However it still regularly features as a set text on the German school curriculum, reflecting its continuing importance as an outstanding example of exile literature.

English Translation

Anna Seghers, The Seventh Cross, trans. by James A. Galston, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987)

‘Although written in excellent English, the translator changed the original considerably. Objecting to the author’s breaks with generic and stylistic conventions, he tried to make the text more logical and understandable. In doing so, he made invisible the author’s attempts to arrive at her own style of writing’ ( - Women writers in German-speaking countries: a bio-bibliographical critical sourcebook, ed. by Elke P. Frederiksen and Elizabeth G. Ametsbichler (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998), p. 225).

Further Reading in German

Sonja Hilzinger (ed.), Das Siebte Kreuz von Anna Seghers. Texte, Daten, Bilder (Frankfurt am Main: Luchterhand, 1990)