Stefan Heym 1913-2001
Peter Hutchinson on the career of Germany's most fearless socialist critic of socialism
With the death of Stefan Heym, Germany has lost one of its most colourful, awkward, and versatile literary characters. On a Gestapo list as early as 1931, he left Germany shortly after witnessing the Reichstag fire in 1933. Heavily ironic, therefore, that when the Reichstag for a unified Germany was reopened in 1994, Heym should give the inaugural address. In the meanwhile files had been kept on him by the Czech Secret Police, the FBI, and the Stasi, the state security service, (possibly the largest in their archive), he had become the best known 'Unperson' of the Democratic Republic, and he had written numerous bestsellers as well as a large number of serious novels, short stories, and articles for newspapers. Reflecting in so many ways the politically tumultuous period through which he lived, Heym had the posthumous distinction of both Bundeskanzler, Chancellor and Bundespräsident, President attending his funeral.
Heym's complete literary works in German are available in a handsome set issued by Bertelsmann, but his death offers an opportunity to reconsider whether some of the earlier work should reappear in English. Heym had a peculiar linguistic situation: he fled from Nazi Germany to Czechoslovakia and then won an award to study in the USA; it was here that he was to learn English, edit a German-language socialist newspaper, and write his first major pieces. The first novel, Hostages (1942), appeared in English and only very much later in German, and the same was true of his major novel on World War II, The Crusaders (1948, published in eighteen other languages). When he returned to Germany late in 1951 (to escape persecution by the anti-Communist 'witch-hunter' Senator Joseph McCarthy) his preferred language of composition remained English until the novel for which his name will be most remembered, The King David Report (1973), a study of the problems of the intellectual in a socialist society under the guise of a witty analysis of biblical historiography. Heym did his own translation of David into German, as he did of most of his novels. It is the only one currently in print in English, alongside The Wandering Jew (1984), a bitterly humorous study of anti-Semitism throughout the ages. almost all of Heym's fiction is in the realist tradition, with the author taking meticulous care over character study.
Heym was a central figure in the literary culture of the Democratic Republic, even though his criticism of 'actually existing socialism' irked the leadership and led to extended periods when he was denied publication outlets. After 1965 almost all his work was first published 'abroad' in the Federal Republic, and in this respect he proved a key ambassador for his country: although he was at odds with his own government, he nevertheless endorsed socialist principles, never hesitated to criticise capitalism, and was determined not to leave the country - unlike so many other eastern dissidents of this period. His experience as a journalist meant he was particularly good at knowing the sort of lines newspapers would appreciate, and although he would be prepared to concede that there were difficulties in contemporary East Germany, he would always be ready to find an explanation, or to find some cause for hope. He gave regular interviews to foreign journalists, and he was also a skilful performer on a platform or on TV, a medium which he particularly enjoyed. He was much concerned with his image.
Heym's popularity with the western media, and his general standing as one of the very few international authors of the Republic helped him to speak out - his fame reduced the risk of arrest and imprisonment. But it was in fact only after 1965, when he was publicly denounced by Erich Honecker, that the West began to devote real attention to him. Hitherto he had been known more as a journalist renowned for his fearless attacks on abuses and failings in the socialist system and author of a novel which the cultural politicians wished to suppress, but more important were his remarkably brave attacks on the failure of the GDR to rid itself of Stalinism. (One of the novels of that period, Die Architekten, was published only as recently as 2000 - see new books in german, autumn issue of that year). He benefited from the 'thaw' when Honecker came to power in 1971, and he saw East German publication of several volumes in quick succession. The print runs were kept short and the books went out of print almost immediately, but in a reading society like the GDR such volumes would pass through many hands before being returned to their owner.
The demise of the Republic actually brought little comfort to Heym. One of the key speakers in the famous East Berlin demonstration shortly before the collapse of the Wall, he hoped for a better form of socialism rather than what he denounced as a 'sell out' to capitalism. 'Auf Sand gebaut', one of his witty short stories on the limbo state, collected in a volume of the same title, has been translated into English ('Built on Sand', tr. Cynthia Simmons, Dimension2, 1994) as also 'Aschermittwoch', one of his sarcastic pieces published in newspapers ('Ash Wednesday', new german critique 1991). His despair at the rejection of socialism led him to run for Parliament - as an 'independent'. He was a poor parliamentarian, however, being much better suited to intervention and questioning than planning and committee work, and he resigned his seat within a year. Even at this point, already in his eighties, he went on to produce his massive novel Radek (1995), another study of problems in socialism, in this case a fictional biography of the radical Jewish German communist Radek (not yet translated). His interest in charismatic Jewish figures was characteristic, and one of his best novels is Uncertain Friend (1969), a work on the last year of Lassalle, first President of the German Workers' Party. There was something fitting about his death in Jerusalem, which he had only visited twice before: the last time had been in 1993 in order to be presented with the Jerusalem Prize 'for the freedom of the individual in society'.
Peter Hutchinson, Reader in Modern German Studies in the University of Cambridge and Vice-Master of Trinity Hall, is author of Stefan Heym: The Perpetual Dissident (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1992) translated into the German Stefan Heym: Dissident auf Lebenszeit (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1999).
Hostages (New York: Putnam, 1942)
The Crusaders (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948)
Uncertain Friend (London: Cassell, 1969)
The King David Report (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973; currently in print in 'European Classics')
The Wandering Jew (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1984; currently in print in 'European Classics')
Auf Sand gebaut (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1990)
Filz (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1992)
Radek (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1995)
Die Architekten (Munich: Bertelsmann, 2000)