Friday, July 19, 2013

Stefan Heym

This year there will be many round-date anniversaries. About two of them, Johann Gottfried Seume and the Bundschuh in Lehen, I already have written blogs. Here somewhat late comes a third one about Stefan Heym. Below I shall only briefly sketch his biography for which I relied heavily on the article in Wikipedia. Citations are in italics.

Stefan Heym was born as Helmut Flieg in Chemnitz on April 10, 1913. When in 1931 he published an antimilitarist poem in a Chemitz newspaper he was expelled from the local high school. His parents sent him to Berlin to finish his schooling. There he got in contact with the pacifist and editor of Die Weltbühne Carl von Ossietzky and wrote articles for the magazine. As a young man, being a Jew, he did not see any future in a racist Germany. It was the Reichstag fire in 1933 that eventually triggered his escape to Prague. When in 1935 he received a grant from a Jewish student association he went to the United States to continue his academic studies at the University of Chicago, which he completed in 1936 writing a master's thesis on Heinrich Heine. Between 1937 and 1939 he worked in New York as Editor-in-Chief of the German-language weekly Deutsches Volksecho, a left-leaning paper for German immigrants. When following the outbreak of the Second World War the weekly ceased publication Heym continued as a freelance author writing in English. As such he got in contact with the Chicago writers around Nelson Algren (The Man with the Golden Arm) and married the dramaturge for film production and member of the Communist Party of the USA Gertrude Gelbin. In 1942 Heym had his breakthrough with his first novel Hostages, describing the situation in Czechoslovakia under the Nazi occupation. The book was made into a movie.

Heym as an intelligent (intelligence) Sergeant
 in occupied Germany (©gdw-berlin).
As an American citizen he served in a unit for psychological warfare during the war and participated in the 1944 Normandy landings. His unit composed texts designed to influence Wehrmacht soldiers to desert. After the war Heym became editor in Munich of the Neue Zeitung, one of the most important newspapers of the American occupying forces.

Because of his pro-Soviet inclinations Heym was transferred back to the US towards the end of 1945 and was discharged because of "procommunistic" mindset.

In the following years he again worked as a freelance author but in 1952 he, as a left-leaning intellectual, left the US during the McCarthy-era as did  Charlie Chaplin, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. Following a short stay in Prague he eventually settled in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

In the GDR Heym initially received privileged treatment as a returning antifascist emigre living with his wife in a state-provided villa in Berlin-Grünau. Its owners had just fled to the West. In April 1953 he celebrated his entry into the First German Workers' and Farmers' State with an open renunciation of the US accusing it of becoming a fascist state. At the same time Heym returned his military insignia to his former Commander-in-Chief President Eisenhower. Between 1953 and 1956 he worked at the Berliner Zeitung, thereafter primarily as a freelance author. In his early years in the GDR Heym supported the regime with socialist novels and other works he wrote in English that were subsequently translated into German.

First edition of The Lenz Papers
published in East-Berlin in English with
Heym's "special " Seven Seas Publisher (©Google)
In 1964 his novel The Lenz Papers was published. This is how Stefan Heym became one of my literary heroes. In his novel he intelligently mixes historical facts with fiction. His fictitious hero Andreas Lenz is in conversation with historic revolutionary protagonists Gustav Struve, Johann Philipp Becker, Lorenz Brentano, and Armand Goegg and in love with two fictional women, a down-to-earth Alemannic girl and an intellectual Jew. When the Baden Revolution aborts Lenz emigrates to the States where he fought as a 48er in the Civil War. Why is it that American authors generally are so much better at writing historical novels than German writers?

Andrew Lenz's tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery (©ARD-SWR)

Television play in four parts (©ARD-SWR)
Seventeen years of exile in the US had shaped Heym's attitude and style, had changed his perspective. He was independent, incorruptible, and disobedient. First tensions between Heym and the communist regime arose when he wanted to publish a book on the June 17, 1953, uprising in East Germany: Five Days in June. When in 1976 he together with other GDR authors signed a petition protesting the exile of GDR-bard Wolf Biermann the Union of Socialist Authors expelled him such that he was no longer allowed to publish in the East. From then on he started to write in German and published in the West.

Stefan Heym on Alexanderplatz on November 4, 1989
In the 1980s Heym supported the civil rights movement in the GDR. His criticism of the communist regime was scorching, sarcastic, to the point: I do not live in the GDR to keep my mouth shut. When it was for reforming the socialism practiced in the GDR Heym raised his hand, intervened, made difficulties, got difficulties. Highly gifted rhetorically he was choleric, caustic, quick-tempered, ironical, stubborn, resistant, wise but at the same time naïve. And so we see him in Berlin at the mass demonstration on Alexanderplatz on November 4, 1989, demanding a democratic socialism and discussing with demonstrators. Did he really think that in a free election his idea of socialism would win the majority?

Stefan Heym during his inaugural speech at the 13th Bundestag in 1994 (©dpa)
Following the Wende (turnaround) in the GDR Heym sought a mandate in the Bundestag (parliament). In the 1994 all-German elections he won a seat for the post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). So it happened that he as the oldest deputy (age 81), tradition oblige, had the honor of opening the first session of the 13th legislative term of the Bundestag before the Bundestagspräsidenten (speakers) were elected. This November 10, 1994, will be remembered as one of the darkest chapters in the history of our parliament. The majority of the deputies deprecated him, gave him the silent treatment, simply ignored him.

But Heym was not silent and he even was foresighted when he said: This Bundestag was elected in a period of crisis. This is not a cyclical but structural crisis that will stay with us for a long time, worldwide. How long will this world, the only one we have, tolerate mankind producing thousands of goods and how are those distributed? As President Lincoln once said: You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
Mankind can only survive in solidarity. This presently means in our own country between East and West but it also means solidarity between above and below, rich and poor.

With respect to the structural crisis: After the Wende in Germany's East whole industrial complexes were platt gemacht (phased out). The overall unemployment in Germany in 1994 was 8.4% but rose to nearly 10% in 1997. The increase in the rate of unemployment between 1994 and 1997 for the long-term unemployed was even 24.1% whereas among the older persons the increase was as high as 42.6%.

Solidarity in this world is still lacking. We are shocked when in Bangladesh a factory building collapses leaving more than 1000 people dead who worked for a breadline wage but we like to buy our clothing cheap.

Has Stefan Heym become in addition to one of my literary heroes a political hero too? Well, for me he was too much of an utopian, naïvely believing in the good in man, dreaming and writing of an ideal socialist republic as in his novel Schwarzenberg of 1984.

Stefan Heym in 2001, the year of his death (©dpa)

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