Culture Books | November

Anna Seghers’ Morality Play

Available in English for the first time, The Seventh Cross addresses the damage and deep divisions of ordinary life under the Nazis

Seven political prisoners escape from the (fictional) Westhofen concentration camp in the Rhineland in the opening pages of Anna Seghers’ epic The Seventh Cross. The camp commandant, the old warrior Fahrenberg, “a fool responsible for terrible, unpredictable acts  of cruelty,” orders that seven plane trees growing at the gable end of one of the barracks be fashioned into crosses – one for each of the escapees. Seghers’ novel follows the myriad twists and turns of the prisoners’ escape
and the system’s attempt to recapture and punish them.

Born in Mainz in 1900, Seghers joined the German Communist Party in 1928, living out the Nazi period in exile, first in France, then Mexico. Published in 1942, The Seventh Cross was adapted into an MGM film starring Spencer Tracy in 1944. Seghers returned to Europe in 1947, moving to Berlin and the nascent German Democratic Republic, becoming president of the Writers’ Union in 1952. A highly moralistic author, her life and work cannot be understood without reference to her ideology. Margot Bettauer Dembo’s matter-of-fact new translation makes the complete text of The Seventh Cross available in English for the first time.

Seghers’ elegant yet unadorned style moves not only the angst ridden action but also underlying questions of morality to the novel’s forefront. Beyond protagonist George and his daring-do, his near-misses and brushes with the law, Seghers homes in on the pressures ordinary Germans faced living life in the shadow of a concentration camp – people whom she views with great sympathy.

Westhofen upends the bucolic Rhineland, becoming a way to make decent money among a people who’ve lived hand to-mouth, at the whim of the seasons. Seghers sets up a dichotomy between those increasingly aware of the crimes being committed there – Seghers describes “horrified onlookers” and a woman bursting into tears as prisoners are marched through their village – and those who just want to keep their heads down.

“There are things in this world you can change,” an old woman says. “And there are things in this world you can’t change. Those things you have to put up with.” Eventually, she says, this time will pass.

Individuals in Seghers’ novel are repeatedly confronted with stark moral choices. Dr. Loewenstein treats a broken George, so ill he had “already turned into a dense blackish shadow,” taking no payment even though his status as a Jew is precarious enough as it is. Alfons Mettenheimer finds himself hauled in by the Gestapo because his daughter is George’s wife; although he never approved of the marriage, and in spite of some rough treatment, he does not turn on his family. Ordinary folk, in Seghers’ hands, become extraordinary citizens in this dark world.

The Seventh Cross has been criticized for not giving due consideration to the suffering in Nazi Germany. Seghers was Jewish herself but her communist ideology meant she understood life as a political struggle and the German theater as a battle
between fascism and anti-fascism. The novel is a reflection of this worldview – one that leaves no room for caste or creed. Regardless of the ideology’s faults, The Seventh Cross can only be understood on its own terms.

And in that sense, the moral engine of The Seventh Cross rings out in the novel’s concluding sentences: “We all felt how profoundly and how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being, to his innermost self. But we also sense that in the innermost core there was something that was unassailable and inviolable.”


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