Dr. Dean recently posted a long blog-riff about an essay by Fritz Raddatz on German literature in the 1950s. The point of both the post and the Raddatz-piece was to recall the repressive atmosphere that existed on both sides of a divided Germany, and that censorship was not solely a problem in the GDR.
One writer who "fell through the cracks", who was not well-received by either side at the time and as a consequence stopped writing novels altogether - a loss to German fiction - was Gert Ledig. Ledig died seven years ago this month and did not live to see the strong renewed interest in his work. He only published three novels - all in the mid-1950s. With the publication last year of a new English translation of Die Stalinorgel Gert Ledig is finally getting the recognition he deserves as a master novelist of war.
Ledig was wounded in the Battle of Leningrad, and Die Stalinorgel (English: The Stalin Front) is a great literary depiction of the horrors of combat. (The "Stalin-Organ" was what German troops called the dreaded Katyusha multiple rocket launcher). Ledig shifts back and forth in the novel between the German and Russian troops; the author is unforgiving in his description of both sides. The characters are identified only by their titles: Der Melder, der Obergefreite, Der Kadett, etc. The scenes of utter horror and death are presented in a laconic, matter-of-fact manner that is the essence of Ledig's literary style. Die Stalinorgel can stand beside other battlefield novels such as Remarque's Im Westen Nichts Neues as classic.
During the war, Ledig was sent from the front back to Munich to recover from his wounds. It was there that he experienced the unrelenting firebombing by the British and American airforces. The terror he witnessed became the subject of his greatest novel - Vergeltung (1956; published in English as Payback). The events of Vergeltung take place in 70 minutes of an air raid on an unnamed German city. The novel opens with bombs falling on the corpses of unburied children (killed in an earlier raid) in a cemetary and descends into a nightmarish hell from there. In fact, Ledig covers various zones of Hell ranging from the cockpit of an American bomber flying above the city, to a couple burning to death in their apartment, to a girl being raped in an underground shelter bunker. Once again, scenes of unbelievable horror are presented in an unflinching, unemotional language: there is no moralizing; the characters are in equal measure pathetic and heroic as they meet their terrible fate.
The critics were scathing in their reviews of the novel when it came out; the psychic wounds were too raw from the war experience. People wanted to forget and move on, but Vergeltung will not permit anyone who opens to the book to any page to forget. Ledig, who had achieved some measure of fame with Die Stalinorgel, was crushed, his literary career pretty much finished by the bad reception of Vergeltung. W.G. Sebald - the novelist of rememberance - wrote the following about Ledig and Vergeltung:
Ledig's] deliberately intense, uncompromising style, designed to evoke disgust and revulsion, once again conjured up the ghost of anarchy at a time when the economic miracle was already on its way, he evoked the fears of general dissolution that threatened the collapse of a ll order, with humans running wild and descending into lawlessness and irreversible ruin. Ledig's novels...were excluded from cultural memory because they threatened to break through the cordon sanitaire cast by [German] society around the death zones of the dystopian incursions that actually occurred.
— W.G. Sebald,On the Natural History of Destruction
Ledig published one more novel: Faustrecht appeared in 1957. Faustrecht is a strange, dark novel that takes place in the rubble of postwar Munich. The living conditions are described as unbelievably bleak and primitive. The principal characters are returning soldiers who move zombie-like through an underworld of petty crime. The turning point in the novel involves a stupid act of terrorism against the American occupation forces. Both the content and the tone of Faustrecht practically guaranteed that the novel would fail commercially and critically in the cultural climate of the late 1950s. Today the novel reads as a tightly-wound film noir screenplay. Ledig never found another publisher for his writing; he turned away from fiction and spent his life in obscurity as a technical writer.
Ledig's literary fortune was not done in by the overt censorship that Fritz Raddatz discusses in the essay mentioned above. It was not the censorship of the publishers (in the West) or the Party (in the East) that torpedoed his career as a writer of fiction. Rather, it was the internal censor mechanism of the readers of the time - the cordon sanitaire (Sebald) - that compelled the reading public to turn away from the truth they had witnessed with their own eyes. Today we can honor Gert Ledig for his amazing ability to look at the horror of a specific war with an unflinching eye and mold it into a universal experience that captures the truth of all wars.