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"Richness, beauty, horror"

Peer Teuwsen talks with author Walter Kempowski about his autobiographical literature, his life as a writer and his activities as a people collector

Walter Kempowski, who died on October 5th 2007, was a unique figure among German writers. An East German native, he was interned at Bautzen penitentiary in the early years of the GDR before leaving to the West. He is known primarily for his large-scale literary projects "Deutsche Chronik" (German chronicle) - an autobiographical novel in nine volumes - and "Das Echolot" (echo sounding), a ten-volume collective diary of World War Two in collage form.

Author Walter Kempowski. © Helmut Fricke, courtesy Knaus Verlag.

Die Weltwoche: Mr. Kempowski, you led a German life.
Walter Kempowski: You're right to use the past tense.

In your case a German life means war, prison, confrontation of the past. What remains?
Endless amounts of richness, beauty and horror.

And what are you thinking about in particular in your last weeks?

About my wonderful childhood. My father was a monarchist and my mother a stout Christian, a peculiar mixture. My father used to carry the Christian sayings that my mother had given him in the left coat pocket of his uniform, and the loo paper in the right. Amiable parents, who never did anything violent. That's how we grew up, not particularly rich, but well-to-do.

A bourgeois upbringing.

Oh, it wasn't all that great back then in Rostock. My father rode a bicycle to work in 1935. He was killed in the last days of the war, and we all ended up in prison. That wasn't how we'd imagined peace. But you have to consider how much guilt the Germans had heaped upon themselves. And someone had to shoulder it. I'm a participant of the post-war era. I paid the price for the sins of others. My family did nothing awful. My father helped a few Jews escape to Sweden. But he was no hero. Nor was my mother.

Are you a hero then?

By now I believe so, yes. Keep on keeping on.

And now with the end in sight, do you think about death?

Oh you know, I just hope when I wake up in the morning that I won't feel any pain today. I have no problem with the end in itself. I mean, of course I'm interested in what happens when one day the trap shuts.

You had a stroke in 1991.

Yes. I experienced what a feeling of bliss it is to collapse sideways. "Thank God it's all over," I thought at the time. I hope that's what it will be like now.

You once tried to take your own life?

Yes, as a prisoner in Bautzen in 1950. I would have been spared a lot had I succeeded – but missed out on a lot too. That's what the world's like. It was no easy job to be the headmaster of a village school. On the other hand I became a writer and had the satisfaction of travelling round the country with books and experiencing the so-called feedback from my readers. And I've got nice children and grandchildren, amazingly competent co-workers and a clear head.

You were ignored for a long time by the literature business. And you suffered as a result. And now shortly before you pass away, you're suddenly a literary star.
I don't understand that either. It could have come a bit sooner.

And no sooner do they talk about you than you're being glorified. The FAZ writes: "He is bitterly essential – as a living accusation to some extent, unremittingly telling us we should just pull ourselves together and do our work."

Oh well.

What was your crime? What did you do to the literature business?
I'm conservative and liberal. That's not allowed in Germany.

Why not?

Even today, you can't speak your mind in Germany. You try it! One step off the path and you're done for. A cheerful bit of chit-chat is not allowed. Even just talking to you, dear Mr. Teuwsen, I have to watch what I say. This is a dreadful situation. Is it as bad in Switzerland?

Not quite as bad, no. "Fuga furiosa", the second part of your gigantic work "Echolot", deals with the last months of the war. The work never received the recognition it deserved because it contains a commonplace that in Germany is still taboo. That the Germans were perpetrators and victims.
You still can't say it. Yes, at the end of the war I saw a train with concentration camp prisoners cross a troop transport. It's so appalling that there is no consolation in knowing that Stalin killed ten million people and Mao Zedong sixty million, it's not about numbers. But one should be able to say that one can no longer stand this eternal perpetrator status. Like Martin Walser did – and he was beaten on the head for it. That depresses me.

You never had this German uptightness.

It's perhaps a North German thing. I am more down-to-earth and I call a spade a spade. Yes, the Germans. I like being a German. I love the language, the landscape and my countrymen, however grim they are. Now that I'm dying, I'm receiving more letters than ever. People are sending me jam, coffee, some Swiss chocolate arrived the other day. I'm 78 now.

We Swiss suffer somewhat from our uneventful history.
One should love Switzerland. I once spent four weeks in Locarno Monti. Wonderful.

Why did you never spare others nor yourself?

It's a feeling of justice. And I am very persistent, almost obstinate. Look, on New Year's Eve in 1980, we had a little get-together and without people suspecting anything at all, I declared at the stroke of midnight: I will now found the autobiographical diary archive. They thought I was joking. But people have entrusted me with their most precious objects until today.

In the meantime you've collected 3.5 million pieces of paper. You're a people collector. What happens to a person when they live in a house full of life stories, full of destinies, full of the dead?

Yes sometimes they murmur. They talk about the war, most uninhibitedly.

What did you learn about the Holocaust?

I shared a cell with two Jews in Bautzen, who had their Auschwitz numbers on the underside of their arms, but they never talked about it. With the mass of literature that was spawned onto the market immediately after the war, I discovered a lot. Even before the GDR was founded, books arrived by the wagonload, but the workers didn't read them. Every family had lost someone, and they didn't want to hear about the suffering of others.

But why did you want to know?

It always moved me. I've got this thing for specific details, it never means anything to me when people say that three or four million people were gassed. But when I hear that an SS man in Dachau tortured poor Pastor Schneider, things that are long forgotten but that have been documented – I can get a picture of the monstrous horrors. The very idea of wiping out an entire people, pure madness. And all that time I was sitting in the parlour on a rug, playing with little cars.

This is the uncanny thing about your books, the coexistence of horror and happiness in the Second World War.

My brother was lucky enough to inherit the jazz records from his friends who were sent to the front. I listened to jazz music all day long, not foreign radio stations because I was scared of being caught. When I had to go to the Hitler Youth, I often played truant and listened to music. I escaped having to go to a youth concentration camp for this by the skin of my teeth. A Hitler Youth leader struck me off the list because he was a friend of my father.

The Holocaust, the war, you found it all so moving primarily because you yourself were burdened by guilt. Your brother, who took on the family shipping business, collected freight papers from the office to prove that the Soviet occupying troops had transported more dismantlement goods out of Germany than had been agreed on with the Western Allies. You were to give these documents to the Americans. On the basis of this a Soviet military tribunal sentenced you and your brother to 25 years in a labour camp for alleged espionage. Even your mother was convicted to ten years of forced labour for "failure to report agents of foreign secret services."

I felt absolutely in the right at the time to do what I did. I have always loathed the communists. They lied to our faces – and we had to smile back and agree, right to the end. Even in the West they thought that the GDR, this structure of lies, was the better Germany, and it's still the case today. Even though they should know better. But I tend to say, water off a duck's back – it's like Napoleon's old guard. They sat around afterwards in front of their houses, carving dolls. I mean you can't just shoot them all.

Have you got over your guilt about your mother?

It has started to wane recently, yes. My illness helps. But I had to carry it a long time. My entire life. She died in 1969. She saw my first book "Im Block" but she could no longer read by then.

You talked to her again when you were freed.

After much hesitation. Oh, how I hesitated. She came to visit me in Göttingen, and we went to a cafe, a neutral one, "Cron und Lanz". "So Mother, tell me now." I had a tape recorder with me. She was a student of Fröbel, a happy education. That this woman who'd never done anything wrong, should spent six years in prison – because of one word I spoke, no!

You answered "yes" when the Russians asked whether your family knew of your plans to inform the Americans about the Russians' cheating. Was she able to forgive you?

We're not kitschy, we're North Germans. It's all forgotten about somehow, she was proud in a way that I became a teacher, although she would have liked me a little higher up the administrative ladder.

Would you really have been able to prevent your mother going to prison?
The story happened a little differently than I've told it. Basically I don't feel guilt, only metaphysically. The people from the Soviet news agency already knew about it. You have to see psychological emergency as a power source. If you can manage to turn that around, you can survive.

Has the widespread disregard for your work on the part of the literary establishment been a source of energy for you?

Yes. I wasn't even recognised as a political prisoner. I had to walk around as a common criminal, and yet was still able to become a civil servant, thanks to the kindness of a school inspector. When the twenty years were up (Kempowski served eight years in Bautzen prison. He was then released and moved to West Germany - ed.) I woke my wife and said, so, now the limitation period's over. I really suffered from people's disregard and silence. Even today some papers never mention me. What's wrong with me? And then I think about it and say: it's because I said yes back then. So I can't complain now. That yes is like a turbine. When I finally did win a prize I asked myself: and what did you buy it with? With other people's sufferings. And when I heard what the Russians had done to my mother, I have to say, I went down on my knees.

How did they treat her?

Terribly. She was an old woman.

You've said that the lack of regard for your work caused "a cancer to grow in your soul."

That's true.

And then it turned into a physical cancer?

Yes. I was poisoned. For ten years, at the height of my career, I didn't receive a single literary prize. That's impossible, unthinkable. What kind of people give them out? Mr Grass, for example, gets a whole apartment at the Goethe Institute so he doesn't have to spend a penny. By the way, "Zunge zeigen" is his best book, so direct, non-ideological. But he didn't date it, that's a mortal sin. I always want to know if it was the 3rd or the 4th of April. I'm a bit of a number nut.

Do you feel close to Arno Schmidt?

Yes. I'm just more stupid. Both of us opposed the glorification of socialism. Of course he was against the over-excited German intelligentsia, but never overdid it. His poverty impressed me, and the fact that he never gave up. I still read his early stuff, and his recommended reading. My wife's just reading Herder, inspired by Schmidt. The Germans burned Wieland's writings, used them to light fires - what kind of people is that? But I have to say, today's TV journalists who toss books they don't like into a waste basket in front of the cameras are just as bad.

You managed to get around the lack of attention paid to your works.

I was astute. If they didn't want me at congresses or on talk shows, I got the big authors to come to me. And I paid a bit more than what they normally got at readings.

You paid the authors to come to your seminars?

Of course I did. 1,000 marks, and it hurt. But it was nice, anywhere up to 60 people would turn up at the literature seminars, and when Peter Rühmkorf was reading the women got all dressed up like at the opera. And you always knew that Ralph Giordano would overrun his time. A fine fellow, by the way.

Grass and Johnson never came.

True. Uwe Johnson out of principle, and Grass simply because I couldn't stand him, or his attitude to politics. Keeping his SS membership secret and alleging the contrary, that's quite a number. As far as that's concerned I agree with Rolf Hochhuth, who just said: "Disgusting".

You and Grass are perfect opposites.

Exactly. And Johnson was always suspicious I'd get the upper hand, that I'd trump him. He was grudging. Once he even told me so, that I'd surpassed him with my "Deutsche Chronik" (German chronicle). I had something he didn't: I'm musical. You can't write a major novel without having an idea of the language of musical form, what's a fugue, what's an invention? I listen to practically nothing other than Bach, I don't have time for anything else. Unfortunately I can no longer play the piano.

You once wrote: "Without 'Echolot', my 'Chronicle' would have been even more meaningless."

It's true: "Echolot" was necessary. There are works in the "Chronicle" I'm not so fond of, "Uns geht's ja noch Gold" (we're still doing fine - volume 5 of the "Chronicle" dealing with the years 1945 - 48 - ed.) for example. I would have much more preferred to write about flowers and animals, but I had to write about all the reptiles of that time. Not fun.

How did you get the idea for "Echolot"?

It was after my stroke. That's when I conceived this task, and the necessity of bringing together all that lost material.

Did you have moments of madness?

That was the moment of madness. Then after that, from this first thought - as hybrid as it was - emerged the huge collage. But I've got a cheerful disposition by nature, in Nietzsche's sense: Golden joy, come (from Nietzsche's "Dyonosis-Dithyramben" - ed). But now sometimes the fun dies. I don't quite know how it's supposed to go on, there's still so much left to do. Like Johnson, I always had a will to bring things to an end, just that he afforded himself the luxury of taking ten years to get them done. I always had three books going at any given time, that's how I avoided having a hiatus, a terrible void. When I finished the "German Chronicle" in 1984 I was fully at a loss.

Once more: your work has something manic about it.

Yes. You know, in psychology there's the concept of the "murmuring spring." Alongside our perception, the "murmuring spring" of the unconscious with all the images, insights, traumata of one's life. Now and then you take a sip from it. I always wrote out the "murmuring spring" in a diary, so by the bye.

You're blessed with the gift of humour. Why does everything have to be so dour, so heavy, in German literature?

Heavy and ideological. The Germans have had to contort themselves so often, under Christianity, Communism and Nazism. Who could keep a sense of humour with all that?

Does every person believe they're good?

Yes, even the Nazis. They started up with socialistic tendencies, if I've understood correctly, and they did a lot in the 30s that was exemplary for the East German Communist Party and the Russians, "beauty in the workplace" for example, meaning an obligatory lounge for the workers; "Kraft durch Freude" - strength through joy; and Hitler wanted every German to be able to own a car. No, people's intentions are never unequivocal.

You've been married for decades. What's your secret?

Independence. Virginia Woolf once said that every woman needs her own room, and "A Room of One's Own" rightly became a huge bestseller. The secret of marriage is to give the other person as much freedom as at all possible.

Herr Kempowski, I've got to ask you something. The whole time we've been talking you've been killing flies. Is that something you enjoy?

One fly and you can forget your afternoon nap. They can fly somewhere else. My wife's against it, says I should let them all live.

Is there any place you'd still like to travel?

Italy. After all, there is such a thing as a European brotherhood that somehow belongs together, without Muslims that is. Now they're building minarets, what's the point? First you've got to ask the Germans.

How do you want to die?

Like Fontane. He said to his daughter over dinner: "I'll just be in the next room." When she looked in a quarter of an hour later, he lay there dead on the bed. But I doubt I'll be let off that easily.


The interview was originally published in German in Die Weltwoche on July 26, 2007.

Peer Teuwsen, winner on two occasions of the Zurich Journalism Prize, is an editor at Die Weltwoche.

Translation: lp, jab.

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