What happened before the “robber Hotzenplotz”: The bitterness of the young years – culture

Children like to interact with spirits and ghosts, dwarves and giants, fairies and villains from the real fantasy world of fairy tales and legends. Anyone who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s was lucky not only to have Grimm’s “Rumpelstiltskin” or Andersen’s “Ugly Duckling” read to them by grandma or grandpa, but also to talk to their peers about the “Little Aquarius”, the “Little Witch” and the “Robber Hotzenplotz” to be able to exchange.

With these titles Otfried Preussler (1923-2013) one of the best-known German-language children’s and youth book authors. Wikipedia estimates the author’s total global circulation at 50 million copies.

Carsten Gansel, Professor of German Literature at the University of Giessen, also studied Slavic Studies and speaks Russian. He used the language skills that were rare among Germanists to search archives in the former Soviet Union for poetry written by German authors while they were prisoners of war. The discovery of the original version of Heinrich Gerlach’s “Breakthrough near Stalingrad”, which Gansel first published in 2016, was sensational. During his detective search for clues, the dreary military archives from the Stalin era turned out to be literary treasure islands.

[Carsten Gansel: Kind einer schwierigen Zeit. Otfried Preußlers frühe Jahre. Galiani, Berlin 2022. 559 Seiten, 28 €.]

Gansel’s new book “Child of a Difficult Time” is about Preußler’s literature, which he wrote as a prisoner of war between 1944 and 1949. It was located in the camps of Yelabuga and Kazan, in cities of the Tatar People’s Republic, in the east of the European part of the USSR. In addition, Gansel worked through the Preußler estate in the German State Library in Berlin and interviewed relatives and acquaintances of the author. The result of his research is a gripping and formally unusual book: It is both a biography of the young Preussler and a documentation including an interpretation of the unknown or forgotten early work.

brutality of everyday life

Many printed poems, stories, statements, reports and memories now make the development of the author understandable. Gansel is one of the most capable contextualizers in cultural studies-oriented German studies. His studies shed new light on the everyday brutality of the so-called “Operation Barbarossa” and on the no less traumatizing conditions in the POW camps.

Contextualization means more than citing historiographical data. Gansel comments on the aesthetics of Preussler’s poetry, which is strongly attached to Romanticism, the influence of the regional literature of German-speaking Bohemia on the fairytale stories and – in the case of a farce – the borrowings from humoresques of the Biedermeier period.

One would also not want to miss the comparisons with authors whose writing apprenticeship also fell during the period of captivity: with Franz Fühmann in the Soviet Union and Hans Werner Richter in the USA. Unlike Fühmann, Preussler stayed out of pro-Soviet agitation, and unlike Richter, he could not see the German soldier simply as a victim of Hitler’s dictatorship.

Gansel is adept at cultural theories and discourses. When it comes to metahistorical narrative considerations, he refers to both Walter Benjamin and Reinhart Koselleck; When discussing surveillance and punishment in the camps, Foucault is quoted; if entanglement, guilt, remembering and forgetting are discussed, the relevant references to Nietzsche, Jaspers and Hannah Arendt are not missing; and when he addresses the writing of coping with traumatic experiences, he consults Freud and more recent psychoanalysts.

Expulsion of the Sudeten Germans

One of the special features of the book is the discussion of the culture and history of the German-Bohemian population, which after the First World War was called the Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia. The example of Preussler’s family brings to mind the tradition and mentality of the Habsburg monarchy, the consequences of the Paris suburbs treaties of 1919, the impact of the Munich Agreement with the second “Anschluss” in 1938, the destruction of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, and the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans in 1945 /46 from the second Czechoslovak Republic and fleeing to post-war Germany (in this case Bavaria).

Preussler’s father was a teacher in Reichenberg, Bohemia, and also a connoisseur of the literature there. Through him and his grandmother, the author was introduced to the regional world of legends and fairy tales as a child. Prague fascinates him. This is shown by the youthful sonnets about the old royal and imperial city. Immediately after graduating from high school, Preussler was drafted into the Wehrmacht at the age of 17. His first story from 1942 (published two years later) is called “Erntelager Geyer”. Gansel calls them Bund-shaped and defends them against accusations of Nazi ideology.

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The young lieutenant and company commander is assigned to the Romanian front. During the 1990s, Preußler recorded his experiences there in the manuscript “Bessarabian Summer”, from which Gansel quoted long passages. It is not written as a first-person narrative, but one’s own experience is remembered by means of an alter ego. The front collapses – Stalingrad repeats itself – in August 1944 completely. Now Preussler’s five-year captivity begins.

threat of death

The threat of death by no means stops. Gansel describes the consequences of malnutrition and slave exploitation in the first two years of imprisonment. Food and medical care are gradually improving.

Preussler is helped by his literary and graphic talent. He may create wall newspapers with news and slogans, perform amusing plays (partly from his own production); copies of his poems (wisdom of life in rhymes) circulate among his fellow prisoners. Preussler’s autobiography “Lost Years?” remained an unpublished fragment. The author later dealt with the ethical problems that arose as a young officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the novel Krabat, published in 1971 apart. The Faustian pact with the devil can be seen in the floor plan of the work. His lover helps the student Krabat to break with the “master” of the “Black School” and their hate doctrine.

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