The radical German writer Wolfgang Borchert died almost 68 years ago but his legacy is so tightly woven into the fabric of present-day German life that one of his most popular works appears in a reference guide and school text books.
I discovered this after learning about him via the Irish poet, Terry McDonagh who has spent much of his own working life in Germany.
McDonagh, whose poem In Hamburg reflects Borchert’s similarly titled piece, Hamburg! explains: “I have long since been a great admirer of his life and work. His play, Draussen vor der Tuer (The Man Outside) is a protest scream in the face of a brutal dictatorship. He is a household name in Germany ... particularly in Hamburg. Sometimes great dissidents like him do not get enough media space”.
Here I try to help correct that omission by sharing some of what I have read and conclude by posting an English translation of Borchert’s poem alongside that of McDonagh which appeared in the April 2015 edition of Live Encounters magazine.
Wolfgang Borchert, born to liberal parents in Hamburg in 1921, is viewed as the founder of German Trümmerliteratur (‘literature of the ruins’ or ‘rubble literature’) which depicts the physical and spiritual state of Germany immediately after World War II.
He was an actor, poet, short story writer and playwright whose work was influenced by both his experience of dictatorship and his time fighting in the Wehrmacht during the war. His father, Fritz Borchert was a teacher while his mother, Hertha was a writer.
It is said that Borchert loathed his enforced time with the Hitler Youth, from which he managed to resign but he was briefly arrested and then released by the Gestapo, the Secret State Police. He contracted hepatitis while serving on the Eastern Front and was rearrested and placed in isolation when his superiors accu sed him of attempting to evade military service by self-mutilation.
After suffering other wartime privations, Borchert's fragile health deteriorated rapidly and in 1946 he was given only a year to live. This warning effectively spurred his artistic endeavour and he went on to act, write short prose and a collection of poems Laterne, Nacht und Sterne (Lantern, Night and Stars). In January 1947 his play, The Man Outside was published and performed to much acclaim on radio. But later that year he entered a sanatorium in Basel, Switzerland, where he continued writing fiction. He completed his anti-war manifesto, Dann Gibt Es Nur Eins! (Then There is Only One Thing!) shortly before his death.
*Trümmerliteratur, also called Kahlschlagliteratur (‘clear-cutting literature’), is a literary movement that enjoyed a short life in Germany from the end of the war until about 1950. Its primary concern was the fate of former German soldiers and POWs who returned home and were forced to confront the physical ruins of their homeland and personal possessions as well as the rubble of their ideals. American short stories served as the model for the genre in which simple, direct language was used with economy of space, narration and characterisation to describe the destroyed world without evaluation. It was also an attempt to cleanse the German language perceived to have been defiled by Nazi ideology.
From: The Regions of Germany - a Reference Guide to History and Culture by Dieter K. Buse, Greenwood Publishing Group, Jan 1, 2005:
“In 1959 the state printed a book for school students which began with a poem by Wolfgang Borchert. Though the fear of survival is gone, the poem may still express important elements of regional identification in just being and having a home port in a stormy world“.
by Wolfgang Borchert
That is more than a pile of stones, roofs, windows, carpets, streets, beds, bridges
and street lights.
That is more than factory lights and cars honking
More than gulls’ laughter, street car screeching and the thunder of the railway
That is more than ships’ sirens, cranes’ cries, cursing and dance music
Oh, it is endlessly more
It is our will, to be.
Not anywhere, not any way,
But here, and only here, between Alster lake and Elbe stream
And only to be, as we are
We, in Hamburg.
by Terry McDonagh
To the Memory of Wolfgang Borchert
In Hamburg is the Elbe. Every morning
Heinz will go down to the river to work
and he will hardly see the water, but he
knows it's there, and when he crosses over
in a boat, he knows that fresh and salt water
collude in a sweet and sour tangle, a bit
like the dream and reality in his heart.
In Hamburg is the Alster. Every spring
longboats, yachts, masts and flags will
be freed from winter sleep, and they cannot
sense the water, but it is there because
Heinz and his wife will pull lines and sails
between the city and Winterhude, a bit
like taking tears away in summer months.
In Hamburg is the light. Every day
the sun will come up to some degree
as if it did and didn't care, but Heinz's wife
knows from the ship's sirens and Heinz
at the front door, it is there. Later she will
walk by a closed up Russian bookshop, a bit
like a bunch of broken roses from the Volga.
In Hamburg is the dark. Every night
the day will be freed of rules and regulations
and the open spaces will close up
to leave room for unbridled whispering
alongside the foot-tramp of the solitary, while
Heinz and his wife buy two bus tickets, a bit
like two words trying to find the right poem.