Translated by Margaret Bettauer Dembo
Reviewed by Gill Davies
The novel is set in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and was first published in German in 1942. Seghers was a Communist, of Jewish descent, and escaped to Mexico with her husband and children in 1940. The novel was published there, and in the United States, and was filmed with Spencer Tracy in the lead role in 1944. It is, of course, an anti-fascist novel but its main concern is not so much with fascist systems and actors (although these are present) but with ordinary people’s lives. It explores how individuals caught in a system find a variety of ways of coping – some join it enthusiastically, others keep their heads down. And a minority of principled and brave people try to find ways of resisting and refusing. The range of responses is dramatised through people’s reactions to the central character, George Heisler, who has escaped from a concentration camp. Along with six other political prisoners, he is on the run at the start of the novel. Quite soon his fellow escapees are captured, tortured or die but as long as he remains free he demonstrates the weakness of the system and the hope for change. The title refers to a group of seven trees in the camp that are cut down one by one as the prisoners are found and brought back to suffer torture and humiliation in front of their fellow prisoners.
The action of the novel takes place over a few days and nights as George avoids capture while old friends and some strangers hide him and help him escape the pursuing police and prison officials. He is in many ways an average man. Although he has firm political beliefs, he is still vulnerable – afraid, prematurely aged by imprisonment and torture, and unsure who he can turn to or trust. This makes for an enthralling and engaging story. We meet many characters including his former wife, a school friend, his ex-lover and some of his comrades, thus filling in his life story and with it a history of Germany after World War One: the defeat of 1918 and the continuing wounds; the subsequent economic disaster; unemployment; political battles; and the rise of fascism. There is thus an intriguing mixture of tightly-focused immediate events and a longer historical span, of past experiences and an intense present. It’s a very powerful picture of the German people as they move towards war and genocide. There are some painful scenes set in the camp where the commandant’s violent, obsessive behaviour increases every day that the seventh prisoner remains free. Seghers understands the psychology of fascism, as well as its social and economic origins. Commandant Fahrenberg looks at a portrait of Hitler “who had … made him almost but not quite all-powerful, a master over men, able to rule them body and soul….Having full-grown strong men brought before you, and having the power to break them, quickly or slowly; bodies that moments before were erect, going down on all fours; men, a moment before still bold and brazen, turning grey and stammering with the fear of death. Some you finished off utterly, some you turned into traitors, and some you set free with bowed necks and broken wills.” Seghers shows with brilliance and compassion how ordinary citizens as well as political prisoners become victims of the barbarism of those in power.
She reminds the reader that so much of our understanding depends on point of view – to what extent we allow ourselves to see the evils – even before we consider resisting them. She moves into the consciousnesses of different characters whose motivations range from fearful self-preservation to outright enthusiasm for persecution and violence. In one memorable passage she takes a familiar Thirties viewpoint, from an aeroplane, then zooms in: “It is a joy to see Buchenbach from an airplane; with its church steeple and small fields and forests, all neat and tidy. But driving through, you get a different picture, yet only if you have the time and inclination to look closely… why does that cow have to pull a wagon even though she’s pregnant? Why is that child who has filled her apron with grass, looking around in fear?” An old man considers that his sons are “half his and half the property of the New State.” A young man is in the SA “not because he couldn’t live without a brown shirt, but because he wanted to be able to work, to get married, to inherit his parents’ farm, and live in peace.” But Seghers is also positive that there is some hope (and remember that this novel was finished during the darkest days of fascism). In one scene, George has hidden in a church, leaving behind a bloody rag that protected his wounded hand. The priest tells the sacristan to burn it. There’s no authorial commentary, we just recognise this as an act of compassion and quiet resistance, but the author notes that as it burns “ [the priest’s] expression turned serious. … Again something had happened that could easily escape and vanish through a crack in the window or it could turn into a terrible stink that might suffocate them in the end.” Later, members of the opposition help George and in doing so, renew their own optimism: “she was back now in her old life; suddenly everything was possible, and possible quickly because it was up to her to speed things up”. Fear and powerlessness permeate the novel but it is small acts like this that give rise to some kind of hope and make the novel ultimately positive rather then despairing.
Anna Seghers, The Seventh Cross (Little, Brown 2018) ISBN: 9780349010670, hardback, 384 pages.
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