In the High Peaks

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Turncoat by Siegfried Lenz--German Literature Month

I read The Turncoat for Caroline's (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) German Literature Month/Literature and War Readalong for this last week of November, which is Lizzy Siddal's and Caroline's sponsored German Literature Month. (See Sidebars for Links, please).

The Turncoat fascinated me for many reasons. Siegfried Lenz, who had been in the German Navy and  served time as a prisoner of war, wrote this book with the go-ahead of his German publisher. When he finished the novel a couple of years later, his publisher informed him that it could not be published, because now, in 1951, the German public no longer wanted to read about the war. Lenz was told by the editor who had encouraged him just two years previously, "Your book could have been published in 1946, but not now." Of course, in 1946 Lenz had no manuscript because he was still a prisoner of war and had not even approached this publisher. 

The book begins in 1944 with a German infantryman, Walter Proska, who manages to miraculously survive an unsurvivable train explosion, crafted by partisans. When he becomes attached to a nearby German unit, taking shelter in a thrown-together wooden "Fortress," he has a hard time aligning to this motley group of disillusioned and disaffected and crazy, yes, mad dogs of hangers-on that know only that their days are numbered on the Eastern Front.  The absurd actions and speech of these individuals remind me so much of characters in the Americans' Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, though Lenz's book was written many, many years before these war novels. 

The "turncoat" element of the novel comes near the end of the novel, when Proska, after the death of his closest comrade, defects. He joins the partisans first, and then, after the war, becomes part of the Soviet bureaucracy, where he tries stubbornly to deny that his office co-workers are not disappearing daily. Proska, or the reader, realizes that as much as he was ensnared by the Nazi (Wehrmacht) command, he is entrapped by the Soviets. Freedom never existed, not for one moment.



  1. That sounds like a very interesting book, but also depressing. What a strange history for the book.

  2. I’m so sorry I didn’t manage to visit earlier.
    I’m glad you liked it too. I thought of Catch-22 as well. I found it very unique compared to other German war novels. Thank you for participating.