Gert Ledig was of the generation of German writers who fought in World War II and lived to write about it. After brief public acclaim for his first novel, Die Stalinorgel (1955)/The Stalin Organ ¹ he was invited to join Gruppe 47, a post-war writers’ circle which included many of his war-generation peers: Gunter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Paul Celan, and many others.  He refused.  He could not be compared to others in the group, he said.  Perhaps working through his wartime experiences was more difficult for him than for the others, having lost two fingers and part of his jaw, fighting both on the Eastern Front and the Western Front, time in a punishment battalion, and under the bombs in Munich.  Perhaps also, since he joined the German Communist party after the war, he was not of the same temper as the others.

He found pick-up labor, lumberjacking and scaffolding work in the never ending rebuilding of bombed out cityscapes.  He also worked as a translator for the U.S. Army.  When his second novel, Vergeltung(1956)/Payback, found small audience, and even a certain amount of revulsion –described by reviewers as “brutal and tasteless,” “purposely morbid,” and an “abominable perversity”–, and his third, Faustrecht (1957)/The Brutal Years, even less, he disappeared from the writing scene, making a living by writing and translating technical articles, and running a small engineering firm.  A year before Ledig’s death in June, 1999, W.G. Sebald, well known from his 1992 novel, The Emigrants, referred favorably to Payback in public lectures and a subsequent book, On The Natural History of Destruction.  Sensing a change in the willingness of the reading public to deal with suppressed stories of the war years, Ledig’s triad of novels was picked up for re-publication.  Translations or re-translations followed, radio plays and literary discussions brought his name to common knowledge among German readers, along with recognition of the plain-spoken, powerful depictions of war, on soldier and civilian, enemy and ally alike.

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Refusing to be recognized for The Stalin Organ, Ledig pled modesty for his talents and for the novel itself, saying it was only a “combat novel.”  And what combat, and what a novel it was.  Taking place on a small area of war-territory some 45 kilometers from Leningrad/St Petersburg, where Ledig himself had actually fought, it is not a novel or heroism and shining victories of battle-savvy troops. The standard war novel could not represent the horrors of war for German soldiers, Russians soldiers, and all those affected by it.  If we are to write about war, let’s write about all of it. 

The first character is dead as he is introduced

“The Lance-Corporal couldn’t turn in his grave, because he didn’t have one. Some three versts from Podrova, forty versts south of Leningrad, he had been caught in a salvo of rockets, been thrown up in the air, and with severed hands and head dangling, been impaled on the skeletal branches of what once had been a tree.”

Ledig’s dark humor is introduced and doesn’t let up, nor do his macabre, explicit images of what really happens in a war.

“The bulk of the corpses were recruited from those who had died of various wounds. One stretched his arms and legs up into the air. Another lay naked on the grass, his skin chargrilled by a flame-thrower.”

In a short 198 pages, Ledig brings us, in excruciating detail, Russians and Germans fighting in the summer of 1942 in, it seems, a double envelopment, neither able to escape or over-run the other.  In alternating chapters we get to know the Major, the Captain, the Sergeant, the Corporal, the Runner of the Germans, Trupikov, Zostchenko, Sonia and others of the Russians.

He uses, and his fine translator, Michael Hoffman, delivers, short, phrasal descriptions, almost as if an outline for a film. 

“Mud spurted up among the wire entanglements. .. an arm flipped up. A hand-grenade spun through the air. It landed in the morass in front of them. The explosion died away. Brackish water splashed over their heads.” 

And, of people:

“…his eyes had just grown round with shock.  As if he had trodden on a piece of glass with bare feet. He sat down.  Not quite like a man sitting down, but not like a man wounded either.  Surprised, but content.  He was already dead.”  … How a man could die like that. Unprepared.  Not even finish what he was thinking, or say the words his lips were forming.”

A German deserts to the Russians; after being slapped and kicked he is left alone and tries to return to his own lines.  A Russian is wounded and found by Germans.  A captured German officer is asked by his Russian captor to try to end the blood shed and ask his men to give up, they do not and shoot at him as an answer.   The Germans think they have been left without air-support and that the Russians are ready to over run them; air support appears, enough to kill and terrify the Russians, then flies off, leaving nothing changed except the number of living bodies.

Outside the entrance the dead Schute kept adding to his collection of shrapnel.  Each time, he moved.  It looked as if he were still alive …  his garden pool probably wouldn’t get built now.

In the midst of this, a German Adjutant arrives, wanting to carry on a proper military courts martial as an example to the other soldiers; a German NCO demands a vote of the remaining men: surrender or break out? Surrender or suicide?  Suicide or break-out?

“The master of the hill was Death.  The Germans and he, Lieutenant Trupikov, and his men–two useless groups of men, confronted by death.  They might have done better to come to terms, like businesspeople.” 

If explosions the whine and thunder of artillery are not enough:

“Zostchenko saw the artillerymen by the flashes of fire from their gun muzzles.  They looked serene, as if in the performance of some sacred ritual.  His eyes drunk on the fiery swarms of incandescent birds, his ears deafened by the din, his nerves lashed, he screamed.  

There  are mosquitos, chest-deep swamp muck, the smell of bodies, the defecating on a shovel and tossing it out of the trench — too dangerous to use a latrine–, hunger, memories of home, hallucinatory at times, news of a dead child from home, prisoners being shot, shot and hanged, hanged and shot.

He had wanted to go to Hell, and by God, he had had his way. Tricked out with everything a sick brain could think of.

The confusion, a permanent condition of war, is carried not only by the description and unshakable images, but Ledig’s writerly means and methods.  Though, as his translator, Michael Hoffman says, Ledig manages, after a fashion, to unify the random events and chaos of battle into the plot of a novel, I can not say, plot was easy to notice; no pulling event by event to see what happened.  This is not a s story if small, intimate psychology of men at war now, as so many war novels are, of a squad of men we get to know in their relations to each other and the elemental emotions.  Though we read in sequential order, what we have is a vast Guernica-like panorama in which we can associate, or not, objects, events, feelings, and personalities. 

 

1) Michael Hoffman’s translation, New York Review Books (2005), is titled “The Stalin Front.”  The earlier Granta title, the same Hoffman translation, is “The Stalin Organ” (2004), which is the more literal, and intelligible.  Stalinorgel was German Wehrmacht military slang for a multi-tube rocket used by the Russians, more familiarly called a Katyusha, the type which killed the Lance-Corporal in the novel.  There were also two previous titles, to an earlier translation, by Mervyn Saville: The Naked Hill (1956,) London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson and retitled in America as The Tortured Earth (1956,) Chicago, Henry Regnery.

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Pay Back (1956), the second of what would be his wartime triad, was far less successful in finding readers.  It takes place not at the front, not with those who expect to shoot and be shot at, but in a German city under assault by American bombing raids. It takes place in only seventy minutes.  As in The Stalin Front, Ledig makes us aware of all sides: the bombs falling on the city, the men in the air being shot at with anti-aircraft, and fighter planes, with descriptions I’ve never seen in writing about war:

“Suddenly engines rumbled in the sky.  A sharp arrow-fall of magnesium incendiaries bored hissing into the asphalt.  A second later they burst open.  Where asphalt had been flames crackled.  A handcart was blown over by the blast.  The shaft flew into the air, a child rolled out of the blanket. The mother by the wall did not scream.  She didn’t have time…. Next to the mother stood a woman burning like a torch.  She was screaming.  The mother looked on helpless, then she too was on fire.  It raced up her legs, up her thighs, to her body.  She felt it happening, then she collapsed.  A shock wave exploded along the graveyard wall and in the moment the road burned too.  Asphalt, stones, air.

This is the kind of detail we have gotten used to seeing in recent thriller films, combat or not, body parts flying, legs ripped off, intestines oozing, screams stopped, breath gone.  In both The Stalin Front and Payback, Ledig excels at this.  Hemingway’s war descriptions seem as if from a distant observer.  Those who come closest are Heller, Catch-22, (1961) and Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five, (1969).  In both of them, the irony is more obvious and less overwhelmed by the macabre, and the fantasy leavens the descriptions, making them easier to “enjoy,” if that is the word. I don’t know, however I can imagine that the wide, international popularity of these two, made the eventual acceptance of Ledig’s work more possible.

Thousands of feet above the ground, the American bomber crew, is being shot at, terrified.  The bombardier, who had released his bombs over a cemetery so as not to hit the living, is catapulted from the crippled plane, and parachutes, wounded, into the chaos.  There, pleading for help, he is pursued by any who see him, driven from shelters, and left to die.

Buried under the rubble of a cellar bomb-shelter a German man rapes a young woman encased with him.  An elderly couple desperately tries to guide each other out of smoking ruins.   A young anti-aircraft crew, “the graduating class of the Humanist Grammar School,” desperately tries to fend off the bombers, led by a one-handed veteran. “His hand was one thousand five hundred miles away from the city in the lime-pit of El Alemein.”

W.G. Sebald, who was largely responsible for putting “German wartime suffering” back on Germany’s intellectual agenda and whose attention led to Ledig’s resuscitation, described the work, and why it could not initially find favor. 

“Ledig’s deliberately intense, uncompromising style, designed to evoke disgust and revulsion, once again conjured up the ghost of anarchy at a time when the economic miracle was already on its way, he evoked the fears of general dissolution that threatened the collapse of all order, with humans running wild and descending into lawlessness and irreversible ruin. Ledig’s novels…were excluded from cultural memory because they threatened to break through the cordon sanitaire cast by [German] society around the death zones of the dystopian incursions that actually occurred.
— W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction

Ledig’s framing in Payback is different than in The Stalin Front.  Thirteen short chapters are preceded by mini-autobiographies of those who will appear in the later pages; many of them sweet and innocent.

I, Maria Erika Weiknert, was born on 4 July 1925 in Marburg on the Lahn.  After attending secondary school and business school, I got a job as a clerk.  … My favourite colour was blue. I wore my long hair in a roll at the nape of my neck.  Had it been possible, I should have liked to learn to dance

The chapter following does not necessarily feature her, but she appears from time to time in the hours, and chapters, following.  We will remember: oh, she, in the rubble, was she whose favorite color was blue.

In neither novel does Ledig indulge in comments or allusions as to intention or guilt.  He describes injury and events without moral gloss; no narrator’s voice of condemnation, nor of pity.  What he is focused on in Payback is the visceral experience of being under the bombs, which he, himself, experienced in Munich in 1945.  The constant feeling of being trapped, claustrophobic underground but terrified whether above or below of whistling, booming death or maiming. Those in the air and those on the ground die in the same shrapnel lacerated ways.  It is faceless, technological death; morality need not apply.

Payback, wished by all, against all, goes on, a perpetual motion machine.

“After the seventieth minute the bombing resumed.  Payback was doing its work

It was unstoppable.

It just wasn’t the Day of Judgment.

 

The translator of Payback, (2003) Granta, is Shaun Whiteside who handles the difficult material with the same terse syntax as we imagine the original German to be. An introduction is provided by Hoffman, whose translator of The Stalin Organ, came out the year following Whiteside’s.  

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The third of the triad, which I have not yet read, is Faustrecht, (1957) / The Brutal Years (in a hard to get 1959 translation) , or, more literally, The Law of the Jungle.  According to reviews in German, it takes a hard, unsentimental look at the immediate post-war months in Germany in unbelievably bleak and primitive conditions.  wo war losers Robert and Edel agree to an unscrupulous friend’s proposal to rob an American jeep. Everything goes wrong and Edel is fatally injured. In the rubble of their houses and streets, single figures, driven by circumstances, move and fluctuate between need and friendship, vindictiveness and cowardice.  Both the content and the tone of Faustrecht practically guaranteed that the novel would fail commercially and critically in the cultural climate of the late 1950s.  “Today,” says one commentator, “the novel reads as a tightly-wound film noir screenplay.”

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This is all very very difficult reading, so the question is, and has been asked of me, why would someone read it?  For me, the answer is: The world is a serious place and to understand it, and push it away from its serious ugliness we have to read, and think, seriously. A slightly more shaped answer has something to do with why certain kinds of war novels retain their popularity and those such as Ledig’s don’t. 

 

Traditional, and still popular, war novels (and movies) bring excitement to the reader, the visceral feeling of danger, with the substrata of safety (on the couch).  There are well defined good-guys (the winners –our guys) and bad-guys (the losers –their guys.) These works of imagination, with their mimesis of reality, allow us to imagine — ourselves as the good guys, the victorious and valorous, the well-intentioned, the fighters  freedom, and even (justified) payback.  Even better known WWII novels, such as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, or James Jones, The Long Red Line, which don’t have puffed up stories of bugles and flying the colors, and which deliver much more complex stories of conflicted emotions and ideas, present stories in which I, the reader, might conceivably find him/her self.   ‘War is hell, but what are we gonna do?’  They retain, from the war-story tradition, the central focus on the fighting men, and lately women, those with the weapons,  supplies, leadership and national support; they do not “see” the “externalities,” those who while being fought “for,” are being fought over and among.

Ledig sees it differently.  The winners and losers story line is only one of many possible.  Widen the narrative, shift it one way or another and se see:  War is hell. Period. Everybody loses.  Unless we, readers and writers,  stop being mesmerized by the good-guys-win and bad-guys-lose stories we will continue the circle of mimesis to the death

I don’t have a good name to distinguish these fully experiential war stories from those more familiar and habitual. The later might be more properly called war-combat stories. Those, such as Ledig’s, and many others I have found in recent years, could perhaps be called war-full stories.  The full story of war, not covering up, not elevating the sacrificial dead to immortality and all the rest of the dead to unwritten of, unremembered oblivion.

Who should read The Stalin Front, or Payback?  Here’s a short list: all young people who want to join the military for fame and glory; all mothers and fathers who think sending a child off to war is no more than off to college; all generals and high officials who think somehow, after all these centuries, that they can WIN a coming war. All those who work in the factories, fly the aircraft, wheel the tanks; all those who pay taxes.  Let us all understand what really happens when the stories fall apart and reality begins.