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    The Checkered Past of a Beloved East German Writer

    Erwin Strittmatter was one of the most successful and popular writers in East Germany. Now, on his 100th birthday, several new books dig deep into his past. The result is an unflattering picture of a man who was forced to find his peace with both the Nazis and the communists.


    Setting Villages on Fire

    In October 1941, he wrote a harmless-sounding account of an old man who had overlooked the curfew while visiting a neighbor. "He looked at me beseechingly. (Thirteen men were shot to death yesterday.) I couldn't help myself. I just had to slap him on the back and say: 'Don't be afraid, grandfather, it won't be so bad!' Then they took him away. I hope he'll be able to show some identification tomorrow."

    Again writing from Slovenia, Strittmatter penned the following words in a letter to Germany: "Prisoners would rather be shot than reveal any information. The villagers support these so-called freedom fighters. As punishment, the police have set entire farming villages on fire."

    After the war, Strittmatter created something of an idealized biography for himself. He authorized the following portrayal for the Association of German Writers: "Then he had to become a soldier. Convinced of the senselessness of the war, he deserted in 1945." Short and sweet.

    A good complement to Leo's biography is a recently published collection of works of history and literary theory titled "It's About Erwin Strittmatter, or The Dispute Over Memories." It includes a 2008 article by Werner Liersch, which launched the debate over Strittmatter.

    In a conversation with one of the editors of the collection, Liersch adds that now even he questioned Strittmatter's account of his desertion. "Almost none of what Strittmatter claimed about that time period is true," he concludes.

    According to Liersch, Strittmatter — unlike Günter Grass, who acknowledged his membership in the Waffen-SS — never diverged from his account until his death. He also points out that Himmler knew what he was talking about when he appended the letters "SS" to the regiment's name, "in recognition of their especially brave and successful mission."

    German studies expert Carsten Gansel believes it is possible that, for Strittmatter, his self-created legend eventually became an alternate truth because traumatic events were generally difficult to integrate into one's own biography. Gansel speculates that the author may have found a way "to process his own horror story and gain an identity suitable for reconstruction."


    Very interesting.

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