siegfried lenz

A Believer in the Good in People

Siegfried Lenz_DPA
Siegfried Lenz.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Siegfried Lenz was one of only a few remaining prominent German authors to have lived through, and written about, much of the country’s turbulent 20th century.

  • Facts


    • Siegfried Lenz sold over 25 million copies of his books worldwide.
    • His work was translated into 20 languages.
    • The author died on Tuesday, October 7.
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Germany is mourning one of its greatest authors. In a reaction to Siegfried Lenz’s death on Tuesday, the German President Joachim Gauck said: “For many readers Siegfried Lenz wasn’t just an author. He was a person who believed in the good in people and their ability to better themselves. He was loved like few other artists.”

Mr Lenz’s work “Deutschstunde” (The German Lesson) made him famous in 1968. In the novel, Siegfried Lenz uses the character of a police officer to show how Germans became minions of Nazi authority, lacking the essential ingredients of willpower, individuality and a mind of one’s own. Mr. Lenz called for a critical questioning of authorities and explored the central question of German guilt in the Second World War.

Siegfried Lenz was born in Eastern Prussia in 1926. After studying philosophy, English and literature, he worked at the German newspaper Die Welt for a short period of time. From 1951 onwards, Mr. Lenz worked as a freelance author, essay writer and critic living in Hamburg and the Danish island of Alsen.

In the words of Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Mr. Lenz's death marks " a loss of a piece of Germany."

Alongside Nobel-Prize winners Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, Mr. Lenz was one of those German authors who made the understanding of Germany’s Nazi history and the reconciliation between Germany and Poland – as well as Germany and Israel – a lifelong endeavor.

Even late into his life, Mr. Lenz achieved a bestseller with his novella “Schweigeminute” (A Minute’s Silence).

The author’s amusing short stories were especially popular. His narration “So Tender was Suleyken” is a key book in German cultural history. Other highlights in his career included “Lehmann’s Erzählungen” (Lehmann’s narrations, not published in English), which told stories of a black market trader after the Second World War. Mr. Lenz himself had financed his studies in Hamburg through working on the black market. Later on, he became an honorary member of the city of Hamburg.

Two years ago his last work “Die Maske” (The Mask, not published in English) appeared. The book tells the story of a young man who is hospitalized after a car crash. His roommate is an older author who reads stories to his wife while she is visiting him in hospital. This final work is, like his others, marked by empathy and a distinct notion of melancholia.

In the film “Heimatmuseum” (The Heritage), based on Lenz’s novel by the same name, the author imagines his east Prussian homelands and makes the scenery come alive by adding colorful imagery. In the book, the main protagonist Zygmunt Rogalla burns the museum in his hometown to save it from ideological misuse.

Politically, the author actively engaged in the reconciliation with Poland. In 1970, he accompanied Chancellor Willy Brandt of the Social Democratic Party in Germany to the signing of the Warsaw contracts, which began Germany’s policy of détente in Europe. Also, Mr. Lenz showed solidarity with Israel when the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein threatened the Jewish state with missiles.

In the words of Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Mr. Lenz’s death marks “a loss of a piece of Germany.”


The author is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. She studied cultural philosophy and has a longstanding interest in the arts. Tagesspiegel writers also provided material for this story. To contact the author:

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