Forgotten novel

A War of Words

Siegfried Lenz lent many autobiographical touches to his novels.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Siegfried Lenz, one of Germany’s greatest post-war writers, was himself a defector, having fled to Denmark from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.

  • Facts


    • Mr. Lenz was born in East Prussia, a former German province now in Poland, in 1926.
    • The writer, who died in 2014, was most famous for his short stories and essays and one of Germany’s most prominent post war authors.
    • He wrote The Turncoat in 1951, but it was rejected for publication and lay in his personal effects until it was found after his death.
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A few years before his death in 2014, the German author Siegfried Lenz spoke about the unpublished manuscripts that filled his drawers. The works spoke to him when he wrote them, he said, “but not anymore.” For the same reason, Mr. Lenz chose not to write a preface or an epilogue when his 1951 debut novel “Habichte in der Luft” (Hawks in the Air) was republished years after it first appeared.

“It was all so distant, so inaccessible,” he said. “It was so tedious to reappropriate something that had once been and still was mine,” Mr. Lenz admitted in one of his few autobiographical works.

And so, contrary to a recent claim in the German weekly Der Spiegel, it’s not a particular “sensation” that Mr. Lenz’s unpublished book “The Turncoat” was released one and a half years after his death. The completely finished novel was found among his effects. It was actually his second work, then titled “…da gibt’s ein Wiedersehen” (There Will
Be a Reunion). The novel’s existence, however, was widely unknown.

Lenz always remained silent about the book. That’s probably because he found it strange to re-read his work, often overcome by a need to edit. Moreover, he was reluctant to give away autobiographical information. And yet the story surrounding the novel’s creation, rejection and late publication is almost as revealing as the novel itself.

The story is based around West Germany’s fragile post-war mentality. It begins on the battlefields, at a front somewhere between Poland and the Ukraine. Here, numerous partisan attacks cause the gradual decimation of a group of German soldiers.

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