Franz Fühmann and the Sudetenland dreaming

Franz Fühmann in 1981, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z1229-318 / Senft, Gabriele / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Franz Fühmann (1922-1984) was one of East Germany’s most widely read writers. He is also one of few that have stood the test of time. He grew up in Czechoslovakia in Rokytnice nad Jizerou, a small town in the mountains close to what was then the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany. This provided the setting for several of his stories, drawing from his pre-war memories of the Sudetenland. They form part of his 1962 collection The Jew Car which is now available in English, published by Seagull Books and translated by Isabel Cole. David Vaughan takes a closer look at one of the stories, The Defence of the Reichenberg Gymnasium, set as Hitler was poised to annex the Sudetenland.

Franz Fühmann in 1981,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-Z1229-318 / Senft,  Gabriele / CC-BY-SA 3.0
In the space of just fifteen pages The Defence of the Reichenberg Gymnasium gives us a very tangible sense of the atmosphere in Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking borderlands at the tense moment just before they were annexed by Hitler at the beginning of October 1938. Like the author himself, the narrator is a German-speaking teenage boy going to secondary school in Liberec (Reichenberg in German) the main town of Czechoslovakia’s three-and-a-half million German speakers. Along with all his friends, the narrator has succumbed totally to the allure of Nazi Germany, just a few miles to the north. Here is the opening paragraph, slightly shortened…

The gymnasium in Reichenberg […] lives on in my memory as an olive-black hulk that flanked a steeply climbing lane. Its defence must have taken place around 15 September 1938, at a time when we heard hair-raising reports thrice a day on German radio about the bloody terror wreaked by the Czech-Jewish-Marxist cutthroats upon the peaceful Sudeten German population, along with the Führer’s assurances that a major power like the German Reich was no longer willing to stand by and watch as defenceless German brothers and sisters beyond its borders suffered at the hands of a nation of Untermenschen, and that the Sudeten German question must be solved, one way or the other. In Reichenberg, not a German had been so much as injured yet, and I hadn’t heard anything of the kind from my hometown either, in fact the Czech border post had been attacked and set on fire, but in all the other Sudeten German towns, we heard, there had already been the most appalling atrocities against Germans and the fiercest battles had raged, and when barbed-wire barricades appeared on the Reichenberg marketplace one morning and armed police patrolled and my team captain Karli yelled to me breathlessly that the Czechs were going to attack the Reichenberg gymnasium, I knew that now it was Reichenberg’s turn and my hour of truth had come.

Photo: Seagull Books
This was a time when Germany was bombarding the German-speaking border areas of Czechoslovakia with radio propaganda. The aim was to draw people into the sphere of influence of the Reich, and in the absence of German-language broadcasts from Prague – which amounted to no more than half-an-hour a day – most people in the Sudetenland were listening daily to Goebbels’ propaganda fed to them from across the border.

It was not all just ranting political speeches. Goebbels was too subtle for that. He was aware that radio could reach every household and that it could be used to capture people’s imaginations in support of the German revolution. There was plenty of music and entertainment, punctuated by news reports lauding the achievements of the Reich and listing alleged Czech atrocities.

This is the environment in which the youthful narrator of Fühmann’s story is acting, drawn into the world of Nazi Germany, while still living beyond its borders. Early in the story, he recounts how just a few weeks before, he had attended the huge Nazi sports gathering, the Sport- und Turnfest held in the German-Silesian capital, Breslau, in July 1938. He had even caught a glimpse of the Führer himself.

There in the stands stood the Führer, so close before us in blazing floodlights, so close and tall and alone, a god of history, and he raised his hand over us and his eyes swept our ranks and I thought my heart would stop when the Führer looked at me, and suddenly I knew my life was consecrated to the Führer forevermore.

The power of the story is that it shows how people could be so totally seduced, not by something that reflected the reality around them – most people in the Sudetenland were only too aware that almost all the atrocity stories about the Czechs were completely fabricated – but by a dream of a glorious future.

The gap between imagination and reality becomes central to the story, when Nazi German radio announces, quite wrongly, that Reichenberg itself is about to become the target of rampaging Czech gendarmes.

… my friend Karli knocked on the window of my ground-floor student quarters at Frau Waclawek’s on Gablonzer Strasse and yelled to me breathlessly that I had to come to the gymnasium quickly, it was an orange alert, today the Czechs would attack the gymnasium!

Ever since the 19th century, sports clubs had played a big part in the rise of national movements in many European countries. The Sudeten German Party leader himself, Konrad Henlein, had been a school sports teacher, and sports clubs, in German “Turnvereine”, became a focus of Nazi political activity in the Sudetenland. Needless to say, Fühmann’s narrator is an enthusiastic member of the local club in Reichenberg, ready, of course, to exchange dumbbells for a rifle at any time.

I’d never been in a battle like this; the occasional school scuffles didn’t count, the scouting games and the stupid provocations of the police in which I and all the others indulged; now it would turn serious, a real battle with real weapons, and I felt my heart beating…

The story takes an increasingly absurd and comic turn as the boys barricade themselves in the gymnasium with two sentries at the entrance – “password: Germany” – ready to face the Czech onslaught. As the hours go by, they get ever more bored and hungry, until eventually some of them brave the streets, to get some Wurst from Ferdl the Sausage Man. And then, later still… Alarm!

… a Czech police lieutenant strode into the hall, a wiry little man followed by two older police officers, and we clenched our fists round our weapons and trembled with lust for battle, and the burly man stepped forward and walked towards the Czech lieutenant, weighing the iron dumbbells in his hands, and the Czech lieutenant touched his hand to his kepi and said: ‘Good efening, chentlemen’ and the burly man raised the dumbbells in front of his chest. I trembled. ‘And vat, pray tell, are you chentlemen doing?’ asked the lieutenant. ‘We’re doing gymnastics,’ the burly man said hoarsely. I felt the blood pounding in my temples; now the order would come to pounce upon the foe! ‘Chymnastics, it is healthy,’ said the lieutenant, raising his left hand and turning back his cuff with the right; ‘it is very healthy,’ he repeated and pushed back his cuff and said a third time, smiling, that gymnastics was very healthy, and added, looking at his watch, that he hadn’t wanted to disturb us gentlemen and would be on his way again; he only wanted to point out, and he held up his watch to the burly man’s eyes, that it was already a quarter after seven, and eight was curfew. […] and he pushed his cuff back over his watch, touched his hand to his kepi and turned round, saying as he turned: ‘I vish the chentlemen an enchoyable efening’ and strolled out the door, the two policemen following him at a leisurely pace.

The boys’ ill-advised adventure has turned into farce. But that is not the end of the story.

The next morning we heard a report on German radio about the latest horrific atrocity by the Czech-Jewish-Marxist cutthroats: a horde of brutish police troops, we heard, had stormed the Reichenberg gymnasium, falling upon harmless schoolboys at their gymnastics exercises….

The radio report goes on to announce that there were many deaths and injuries, with blood spilling in rivers on the gymnasium floor. The German Reich could no longer stand by and watch.

… we listened to this report knowing every word for a lie and yet we listened with eyes aglow and it never crossed our mind that it was all just lies. ‘Man, that little Goebbels sure knows his propaganda,’ said Karli, head of my raiding party, and punched me in the ribs, ‘no one’s ever done propaganda like that before, that’s just grand!’ and Karli said that no other country but the Reich could pull of propaganda that grand, and I nodded. He was right.

The success of Goebbels’ propaganda became only too clear when, two weeks later, the Munich Agreement granted Hitler nearly a quarter of Czechoslovakia’s territory. Franz Fühmann’s story is a timely reminder of how hard it is to resist propaganda once it has gained momentum. His narrator knows from the evidence of his own eyes that German radio is telling him lies. But truth is not what matters. The end justifies the means, with catastrophic consequences.

The Defence of the Reichenberg Gymnasium is one of 14 autobiographical stories that Fühmann collected and published in 1962. They are all worth reading, offering a very personal, subtle and honest examination of the psychology of National Socialism.

Franz Fühmann was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1941, three years after the story is set. He was taken prisoner by Soviet forces in 1945 and then settled in East Germany, initially enamoured of the new communist regime, but later one of its fiercest critics. He died in East Berlin in 1984.