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Hirtennovelle by Ernst Wiechert


by Ernst Wiechert

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In 1935, Ernst Wiechert was at the top of his career as an author. His books were popular with German people and Nazi leaders alike, as they celebrated Blut und Boden, i.e. simple life, German traditional values, and describing the German landscape, viz. northern Germany, of his youth in his early works and the Bavarian mountains, where he moved, in his later works. In the 1930s, Wiechert was one of the most popular authors in Germany.

Germany must already have been a very dangerous place to live in 1935. Bertold Brecht and Thomas Mann left Germany in 1933. By that time, Hitler had sold 240,000 copies of Mein Kampf. The Night of the Long Knives had already taken place in 1934. Jewish people and German intellectuals started leaving or had already left Germany.

Ernst Wiechert decided to stay. Throughout the 1930s he became increasingly, and explicitly outspoken against the Nazis which led to his internment in concentration camp Buchenwald in 1938. Upon his release, he was warned by Goebbels personally to refrain from further publication and resistance. Nonetheless, 1939 saw the publication of his most popular novel, Das einfache Leben.

The novella Hirtennovelle was published in 1935. To the Nazis this work was already distasteful, but it is hard to say why, and that is probably why publication, and further publication of other work was not hindered.

Hirtennovelle tells the story of a young boy, whose father is killed during a wood logging accident. He grows up to be the shepherd of the cattle of the village. At the end of the story, he is killed trying to protect a lamb as killing marauders invade.

The novella celebrates traditional German values. The pastoral setting in the forests and meadows around the village, far from the city, create an idyllic setting. Michael, the shepherd boy, is extremely dedicated and dutiful to his task as the shepherd of the cattle of the village. His sense of duty is exemplary. The novella exemplifies the natural, good values of life in the countryside, as opposed to the perfidious influence of the unnatural and evil from the city. Although the sixteen-year old Michael is attracted to Tamara, a painter from the city, nature prevents him from precocious sexual intercourse, and he rejects her altogether when he discovers that she has painted him naked.

If the the Nazis did not like Hirtennovelle, then the motives that led to that distrust must be hidden. Criticism must mainly be implied. This has been done very cleverly, mainly by inverting Nazi ideals.

Hirtennovelle can be read as a parable. The bull of the village is named Bismarck, so the link with Germany is clearly established. The herd of the village is described as colourful, varied, consisting of all races of the world, representing a polyglot empire (p.20). Bismarck is like a slave in shackles. The mayor, also referred to as the King, with his gold tooth, is viewed by some in the village as "the great whore Babylon" now, confers the care of this greatest treasure of the village, this great responsibility, not on a great leader, but on a pale, twelve-year old boy. At the end of the book, Michael dies protecting a lamb, even though the mayor cries to let it go. This persistent emphasis of weakness, protecting all, and protecting the weak, would have been in clear opposition of Nazi values.

Michael's father was killed by a falling tree, and subsquently, Michael is only referred to as "the son of a widow". This sense of shame and emphasis on the matriarchal line, is far removed from the heroism of Nazi ideals.

Nazi art celebrated the (naked) male body, while it rejected "unnatural" art. Michael rejects Tamara's painting of him naked, tearing the canvas apart as if it is an unnatural, and disgusting depiction. This scene parodies the Nazi's art ideals.

Possibly, Laban stands for the Jews who reject the idea of leaving Germany, who still feel secure enough, and fear the journey to the promised land more than the good life they have been living in Germany, until now.

Superficially, Hirtennovelle can be read as a simple, pastoral story. A rereading, however, will undoubtedly reveal many other motives and themes which would reveal this interesting novella as thorn in the flesh of Nazi readers. ( )
5 vote edwinbcn | Jan 15, 2012 |
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