Wir sind Gefangene by Oskar Maria Graf


I struggled through the 540-odd pages of Oskar Maria Graf’s Wir sind Gefangene: Ein Bekenntnis (We Are Prisoners – A Confession) before my German was anywhere near good enough. It was worth the effort. I am rereading it and will work on a new translation. In this foreword, written two years before Graf’s death in 1967, he sets out precisely what I understand as proletarian literature: the authentic voice of a member of the “anonymous masses” looking up at the crimes visited upon them by the State and by capitalism.

The book alternates between horror and self-parody, as the author dodges and ultimately confronts authority in various guises. Proletarian picaresque, if you like. But I will not reveal more. Read it in German if you can, or else you will have to wait. The book was translated into English in 1927 as Prisoners All but this has been out of print since. My next project will be to put that right. It deserves a wider audience.

Graf went on to write a unique collection of stories, largely focused on the life of the rural workers and artisans of his native Bavaria. Because of their folksy nature, his books initially escaped the Nazi book-burning of 10 May, 1933. Graf responded with his famous appeal:

“Burn me!”

FOREWORD by Oskar Maria Graf, on the first edition after 1945

This book, which now appears unchanged from the first edition published in 1927, was of fundamental significance for my entire literary existence. Up to that point, I had acquired only a certain amount of local popularity, which barely extended beyond the artistic quarter of Schwabing, through a slim volume of run-of-the-mill expressionist poems, some rough satirical peasant sketches in Simplizissimus and Jugend, and a booklet of earnest village tales, but chiefly through my wild bohemian life in Munich. What’s more, I must confess quite frankly that at the time I considered my writing quite a questionable affair, an effortless occupation that consisted of nothing more than a lustful narrative talent, a great deal of vanity, a fair number of original ideas, and a very cheeky, ballsy heedlessness.

That changed entirely at a stroke with the appearance of Wir sind Gefangene. The book caused a tremendous sensation, was widely discussed in all circles, unanimously admired in the leading daily press and serious periodicals, and translations appeared in English, French, Spanish, and Russian in quick succession. Apart from the strongly supportive propaganda of the publisher, which had a poster with an larger-than-life-sized picture of me and the headline text “The author of the day – The book of the year” plastered on all the advertising columns in all of Germany’s cities, the enthusiastic, in-depth opinions of such great minds as Romain Rolland, Maxim Gorky, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and other well-known authors of my generation first enabled this instant fame to have a far-reaching impact. With this, I was, so to speak, accepted into the canon of serious literature, and not only that! “In We Are Prisoners, the fierce scream of terror from a youth disenchanted by the war, the post-war and the failed revolution echoes for the first time and accuses us all!” says a long review by Theodor Lessing, who later emigrated to Czechoslovakia and was murdered there by Hitler agents, and I suddenly stood – unexpected and unintentionally – as the spokesman representing my young generation at the forefront of the social and intellectual conflicts of those turbulent years.

To tell the truth – and quite apart from the raging vanity that such an unexpectedly easy triumph produces – if, today, after more than thirty years, I remember my condition at the time, I must admit that all this unexpected success disturbed me immensely, yes, shocked me to the core, because in all my superficial existence, I had for a long time been engrossed with the works and teachings of my great teacher Tolstoy, and that had not failed to leave its mark on me. Now, all of a sudden, I began to think deeply about myself and my position on literature and always ended up with the oppressing question: “For what purpose, and for whom, does one write? Is the writer only there to achieve the highest level of mastery over language, to use sublime knowledge of psychology to make real-life situations of any kind understandable, and to fascinate his readership through the art of his narrative, or does his task as a writer consist far more in fighting against injustice in the world, wherever it appears, to make people receptive to and socially responsible for social and moral insights, to brand any war as a crime, and, at the risk of being misunderstood and suspected for a lifetime, always to speak out for a social order in which equal rights apply and in which the voluntary nature of participation in the whole finally becomes a moral rule?”

From then on it became clear to me that I could only be a writer in the latter sense of the word, a life-long so-called “engaged” writer whose talent was also an absolute human and social obligation. Certainly, I saw in everything of beauty, in all art something humane, but this humaneness only ever stirred and delighted, dissipated again and left no profound effect. It did not penetrate into the ambiguity of the human character, it did not destroy its inherited, thoughtlessly accepted ideas, it was unable to turn the cowardly, opinionless Joe Public into a person who could think and act for himself. Art was also rather like an “Opium for the People”. It made the individual, and entire peoples, incapable of resisting the nonsensical and the evil in everyday life that we had to experience in the recent decades of horror. That could and should never again be the task of writers, artists, intellectuals! If they were to stick with their old ways, they would pile immeasurably more culpability on top of the gruesome complicity that they undeniably had in the past. And the worst of all: Then all of their further work and effort would go, without any resonance, into blind nothingness and mean nothing other to subsequent generations than a curious “hobby” from grandfather’s time. —

But Wir sind Gefangene also had — as I now see it today — another quite different significance to the German public at the time, that went beyond me. The book was a forerunner for all the soon-to-appear, memorably powerful anti-war novels by Remarque, Renn, Plievier, A.M. Frey, and others, initiating an almost hectic increase in the production of similar works of all political directions, which — depending on the prevailing economic situation — became a highly lucrative business for many publishers.

But my book, written down with all the unquestioning, flickering subjectivity of a rebellious thirty-year-old, was very different from all these works that came later. It was in no way just a protestery anti-war book. It had, without my suspecting or wanting to do so, expanded, as it were in the course of its writing, into a comprehensive document of that most turbulent period from 1905 to the collapse of the 1918 German Revolution, and because one of the anonymous masses did not consider himself a superior prosecutor, alarmist or admonisher who positioned himself outside of his social environment, but remained within it and openly acknowledged: “I too am complicit! I too am responsible for the catastrophe!” – the youth of that time had found her unintended spokesman in this book.

Thomas Mann was the first and only one to fully pick up the scent of precisely this in his review. Possibly for this reason Wir sind Gefangene won the hearts of my peers and contemporaries and gathered no antiquarian dust, because even today, countless letters from readers from all walks of life testify to how frankly and lucidly they find their own youth conjured up in this book, and the most peculiar thing is that since that time, not a few historians have used this subjective confession as an objective source-work on those far-off times. We therefore hope that this autobiography has something to say to the youth of today. Above all, because it shows that the youth of that time, despite all the disappointment and hopelessness it experienced, courageously acknowledged this as their era, and yet remained faithful to the future. That this future was not fulfilled as had been hoped was not the fault of this youth, which time and again staked its life in the bloody struggles for these goals. To repeat it once again: The emergence of a completely different, more terrible future was and remains largely the fault of those intellectuals who, as soon as politics necessarily descended into repugnant detail, immediately withdrew to produce flawless art. —

New York, USA, Spring 1965
Oskar Maria Graf

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