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Alfred Andersch: Winterspelt (Winterspelt)

This was Andersch’s last novel and is often considered his best. It took him three years to write and clearly involved detailed research and a lot of writing – my German paperback edition has around 600 pages. Winterspelt is a small town in Germany, South-West of Cologne, between Aachen and Trier and just by the border with Belgium. The novel is set in Winterspelt during October 1944. Though the book does not make much of this, much of the population was evacuated in 1944. During the period of the novel, it is occupied by the German army, specifically, the Fourth Battalion of the Third Regiment of the 416th Infantry Division. Facing them, across the River Our is the US army. Not much military action is happening but we know that this is a prelude to the Battle of the Bulge, called the Ardennes Offensive in German. The novel concerns the events in Winterspelt during this period and, in particular, the plan of Major Dincklage to surrender his unit to the US troops.

During the early part of the novel nothing much happens. We learn of the position of the two armies. The US troops feel that their army is very much stretched across a long offensive line (as the Battle of the Bulge will show to be the case). The Germans are well entrenched, indeed, so much so that the spy/go-between is unable to say exactly where they are. The US fighter-bombers come over every day but cannot find any targets. Interestingly enough, the Germans seem to have no air support and Captain Kimbrough, the US officer across the river, wonders why, if this is the case, the Germans don’t just surrender. There are three other main characters, for whom Andersch gives detailed biographies. Firstly there is the art historian Schefold, who acts as the go-between between the two armies. We learn that he has travelled around Belgium, cataloguing art collections. Much of his material has been left behind but he has on his wall one treasure, Paul Klee’s Polyphonic Setting for White (Andersch gives it a slightly different name), which he had managed to steal (apparently without difficulty) from a Frankfurt art gallery. Secondly, there is Wensel Hainstock, a Marxist, who lives in a cave, where he nurses a tawny owl he found injured by the road. He is a geologist by profession but had become a Marxist and had worked in particular in Czechoslovakia, as his grandmother was Czech and she had taught him the language. He had been caught and sent to a concentration camp but had been released because of the influence of a fellow geologist. Finally there is the student Käthe Lenk, who is having an affair with Dincklage, to Hainstock’s disgust, who had also been having an affair with her. She had been a teacher in nearby Prüm but the town had been evacuated and she had managed to escape – illegally – to Winterspelt, where she has worked in a house and also in the fields. She and Dincklage dream of going to Lincolnshire after the war, he because he had already visited it and loved it and she because she has read about it in Bleak House.

Andersch is concerned to a certain degree with the military action or, rather, inaction. He mixes in sections of the fictitious story with quotes from memoirs, official documents and the like about the actual events and situation. However, his real concern is the motivation of the five principals. Not entirely surprisingly, it is Major Dincklage who is the most interesting of the characters. He is a military man by profession but certainly not a keen one. He was happy when the unit was in Denmark and now fears that his unit will be sent to the Russian front. However, he was happiest when studying economic theory at Oxford University and wishes he could be back there. While the novel is very much concerned with the discussions and planning around the surrender, it is also concerned with the relations between the various characters, and not just the five main ones. For example, we follow in some details the relationship between two ordinary German soldiers, Riedel, the small, silent, obedient and loyal soldier, and Borek the large, loud-mouthed rebel. Riedel will play a larger role later on. Even with the Americans, we see Kimbrough’s relationship with Major Wheeler (a professor of medieval history in peace time) and learn much about Kimbrough’s background in Georgia, where racism and the legacy of the Civil War are strong.

The build-up to the surrender which, of course, does not quite go to plan, takes place in the latter part of the novel. Before that we have learned a lot about the key players and their relationships as well as about the local military situation and their political views. Apart from a few Russian prisoners-of-war, who seem to be well-treated, one even having an affair with a local woman, there are few outsiders. The village has been evacuated and few people are left. Not only does the Holocaust not get a mention, nor does the Gestapo or the other nastier aspects of the Nazi regime. Indeed, out-and-out Nazis are few and far between. For example, when Dincklage is thinking of the consequences of his action if it is found out before taking place and he is arrested, he remembers that there are no official party members in his unit, because of the lack of available resources and, as a result, he would be tried by a military tribunal, not by the Nazis. In short, the action takes place in a very closed and narrow world, enabling Andersch to focus most of his story on that world, with the outside influences being relatively minimal. Does it work? It is certainly a fascinating account and was well received but also often criticised in Germany. It is clear that it is not just about the Nazi period but reflects his opposition to the extremism (left and right) of the late 1960s/early 1970s in West Germany. It turned out to be his last novel – he had a kidney transplant three years later and died in 1980 – and is a worthy testament to a writer who is sadly little known in the English-speaking world.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Diogenes
First English translation 1978 by Doubleday