Volker Braun: Das unbesetzte Gebiet [The Unoccupied Area]
On 8 May 1945, the German army capitulated. In the district of Schwarzenberg, comprising around twenty villages in Saxony, the people saw the German army leave and awaited the arrival of either the American or Russian troops. For six weeks, neither turned up. This is the story of what happened in Schwarzenberg during those six weeks. There is, of course, a mixture of people there – Communists and (ex-)Nazis, a variety of foreigners, both those from Eastern Europe fleeing the advancing Russians and others who have ended up there, often as prisoners of war used as labour by the Nazis. At the start, after the Nazis have gone, the people wait but soon realise that neither Americans nor Russians are going to arrive, so they start to organise.
Inevitably, there are conflicts but a group of men do take charge – workers of a more left-wing leaning – and do seem to deal with the issues they face fairly efficiently, though not without the threat of armed conflict. Former Nazis are arrested but are told, when they are naturally concerned about their fate, that they will not be treated in the same ways as they used to treat people. Food is a concern, as they only seem to have enough food for two-three days but a store of food is found hidden away. They even issue an edict saying that all Nazi laws are repealed but admit that they have not yet had time to come up with new laws, leaving a de facto state of anarchy. They even find time to visit the theatre and dress up somewhat. However, laws are passed – those who hoard food or keep arms risk being shot. In short, Schwarzenberg moves towards becoming a mini socialist republic, which will last till 26 June 1945, when Schwarzenberg surrenders to the Soviet forces.
While Braun tell this in a straightforward style, like an eyewitness recounting historical events, the second part of the novel, changes completely. We get little snippets, generally no more than a page long and sometimes only a paragraph long. Some of these recount minor historical events – the dead man’s corpse which was perfectly preserved when dug up or the good-looking man who did not want his portrait painted while alive but only a stone statue made of him a month after his death and therefore well decayed – others are more up to date. There is, for example, the story of Adam Burtle who sold his soul on EBay for $400 and other such stories. There are also snippets about events surrounding what happened in Schwarzenberg during the period described in the first part. Braun is clearly taking a left-wing view of the situation then and now, which may or may not work, according to your perspective.
By the way, this is not the first German novel to deal with this topic. Twenty years ago, Stefan Heym wrote a novel called Schwarzenberg on the same topic. I haven’t (yet) read the Heym novel but Braun’s is certainly an interesting experiment though not, of course, available in English. And what would have happened if they had been allowed to continue their socialist republic? Braun does not really deal with that.
First published 2004 by Suhrkamp
No English translation