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Hans Keilson: Der Tod des Widersachers (The Death of the Adversary)

Like, I suspect, most people, I was unaware of Hans Keilson till quite recently when, first his hundredth birthday and then his death in 2011 brought his name more to the fore. Francine Prose declared Keilson a genius and this work a masterpiece. I am not sure that I would totally agree with her but it certainly is a very fine work. A new take (though this book is not new, it is new to many readers like myself) on the Nazis is always welcome and this work can stand beside Jonathan Littell‘s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) as a new approach to the Nazi period. It is set in Germany, though Germany is not named. However, the people speak German and various geographic features of Germany are named to make us readily identify the country. It concerns a dictator, who is also not named, except by the initial B. (his surname – we later learn that his first initial is J.) but who is clearly Adolf Hitler. We also learn that the narrator belongs to an unnamed group, also not named, who are discriminated against and become victims of B. and who obviously are the Jews. (Keilson was himself Jewish and fled Germany to the Netherlands as a result of the persecution of the Jews in Germany.)

The key to the originality of this book is the story told by the narrator about elks. It seems that when the Kaiser visited Russia to stay with his cousin, the Tsar, the Tsar presented him with some rare elks. These elks lived in remote areas, away from humans and the Kaiser found a remote part of the country for them to live in. Staff were appointed to look after them and they seemed to prosper. They were able to breed and remained healthy, though not often seen by humans. But then, suddenly, they started falling ill and dying. Experts were rushed in to examine them but there was no evidence of any problems, their food was ideal and no obvious illness. Eventually, when the experts were unable to determine why they were dying, the Kaiser contacted his cousin, who sent his best elk expert. He lived with them for some time and concluded that they were being treated well, that conditions were ideal and that they were eating the right food. Why are they dying, he was asked. Because there are no wolves, he replied. For Keilson and his narrator, B./Hitler is the mortal enemy. He must die. The narrator longs for this to happen. But, yet, there is some sort of symbiotic relationship. Hitler needed the Jews for his purpose but, for some strange reason, the Jews needed him, needed him to foment their hatred of everything he and the Nazis stood for.

We follow the narrator as he grows up in a Germany which is changing with the rise of the Nazis. As a child, his father warns him that we (i.e. the Jews) will suffer a lot under him but this is too remote for the child to fully grasp. However, as he grows up he sees the effect of the Nazis and anti-Semitism on him personally. For example, there is the story of the football game from which he is excluded, presumably because the Aryan Germans do not want a Jew. When he finally does get to play, he is frequently kicked and abused by his own side more than by the opponents. There is the story of his friend who, he finds out, is closely involved with the Nazi leadership and, indeed, has met Hitler and admires him. Naturally, on discovering this, their friendship ends. He makes friend with a young woman at the department store where he works, in the packing department (he is politely but firmly refused a counter job). When he visits her – she lives with her brother – her brother and three of his friends come and describe how they have desecrated a cemetery. They are clearly Nazi louts and clearly despise him. Twice he comes across Hitler. On the first occasion, he is walking through the country and stops at an inn. He learns that Hitler is visiting the town and the inn owner, who is letting out his meeting hall, offers to let the narrator sit at the back. At first he accepts but then declines. However, the speech given by Hitler is played through loudspeakers into the lounge where the narrator is sitting and he is mesmerised but also horrified by Hitler’s oratory. Nazi thugs break into the room and threaten the people who have not been to the meeting hall. He will also see Hitler in a car later on.

Keilson brilliantly portrays the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and the increasing attacks on the Jewish population, as well as their fears. His father has a rucksack packed, ready to leave, but does not leave in time. His friend, Wolf, talks about setting up an alternative society, outside the main society, which would provide for their people. But, of course, we know and the narrator knows what is really going to happen. Like Keilson, the narrator escapes and like Keilson’s parents, the narrator’s parents do not. But when Hitler dies, the narrator comments that he, the narrator, has lost something with he death of his implacable enemy.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by Westermann, Brusnwick
First English translation by Orion Press in 1962