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Wolfgang Koeppen: Der Tod in Rom (Death in Rome)

When it was first published in Germany in 1954, this novel was not always well received, not least because the basic message of the book was that Nazism was alive and well. The story revolved around the wonderfully named Gottlieb Judejahn (Gottlieb means God Love and Jude mean Jew). Judejahn is a former SS general, who managed to escape Berlin at the end of the war and is now working under an assumed name (Koeppen never tells us what it is) for an Arab sheik, buying illegal arms. Judejahn is in Rome on business and there is to be a reunion of the family. The family includes his brother-in-law who is now a well-respected mayor but was a Nazi official and Judejahn’s two sons. Adolf is training to be a priest (he is currently a deacon, which means that he cannot give mass or grant absolution). He stumbled into priesthood by landing up in church at the end of the War and by being helped by a priest. Siegfried is a composer but, at least in his father’s eyes, with two negatives. Firstly his work is what the Nazis called entartet, best translated as degenerate. In this case, the symphony he has written is twelve-tone, very much influenced by Schoenberg, whose music he sought out when he was in Edinburgh. Secondly, he is gay. Siegfried is in Rome to have a twelve-tone symphony he has written performed, with the orchestra conducted by Kürenberg, a former concentration camp prisoner. Judejahn’s wife is also there but she hides in her hotel room, never coming out.

As with his other books, Koeppen lays it on, never using one adjective when three will do, never using one noun when he can give us three. The strength of the book is seeing how the characters are all fighting their personal demons but particularly Adolf Judejahn and his father. Gottlieb Judejahn has no remorse. Indeed, he contemplates a comeback for Nazism and continually shows his contempt for Jews, gays and the weak (which includes his son, Adolf). In short, he is proud of his wartime achievements and blames the failure of Nazism on the weakness of his colleagues, who failed to properly carry out orders. But Koeppen is not going to let him get away with it, constantly showing his insecurities, particularly in a superb passage where Judejahn wanders round Rome – the first time he has walked round a city for thirty years. The last time he was in Rome, he was with Mussolini and Mussolini was scared of him. But now the people ignore him and he is not happy. The story, such as it is, is that Judejahn is attracted to an Italian prostitute, Laura. When they are finally about to have sex, Judejahn is worried that she is Jewish (he is wrong) and attempts to shoot her but inadvertently kills Kürenberg’s wife (who is Jewish). Judejahn, of course, has to die but Koeppen has given us a wonderful portrait of an ex-Nazi who stills believes in the cause and makes it clear that Judejahn is not entirely fictitious.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Scherz & Goverts Verlag
First English translation 1956 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson