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Siegfried Lenz: Deutschstunde (The German Lesson)

Siggi Jepsen is in a reformatory sometime after World War II for having stolen some paintings of the artist Max Ludwig Nansen. At the German lesson he and the others boys have to take, they are given an essay topic on The Joys of Duty. Initially, though he has some ideas, Siggi writes nothing at all in his exercise book. The teacher then takes him to the director where he is told that he will be locked in a room till he has completed the task. He proceeds to write down what he had been first thinking. While this is quite long, he tells the teacher, who comes to collect the book that it is only the beginning. His reminiscences will form the core of the book.

In 1943, when he is nine years old, Siggi is living in the North of Schleswig-Holstein, where his father, Jens, is the local policeman. Also living there are his mother, Gudrun, his sister, Hilke, and his brother, Klaas. Jens has been close friend with Nansen, who is now a famous painter, since childhood. However, he has been given the job of conveying a letter from the authorities to Nansen, telling him that he can no longer paint. Siggi gives us a detailed description of Jens’ cycle ride out to Nansen’s house, with Siggi accompanying him. But it is clear that Siggi has a warmer relationship with Nansen than he does with his own parents. A bit later, he and Hilke are out in the rain and they shelter with Nansen. They seem to get on well with him and Nansen shows them a painting he has done which seems to be simply a painting of seagulls. However, on closer inspection, the seagulls are all wearing the official cap worn by Jens and all have his face. Siggi and Hilke naturally find this quite amusing. When he returns home, wet, he is punished for going out in the rain. His father beats him with a stick while his mother looks impassively on. His father will then ask him what Nansen – he refers to him merely as The Painter – has been painting and Siggi tells him. Jens then asks Siggi to help him spy on Nansen. But Siggi finds out more. He hears Jens deliver another letter from the authorities to Nansen, this time telling him that he has to hand over all the paintings he has done in the last two years. Nansen is, of course furious. Siggi tells him that they will probably be returned but Nansen is less optimistic. However, as Nansen points out, he cannot stop painting. It is what he does. Jens, for his part, feels he has a responsibility to stop Nansen painting and does what he can to do so.

Siggi’s brother, Klaas, has been serving in the army so Siggi is surprised to see him at home one day. It turns out that Klaas had been in military prison and he had escaped from the prison hospital. Klaas asks Siggi to hide him and he hides him in his hiding place, an old mill, which we have already seen. Klaas warns his brother not to tell their parents. When four men in leather coats come looking for Klaas, Jens is obviously embarrassed and when Gudrun later asks him what he will do if Klaas turns up, he admits that he does not know. At Klaas’ suggestion, Siggi takes him to Nansen and Nansen agrees, at great personal risk, to hide him. However, when Klaas is clearly ill, things get more difficult. Gudrun starts to show her true colours by throwing Addi (Adalbert Skowronnek) out. Addi is Hilke’s fiancé. He is a musician of Polish origin and Gudrun does not like him, as he is different. She has the same reaction both to the”funny” people in Nansen’s paintings and to Nansen’s friend Teo Busbeck. Things start to get worse when Nansen continues to paint (with Busbeck hiding some of the paintings) and Jens feeling it his duty to take action. There is a mild reconciliation when Ditte, Nansen’s wife, dies but Jens is a firm believer in carrying out what he sees as his duty.

Meanwhile, we are following both the course of the war as well as Siggi’s writing and what is happening to him in the reformatory. The inhabitants of Rugbüll, the Jensen and Nansen home, sees Allied planes flying overhead and see and hear bombs dropping. Siggi reads about key events in the war, such as the sinking of the Graf Spee but, eventually, British soldiers turn up (they come to Siggi’s school). However, Jens is determined to organise a final resistance and co-opts all the men, including Nansen. Meanwhile, in the future, Siggi is writing his story and is being studied by a psychology graduate, who wants to make him the subject of his thesis. After the war, Klaas leaves (with Jutta, an orphan whose parents had been killed in the war and who had been sheltered and brought up by Nansen) and then Hilke leaves. We learn why Siggi is in reform school, a direct consequence of the war and his father’s behaviour.

The main theme of the book is about the conflict between Jens’ strong sense of duty over friendship and Nansen’s commitment to his art. Lenz makes it clear which side he is on. But there is also the effect that this has on those involved, particularly Jens’ three children, all of whom are scarred by their father’s actions. It is a long book and made long by Lenz using long descriptions of key scenes, such as the funeral of Ditte and the confrontation at the very end of the war when Jens is trying to marshal his troops. It is done brilliantly – Lenz is a superb writer – and confirms that this work is one of the foremost novels of post-war Germany.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Hoffmann & Campe
First English translation 1971 by Macdonald