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Siegfried Lenz: Der Überläufer (The Turncoat)

This was the second novel Siegfried Lenz wrote, back in 1951. Hoffmann & Campe had planned to publish it but there were a few doubts. For various reasons, explained in the afterword to this book, they decided to shelve it, with a vague promise to publish it later. This never happened. Those involved at Hoffmann & Campe died. By the time Lenz died in 2014, it had been completely forgotten. The manuscript was found amongst Lenz’s paper after his death and was published to great acclaim in German in 2016. It was made into a film and translated into several languages, finally making it in to English.

Our hero is Walter Proska. Walter is a German soldier during World War II. Like Lenz, he is from Lyck, now Ełk which before the war was close to the German-Polish border. The novel opens with a brief scene from after the war. The now thirty-five year old Walter, whose job is described as assistant goes to borrow a stamp from an elderly neighbour. He finds the man injecting a hypodermic needle into his arm. The man is not embarrassed. He had fought in World War I and, during that war, had killed an innocent Russian soldier wandering along a country lane. He still feels guilty. So that’s why I send memories to the devil, and to make sure they don’t come back, I shoot that stuff into my arm. You can understand that, can’t you?. As neither he nor we realise at the time, Walter understands only too well.

Walter gets his stamp. The neighbour is surprised that he is sending a fifteen page letter to his sister, Maria. No-one sends a fifteen page letter to their sister, the neighbour says. We do not know what is in the letter but we do know that it will cause Maria much consternation.

We now jump back to World War II. Walter had been serving on the front near Kiev but had been on leave. He is returning by train and the train stops at a station. A woman, holding a jug, asks if she can get a ride on the train. She is carrying the ashes of her brother to his wife in Tomashgrod. The soldier on guard shoos her away but Walter takes pity on her and, when the soldier’s back is turned, lets her into his compartment. She is Wanda, aged twenty-seven. She speaks German. Her brother was killed when his train hit a mine – the railway is frequently sabotaged by partisans. The two become friendly but, suddenly the train is stopped and there is to be an inspection by the security police. Wanda jumps off and hides down the embankment. When the trains starts up. She does not reappear. Walter examines her jug. It contains dynamite. He throws it away.

The train continues when it suddenly hits a mine. The locomotive is thrown into the air and falls, dragging down the carriages into the embankment. Walter is shaken but unhurt. He scrambles out and is greeted by a German patrol. The patrol is part of a small group whose job is to guard the railways, something that is proving increasingly difficult, given the large number of partisans. Indeed one of the troop cannot understand why the partisans have not simply killed them. Walter has to stay with the troop and become a part of their number.

The next part of the book describes the activities of the group, led by an unpleasant corporal, with the other troop members the usual colourful assortment, including a professional fire-eater. We follow their patrols, their clashes with the partisans and the psychological problems they face being isolated. They also question the concept of duty and willingness and love of fatherland. Some troop members have disappeared. No-one knows if they were killed by the partisans or if they deserted. Two are killed while Walter is there.

On two occasions he comes across Wanda and they become close. Indeed, they have sex. Walter learns from her that the German troops in Tomashgrod have left, leaving Walter’s troop now completely cut off. The inevitable happens and they are all captured by the partisans.

We know what is going to happen, as the title tells us. One of Walter’s colleagues, known as Milk Roll but real name Wolfgang, decides to join the partisans. Wolfgang asks Walter if they are any different from the partisans. Like partisans they are men who have basic jobs just trying to get by, obeying orders from on high. Walter is convinced and he too joins them, eager to get rid of the Gang, which is how he and the others describe the Nazis.

They join the attack on the Germans and, gradually, get near his home town of Lyck. Lyck is taken but not without loss.

After the war Walter goes to work in the Soviet-occupied part of Germany, which will later become East Germany. He works in an office. It is not entirely clear what he does but he seems to be in charge of an office. What worries him is that people come to work there and then, one day, they disappear without explanation. He raises the issue with his superior who justifies what has been happening. Then Walter is warned that he is next on the list.

This really is a very good novel, even if essentially divided into three parts: Walter as German soldier, Walter as partisan and Walter as office worker under Soviet control. The life in the patrol, with all its problems, both from the partisans and from the abusive Corporal Willi, is the best, not least because we cannot be entirely sure what will happen, even if capture by the partisans seems the most likely outcome. Walter’s fellow troop members all have their issues with one in particular, Zwiczosbirski being to all intents and purposes insane.

One of the reasons the novel was rejected for publication was that the idea of a German soldier working for the Soviet was considered anathema during the Cold War period. Doubtless, it did happen. Lenz was not praising this course of action, not least because it did not work out well for Walter. However, it certainly adds to the force of the novel and has clearly been accepted by Germany’s current reading public. As far as I can determine, it has been translated into ten languages (including Catalan and Slovenian) before appearing in English and, inevitably, is published by a small press, the excellent Otyher Press.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Hoffmann & Campe
First English translation 2020 by Other Press
Translated by John Cullen