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Schlump: The tragic story behind a forgotten masterpiece

Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm - Credit: Archant

A victim of bad timing and Nazi disapproval meant the curiously-titled Schlump vanished into obscurity. But it has been recently re-evaluated and its anonymous author unmasked.

Hans Herbert Grimm – Credit: Archant

Alone In Berlin opened in British cinemas last week starring Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson as the working class couple Otto and Anna Quangel who conduct a subversive postcard-based campaign of resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War.

Hans Fallada’s novel on which the film is based was originally published in German as Jeder Stirbt Für Sich Allein (Every Man Dies Alone) in 1947, becoming a surprise bestseller in Britain and the US in 2009 when Michael Hoffmann’s English translation was released as Alone In Berlin.

The film version premiered here on June 26, which by chance marked the 121st birthday of another German writer whose subversive work would find international success long after his death.

Indeed there are a number of common themes to the lives of Hans Fallada and Hans Herbert Grimm. Both wrote novels viewed on publication as controversial and subversive, neither wrote under their real name, both had uncomfortable connections to the Nazis despite denouncement as ‘undesirable authors’ during the 1930s and both died shortly after the Second World War at the relatively young age of 53.

While Fallada has become a surprise posthumous household name, however, Hans Herbert Grimm remains relatively unknown.

Great books can fail to take off for a number of reasons but few can have been a bigger victim of sheer bad timing than the curiously-titled 1928 novel Schlump. It’s a book that deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as similar titles such as Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls and Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That but circumstances conspired to such an extent that it is only recently that Grimm has even been identified as Schlump’s author, more than half a century after his death.

The story of a teenage German soldier’s experiences in the First World War, Schlump is brilliantly warm, funny, tragic and shocking, containing an honest, raw account of the reality of life in the trenches. In Britain we’re used to it, it’s practically an industry in its own right: the poetry, the memoirs, the stories and novels, all underpinned by the advantage of a victor’s perspective.

In 1920s Germany meanwhile the nation was still struggling to come to terms with catastrophic, humiliating defeat. When Schlump appeared in 1928 it was one of the very first accounts to portray the German soldier as fallibly human, less than heroic, doomed by the incompetence of their military commanders.

Too many Germans had died in vain and the pain was still too raw for the truth. A nation’s grief was propped up on the flimsy perpetuating myth of the German soldier as heroic fighting machine in the glorious Prussian tradition.

Then along came Schlump.

Schlump is the nickname of Erich Schulz, a dreamer and a romantic who in 1915 defies his parents and joins the German army. He’s put in administrative charge of the French village of Loffrande and for a few months has a thoroughly enjoyable war, far from the fighting and close to beautiful French girls.

Eventually Schlump is sent to the front and the contrast is immediate and jarring. Suddenly we are in a world of mud, lice, rats and corpses. After the dreamy idyll of Loffrande we’re among bullets and shells, fizzing and booming, white hot shrapnel zinging through the air around and through soldiers ill-equipped, ill-trained and led by imbecilic officers, crying for their mothers with their dying breaths.

Through all this unprecedented, life-changing hell Schlump tries to retain the positivity and idealism that had sustained him in Loffrande.

‘He was determined to make something of his life,’ wrote the war veteran Grimm in a passage as tongue-in-cheek as it is autobiographical, ‘because surely there would be peace again now, soon, peace! Peace and decency – how lovely life would be! What a golden age was beginning now!’

For Grimm himself, writing in 1928, that last sentence in particular would ring particularly hollow.

Within weeks of the book’s publication – on the back of an advertising campaign predicting the question ‘Have you read Schlump yet?’ ‘would be on men’s lips everywhere’ – the Vossische Zeitung newspaper began serialising another affecting, gritty story of the hardships of life on the German front line by Erich Maria Remarque. Early in 1929 it was published in book form as In Westen Nichts Neues – Nothing New In The West – but it would become known worldwide as All Quiet On The Western Front.

The original edition sold 10,000 copies a month in its first year and was immediately turned into a feature film. Schlump was almost completely eclipsed, selling a shade over 5,000 copies in its first few months. It was a respectable total for the time and Grimm would earn enough from Schlump to build himself a new house, but the book would remain firmly in Remarque’s shadow.

Fearing backlash from a still war-raw public Grimm had published anonymously under the full title Schlump: Tales And Adventures From The Life Of The Anonymous Soldier Emil Schulz, Known As Schlump, Narrated By Himself. The book’s authorship was a mystery to all but a handful of trusted confidants and would remain so for the best part of a century. Indeed, Hans Herbert Grimm would have remained unknown forever were it not for a writer and former newspaper editor named Volker Weidermann.

In 2008 Weidermann published The Book Of Burned Books, an inventory of and commentary on titles selected by the Nazis for their notorious 1933 literary Berlin bonfire of proscribed works. Schlump was one of them and Weidermann was charmed by its dreamy prose and gently subversive humour. ‘A bright book for a dark time’, he called it.

A few months later Weidermann received a bulky package in the post containing a large sheaf of closely-typewritten paper yellowed with age and gritty with plaster dust beneath a covering letter from a woman explaining that the hitherto unknown author of the book Weidermann had praised was her late grandfather, a schoolteacher from Altenburg named Hans Herbert Grimm. Indeed, here was the original Schlump manuscript to prove it, walled up in a cavity by a fearful Grimm himself when the house was built in the early 1930s.

The letter went on to relate the extraordinary tale and tragic fate of her grandfather and his only published novel.

An intelligent man with a knack for languages Grimm taught English, French and Spanish after his war service, gained a PhD, married his sweetheart and lived and worked quietly and happily in the picturesque town of Altenburg, near Leipzig in eastern Germany.

He spent many years writing and tinkering with Schlump before its 1928 publication by the renowned Kurt Wolff, publisher of Kafka. Expectations were high and critical reaction generally positive (there was even a glowing review by J.B. Priestley in the Times), but the runaway success of All Quiet On The Western Front meant that while sales were decent Grimm’s masterpiece was destined to remain an also-ran. The rise of the Nazis during the early 1930s prompted writers who had incurred their fiery displeasure to flee, an action for which Grimm’s wife lobbied but the author was reluctant to leave his beloved Altenburg. He even joined the Nazi party, it’s thought in order to throw them off the scent of his authorship rather than political conviction.

After the war, during which Grimm was pressed into service as an interpreter, Altenburg found itself within the Soviet sector and Grimm’s Nazi affiliation saw him banned from teaching despite revealing his authorship of the subversive Schlump to the authorities and former pupils vouching for his tolerance and distribution of banned books in the classroom.

Eventually in 1947, as Fallada’s Alone In Berlin was being published, Grimm, in his early fifties, was sent to work in a mine.

During the summer of 1950, a few months after the Soviet sector had become formalised as the German Democratic Republic, Grimm was summoned to Weimar for a meeting with the communist authorities. Nobody knows what was discussed but two days after his return to Altenburg on July 7 1950 – sixty-seven years ago this week – Hans Herbert Grimm killed himself at home, just a few feet from the walled-up manuscript of Schlump.

In 1928 Grimm had written to a close friend, ‘I personally think the time is ripe for Schlump but I know it’s going to take longer than my patience would like’. It took far longer than Grimm might have feared even at his most pessimistic but thanks to Volker Weidermann people are again asking, ‘Have you read Schlump?’, and this time they know exactly who the author was.

Schlump by Hans Herbert Grimm, translated by Jamie Bulloch, is published by Vintage Classics priced £8.99

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