In 1928, Hans Herbert Grimm published his first and only novel, Schlump. It is the latest offering from the NYRB Classics Book Club. Schlump describes the violence, chaos, and absurdity of World War I, experienced firsthand by its author. The book was critical of the German government and military and presents graphic depictions of the high cost of human sacrifice in war; Grimm published it anonymously. The novel’s witness is Emil Schultz, nicknamed Schlump, a wandering tailor who, despite experiencing the horrors of battle up close, remains an optimist, eager to get back to the job of living: “he was determined to make something of his life, because surely there would be peace again now, soon, peace! Peace and decency—how lovely life would be! What a golden era was beginning now!” Schlump’s hopefulness would have been short-lived: Five years after the book’s publication, the Nazi party came to power in Germany. A decade after its publication, Germany was again at war, and Grimm was sent to the Western Front.
A pale wall in the living room of a gray house with a pointed roof in the thousand-year-old Thuringian town of Altenburg. The sun is shining through the large windows. Against one wall is a blue sofa, at the other end of the room a grand piano, while a colourful Bauhaus carpet adorns the floor. Cups and small porcelain plates sit on a round coffee table. A closer look at the pale wall reveals a fine crack in the plaster. Here, on this wall, in this house, a strange German fairy tale began. Or is this where it ended?
The house, with its large fir trees in the garden and white bench beside the front door, was built at the beginning of the 1930s by doctor of philosophy and schoolmaster Hans Herbert Grimm. Some of the money to finance the house came from a book he’d written, although nobody here in Altenburg nor anyone anywhere else was to know he was its author. Schlump—Tales and adventures from the life of the anonymous soldier Emil Schulz, known as ‘Schlump’. Narrated by himself: the book of his life. Grimm was worried that he wouldn’t be able to go on living normally if it became known that he’d written the novel. It would spell the end of his career as a teacher, and of his peaceful existence in his beloved Altenburg, if word got out that he was the author of a book that described the German soldiers of the Great War as less than heroic, German military strategy as misguided, senseless and foolish, the Kaiser as a coward, and the entire war as a cruel, bad joke.
Hans Herbert Grimm wanted to remain unidentified. But of course he wanted his book to be a success, too, with lots of readers. This was not easy from a position of anonymity. Kurt Wolff, who published Schlump, made great efforts to publicise the book, spending considerable amounts of money on the promotional literature. ‘Schlump!’ was written in large type, followed by the question ‘Have you read Schlump yet?’ and the invitation ‘If not, then make sure to do so as soon as possible. You’ll be glad you did as you won’t have laughed so much in a long time. Here is a book which every German man must read.’ According to the text of the advertisement, the novel was politically neutral and unbiased, but every war veteran would be able to recognise themselves and their experiences in it. Schlump, it continued, represented a turning point in popular and truthful depictions of the war. It was nothing like the conventional, rather dry war stories. Below this, the urgent question was posed again: ‘Have you read Schlump yet?’ Followed by the prediction: ‘This question will soon be on men’s lips everywhere.’
Today, this exuberant leaflet can be found on a desk on the second floor of the house with a crack in the wall. Here was Hans Herbert Grimm’s study. The desk is still by the window with a view of the Thuringian countryside. Beside the leaflet are manuscripts, diaries and letters. At the top of the pile is a letter written by Grimm on 3 March 1929 to his lifelong friend Alfred. By now Schlump had been in bookshops for a few months, but had sold only 5,500 copies. The author’s mood alternates between disenchantment and hope, tending more towards the former. For only a few weeks beforehand, a book had appeared on the market that attracted everyone’s attention, a book that Ullstein-Verlag was doing its utmost to turn into the biggest literary success in the Weimar Republic, a book that was selling 10,000 copies per day, a book that also had as its subject the Great War: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
Remarque’s novel was talked about with enthusiasm, but also angrily denounced by war veterans and ‘Stahlhelm’ activists. And this was just the beginning of the triumphant and unparalleled success it would achieve both in Germany and across the globe. It soon became the German anti-war novel par excellence, stirring discussion about the whole intellectual and moral foundation of the new German republic. A documentary work, a quintessential work in clear language and with a clear message. A book that would dominate the market and debate for a long time to come. Grimm no doubt suspected this and hoped for a different outcome. He wrote to Alfred about Remarque’s novel and about another book that appeared at the same time on a similar subject, Ludwig Renn’s War. ‘Once you get beyond the sensation of the material, neither of these works is in competition with Schlump, in my opinion. For now, the need for realistic depictions of the central event in our entire generation’s lives swamps any artistic aspirations as far as this material is concerned. I personally think that the time is ripe for Schlump, but I know it’s going to take longer than my patience would like.’
The ‘sensation of the material’ endured, however. There was still much to tell of the story of the Great War. The majority of war-related books that appeared at the beginning of the 1920s were heroic accounts of the fighting—heroic, clinical accounts of the deeds of German soldiers in the field, beginning with Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel in 1920.
Many others followed. The shock of defeat was still fresh; readers and no doubt authors, too, needed to make sense of the heavy losses, the pain and the deprivations of the four-year conflict. It is not until the second half of the 1920s that we see the first proper literary engagement with World War I: the questions of everyday life during the war, heroism and futility. Arnold Zweig began this process with his 1927 novel The Case of Sergeant Grischa. After this came Ludwig Renn’s War in 1928, Oskar Wohrle’s Querschläger. Das Bumserbuch.Aufzeichnungen ernes Kanoniers (Ricochets. The Gunner’s Book. The Account of an Artilleryman), Alexander Moritz Frey’s Die Pflasterkästen (The Stretcher-Bearers), Edlef Koppen’s Heeresbericht (Army Report) (all 1929), and Adrienne Thomas’s 1930 Katrin Becomes a Soldier. Most of these novels were documentary in character; their portrayal of the war and military action was stripped bare, unadorned and unheroic. This style came as a shock to the reader and was a provocation to many who wished to preserve the heroic memory of their own deeds or those of fallen relatives.
When, just a few years later, the books of so-called un-German authors started to be burned, it is not surprising that most of these anti-war novels were at the top of the list for the bonfire. Schlump burned along with them, the book whose authorship was known to practically nobody, and which had not received the attention from an anti-war readership that it deserved. It had come to the attention of the National Socialist students, however, who hadn’t forgotten just how explosive in nature these pages were.
Schlump is different from all the other war books of its time. It is a fairy tale with an emphasis on the truth, a sort of docu-fable. A book in which the hero goes through hell, almost losing his belief in the goodness of the world along the way, but then returns at the end to a sort of idyll. Schlump’s heroism is a heroism of resistance to hostility, misanthropy and disillusionment. He is an illusionist. He has experienced the worst a human being can experience here on earth, but he wants to go on living, wants to walk tall again in the world, and for that he needs a belief in humanity. Without that, we can infer from the book, there can be no Schlump, no Schlump alive in this world.
It is easy to underestimate this novel; indeed the reader is even invited to do this. Schlump progresses through the war as if in a dream, floating from girl to girl and from adventure to adventure. When he finally arrives at the Front—the real war—he is treated by his superiors like a sack of peas. Then the war explodes before his very eyes. The description and depiction of sheer horror runs to no more than a few pages, but they are all the more devastating for that, branding themselves more deeply and intensely on the memory when juxtaposed against the idyllic background of this wandering tailor. The limbs of the two British soldiers flying above the heads of the Germans. The brain on top of the skull, served up as if in a restaurant. The German soldier calling out for his mother and stuck in the barbed wire, who Schlump can only rescue dead. The trumpeter with a death wish. The flare exploding in the belly of the British soldier—the gory version of a cancelled pregnancy and birth, or a child of the war: death.
Schlump is an anti-coming-of-age novel from a world in freefall. Everything collapses; one man walks on. Like an astronaut in zero gravity. Brief moments of lucidity are dwarfed into irrelevance by the dreamlike life surrounding everything. What is reality? Is it when an innocent young pregnant girl crosses a market square only to be blown to bits by a bomb? And when a Joan of Arc figure calls out to our hero on the opening page of the novel, chooses him and then regularly encounters him in endlessly different guises, wrapping him in a protective cloak—is that unreality? Is that the fairy tale? The docu-fable Schlump repeatedly challenges the reader to establish what is fable and what documentary. The rule here is that the unlikely is always the documentary part, the part that depicts so-called reality.
Following the scene in the market square where the girl is blown sky high, Schlump lays a curse on the world:‘This entire war is nothing but the cruellest, vilest slaughter, and if mankind can put up with such an atrocity for years, or stand by and look on, well, it deserves nothing but contempt. But he who fashioned mankind, he ought to be thoroughly ashamed of himself, for his creation is an utter disgrace!’
Then the war is over—over and lost. Everything has disintegrated, producing the craziest, worst outcome, and yet the Schlump idyll remains as unaffected as before. ‘He was filled with a wonderful sense of bliss, delightfully certain that everything would turn out all right in the end.’ This wonderful certainty is the thing that even Schlump’s author cannot comprehend. He attributes it to his hero because that is the magical power of the author, because he knows that without this belief there cannot be an optimist like Schlump in this world. Belief, belief, belief. Despite all probability. Despite everything that has happened during the war years. When Schlump returns to Germany, he is amazed that ‘everything was still running so smoothly’. His surprise is short-lived. More than anything over these years he has learned how to be amazed. The world has not changed and will not change.The crucial thing is to survive.
This Schlumpian sunny optimism is the triumph of a resounding ‘nevertheless’. The sunniness of the will, in defiance of a mighty darkness. Even reading Schlump today, we find this darkness present everywhere. It is a book balancing on the edge of the abyss. Down below, where the hero refuses to look, darkness, despair and oblivion lie in wait. We are back in the room in Altenburg, at the desk with the diaries and letters. Letters from the field, too, from France, where not only Schlump but his creator, Hans Herbert Grimm, experienced the war. Grimm wrote count- less letters from the Front. To his mother, and especially to his friend Alfred, his soulmate, with whom he enjoyed a literary, philosophical and intellectual friendship. Both men experienced the war similarly, as an inner phenomenon. In March 1918, Grimm wrote to his friend from Maubeuge:
Where are you? Outside the weir is rushing. Will we ever succeed in escaping from the yoke of human beings? We’re suffering at the hands of people, irrespective of who these are. Human beings are tormenting us. Where are you now? I’m worried about you.
What else is there to say? I’m no longer alone. What happened to those secret evenings when a thousand little nothings came to life? In which direction are we going?
Hans Herbert Grimm returned from the Front to begin his middle-class existence. He married Elisabeth, with whom he had a son, Frank, got his PhD, became an English, French and Spanish teacher, and wrote in his spare time. A short story, ‘Schlafittelchen’, appeared in Vivos Voco, the journal published by Herman Hesse. And then came Schlump with Kurt Wolff, the publisher of Franz Kafka, Arnold Zweig, Rene Schickele, Georg Trakl and many others.
Schlump never became a great success. Remarque’s novel dominated discussion and the market. And when the fuss had died down, Schlump had almost been forgotten. The book was translated, appearing in both Britain and America. The English novelist J. B. Priestley wrote in The Times that it was ‘the best of German war books so far (excluding Grischa)’. But major success was elusive. And as the author didn’t want to lose his anonymity, there was little he could do about it.
He remained a teacher. In Germany the National Socialists came to power, Schlump was burned and banned, and at home Hans Herbert Grimm bricked up his book in the wall. He was afraid, afraid of being discovered, afraid of imprisonment and persecution. His wife advised him to flee. But he wanted to stay. Wanted to stay in his beloved Altenburg and keep teaching for as long as possible. He joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) so he could live in safety. According to his pupils, he taught tolerance in his lessons—so far as this was possible—recommending books written by banned authors whose works had been burned.
Then he had to go to war again, working as an interpreter on the Western Front. When the war was over, a new political system was established. On account of his NSDAP membership, he was prevented from resuming his career as a teacher, in spite of the fact that his former pupils were willing to vouch for him. It didn’t even help that he finally revealed himself to be the author of the anti-war novel Schlump, and that his claim received official confirmation. This document is on the coffee table too, the letterhead reading ‘Mayor of Altenburg’.
Grimm was no longer allowed to teach. But he could work in the theatre, which he did for a season as a dramaturg. He compiled lists of plays he wanted to see on the stage in Altenburg, including Borchert’s The Man Outside and Max Frisch’s Nun singen sie wieder (Now They’re Singing Again). He put ticks beside the plays that the administration approved for theatrical performance. There aren’t many ticks on his list.
After eighteen months the theatre was finished too. Grimm was forced to go and work in a sand mine. He was prohibited from working in schools or the theatre for an unspecified period. But his situation could get worse at any time. In April 1946, his good friend, fellow teacher and later headmaster of the Karolinum, Friedrich Wilhelm Uhlig, was arrested, imprisoned and then interned in Buchenwald, near Weimar, which the Soviet occupiers had continued to run as a camp. On 24 May 1948 he died there from starvation.
In summer 1950, Hans Herbert Grimm was summoned to Weimar by the authorities of the newly established GDR. He never told anybody what was discussed at this meeting. Did they make it clear to him that he’d never again be able to work as a teacher? Did they impose conditions such as obligatory membership of the SED (Socialist Unity Party), or help in founding a new block party? Would he again have to play along with a party he despised?
On 5 July, 1950 Hans Herbert Grimm went back to his family in Altenburg. Two days later, while his wife was out shopping, he killed himself in his own house.
A small crack remains in the wall.
Grimm’s name is not recorded in literary histories.
In the letter to Alfred in which he expressed his concerns that Remarque’s success could completely swamp his book, Grimm also wrote, ‘My publisher hopes that one day someone will come along and rediscover Schlump.’
It is a peculiar but major stroke of fortune that today, more than a hundred years after the beginning of the war it describes, many new readers can now do exactly that.
Volker Weidermann is the former director and editor of the Sunday edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and is currently a contributor to Der Spiegel. His most recent book is Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and The Summer Before the Dark.