The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers

39344815It’s a miracle that The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers, exists. It was written by a Communist Jewish German woman who fled to Mexico with her children after the Nazis came to power. It was published in 1942 after Seghers sent a manuscript to her American publisher. (The other three manuscripts she sent were lost.) The novel tells the story of George Heisler, a Communist who escapes from a concentration camp in southwestern Germany, along with six other prisoners. Back at the concentration camp, there are seven crosses waiting for them when they are captured.

The main plot in The Seventh Cross is George’s attempt to escape to Spain, where he can join his anti-fascist comrades in the Spanish Civil War. But the story jumps around to share the perspectives of George’s old friend (who turned him in after George stole and abandoned his girl), his wife, his father-in-law, the concentration camp guards, and some of George’s old friends as he tries to find someone who will help him.

George walks all over his little corner of Germany, from Westhofen to Mainz, in the hopes that someone will help him. Some people do. Others are so terrified of the Gestapo and the Sturmabteilung that they hope George is captured or killed so that the don’t have to life in the fear that they’ll be hauled off to the concentration camp, too. A few have thrown in with the Nazis that they hope for the chance to turn George in. By showing us all these perspectives, we see a cross section of ordinary Germans—the ones we study now in the hopes that we will find an acceptable answer to the question of why so many Germans became Nazis and committed the atrocities of the Holocaust.

7thcrossrev

Spencer Tracy as George in the 1944 film of The Seventh Cross.

The Seventh Cross is a terrific book that captures a crucial time and place in history, with fully realized characters that I cared for or loathed or admired or feared. Some readers might have problems with the way the book drifts from character to character and from the present to the past. At times, I was reminded of Berlin Alexanderplatz by the way Seghers creates a hyper-connected community of people. The Seventh Cross isn’t as scattered as Berlin Alexanderplatz or as expansive, which made it a lot more enjoyable for me. Once I got the hang of the way it was written, I got completely sucked in to the drama of Westhofen and Mainz in the mid-1930s.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 22 May 2018.

2 thoughts on “The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers

  1. “George’s old friend (who turned him in after George stole and abandoned his girl)” — this seems inaccurate to me. George “stole,” married and abandoned Elli, who had been Franz’ girl. But I don’t recall anything about Franz betraying George, or even how George came to be in the concentration camp. I just finished reading this same new translation and thought the novel very remarkable, quite gripping.

    As to the comparison with Alfred Doblin’s rather Joycean Berlin Alexanderplatz, they seem quite different to me. Seghers’ novel is Tolstoyan in its very wide cast and her compassion which almost extends even to the Nazis whose inner life she occasionally plumbs. Doblin’s novel, which I read many years ago and may not recall precisely, is rooted in one man’s struggle to reclaim his life after release from prison. The other characters appear through his perceptions.

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