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Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Crime Fiction as Historical Documentation


Translated by Anne Foster


A discussion between Christian von Ditfurth, Ulrich Ritzel and Wolfgang Schorlau.



On the 31st March 2008, the Archiv Soziale Bewegungen in Freiburg (Breisgau) staged a special event chaired by Elfriede Müller. Three well-known German crime writers discussed whether crime writing could be seen as the documentation of history, or, more specifically, political history.


Christian v. Ditfurth, Wolfgang Schorlau und Ulrich Ritzel are all authors in whose novels recent and not so recent history plays a large part. To give two examples, all three have dealt with National Socialism and its continuing presence in the story of modern Germany as well as with the other traumatic period in German post-war history, the so-called ‘armed struggle’ of left-wing groups.


All three were involved in different left-wing parties (they all stress ‘were’): von Ditfurth in the German Communist Party, Schorlau in the West German Communist Alliance and Ritzel in the Social Democratic Party.  The first question therefore was how the authors were influenced by the events of 1968 and to what extent their writing arose from the driving force of the 1968 movement, which was to bring repressed history back into consciousness. Their answers could not have been more different.


Ulrich Ritzel stressed that his political socialisation had nothing to do with 1968, but started in 1958 with the Ulm Death Squad Trial, when for the first time the murderers of several thousand Jewish men, women and children were called to account by a German court. What was shocking, he emphasised, was not just the realisation that the nice policeman from the local station might be a mass murderer, but the indifference with which people treated this information. By 1968 it had already been clear to him for a long time that there was no widespread public appetite for profound change in Germany.


Wolfgang Schorlau, who is about ten years younger than Ritzel, saw 1968 rather differently. As a young apprentice in 1969 he was carried along by the events of the Student Movement and was lucky enough to get a political and historical education which would otherwise have been denied to him as a mere school leaver. He saw the 1968 movement as a time of liberation.


Christian von Ditfurth, two years younger again, had a different perspective on liberation: in 1968 he belonged to the Action Centre for Independent and Socialist Students and found himself involved in Spartacus, the Marxist Student League and with it the DKP, the German Communist Party. The most liberating part of his political history was his departure from the DKP in 1983.


But not even Wolfgang Schorlau, who sees 1968 as an important biographical turning point, wanted his writing to be linked to what was the driving force of 1968 - to make explicit what had been repressed. He sees himself not as a writer of history but as a story-teller. Ritzel even categorically rejected any suggestion of a desire to explain. He says that as an author he would not presume to explain to his readers, he just feels obliged to present coherent characters, no more and no less. Only von Ditfurth makes the partial concession that in some of his novels, at least, he takes an opposite standpoint to the official version of history which he supports using his own historical research. However this has nothing to do with 1968, but rather the aryanisation of assets which was the subject of ‘A Paragon of Virtue’ (‘Mann ohne Makel’), or the uncritical admiration afforded the perpetrators of the attempted assassination of Hitler on the 20th July 1944, something he tries to balance in his novel ‘The 21st July’ (‘Der 21. Juli’).


During the discussion it became clear that the three authors take quite different approaches to their work. Schorlau and von Ditfurth take historical and modern themes as their starting point; a newspaper article about the lynching of Allied soldiers at the end of the Second World War inspired Schorlau’s ‘Das Dunkle Schweigen’. The choice of subject stimulates research, which then leads to a story which subsequently forms the plot.


Ritzel’s approach is completely different. He bases his work on his own experience. It could be the military vehicle riddled with bullets he came across as a fourteen year old at the end of the Second World War and which preoccupied him until he had come up with an idea for a plot involving it (readers of ‘Schatten des Schwans’ will recognise the opening scenes of the novel), or people he met during his many years working as a court reporter and whose fate inspired him to come up with a story involving them.  To be realistic these characters need some historical background, the precise background being the result of the development of the characters and not the other way round, where the historical subject gives rise to the characters.


The three authors were in agreement about one thing: they all see themselves as political writers. Ritzel emphasises that writing itself is a political act and Schorlau says that his political opinions are very obvious, but von Ditfurth stresses that being political is not a privilege of writers, but is the duty of every citizen and therefore of writers.


The closing public discussion focused on a comment from Ritzel, that he at least finds it impossible to deal with Nazi crimes in his novels. He can only portray them indirectly as a shadow over German history. Schorlau and von Ditfurth had fewer moral reservations about this, and said that they saw it more as a question of their ability as a writer, but conceded that considerable skill was required.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 22 November 2008 )
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