When Siegfried Lenz submitted his second novel to his publisher in 1951, he expected kudos from his editor. Instead, the novel, about a young German soldier who joins the Russians to fight against his countrymen in World War II, was rejected. While there was much painful soul searching among Germans in the aftermath of the war, there was also growing fear about communism and the Cold War. As a result, The Turncoat didn’t make it into print until it was published in German posthumously in 2016, two years after Lenz died. With translation by John Cullen, The Turncoat is now available in the U.S., and a four-part series is in the works from Oscar-winning director Florian Gallenberger.
Lenz drew on his own experiences in the German army to create memorable characters – a group of soldiers who are young and, yes, naive, blindly following the orders of their superiors without little understanding of what they are fighting for. It’s not hard to understand why the story has hit a nerve these days. With nationalistic tendencies rising, not only in the U.S., but all over the world, The Turncoat sounds an alarm about the serious consequences that result when a dangerous demagogue creates a false narrative that manages to ensnare those who are eager to blame others for their hardships.
The Turncoat opens 15 years after the end of the war. Walter Proska, now 35, has returned to his home in the former East Prussia. He’s looking for a stamp so that he can mail a 15-page letter he’s written to his sister, Maria. Why it has taken him so long to compose the letter gets to the heart of his story. After obtaining the stamps from a nearby pharmacy, Proska hears a train whistle blow. That sound transports him back to the war, specifically remembering a train trip he took to Kiev from his home in Lyck. On that journey, he meets a young woman, Wanda, who is cradling an urn which she says contains the ashes of her brother. Proska calls her “Squirrel” because of her red hair and soon the two are flirting and kissing. When military police arrive to search the train, Wanda steps off but doesn’t return. Proska reboards the train and discovers that Wanda left the urn behind. Curious, he opens the urn and finds a small quantity of ashes and enough dynamite to blow up two trains. Angry about being tricked, but still intrigued by Wanda’s motivation, he throws the urn overboard and doesn’t report her.
He meets up with soldiers who are tasked with guarding the rails. Soon, Proska forms friendships with this motley group – Zwiczosbirski (Thighbone), Poppek, Stani, Willi, Zacharias, and Kürschner (Milk Roll). The corporal in charge provides no leadership, instead doling out cruel punishments whenever he’s displeased. While the soldiers follow orders, morale soon takes a hit, making one of Proska’s friends, and then Proska himself, easy prey for the Russians who invade their encampment. The surprise is not that Proska defects, but that he does so easily with little regret.
The Turncoat isn’t a sweeping war story. There are no large battles that involve heavy machinery and thousands of troops. Descriptions of the scenery seem idyllic one minute and dangerous the next, with the enemy hiding behind rocks and trees. In one scene, Proska watches from the bank as a soldier goes for a swim – it’s been weeks since the group has bathed – and is shot dead. A moment of ecstasy turns tragic.
Lenz brings us into the minds of these soldiers as they fight for their survival, involved in a war they don’t understand. The Turncoat took a long time to arrive but, in the end, the timing was impeccable.
Translated by John Cullen
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