Anna Segher’s The Seventh Cross: A Story of Moral Choices

Back on May 1, I wrote about my cousin Netti Reiling, who under the pseudonym Anna Seghers became a well-known leftist intellectual, activist, and author. I wrote about her best-known book, The Seventh Cross, published both in German and in English while she and her family were living in Mexico in 1942. Two years later it was made into a film starring Spencer Tracy, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and others.

I’ve just finished reading the book. It took me quite a while to read in part because I seem to read in short spurts these days, often when I am sleepy. It also was a difficult book to read—both in terms of the painfulness of the subject matter and in the way it was written. But when I got to the second half, I couldn’t put it down as it turned from a slow-moving set of character studies to a suspenseful escape and chase.

It is an extremely well-written book. Seghers takes you into the minds of her characters so that you see their psychological development as well as their actions. The basic plot is simple: a man named George along with six others escapes from a German prison camp where political prisoners are kept, and the Gestapo and SS chase them down. Various people living in the nearby towns get involved in different ways with the escape and the chase. I won’t spoil the story more than that, but it’s not really the story that is Segher’s dominant focus. Rather, her focus is on how this story affects and, in some ways, reveals and changes the inner thinking and moral choices of the numerous characters.

The structure of the book is what makes it difficult to read at first. Seghers introduces numerous characters without linking them to each other or to the main character, George. Both the number of characters and the fact that the reader has no idea why they matter to the story made the first half of the book a struggle for me. I couldn’t keep the characters straight. Who was Ernst the shepherd and why did I care about him? Why do I care about this boy named Fritz and his girlfriend? What role does Franz have in this whole story? Who are all these various Nazis working at the prison camp? And so on. Perhaps if I’d read the book faster and not just one short segment at a time, I’d more quickly would have seen the forest and not just each individual tree. But at the pace I was reading, I’d forget who Franz or Fritz or Ernst was and have to flip back a few chapters to refresh my memory.

But once I reached the middle of the book and was able to read more quickly, I realized what a brilliant work this is and well worth the struggle to get to know the various characters. Seghers’ ability to get into the heads of the characters and see how they struggle to choose between their own safety and what they know is right is masterful. As you read, you wonder whether Fritz and Franz and all the others will do what’s needed to be done to help George or to save themselves. That’s what makes the book suspenseful. It’s not a typical crime or war story where the suspense lies in finding clues or in watching the bad guys get closer to the good guy while the good guy uses his brain to find a new way to get away. No, the suspense lies inside the minds of the characters and their personal moral codes. Frankly, I still have no idea what role Ernst the shepherd has in the story. Maybe someone who’s read the book will have an explanation. But overall each character does in the end become three-dimensional and integral to the overall story.

One thing that I did find odd about the book is that aside from one very brief mention of the mistreatment of a Jewish man, Seghers does not at all address the Nazi persecution and slaughter of Jews; she does not refer to the Nuremberg Laws or the concentration camps or Kristallnacht. Seghers was, after all, Jewish. Yet she wrote a book about Nazi Germany that is only about political prisoners, not about the way the Nazis treated Jews. Did she do that to reach a broader audience? Or did she perhaps recognize that although ordinary Germans might assist a fellow German who escaped from a camp for political prisoners, they would not have had made the same choices if it had been a Jewish person who’d escaped from a concentration camp?

I’ve not yet seen the film, and unfortunately it’s not available on any streaming service. I could buy a DVD from Amazon, but alas—I no longer have a DVD player. Damn modern technology! Do I invest in a DVD player just to watch one movie? I am debating it. But usually I find that movies based on books are not nearly as good as the books themselves, and it was my cousin Netti’s writing that I was most interested in.

As I wrote about in my post about Netti/Anna, The New York Times review of the movie, which was overall a very positive review, made one unusual comment at the end.1 I will quote it again here:

Without in the least overlooking the bestiality of the Nazi brutes nor the miserable self-surrender of German citizens to their black regime, this film … visions a burning zeal for freedom in some German rebels and a core of decency in common folk. …[T]he basic theme…is that in men—even in Germans—there is an instinct for good that cannot be destroyed.….

The big reservation which this writer holds with regard to this film is that regarding the discretion of its theme at this particular time. Without any question, it creates a human sympathy for the people of a nation with whom we are at war and it tends, as have others, to load Germany’s crimes on Nazi backs. Obviously this film can make sentiment for a “soft” peace. It looks as though we are getting a dandy “thriller” at a pretty high price.

It is true that the book (and apparently the film) portrays many of the characters in ways that reveal their basic morality although it also certainly portrays those who worked at and led the prison camp as inhumane and lacking in moral decency and many of the minor characters as spineless and complicit with the Nazis. But I can understand why in 1944 when the US was fighting Germany in World War II a reviewer might have objected to a film that portrayed any German in a flattering light.

But with the perspective of hindsight, that seems less objectionable. Seghers was at heart an optimist about human nature and perhaps she needed some hope in 1942 that many ordinary Germans would make the right choices and act morally. She had fled from Germany and then from France, seen her husband arrested and then released, and would ultimately learn that her own mother, Hedwig Fuld Reiling, had been murdered by the Nazis. She was not naïve; she was not sympathetic to the Nazis or those who supported their cause or their actions. She was just a human being holding out hope that other human beings would do the right thing. Sadly, not enough of them did. Most Germans were too afraid to resist the Nazis or had been coopted and persuaded to adopt the Nazi cause, and thus far too many people were not saved from their murderous captors.

But Seghers’ point was that when good and brave people do stand up for what is right, evil can be defeated. We need that lesson today in 2020 as much as people did in 1942.

Anna Seghers (Netti Reiling) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-P1202-317 / Sturm, Horst / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

 

 

 

 

 


  1. Bosley Crowther, “The Seventh Cross, Anti-Nazi Drama, with Spencer Tracy, at Capitol,” The New York Times, September 29, 1944, p. 18. 

23 thoughts on “Anna Segher’s The Seventh Cross: A Story of Moral Choices

  1. This sounds like a good book to put on my reading list. To answer one of your questions, in my opinion (without having read the book), I think she might have been trying to reach a larger audience and get across the historical significance of the period. It seems to have worked as the book was made into a movie so soon after it was published.

    Liked by 1 person

      • While checking for the book on Amazon I read that there were four copies of the manuscript – “one was destroyed in an air raid; a friend lost the second copy while fleeing the Nazis; another was found by the Gestapo; only the fourth copy survived, which, fortunately, she sent to her publisher in America just before she escaped Nazi-occupied France.” I don’t know if you might have mentioned this in your previous post but it seems that it was meant to be that she should get it published.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As you know from my earlier comment I also read the book. I too struggled with keeping the numerous characters apart. But I do not blame the author for introducing too many people all at once. My mind is not sharp enough to grasp and retain them in my memory. I have the same problem with reading Russian novels.
    Anna Seghers briefly touched on the persecution of the Jews in the episode of the Jewish doctor helping the escapee from the concentration camp. But this was not the main focus of her novel written on a higher plane where humanity ultimately triumphs over evil.
    Your last paragraph sums up the main thrust of this fascinating book, Amy: But Seghers’ point was that when good and brave people do stand up for what is right, evil can be defeated. We need that lesson today in 2020 as much as people did in 1942.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I feel better knowing it was just me and my COVID brain! I also have that problem with Russian novels. I like when they have a family tree in the front that I can consult.

      And you’re right—I forgot about the Jewish doctor. But I guess that was done so subtly and such a minor point that it didn’t stick with me.

      Thanks, Peter! I was looking forward to seeing what you thought!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Believe it or not, I found an article that addresses specifically the meaning of Ernst the shepherd! It was written by a Chinese scholar (thank goodness for Google Translate), Zhou Tianbing, “Humanity and Hope: Analysis of The Role of Ernst Varau and The Shepherd Ernst in The Seventh Cross.” I will quote some of it:

        “The novel also describes a “shepherd”, whose name is also called “Ernst”. As for what his last name is, there is no explanation in the novel. This “Ernst” is probably anyone who lives in this land. In this novel he has the following functions.

        (1) As a symbol of rural life
        The occupation of “Ernst” is a shepherd, and this character appears in every chapter of the novel. Every day he drove the sheep to the grass and ate lunch in the midday sun….. He seemed to be living in a vacuum, living in a space untouched by fascists. His way of life represents a quiet and comfortable way of life, a way of life that people have persisted and yearned for thousands of years, which fits the author’s hope to save the humane way of life destroyed by the fascists of the Third Reich. Through this little person, I also conveyed this belief to the readers: the people living here will not change under any circumstances.

        (2) As an information communicator
        In Judaism, shepherds spread the news of the birth of Jesus and played the role of information communicator. In this novel Ernst Shepherd is also an “information communicator”. When he heard the news that Owakamp offered a reward for the capture of three escaped prisoners via radio, he notified Franz of the news and also expressed his attitude: he would help these fugitives [ 6 ] 143 . In addition, from the perspective of Ernst, readers can also understand the history of this land once occupied by the French [ 6 ] 218-219 .

        It is worth mentioning that there will be a scenery description before Ernst’s appearance. This not only shows the reader the beautiful scenery, but also introduces them to various events that happened in the past and present. The author expresses his love for the motherland through landscape description. Each description has a similar beginning, such as: hillsides, trains, dense fog, etc. [ 6 ] 8,55 , which left a deep impression on the reader. Each landscape description shows different events from different eras: the Roman Empire, the Mainz Republic in 1793, the Jewish Holocaust in 1096, the street fighting in 1848, and the Third Reich… It is constantly changing, but the beautiful scenery and the people living on this land are indestructible…. This description is a true portrayal. Apple and wine symbolize harvest, and the misty sunlight symbolizes the hope and awakening of human nature. The humanity of the character Shepherd Ernst was once again emphasized.

        ….

        (3) Relief as a tense rhythm
        When the reader was experiencing nervousness for Georg’s escape, the tense rhythm suddenly stopped, replaced by the appearance of the shepherd Ernst, and the language used was much softer (readers can refer to the original book, the German language style is more (This is highlighted) This undoubtedly relieves the reader’s tight nerves, just like hearing a “slow shot” in music, which can be liberated from the tense plot and enjoy the scenery with a relaxed mood.

        The author constantly uses this method of scene change and rhythm change to try to compare the easy life with the dangerous life. In contrast to the idyllic life of the shepherd Ernst, Georg Heisler’s life is full of danger: hunting, bloodshed, and fear flood his path to escape. Here we can compare the end of the first section of the second chapter of the original book with the beginning of the second section [ 7 ] . The simple and easy pictures and the tense and depressed pictures are constantly changing. For the description of the escape, the author often uses short sentences and plain language, while for the appearance of Ernst, he uses some long sentences and soft, slow language. This method can’t help but remind people of the montage in the movie, which makes the novel more attractive and stimulates the reader’s yearning for peace and ordinary life.”

        You can find the whole article at https://jss.usst.edu.cn/html/2015/2/20150210.htm It’s from the Journal of University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, thank you so much for digging this interesting article up and making it available for me to read. There is so little time to write down what we feel in our WP comment section. But now that I read your comment I must add as someone quite knowledgeable in German history that I felt that many of the historical references the author is making would not make much sense unless the reader had some inkling of how the historical events had shaped the destiny of Germany. Thanks also for the link, Amy.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I am glad you could follow up with reading the book. I say yes to the dress oops I mean VCR for the movie – but perhaps someone has one stashed in their attic you could borrow, like us 🙂 Maybe you could put the word out for one. I was thinking the very same thing reading your post ‘we need that lesson today in 2020’

    Liked by 1 person

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