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A “Wandering Jew:” Stefan Heym’s Humanist Socialism

When I finally met Stefan Heym in person at the public reading of his last published novel, I encountered a man in his late eighties, at once frail and energetic.  He introduced himself to his audience at the main theater in Potsdam, Germany, on that beautiful and sunny afternoon in May of 2000, by thanking the listeners for having come to see him, “on such a fair spring day, even though I am not a fair-weather author.”  Those who have read anything by Heym would know that those comments were not mere banter; they illustrate his nature as a writer, intellectual, and, in the best sense of the word, moralist, who refused to fit into any straight-forward categories.

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Heym remained a weathered optimist until the end of his life, committed to the hope that reason and justice could eventually triumph over tyranny, superstition, and self-destructive consumerism.  When Heym appeared from behind the curtain in order to walk on stage, he seemed every bit like an 87 year old man.  Everything changed, however, once he sat down and started to read from his last novel, The Architects.  He read for about one and a half hours, with a lively voice that brought to bear his experience and wit as well as his cosmopolitan outlook, — as here was a man who had literally survived the 20th century.  Uprooted many times by politics, he had become a citizen of the world.  This endowed Heym with a unique perspective that forced him to develop a critical distance, even towards places where he felt at home.

When Heym was born in 1913, Germany was still an empire.  He saw the rise and fall of many different forms of government, all the way from the Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic to today’s Federal Republic.  Heym came into this world prior to World War I and had tasted the bitter fruits of exile, as a political refugee in several different countries.  In the United States, Heym became an American writer, while maintaining hope for a more just and truly democratic future, his dream of a post-capitalist society.

Victimized by both McCarthyism and Stalinism, Heym’s attraction to Marxism and socialism never amounted to blind faith.

  He underscored his independence by refusing to join any political parties, despite considerable pressure on him to do so.  Thus, Heym cannot be captured by neatly fitting categories and labels. However, the New York Times’ obituary of Heym did just that, placing him squarely into simplistic categories and labeling this enigmatic German-Jewish socialist-humanist as a “Marxist-Leninist novelist,” who “had assailed the East Germans in 1953 for rising up against their Soviet overlords.”  During the tumultuous final months of the East German communist regime in 1989-1990, Heym had, according to the Times “spoke sarcastically of this people as ‘a horde pressed belly to back on the hunt for glittering junk’ in West German department stores.’”[i]

One wonders how the author David Binder, a seasoned correspondent in Germany, could have misunderstood and mischaracterized Stefan Heym so profoundly.  While mentioning some of Heym’s most well-known novels and essays, which clearly challenged the tyrannical nature of the Soviet-style “socialist” system, Binder apparently missed what Heym had come to symbolize to his myriad readers on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  To Binder, Heym was, at best, an ex-Stalinist Communist dreamer, who held onto his socialist delusions despite their catastrophic failures in the real world.  By framing Heym as a “Marxist-Leninist” novelist, he trivialized and glossed over the repeated and systematic campaigns (on the part of East German party and state authorities) against Heym — a deeply convinced socialist intellectual, who stubbornly defended his independence from the party line.  This is not to lionize Heym as the grand old man of socialist moralism, as he was not without flaws and misjudgments however.  But Stefan Heym had displayed remarkable courage in his long life, weathering both Nazism and Stalinism, and he was confronted with conditions and choices that would look very different to someone living through them first hand, rather than merely observing them, from the safety and distance of a journalistic position.  Finally Heym, who was in mortal danger in Nazi Germany, as both a Jew and a socialist, later refused to play assigned roles: in McCarthy’s America, East Germany’s Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, and at the Capitalist triumph at the Cold War’s “end.”  This failure to comprehend the nature of Heym’s highly-cultivated independence reveals a curious and pervasive Liberal blind spot.

Even renown figures like Tony Judt, by all accounts one of the most conscientious and thoughtful Liberal scholars during the last twenty years, have fallen prey to a series of all-too-convenient oversimplifications.  While being keenly aware of the pitfalls of Capitalist triumphalism in the face of the Soviet collapse (combined with an awareness of the destructive and self-destructive socio-economic and socio-cultural inequalities in Western societies), Judt nevertheless has dismissed Marxism’s potential as a meaningful way to make sense of an increasingly perplexing world.  While incredulously pondering why Marxists fail to see the connection between their all-encompassing totalizing theory of society and the all-encompassing totalitarian nature of societies created by Marxist-inspired forces, Judt reveals his own preconceptions of what a Marxist is: someone that excludes any and all other approaches, – à la, a Marxist ideological panacea.  To give Judt his due, there have indeed been no small numbers of self-described Marxists fitting this definition.  However, Judt strangely mirrors the totalizing aspects of his Marxist foes, when he categorically declares this to be the only potential meaning of what a Marxist is or could be.  The question of who defines what “Marxism” and “Marxists” are – and how they do it — is rightfully contested.  Ironically, the complacency of mainstream Liberals mirrors the complacency of dogmatic, party Marxists, — as both mistake their caricatures of Marxism for the real thing.

Slovenian cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek has noted that many of those who have gratuitously smirked at the naiveté of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History have nevertheless actually, unwittingly fully internalized its claims.  Fukuyama argued that the end of the Soviet experiment meant the inevitable global victory of a mix of liberal democracy and capitalism (characteristic of the US and its European allies during the last few decades).  History thus would end in the conventional sense, inasmuch as the ideological evolution of humanity would reach its end-stage — with the supremacy of American capitalism.  The implosion of East Germany, and its subsequent incorporation into West Germany, seems to suggest to many observers, including David Binder, that any and all alternatives to consumerism and corporate capitalism are hopelessly out of touch, both with what the people want and what is realistically possible.  Thus Heym’s stubborn rejection of capitalist consumerism attracts a generalizing scorn.  However, things have changed during the last ten years, with the economic near-collapse exposing several of the old certainties, of capitalist triumphalism, in a state of rapid evaporation.  Thus the structural dilemmas of neo-Liberalism are more obvious now and not just to “die-hard Marxists.”  

Our current historical situation lends itself to a critical and substantial re-engagement with Stefan Heym and his peculiar amalgamation of utopianism and skepticism. 

His life and work clearly reveal that, while reaching out for a socially-just and environmentally-sustainable economic order might be too easy a target (as “utopian” and unrealistic), not altering course might, in fact, require a far greater dose of wishful thinking.

The New York Times’ rather hostile and dismissive obituary of Stefan Heym is especially peculiar, given that Heym used to be one of the paper’s main points of contact among intellectuals on the other side of the Cold-War divide.  In fact, Heym’s decision to call his memoirs Nachruf, or Obituary, was at least in part motivated by the New York Times’ frequent calls for insider information from him.  At the end of this book, Heym explains that Alden Whitman had begun approaching him in the early 1970’s.  Whitman, by then the star obituary writer for the paper, had wanted to visit Heym in person — in order to get a sense of the imponderables of the writer’s persona.  Heym obliged Whitman, who in return flattered Heym by pointing out that he had just finished interviewing Charlie Chaplin, reaffirming Heym’s self-image as a celebrity intellectual.  Heym, no stranger to self-promotion, asked Whitman for a peek at his own obituary, to which Whitman rebuffed any attempts of disclosure, alerting Heym to the Times’ iron-clad rule that the subjects of its obituaries had to at least wait until their deaths before they were granted access.  Death, however, was not around the corner, at least not for Heym, who outlived Whitman, the author of his obituary.

Unable to evaluate how the world’s “preeminent English language newspaper” might frame his life and work, Heym concluded that he must take matters into his own hands, writing his own memoirs, under the aforementioned title of Obituary, in order to not have to wait for the impenetrable curtain to fall on him as well.  Heym ensured that he could satisfy his own curiosity and, of course, his readers,’ about how he might be remembered, setting the record straight, having the last word, and not trusting lesser pens to grasp the deftness and importance of his high wire act.

Decades after his first encounter with Whitman, Heym went the “way of all flesh” in early 2001.  He was in death as he was in life: a respected and fiercely independent public intellectual, writer, and essayist, and his life, work, and legacy remain contested – as Heym neither shied away from controversy nor debate.  While fully expecting and accepting that taking a position would inevitably lead not only to friends but also to detractors, he might still have been surprised and disappointed with the ultimate quality of the NYT obituary.  Especially given the NYTs prolonged familiarity with Heym, its actual obituary was unfathomably superficial, formulaic, and so uninformed that one wonders whether they actually knew anything about him at all — beyond what a Google search could provide.  It seems that the energy that could have been allotted for considering what Heym represented, was not there, ousted instead by a reactionary certainty that was fuelled by Cold War stereotypes rather than analysis.

The attempt to frame Heym as a “Marxist-Leninist novelist” collides with Heym’s own self-understanding and a myriad of evidence to the contrary.  Formulaic Marxism-Leninism, the official state ideology of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc, was exactly what Heym and other socialist dissidents had rejected.  It stands to reason that neither Marx, – who famously declared that he was not a Marxist, – nor even Lenin would have identified with Heym’s contemporary USSR and Eastern Bloc either.  Stalin and his successors had created their unique ideology largely in order to justify their own power and legitimacy, having little in common with Marx and Lenin’s more complex and multi-faceted intellectual and cultural heritage.  Heym had tried to cultivate the critical and emancipatory potential within the Marxist tradition, as a counterbalance to the narrow and restrictive interests and sensibilities of party bureaucrats.

A case in point is, in reaction to his expulsion from East Germany’s Writer’s Association in 1979, Heym lamented how incredibly narrow-minded and ultimately pathetic the party bureaucracy was, referring to “[t]he Lilliputians conducting the auto da fe: one must have experienced it for oneself in order to truly grasp how deep one’s faith in the power of the ideas of Heine and Lassalle and Marx and Lenin must be in order to not run away with disgusted laughter.”  While Heym reaffirmed his socialist ideals in spite of the bigoted and dictatorial realities in the Soviet realm, he called equal attention to the diverse sources of his understanding of socialism.   By invoking not only Marx and Lenin, but also the poet, writer, and essayist Heinrich Heine as well as the enigmatic and flamboyant labor leader Ferdinand Lassalle, Heym underscored his departure from the official Marxist-Leninist canon.  While the notoriously independent-minded Heine was, at times, uneasily claimed by orthodox Marxist-Leninists as part of their own ancestry, this required all sorts of ideological gymnastics, amounting to a highly sanitized version of Heine.  Lassalle, on the other hand, was rejected as a bourgeois attempt to co-opt the German labor movement.  Marx and Engels were well-known for all their pronounced theoretical and personal opposition to Lassalle.  Thus, by explicitly including Lassalle and Heine into his intellectual ancestry, Stefan Heym expressed that, to him, being a socialist meant the ability — and indeed the necessity — to draw on a broad variety of sources.  Instead of shying away from complexity, tension, and contradiction, Heym advocated engaging incongruities and a contradictory and multi-faceted reality.

In doing so, Heym is not so different from other critical, German-speaking Marxists of his generation, such as Robert Havemann and Erich Fried.  The latter was a writer who, like Heym, had spent the Nazi years in the English-speaking world.  But while Heym eventually returned to continental Europe and settled in East Berlin, Fried stayed in London.  Ironically, Heym continued to write his novels in English, even after relocating to East Germany.  Fried, on the other hand, continued to write in German, despite living the bulk of his life in Great Britain.  As early as 1954, Fried (who had belonged to the Austrian Communist Youth Movement prior to the Nazi takeover and was later active in Communist exile organizations in London) distanced himself from the party line.  In fact, in a letter to Robert Bialek, Fried even expressed doubt about whether he could still be called a Marxist at all.  At the same time, Fried emphasized how deeply Marxist though had impacted him and how likely it would be to continue to inform his thinking in the future.  Recognizing that Marxism needed to be expanded and infused with new insights from non-Marxist sources as well, he identified that the key problem with official Marxism was not just its Stalinist perversion, but the fact that Marx and Engels lived in the 19th century.  As such, their intellectual and cultural horizons were shaped by the main developments and assumptions of their age, including 19th-century rationalism and optimism.  Fried, reacting to his 20th -century experiences of two World Wars, the Holocaust, as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus called for a re-examination of Marxism — in the light of new experiences and insights.[ii]  It stands to reason, that Heym would have identified with Fried’s sentiments.

Chief among literary Heym’s critics in Germany has been the influential literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki.  Reich-Ranicki, arguably the most well-known literary arbiter in German letters since the 1960s, proved to be an equally imperious and divisive figure, whose positive or negative assessments of any German writer could either make or break a person’s career.  Though not uncontested, as the chief literary critic of key German newspapers (such as Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), Reich-Ranicki was able to impact the literary tastes and judgments of several generations of the reading public.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki recognized Heym’s abilities, as a witty and entertaining writer, but insisted that his prose amounted, at best, to a middle-brow style.  He argued that Heym’s literary reputation rested foremost on Heym’s role as political rebel in East Germany, rather than purely on literary merit.  However, Reich-Ranicki is also well-known for his anti-Leftist outlook, which he ironically acquired after having been a supporter of a Stalinist-type “socialist realism,” and he combined his critique of Heym’s literary merits with a critique of Heym’s politics.  After cynically dismissing Heym’s rejection of formulaic, Soviet-style “socialist realism” as “a few daring banalities,” he proceeded to complain about Heym’s overall support of the socialist project.  Though seemingly motivated by political and philosophical disagreement, as well as a noticeable personal antipathy, Reich-Ranicki insinuated that his is largely a literary and aesthetic assessment of Heym.  While acknowledging Heym’s abilities to capture and entertain his readership, he wryly commented that he was endowed with “more intelligence than taste” and more daring than talent.[iii]  Few people would challenge that Heym displayed great courage in his life, confronting both the Nazi regime as well as East Germany’s SED dictatorship over the years.  Yet, it is unlikely that Reich-Ranicki should have the last word on the literary qualities of Heym’s novels and short stories.  To Reich-Ranicki, Heym was foremost a producer of Cold War period pieces, and his books might thus be remarkable historical artifacts but would not stand the test of time as literature per se.

Over two decades have now elapsed since the collapse of the Soviet system, yet Heym’s books remain in print, and new editions have come out in English as well.  For example, Northwestern University Press has re-published three of Heym’s most imaginative and moving books, The King David Report (1997), The Eternal Jew (1999), and The Architects (2006), in their European Classics Series.   Daunt Books of London/ Great Britain also published a paperback edition of The Architects in 2012.  There have been new translations of Heym’s works into Dutch, Spanish, and Russian, and since 2009, there is an International Stefan Heym Society, with a growing membership around the globe.  There is also the International Stefan Heym Prize, since 2008, of 40,000 Euros, to be awarded every three years to writers who combine high literary distinctions with an engagement for social justice.  Thus far, three writers and essayists have been awarded the Heym Prize, starting with the Israeli Amos Oz (2008), the Croat Bora Ćosić (2011), and the German Christoph Hein (2013).  In his career, Heym has garnered the attention of more scholarly critics as well.  One of the most productive and descerning of those is Peter Hutchinson of Cambridge University.  In 1992, he published what still is the most complete and well-researched biography of Heym in English. Hutchinson’s title, Stefan Heym: The Perpetual Dissident, aptly describes the main trajectory of the writer’s life. Cambridge University Press republished an updated version of this volume in 2006, as part of their Cambridge Studies in German Series.

Born as Helmut Flieg, into an upwardly mobile German-Jewish family in 1913 in the Saxon industrial city of Chemnitz, Heym was drawn to issues of social justice and political participation at an early age.  While still attending high school in Chemnitz, the irrepressible and articulate young man published a political poem in a regional newspaper, resulting in his expulsion from school.  The poem criticized German industry and the government for its armaments deals and profiteering with foreign countries.  Still known as Helmut Flieg, Heym was forced to relocate to Berlin in order to graduate with his Abitur certificate, the prerequisite to going to university.  There he enrolled at the University of Berlin, taking courses in philosophy, German studies, and journalism, while also freelancing for various political and literary journals, such as the famous Left-Liberal Weltbühne.  The Nazi seizure of power on January 31, 1933, forced him as a young student to leave Germany for Czechoslovakia.  But before resettling in Prague, he witnessed the burning of the parliament building in Berlin, — the infamous Reichstag fire.  Hitler and his underlings had blamed the Communists and subsequently dismantled the last vestiges of the rule of law and parliamentary democracy.  Doubly endangered as a Jew and a Socialist, Flieg fled to Prague and started, from that point on, to only publish under pseudonyms, — in order to protect his family from any additional persecution in Nazi Germany.  While trying out several different aliases in German and Czech newspapers, the young writer eventually settled on “Stefan Heym.”  This move, however, did not actually protect his family in Germany, as sadly, in 1935, Heym’s father saw no alternative but to take his own life.  Many others of his family would, later on, be murdered by the Nazis in various concentration camps.

Heym managed to secure an American scholarship in 1936, leaving Prague for the University of Chicago, where he pursued a Master’s degree in German literature, submitting his thesis on Heinrich Heine’s famous play Atta Troll.  Heym was drawn to Heine for a variety of reasons.  In many ways, Heine also mirrors Heym’s thinking and predicament.  Like Heym, Heine was a left-wing German-Jewish intellectual who was forced to spend much of his life in political exile abroad.  Heym remained interested in Heine for the rest of his life and actually died while attending a Heinrich Heine conference in Israel in 2001.

After graduating from the University of Chicago, Heine moved to New York City and, between 1937 and 1939, served as an editor and eventually the editor in chief of the anti-Fascist German language paper Deutsches Volksecho.  In 1942, Heym saw his first major novel, Hostages published.  This novel dealt with anti-Nazi exiles in Czechoslovakia and established Heym’s reputation as a major writer in English.  A few years later, Heym acquired an international reputation with his global bestseller The Crusaders, a novel about his own experiences with the US Army in the European Theater during World War II, and Heym was indeed able to draw on his extensive experiences as a US soldier during the war.  Having enlisted in 1943, Heym went to Europe as a sergeant in the psychological warfare division of the First US Army, where he participated in the D-Day invasion and urged German soldiers to capitulate to Allied forces.

In 1945, Heym moved to liberated Germany as part of the US occupational troops.  He founded and edited a newspaper, the Neue Zeitung in Munich, which incidentally led to Heym’s dismissal from the US Army for “pro-Communist leanings.”  Neverthelss Heym returned to the US where he lived until 1952, but the atmosphere of McCarthyism and Red-baiting finally became intolerable for him.  The Korean war was the last straw, and Heym decided to leave the US for Europe.  After stops in Warsaw and Prague, Heym and his first wife Gertrude settle in East Berlin.  The Ulbricht regime was more than happy to decorate itself with an international figure of Heym’s caliber, and they invited him to write a regular column about social and cultural issues for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, which Heym did between 1953 and 1956.  However, in 1953, Heym was confronted by the uprising of June 17th, against the Ulbricht dictatorship, and he became increasingly critical of the East German regime, trying to understand the political, socio-economic, and cultural reasons for the rebellion.  The result of his reflections was a manuscript for a novel, tentatively titled The Day X.  By 1956, the novel was ready for print, however the East German censors did not allow its publication.  Despite the increasing difficulties that he experienced in the GDR, Heym never understood himself as an enemy of the state but as a socialist critic.

The East German regime continued in its efforts to reign Heym in.  As his international reputation was too lucrative for the GDR to openly reject, breaking with him was not an option.  Hence, the regime applied a carrot and stick approach:  the stick amounted to more and more encounters and difficulties with the censorship system, which rejected many of his manuscripts.  At the same time, the regime showered Heym with awards and prizes, including the prestigious Heinrich Mann Prize (1953), the Literary Prize of the East German Union, as well as the Franz Mehring Prize (both in 1954), and in 1959, Heym received the National Prize, arguably East Germany’s most prestigious prize.  Eventually, the regime enhanced its pressure on Heym, and by 1969, he was heavily fined for illegally publishing his novel Lassalle in West Germany.  By this point, Heym was the most widely read East German author in the West, and the regime was still hesitant to embrace more drastic measures.

By 1976, the East German system may very well have liked to punish Heym more severely, inasmuch as he was one of the key signers of the famous petition of East German intellectuals condemning the expulsion of the singer and song writer Wolf Biermann from the GDR, while he was on tour in the West.  Heym realized that the regime’s inability to deal with a critical song writer, in any other fashion but to silence and rob him of his citizenship, amounted to a declaration of moral bankruptcy.  The honor and integrity of one’s commitment to an emancipatory understanding of socialism demanded open protest, and Heym did just that by signing this petition.

In 1979, he submitted his newest manuscript to East German publishing houses.  This novel Colin dealt with the Stalinist features in GDR society, as well as the how the regime had tried to ignore and white-wash this legacy.  When the censors turned down this manuscript, Heym decided to publish it in West Germany despite being pressured not to.  This time, the regime responded with greater force.  In addition to being sentenced to a hefty fine, Heym was expelled from the East German Writer’s Union, robbing him of the GDR’s indispensable professional literary network.

Yet, despite the regime’s efforts to silence him, he found ways to circumvent them.  As the regime did not dare to either imprison him or prevent him from traveling, he continued to write, attend conferences, and give interviews to the Western Press.  And in 1981, Stefan Heym spoke at a joint East and West German writer’s gathering, in support of the Peace Movement in Scheveningen, Netherlands.  Heym not only called for an end of the Cold War but declared that German unification was both possible and natural.  The statement was in open defiance of the official East German doctrine, of the rise of a separate East German socialist nation in addition to the traditional German nation as represented by West Germany.  It is critical to understand that Heym’s conception of German re-unification did not imply what was to come later, when East Germany was absorbed by West Germany.  Instead, Heym envisioned a unification of equals, where both East and West Germans could contribute their experiences jointly, to build a new society that combined political with economic democracy.

Hence, on September 18, 1989, Heym was one of the initiators of a resolution entitled “For Our Country.”  In this document, Heym and the other co-signers identified the SED regime as the reason for the GDR’s increasing instability.  East Germany’s official media at first ignored this declaration, but popular pressure compelled one newspaper, Der Morgen, by October 18, to publish it.  In October, the regime began to openly disintegrate, and on November 4th, Stefan Heym was one of the key speakers calling for a “renewed and better socialism,” – as an alternative to capitalist restoration via a West German takeover.  Heym jubilantly celebrated the revolution against the regime, pointing out that the occasion was all-the-more happy, given that revolutions in the past had been failures.  Referring to the defeated revolutions of 1848 and 1918/1919 in Germany, he expressed his hope that this revolution of 1989 could lead to a democratic and just future.  But after the Wall fell on November 9th, Heym became disappointed with how easily many East Germans succumbed to the allure of mass-produced and flashy consumerism.  Kohl promised his voters Western currency and “blossoming landscapes,” if they supported him in his plan, — for the hasty incorporation of East Germany into West Germany.

The collapse of East Germany provided West Germany’s conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl with the opportunity to openly campaign in East Germany (which at that point, at least on paper, was still a sovereign and independent country), for a speedy dissolution of the GDR.  Those East Germans, who like Heym, favored a more measured process of East and West merging as equals, — each willing to learn from the other and creating something new by doing so, — were pushed aside by an avalanche of Western money.  Even Kohl’s main West German political competitor, Oskar Lafontaine from the Social Democratic Party, was unable to compete with Kohl’s siren call.  Lafontaine and many others, like the economist Jürgen Kuczynski, warned about the socio-economic and cultural dislocations that an overly-rushed push for unification would inevitably result in.  Moreover, the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Wall opened a unique opportunity for reform and renewal in the West as well.  However, those opportunities were squandered in favor of Western triumphalism.  Not only the East German regime but all of East Germany’s institutions and experiences were declared wholesale failures that needed to be leveled to the ground.  Instead of a more balanced, case by case assessment, as well as potentially new and more innovative solutions, West German institutions were superimposed upon East German society in an uncritical fashion.  Deindustrialization and mass unemployment transformed what used to be East Germany into a demi-colony that, to this day, is not able to sustain itself economically.

However, Heym was not afraid to swim against this current and continued to voice his opposition in post-unification Germany, and the integrity of his voice garnered international recognition.  In 1990, the University of Bern offered him an honorary doctorate, followed by another from Cambridge University in 1991.  In 1990, he also received the La Grand Livre de Mois Gutenberg Prize, followed by the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 1993, and in 2000, Heym received the Peace Medal of the IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War).

In 1994, Heym threw himself into politics again, despite his advanced age.  Asked by leaders of the former Communist Party, which had reconstituted itself as the Party for Democratic Socialism, whether he would be willing to run for federal parliament on one of their “open lists,” Heym agreed after some deliberation.  He insisted, however, that he would not join this or any other political party.   After a competitive electoral campaign, Heym became the oldest member of the German Bundestag in 1994.  As it is a German parliamentary tradition that the oldest member of parliament open the new legislative period with a speech, Heym thus prepared his speech only to find that, suddenly, on the day before he was scheduled to deliver it, the government of Helmut Kohl spread the rumor that Heym had supposedly worked for the infamous East German Stasi secret police and was thus morally compromised.  The office of Manfred Kanther, Minister of the Interior, claimed that certain documents had come to light, in which Heym was identified as a former Stasi collaborator.  The corporate media picked up the story immediately.  For example, the Berliner Zeitung printed, in its November 11th 1994 issue, that “Stefan Heym [is] in the whirlpool of Stasi affair.”

Heym was accused of having given the East German Stasi confidential information on the former Communist official Heinz Brandt in 1958, therefore, Parliamentary President Rita Süssmuth called Heym at nine pm on the evening prior to his scheduled speech as Elder President, urging him to voluntarily decline, in order to avoid even more of a scandal.  Heym, however, decided not to yield and strongly rejected the charges.  It would have been a rough night, as the 81 year old Heym and his second wife Inge poured over his Stasi files to see whether anybody could have framed him.  When Heym delivered his address the following day, Kohl and most deputies of his conservative party were openly and aggressively disrespectful.  In fact, Süssmuth was the only Conservative who applauded him, while leading members of the government showed their contempt either by reading newspapers and/or other documents, or by smiling derisively.  But shortly later, Heym’s innocence was officially confirmed.

It is instructive to re-examine what Heym actually said in his parliamentary address.  Most of all, he sought common ground between East and West, across the political spectrum.  His was not a call for confrontation, but for dialogue and good will.  Heym opened his remarks by putting himself into a broad tradition, mentioning among his predecessors the Social Democrat Willy Brandt as well as the venerable women’s rights activist and Marxist Clara Zetkin, the latter, who had inaugurated the German parliament in the Fall of 1932, merely months before Hitler was made Chancellor.  Zetkin and many other politicians had to flee for their lives.  Almost 200 deputies had been incarcerated by the Nazis, and over half of them were later murdered by the regime.  Heym mentioned that he was among the survivors, who many years later returned in a US military uniform.  He expressed his hope that the democratic system of post-Cold War Germany would be more robust than that of the ill-fated Weimar Republic.  While acknowledging that East Germans had gained much since re-unification in 1990, Heym emphasized that the East Germans had also freed themselves from the SED regime.  Thus, they came not as hapless victims but with dignity and the ability to contribute their experiences.  He focused on the significance of civil society, for the resolution of today and tomorrow’s challenges, including poverty, environmental degradation, and the erosion of meaningful democracy.  Humanity, Heym noted, could only survive in solidarity, with everyone being able to develop his or her potential.  Magnanimity, tolerance, and the cultivated ability to imagine new and humane alternatives to the status quo were essentials he stressed.

In his marvelous The King David Report, Stefan Heym lets one of the novel’s most intriguing and complex characters, the eunuch Amenhotep, say:

being a student of events past and present, have you not noticed that the mind of man is strangely split in two, as is his tongue.  We seem to be living in two worlds: one that is described in the teachings of the wise men . . . and another which nobody speaks of but which is real . . . And praised be that split of the mind, because it enables a person to do what is necessary by the laws of the real world and yet believe in the teachings of the wise men.[iv]

Amenhotep, who has pragmatically accommodated himself to the status quo, warns the central character, Ethan, that “in a world of eunuchs it does not pay to act like a man.” [v]  Stefan Heym understood that the disconnect between what we think we aspire to and what we actually do, in the real world, has been essential in order for the mainstream to maintain its peace of mind.  Yet, this cognitive dissonance has been very dangerous, — as the catastrophes of the 20th century have illustrated.  Like another one his literary characters, Ahasver, Heym was a “Wandering Jew,” at once a flawed human being as well as a tenacious idealist, who maintained his socialist humanism until he died, – incidentally while attending a Heinrich Heine conference in Israel.  Near the end of the King David Report, Heym’s protagonist Ethan confides to us all:

I also recognized that I was caught up in my time and unable to go beyond its limitations.  Man is but a stone in the middle of a sling, to be slung out at targets he knows not.  The most he can do is to try to make his thought last a little beyond him, a dim signal to generations to come.  I have tried.  Let me be judged accordingly.[vi]

 

 

Notes

[i] David Binder, “Stefan Heym, Marxist-Leninist Novelist, Dies at 88 on Lecture Tour in Israel” New York Times (18 December 2001).

[ii] Volker Kaukoreit, editor, Alles Liebe und Schöne, Freiheit und Glück: Briefe von und an Erich Fried, (Berlin: Wagenbach Verlag, 2009), 21-23.

[iii] Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Ohne Rabbat,  (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1993),  86.

[iv] Stefan Heym, The King David Report (Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1997), 122.

[v] Ibid., 252.

[vi] Ibid., 238-239.

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