From The Dead Girls’ Class Trip: Selected Stories
“Many of [Anna] Seghers’s early stories,” writes Ingo Schulze in the introduction to The Dead Girls’ Class Trip, “… are attempts to explain how a person might lose their humanity.”
The author came by her subject naturally. Born in the German city of Mainz in the year 1900, Seghers, a Jew, left Germany for France in 1933. She had already joined the KPD, the German Communist Party, and felt the combination of her political affiliations and religious heritage was too dangerous once Hitler had been appointed chancellor. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Seghers was forced to flee again, this time to Mexico. It was there, in the years 1942–43 that she wrote the chillingly perceptive story “A Man Becomes a Nazi.”
Seghers, who died in 1983, did not live to see the rise of the internet, or the rampant mainstreaming of far-right ideas on social media and Fox News. But reading her story about one man’s indoctrination into violent Nazi ideology, one cannot help but feel a stark shudder of recognition. The mechanism by which disaffected youth are identified, targeted, and recruited to an extremist cause remains the same, despite the fact that social media has rendered the process frictionless and global in its reach.
The central figure in Seghers’s story, Fritz Mueller, is born in 1917 to a housewife whose metalworker husband, Friedrich, is stationed in the Argonne Forest during the First World War. When Friedrich returns home, he finds widespread unemployment and is reduced to spending his days recounting his memories of fighting for his country on the front lines. In his battlefield memories, he finds reassurance that “he had been something more than merely an unemployed metalworker: He had been a man whose strength had been in demand.”
His father’s stories of valour in combat, along with his continued unemployment at home, have a corrosive effect on Fritz, who comes to lionize the notion of strength and physical domination while also despairing at the German state’s apparent inability, or unwillingness, to provide the conditions that would support his father earning a living wage. As an unemployed labourer, Friedrich is a part of a postwar underclass that closely resembles, in its straitened conditions and social invisibility, a large swath of industrial America currently suffering from a dearth of factory jobs lost to automation or outsourcing. Seghers underscores this by making explicit Fritz’s discontent at the ideology espoused by certain “old guard” teachers at school: “What use was it to little Fritz Mueller to learn ‘Work dignifies’ and ‘Once you know a trade you will never starve,’ if his own father, a metalworker, was unemployed and his brothers couldn’t even find apprenticeships?”
Seghers is careful not to cleave too closely to one ideological perspective as being exclusively responsible for Fritz’s radicalization, though she is clear that those authority figures on the fascist right are more numerous, and more dangerous, than those on the left. However, she details young teachers, “themselves afraid of being fired and joining the unemployed,” who “were eager to try out their new methods. And many of them cared more about these new methods and teachings than they did about their pupils.”
If the extremists in the nascent Nazi party are able to get their hooks into Fritz, Seghers suggests, it is largely because he is a member of a forgotten underclass, a pupil of average ability with an unemployed father and no real prospects. “He wished for the very opposite of this bleak life of being unemployed,” Seghers writes. “[H]e longed for distinction, splendour, and self-validation.” What Fritz desires most is a sense of belonging, and it is precisely this camaraderie that the groomers in the Nazi party use to woo him to their cause.
This idea is profound in an encounter Fritz has with a stranger at the unemployment office who gasses on about “[t]his pigsty of a republic” and invites Fritz to join him at “our place.”
Fritz Mueller found out that same week where that was. The SA was quartered at the opposite end of town in an old, disused building. They all wore splendid boots; there wasn’t a tear or spot on their brown shirts; there were drinks, and it didn’t cost anything. Here you weren’t a bundle of rags; here you were a man, properly dressed and armed. That’s what it was like at “our place.”
The sense of being part of a group, of being accepted, is key to Fritz’s conversion. So too are the uniforms that identify their affiliation and, Fritz learns, put fear into the hearts of those unable to resist by dint of pure, brute force.
Fritz is also swayed by the virulent antisemitism the group espouses, a pose reminiscent of his father’s casual references to the “little Jew tailor” in their neighbourhood. The seed of race hatred that is planted at home blossoms under the tutelage of Fritz’s Nazi associates such that it is not too long before he is out in the streets at night shouting “Juda verrecke” (“Death to the Jews”).
As with violent ideology, so too with actual violence. Fritz’s first exposure to beatings and killings leaves him shaken, but he quickly becomes acclimatized to the nature of authoritarian power and he moves up the ranks of the SS, eventually becoming a sergeant. He admires his fellow countrymen who, “because of their race, strength, and insight, knew how to liberate themselves from poverty and darkness.” And he operates under the staunch principle that “any compassion toward the enemy would be an act of treason against the German people.”
So much of this language is familiar from recent history. And while Seghers is not a brilliant technical writer – or, at least, the translation comes off as flat and clichéd in places – the interest in her story resides in how prescient it appears from the perspective of 2022. The author’s diagnosis of the necessary conditions for stripping a man of his soul and convincing him that the only meaning to be found is in hatred and violence is accurate and excoriating. And her story of one unhappy man’s descent into far-right radicalization holds lessons for all of us in our fraught and perilous present.