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The Novel Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes, by Manfred Kühne (1985)

 a  “Flocks of new faces appeared at the construction site. Romanian Jews! They were kept strictly separated from the other prisoners by the SS guards and were given the heaviest work. The overseers’ whips whooshed down on them mercilessly. Anyone who collapsed stayed where he fell. Nobody was allowed to help him. Stamm saw himself unable to put a stop to the brutality, which constantly escalated. Like an epidemic, it spread to every sector, squeezed the last bit of strength out of the prisoners. Every day the number of sick and injured increased.”

(Manfred Kühne: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes (Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985), p. 56. (Transl. KL))
 b  “The firm had taken care of him all those years. Now it was his turn to show that he was worthy.”
(Manfred Kühne: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes (Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985), p. 25. (Transl. KL))
 c  Erich Stamm witnesses a selection conducted by Dr. Kaltstein, an I.G. Farben employee:
“Toward evening, when the striped columns lined up for the march back to Auschwitz, the senior engineer waited with several IG people at the plant exit […] In rows of five, the stream of prisoners began to move forward, escorted on both sides by overseers and SS guards, who had truncheons and brown-and-black dogs that were pulling at their leashes. Every time Dr. Kaltstein gave a sign with his hand, SS men pulled one or more prisoners out of the line and pushed them to one side, where men in uniform shoved them into trucks that stood in readiness. Stamm saw that the prisoners who were singled out were those who were especially exhausted, whose skeletal exterior or stumbling gait no longer led anyone to anticipate high work performance.”
(Manfred Kühne: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes (Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985), pp. 57–58. (Transl. KL))
 d  “Barely six weeks, and we were almost used to everything! Negro faces. Canned food. Sunday sermons and knifings. Chewing gum and 12-hour work days! The district head, an immigrant dishwasher from Ohio who often visited the chief engineers for a round of poker, hated the Germans. The dyspeptic doctor in the auxiliary outpatient clinic always smelled of brandy. On the day when an American shot at a man from Dublin, the Mexicans ganged up because they had been sold spoiled corned beef in the company store. The assistant sheriff showed up with two armed men and had to use the engineer’s phone to call for reinforcements. Four hours later, a young mulatto was run over by a tractor-trailer. The drunken doctor amputated his left leg.”
(Manfred Kühne: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes. (Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985), pp. 172–173. (Transl. KL))
 e  At home, at party headquarters: “The American military judges! Does anybody think they’re going to deliver an honest verdict? They’re in cahoots with the criminals!”
(Manfred Kühne: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes (Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985), p. 378. (Transl. KL))
 f  “Gradually a picture emerged. The picture of a tremendous deception! Stamm was powerless against the vision. […] They had taken away the fathers from the children! The children from the fathers! The husbands from the wives! The families from the men! With what right? The talk had been of fatherland and heroism!”
(Manfred Kühne: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes (Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985), S. 222. (Transl. KL))
 g  In a letter of apology to Ruth:
“If I hadn’t had a boyhood of that kind, and then the unemployment besides! I just should have known someone who knew the score much earlier on…”
(Manfred Kühne: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes (Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985), pp. 223–224. (Transl. KL))

Erich Stamm, a foreman at I.G. Farben’s Buna plant in Schkopau, is transferred to Auschwitz in 1941. This father of a family, a man from a lower-income background, whose return to secure economic circumstances was fueled only by the armaments surge of Hitler’s government, sees his endorsement of the regime—a compliance described as passive-positive—put to a hard test here: Triggered by the sight of the oppressed concentration-camp inmates at the construction site  a  and linked in narrative terms to his personal acquaintance with one of them, the Ukrainian Red Army soldier Viktor Warinow, Stamm’s outrage at the indifference of his superiors to the inmates’ treatment is an honest emotion. The more he learns about the proceedings, the greater is his consternation: Torn between gratitude to his firm  b  and disgust at its obvious involvement in barbarity and exploitation  c , the naive worker is transformed into a man plagued by remorse. When Viktor’s sabotage results in the explosion of a fuel depot, Stamm covers up for him. Shortly thereafter, Viktor succeeds in escaping.


Along with his boss, Stamm is sent on a secret special mission. Under the utmost secrecy, the two men are flown to the United States, where they are employed in building a rubber factory in Iron Water, Texas, for Standard Oil. The international entanglements of his firm, details of which he learns from Ruth Styschansky, a Viennese Jew living in exile and a journalist with union ties, appall Stamm, especially as the conditions at the building site are depicted as similar to those in Monowitz: Racism permeates everyday life in the huge international workforce, and serious injuries are a common occurrence.  d  In parallel, Viktor’s escape and return to a Red Army unit and the hard wartime daily routine of Stamm’s wife are recounted. She is informed by I.G. Farben that her husband, Erich, is missing and believed dead, and she allows herself to be consoled by a neighbor, Paul Bornschein.


On various levels, the novel tracks, on the one hand, the political network of I.G. Farben, depicted as extending to the highest level of American policy. On the other hand, it follows the fighting of the Red Army, suffering a huge death rate, against the German Wehrmacht. Viktor, who loses his life, and his teenage son, Boris, serve to illustrate the costly struggle.


After the war ends, Erich Stamm returns to Germany and makes his way illegally into the Soviet Zone of Occupation, where he learns that Thea has married Paul in the meantime. He gets to know Margot Westerland and moves in with her. The daughter of a murdered Communist, she gets Erich Stamm interested in the Communist Party. After returning from the I.G. Farben Trial in Nuremberg, where he was supposed to testify but was not called because of his critical attitude  e , he joins the Party. Erich Stamm overcomes all his initial difficulties (others’ mistrust of him, reemployment problems, remarriage of his wife). The last chapter describes a 1958 vacation trip taken by Margot and Erich with Polish friends near Oświęcim; in their discussion one evening, the memory of the events at Auschwitz surfaces in Erich again, and the novel ends with a question: “But now this new question suddenly was present in the room! The past, was it really dead?”[1]


The various plot lines are brought together toward the end of the novel: Boris, deployed in Schkopau as a Red Army sergeant, meets Stamm, his father’s helper, there; at the Nuremberg trials, Stamm again runs into the journalist Ruth, and she lets him have more background information about the machinations of I.G. Farben and the U.S. investigators. The honest Colonel Walter Sheridan is declared incompetent by his malevolent brother-in-law and his wife when he threatens to bring to light the corrupt intrigues of the big multinational oil companies—they all are betrayed by the industry.


The protagonist Erich Stamm, whom readers follow on his path toward insight, uncovers in exemplary fashion the Nazis’ betrayal of the population (in particular the workers).  f  Here, however, his insight results only from his personal view, which becomes possible for him because he is transported right over the Atlantic as a pawn in the hands of the powerful. Knowledge of the crimes of Nazi Germany and the cartel agreements of big industry thus remains something exclusive, and the ignorance of the majority is justifiable.  g  The focus is on “fascism as the most extreme expression of capitalism,” which idealistic, upstanding people can defy by building a better—that is, a communist—system. The concentration camp prisoner used as an example—and here, too, the novel adheres to the GDR narrative—is a soldier in the Red Army; the greater mass of Jewish inmates is not dealt with in the novel.


Manfred Kühne’s novel can be read as a “real socialist” counterpart to Aloys Schenzinger’s novel Anilin. Roman der deutschen Farbenindustrie [Aniline. A Novel of the German Dye Industry]: Not only are the titles similar; there are parallels in terms of form as well, as in the quotations preceding each chapter: While these quotations in Anilin are fervent pleas in favor of the chemical industry, in Buna they are statements by former I.G. Farben employees. As for the genre, in each case the one better suited to the author’s intention was chosen: a dime novel of adventure for one, the bildungsroman of a worker for the other. Also similar is the tendency to employ the myth of sacrifice: in Anilin, it refers to the chemical industry, while Buna describes the worker cheated of his family, home, and happiness. That Stamm worked for years in support of the war industry and the regime is, in the logic of the novel, the fault of the prevailing balance of power alone. Placed in contrast to the idealized image of the struggling Red Army soldiers and righteous Communists are the American leadership team, depicted as power-hungry, and the description of the crimes of the SS and economic elites. Isolated laudable exceptions (such as the lower-ranking members of the U.S. Army, honestly concerned with coming to terms with the past through the legal process), like their German parallel character, Erich Stamm, founder on the interests of capitalism.

(SP; transl. KL)


Kühne, Manfred: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes. Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985.

[1] Manfred Kühne: Buna. Roman eines Kunststoffes [Buna Rubber. Novel of a Synthetic Material](Halle/Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1985), p. 392. (Translated by KL)