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I.G. Farben and the Buna/Monowitz Concentration Camp in Literary Fiction

Works of fiction that contain descriptions of concentration camps and camp experiences place great demands on the function of creating and preserving cultural memory, to the extent that European societies concede this function to literature. These demands are moral in character: The singularity of the Holocaust is supposed to be received as “undistorted,” and readers are supposed to be able to rely on the “truth content” of the events described. While eyewitness accounts frequently are published and received as direct testimony, questions as to the legitimacy and possibility of poetry and literature “after Auschwitz” often stem from a fear that reinterpretations of the events could play into the hands of the Holocaust deniers. At the same time, it is the literary texts on the extermination of the European Jews that are used for teaching purposes and intended to give students emotional access to the past events and their implicit moral message. Criticism, which questions primarily the historical accuracy of what is narrated, frequently overlooks not only the generally broad impact of such novels but also the conditions that led to their creation and the books’ intentions, which usually permit instructive conclusions about the writing of literature and history in certain historical and social contexts.


Literary documents from the era of National Socialism or the period of its persisting effect are rarely the object of literary study, though they are the very ones that would lend themselves to a critical engagement with literature. Karl-Aloys Schenzinger’s novels are an eloquent example of the continuity of a genre. In 1937, the author of Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex) (1932) wrote Anilin–Roman der deutschen Farbenindustrie (Anilin–A Novel of the German Dye Industry), which is in tune with Nazi ideology in its depiction of a success story about German research for the good of mankind, in the form of individual episodes presented as exciting adventures. After the war, he published another novel of industry and technology, Bei I.G. Farben (At I.G. Farben) (1953), which resembles the earlier book in style and content and thus testifies to the presence of continuities in the realm of popular entertainment culture.


From an opposing political vantage point, but with similar formal and stylistic means, East German author Manfred Kühne, in his novel Buna, published in 1985, depicts a worker at I.G. Farben whose eyes are opened to the crimes of the Third Reich after his transfer to I.G. Auschwitz; here those crimes are gradually unfolded as an indictment of capitalism.


John Castle’s novel The Password is Courage (1954) also has its roots in the adventure novel tradition. The narrative form used to relate the experiences of British POW Charles Coward, an inmate in the prisoner of war camp of I.G. Auschwitz, changes suddenly in the course of the novel, however, following the increasing knowledge of Coward and the reader about the extent of the Nazis’ crimes.


A survivor’s account was the basis for John Hersey’s story “Tattoo Number 107,907,” which relates the story of Alfred Stirner’s survival in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp; the model for the character of Alfred Stirner is Norbert Wollheim, who told his story to Hersey. It is part of a volume of short stories titled Here to Stay (1963), also containing other accounts of extreme life situations based on journalistic research.

(SP; transl. KL)