Ernest Hemingway was a shooter

Ernest Hemingway, J. D. Salinger and John Glueck on the Western Front

In his novel “Propaganda”, Steffen Kopetzky skilfully combines tension with historical research

From Marita Meyer

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With propaganda Steffen Kopetzky succeeded in what Ernest Hemingway failed because of and what J. D. Salinger was not ready for: a well-researched, reflective and at the same time extremely exciting novel about one of the last and bloodiest battles of the Second World War, the battle in the Hürtgenwald in winter 1944/45.

After the successful landing of the Americans in Normandy and the swift liberation of France occupied by Nazi Germany, the Germans once again bundled their military forces for the so-called "Ardennes Offensive" in order to win the war, which had actually already been lost, in a crazy maneuver . The exact number of deaths remains controversial to this day. Most estimates assume a total of 75,000 soldiers dead. At first the strategy of the Germans even seemed to work. In the German-Belgian border area of ​​the North Eifel, south of Aachen, they encountered American divisions who had misjudged the geographic conditions: the rugged, deep valleys of the spruce forest with barely passable roads became a trap for the Americans who were unfamiliar with the location. Tree guards, widely relocated mines and hidden bunkers resulted in high losses. It took months before the better logistics and greater resources of the Allied side finally put an end to the massacre.

The name Hürtgenwald comes from the Americans. Hürtgen is the name of one of the villages in the border area, which the Americans might associate with "hurt". Indeed, there were many injuries in this forest.

John Glueck is the name of the novel's protagonist in an almost provocative way. John is an American with German ancestry who goes to war out of idealism: to free the Germany of the Brothers Grimm and Heinrich Heines from the Nazis. He works for the propaganda department and is assigned to write a portrait of Ernest Hemingway at the front. In fact, the American writer was first in occupied France and then in the Huertgen Forest, where he was accredited as a war correspondent. Kopetzky has Hemingway appear as a man at the height of his fame but at the end of his physical and creative powers. The aging, drinking and unpredictable warrior who can be called "dad" must be protected from himself and from the anger of the soldiers who have little understanding for his privileges within the troops.

Another big name in American literature makes a brief appearance: a young, ambitious writer named Jerry, who has already caused a sensation in the New York literary scene with his first short stories and who wants to show one of his stories to Hemingway, whom he admires. As a sergeant, he mainly wants to kill Nazis. As J. D. Salinger, however, he wants to remain silent about it. John and "Hem", on the other hand, want to write a "great" and "true" war novel if they survive the battles. Two American writers, who were also very popular with the German reading public of the post-war period, who were participants or at least observers of a until now little-known but dramatic battle on the Western Front. It is from this unusual historical constellation that the novel strikes a large part of its sparks. The prehistory of the fictional protagonist Glueck, especially his experiences in a summer writing seminar in New York, belong to this network of motifs.

Even for a reader whose hobby is not military history, the details on the background and material conditions of warfare will be an exciting read. Probably because it's not about stereotypical battle plans or branches of arms, but about the importance of American truck production for supplies, for example. Almost 6,000 were shipped across the Atlantic. The soldiers' panic is also understandable when the anti-tank weapon no longer works because the opponent's new type of tank throws the weapon back into its own ranks. Minor characters illuminate the situation of the colored soldiers: Black soldiers like Moon Washington are mainly used as drivers so that you don't have to give them weapons. Ignition key and wrench yes, but no hand grenades. So the racists on both sides of the front are reassured. The Iroquois Seneca is used for dangerous reconnaissance work behind enemy lines because, thanks to its closeness to nature, it is one of the few able to move confidently in this confusing forest area. He hears, sees and smells more than the others. And he explains to John Glueck, who accompanied him, that the Iroquois tribe has been at war with Germany without interruption since the First World War, because the tribe had declared war but was not invited to the Versailles peace negotiations.

Volts with daring narrative techniques also broaden the view of the other, the German side. As a member of the secret service, Glueck conducts interrogations with German prisoners. On one of his exploratory expeditions with Seneca, he was briefly captured by Germany, where he was able to pretend to be German thanks to a German army uniform and his apparently accent-free knowledge of German. His hand-to-hand combat technique, which he trained in Camp Ritchie, is used when he recognizes an acquaintance of a youth from a German-American summer camp in a member of the security service and he does not allow himself to be persuaded to defecate without further ado.

In these and other passages, the war novel becomes a gripping adventure novel or even an agent thriller. And always amazed how Kopetzky succeeds in combining his tense story with historically informative information.

Not only convinced National Socialists and unscrupulous violent criminals populate the German side of the novel. There is also a shining light: the young medical doctor Dr. Stüssgen. With Glueck's help, he enforces a ceasefire to remove the wounded and then carry out emergency operations day and night on both American and German soldiers. Fortunately, this doctor really did exist. It is unmistakable that the author wants to erect a monument to him. The historical Dr. After the war, Stüssgen became professor of dermatology at the Virchow Clinic in Berlin.

As exciting and complex as the scenes are written in the Hürtgenwald, Kopetzky apparently did not trust this material to carry the novel. There is a second level: John Glueck writes his memories of World War II in 1971 from a Missouri prison. He participated in the publication of the secret Pentagon Papers after falling victim to American defoliants near Saigon. When he realizes the criminal energy with which the USA is fighting in Vietnam, he no longer sees himself - as once in the Huertgen Forest - on the side of the righteous and decides to disobey in order to be able to spread the truth about this war. When John Glueck is identified as the spokesman for John F. Kennedy's Berlin speech, the story-rich arc finally seems overstretched.

But for free - despite the somewhat overwrought ending, it remains a clever and exciting novel, which is written in the fast-paced and entertaining style of American realism. By the way: Ernest Hemingway's novel Across the river and into the trees (German: Across the river and into the woods) appeared in 1950. In it, the protagonist recalls the battle in the Huertgen Forest, while he lies in the arms of his very young and very beautiful Venetian mistress or while he goes duck hunting, without the events of the war really coming to life. It only becomes clear that the infantry colonel in the Hürtgenwald was traumatized. And J. D. Salinger never wrote about his time as a soldier in World War II.