The bitterness of youth: What occurred before the “robber Hotzenplotz”

Children like interacting with the real-life fantastical characters from fairy tales and legends, such as ghosts, dwarfs, giants, fairies, and villains. Anyone who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s was fortunate to have their grandparents read them Grimm’s “Rumpelstiltskin” or Andersen’s “Ugly Duckling,” as well as to have the opportunity to discuss the “Little Aquarius,” the “Little Witch,” and the “robber Hotzenplotz” with their peers.

One of the most well-known authors of children’s and young adult books in German, Otfried Preussler (1923–2013), rose to fame with these works. According to Wikipedia, the author has 50 million copies in print worldwide.

Russian is a second language for Carsten Gansel, a professor of German literature at the University of Giessen. He searched archives in the former Soviet Union for poetry written by German authors when they were prisoners of war using the language abilities that were uncommon among Germanists. It caused a commotion when Heinrich Gerlach’s “Breakthrough near Stalingrad,” which Gansel first published in 2016, was discovered in its original form. The dismal military records from the Stalin era turned out to be literary treasure trove during his detective search for hints.

Preußler’s literature, which he authored between 1944 and 1949 as a prisoner of war, is the subject of Gansel’s most recent book, “Child of a Difficult Time.” It was situated in the east of the European USSR, in the cities of the Tatar People’s Republic, Yelabuga and Kazan. Gansel also conducted interviews with the author’s relatives and acquaintances while working through the Preußler estate at the German State Library in Berlin. His investigation led to the publication of an intriguing and novel book: It is a biography of the young Preussler as well as a documentation that interprets the unpublished or unremembered early work.

cruelty of daily existence

The author’s progress is now clear because of the numerous published poems, stories, remarks, reports, and memories. Gansel is one of the best contextualizers in German studies with a focus on culture. His research provided fresh insight into the “Operation Barbarossa’s” daily savagery as well as the equally traumatic conditions in the POW camps.

Citing historical information is only one aspect of contextualization. Gansel makes observations about Preussler’s poetry’s Romantic aesthetics, the effect of German-speaking Bohemia’s regional literature on the fairytale stories, and – in the event of a farce – the borrowings from Biedermeier humoresques.

The analogies with writers like Franz Fühmann in the Soviet Union and Hans Werner Richter in the USA, whose writing apprenticeship also occurred during the period of incarceration, should not be overlooked either. Preussler, in contrast to Fühmann, avoided pro-Soviet agitation, and, in contrast to Richter, he was unable to view the German soldier only as a victim of Hitler’s regime.

Gansel is knowledgeable with cultural discourses and theories. When discussing surveillance and punishment in the camps, he quotes Foucault; if entanglement, guilt, remembering and forgetting are discussed, the pertinent references to Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Hannah Arendt are not lacking; and when he addresses the writing of coping with traumatic experiences, he consults Freud and more recent psychoanalysts.

the Sudeten Germans being expelled

The exploration of the culture and history of the German-Bohemian population—after the First World War, known as the Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia—is one of the book’s unique elements. The Preussler family’s example reminds us of the Habsburg monarchy’s tradition and mentality, the Paris suburbs treaties’ effects, the Munich Agreement’s effects with the second “Anschluss” in 1938, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, and the Sudeten Germans’ expulsion from the second Czechoslovak Republic in 1945/46 and subsequent flight to post-war Germany (in this case Bavaria).

In Reichenberg, Bohemia, Preussler’s father was a teacher and an expert on the local literature. The author was exposed as a child to the local world of stories and fairy tales through him and his grandmother. He is fascinated by Prague. The young sonnets about the former royal and imperial metropolis demonstrate this. Preussler was recruited into the Wehrmacht at the age of 17 immediately after finishing high school. “Erntelager Geyer” is the title of his debut story from 1942, which was published two years later. Gansel refers to them as Bund-shaped and counters claims that they adhere to Nazi philosophy.

The company commander and young lieutenant are tasked with defending the front in Romania. Preußler wrote about his experiences there in the 1990s in the manuscript “Bessarabian Summer,” which Gansel extensively quoted. Although it is not written in the first person, one’s personal experience is recalled through the use of an alter ego. In August 1944, the front fully disintegrates—Stalingrad repeats itself. Preussler’s five-year incarceration has now started.

danger of death

Death remains a constant threat. In his account of the first two years of incarceration, Gansel details the effects of hunger and slave mistreatment. Healthcare and food are progressively getting better.

His abilities as a writer and artist benefit Preussler. He can write news articles and slogans for his wall newspapers, act in comedic plays (some of which are his own creations), and distribute poetry to other convicts. “Lost Years?” by Preussler, his autobiography, was never fully published. In his 1971 book “Krabat,” the author later addressed the moral dilemmas he faced as a young officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht. The work’s floor plan reveals the Faustian bargain with the devil. His sweetheart aids Krabat in breaking away from the “master” of the “Black School” and its anti-Semitic philosophy.

By Editor