Title: The Seventh Cross
Author: Anna Seghers, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: First published 1942, republished 29th May 2018
Synopsis: A rediscovered German classic novel from 1942, The Seventh Cross is both a gripping escape story and a powerful novel of resistance.
‘At once a suspenseful manhunt story and a knowing portrait of the perils of ordinary life in Hitler’s Germany, The Seventh Cross is not only an important novel, but an important historical document. This new, unabridged translation is a genuine publishing event’ JOSEPH KANON, author of The Good German and Leaving Berlin
‘It was [Seghers] who taught my generation and anyone who had an ear to listen after that not-to-be-forgotten war to distinguish right from wrong. The Seventh Crossshaped me; it sharpened my vision’ Gunter Grass ‘A masterpiece. Written in the midst of terror, but with such clarity, such acuity; Seghers is a writer of rare insight’ Rachel Seiffert, author of A Boy in Winter
Seven prisoners escape from Westhofen concentration camp. Seven crosses are erected in the grounds and the commandant vows to capture the fugitives within a week. Six men are caught quickly, but George Heisler slips through his pursuers’ fingers and it becomes a matter of pride to track him down, at whatever cost.
Who can George trust? Who will betray him? The years of fear have changed those he knew best: his brother is now an SS officer; his lover turns him away. Hunted, injured and desperate, time is running out for George, and whoever is caught aiding his escape will pay with their life.
The Seventh Cross powerfully documents the insidious rise of a fascist regime – the seething paranoia, the sudden arrests, the silence and fear.
‘A fascinating insight into life in pre-war Nazi Germany just as the horrors of the Nazi regime were beginning to unfold. This is an important novel, as much for its picture of German society as for its insight into the psyche of ordinary people confronting their personal fears and mixed loyalties’ Simon Mawer, author of The Glass Room
The Seventh Cross was written by one of the most important German writers of the twentieth century. Her aim was to write, ‘A tale that makes it possible to get to know the many layers of fascist Germany through the fortunes of a single man.’ She had four copies of the manuscript: one was destroyed in an air raid; a friend lost the second copy while fleeing the Nazis; another was found by the Gestapo; only the fourth copy survived, which, fortunately, she sent to her publisher in America just before she escaped Nazi-occupied France. Published in 1942, The Seventh Cross was an immediate bestseller and was the basis for an MGM film starring Spencer Tracy in 1944. It has been translated into more than 40 languages
The Seventh Cross is set in the mid-1930s, following the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler in Germany, in the build-up to war. Early concentration camps, such as Westhofen hold political prisoners. At the start of the novel, seven prisoners have escaped the camp, and the SA and SS officers of the new regime are tasked with hunting them down. Six are caught – one remains on the run, and continuously evades capture – and so, his pursuers decide they will use whatever means necessary to take him captive again. What follows is the prisoner – George’s – attempts to evade capture and reconnect with his former life, but at the same time, wants to keep those he knew before he was taken away safe – his family, his friends.
And after his time in the camp, George doesn’t know who to trust. will his brother, now an SS officer, turn him in? His ex-wife, Elli, is constantly being watched – what will happen to her? Anyone who dares to help George will pay the ultimate price of the Nazi regime – death.
Where many novels surrounding World War Two and the Nazi regime are focussed on the year or two prior to the start of the war, or the war itself, The Seventh Cross is situated within the beginnings
of the Nazi regime, as witnessed by the author, as she fled first to France, and then to Mexico in 1940, after the Nazis occupied France during the war. During her exile, The Seventh Cross was one of the books she wrote – and there were four manuscripts, according to Seghers: one was lost by a friend who was also escaping the Nazis, another destroyed in an air raid. A third was found by the Gestapo, whilst the fourth reached her publisher in America before she fled her home.
Rather than examine the impact of war or the well-known concentration camps and extermination programs of the 1940s, Seghers looks at how ordinary Germans responded to the Nazi regime, from those who followed it didactically and enthusiastically, to those of indifference and again, those who stood up for their beliefs – the good, the indifferent and the bad. It examines what ordinary people had to do to survive and how they did it, and also, what they would do to help George, at great risk or cost to their own lives as they tried to hold onto a semblance of humanity in a period of time that was becoming darker and darker every day.
Seghers wrote what she experienced and witnessed – making it all the more powerful, and though it is fiction, an important historical document, as it shows how everyday people were forced into making choices that they might not ordinarily have made in order to survive, and a confrontation of their fears and mixed loyalties that would eventually lead many into the depths of hatred and genocide that would come to shock the world when the truth was discovered.
Reading about what lead to the war, the ghettoes and the extermination of millions of people is just as important to understand as the rest – how Germany got there was made up of many factors, and The Seventh Cross shows how this happened through the eyes of someone who witnessed it first hand, ensuring that the story is not easily dismissed and one that should be read and remembered today, so the rise of someone like Hitler can never happen again.
Written in 1942, and translated into English for the first time since, The Seventh Cross has not been in print in the United Kingdom since 1942 – 76 years.