Walter Kempowski

Chronicler of German life

Thursday 11 October 2007 00:00

Walter Kempowski, writer: born Rostock, Germany 29 April 1929; married 1960 Hildegard Janssen (one son, one daughter); died Rotenburg, Germany 5 October 2007.

Walter Kempowski was one of Germany's most widely read and prolific authors, with about 40 books to his name. His works are largely to do with life in Nazi and post-war Germany, and he got into trouble with the Nazis and was jailed by the Communists.

Born in the Baltic seaport of Rostock in 1929, he was the son of Karl Georg Kempowski, a shipping company owner killed in the last days of the Second World War, and his wife, Margarethe, daughter of a Hamburg merchant. At 16, in 1944, like many of his generation, Walter Kempowski was conscripted into the Luftwaffe auxiliaries.

After the war, he worked for the US Army in a labour company in Wiesbaden. On a visit to Rostock, in the Soviet Zone, he was arrested and sentenced to prison for spying for the United States. He spent from 1948 to 1956 in the East German prison at Bautzen, notorious for its high death rate during this worst phase of Stalinism. At one point, he attempted suicide. His mother was also jailed.

On his release, he moved to the old university town of Göttingen where he enrolled to train as a teacher. In 1960 he was appointed teacher at the village school in Breddorf. His prison experiences became the core of his first novel, Im Block: ein Haftbericht ("In the Cell: a prison report"), published in 1969. Indeed, he freely admitted that without his imprisonment he would never have become a writer.

During the 1970s, Kempowski produced about one book a year. However, he gained fame with his nine-volume Deutscher Chronik or "German Chronicle" (1971-84). Tadellöser & Wolf (1971) was the first in the sequence. This was his best known book in Germany and, once again, was based on his own experiences. Later made into a film, it covered his wartime experiences and those of his middle-class family under Hitler, his time in the Hitler Youth and his brushes with the Nazi authorities. Several literary prizes followed, starting with the Lessing Prize in 1971.

Kempowski remained a somewhat disappointed man in that he was scorned by some in the literary establishment who lionised Günter Grass. Kempowski remained a believer in German reunification when it was unpopular to do so and was an anti-Communist. Some interpreted his work as trying to play down Nazi crimes but Haben Sie Hitler gesehen? Deutsche Antworten (1973, "Did you see Hitler? German answers") and Haben Sie davon gewußt? Deutsche Antworten (1979, "Did you know about it? German answers") contradict this view.

Perhaps the prizes that followed reunification in 1990 reflected increasing recognition that Kempowski had been right. These included the Konrad Adenauer Prize (1994) and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1996). He was most pleased to be made a freeman of his home town, Rostock, in 1994.

In 2005 he finished his enormous work Echolot ("Sonar"), a collection and collage of documents by people at various levels of society living in wartime circumstances. It is made up of thousands of personal documents, letters, newspaper articles, and unpublished autobiographies that Kempowski had collected over more than 20 years' work. His last book, Alles Umsonst ("All for Nothing") appeared in 2006.

Remarkably, even in his last year, Kempowski held a monthly literary afternoon at his home at Nartum where many fans, mostly elderly, joined him.

David Childs

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