Anti-war masterpiece plagued by bad timing

Booknotes looks at Hans Herbert Grimm and 'Schlump'

Hans Herbert Grimm

Hans Herbert Grimm

Mike Selby

While renovating the house he purchased in 2013, Volker Weidermann made a staggering discovery. Behind a wall of brick and plaster that badly needed rebuilding was a crudely built alcove which hid a mass of letters, diaries, pamphlets, and a book Weidermann had never heard of it.

The book itself was oddly titled ‘Schlump,’ and its author was not listed. But the material which was hidden with it let Wiedermann piece together the story behind the book itself, its author, and just why it had been concealed.

‘Schlump’ was written in 1928 by a Hans Herbert Grimm, an Altenburg schoolteacher. In it, Grimm fictionalized his experiences during the First World War, disguising himself as the main character, in which he is openly critical of his country’s involvement. Grimm goes to great length in ‘Schlump’ to illustrate how German soldiers were “less than heroic, German military strategy as misguided, senseless and foolish, the Kaiser as a coward, and the entire war as a cruel, bad joke.”

Kurt Wolf — ‘Schlump’s’ publisher — was extremely eager to publish it, convinced he had a bestseller on his hands. He felt ‘Schlump’ was the “first proper literary engagement with World War I.” The only hurdle he could foresee was Grimm himself, who needed to be anonymous. He was certain to lose his teaching job, his home, and more than likely his freedom should it be revealed that he was behind this anti-war book.

Without revealing Grimm’s identity, Wolf engaged in a costly marketing campaign. Full page newspaper ads and posters ran throughout Germany, all asking the same question: “Schlump! Have you read ‘Schlump’ yet? This question will soon be on men’s lips everywhere.”

Other pamphlets and broadsides strongly declared that ‘Schlump’ was a book “every German man must read. A turning point in popular and truthful depictions of the war.”

Wolf had his printers going overtime, and sent large quantities of ‘Schlump’ to bookstores throughout Germany. Hedging his bets a bit, he even had the novelist J. B. Priestley translate it into English, so it would be available in England simultaneously with the German release.

He was too late.

Two weeks before the release of ‘Schlump,’ Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ appeared. Although heavily criticized by war veterans and the government, the novel was a massive success, selling ten thousand copies per day. With this literary sensation on the lips of everyone, ‘Schlump’ was the last thing anyone wanted to purchase.

Disheartened by the disinterest in his book, Grimm resigned himself to continue teaching. But soon the Nazis came to power, and ‘Schlump’ appeared on their list of books to be burned. Grimm hid the book and anything linking him to it in behind a wall in his house.

To continue teaching, Grimm was forced to pledge allegiance to the Nazi Party, but he not-so-secretly taught against everything the Nazis stood for. When the Second World War broke out, Grimm was sent back into the trenches, this time as an interpreter. No one was more delighted than he was when the Allies defeated Hitler’s regime.

Returning to Altenburg, Grimm soon found out he would never teach again — blocked by the pesky detail of his Nazi Party pledge of allegiance. Although hundreds of students testified about his resistance, and Grimm himself revealed that he wrote ‘Schlump’—which the Nazis banned and burned — it was of no help. Grimm was forced to work in a gravel mine until 1950.

Summoned to a secret meeting by the new GDR government, Grimm returned home and shot himself.

That was the story Volker Weidermann was able to make out of his remarkable find in 2013. Even more remarkable was Weidermann was a literary historian, and knew exactly what to do with ‘Schlump.’

It was republished in Germany in 2014, and in the United States in 2016, to great critical acclaim, not quite a hundred years later.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library