Hans Herbert Grimm’s First World War novel, Schlump, had the bad luck to be published a few weeks after Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the novel that would go on to represent the German perspective of the war to this day. It probably didn’t help that Grimm was determined to remain anonymous, fearing that association with the novel would damage his career as a teacher and disrupt his quiet life. It is likely his fear of being linked to the book later played some part in his decision to join the Nazi party who were gleefully burning and banning it. Ironically, when he did finally reveal his authorship, to the new Communist authorities, this didn’t prevent him being from being forbidden to resume his teaching career. In 1950 he committed suicide.
In contrast, Schlump is a character who takes misfortune in his stride. Often lucky, even his bad luck seems to benefit him – it is as if he has emerged from an 18th century picaresque novel onto the battlefields of 20th century Europe, embracing adventure and women alike. This may seem a strange fit for a war novel, especially one which is set during the war we most associate (rightly or wrongly) with the suffering of soldiers, however, it points towards the comic approach of later novels like Catch 22. In some ways the picaresque genre is entirely appropriate: its episodic, plotless nature mimics the chaotic progress of the war; Schlump, like so many picaresque heroes before him, must live by his wits without too much care for the letter of the law; and he must also seize pleasure where he finds it with tomorrow being far from a certainty.
It also conveys the excitement felt by many young men at the thought of going to a war which seemed, to them, like an adventure:
“Schlump became anxious that he was missing out on all of this, and was desperate to sign up…On his seventeenth birthday he went in secret to the barracks and volunteered… He returned home bursting with pride and his parents abandoned their opposition.”
Schlump’s first piece of luck is that he has a school leaver’s certificate and a rudimentary understanding of French: instead of being sent to the Front, he becomes an administrator in occupied France. Far from mortal danger, with plentiful supplies of both food and girls, Schlump finds that “he’d almost forgotten he was a soldier.” Schlump proves adept at keeping everyone happy, but eventually his time is up and he is sent forward to the fighting: “he couldn’t be absolutely sure whether the last few months were absolutely real.”
Almost a third of the novel passes before Schlump sees any action, but, rather than take away for the book’s impact, this only serves to make conditions at the Front more shocking. It also reflects the experience of soldiers who spent much of their time waiting behind the lines. Schlump does not, however, sail through the war unscathed:
“Thud! The dull impact. Now it was going to explode. Schlump threw himself on the ground; here the communication trench was very shallow, giving only a hand’s width of cover. Now it was going to explode. But it lasted an eternity; he could have got much further away. And still it didn’t. Then, finally, came the dull boom, followed by a rumbling and drumming, as if a thousand horses were galloping towards him… Schlump remembered nothing after that.”
This is only Schlump’s first wound; after his recovery he returns to the fighting only to be wounded again (presumably a common experience). This allows him some time back in Germany where we can see the effects of the war on the civilian population, hunger in particular. His mother
“…placed everything in front of him that she’d put by from her own meals. She didn’t tell him she’d starved for his sake.”
Later Schlump’s father dies of hunger. In this way, Grimm creates a novel that tells of more than Schlump’s experience. A number of other stories related to Schlump by those he meets also expand the novel’s viewpoint.
Schlump, rediscovered in Germany in 2013, and now translated into English by Jamie Bulloch, deserves its belated place among the classic novels of the Great War. It may not have the emotional impact of, for example, Owen’s poetry, but this is partly due to Schlump’s everyman character – his basic education, his lack of refinement, and his enduring innocence which outlasts even the war:
“He left the station as a simple soldier, just as on the day he’d embarked from there.”