In May 1928, the director of an old-fashioned high school in Munich enters a ninth grade classical Greek class to check and see how the students are coming along with their lessons. Der Vater eines Mörders tells how one student, Franz Kien, experienced the hour, what he saw and heard, what he thought and felt. Andersch describes the hour in exquisite detail, from the relations within the class to what Kien thinks about his regular teacher, to Kien’s observations about the changing power dynamics within the class as the director quizzes one student after another, sidelining the regular teacher and giving lessons, most of them inadvertent, that reach well beyond Greek.
Why, though? Why did one of post-war Germany’s most renowned authors turn to that May afternoon at a distance of more than half a century for the subject of the last work that he completed during his lifetime? The explanation is in the work’s title, although the explanation of the title does not come until the half-way point in this 80-page novella.
Despite its short length, Der Vater eines Mörders addresses but does not answer the big question of twentieth-century Germany: how did Hitler happen? The book is set in Munich, which the Nazis regarded as the “capital of the movement” (in contrast to Berlin, which was the capital of the Reich both before and after their seizure of power). Five years before the book takes place, Hitler and his crew had attempted a coup in Munich but had been stopped by the republican authorities’ use of force. Hitler had been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for treason, though he served less than one. In the month that the book takes place his ban from public speaking had been lifted; he and his party had of course been active in Munich the whole time.
The school where Der Vater eines Mörders takes place is not just any high school in Munich. It’s the Wittelsbacher Gymnasium, a secondary school named for Bavaria’s ruling house. Wittelsbacher is a real school; Carl Orff, for example, attended. It is one of the “humanistic gymnasiums,” a type of school in the German-speaking world that emphasize classical learning, teaching Latin and ancient Greek to all students. In the early 20th century, only these schools were allowed to give the credential that allowed students to enroll in any type of university studies; graduates of non-humanistic schools had limits placed on their choice of university education. Education at a humanistic gymnasium was and is considered a means of entering Germany’s elite.