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.
The school is a breeding ground for the rising elite and a place where the establishment sends its sons (daughters were not admitted until the mid-1970s) to ensure their status. It’s located in a city that was a hotbed of far-right political activity. And who is the director in May 1928? Gebhard Himmler. Yes, the father of that Himmler.
Kien’s father had been wounded at the front in the First World War, had earned the Iron Cross (first class), but by the time of the book his health is broken, he cannot keep his business going properly, and his sons are only able to keep their places at the Wittelsbacher because the school has waived their fees. In one of the book’s few passages that is set outside the classroom, Kien’s father expands on his views:
“‘The young Himmler is definitely all right,’ his father had explained. ‘An excellent young man, a follower of Hitler, but not exclusively, he also comes to us Ludendorff people and he’s in the “Reich’s War Banner,” among the young comrades who come and go in our group he’s the sharpest and most reliable, quiet, but with iron determination, born in 1900 so he couldn’t be a soldier at the front but I believe that in the trenches he would have definitely stood by his man, I would have liked to have had one like him in my company, but he and his father are deadly enemies, the old Himmler is in the Bavarian Volksparty, black [the clerical party’s color] down to his very bones, thinks of himself as a nationalist man, but in the war he was a rear echelon MF, and he’s not even an anti-Semite, he doesn’t see anything wrong with consorting with Jews, that’s the reason his son has cut off relations with him, the young Himmler would never sit at the same table with Jews, Jesuits and Freemasons.'” (pp. 40–41, my translation)
There are the assumptions that Kien, born in 1914, so Weimar Germany is all he knows, is growing up with. Democracy is a dirty word, for the weak, and probably a Bolshevik plot if one stops to think about it. His father is a follower of the general Hitler wanted to install as a figurehead. The elder Kien sees everything through the lens of the front (a trait he shares with Hitler), and values nationalism, hardness, decisiveness.
The elder Himmler shows himself a petty tyrant, intent on humiliating the students, upbraiding the teacher who is at least notionally a colleague, and enforcing every last bit of hierarchy that he can find. All while proclaiming the humanizing influence of the ancients, of course. Nor do any of the rules apply to him; he may say that the book the students are using to learn Greek is impenetrably written and a bad method for teaching, but woe unto any student who has not used the book to learn the day’s lessons. It’s enough to make a reader sympathize with anyone who rebels against him, but then that category also includes his notorious son.
Andersch does not claim to have any answers; indeed, he asks in his otherwise skippable afterword, “Can’t humanism protect us from anything? The question is enough to drive one to despair.” (p. 89, my translation) He captures something of the spirit of the age, when the front-line experience of a lost war was held as the site of a nation’s greatest virtues, when authority and hierarchy were all, when iron determination was the mark of a man on the rise. Young Kien does not like it — he wants to be a writer when he grows up — but his critique is as yet unformed, and by the time he knows more of what he wants to say and do, it will be too late to stop the young Himmlers.