from the German
by E. J. Campfield
One of the briefest and most tragic writing careers of the 20th century
was that of Wolfgang Borchert. Born in Hamburg in 1921, Borchert was drafted
into the German infantry in 1941 and assigned to the Russian front where
he was critically wounded. His statements against the Third Reich earned
him a death sentence -- suspended so he could be sent back to the Russian
front. Failing health left him ill fit for such rigors however, and upon
receiving a medical discharge, he was promptly retried for his anti-Hitler
statements and sent to prison. Set free at war's end by American troops
in southern Germany, the only way he could get home to Hamburg was to
walk -- a distance of nearly 400 miles.
Physically broken, Borchert lived only two years after the war, yet
it was during this brief time that he turned out virtually all of his
writings. His most successful work was a drama, Draußen vor der
Tür (The Outsider), performed for the first time at the Kammerspiele Theater in Hamburg the evening following his death.
He was 26.
Borchert's short stories are all miniatures -- bleak vignettes of life in
cold, war-plagued surroundings. The links that follow are my translations
of four of his best (plus my script for a film short based on one of them).
Borchert focuses on the residue of war, mostly the unfortunate human residue
who must pick up living again where devastation left off. His descriptions
are stark and photographic. He waves no banners, drums no morals -- his word
portraits and landscapes speak their own haunting truths. His style is marked
by repetition of key words and phrases, fine metaphor and dialogue without
All, Rats Sleep at Night (short story)
All, Rats Sleep at Night (script for a film
short, based on the short story)
Wants Nothing More to Do With It (short
Three Dark Kings (short story)
Pale Brother (short story)