Essays

The Interrupted Literary Career of Friedo Lampe and the Underpinnings of the Nazi Obsession With Books and Literature

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On May 1, 1945, six days before the Nazis would surrender to Allied forces, Friedo Lampe found himself six miles outside of Berlin, in the way of the rapidly advancing Soviet Army. He was working as a translator for the Germans after being drafted into service several years before. He had contracted a bone disease in his youth which left him disabled, and until late in the war, it kept him out of compulsory military service. 

But as the war went on and German losses mounted, Lampe was finally pressed into service, if only in a support role. The front lines were porous at this point, with the Germans in retreat and the Soviets sprinting toward the German capital. 

And so it was that Lampe and another man were stopped by an advance Russian patrol and were asked for their papers. Lampe was a non-combatant, and so, on the presentation of his papers, had reason to think he would be left alone as the patrol moved along. The Soviets, though, believed that SS troops were deserting and trying to blend in to escape being taken prisoner…or worse. 

Lampe presented his papers and the Russians sized him up. And they didn’t believe the man in front of them was the person pictured in Lampe’s documents. 

Over the course of the war, Lampe had lost an enormous amount of weight, both because of rationing and because of his enormous fear for his life and that of his friends. The Soviets walked him to a small clearing and shot him dead, and buried him right where he fell. At this late stage, prisoners were an encumbrance, and no chances were being taken in the face of uncertainty. 

After the surrender of Germany, news got back to his friends about what had happened, and they placed a marker on his grave which read, “You are not alone.”

This is the intertwined stories of the writer, librarian, and bookseller Friedo Lampe and the literary front of the Nazis culture war. It’s of course about silencing and erasure, but also about how books and knowledge aren’t just casualties in a larger war, but are the spoils of victory, or the cost of losing, in their own way. 

*

For several years while working as a bookseller, Simon Beattie had been mulling the idea of translating a book. In the course of cataloging and buying and selling, he found all sorts of books that could be interesting projects.

“As a book seller, you know, you’re always coming across things, and if you’re dealing in foreign languages, too, or books in foreign languages, you’re always coming across different authors and getting interested in them. More often than not, there have been translations,” explains Simon. 

One day he came across a book called Am Rande Der Nacht, which in English translates to At the Edge of the Night.

“For whatever reason I took it out. It wasn’t an author that I’d heard of, and I was commuting at that time. I was reading it on the train, and, you know, and I enjoyed it and I knew that he hadn’t been translated and I think even at that time I did actually begin a translation during my morning commute.”

While Simon was inspired immediately to make some notes, he didn’t finally decide to tackle the project for several years.

“This is one that struck me and, you know, I looked around and saw that really nothing by him had ever appeared in English before. So a few years ago, I sat down with this book and actually sort of started to actually translate it properly.” 

The book itself was fascinating, but as he read, Simon became more and more interested in Lampe himself.

“And one of the things that’s particularly interesting about him: his own story as a writer growing up as a young, gay, disabled writer, in Germany in the ’20s and the early ’30s when he actually starts writing himself,” said Simon. 

Simon realized that here was German writer who was beginning his literary career at precisely the same moment that Hitler and the Nazis were coming to power. That his story was one that should be told, and his work should be more widely known.

And so he got into it. 

“He came from the northwest of Germany, in a town called Bremen, a sort of harbor city really. He was very attached to where he came from, and worked there first, on a sort of family magazine sort of publication.”

From a very young age, Lampe wanted to be a writer and so immersed himself in the world of books.

Simon explains, “He was a voracious reader as a teenager. He read, you know, everything and anything and had particular views on literature, was very interested in classical writers whether they were German or French, English, American, Russian, he just read it all. I mean, he was reading Kafka as it was coming out.”

After working at the family magazine for a time, he wanted to get into the larger literary scene, so he made a move.

“For that he then started working in Hamburg in a town library there, working with things there. It was at that point that he started mixing circles with other writers, and with other people interested in books, and people who were writing and decided to write himself,” explains Simon. 

As Lampe was joining the literary world, the political world of Germany was changing radically. And for his part, Lampe just tried to stay out of it

“Reading his letters from the time, I don’t think he is a political person. I mean, he didn’t join the Nazi Party, but then, he wasn’t fighting against it either. I think given his sexuality, I think he just really kept himself to himself during the Nazi period.”

He kept his head down writing, and by 1933 was ready to publish At The Edge of Night. And though he had for so long tried to stay away from the political furor that surrounded him, he could not avoid the attention of the National Socialists any longer. In October of 1933, his book was banned by the Nazis.

“He was surprised as anyone that anyone should want to ban his book, and was like shocked that when it was banned.”

In hindsight, he really should not have been shocked, considering how closely the Nazis were scrutinizing books…and there are moments in At The Edge of Night that caught their attention. 

“The sort of homoerotic episodes in it are, I mean, there is nothing graphic or anything like that. There are various characters in there who are gay, but he certainly wasn’t like a gay rights campaigner or anything like that. He was appalled that his book should be put together with pornography or anything like that because that wasn’t what the book is like at all.”

*

At The Edge of Night is a dreamlike little book, one that feels connected to literary modernism…and markedly disconnected from overt politics. In it, Lampe is experimenting with style more than anything else. 

“The way he crafted it, he was very interested in film, and he conceived the book as film-like. He was viewing it like a camera, and you get these ideas of the camera angles. You can imagine it working as a series of large, long camera shots. There’s no one main character, and it’s these different threads of plot as you might get in a film, and then, you get meetings of someone will get off a tram and meet someone else. Then, they’ll walk away and the camera cues the readers to follow that person that had just been described,” says Simon. 

But a couple of scenes depict gay people, and one a mixed-race relationship. Fleeting and not at all dwelled upon, but there. And that was enough.

His shock at being banned was an indication of how much Lampe had buried his head in the sand. Five months earlier, the Nazis had enacted the most famous book burning of all time. 

“I would like to point out that the book burning on the 10th of May, 1933, it wasn’t a large destruction, a mass destruction of books. It was mainly an event of symbolic importance.”

This is Anders Rydell, who chronicled the destruction, looting, and confiscating of books by the Nazis during World War II.

“For many Germans, they understood what this — what this was about because they had a historical reference of this a hundred years earlier, and German students had burned French books after the Napoleon wars. But mainly it was a reference to an episode 500 years earlier when Martin Luther burned the papal bull and, in the Nazi point of view, this act of Martin Luther wasn’t an act of religious freedom, it was a nationalistic act,” explained Anders. 

And while At The Edge of Night wasn’t on that pile of burning books, it was banned for the same reason: Lampe’s work ran counter to the Nazi idea of German purity. Nazi book-burnings remain a powerful image from World War II, but over time what they have come to represent is somewhat different from what the Germans were trying to do. 

The book burnings, and the banning and the culling of bookstores and libraries were not just about destroying books and ideas. They were about making space for other books and ideas. 

“When the Nazis came to power, a lot of intellectuals, academics, and authors and poets and artists fled Nazi Germany, but most didn’t. They got new money and you could say that the Nazis created this new kind of cultural policy that built libraries. They started prizes, scholarships, built operas, theater, houses, and, I mean, the first official building that the Nazis built was a museum in Munich, their house of German art,” said Anders. 

And these were not merely public displays or superficial propaganda. This was a frontline of the Nazi war on history. 

“In the Nazi view they always fought two kinds of wars. It was the classic war on battlefields with soldiers and tanks, and then it was the political war, the war of ideas. That kind of war was really the most important war, and the soldiers in that war were librarians, poets, academics, the people that could rewrite history, that could prove that the Nazi ideas were true,” Anders said. 

The Nazis were trying to rewrite world history, to tell a story of the world that centered Germany. It was a particular, inflexible story. One in which there was no part for Friedo Lampe to play.

*

In our cultural imagination, there is a version of Lampe’s story that plays out like this. A gay, disabled German writer has his book banned. As the concentration camp machine gears up, he is imprisoned and ultimately killed by the Nazis After all, it happened to many with Lampe’s profile. So why didn’t it happen to him?

“He was trying to keep himself to himself and keep his head down, certainly after his first book was banned as well. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself. And his second book, it was just sort of a long poem, which he had privately printed in 1936. That wouldn’t have aroused much suspicion at all,” says Simon.

Survival, rather that literary achievement, became paramount. And Lampe knew that he was in danger as he saw his friends and peers get pulled into the war.

“I mean, the thing that really affected him was friends of his who were called up to fight. He wasn’t called up because he suffered from this sort of bone tuberculosis as a child, so he couldn’t walk properly,” explains Simon. 

And try as he might, the war finally came to him. Lampe was drafted late in the war to do translations, which led to his fatal encounter with Russian troops. 

In effect, Lampe self-censored to survive, to get along. And it is a story that played out with the wider German people as well.

As Anders explains, “They banned books but you could still get books and read forbidden books. But if you wanted, you could through the whole Nazi era and get forbidden books.But the people often destroyed them themselves. The largest destructions of books, was people that destroyed their own books because they were afraid.”

“So in 1933, I mean, everyone was afraid. They burned their books and they threw them away. All over Germany you could see people that just dumped books in rivers or in alleys or everywhere just to get rid of them. People decided, I can’t have those books anymore at home.”

And some of those books destroyed and cast off by German citizens themselves were certainly copies of Lampe’s At The Edge of Night

“He just wanted to be a writer,” explains Simon. “He just wants to write books, be involved in publishing and enjoy reading and writing and literature, and yet, the time and the place of where this happens to be just doesn’t work for him. It doesn’t work for what he wanted to achieve with his life as a writer and a reader.”

*

Lampe’s compromised career is just one small example of what the Nazis wanted to do: disrupt the existing narrative and replace it, by violence, theft, and law, with their own story. 

“I think today we are really wrong to see the Nazis as cultural destroyers, as barbaric, because we want to see the culture and literature and books as a force of good,” says Anders. “But I think one lesson of this era is that culture could be a weapon and it could be one of the most horrific and dangerous weapons in the wrong hands.” 

“It’s much more scary. I mean, I’m more afraid of Nazis that read books than Nazis that don’t read books.”

And as Simon’s work translating Lampe into English for the first time shows, this war is not over. But unlike the millions of lives that were lost, when it comes to books and art, there are still literary and artistic works and legacies that can be saved. And maybe Lampe won’t be, in the end, alone.

“I’m hoping his luck is maybe changing now. I mean, in Germany he is recognized, he has an entry in the Oxford Companion of German Literature. He is recognized in German academics as someone who’s worth reading and studying. But I think he’s not a household name in Germany at all. Most people in Germany would not have heard of him,” says Simon. “ I’m hoping in a way that people will find him an interesting author because if you look back and see what else has been published at the time, early ’30s, this does stand out as being, you know, unusual in terms of structure.”

That books survived, even in obscurity, allows these silenced stories to be rediscovered. The endurance of art and its ability to serve as a counter-narrative was something the Nazis were well aware of…and planning for. 

Adolph Frank, who was in charge of the Nazis efforts to loot and collect and selectively destroy Jewish literature, had a chilling vision of why policing literature was so important. And it was vision that spanned generations. 

“He said that the Nazis’ grandchildren maybe could judge them for the Holocaust in the future if they didn’t in some way collect the Jewish culture to show their grandchildren how evil the Jews were,” says Anders. “It was important not just to eradicate Jews and Jewish culture, it was also important to save something of it as proof of the evil of the Jews.”

So it was a program of destruction AND fabrication. Of silencing and stepping into the silence created to tell a story the Nazis wanted to tell. 

And so the work continues of unraveling the lies, the censorship, the erasure, and the eradication. And for his part, Simon thinks that translating Lampe and talking about his work is part of putting back together the story the Nazis wanted gone from history. 

“I found a German work on the history of gay literature during the Nazi period, and really, there’s a whole chapter on Lampe, and the writer says he is the only gay author of any sort of literary merit. You know, he really is a different case. I’m hoping perhaps the time has come for that.”

Some of the books and authors targeted by the Nazis might be gone forever. But there are more books and documents and stories, that, like Friedo Lampe, are sitting on shelves waiting to be rediscovered. A LOT more. 

“I held a lecture and tour in Lithuania and at the National Library and they’re still going through the collections from the War. I mean, they have hundreds of thousands of letters and documents and papers. It’s like no one has seen them since the War. There’s so much to discover from this era, and when I started to write about the Second World War, you had this idea that everything is already written — there are ten books about Hitler’s dog and everything — but you go down in the archives and you discover that it’s the opposite. Almost nothing has been written. I really hope that — that more people dig down to this area because there is so much more to discover,” says Anders. 


The above piece comes from our former Annotated podcast series, originally aired in June 2019. For further reading, dig into the show notes for the episode.

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