“The Turncoat: A Novel” by Siegfried Lenz— A German Postwar Classic

Lenz, Siegfried. “The Turncoat: A Novel”, (translated by John Cullen), Other Press, 2020.

A German Postwar Classic

Amos Lassen

During the last summer before the end of World War II, Walter Proska is posted to a small unit with the job of keeping the safety of a railway line deep in the forest on the border with Ukraine and Byelorussia.

He and a few other men must also submit to the increasingly absurd and inhuman orders of their superior. As time passes, the soldiers isolate themselves and are haunted by madness and the desire for death. An encounter with a young Polish partisan, Wanda, makes Proska further doubt the validity of his oath of allegiance, and he wants to answer the questions that obsess him— which is more important, conscience or duty? Is it possible to take any action without becoming guilty in some way? Where is Wanda, this woman from the resistance that he cannot forget?

Written in 1951, The Turncoat was rejected the author’s publisher who felt that the story of a German soldier defecting to the Soviet side would not be welcome in the context of the Cold War. The manuscript was then forgotten for nearly seventy years before being rediscovered after the author’s death.

The book explores Lenz’s experiences in the German army and looks at loyalty owed to one’s country and family. We seechallenges we face in America with the rise of authoritarianism and white supremacy. Walter’s love and adventure story changes how we see the literature of war as it brings together realism and imagination. We read of the intricacies of the human heart and its conflicts. Here is the cruelty and chaos of war and the story of a soldier who runs from evil.

“Nationalist tendencies are on the rise all over the globe and the desire for strong leaders and simple answers to complex questions” is gaining ground. Here areissues that are highly urgent today and Lenz succeeds in dealing with questions of guilt and responsibility on a deeply human level. He tells this through his characters and we relate to and understand them.


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