The Wanderer between the Two Worlds

August 18 2014

“A literary event of the first importance” used to be the publisher’s phrase. The first publication in English translation of Walter Flex’s First World War novella (the best-selling German novel of the whole war) Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten is of some importance.

It was published in Germany in 1916. Flex had been born in Thuringia. He died on the Eastern front. This wasn’t his only work (Wikipedia has a bibliography on its English and German pages). Its subtitle is Ein Kriegserlebnis, or An Experience of War. It is partly autobiographical and is narrated in the first person.

It was published in English on August 4 by Rott Publishing (with which I have an involvement). You can buy it here. The fine translation is by Brian Murdoch, who published the modern English translation of All Quiet on the Western Front with Random House. We are proud to have him with Rott.

“By 1917,” says Wikipedia, “over 700,000 copies had been printed in Germany – a testament to his extreme popularity with the wartime public. His reputation grew in the post-war years and his romantic idealism was exploited by the Nazi party, which found his evocative and romantic lyricism especially appealing and considered it an expression of Aryan ideals.” It was popular with the Nazis because of its glorification of the soldier’s struggle in war.

Murdoch’s source is a soft-cover edition with the imprint Oskar Beck (C. H. Beck), Munich, 1922 (210-215th thousand)”, a reprint of “the most familiar edition, that published in Munich by Beck in 1918 and in very many later editions, and which sold in their thousands in hard covers and paperback”. Statements which, I suppose, are not necessarily incompatible with Wikipedia’s.

Without the hint of a spoiler, or links to one, I can say that it is about a friendship between two German soldiers who meet in Lorraine in 1915. In the same year, having expected to go to an Italian front, they are transferred to the Eastern front. Places in the Baltic States, Poland, Belarus are mentioned. The action ends in 1916 in Lithuania.

It isn’t repulsive, but is full of the sentiments of its time and of what one might call that terrible German purity of heart. The Japanese had something similar. Strip away the culture and all you have is young people in a war and ordinary purity of heart.

Murdoch translates Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten as The Wanderer between the Two Worlds, not as The Wanderer between Two Worlds, because beiden implies that the two worlds have been identified. (We are speaking of both worlds, not any two worlds.) But it might, by that very reasoning, have been more natural to drop the article.

So what are the two worlds? That would be a spoiler. Nor is it entirely clear. Anyone who has heard a rumour that this is a gay novella will assume that the wanderer between them is a Uranian. He isn’t. We aren’t in the world of Magnus Hirschfeld.

The book has many references to the Wandervogel (singular). Wanderer is a potent word. Young Romantic Germans wandered in the forests with a book held open in front of them. There’s a Hölderlin elegy called Der Wanderer. A German car made from 1911 to ’45 was called the Wanderer. An Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer, sounds ripe for Schubert as you read it.

Flex quotes Goethe (who wrote two poems called Wandrers Nachtlied) and his own verses. The main Flex poem is Wildgänse rauschen durch die Nacht, Wild geese rush through the night. The geese are a leitmotif in the novella.

In 1916 Robert Götz set this poem to music as a march. Here it is on YouTube. I suppose this is repulsive. (The words were later changed to remove a reference to the Kaiser.) After writing this, I tested the song on someone who had grown up in the Nazizeit. She recognised it, but didn’t want to hear more than the first few seconds.

Remarque alluded to Flex’s novel in a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. Murdoch:

“Of the Weimar anti-war novelists, Remarque alluded, I think quite deliberately, in his far less familiar sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel called Der Weg zurück (The Road Back, 1931), to Flex’s motif of the wild geese and to the Wandervogel youth movement. In fact Remarque concludes his second war-novel – written not too long before Hitler came to power – with some almost elegiac regrets on the part of some ex-soldiers that the more or less harmless pre-war movement of which Flex was such a great proponent, with its quasi-ecological brand of (fairly local) patriotism, had been replaced already in the immediate post-war years by the new and belligerent right-wing militaristic movements from the Freikorps down, eventually, to the Hitler Youth, and of course to another war.”

Murdoch: “Flex’s scenes of the actual fighting can be vivid, but there is always a feeling that they have been sanitised, and his heroes die too cleanly.”

The only reference to Jews is in relation to a wish for death for the nation rather than ignoble life: “Do you wish to drag with you a prolonged existence, like the Wandering Jew, unable to die, the whipping-boy of all the newly arisen nations, even though he had buried the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans?” But one wouldn’t necessarily expect Jewish references here.

We have the translation of the novella, then an Afterword about Walter and Walter’s death in action in Estonia in October 1917 written by his brother Martin, who signs his piece “On the battlefield, November 1917”. What battlefield, what was Martin Flex doing there, and what happened to him?

Walter’s younger (youngest?) brother Otto had been killed on the Marne at the start of the war.

After Martin’s statement comes a lucid essay by Brian Murdoch and his notes on the translation and on further reading. His essay places the novella in the context of other novels written during and after the war and of diaries and letters written during it.

Part of the rich literature produced by the citizen armies of the First World War was their letters and diaries. My own German grandfather wrote pious and patriotic letters, some of which I hope to publish here. Walter Flex’s novella partly reflects that informal literature.

The soldiers were conscious, as soldiers must always have been, of the nature around them as they fought, distracting them, perhaps subverting their will. The chaos of war nothing to the riot of Pan. There is something of this in War and Peace. Nature is omnipresent in this novella. There are many passages of lyrical beauty. The pastoral theme is present in English poetry of the war. Vaughan Williams’s quiet, tense A Pastoral Symphony is a musical memory of wartime France, not of peacetime England.

Our cover image varies a motif which appeared on the cover of the early Beck editions.

Rott cover

4 Responses to “The Wanderer between the Two Worlds”


  1. […] The Wanderer between the Two Worlds […]

  2. davidderrick Says:

    There were apparently other settings of Wildgänse apart from Götz’s, but his was, I think, the first and most famous.


  3. […] Recent post here about the best-selling German novel of the First World War, The Wanderer between the Two Worlds. […]

  4. Jerry Palmer Says:

    The 700k figure for 1917 is surely a mistake – although this is not to deny the novel’s great popular success. According to Schneider and Wagener, Von Richthofen bis Remarque (to which Professor Murdoch is a contributor), the 700k figure is sales through to 1945. To put it in context, All Quiet sold around 1 million in German before 1940, and Richthofen’s memoirs a bit more (approximate figures, to say the least!). It’s easy to forget just how successful pro-war patriotic novels were in the 1920s, and not only in Germany: the gung-ho super-patriotic French war novel Gaspard (Benjamin, 1915) won the Prix Goncourt and went through over 150 editions before 1929.


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