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Comparative Literature Studies 40.3 (2003) 286-310

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Of Whores and Heiresses:
Polish Women, German Men and Stereotypes in Heinrich Böll's Der Zug War Pünktlich and Krzysztof Zanussi's Drogi Posród Nocy

Charles S. Kraszewski

War literature is, more often than not, the literature of generalisation and stereotype. Of course, this statement is itself a generalisation, and tens of poems, novels, and films can be found to challenge it, justly. One example which springs to mind, from recent lecture, is Jan Dobraczynski's short story "Agonia Mokotowa" ("The Agony of Mokotów"). 1 Yet despite the many exceptions which prove the rule, easily identifiable black and white hats abound in the literature of the Second World War. As there are few black and white situations in life, it is always refreshing to come across a work which challenges stereotypes. One such work is Heinrich Böll's early novella, Der Zug war pünktlich (The Train was On Time, 1949). This story is a masterpiece for many reasons. Chief among them is the way that the author consciously, and consecutively, attacks Polish and German stereotypes in order to expose the harmful artificiality of national and ethnic accidentia considered from the perspective of the Kingdom of God: the foundation upon which the European spirit is supposedly based.

This paper aims at considering this scribal strategy of the great Nobel prize-winner. Although most of our critical faculties will be concentrated on Böll's novella, we will also refer to Krzysztof Zanussi's Drogi posród nocy (Wege in der Nacht, Roads Through the Night, 1979), as a "litmus" or control text. Both of these works deal with seemingly incongruous love affairs: German soldiers falling in love with Polish women during the Second World War. But whereas Böll chooses this situation in order to move us to question the nefarious system of ethnic labelling, Zanussi's text is cited as an example of how stereotypical situations and characters were still being exploited [End Page 286] in artworks a full thirty years after the publication of Der Zug war pünktlich. 2

For a story that has as its goal the destruction of stereotypes, Der Zug war pünktlich is curiously lacking in any. "Brutal" soldiers are shown to be likeable chaps like you and me, prostitutes (with the one exception of die Alte, the Madame, with her "moneybox mouth" 3) are not all "bad girls", ruined since their misspent teens, but real women, with ordinary, normal, respectable pasts. They may even be classically-trained musicians. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Early on, the one character who most represents Böll's strategy of attacking stereotypes is Andreas.

One of the two main protagonists of the novella, Andreas is a young German soldier. We meet him returning from home leave, on a train bound for the eastern front. He (like Böll himself, after all), is an atypical member of the Wehrmacht. Not only is he in the unenviable position of fighting in the ranks of an army whose cause he knows to be surely, and justly, lost:

Es kann noch ein Jahr dauern, ehe im Osten alles endgültig zusammenbricht, und wenn die Amerikaner im Westen nicht angreifen und die Engländer, dann dauert es noch zwei Jahre, ehe die Russen am Atlantik sind (69),

[It can go on for one more year, until it all goes to pieces finally in the East; and if the Americans and the British can't get a good hold in the West, then it'll last two more years, until the Russians are at the Atlantic]

but he is singularly unfit for the military vocation. Having spent his furlough at the house of his friend Paul, he has forgotten to take back with him, of all things, his rifle!

Immer, wenn er die Tasche niedersetzt, klappert der Stahlhelm, und als er jetzt den Stahlhelm sieht, fällt ihm ein, da&szlig...


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