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Death in Rome

From the title until the last words of the novel, Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1954 novel Death in Rome moves relentlessly towards its predicted fatal end. In our era, when novels so often consist of one digression after another, it’s a little startling to read a novel that signals its intentions from the start and never wavers for a moment. Like the first novel in Koeppen’s triptych, Pigeons on the Grass (which I wrote about recently), Death in Rome funnels everything toward one culminating event—in this case, a performance of a new piece of symphonic music by the young German composer Siegfried Pfaffrath, which will take place in a concert hall in Rome sometime in the years shortly after World War II. Siegfried doesn’t know it yet, but his parents, one of his brothers, and an uncle are also in Rome for a unique kind of family reunion. The most prominent of these relatives is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS general who has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails, but who now runs the military of an unnamed Arab nation under an assumed name. The family hopes to convince Judejahn to return to Germany to help revive the struggling National Socialist cause. Unbeknownst to everyone, Judejahn’s son Adolf is also in Rome, waiting to be ordained as a Catholic priest. Throughout the novel, we will follow these family members as they explore the Eternal City, meet in various combinations, plot, sin, and discover family secrets.

No sentence is wasted in this compact book of a mere 202 pages. The opening sentences let us know right away that Koeppen is not likely to allow any of his characters get through his novel unscathed. A group of tourists passing through Rome’s Pantheon.

Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?

It will be family secrets and irrepressible personal urges that will ultimately prove fatal in Death in Rome. Koeppen’s conceit is to bring a handful of Germans to Rome, a city “built on the bodies of its victims,” let them loose in an inviting atmosphere, and watch them self-destruct. In doing so, Koeppen intends to let everyone’s true nature shine through, exposing, if everything goes according to plan, whatever might have led the German people to go astray in the first place.

Gottlieb Judejahn, “the butcher” and former SS general, has lived on the run since the end of World War II under an assumed name. In Rome to buy “tanks, guns, [and] aeroplanes” for his Arab military, he lets his guard down and consorts with sleazy ex-SS soldiers and Italian prostitutes. Throughout the book we see the fearless soldier “Judejahn” arguing with his child-self “Gottlieb.”

I only did what I was told, I only obeyed orders [Judejahn says to himself]. Did he have a conscience then? No, he was only afraid. He was afraid it might be discovered that he was little Gottlieb going around in boots too big for him. Judejahn heard a voice, but not the voice of God nor the voice of conscience, it was the thin, hungry, self-improving voice of his father, the primary schoolteacher, whispering to him: You’re a fool, you didn’t do your homework, you’re a bad pupil, a zero, an inflated zero. And so it was as well that he had stayed in the shadow of a greater being, stayed a satellite, the shining satellite of the most powerful celestial body, and even now he didn’t realize that this sun from whom he had borrowed light and licence to kill had himself been nothing but a cheat, another bad pupil, another little Gottlieb who happened to be the Devil’s chosen tool, a magical zero, a chimera of the people, a bubble that ultimately burst.

Judejahn’s wife, Eva, who is accompanying the Pfaffraths, is still “shedding tears for the Führer, lamenting the fact that treachery and betrayal and unnatural pacts had brought down the Germanic idea of world-salvation, the millennial Third Reich.” She has just learned for the first time that her husband is alive, although perhaps perpetrating “blood-treason and racial betrayal in the soft enemy climate, in rose-scented harem darkness, in garlic-reeking caves with Negresses and Jewesses, who had been waiting for revenge, and were panting for German sperm.”

Siegfried’s father, Friedrich Wilhelm Pfaffrath, his wife Anna, and his younger son Dietrich, are “fortunate survivors. . . with short memories,” who all wish for the return of National Socialism and a restrengthened, re-armed Germany. Friedrich feels it might be time for “a tighter rein” and deeply regrets that “the Jews were back in business.” He is embarrassed by what his son, the modernist composer, has become. Siegfried’s music strikes him as part of a frightening program of “surrealism, cultural Bolshevism and negroid newfangledness.”

Siegfried, an “involuntary soldier” during the war, had become a German POW in England during the the War. He then became a composer, vaguely hoping to do some good as an artist. But when pressed by Adolf, he admits that he doesn’t really think he can change people through his music and he can’t quite say why he is a composer.

Adolf, Judejahn’s son, was just a boy during the war. By becoming a priest he has enacted the ultimate betrayal of his father’s warrior and hyper-masculine ideals. As a child, his parents had sent him to a “Teutonic camp” run by the Nazis. On the way home, the train carrying many of the boys was crippled by Allied aircraft and as the children walked away they encountered another stopped train, one carried children that looked like skeletons. “They’re Jews!” the boys whispered to each other. “But they didn’t know why they should be afraid. They were German children, after all! They were the elect!” Adolf and one of the Jews eventually exchange jackets, which, ironically, allows Adolf to be rescued by Allied forces later on.

Even from this brief synopsis, it is clear that Koeppen has laid his agenda on thick. Yet the novel always reads as a lively story built around intriguing characters, some of whom are more richly constructed than others. Koeppen seems to suggest that Germany’s future is likely to be decided by which of the three sons—Siegfried, Adolf, or Dietrich— will dominate. Siegfried signifies culture, Adolf religion, and, as Siegfried says, his brother Dietrich is “the representative of law and order, of the state and the strong hand.” Siegfried predicts that “we’ll lose to Dietrich. My brother Dietrich will always get the better of us.” Why would he think that? I suspect because neither culture nor the church hindered the rise of the Nazis in any way and neither brother seems capable of effectively stopping the rise of any future fascist takeover.

Siegfried may be correct in believing that culture is powerless, but it does bring about a momentary crisis in his father’s conscience. For a brief spell after attending the concert, Siegfried’s father glimpses that there might have “been another road for Germany and himself than the military road.” However, this lasts only for a moment. “For men the reproachful voice of the night passes with the nocturnal trembling of the trees, and after a refreshing night’s sleep Pfaffrath will once more feel without strain, an upright German man and an Oberbürgmeister, free from guilt. . . But now, in this transfiguring hour of the night, he asked himself whether Siegfried and his symphony hadn’t sought the better home, and whether the notes jarring in Pfaffrath’s ear hadn’t held a dialogue with his own youthful soul.”

As one reads Death in Rome, it becomes apparent that Koeppen sees that the German problem (it’s a problem that larger than just the Nazi era) lies in its history of a male “fraternity” that bears the Teutonic ideals about race, masculinity, and war as a heroic enterprise—behaviors that he (and we) find toxic and repellant. For Koeppen, this behavior frequently plays out in the sexual lives of his characters. For example, when the ex-SS General Judejahn realizes that his son Adolf had been seated at the concert next to a Jewess, he was both “shocked and excited.”

Judejahn had no regrets about having killed, he hadn’t killed enough. . . the thought of a botched final solution to the Jewish problem, the thought of the mass executions he had ordered, the recollections of the photographs of naked women in front of the mass graves now roused perverted imaginings in him, it was a sin to consort with Jewesses. . . but the thought of sin tickled the testicles, stimulated sperm-production. . .

Even Siegfried has been tainted by his brief, unwilling indoctrination as a German soldier and has turned into a pederast. “Sometimes I yearned for contact, for warmth, for the smell of the herd and the stall, for a world of shared physicality, which I had lost, from which I had cut myself off, a compulsion I thought I was clear of, the boys’ world of the Teutonic castle, the smell of the dormitories, the naked bodies of the spartan regime, cross-country running in the early-morning mist in the woods.” As a result, Siegfried visits the male child prostitutes that hang out on the banks of the Tiber River and he frequents Rome’s gay bars.

Is it any wonder then that Judejahn’s son Adolf is becoming a celibate priest? (Although he, too, is sorely tempted by the same woman his father has been trying to seduce in Rome.) We will have to take up this matter of sexuality, gender, and Nazism, which is central to Koeppen, when we look at the middle novel in his trilogy, The Hothouse, in a future post.

Koeppen ends Death in Rome by making a direct allusion to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Koeppen’s final sentences echo the famous ending of Mann’s novella.

The ambulance men came, and a doctor closed his eyes. The ambulancemen were dressed in field grey, and they carried Judejahn off as though from a battlefield.

That same evening, Judejahn’s death was reported in the press; its circumstances had made it world news, though the fact of it can have shocked no one.

Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome, translated by Michael Hofmann


Minutes passed before people rushed to the aid of the man who had slumped sideways in his chair. He was carried to his room. And that day a respectfully stunned world received word of his death.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, translated by Michael Henry Heim

What are we supposed to think of this? I doubt that Koeppen is suggesting that we consider Judejahn, the aging SS General, and the enforcer of the Final Solution in relation to Gustav von Aschenbach, Mann’s aging titan of German literature who falls in love with a beautiful boy whom he spies on the beach one day. I think this has less to do with the two characters and more to do with Koeppen’s ambition for his trilogy of novels. I think he’s trying to stake a claim for the literary stature that he believes his German trilogy deserves.

Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome was published in Germany in 1954 as Der Tod in Rom and was translated into English by Michael Hofmann for the English publisher Hamish Hamilton in 1992. It’s now available in a Norton paperback. Hofmann has translated Koeppen’s triptych of postwar novels, Pigeons on the Grass (1951) (see my review here) and The Hot House (1953).

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. chris darke #

    Dear Terry,

    What an excellent review! Clear, probing, and querying. Makes me want to read the trilogy. But first I must purge myself of my Patrick Modiano habit, another haunted European author.

    All the best to you and Happy New Year,



    December 31, 2020
  2. Thank you, Chris! I’m flattered by your comment. I broke off my Modiano reading halfway through his books. I still have a bunch sitting on my shelf calling me. But I needed a break.These are compelling books. They are good reads and pretty short. But wait until you read what I have to say about The Hothouse in a few weeks.

    December 31, 2020

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