YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Profile : A Life of Controversy : Opponent of Nazis, McCarthy and East German regime gets ready to shake up the German Parliament.


BERLIN — At 81, Stefan Heym has led a life of confrontation, with enough intellectual hairpin turns, moral standoffs and brushes with the law to be the stuff of an old-time picaresque novel--and not a very believable one at that.

In October, the onetime best-selling American novelist was elected to the German Bundestag, and as the oldest member will be the "president by seniority," formally the most honored member of the lower house of Parliament and the one whose opening speech on Thursday will set the moral tone for the next four years of government.

Yet Heym, a German-born Jew who fled the Nazis in 1933, is a reluctant politician--"writers are always called upon to support causes and to be the key figures that we do not want to be," he lamented in 1990--and indeed, a reluctant German, who confessed in his 1988 memoirs that after tasting the Nazi horror of the 1930s he never wanted to live in his mother country again.

American book lovers will remember Heym as the author of such erstwhile favorites as " The Crusaders," a World War II novel that drew on his experiences as a U.S. Army propagandist--he waded onto the Normandy beaches with his typewriter in 1944, a few days after D-Day--and that in its own time was likened to Norman Mailer's more enduring "The Naked and the Dead."

But by the early 1950s, Heym had renounced his place in the American book world, giving up not only his U.S. audience but also his U.S. citizenship, and making a new home for himself in the intellectually stifling climate of the German Democratic Republic.

His defection ought to have been a major propaganda coup for East Germany, but instead of cultivating him, the Communist regime banned all but two of his books, recruited his own cleaning woman to spy on him, froze his bank account, kicked him out of the perk-dispensing East German Writers' Union and eventually, in response to his attempts to publish in West Germany, wrote a special paragraph that placed his activities into its penal code. The laughably open-ended "Lex Heym" made it a crime to communicate abroad any information damaging to East Germany, punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.

And yet the more the state harassed Heym, the more committed a socialist he declared himself to be. He remained convinced that East Germany could somehow be reformed, and he chose to stay there even when opportunities to flee West presented themselves.

This fall, in his latest caper, Heym ran for Parliament on the ticket of the reconstituted East German Communist Party--the successor to the very outfit that once banned his books and spied on him and is now reorganized and renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).

All of which could make for fireworks Thursday when he opens the new parliamentary session.

Many Germans believe that the hard-line left died a richly deserved death in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and are appalled that a socialist fossil like Heym should turn up in the Bundestag at all--let alone have the top opening-day honors and national platform that he will enjoy.

There have been rumors here that some parliamentarians, mainstreamers who have heckled the PDS mercilessly since its founding in 1990, will either walk out when Heym opens his mouth, ignore him or shout him down.

"I will speak to my colleagues in Parliament in a way that makes them feel that I am someone who wants to cooperate with them," Heym said reassuringly, adding mischievously that he intends to invoke the spirit of Clara Zetkin, a leading Weimar-era Communist, in his remarks.

Zetkin, who at 85 was the Parliament's "president by seniority" in 1932, gave a firebrand Opening Day speech that called for the creation of a Soviet Germany and rattled her fellow deputies so badly that they turned around and elected the rising Nazi Hermann Goering their parliamentary president in the very same session.

Such sheer cussedness turns off many Germans. "Never has so much been said and written about a political aspirant who has so little to contribute," complained the German writer and essayist Henryk Broder, who liked Heym better when he was picking fights with the East German dictatorship.

Yet Heym's uncompromising spirit has impressed many in his East Berlin constituency--the economically poor but culturally rich Prenzlauerberg and Mitte districts.

People there, mindful of the high unemployment and relatively low wages in their side of the country, have been deeply disappointed until now with the way German unification has turned out. They believe that, second-class citizens in their own country, they need a tough representative in the Bundestag to fight for the interests of the former East.

And over his 81 years, Heym has shown that he is nothing if not a fighter.

Los Angeles Times Articles