Fritz Oswald Bilse

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Fritz Oswald Bilse (31 March 1878 in Kirn, Rhine Province – 1951) was a German novelist, playwright and a lieutenant in the Prussian Army. He also used the pseudonyms Fritz von der Kyrburg and Fritz Wernthal.


Fritz Oswald Bilse, around 1905

Fritz Oswald Bilse was born in Kirn (present-day Rhineland-Palatinate, then Prussian Rhine Province), the son of a schoolteacher, and grew up in the towns of Kirn and Eisenach. He joined the Prussian army in 1896 and in 1900 was posted with the 16. Train-Bataillon at Forbach in Lorraine. He rose to instant notoriety with his novel Aus einer kleinen Garnison. Ein militärisches Zeitbild (1903). In later editions, he used the pseudonym "Fritz von der Kyrburg", after his home town's most prominent landmark, the Kyrburg castle.

The book, in which Bilse satirizes the manners of the Forbach garrison and of the Prussian army in general, became a succès de scandale and was soon reprinted many times. Bilse's criticism, however, was so sharp, and the location and protagonists so little disguised, that several officers who felt their honour to be under attack prosecuted Bilse in a court-martial, the trial taking place at Metz from 9. to 13. November 1903. Bilse was found guilty of defamation of character, was discharged from the army dishonourably, and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. His novel was (temporarily) banned.[1]

The scandal only served to enhance Bilse's celebrity. He was henceforth described as the German army's enfant terrible; the novel became popular abroad, especially in France, where the label interdit en Allemagne was recognized as a badge of quality. Translations soon appeared, into French and also into English, the latter appearing in 1904 containing a detailed account of the court-martial and a foreword by the German-American author Theodore Dreiser, who praised Bilse as a great realist.[2] The book was also translated into other languages, e.g. into Dutch and Russian.

Thomas Mann referred to Bilse and his novel when he found himself subjected to a "trial by press" ("Preßprozeß") in his home town of Lübeck, a fictionalized description of which he had published in his own novel Buddenbrooks. Mann's essay "Bilse and I" ("Bilse und ich", 1906) defends the right of writers to fictionalize living persons, which had been held against Mann by several of the burghers of Lübeck. However, Mann was also at pains to draw a distinction between "taking liberties and the writer's freedom" ("Frechheit und Freiheit"). Mann further noted that his accusers had called Buddenbrooks a "Bilse-Novel" ("Bilse-Roman"), a phrase which, for a while, became synonymous with roman à clef in German.[3]

Bilse continued his new career as an author for a while, but his subsequent publications could not emulate the success of his debut. After a fifteen-year interruption, he resumed publishing in the mid-1920s with two novels which were once again of a political nature: In Gottes Mühlen. Roman aus einer großen Nation (1924), Bilse portrays a supposedly corrupt and decadent France;[4] whilst the supposed "negro novel" Die schwarze Welle (1925) testifies to Bilse's resentment at the occupation of the Rhineland by French troops of African origin.[5] Furthermore, Bilse was for a time editor of the journal Deutsche Heimat, which ariticulated nationalistic tendencies close to the "Bündische Jugend", associated with the so-called "conservative revolution".[6]

After his release from prison, Bilse moved around, living in Paris and London, then tending the estate of Frabertsham in Upper Bavaria, then living in Munich and ultimately near Groß-Ziethen. In 1946, he was elected to the state assembly of Brandenburg as a member of the Christian Democratic Union (East Germany).[7] No information can be found on the last years of his life; he died at Eberswalde, near Berlin, in 1951.[8]

Bilse is remembered as the subject of Mann's essay and in controversies surrounding the alleged infringement of personal rights in literary works. In Germany, the case of Bilse is cited as being exemplary to this day. A recent instance can be found in the long lawsuit over Maxim Biller's banned novel Esra (2003), which was compared to the Bilse controversy.[9]


Cover of Aus einer kleinen Garnison, 1904 edition
  • Aus einer kleinen Garnison. Ein militärisches Zeitbild (novel, 1903)
    • English translation: Life In A Garrison Town (1904)
  • Zwei Militär-Humoresken. Der Alarm. Ein glücklicher Reinfall (1903)
  • Das blaue Schloß. Roman in einem Vorkapitel und zwei Büchern (1904)
  • Wahrheit (play, 1904)
  • Fallobst (play, 1905)
  • Lieb' Vaterland. Roman aus dem Soldatenleben (1905)
  • Die große Schlacht (play, 1906)
  • Stille Wege (novel, 1907)
  • Verklärung (novel, 1909)
  • Die Technik des Romans (1909)
  • Gottes Mühlen. Roman aus einer großen Nation (1924)
  • Die schwarze Welle. Ein Negerroman von Afim Assanga, bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Fritz Oswald Bilse (1925)
  • Wie kann der Bauer die jetzigen und kommenden schweren Zeiten überstehen und ohne besondere Mehrkosten seine Erträge verdoppeln? : Praktische Ratschläge für den Bauernstand (1928)


  1. ^ Details concerning the novel and the scandal can be found in: R. Reissmüller, "'Aus einer kleinen Garnison'. Der Roman des Leutnants Bilse aus dem Jahre 1903. Aktuelle Wirkung und späte Folgen einer frühen Wilhelminismus-Kritik", in: Imprimatur 10 (1982); Hartwig Stein, "Der Bilse-Skandal von 1903. Zu Bild und Zerrbild des preußischen Leutnants im späten Kaiserreich", in: Karl Christian Führer/Karen Hagemann/Birthe Kundrus (eds.), Eliten im Wandel. Gesellschaftliche Führungsschichten im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Für Klaus Saul zum 65. Geburtstag (Münster: Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2004), pp. 259-278.
  2. ^ Fritz Oswald Bilse, Life In A Garrison Town; the military novel suppressed by the German Government, by Lieutenant Bilse. The authorized translation of "Aus einer kleinen Garnison." With a foreword by Theodore Dreiser, an introduction by Arnold White, and a summary of the court-martial (London: John Lane & Co., 1904).
  3. ^ Thomas Mann, „Bilse und ich“, in idem, Gesammelte Werke in zehn Bänden (Frankfurt/Main: S. Fischer, 1925), vol. 9, pp. 3-17. On the controversy see Heinrich Detering: „Thomas Mann oder Lübeck und die letzten Dinge. Buddenbrooks, Stadtklatsch, Bilse und ich“, in: idem.: Herkunftsorte. Literarische Verwandlungen im Werk Storms, Hebbels, Groths, Thomas und Heinrich Manns (Heide: Boysens 2001), pp. 166–193.
  4. ^ See Franz Rottensteiner, Article Gottes Mühlen, in: Franz Rottensteiner und Michael Koseler (eds.), Werkführer durch die utopisch-phantastische Literatur (Meitingen: Corian Verlag, 1989ff.; 3. Erg.-Lfg. November 1989).
  5. ^ See Véronique Porra, "Autour du Batouala de René Maran en Allemagne: intégration idéologique de discours littéraires et politiques dans le roman d’Afim Assanga / Fritz Oswald Bilse Die Schwarze Welle (La vague noire), 1925", in: Anne-Rachel Hermetet (ed.), La réception du roman français contemporain dans l’Europe de l’entre-deux-guerres (Lille: Editions du Conseil Scientifique de l’Université Charles-de-Gaulle-Lille 3, 2002), pp. 145-161.
  6. ^ On "Deutsche Heimat" see Armin Mohler, Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland 1918-1932. Ein Handbuch, 5th ed. (Graz: Leopold Stocker Verlag, 1999), p. 299. Bilse's editorship is mentioned in the article in the Berger/Rupp encyclopaedia (see note below).
  7. ^ Konrad Feilchenfeldt (ed.), Deutsches Literatur-Lexikon: Das 20. Jahrhundert (Berne and Munich, K.G. Saur, 2001); vol. 2, cols. 633f. Includes an extensive bibliography. Further biographical information may be found in B. Berger, H. Rupp (eds.), Deutsches Literatur-Lexikon (Berne and Munich: Francke, 1968), vol. 1, col. 508; Reinhard Tenberg, article "Bilse, Fritz Oswald", in: Walther Killy et al. (eds.), Literatur Lexikon (Gütersloh and Munich: Bertelsmann Lexikon Verlag, 1988), p. 510f.
  8. ^ The year of Bilse's death, while not listed in the relevant encyclopaedias, was recently established by the local historian Dr. Ulrich Hauth, who presented his findings in a lecture given in Kirn in November 2007, as well as in a newspaper article: "Ein Schlüsselroman wird zum Skandal - Wie Fritz Oswald Bilse zu Ruhm gelangte", Allgemeine Zeitung, Kirn edition, 23. November 2007
  9. ^ See e.g. Dieter Borchmeyer, "Literatur vor Gericht: Die Beute, das Persönlichkeitsrecht, und die Freiheit der Kunst", in: Frankfurter Rundschau, 14. October 2003; Joachim Feldmann, "Bilse und Biller: Gerichte sollen sich aus Kunstfragen heraushalten", in: Freitag, 24. October 2003; Michael Ansel, „Buddenbrooks, Bilse und Biller“, lecture, Evangelische Akademie Tutzing, February 2007.

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