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Life & career
During his youth, Plievier worked as a sailor and travelled extensively throughout Europe and overseas. Through his travels he was exposed to anarchist-syndicalist philosophies that would influence his later work.
In 1914, after a fight in a quayside bar, he was forced to enlist in the Imperial Navy to escape imprisonment. During most of the war, he served on the SMS Wolf, an auxiliary cruiser which remained at sea for 451 days. He later participated in the 1918 Wilhelmshaven mutiny.
Politics & war
Under the Weimar Republic, he became a social critic and author. His early works sought to connect personal experience with documentary-style literature. He founded the "Publishing House of the 12" (Verlag der Zwölf) in Berlin during the 1920s. During this period he wrote and published Des Kaisers Kulis (The Kaiser's Coolies), a critical account of his experiences in the Imperial Navy.
His books were burned after Hitler took power in 1933. Plievier fled to France, and later to Sweden, before settling in the Soviet Union in 1934. After the outbreak of World War II, Plievier gained access to the front lines, where he observed the carnage wrought there and interviewed captive German soldiers. In 1943, he became a member of the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland (National Committee for a Free Germany).
The novel Stalingrad
He used his experiences as the basis for his documentary novel Stalingrad, which was eventually translated into 26 languages. Stalingrad is one of the most important works of literature to emerge from the eastern front. Its pitiless descriptions of battle and the failures of the German military leadership indicts Hitler's megalomania and illustrates the senselessness of war.
The two main characters in Stalingrad are the Panzer commander Vilshofen and Gnotke, NCO of a Strafbattalion (penal battalion). Both men come from different backgrounds and experience the war differently. The Colonel is a convinced soldier who obeys orders and cares for his men. He fights with a sense of duty, but loses confidence in the German military leadership as he senses that he and his men are being sacrificed to a lost cause. NCO Gnotke's work is to collect the dead, or their dismembered parts, from the battlefield. He loses his humanity as he works under constant fire and is exposed to unrelenting horror month after month during the war, even to the point of warming up his body on freshly fallen soldiers.
Stalingrad was subject to harsh Soviet censorship, even though it deals mainly with the German side. Plievier eventually broke with Moscow, leaving for the west in 1947. His later book "Moscow" presents a comprehensive picture of life in the Soviet Union.
A television version of Stalingrad was produced by NDR in West Germany, and first shown on 31 January 1963. Adapted by Klaus Hubalek and directed by Gustav Burmester, it starred Ullrich Haupt as Generalmajor Vilshofen, Wolfgang Büttner as General Gönnern, Hanns Lothar as Gnotke, and P. Walter Jacob as General Vennekohl. Hubalek's screenplay was subsequently translated into English and directed by Rudolph Cartier for the BBC's Festival series, first shown on 4 December 1963. This version starred Albert Lieven as Vilshofen, Peter Vaughan as Gonnern, André van Gyseghem as Vennekohl, and Harry Fowler as Gnotke.
Works in English
- Berlin, translated by Louis Hagen, London, Panther (1969) ISBN 0-586-02906-0
- The Kaiser Goes: The Generals Remain, translated by A.W. Wheen, London, Faber and Faber, Limited (1933)
- The Kaiser’s Coolies, translated by Margaret Green, H. Fertig, (1988, reprint c1931) ISBN 0-8652-7378-2
- Moscow, translated by Stuart Hood, London, F. Muller (1953)
- The World's Last Corner, adapted from a translation by Robert Pick, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts (1951)
- Revolt on the Pampas, translated by Charles Ashleigh, M. Joseph, Ltd. (1937)
- Stalingrad, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts (1948)
- Jennifer E. Michaels The War in the East – Theodor Plievier's Novels: Moscow, Stalingrad and Berlin in: M. Paul Holsinger and Mary Anne Schofield, Visions of War: World War II in Popular Literature and Culture. Bowling Green State University Popular Press (1992) ISBN 0-87972-555-9.