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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


November 1918
Bürger und Soldaten 1918

Alfred Döblin

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Bürger und Soldaten 1918

Title: Bürger und Soldaten 1918
Author: Alfred Döblin
Genre: Novel
Written: 1939
Length: 398 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Bourgeois et soldats - France
Bürger und Soldaten 1918 - Deutschland
Addio al Reno - Italia
Burgueses y soldados - España
  • Bürger und Soldaten 1918 is the first volume in the four-volume trilogy, November 1918
  • Bürger und Soldaten 1918 has not yet been translated into English
  • The 1995 DTV edition (paperback reprint of the 1991 Walter-Verlag hardcover) includes a lengthy introduction by Werner Stauffacher
  • The current, S.Fischer edition (hardcover 2008, paperback 2013) includes an afterword by Helmuth Kiesel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : broad, sweeping picture of the immediate post-war weeks

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
País A 16/4/2011 J.M.Guelbenzu
Der Spiegel . 14/8/1978 Hans Mayer

  From the Reviews:
  • "Los personajes pertenecen al conjunto, al entorno, su integración en él es total; para ser más exactos: emanan de él y ésta es la primera virtud del relato. La narración es decidida y admirablemente expresionista; en ella se advierte la influencia del cine (.....) Esta obra es, sin duda, una cumbre del realismo en el siglo XX y, al mismo tiempo, un ejemplo admirable de la absoluta modernidad de su autor por la variedad de recursos estilísticos que emplea con envidiable soltura, precisión y autoridad." - José María Guelbenzu, El País

  • "Döblin schildert hier, in einer meisterhaften Exposition und noch mit Zügen der heiteren Idyllik, das Kriegsende im Elsaß, das er als Militärarzt erlebte." - Hans Mayer, Der Spiegel

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Apologies, but this is one of those books where a bit of textual/publication/translation history seems necessary, to help you sort of situate it.
       Alfred Döblin's November 1918 is, confusingly, a four-volume trilogy -- the second part published in two separate volumes, and under separate titles -- which is often mistaken for a trilogy consisting only of three volumes, and not including this first one.
       The work, as Döblin intended it, consists of:

  • I. Bürger und Soldaten 1918
  • II.1 Verratenes Volk (English: A People Betrayed)
  • II.2 Heimkehr der Fronttruppen (English: The Troops Return)
  • III. Karl und Rosa (English: Karl and Rosa)
       Bürger und Soldaten 1918 was first published (by Amsterdam-based Querido Verlag) in 1939; none of the other volumes were published until the 'complete' trilogy was published in 1949-50 -- but it was not complete. Due to concerns about the portrayal of the Alsatian question in Bürger und Soldaten 1918, that volume was not included; rather, a 'Vorspiel' ('Prelude') summarizing the book was included at the beginning of Verratenes Volk, and only volumes II.1, II.2, and III were published (as the three-book set, 'November 1918'). A complete edition was never published during Döblin's lifetime, and with the limited reach and availability of (the existing only in its pre-war edition) Bürger und Soldaten 1918, the truncated November 1918-trilogy was the only accessible version for almost three decades.
       Only in 1978 was the full four-volume version published in German, without the (now redundant) second-volume 'Vorspiel', and it has been re-issued several times since (with and without the recapping 'Vorspiel').
       Completing the confusion, only part -- parts II.1 and II.2 (published together as A People Betrayed) and part III (published as Karl and Rosa) -- of November 1918 has been translated (by the great John E. Woods) into and published in English (in 1983) -- three volumes published in two fat books. But not only does this version omit Bürger und Soldaten 1918 as a whole, it doesn't even offer the (Bürger und Soldaten 1918-)summarizing-'Vorspiel' .....
       So Bürger und Soldaten 1918 remains untranslated, the trilogy incomplete in English -- for now (while complete four-volume translations into French and Spanish are available). Sadly, even what there is -- the two Woods-translated volumes -- look to be long out of print and hard to find. The 2018 centenary would have been a fine occasion to get out a new, complete edition, but, alas, it's a bit late for that ..... (What are English-speaking readers missing ? Well, in the TLS review (26/12/1986) of the two Woods-translated volumes, S.S.Prawer insists about November 1918 as a whole that its: "reputation is bound to increase over the years until it rivals that of Döblin's earlier novel Berlin Alexanderplatz in its readers' affection and esteem".)

       Alfred Döblin's November 1918 is subtitled: 'Eine deutsche Revolution' -- 'A German Revolution'. November, 1918 was not only the month when the First World War ended, but it also saw the abdication of the Emperor and the establishment of a German republic; the 'Novemberrevolution' and continuing domestic political turmoil lasted well beyond that month; with the last of the four volumes in Döblin's trilogy titled Karl und Rosa (as in Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg), it's obvious that the story won't be limited to November and readers can see where this (eventually) will be heading.
       If the work as a whole is about the November Revolution, Bürger und Soldaten 1918 ('Citizens and Soldiers') is still very much focused on the period of transition in the immediate aftermath of the war. Döblin sets much of the novel in Alsace (where he was stationed as a military doctor, at war's end). It opens on Sunday, 10 November: the emperor had abdicated the day before, and the war is essentially over, the ceasefire to take effect the next day. While the novel also moves elsewhere, including following many of the German soldiers and wounded as they return home, the focus is on Alsace, as the novel covers the two or so weeks until the French can re-assume control over the region that had been under German rule since 1871.
       No doubt, Döblin sets much of the action here because this is where he experienced the end of the war, but Alsace's unusual position -- long a middle-land that identified with both France and Germany --, and its brief between-states status in the days covered in this novel are also already one variation on the larger concept of revolution. Briefly, Alsace is not not under the control of distant authorities -- in Berlin or Paris -- but experiments with local rule; the 'Republic of Alsace-Lorraine' barely has chance to catch hold, but for ten days or so revolution, in many variations, bubbles over the region. The experimentation is brought to a quick conclusion, of course, with the reëstablishment of (an old) order, when the French march in and reässert their primacy. But it's enough, for a start: this focus on Alsace, on revolution in miniature (but also part of the spreading larger whole), is an effective opening frame for the novel-series -- probably more so than if Döblin had begun the action more centrally, in Berlin or elsewhere.
       Bürger und Soldaten 1918 is not as documentary as, say, John Dos Passos' U.S.A.-trilogy, but does utilize some historical material in the narrative proper. Among the more remarkable revelations of the novel is how widespread the availability of newspapers was, even at this time: there are frequent references to and quotes from a variety of newspapers, and even if the news is occasionally a day old, it travels fast: the general atmosphere is not unlike that surrounding contemporary social media (complete with overheated opinions from every fringe). Döblin also presents some material from speeches and pronouncements from historical figures, a few of whom also take the stage here -- notably the prominent nationalist Maurice Barrès. But Döblin also allows himself literary license: the heated speech Barrès gives in claiming Strasburg near the novel's conclusion is based on published statements, but appears to be well-embellished by Döblin.
       The (larger) German Revolution as it is happening does touch upon events in Alsace during this time as well, and Döblin utilizes some of this. So, for example, Döblin summarizes the events that led to to the Sailors' revolt in Wilhelmshaven (a refusal to participate in a suicidal last gasp attack) -- and brings a contingent of those revolutionary sailors to Alsace, too (as did actually happen: 'They wanted to save Alsace from the French'). Much that happens in Germany proper, however -- such as the collapse of the monarchy, and the political infighting in the establishment of a new government -- is only incidentally mentioned and discussed -- for example, via newspaper articles sharing the news.
       The example of Alsace allows Döblin to operate on a smaller scale. His enormous, varied cast offers a wide variety of examples of 'revolution', and shifting roles for everyone from the military to business people to parents (would-be and actual). New possibilities show themselves -- even if only some can be taken; indeed, one of the first scenes shows that the end of war isn't a complete respite from the horrors, with one of the patients at the military hospital dying.
       There are no real central characters in Bürger und Soldaten 1918; rather, Döblin presents an assortment of stories and scenes, occasionally returning to specific characters as the days go by, but not specifically closely following any of them. Among the more prominent recurring ones are patients at the military hospital, the still recovering teacher, Dr.Friedrich Becker, and young Lieutenant Maus, who are among those transported back to Berlin (where Becker's mother collapses at his unannounced and unexpected appearance on her doorstep). The intellectual Becker feels broken by the war -- not just physically -- and is also caught up in its irresolution: not only the experience of having been through it continues to weigh on him (and others), but fundamental conflicts (in the political sphere) remain to be dealt with. Yet Döblin avoids placing, much less keeping, Becker front and center in the novel; he is more than one among many, but the focus is elsewhere most of the time.
       Other stories and episodes range from the young widow eager just to enjoy life again and swept away by the possibility of simply dancing (much to the chagrin of the judgmental cleric accompanying her), to another character wondering about his situation under future French rule; his daughter (the nurse in Becker and Maus' orbit) reminds him that he is fluent in French, but he notes:
Sprechen, Hilde. Aber denken, nein.

[I can speak it, Hilde. But I can't think in it.]
       Small side stories range from the arrival of the Americans in cute little Luxembourg to, in another Maurice Barrès scene, some ragging on perceived-as-to-Germanophilic Nobel laureate Romain Rolland, Barrès (gleefully ?) maintaining:
Rolland ist durch den Krieg widerlegt. Sein ganzes Werk hat Bankrott gemacht.

[Rolland has been refuted by the war. His entire work has been bankrupted.]
       Bürger und Soldaten 1918 is a sometimes dizzying kaleidoscopic depiction of a tumultuous twelve days or so. Anchored neither completely in place nor specific persons, it can feel unmoored -- but even this is presumably Döblin's intention, very much a reflection of the times and events. It's perhaps more noticeable here because, remarkably, so much of what Döblin describes suggests normalcy. Of course, there are excesses -- people grab what they can get, and things do get physical (and more); there is a shocking sexual violation -- but in his personal focus Döblin often shows the fundamentally simple and human, and life turns out to be very everyday even in these times. So also, despite the political and economic turmoil, society -- and the economy -- is functioning adequately (including that enormous and really quite remarkable newspaper output).
       In its focus on Alsace -- even as some of the action moves elsewhere -- Döblin gives himself a convenient (time-)frame for his novel and, with the French take-over, a certain closure. But Bürger und Soldaten 1918 reads very much like a beginning, and it's clear there is (and should be) more to come, in these stories -- those of Becker, Maus, Hilde, among others -- and with the larger political and historical turmoil. Bürger und Soldaten 1918 suggests some of the possibilities of revolution -- without it really standing much of a chance there, in Alsace --; the much larger German experiment is just beginning to really unfold.

       Note should also be made of the supporting material to the Walter/DTV edition (which I relied on here). The lengthy introduction by Werner Stauffacher is helpful, but it's the endnotes, in particular, that impress. Döblin's sources -- and where he diverges from them -- are presented, historical references explained -- and the occasional mistake dryly noted: favorites include the observation that: 'As old postcards show, Döblin's memory of the Hagenau main square is fuzzy. No houses on the square had four stories and a shingled roof' (as Döblin claims) or the observation that a '1918 Alsatian white' was surely a 1917 vintage ..... [The current standard edition of the novel and cycle is published by S.Fischer; I have not seen the afterword by Helmuth Kiesel or the notes for that edition.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 February 2018

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November 1918: Bürger und Soldaten 1918: Reviews (*: review of entire November 1918-cycle): Alfred Döblin: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Alfred Döblin lived 1878 to 1957. He is best-known for his novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz.

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© 2018 the complete review

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