Ein Mensch brennt
[Being On Fire]
Remembering the Truth
Nicol Ljubić explores the limits of radical activism and the draw of fanaticism
Ljubić’s most recent work, "Ein Mensch brennt" [a person is burning] is an impressive blend of journalism and fiction that paints a gripping portrait of a period in Germany’s recent past which was marked by fanaticism and rebellion and which today is as relevant and fascinating as ever: The story takes place in West Germany of the 1970s, a period in which society was challenged by profound upheavals such as RAF terrorism.
During that time anybody who dared advocate for political causes, such as the shutdown of nuclear power plants, was regarded as a "green weirdo" –as the Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had put it, "whereas such a person today would easily gain the approval of a vast majority." Such was the case of the political lone wolf and environmental activist Hartmut Gründler (1930-1977), who had demonstrated against the nuclear policy of the time, tried in vain to contact Helmut Schmidt, wrote countless letters, went on hunger strike, and finally poured gasoline over himself in front of Hamburg's Petrikirche Church on November 16, 1977, and died shortly thereafter from his injuries. Ljubić follows the fate of this man, narrating the story in retrospect from the fictitious perspective of a then nine year old boy, who had met Gründler in the seventies when he moved into the basement apartment of his parent’s home. Already on the first evening, the boy had noticed the new tenant was different from the others and observed with surprise how he rejected his father's wine and cigars. It seemed as if other things were more important to him.
Ljubić skillfully combines the perspective of the boy, now a grown man, looking back on his own naivety and realizing his parent’s marriage gradually had dissipated soon after Gründler moved in. The mother, a teacher, was receptive to Gründler's concerns, fascinated by his passion for the cause, and saw the possibility of an existence beyond darning socks and correcting homework. The father, a middle class businessman and good-natured bon vivant tolerated the ascetic Gründler with a mix of skepticism and scorn, but soon the parents grew apart under Gründler’s influence. Most likely the mother never had a love affair with Gründler, but the fact their connection was related solely to the cause is of great significance.
Ljubić’s language is simple and clear, which is precisely why the narrative is so riveting. He credibly portrays the feelings and thoughts of a man, who since earliest childhood had been disturbed by the events in the family house, and now, after the death of his mother, is responsible for implementing her last will, which is to ensure the memory of Gründlers unconditional love for the truth. In the process, he comes to realize what had happened back then.
Ljubić has a talent for building suspense: he focuses on the boy, who only partially was able to understand what was going on around him and was a slow learner, which also creates a sympathetic alter ego. Gründler’s fanatical idealism has an added ironic and humorous corrective: the boy collects football player cards with a passion similar to Gründler’s, but he doesn’t have to kill himself over it.
Gründler follows Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent ideas, believing his concern about safely "disposing" radioactive materials, a concern few had shared at the time, and which in any case was impossible, led him to see his cause as "protecting life." His tragedy was to have paid for it with his own life.
Towards the end of the book, we come to realize that Gründler had attempted to incite the boy's mother to burn herself along with him, not that he had forgotten she was a mother; on the contrary, he believed the "sacrifice" of a mother would attract more attention. Back then she had rejected the proposition, but for years she believed she had betrayed him. This adds a clearly critical note to Ljubic’s portrait of Gründler's unconditional idealism. "A person is burning" analyses the problem of fanaticism without preaching and in so doing opens it up for discussion.
By Hans-Peter Kunisch, 11.05.2018
Hans-Peter Kunisch lives in Berlin and Ireland. He is a freelance writer and journalist and writes mainly for the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
"Hartmut lived with us. Yesterday he set himself on fire."
When it comes to soccer, ten-year-old Hanno Kelsterberg knows everything there is to know. This is also true when it comes to staging demonstrations. For the past two years, the ascetic protester Hartmut Gründler has been living in his family’s basement apartment. Gründler is an unyielding opponent of the current political system, and he has turned Hanno’s once comfortable life upside down. While his father dismisses the man in the basement with an uncomprehending smile, Hanno’s mother is increasingly drawn into the ascetic fighter’s struggle for a better world, his uncompromising commitment to the truth, and his peaceful demonstrations against nuclear energy. From this point on, Hanno’s life is inextricably linked to the resistance movement against nuclear power. He raises money to help Hartmut continue his fight, hands out flyers side-by-side with his mother, is present when Gründler chains himself to the Cologne Cathedral to make a political statement and when he starts yet another hunger strike. The divide between Hanno’s parents deepens. Their ultimate separation is catalyzed by Gründler’s final, desperate decision to set himself on fire in Hamburg. In the wake of the events, Hanno and his mother move to Berlin, where she continues Gründler’s efforts as trustee of his estate and legacy. Only years later, while cleaning out his mother's apartment after her death, does Hanno realize the extent to which Hartmut Gründler’s unyielding radicalism overshadowed his own life.
A moving novel about a family unexpectedly touched by world events.
Insightful and provocative, yet warmhearted and funny