William & Mary

Campbell's Tack Faculty Lecture unravels a mystery

  • You say you want a revolution
    You say you want a revolution  Professor of German studies Bruce Campbell describes how German detective pulp fiction changed in the 1960s during his Oct. 27 Tack Faculty Lecture.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • An engaged, responsive audience
    An engaged, responsive audience  Part of the crowd gathered inside Commonwealth Auditorium to hear Professor Bruce Campbell's Tack Faculty Lecture on detectives and German pulp fiction.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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From 1945 on, writers of German detective pulp fiction have gone to extraordinary lengths to create characters who are not Nazis, do not remind their readers of Nazis and have no involvement with the Third Reich.

Why? The war is long over. Why would that matter to a populace that spends the equivalent of $845 million annually on such fiction?

The answer: Fiction and memory intersect, Bruce Campbell, associate professor of German studies in William & Mary’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, told a large audience at the recent Tack Faculty Lecture. Campbell’s presentation was the 10th in a series made possible by a generous commitment by Martha '78 and Carl Tack '78 in April 2012.

Campbell’s Oct. 27 lecture, “The Detective is [not] a Nazi,” featured a wooden elephant on stage at Commonwealth Auditorium, emblematic of the elephant in the room; a film clip of virile, hyper-violent American detective Dirty Harry versus stooped, grandfatherly German counterpart Derrick; fellow faculty wearing stereotypical, black detective fedoras and a post-lecture spread of German beer and brats.

{{youtube:medium:center|uYVS6a_TUQM, Bruce Campbell on German pulp fiction}}

It was an evening replete with laughter, audience members using noise-makers to produce elephant-like sounds on cue and thought-provoking dialogue, all accompanied by scratchy, 1930s-style German cabaret music.

Informative, though far less festive, was Campbell’s explanation of why, even to this day, German writers work under a weighty constraint that time may never abate.

“Entire battalions of [German] police officers were put together during the war to carry out murders in Eastern Europe,” Campbell said. “The German police were intimately implicated in Nazi crimes from the very first day to the very last. As institutions, the police were a central part of these crimes.

“The elephant represents the memory of that past, and how that past is reflected in everyday life, including in the genre of popular fiction. You can’t ask anyone in the German-speaking world to identify with a detective because of this memory. The memory of the Nazi past haunts modern Germany today.”

However, Campbell said, Germans have an insatiable thirst for detective fiction. For example, “Derrick,” the TV show, ran from 1974 to 1999 and remains in syndication. German pulp-fiction authors didn’t stop churning out their product, didn’t stop having detectives figure out who done it.

So what did they do? How do you create detectives for German-speaking readers?

In the 1950s and early 1960s, writers ducked the problem altogether, setting their novels someplace else, Campbell said. They made the detectives Americans, for example.

“Everybody in Europe knows that this is a particularly violent society,” Campbell said, drawing some nervous laughter. “You can have a detective break all of the rules as long as he’s in New York. There’s G-Man Jerry Cotton, an FBI agent in New York. And Jerry can break the rules.”

But come the mid-60s, that was no longer good enough for the writers or their readers. Lots of reform-minded, left-wing German intellectuals decided that they wanted to change the world, Campbell said. Inspired by the Swedish team of Maj Sjowall and Per Walloo, who used detective fiction in an attempt to change their nation’s consciousness, and educated in the U.S., Britain and France, German authors brought their characters back to the motherland but still had to work around the Nazi dilemma.

“They had to distance themselves from the Nazi past and, by extension, from their fathers, who had been in the war and had often been Nazis,” Campbell said. “The key question in Germany in the 60s was, ‘Daddy, what did you really do in the war?’”

Mainly, Campbell said, authors made their detectives women, a trend wildly popular in Germany. Later, they created gay detectives, elderly detectives, young detectives who openly fought with their authoritative older bosses, detectives who smoked pot or did other drugs.

“The bottom line here is ... after Auschwitz, you couldn’t write a violent German detective,” Campbell said.

Even in today’s German fiction, most detectives are police officers. That’s a function, Campbell said, of the German, Austrian and Swiss legal systems. State violence is still a “huge taboo” in German-speaking society. German detective fiction illustrates this very clearly.

“This is as important in literature and popular culture as it is in German foreign policy,” Campbell said, “and for exactly the same reasons.”

Campbell explained there are many easily recognizable similarities in detective fiction, regardless of the setting: the thirst for justice, the fear of crimes, the use of rational detection to find the truth.

Yet just as clearly, there are specific distinctions: the “omnipresence of a terrible past filled with the worst injustices imaginable, and a burning desire to make up for this past, and a fierce determination that it should not be allowed to happen again, even in the face of a resurgence of right-wing populism, which is a factor in most industrial societies.”

To those who would argue that it’s “only” pulp fiction – mindless, diversionary reading – Campbell countered that while it is not a “perfect” mirror of society, “it is a mirror and it is worth reading.”

“It can tell us a lot about society and its values,” he said, “how it deals with truth and justice and with the specter of its own memory.”