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Blockbuster on World War II Is Second Time Around for ‘Das Boot’ Author

June 14, 1995

BERLIN (AP) _ A new book by the author of ``Das Boot″ provides a soldier’s-eye view of a losing war, and it is not a pretty picture _ dirty, slimy, bloody, raunchy, peopled with malicious Nazis and victimized soldiers.

``Die Festung″ (The Fortress) has risen to the top or near the top of several best-seller lists in Germany, where critics are treating it as a continuation of the debate over how Germans should view the war.

In ``Die Festung″ author Lothar-Guenther Buchheim relaunches characters from his 1973 blockbuster, ``Das Boot,″ which was later made into a movie by the same title. Publishers of ``Die Festung″ expect it to be at least as widely translated as its predecessor, which was published in 23 languages.

The book’s 1,470 pages cover only a few months in 1944, but what months! (As author Buchheim would write, with lots of exclamation points!)

Navy Lt. Buchheim himself is the narrator as the autobiographical novel starts with a harrowing U-boat voyage. Then he experiences the Allied landing in Normandy and a trip to bombed-out Berlin and back to submarine bases in France.

The Allies draw ever closer, some generals try to kill Hitler with a bomb. The Nazi SS becomes as big a threat as Allied air raids and French resistance fighters.

There is a brush with death in a U-boat, the crew suffering an epidemic of diarrhea that is about as gross an adventure as has been put on paper.

At the end, Buchheim has been wounded in an air raid. He sees a hospital full of dying Germans abandoned by craven doctors, gets treatment from a friendly tank crew and observes immensely superior U.S. forces from across the Loire River.

He thinks a lot about his French lover, Simone, who’s been sent to a concentration camp.

Except for such tangential mentions, Buchheim does not write about the Holocaust. Nor does he glorify the military. His story is set among navy people who in normal duties would have known nothing about the Jews’ fate.

``Die Festung″ was published in April as Germans were debating what to think about the war 50 years bygone. And the debate has been continued among German reviewers of the book.

``I’ve never read a better war book,″ a reviewer wrote in the liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung, praising Buchheim’s vivid descriptions.

The Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel, saw big holes: ``Can such a monumental work on World War II do without differentiating among the Nazi figures and not lose quality? Can one almost completely cut out the murderous persecution of the Jews?″

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung waited a month after the book’s launch and then blasted those who praised it. ``It’s as if Buchheim invented the genre of the pacifist war novel,″ the paper said.

Buchheim, a bear-like man with a grizzled beard, spears hostile critics as ``either neo-Nazis or dilettantes who can’t read.″

The bad reviews were like those he got 22 years earlier for ``Das Boot,″ where ``some accused me of making soldiers into heroes and some accused me of dirtying the nest, and between the two positions, there’s a wonderfully big space,″ he said on all-news N-TV.

During World War II, Buchheim was an artist and correspondent for the German military and all the events in his book took place, though the characters are invented, he said.

``I don’t want to be called writer. I am a reporter, I look at things,″ he said.

He acknowledged that Germany had few novels on World War II, and said that was because it was the losing side.

Buchheim’s characters despise and fear the SS. But they get some licks back, as when the wily commander, ``Der Alte″ (the Old Man), dresses down an SS officer who demands a U-boat to take him out of the doomed naval base:

``Am I to understand your wish to leave our fortress as defeatism? Are you perhaps expressing doubt in the fortress strategy of our Fuehrer? ... It’s incomprehensible that our Fuehrer would let our Atlantic bases fall into enemy hands.″

The Old Man knew, of course, that the SS man would get his U-boat ride, that Hitler was wrong and all was lost.

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