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The Silences of Hammerstein

The Silences of Hammerstein, the latest work from one of Germany’s most significant contemporary authors, engages readers with a blend of a documentary, collage, narration, and fictional interviews. The gripping plot revolves around the experiences of real-life German General Kurt von Hammerstein and his wife and children. A member of an old military family, a brilliant staff officer, and the last commander of the German army before Hitler seized power, Hammerstein, who died in 1943 before Hitler’s defeat, was nevertheless an idiosyncratic character. Too old to be a resister, he retained an independence of mind that was shared by his children: three of his daughters joined the Communist Party, and two of his sons risked their lives in the July 1944 Plot against Hitler and were subsequently on the run till the end of the war. Hammerstein never criticized his children for their activities, and he maintained contacts with the Communists himself and foresaw the disastrous end of Hitler’s dictatorship.

In The Silences of Hammerstein, Hans Magnus Enzensberger offers a brilliant and unorthodox account of the military milieu whose acquiescence to Nazism consolidated Hitler’s power and of the heroic few who refused to share in the spoils.

400 pages | 64 halftones | 5 x 8 | © 2009

Biography and Letters

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"I found Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s The Silences of Hammerstein a virtuoso combination of research, reportage and imagination, as good an introduction as any to the Weimar Republic, impossible to put down."

Eric Hobsbawm | The Guardian

"So you thought there was nothing revealing left to say about the collapse of the Weimar Republic? Think again. One of Germany’s most revered poets and literary polymaths has produced a book, part history, part novel, that sheds new light on an extraordinary time through the eyes of an extraordinary family. . . . But Hammerstein – and especially his older daughters, Marie-Therese, Marie-Louise and Helga – are haunting figures. They tell us what it was like to endure the Berlin of the 1930s. And, in their amazements, they help us understand."

Peter Preston | Observer

"Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of Germany’s leading public intellectuals. He belongs to the same generation as Gunter Grass and Jurgen Habermas, although he has been less bien pensant, less predictable, than either. His early poetry, lyric verse with a strong political content, won him the Georg Buchner Prize and he is now widely regarded as Germany’s foremost living poet. Enzensberger is the most important postwar writer you have never read."

David Blackbourn | London Review of Books

"It is an astonishing story of betrayal and human decency, about the possibilities of resistance of the most various kinds. . . . A book without heroes but with heroic moments and small gestures of resistance. By an author who doesn’t know the truth but in his determined search for the truth has written an unbelievably thrilling book."

Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagsz | on the German Edition

"In writing about Hammerstein, Enzensberger is not just telling the story of a man, or of that man’s remarkable family. He is investigating the moral value of intransigence—the combination of principle, arrogance, and willfulness that prevented Hammerstein from falling into line with Nazism, when so many of his fellow officers did. For this reason, Enzensberger eschews the usual conventions of biography: the book proceeds in short narrative sections, often out of chronological order, interspersed with documents and passages of analysis and rumination. There are even imaginary, posthumous interviews with people Enzensberger is writing about, in which he can speculate on their true motives. Indeed, the book’s idiosyncratic power comes from the fact that it is not just a work of history, but a record of the author’s struggle to understand and judge that history.--New York Review of Books

Adam Kirsch

"[Enzensberger is] one of the holy trinity of German postwar literature (alongside Grass and Walser)."

Philip Oltermann | Guardian

"The Silences of Hammerstein is a book only a poet could have written. Form is just as important as content here. Enzensberger moves forward and backward in time, describes events out of context, and returns again and again to the gaps in the historical record. What emerges is a brilliant and horrifying representation of chaos."—New Republic "The Book" blog

Aaron Their | New Republic "The Book" blog

"Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a well-known German poet and writer, has delivered a fascinating account of the family, based on a large quantity of new material from archives and personal collections in Russia, Germany and elsewhere. This is not a conventional academic study – there are no footnotes and the text is punctuated with ‘posthumous conversations’ in which the author interrogates the ghosts of many of his subjects – but it is compulsively readable, beautifully translated by Martin Chalmers and full of startling details about this unconventional family that make one think again about German aristocratic life and culture in the first half of the 20th century."

Richard Evans | The Historian

Table of Contents

A difficult day

The exemplary career of a cadet

A very ancient family and a suitable marriage

The sinister general

A couple of anecdotes

A posthumous conversation with Kurt von Hammerstein (I)

First gloss. The horrors of the Weimar Republic

A posthumous conversation with Kurt von Schleicher

Second gloss. A tangle of manoeuvres and intrigues

Difficult times

Three daughters

Official duties


A strange pilgrimage

A veteran’s story

Herr von Ranke’s adventure

Entrance of a lady from Bohemia

A posthumous conversation with Ruth von Mayenburg (I)

Last-minute efforts

Third gloss. On discord

The invisible war

A dinner with Hitler

Attendance list of 3 February 1933

Moscow is listening in

A posthumous conversation with Kurt von Hammerstein (II)

Fait accompli

Hindenburg sends his regards

A posthumous conversation with Kurt von Hammerstein (III)

A posthumous conversation with Werner Scholem

A born intelligence man

Two very different weddings

A Prussian lifestyle

The massacre

A settling of accounts of quite a different kind

Sidelined (I)

A posthumous conversation with Ruth von Mayenburg (II)

A posthumous conversation with Leo Roth


A posthumous conversation with Helga von Hammerstein (I)

On criminal case no. 6222

 A posthumous conversation with Helga von Hammerstein (II)

A birthday and its consequences

A quite different life as an agent

The mole in the Bendler Block

Yet another double life

From Leo’s cadre file

Without Helga

From the thicket of deviations

A message from Moscow

The inquisition

The third daughter in the espionage web

Fourth gloss: The Russian seesaw.

The marshal’s greetings

The beheaded army

Helga or loneliness

Fifth gloss. On the scandal of synchronicity.

Visits to the country

A farewell

A posthumous conversation with Ruth von Mayenburg (III)


Sidelined (II)

From Führer headquarters

The funeral

Sixth gloss. Remarks about the aristocracy.

A room in the Bendler Block

A posthumous conversation with Ludwig von Hammerstein


In remembrance of a druggist

The reaction

Family liability

The necrosis of power

Berlin, at the end

The return

The mother

Journeys back to normality

A beginning in the New World

The sleeper wakes

Border issues

A posthumous conversation with Marie Luise von Münchhausen

Helga’s final years

Seventh gloss. The silence of the Hammersteins.

Why this book is not a novel.


Translator’s notes




Index of Personalities

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