Walter Kempowski

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Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski (born April 29, 1929 in Rostock ; † October 5, 2007 in Rotenburg an der Wümme ) was a German writer . It was primarily for his highly autobiographical embossed novels of German chronicle known as well as by his project The sounder in which he diaries, letters and other everyday certificates to time paintings collaged .


Origin and childhood

Walter Kempowski was born as the son of the owner and shipbroker Karl Georg Kempowski (1898–1945), partner in the Otto Wiggers shipping company , and Margarethe Kempowski (1896–1969), a Hamburg merchant's daughter. Collasius, born in Rostock. From 1935 he attended the St. George School, a boys' school , and in 1939 switched to the Realgymnasium . The first literary attempts were made under the influence of Walter Görlitz , who sublet lived in the Kempowkis' household.

During and after the war

In 1944, Kempowski was transferred to a punitive unit in the Hitler Youth , where he had aroused the displeasure of his superiors as a long-haired "Swingheini" . At the beginning of 1945 - at the age of fifteen - he was still drafted as an air force courier ( air force helper). His father died on April 26, 1945. In the following year, Walter Kempowski had to leave school. After various activities as an errand boy , he started an apprenticeship in a Rostock printing company . Since its continuation during Rowohlt Verlag in Hamburg, where Kempowski from 1947 lived, due to lack of work permit was not possible, he took a job as a salesman in a PX store the United States Army in Wiesbaden in the American zone and worked the US- Intelligence Counter Intelligence Corps to what was publicly known only in 2009.

Detention in Bautzen

On March 8, 1948, while visiting his mother in Rostock, Walter Kempowski, who was also involved in the liberal LDP , was arrested by the Soviet MWD (formerly NKVD) . His brother Robert Kempowski (1923–2011), who continued to run his father's shipping company, had collected freight documents from the office in order to be able to prove that the Soviet occupying forces had larger quantities of dismantled goods transported from Germany than had been agreed with the Western Allies . Walter Kempowski was supposed to hand these documents over to the Americans. As a result, a Soviet military tribunal sentenced both brothers to 25 years in a labor camp for espionage . Her mother was sentenced to ten years of forced labor for "failing to report foreign intelligence agents ." Walter Kempowski had to serve his imprisonment in the Soviet prison in the former Bautzen prison, which also housed special camp No. 4 . There he was also locked in solitary confinement for several weeks in 1953 on charges of founding a Christian underground movement. In 1954 Kempowski became head of the prison choir. He processed the experiences in Bautzen literarily in his 1969 debut work Im Block. A detention report .

New beginning

On March 7, 1956, Kempowski was released early from prison after eight years. He first went to Hamburg to see his mother, who had already been released in 1954. There he began to keep diaries on a regular basis. In 1957 he passed the Abitur in Göttingen , where he also began studying education . While still in Göttingen, he married the East Frisian pastor's daughter Hildegard Janssen (born April 17, 1935 † August 12, 2019), who also became a teacher. Kempowski called this period “a sunny chapter in my life”. From 1960 he worked as a primary school teacher in some places and small towns in the Rotenburg (Wümme) district ; first in Breddorf near Zeven, from 1965 in Nartum and from 1975 to 1979 in Zeven . During these years, Kempowski successfully tried out self-developed methods of teaching reading and writing on his first graders; Without using the curriculum and textbooks, he turned daily reports from the students' experiences into lesson content. A variety of methods and individual support even in large classes characterize his method. His son Karl-Friedrich was born in 1961 and his daughter Renate in 1962.

In early 1962, Kempowski sent his first manuscript for a novel with the working title Margot to his former prison pastor Hans-Joachim Mund , who in turn passed it on to Fritz J. Raddatz . The editor-in-chief and deputy publishing director at Rowohlt at the time obtained expert opinions, which mostly corresponded to his own initial assessment and were encouraging, but still advised against publication. Negative comments came from Group 47 , but Kempowski himself harbored an aversion to their “acidic black and white literature”. At the beginning of March 1969 the novel was finally published after four new or revised versions under the title Im Block and received mostly positive reviews. His beginning as a writer was made, even if this novel initially had only moderate success with the audience. According to his own statements in an ARD television interview, less than 1,000 copies of the book were sold, which pained Kempowski very much. Almost four decades later, he described the exact circumstances of the creation of his first work in a detailed report in the anthology The First Book, edited by Renatus Deckert .

Archive for unpublished autobiographies

In the early 1980s, Kempowski began collecting biographical materials from ordinary people by placing advertisements in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit . He received tons of diaries, correspondence, life records and photographs from people from different circles and times. He used these materials in his main work Das Echolot . The “Archive for Unpublished Autobiographies” was located at Kempowski's place of residence in the Kreienhoop house in Nartum . In 2005 he bequeathed his biographies archive, which now includes hundreds of thousands of photos and millions of sheets of paper, to the Akademie der Künste in Berlin , where it has been looked after since then.

The writer

Walter Kempowski around 1975

In the 1960s, Kempowski intensified his writing activity. He became known to a wide audience in 1975 and 1979 through the film adaptations of several of his autobiographical novels: Tadellöser & Wolff (1975) and Ein Kapitel für sich (1979). In 1978 he switched from Hanser-Verlag to Knaus Verlag , to which he remained loyal until his death. From 1980 to 1991 he was a lecturer for questions of literature production at the University of Oldenburg . Over the years, he has held various teaching positions at universities in Germany and the USA .

A specialty in Kempowski's style is the art of collage. A seemingly authentic scene for the reader is created through a seemingly emotionless stringing together of one's own experiences, song texts, quotes, advertising material, etc. in a context that is mostly structured in paragraphs . The paragraphs lined up one behind the other, each with a different topic, result in a kind of literary collage that, despite its apparent apathy, is exciting and leaves the reader plenty of room for their own interpretation. In his family chronicle he developed this collage technique to a high level of perfection. In his work Echolot , there are no personal experiences, but those of numerous contemporary witnesses, which are put together in collages. Not all of his novels or short stories are laid out that way.

2002 when signing after a reading

Nevertheless, Kempowski was publicly accused of plagiarism by journalist Harald Wieser in Stern magazine in January 1990 because he had taken over entire passages from the author Werner Tschirch ( Rostocker Leben. In Retrospect of 1900 ) for his novel From a great time . However, Kempowski was supported by colleagues such as Hellmuth Karasek , who pointed out in an article in Der Spiegel ( Der Ehrverschreiber , 3/1990) that Kempowski was always ready to provide information about his method in interviews and lectures, including Tschirch's book as one of his sources.

In 1993, Frank Schirrmacher gained his first major recognition as a serious writer through an essay in the FAZ , as he noted in his diary.

What his works have in common is a sometimes laconic, sometimes sarcastic narrative style with subtle humor. Models and foundations of his unique narrative style can be found partly in Franz Kafka , partly in John Dos Passos , and John Galsworthy also played a role in the chronicle of his family . He said that the initial spark for his style was reading the novel “Everything else than a hero” by Rudolf Lorenzen . With the collage technique, references can also be made to Arno Schmidt , whom Kempowski valued very much throughout his life.

At the opening of the exhibition, which was dedicated to Kempowski's life and literary work, at the Berlin Academy of the Arts on May 19, 2007, Federal President Horst Köhler paid tribute to Kempowski as a people's poet, because so many people read his works and because “like no one else he reads the people themselves got to speak ”. The seriously ill Kempowski, who himself could not take part in the ceremony (his wife Hildegard took his place), described the day of the exhibition opening as the happiest in his life, which he now, after years of tough, sometimes bitter struggle against a lack of public recognition, has happily concluded could. Kempowski's son Karl-Friedrich read the words of thanks: “I thank all those who benevolently accompanied my work, and I forgive those who ignored it.” In an interview with Deutschlandradio , the writer said: “I'm 78, and it's time to to say goodbye. I've done enough, I've been a pedagogue for 30 years, I've written 40 books, that's getting to be enough. "


Signature W. Kempowski 1979

Essential and characteristic of Kempowski's work was the turn to extensive large-scale projects that required hard work over many years. So he already suspected in his diary (as we now know, mistakenly) that the work on the “echo sounder” would keep him busy until the end of his life. Most recently, he worked on the large project "Ortslinien", which envisages bundling photos, texts, sound documents, films and paintings from the period 1850 to 2000 into a total work of art, until finally every day is represented by an art product. Kempowski himself assumed that a crew would be busy with the major plant after his death. The “Plankton” project was supposed to follow up on the survey books of the “Deutsche Chronik”, for which he had been collecting statements since the 1960s. Since 2003 Kempowski has been writing a cycle of poems about his imprisonment.


In October 2006, Kempowski was diagnosed with colon cancer. Regardless of this, he tried to continue his writing activity. He was working on a diary about 1991 when the Second Gulf War was taking place. In March 2007 he read from his novel Alles versonst in his house in front of around 70 people . In the last months of his life he received the last, long-missed satisfaction of constant attention from the mass media. An exhibition on his life's work at the Berlin Academy of the Arts from May 20 to July 15, 2007 contributed to this late interest. In September 2007 the Berlin sculptor Bertrand Freiesleben created a portrait bust of Kempowski. It is the last portrait of Walter Kempowski. The writer died on October 5, 2007 at the age of 78 in a hospital in Rotenburg, Lower Saxony. Before that, he gave one last interview. In it he said: "The clever one gives in until he is the stupid."

Collaboration with the CIC

The US scientist Alan Keele reported in an interview with the FAZ employee Edo Reents that he was able to look at files of the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) from the years 1947 to 1948 in the US archive of the secret services in Maryland . From this he could see that Walter Kempowski visited the branch of the CIC in Wiesbaden several times and offered his services there. Dirk Hempel states that Kempowski had the first contact with the US secret service during a routine questioning as a result of his illegal entry into the US zone of occupation. The other contacts occurred between December 1947 and January 1948. As a motive for Kempowski's contacts with the CIC, Hempel states that Kempowski “felt obliged to report to the Americans about the conditions in the Soviet occupation zone”.

In contrast to the statements in his novels, the files showed that it was not he, but his friend Hans Siegfried (code name: Fritz Lejeune) who had handed over the ninety-two waybills, which contained information about Soviet plans in Rostock, to the CIC. Kempowski stated in a letter to Keele that Siegfried had not betrayed him to the Soviet secret service. However, Keele testified that Siegfried resigned at short notice in March 1948 from a trip to Rostock in which both wanted to take part. But then Kempowski was arrested in Rostock. According to Keele, it has not yet been clarified whether Siegfried was a double agent. In any case, the CIC files claim that Siegfried betrayed Kempowski.


Kempowski's voice

“I'm conservative and liberal, and you can't be that in Germany. [...] Even today you are not allowed to speak your mind in Germany. Give it a try! One step off the path and you are done for. "

- Walter Kempowski, 2007

"The only thing that makes me really sad about death is that when you are dead you can no longer hear music."

- Walter Kempowski, 2007

"10. July 1989: [...] The problem of education is that there aren't enough intelligent people with a heart. "

- Walter Kempowski, 2001

Voices about Kempowski

“If the world still has eyes to see, it will see, to put it in one word, 'Echolot', one of the greatest achievements in literature of our century. When she is about to finally lose her memory and her history, she will be able to reflect on this work and thus be able to restore justice. For there is no class in today's society, as one historian has written, that we oppress as ruthlessly as the dead. Tomorrow, he added, we will be the dead, then our dreams for the future will be nothing more than old stories. "

- Frank Schirrmacher , November 13, 1993

"In our sometimes repulsively maudlin ', sometimes doggedly panicked times, we desperately need him - as a living reproach, so to speak, which tells us incessantly that we should just pull ourselves together and do our work as his father sometimes appears to him in his novels: with Monocle and skeptical, but somehow also kind expression. What we need is a de-ideologization, a de-pathization of our thinking, speaking and writing, in every respect. "

- Edo Reents, June 6, 2007



  • In the block, an arrest report. 1969
  • German Chronicle I. From great times. 1978
  • German Chronicle II. Nice view . 1981
  • German Chronicle III. Did you see Hitler? 1973
  • German Chronicle IV. Censure Loans & Wolff . 1971
  • German Chronicle V. We're still doing gold. 1972
  • German Chronicle VI. Did you know about it? 1979
  • German Chronicle VII. A chapter in itself . 1975
  • German Chronicle VIII. School (Always cheated. Memories of our school days). 1974
  • German Chronicle IX. Warm welcome . Knaus Verlag, Munich 1984; as a paperback at: btb, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-442-72190-3 .
  • The echo sounder . A collective diary January and February 1943. 4 vols. Knaus, Munich 1993.
  • The echo sounder. Fuga furiosa. A collective diary winter 1945. 4 vols. Knaus, Munich 1999.
  • The echo sounder. Barbarossa '41. A collective diary. Knaus, Munich 2002
  • The echo sounder. Swan '45. A collective diary. Knaus, Munich 2005
  • Culpa. Notes about the echo sounder. Knaus, Munich 2005
  • Daydreams by the electric fireplace. (Radio play), 1971
  • Excluded (radio play). 1972
  • Did you see Hitler? (Radio play) 1973
  • The cock in the neck. Mini stories. 1973
  • Walter Kempowski's trip to the Harz is explained. 1974
  • Beethoven's Fifth. (Radio play) 1975
  • All under one roof. 1976
  • Who wants to be among the soldiers. 1976
  • Our Mr. Böckelmann. 1979
  • My reading book. Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, Frankfurt 1980, ISBN 3-596-22182-X
  • Moin Vaddr loves. (Radio play), 1980
  • Kempowski's simple primer. 1980
  • Guided tours - a German monument. (Radio play), 1982
  • Mr. Böckelmann's most beautiful table stories. 1983
  • All in vain. (Radio play), 1984
  • Haumi blue. 208 pfennig stories for children 1986
  • The district of Verden - a portrait. , Verden district (ed.), 1987
  • Dog days. 1988
  • One knee goes lonely through the world. (as editor), 1989
  • Sirius. Kind of a diary. 1990
  • In Rostock. 1990
  • Marrow and bone. An episode. 1992
  • My Rostock. 1994
  • The poor king of Opplawur. A fairy tale. 1994
  • World Pain. Child scenes almost too serious. 1995
  • The war is ending. Chronicle for voices. (Radio play, 9 hours), 1995
  • Bloomsday '97. 1997
  • Perfect world. 1998
  • The red rooster. Dresden 1945. btb, Munich 2001
  • Alkor. Diary 1989, 2001
  • Last greetings. 2003
  • The 1st album. 1981-1986 2004
  • Hamit. Diary 1990. Knaus, Munich 2006
  • All in vain . 2006
  • Somnia. Diary 1991. Knaus, Munich 2008
  • Long-suffering. Poems. Knaus, Munich 2009
  • Dealing with sizes. My favorite poets - and others. Edited by Karl Heinz Bittel ; Knaus, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-8135-0414-9 .
  • If that’s okay! Records 1956-1970. Knaus, Munich 2012, ISBN 978-3-8135-0367-8
  • Plankton. A collective memory. (Edited by Walter Kempowski and Simone Neteler) Knaus, Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-8135-0513-9 .


Audio book

  • Messrs Hagedorn, Jonas and Böckelmann. Stories from school days. Weilheim literature reading. Langen Müller 2009 (audio CD) ISBN 978-3-7844-4160-3

Kempowski Society, Archive and Foundation

Kempowski archive in Rostock

Scientists, journalists and students founded a " Kempowski Society " in Gießen in June 2007 . The literary society wants to dedicate itself to the preservation and promotion of the work of Walter Kempowski. Sascha Feuchert, a German scholar from Giessen, became the founding chairman . Julia Stein from Ratingen has the current chairmanship.

In the Hanseatic City of Rostock, the Kempowski Archive offers a permanent exhibition of archive objects. Visitors are given the opportunity to leaf through Walter Kempowski's manuscripts and other materials in a reading room and look at them more closely.

In his home Nartum has Kempowski Foundation House Kreienhoop its headquarters. Founded in 2005 Foundation operates the house Kreienhoop , the living and employment from Walter Kempowski, as a memorial and literary meeting place.

honors and awards

Monument to Kempowski in the Rostock city port
Street naming on April 29, 2009 in Rostock. Hildegard Kempowski and Rostock's Lord Mayor Methling

The asteroid (11789) Kempowski is named after him. Since 2019, the State of Lower Saxony has awarded the Walter Kempowski Prize for Biographical Literature every two years in his honor . The Walter Kempowski Literature Prize is awarded in Hamburg every two years .


  • Michael Neumann: Kempowski the schoolmaster. Braunschweig 1980, ISBN 3-14-160025-2 .
  • Manfred Dierks: Author - Text - Reader: Walter Kempowski. Munich 1981, UTB 1125, ISBN 3-7720-1701-0 .
  • Manfred Dierks: Walter Kempowski. (Author's books; 39). Munich 1984, ISBN 3-406-09589-5 .
  • Manfred Durzak : literature on the screen. Analyzes and discussions with Leopold Ahlsen, Rainer Erler, Dieter Forte, Walter Kempowski, Heinar Kipphardt, Wolfdietrich Schnurre, Dieter Wellershoff . In: Media in Research and Education. Serie A . tape 28 . Niemeyer, Tübingen 1989, ISBN 3-484-34028-2 , chapter The addition of literature through television adaptation: Conversation with Walter Kempowski and everyday life in the Third Reich - illuminated twice. Fechner's cinematic Kempowski adaptations , p. 197-232 .
  • Walter Kempowski on his 60th birthday. With contributions by Jörg Drews , Charlotte Heinritz and a bibliography. Munich 1989, ISBN 3-8135-0500-6 .
  • Volker Ladenthin (Ed.): The language of history. Contributions to the work of Walter Kempowski. Eitorf 2000, ISBN 3-932174-48-8 . (Out of print, new edition planned.)
  • Dirk Hempel : Walter Kempowski. A civil biography. btb Goldmann, Munich 2004, ISBN 3-442-73208-5 .
  • Carla Damiano: Walter Kempowski's "The Echolot". Sifting and exposing the evidence via montage. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg 2005, ISBN 978-3-8253-5032-1 .
  • Carla Damiano, Jörg Drews, Doris Plöschberger (eds.): “What is this about?” From “In the block” to “Last greetings”. On the work and life of Walter Kempowski. Wallstein, Göttingen 2005, ISBN 3-89244-887-6 .
  • Raul Calzoni: Walter Kempowski, WG Sebald ei tabù della memoria collettiva tedesca. Campanotto, Udine 2005, ISBN 88-456-0708-9 .
  • Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Ed.): Walter Kempowski , edition text + kritik , Vol. 169, Munich 2006, ISBN 978-3-88377-824-2 .
  • Volker Hage : Walter Kempowski. Books and encounters. Knaus-Verlag, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-8135-0337-1 .
  • Gerhard Henschel : Let's dig deeper: More about Walter Kempowski dtv, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-423-24708-5 .
  • Lutz Hagestedt (Ed.): Walter Kempowski. Bourgeois representation, culture of remembrance, coping with the present . De Gruyter, Berlin a. a. 2010, ISBN 978-3-11-021473-4 .
  • Oliver Matuschek: Walter Kempowski in Nartum. Edition AB Fischer: People and Places. March 2010, ISBN 978-3-937434-31-5 .
  • Julian Tietz: The personal advantage in suffering. Cruelty and guilt in Walter Kempowski's marrow and bone. In: The Spatien. No. 5. Verlag Redieck & Schade GmbH, Rostock 2011, ISBN 978-3-934116-98-6 .
  • Kai Sina: Atonement and sacrificial life. Art religion with Walter Kempowski. Wallstein-Verlag, Göttingen 2012, ISBN 978-3-8353-1089-6 .
  • Philipp Böttcher, Kai Sina (ed.): Walter Kempowski's diaries. Self-expression - poetics - work strategy. edition text + kritik , Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-86916-324-6 .
  • Markus Schenzle: Kempowskieske's storytelling. Narrative structures in Walter Kempowski's “Echolot”. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg 2018, ISBN 978-3-8253-6821-0 .
  • Carla Damiano, Andreas Grünes, Sascha Feuchert (eds.): Walter Kempowski manual. Life - work - effect. De Gruyter, Berlin a. a., 2020, ISBN 978-3110237580 .

Web links

Commons : Walter Kempowski  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Articles and interviews
Kempowski exhibition at the Akademie der Künste

Individual evidence

  1. ^ German-German literary exile, p. 114
  2. Walter Kempowski was a US spy in: Der Tagesspiegel from May 4, 2009
  3. ^ Advertisement by the Hamburger Autorvereinigung eV in the Hamburger Abendblatt from August 19, 2019
  4. See for this paragraph Dirk Hempel: Walter Kempowski - Eine bürgerliche Biographie . btb 2004, s. 112-115, 124 f.
  5. On the sale of the first work Im Block Walter Kempowski in an ARD television interview, June 2007
  6. See Walter Kempowski: The block , in: Renatus Deckert (Ed.): The first book. Writer on her literary debut . Suhrkamp Verlag 2007, pp. 128-135.
  7. Literature archive: Walter Kempowski Archive , Akademie der Künste, query date: October 27, 2014.
  8. Hellmuth Karasek: The writer of honor , In: Der Spiegel , edition 3/1990
  9. "In the echo chamber of his century" , FAZ , October 4, 2007, Kempowski obituary
  10. Interview by Thomas Combrink with Kempowski from June 7, 2005, published in volume 3 of the series “Die Spatien”, Rostock, April 2006 - publisher: Kempowski-Archiv Rostock
  11. Portrait of Christine Eichel in Cicero, April 2007, see also ( Memento from May 27, 2007 in the Internet Archive )
  12. Walter Kempowski: He always seemed to me to be the better person . Obituary for Arno Schmidt . In: Die Zeit , June 15, 1979
  13. ^ "Köhler honors Kempowski as a folk poet" , Spiegel online , May 19, 2007
  14. “I always see things from their grotesque side” , Deutschlandfunk , May 18, 2007
  15. ^ Writer Walter Kempowski died ( archive), Tagesschau , October 5, 2007
  16. Walter Kempowski's last interview. TTT - title, theses, temperaments , June 2007
  17. Spectacular revelation “And he was a spy!” - Edo Reents: And he was a spy! in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , May 2, 2009
  18. Volker Hage: On thin ice . In: Der Spiegel . No. 20 , 2009, p. 152 ( online - May 11, 2009 ).
  19. Kempowski's involvement in the secret service - something always gets stuck - Dirk Hempel: something always sticks - Walter Kempowski wasn't a spy. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 9, 2009
  20. «Rich, Beautiful, Horrible» , Weltwoche , No. 30, July 2007, interview
  21. "When it's over, it's over" , Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, October 7, 2007
  22. ^ Walter Kempowski: Alkor . btb-Verlag
  23. "Walter Kempowski's" Echolot ". In the night of the century ” , FAZ , November 13, 1993
  24. ^ "Walter Kempowski. It clears your head ” , FAZ, June 6, 2007
  25. a b Sabine Pamperrien : Das Echo des Schreckens , review on October 1, 2012 in the series Andruck des Deutschlandfunk for the new edition of
    Walter Kempowski: Did you see Hitler? Did you know about it? Knaus Verlag, 2012, ISBN 978-3-813-50481-1 .
  26. ^ Literature database Lower Saxony - Kempowski Foundation Haus Kreienhoop
  27. Prize winners. In: Retrieved December 21, 2019.
  28. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients" ( Memento from December 22, 2007 in the Internet Archive ), Juniata College