Wassermann’s short novel The Triumph of Youth was first published in Germany in 1926 under the title Der Aufruhr um den Junker Ernst (which roughly translates as ‘The Turmoil of Baron Ernst’). It was published in an English translation two years later. According to Arnold Bennett, the novel is Wassermann’s masterpiece. Wassermann himself described it as ‘the one which I like best.’
Ostensibly about a seventeenth-century German witch-hunt, The Triumph of Youth is an allegory about fanaticism and persecution, a dark fairytale that speaks to present-day concerns about religious dogmatism and the decline of creative freedom.
Set in Wurzburg, Lower Franconia – the place where Wassermann served his year of compulsory military service, and where, for the first time, he experienced overt anti-semitism – the novel is a fictionalised account of an incident in the life of Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, Bishop of Wurzburg. It begins ‘in the third year of his reign’, which would place events in or around 1623.
The Bishop, who for some time has been busy hunting out heretics and burning them at the stake, is told, one April afternoon, that his sister-in-law, Baroness Theodata, has suddenly returned to the area, having been absent for the last eight years. This absence, we learn, was occasioned by the death of her husband - the Bishop’s brother – an abusive drunk who was killed in a duel. Left penniless by her husband’s gambling and debauchery, the Baroness was forced to leave her only child, Ernest, then six years old, in the dubious care of his wealthy uncle – a responsibility only grudgingly accepted by the Bishop. The Baroness was then compelled to move from place to place, relying on the charity of friends and relations (and quite possibly passing from man to man, the text hints).
During those eight years the Baroness has never seen her son; she has not wanted to, believing, irrationally, that Ernest has rejected her:
‘One event constantly recurred to her which was the crowning point, as it were, of her suffering... In the night before his duel her husband, laughing wildly, had dragged the sleeping boy Ernest out of his bed. He wanted to take him along so he might see his father fight. In spite of her pleading and her tears he had actually carried him away in his arms. The innocent child, half-asleep, had thrown his arms around his father’s red, bloated neck and had turned away from her. Why did he turn away from her? Why from her and not from him?... In her mind’s eye he had suddenly become so identified with the image of his father that she was unable to bear his gaze, and she had a perfect horror of this six-year-old boy.’
The Bishop, similarly, has had nothing to do with his nephew. Instead, Ernest has been raised by a deaf nurse, Lenette, and a somewhat feckless tutor, Master Onno Molitor. Neglected and lonely, and kept in virtual poverty by his uncle, Ernest becomes a strange, enigmatic figure, a solitary whose ‘mind and spirit’ seem to ‘dwell outside the world, above it or below it.’ He has an almost magical ability to invent stories, and soon gains a devout following among the local children, as well as among many of the local adults, who sit, as if hypnotised, for hours at a time, listening to his seemingly-inexhaustible narratives. An innocent, a prodigy, a mystic – it seems impossible to tell which he is. He is perhaps all three.
(With Ernest, Wassermann is calling to mind figures such as Caspar Hauser and Nikolaus, the apocryphal shepherd boy responsible for the Children’s Crusade. There is also a strong autobiographical element in the character: Wassermann, from an early age, was an accomplished, even compulsive, storyteller; he felt abandoned after the death of his mother and yearned to be reunited with her; he too grew up in poverty.)
Unsurprisingly, Ernest’s growing reputation as a mystic attracts the attention of the Church – in particular, of the Jesuit, Pater Gropp, ‘confessor and confidant of the Bishop, his right hand, executor of his will and the real judge in all trials of witches and sorcerers’. Pater Gropp, at the point where the narrative begins, has already had Ernest under clandestine surveillance for some time.
With the return of Ernest’s mother, the Bishop decides to pay his nephew and sister-in-law a visit. Pater Gropp accompanies him, eager to see the supposed mystic up-close. Gropp’s intentions are clear: he is only waiting for an opportunity to denounce Ernest and put him on trial as a sorcerer. His plans are thwarted temporarily by the response of the Bishop, who develops an unaccountable – to him, at least – fascination with his nephew. The Bishop invites Ernest to live with him. The Baroness, who still cannot overcome her ‘horror’ of her son, consents. Ernest becomes the Bishop’s favourite companion, spending more and more time with him, until eventually Pater Gropp’s machinations bear fruit, and Ernest is arrested on suspicion of sorcery.
Hearing of her son’s imprisonment, the Baroness finally remembers her ‘duty’ as a mother. She rushes to the Bishop to plead for her son’s life. She is then arrested herself and tortured in front of Ernest. Both seem destined to burn at the stake, but then, outraged by the news of Ernest’s arrest, the local populace, led by the children, and aided by Pater Spe – a compassionate Jesuit, the antithesis of Pater Gropp - rise up against the Bishop and free both Ernest and his mother. The Bishop, having fled to safety, lies in a fever, tormented by the guilt of what he has done (and by an additional guilt, Wassermann intimates). Meanwhile, Pater Gropp, the real villain of the piece, has also vanished, never to return.
Ernest, now free, sits in front of an expectant crowd. He will tell them his story, he says:
‘But not to-day; after a year perhaps – two years, perhaps; only have patience, this I beg of you – only patience... .’
And there the narrative ends.
In electing to give his story a happy ending Wassermann departed radically from the actual events. The Bishop’s nephew, in reality, was burned at the stake; and there is nothing to suggest the Bishop himself suffered any crisis of faith – his reign lasted another five years; it is estimated he was responsible for the deaths of 900 people.
So why did Wassermann decide to take such liberties with the facts? Primarily – I would argue - because the narrative is intended as a sort of fairytale; without a message of hope it would not work (or not as effectively).
Yet there is also something defiant in his decision: he takes sides with the individual (Ernest) against religious orthodoxy (The Bishop, Pater Gropp); playing with the facts is a way of claiming victory. Although the Bishop’s nephew may not have escaped in reality, in imagination he can be brought back to life; history can be rewritten from the point of view of the victim.
Unfortunately, the happy ending – to a modern sensibility – seems a little too neat and contrived. Without doubt, the narrative is weaker for it. I suspect Wassermann – despite claiming the story was his favourite – knew this. He realised there was a lot more to say – and he did not wait long to say it.
The Triumph of Youth, among other things, is an early draft of The Maurizius Case. The same themes – of injustice and persecution - are explored in both. Similarities exist between characters: Ernest is a prototype for Etzel Andergast, Baroness Theodata for Sophia, the Bishop for Etzel’s father (or Gregor Waremme), Pater Gropp for Gregor Waremme (or Etzel's father), Pater Spe for Melchior Ghisels. Yet the gulf between the two books is immense. The Maurizius Case is three times as long; it has a contemporary setting; none of the characters can really be described as good or bad, all are far more complex and elusive; the novel’s conclusions are more ambiguous; and the ending is more pessimistic.
Personally, I think The Maurizius Case is an infinitely better book; but that is not to dismiss the achievements of the earlier novel. Beneath the surface, The Triumph of Youth is a disturbing, prescient critique of the religious and political fanaticism which continues to haunt not only Western Europe, but the rest of the world. It anticipates – by dint of its simplicity, its ‘universality’ - the rise of Nazism, McCarthyism in America (similarities to The Crucible seem obvious), the hysteria of evangelical Christianity, Zionist paranoia, and the deeply unsettling ambitions of Islamic fundamentalism.
Wassermann clearly wanted, with The Triumph of Youth, to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The prose is deliberately simple. It can be read as a straightforward narrative. Alternatively, it can be read as an allegory first and foremost, a comment on authoritarianism. Its relevance today seems undiminished.
For instance, it is difficult not to hear a present-day echo in the sentence: ‘A man could easily cover up a wrong he had committed if he accused a woman of having carnal relations with Satan.’ You only have to think of the women who are stoned to death for adultery, or for committing the ‘infidelity’ of being raped, to see that this sort of oppression is alive and thriving, that it has never disappeared, but has remained hidden, ready to resurface at the slightest encouragement.
Furthermore, Wassermann is able to suggest – by exercising a fair amount of poetic licence, admittedly - that the motives behind authoritarianism and persecution have likewise remained stable throughout the centuries. His description of the Bishop, for example, could apply equally well to any of history’s actual or would-be tyrants:
‘He was an utterly lonely man. But this loneliness was not caused by absorption in philosophical speculation, nor was it due to the resignation of a man disillusioned by the things of this world and now contemplating heavenly things. It had been produced by fear. Narrow of mind and cheerless of heart, he was completely enthralled by the delusion that man is surrounded on all sides by demons. This had its beginnings early in his life; it was fostered and encouraged by all the horrors and confusions of the age; its roots reached deep down into his thoughts and dreams. This tendency in him was restrained as long as he led the comfortable life of a prelate, but now that he was ruler of a territory and lord over many thousand souls, it knew no bounds, and he spared no one in his relentless warfare.’
His description of Pater Gropp captures just as succinctly the even more sinister - because even more fanatically convinced - man behind the throne:
‘When he called the Young Baron Satan it was spoken out of a depth of his heart unknown even to Pater Gropp himself. Had he approved of him and accepted him, then he would have destroyed himself and thrust himself down from the highway on which he was wandering with iron assurance; had he attempted merely to understand him, he would have become another – no longer the hater of life that freely blossomed out of itself, the persecutor of this freely playing, airily floating creature. It was just this creature that he opposed, as the tamer, in order to cast it into chains, that it might please his spirit, and be subject to the very master whose chains he himself was wearing. Thou shalt not soar, while I go in chains; thou shalt not laugh, while I am chilled by the rottenness of the world; thou shalt not play and amuse thy fellows, while my avenging hand grasps at the heart of humanity that I may make mankind obedient to myself.’
Here, in its essence, is the true struggle for Wassermann: the conflict between those who would be free – ‘airily floating creatures’ – and those who would tame them and make them obedient; or as he puts it elsewhere, the conflict between ‘the guileless’ and ‘the malevolent.’
The modern element in Wassermann’s narrative is that neither the guileless nor the malevolent are wholly self-aware. Ernest lives in a sort of dream world, ignorant of how vulnerable he is until it is too late and he finds himself imprisoned, forced to watch his mother being tortured. Pater Gropp, too, does not fully understand his own motivations: his ‘iron assurance’ stems from a blind faith that he is right; his desire to tame others arises because he himself is in chains – in thrall to an idea, a conviction he refuses to examine, because to examine it, to understand his ‘enemy’, would be to destroy his reason for existing.
Yet, of all the characters, it is the Bishop who struggles hardest to deny who he is. His strange fascination with his nephew is nothing more than homosexual desire. Wassermann makes this clear time and again throughout the text:
‘What a strange thing it was for this septuagenarian to be attracted to a human being, to feel a longing for the miraculous in this human being, to picture to himself how the blood coursed through his veins, how his limbs were fashioned, to feel a desire to touch his luminous skin, to recall the smile that made his youthful lips swell like an almond placed in hot milk! On one side is this person and on the other side the world with all its treasures; this one means more than the whole world; all meaning and desire are concentrated upon him.’
Not only does this expose the inevitable hypocrisy of those who judge others – none of us is without ‘sin’, therefore none of us can cast stones – but it also reveals the basic inhumanity of persecution, the violence we must do to ourselves – as well as to others - in order to live by dogma and artificially-imposed laws. The Bishop falls in love with his nephew, but according to his own morality this is a sin – it is evidence of Satanism. Despite acknowledging that love has something ‘miraculous’ about it, and that it is worth more than all the world’s treasures, the Bishop nevertheless betrays himself. After trying everything he can think of to protect his nephew from the very forces he himself has unleashed, he finally surrenders to the stronger will of Pater Gropp and allows his nephew to be arrested. He ends the novel in a fever, racked by guilt, finally realising ‘he no longer had the right to sit as a judge over others’.
This may seem a little too much like wish-fulfilment on Wassermann’s part – but, as stated earlier, it is a necessary conclusion to the story. Youth has to triumph over authority in order for the narrative to work as a fairytale: it would be too bleak otherwise, too modern (it would lose its timeless quality). The rejection of realism is self-conscious and deliberate: Wassermann changed the ending to leave us with a note of hope.
Moreover, the happiness of the ending is not unqualified. Pater Gropp returns to his Order, presumably to carry on with the work of burning heretics: he escapes without being punished, without any damage to his ‘iron assurance’. We know, if we are interested enough to research the facts, that the Bishop actually allowed his nephew to die and went on killing people for years to come; so we realise that the hope Wassermann wants us to entertain is nothing more than that – just a hope. Finally, we have the example of Pater Spe, the figure of humility and doubt – the figure closest, I suspect, to Wassermann’s true feelings about persecution and fanaticism. Spe’s vision of the world is almost identical to the one Wassermann develops in The Maurizius Case: bleak, despairing, ambiguous, yet for all that, somehow positive:
‘What little hope he still cherished became more attenuated every year, until nothing remained except a bare stalk on which his spirit held itself upright with a noble effort, striving to find and approach the divine. Many a person is lamed by sorrow; he, on the other hand, became flexible and eager; many flee into solitude when the face of the world stares at them in its skeleton-like reality; not he – he remained among men and strove not to become weary – either of them or of their deeds.
“Love urges me on and burns in me,” he said, and quietly went on his way.’
From The Triumph of Youth (George Allen & Unwin, 1928)