A detective story with roots in history

Professor Bruce Campbell, German studies program director at the College of William and Mary, spent the past 15 years researching German pulp fiction, particularly "genre fiction," which included detective fiction.

The introduction to his latest book, "Detectives, Dystopia and Poplit: Studies in Modern German Genre Fiction," states that "some of the most exciting research and teaching in the field of German Studies is being done in 'genre fiction,'" including detective fiction, and what is often called "poplit."

"Such noncanonical literature has long been marginalized by the German tradition of 'Bildung' (self-cultivation) and the disciplinary practice of German literary studies."

Campbell's research, which included such topics as the political uses of culture, state violence, paramilitary organizations, National Socialism, the German Youth Movement, German cultural and social history and other related topics, resulted in the publication of several books.

In "Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability," he and his co-author Arthur Brenner, produced the first global comparison of death squads, and the first to put them in historical perspective. His book, the "The SA Generals and the Rise of Nazism," offers the first in-depth study in English of the men who held the three highest ranks in the SA, also known as the Brown Shirts, the Nazi paramilitary force.

I asked Campbell, what made him devote 15 years of research to German pulp fiction.

"Curiosity," he said. "I noticed that German detective fiction was different from American, British or even French. I wanted to know why."

He pursued this research on the side. His main interest has been Nazi Stormtroopers and other military groups, and now, Radio in Germany.

"Anyone who knows the culture of Central Europe and particularly of Germany knows that the past is always present. This is what I have found about German-language detective fiction. Because of the memory of the Holocaust and the Nazi period, German readers are much less tolerant of violent or authoritarian detectives, or any hint that a fictional detective might resemble the criminal detectives of the past," Campbell said in an interview with the Gazette.

He continued, "Detective fiction, as a genre, is, of course, about truth and justice. It is not innocent, and it is not neutral. That means that the genre itself inevitably reminds modern Germans of the lies, crimes and injustice of the past. Any successful modern detective character has to take that fact into account, and somehow present a counter-narrative."

Campbell explained that the most fundamental difference he has found is that democracy and liberal-democratic values are firmly anchored in the mainstream of German politics and culture today. "Modern Germans have taken a long, hard look at the darkest elements of their recent past, and are determined never to let it happen again."

He noted that detective fiction has much to do with the police. But in the recent German past, during the Third Reich, the police played a central role in carrying out the Holocaust. They were not only arresting people, they were killing people in large numbers.

"Germans can't read a novel centered on a police detective without thinking about the past. If you are going to ask German readers to identify with a fictional detective, you've to make sure they know that the detective is not a Nazi," Campbell said.

On Oct. 27, 7 p. m. Campbell will deliver the Tack Faculty Lecture at Commonwealth Auditorium in the Sadler Center at the College of William & Mary. It is free and open to the public. A reception will follow.

Campbell will speak about German Pulp Fiction and how German authors have had to create new fictional detective characters because of peoples' reaction to the Holocaust German police officers' involvement in those crimes.

Shatz, a Williamsburg resident, is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com

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