When he finished his World War II submarine novel, The Boat—nearly 30 years and two false starts after he began—German publisher and art historian Lothar-Günther Buchheim felt he had finally discharged “a kind of duty.” But, he says, “I certainly did not intend to create literature and I did not expect the book to sell more than 7,000 copies, which is considered very good in Germany.”
Instead, The Boat has turned out to be a literary phenomenon. It has sold nearly a million copies in Germany since it was published in 1973—as a sort of latter-day All Quiet on the Western Front—and is being translated into 16 languages. It has appeared on U.S. best-seller lists and negotiations with German and American film producers have already begun.
Buchheim’s novel is an antidote to those Hollywood war films that up periscope on late night TV, featuring sabrescarred Nazi U-boat commanders and their crews gleefully sinking Allied ships, then machine-gunning survivors as they play Deutschland über Alles on the wardroom phonograph.
The submarine in The Boat, UA VII-C, is on the hunt for British shipping all right. Its captain, however, is an apolitical former merchant seaman who refers to the Tommys as “the gentlemen of the other firm” and is disgusted by the romantic propaganda about U-boats coming from Berlin. His crew is monumentally bored or frightened witless by turns and more inclined to swap lurid stories of their onshore love life than proclaiming themselves the master race.
The book is “nonfiction fiction,” Buchheim says. He served on submarines during the war as a navy journalist and was decorated with the prestigious Iron Cross First Class, Hitler’s favorite medal. He still carries a photograph of the man who was the model for the commander in The Boat, a slender, 30ish officer who, as in the book, was traditionally referred to as “The Old Man.” The author says there was a factual counterpart for all the people and events in the 463-page novel.
The parallel extends even to the French mistress, Simone, who obsesses the narrator. Buchheim himself fell in love with a Frenchwoman whom he met at a submarine base in occupied La Baule. The affair lasted throughout the war and for years after, giving him his only child, a son (Yves Bruno, 26, who will take over his father’s flourishing publishing business). Buchheim, like his narrator, was never sure whether his mistress was a spy for the Resistance.
“I still talk to her once in a while,” he says, “but I still don’t know if she was collecting information about our submarine fleet. I’m not sure I ever want to know.”
Buchheim was born in 1918 in Weimar. That was 75 miles from his parents’ home in Chemnitz but his mother, a believer in prenatal influence, wanted him to be born in the city of Goethe and Schiller.
She was a talented pianist, linguist and painter who raised Lothar-Günther and a younger brother when her husband’s business and then their marriage collapsed. A precocious artist himself, Lothar-Gunther was selling enough of his work—notably woodcuts—to support the family by age 15.
He earned an invitation to the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. Its faculty, however, turned out to be laden with Nazis whose taste in art was too stifling. Buchheim transferred to the relatively liberal Munich Academy, where he pursued his interest in the German Expressionists. He had also begun writing. He worked for newspapers in Dresden and produced an illustrated book about a canoe trip on the Danube.
In 1940, faced with being drafted into the army, he volunteered for the submarine service and, because of his literary and artistic background, was made a correspondent. When the war ended, the American military government in Munich, searching for men without Nazi affiliation, named him chief of police of nearby Feldafing, a lakeshore village where he now lives.
Prospects were limited in Feldafing, however, and in 1945 he moved to Frankfurt and opened a craftshop that sold knickknacks to occupation troops. Business thrived and he began collecting art, mostly German Expressionists and the French Postimpressionists his wartime mistress had introduced him to.
That led to his first critical catalogues of the works of such artists as Picasso, Braque and Heckel. They were huge successes and Buchheim began publishing expensive, lushly illustrated books on the Expressionists. These, along with his own collection and some astute dealing, have made him a wealthy man.
Over the years he had nursed an idea for a book on his wartime experiences. He discarded his first draft, written just after the war, because it was “so full of hatred against everything pertaining to the military.” A second effort in the mid 1950s was complete fiction, full of invented characters that eventually he found he could not believe. Buchheim abandoned it, too.
Once he had completed the third draft, he refused to change a word of it. When his publisher suggested that the long droning passages between action sequences should be cut, Buchheim replied that he had deliberately included them to reflect the tedium of submarine life.
“A long time ago the widow of my former commander asked me, ‘Why are you writing this book which is of no interest to anyone?’ ” Buchheim says, smiling, “The Boat was not written by a guy who just wanted to write a book; it was the product of a real obsession. I wanted to remind a lot of people in Germany, who have come to think of the war as the time of their life, that it was a horrible period.”