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Weiss, Ernst

(1882–1940), novelist and physician. Born in Brünn (Brno), Moravia, Ernst Weiss studied medicine in Prague and Vienna, traveled to the Far East as a ship’s doctor, and became a surgeon in a Vienna hospital. He was friendly with Franz Kafka, who accompanied him and Weiss’s long-term partner, the actress Rahel Sanzara (Johanna Bleschke; 1894–1936), on holiday in Denmark in summer 1914. Weiss and Kafka later quarreled. From 1921 to 1933, Weiss lived in Berlin. The Nazis’ seizure of power drove him into exile in Paris, where he committed suicide as German troops approached the city.

Deep pessimism is apparent from Weiss’s first novel, Die Galeere (The Galley; 1913), whose protagonist, Erik Gyldendal, an ambitious young medical researcher in Vienna with a Swedish father and a Jewish mother, experiences a conflict between his ideal of scientific objectivity and the emotional turmoil connected to his dominating mother; the character’s complicated situation leads to a series of unsuccessful relationships with women.

World War I, in which Weiss served as a medical orderly, revealed humankind’s “bestial urges” to the author. Weiss transformed this discovery in the intense expressionist novel Tiere in Ketten (Animals in Chains; 1918), telling how a prostitute, obsessively in love with her male protector, is driven to murder and madness. Revising the novel in 1922 and 1930, Weiss introduced a calmer tone, in keeping with the general literary move toward Neue Sachlichkeit (New Sobriety). Die Feuerprobe (The Test by Fire; 1923), in which a man finds himself in a Berlin street without memories and gradually reconstructs his life, was similarly revised, enlarged, and reissued in 1929.

Weiss’s later novels, calmly and incisively written, are often first-person narratives whose authors review their own lives after undergoing a spiritual crisis. The protagonists are often estranged from, or in conflict with, their parents. The heroes may be psychologically isolated, as in the case of the protagonist of Georg Letham, Arzt und Mörder (Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer; 1931), who kills his wife because he cannot stand her devotion; or insecure, as is the schoolboy hero of Boëtius von Orlamünde (1928; reissued as Der Aristokrat [The Aristocrat]; 1931), who keeps having to prove his courage. The main characters are usually doctors, as in Der arme Verschwender (The Poor Spendthrift; 1936) and Der Verführer (The Tempter; 1938), allowing Weiss to explore the complex relations between humanity, scientific detachment, and hunger for power.

An outstanding novel written in exile, Ich—der Augenzeuge (I—the Eyewitness), was completed in 1939, but published (as Der Augenzeuge) only in 1963. This book tells the story of a physician (the narrator) who in 1917 is attached to the military hospital at Pasewalk in northern Germany. There, a soldier, suffering from hysterical blindness and referred to only as A. H., makes an eccentric yet charismatic impression on other inmates. As medical ethics demand, the narrator cures A. H. Many years later, however, the narrator feels partly responsible for Hitler’s rise, which leads to his own imprisonment, torture, and exile. The novel is among the most perceptive fictional analyses of Hitler’s character.

Suggested Reading

Thomas Delfmann, Ernst Weiss: Existenzialisches Heldentum und Mythos des Unabwendbaren (Münster, 1989); Peter Engel and Hans-Harald Müller, eds., Ernst Weiss: Seelenanalytiker und Erzähler von europäischem Rang (Bern, Switz., 1992); Margarita Pazi, Ernst Weiss: Schicksal und Werk eines jüdischen mitteleuropäischen Autors in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt a.M., 1993).