Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1995

Adam Zagajewski is a poet and literary critic living in Paris. His English-language publications include Tremor: Selected Poems (1985), Solidarity, Solitude (1990), and Canvas (1991).


This is what happened in Germany: Robert, a teacher of literature, maintained contact with a terrorist organization in the early seventies. He was ordered to kill M., a man his own age. M., despite his youth, gained some prominence as a conservative philosopher and journalist who spoke contemptuously of the radical left. The organization sentenced him to death. Robert was asked to carry out the sentence within three months. Horrified, Robert fled to Lisbon. He broke off all contact with the organization, lived very modestly under an assumed name, and translated Portuguese poetry. He feared the police and his former friends.

Years went by, however, and almost all the members of the terrorist group were arrested, had vanished, or had died in prison. Amnesty was declared for people like Robert, who had been terrorist sympathizers. Robert finally returned to Germany. He lived in Cologne. He gave talks, worked for radio stations, tried to return to teaching in the schools. One day he met M. - whom he had known only rather fleetingly - and they became friends. M., who had seemed destined for a brilliant career as a scholar, had left the university, lived on unemployment, and read mysteries all day long. When asked by Robert why he had abandoned such a stable and promising career, M. answered that he no longer believed in anything and that he could not pretend, which - he said was probably linked to something like a genetic flaw that had appeared in his family (on his father's side for generations).

A few months later, both loners decided to share a large apartment in the center of town. A year later, Robert killed M. in a fit of rage. In court he claimed he could not stand M.'s cough and hated his heavy tread, the way he smacked his lips at meals, and the way he cut bread, holding the loaf to his chest.


Totalitarianism - because it is an organized, orchestrated, highly developed evil on a historic scale - leads to the illusion that evil can finally be understood. Isn't that why we are fascinated by a variety of books, from memoirs to historical analyses, devoted to Hitler and Stalin? We read them and hope that this time we shall grasp the essence of evil.

All the efforts of the intellect are directed toward reducing this sophisticated form of evil to a simple, uncomplicated form. When we are finally successful, we realize that the answer to our question has once again eluded us. We are again as helpless as Job.

I Killed Hitler

It is late; I am old. I should finally confess to what happened in the summer of 1937 in a small town in Hesse. I killed Hitler.

I am Dutch, a bookbinder, retired for some years now. In the thirties I was passionately interested in the tragic European politics of the time. But then my wife was Jewish, and my interest in politics was in no way academic. I decided to wipe out Hitler myself, with a draftsman's precision, just as one would bind a book. And I did it.

I knew that Hitler liked to travel in the summer with a small group, practically without bodyguards, and that he stopped in small villages, often in outdoor restaurants, in the shade of linden trees.

What good are the details. I will say only that I shot him and was able to get away.

It was a humid Sunday, a storm was on its way, bees meandered as if they were drunk.

The restaurant was concealed beneath enormous trees. The ground was covered with a fine gravel.

It was almost completely dark, and there was such drowsiness in the air that it took great effort to press the trigger. A wine bottle was knocked over and a red blot spread over the white paper tablecloth.

Then I sped away in my small car like a demon. But no one was after me. The storm broke, down came a heavy rain.

Along the way I threw the gun into a ditch overgrown with nettles; I flushed out two geese, which began to run with an awkward waddle.

Why the details?

I returned home triumphant. I tore off the wig, burned my clothes, washed the car.

And all for naught, because the next day someone else, exactly like him down to the last detail and perhaps even crueler than the one I killed, took his place.

The newspapers never mentioned the murder. One man vanished, another appeared.

The clouds that day were completely black, the air sticky as molasses.

Adam Zagajewski

Translated by Lillian Vallee

Last update: April 28, 1995
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