Death in Rome

Title: Death in Rome

Author: Wolfgang Koeppen

Publication Date: 1954

Genre: Fiction

Page Length: Approximately 300 pages


Death in Rome, written by Wolfgang Koeppen and set in Germany shortly after World War II, follows a diverse group of characters as they navigate the ideological, political, and social challenges of post-war Europe. Through its vivid portrayal of individual struggles, the novel offers a piercing critique of Germany’s attempts to rebuild and reconcile its past.

The story unfolds in five distinct sections, with each section offering a unique perspective on the overarching themes of disillusionment, apathy, and the collective guilt borne by the German people. Koeppen’s narrative skillfully weaves together multiple storylines to capture the complexity of post-war German society.

In the first section, titled “The Heroes Square,” we are introduced to the various characters who will play crucial roles in the novel. The protagonists include the physician Dr. Ammering, the bourgeois housewife Mrs. Derek, and an American journalist named Sidney Oechsle. As they come together on the streets of Rome, their interactions highlight the stark contrast between their personal lives and the crumbling socio-political landscape.

Moving on to the second section, “The Little City,” Koeppen delves deeper into the characters’ lives, exploring their individual struggles and aspirations. Dr. Ammering grapples with his disillusionment towards society’s indifference, while Mrs. Derek seeks solace in her role as the devoted wife of an ambitious politician. Sidney Oechsle, on the other hand, attempts to reconcile his own identity as a German-American in a country grappling with its dark past.

The third section, “The Celebration,” depicts a grand reception attended by Germany’s political and social elite. Here, Koeppen masterfully depicts the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy present within the corridors of power. As the characters’ paths collide at this event, tensions rise, and secrets emerge, exposing the immorality lurking beneath the surface.

In the fourth section, “The Mob,” Koeppen presents a scathing critique of the German people’s passive acceptance of their government’s actions during the war. The characters find themselves trapped in a mob of indifferent civilians as they bear witness to an act of violence. Through this unsettling scene, Koeppen highlights the devastating consequences of collective apathy and the normalization of evil.

The final section, “The Church of San Clemente,” serves as a climactic moment of reflection and reckoning. The characters’ paths intersect once again, forcing them to confront their own complicity in the crimes of the past. Koeppen presents a haunting exploration of guilt and the fundamental human need for redemption.

Throughout Death in Rome, Koeppen skillfully explores timeless themes of moral responsibility, disillusionment, and the struggle to reconcile personal identity with collective guilt. By examining both individual lives and broader social structures, the novel sheds light on the complexities of post-war Germany and serves as a cautionary tale against the dangers of forgetting history.


Death in Rome is an important work of post-war German literature that dissects the moral and societal consequences of war and complicity. By vividly depicting the struggles and internal conflicts faced by its characters, the novel offers a valuable insight into the aftermath of World War II and the challenges faced by a nation grappling with its past. Through its unflinching portrayal of human apathy and moral bankruptcy, Koeppen’s work serves as a reminder of the far-reaching impact of history and the critical importance of collective responsibility in shaping a just and compassionate society.