View into the german literary scene

Taking stock of the grand socialist project 20 years on

Lerke von Saalfeld, Germany © Lerke von Saalfeld
Lerke von Saalfeld,
cultural journalis and literary critic

In books published in Germany in 2009, twenty years after the end of the Eastern bloc, recollections of the fall of the Berlin Wall dominated coffee-table books, diaries, eye-witness accounts and literary statements.

The end of Germany’s division as a historical caesura and as the end of the Cold War stirred peoples’ emotions primarily as an expression of history personally experienced. Fortunately, these books did not simply re-illuminate retrospectively the complexities of German-German relations. A number of important publications opened up a wider horizon and turned their attention to the overall phenomenon of the rise and fall of an epochal challenge that promised happiness by the name of socialism and that brought so much unhappiness upon those concerned.

It is perhaps no coincidence that two writers from Hungary published studies to great acclaim, for in very different ways these two writers put into words the tragedy and involuntary comedy of that year. These two works are Andreas Oplatka’s Der erste Riss in der Mauer – September 1989 – Ungarn öffnet die Grenzen (Zsolnay-Verlag), and György Dalos’ Der Vorhang geht auf – Das Ende der Diktaturen in Osteuropa (C. H. Beck Verlag). Andreas Oplatka, who fled Hungary in 1956 and who has been East European correspondent at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung for many years, not only debunks some legends in his book, but step by step traces how the process of disintegration took place after János Kádár had stepped down. The new Prime Minister Miklós Németh had already cut the budget item for refurbishing the crumbling border installations without hesitation back in November 1988 in an attempt to make savings in the Hungarian budget – that was the first step. The Hungarian reformers manoeuvred between the fronts with tactical skill. In the feverishly nervous summer of 1989, several tens of thousands of East German tourists had gathered in Hungary in the hope of being able to travel to the West. The author vividly describes the prevailing mood among the would-be refugees, how the Hungarian authorities attempted to deal with the unexpected problem, but also the high-level political wrangling. Németh consulted German Chancellor Helmuth Kohl, who immediately asked for reassurance from Moscow. The outcome of this process had not yet been decided, although all the signs indicated stormy weather. For his research, Oplatka not only used extensive source material, which is now publicly accessible, but also interviewed seventy leading contemporary figures.

György Dalos, the Hungarian historian and writer, not only gives a knowledgeable account of the demise of the Eastern bloc, but above all one that is also enriched with a keen grasp of historical events. He himself was a member of his country‘s democratic opposition. In individual country portraits, he describes the distinctive features and similarities of the erosion of the once Soviet-orientated peoples’ democracies in which the people themselves began to speak up. Poland was the first and Romania the last country in this dramatic process. Embedded in between were the events in Hungary, the GDR, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. It was with “baroque pathos”, as Dalos describes it, that some of the aged leaders tried to avert the disaster. Endowed with blindness or shrewdness, they attempted to ignore the grass-roots movement or to cling to power in operetta-like fashion. It was to no avail, for centimetre by centimetre, the curtain dividing East from West rose.

Helmut Altrichter, Professor of History at the University of Erlangen, turns his attention to the Soviet Union in Russland 1989 – Der Untergang des sowjetischen Imperiums (C. H. Beck Verlag). The author examines the spirits conjured up by Mikhail Gorbatchev and why he could not banish them again. Suddenly, the first domino had fallen and people were talking openly about matters ranging from everyday problems such as meat or sugar shortages to new historiographies and subjects relating to the history of the Soviet Union which had previously been taboos. Gorbachev departed from the line that only the Soviet Union’s model would lead to victory, and now the individual satellite states had to deal with the crisis themselves.

Two new publications give a retrospective account of the history of the Warsaw Pact, which was concluded in 1955, enshrining the Soviet Union’s military presence in Eastern Europe in international law. Historian Frank Umbach (Das rote Bündnis – Entwicklung und Zerfall des Warschauer Paktes 1955–1991, Ch. Links Verlag) traces how the Soviet Union used this military alliance as a constant threat towards its States party and extended the mutual dependence of political leadership and military elites. The author’s carefully-considered view is that neither the policy of a leader such as Ronald Reagan nor the West’s policy of détente caused the dissolution of the old Soviet power structure, particularly in view of the fact that the Soviet military doctrine always remained defensive towards the West. A collection of essays published by Ch. Links Verlag, in which 15 writers from the former Eastern bloc as well as scholars from Switzerland, Austria and Germany take stock of the Warsaw Pact, is no less informative. The events in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968, the intervention of the Soviet military machinery, had a deterrent effect on the West that should not be underestimated. However, one of the theories of the articles in this book is that the Soviet Union needed the policy of détente in order to be able to reduce its enormously high arms expenditures, which had brought all the countries to the brink of ruin. The high military expenditures were one of the reasons for demise throughout the Eastern bloc.

The collection of essays Europa im Ostblock – Vorstellungen und Diskurse 1945–1991 (Böhlau-Verlag) and the Handbuch der kommunistischen Geheimdienste in Osteuropa 1944–1991 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) primarily serve the academic discourse. Joachim Jauer concentrates on the role of the churches in the Eastern bloc in Urbi et Gorbi – Christen als Wegbereiter der Wende (Herder Verlag).

The Oxford historian Archie Brown gives an excursive account in his study Aufstieg und Fall des Kommunismus (Propyläen Verlag). On nearly a thousand pages, the British historian occupies himself with the origins of socialism/communism in the nineteenth century, the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalinism and post-Stalinism, the Cold War and finally the era of glasnost and perestroika. The author writes not only about the history of the Soviet Union, but also about China and the states of Central Europe since 1945. At the end, he asks why communism managed to survive so long, what were the causes of its collapse and what will remain of it. Archie Brown has compiled a standard work that has also received much attention in the German-speaking countries. What is not to be found in his work, however, are personal and everyday moods such as those his Oxford historian colleague, Timothy Garton Ash, has been publishing for some twenty years. In his books, he both reports on discussions with well-known personalities and gives ordinary people the opportunity to speak of their everyday experience. Garton Ash is a sensitive and committed observer of the Eastern bloc and the period following its demise, always following on the heels of history and on the trail to discover post-communist societies’ attitudes to life. His last book to appear in Germany ten years ago is entitled Zeit der Freiheit – Aus den Zentren von Mitteleuropa. The scholar of Eastern European history Karl Schlöbel is on a similar wavelength. He has repeatedly shed light on the development of the Soviet Union and of Russian landscapes and cities. His most recent publication, Terror und Traum – Moskau 1937 (Hanser Verlag), is another milestone for understanding the extremely heterogeneous developments at the heart of the Kremlin.

The Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding, which is awarded annually at the opening ceremony of the Leipzig Book Fair, shows how much attention this literature receives. Karl Schlögel won the award in 2009, and György Dalos received it in 2010.

Dr. Lerke von Saalfeld
holds a doctorate in literature. She lives and works as a cultural journalist and literary critic in Stuttgart and Berlin. She was born in 1944 in Lenggries, went to school in Lenggries and Cuxhaven, and read German and Romance Philology in Freiburg im Breisgau and at the Free University of West Berlin. She lectured at the Free University and at the summer school of Middlebury College, Vermont. She holds regular radio and television interviews with personalities in the cultural, academic and political fields. Since the seventies, she has occupied herself with the democratic opposition in Central and Eastern Europe. Since the eighties, she has reported on the cultures of Southeast Asia. For more than fifteen years, a focal area of her work has been on discussing writers whose mother tongue is not German who have chosen German as their literary language.

Her publications include: Saalfeld, Kreidt, Rothe Geschichte der deutschen Literatur (1989/91); Ich habe eine fremde Sprache gewählt – ausländische Schriftsteller schreiben deutsch (1998); Swetlana Geier – Leben ist Übersetzen (2008)

April 2010