Literature and the Demise of the GDR

The historic events which marked the end of the GDR (“die Wende”) in 1989 have produced a considerable number of literary works which focus on the cultural, social and societal changes after the fall of the Wall and German reunification. Their historical context has greatly influenced the form and style of this body of literature.

Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the body of German literature which deals with the end of the GDR and its aftermath has developed highly diverse poetic concepts. The books by Christa Wolf, Thomas Brussig, Ingo Schulze, Clemens Meyer and Uwe Tellkamp are vivid examples of how “Wendeliteratur” has developed over time. Starting with the speechlessness which arose in the immediate aftermath of the “peaceful revolution”, their approaches span the spectrum from satirical to fragmentary and even parabolic narrative.

Writing immediately after the “Wende”: Christa Wolf’s Medea

With the fall of the Wall, the older generation of GDR writers – including Christoph Hein, Volker Braun and Christa Wolf – lost their role as the voice of an alternative public whose task was to record what the newspapers ignored. In the immediate aftermath of the “Wende”, some of them, including Christa Wolf, reacted to their changed situation with a self-imposed break in their literary activities, seeking a new self-perception. As a critic of reunification and champion of a “socialist alternative” to the Federal Republic of Germany, Christa Wolf sees herself – also after the events of 1989 – as a political and moral authority. Her impressions of the tumultuous events were initially captured in letters and diaries, before she went on to publish Medea in 1996 – her first work since the demise of the GDR. Here, the claim to define the truth seems possible only in encoded form, resorting to the material of antiquity.

The loss of utopia: Thomas Brussig’s novel Helden wie wir (Heroes like us)

Alongside the generation of authors who were already writing in the GDR, a younger and still largely unknown generation of authors emerged after the “Wende” who were not involved in the East German literary system. Unlike the works of the older generation, their writings are imbued with a clear sense that a utopia has been lost, and this is reflected in their choice of themes and aesthetic orientation. Thomas Brussig’s novel Helden wie wir (Heroes like us), published just five years after the events of 1989, is a bitter satire about the GDR’s past. Presenting the key myths surrounding 1989 in ironic form, it is a reckoning with the state’s literary system. “Just look at the East Germans before and after the fall of the Wall. Passive before, passive afterwards. How were they supposed to have pulled down the Wall?” His book, celebrated as the long-awaited “Wenderoman” – the seminal novel about the end of the GDR – marks a break with the older generation of writers who, even after its demise, still clung to their left-wing utopian tradition. By opting for satire as the form for his novel, Brussig is able to approach the past from an ironic and distanced perspective which casts merciless light on the mismanagement and abuses which were endemic in the former GDR.

The impacts of the years afterwards: Ingo Schulze’s novels Simple Storys (Simple Stories) and Adam und Evelyn (Adam and Evelyn)

Ingo Schulze, too, prefers to dispense with pathos in his novels. Regarded as one of the most reliable chroniclers of German reunification, his works focus on the fears, worries, hopes and losses experienced by the citizens of the former GDR, finding ever-new forms to express them: from episodic novel to a novel in letters, short stories to the recent tragi-comedy Adam und Evelyn (Adam and Evelyn). Now that an interval of almost 20 years has passed, Schulze goes back to 1989 and confronts his characters with a dilemma: should they opt for a new future in the West, or should they cling to the old and familiar? As in his earlier work, Simple Storys (Simple Stories), there is no single right or wrong decision for his protagonists. Whereas the narrative in Simple Storys (1998) was conceivable only in episodic form, focussing on several individual fates, in Adam und Evelyn, Schulze returns to the original human story of prohibition and temptation. His narrative conveys a lightness of touch which is surely only possible at some time-distance from the events.

The loss of home: Clemens Meyer’s Als wir träumten (When we were dreaming) and Uwe Tellkamps Der Turm (The Tower)

Clemens Meyer and Uwe Tellkamp both tell stories of life in the GDR, but the milieus in which they locate their characters could hardly be more different. From the unusual perspective of four young people living on the margins of society, the narrator of Meyer’s Als wir träumten recounts, in the first person, the tale of his young years between the GDR and the Federal Republic. He tells of alcoholic excesses, theft and beatings, the struggle for recognition and against hopelessness. Reunification does nothing to change the lack of direction and “home” experienced by his youthful protagonists, whose hopes and dreams play out at great distance from political events. Whereas in Schulze’s works, private life and political life intermesh seamlessly, Meyer’s characters cling to their private life in their gang, which offers more of a home to them than the GDR and a reunited German ever could. Meyer’s characters flee from reality into nostalgic recollections, whereas the characters in Uwe Tellkamp’s novel Der Turm (The Tower) devote their time to intellectual pursuits – reading and debate – and comment with resignation on the decline of the social system. Located in the middle-class milieu of 1980s Dresden, the novel encompasses the diverse sections and classes of Dresden society and evolves into a multi-faceted portrait of society. With this approach, Tellkamp abandons the focus on the personal and addresses the epoch-making events, the social revolution, in its historic totality. After Thomas Brussig’s satire, a product of rage and disappointment about the failure to reckon with the past, Der Turm, with its exploration of life in the former GDR, brings it to a narrative conclusion. From the greatest possible distance, Tellkamp sings a swansong of the GDR’s final seven years, committing even the tiniest recollected detail to paper and revitalising the very facets which were submerged at the time. The fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989 marked the end of the GDR, and the novel therefore also concludes with that day. The exciting question which remains, though, is which subjects and perspectives will follow in the next round of “Wendelitatur”.

Reunification from a West German perspective: Selam Berlin by Yadé Kara and Ein weites Feld (A Broad Field) by Günter Grass

Whereas the fall of the Wall and reunification resulted in a radical transformation of the lives of the entire East German population, from a West German perspective, the changes were less existential at first, but were nonetheless ubiquitous.
In her novel Selam Berlin, Yadé Kara, a writer from West Berlin, takes the reader on a journey, together with her protagonist Hasan, back to those tumultuous months between the fall of the Wall and reunification. In doing so, Kara makes use of a particular perspective which allows the reader to observe the events at a distance, and yet captures the atmosphere of this unique interval in time. Hasan – like the author herself – is a West Berlin from a Turkish background. On the day the Wall comes down, he is in Istanbul. He then returns to Berlin, to a world which, while familiar to him, is no longer quite his own.
While Yadé Kara, like Ingo Schulze and Clemens Meyer, focusses on the impacts of the “Wende” on her characters, Günter Grass, in his work Ein weites Feld (A Broad Field) published in 1995, attempts to put current events into a wider social and historical context and to evaluate them on that basis. The fall of the Wall is taken as a starting point for meanderings through time and space, through the past 150 years of German history, with parallels with the founding of the German Empire in 1870/71 being implied. Long-awaited by critics as the seminal “Wenderoman” – the ultimate novel of German reunification – no other novel has unleashed such controversy in recent decades as this one. One reason for this is, not least, Grass’s criticism of reunification, expressed in his speeches and essays but also reflected in his literary works.
The works by Grass and Karas reveal, yet again, the generational change taking place both in Western and Eastern Germany, reflected in the writer’s self-perception as the observer and chronicler – from a moral and political distance – of his or her epoch in history.

Sources: Volker Wehdeking (Hg.): Mentalitätswandel in der deutschen Literatur zur Einheit (1990 – 2000), Berlin 2000
Kerstin E. Reimann: Schreiben nach der Wende? Wende im Schreiben? Literarische Reflexionen nach 1989/90, Würzburg 2008
Britta Lange
is a lecturer in literature at Nordkolleg Rendsburg, an adult education college in Schleswig-Holstein, Northern Germany.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
Februar 2009

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