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Mapping the Contours

of Oppression
Amsterdamer Publikationen
zur Sprache und Literatur

in Verbindung mit

Peter Boerner, Bloomington; Hugo Dyserinck, Aachen;

Ferdinand van Ingen, Amsterdam; Friedrich Maurer†,
Freiburg; Oskar Reichmann, Heidelberg

herausgegeben von

Cola Minis†
Arend Quak

Mapping the Contours
of Oppression
Subjectivity, Truth and Fiction in Recent
German Autobiographical Treatments of

Owen Evans

Amsterdam - New York, NY 2006

Cover design: Pier Post

The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of

"ISO 9706:1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents -
Requirements for permanence".

ISBN: 90-420-1719-8
©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2006
Printed in The Netherlands
For my family and Kate
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Acknowledgements ix

Abbreviations xi

Introduction 1

1 ‘Auch ich hatte die Finger im Spiel’:

Ludwig Harig, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt (1990) 19

2 ‘Das Ich liegt immer jenseits der Worte’:

Uwe Saeger, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen (1991) 53

3 ‘Für jeden war es einmalig’:

Ruth Klüger, weiter leben: Eine Jugend (1992) 95

4 ‘Taktieren mit der Macht’:

Günter de Bruyn, Zwischenbilanz: Eine Jugend in Berlin
(1992) and Vierzig Jahre: Ein Lebensbericht (1996) 137

5 ‘Die Katalyse des Schreibens’:

Günter Kunert, Erwachsenenspiele: Erinnerungen (1997) 181

6 ‘“Man soll nie lügen. Oder nur, wenn es nicht anders

geht”’: Christoph Hein, Von allem Anfang an (1997) 231

7 ‘Es gab nur noch die eine Aufgabe: Gegen das Vergessen
anzuschreiben’: Grete Weil, Leb ich denn, wenn andere
leben (1998) 255

8 ‘Mutmaßungen über Pawel’:

Monika Maron, Pawels Briefe: Eine Familiengeschichte
(1999) 291

Conclusion 325

Bibliography 329

Index 351
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I should like to record my thanks to the many people and institutions

who supported me during my work on this book: first and foremost to
Hinrich Siefken and Colin Riordan who both offered invaluable
advice and support before, during and after my sabbatical and were,
and have remained, so willing to act as referees for me; to the Arts and
Humanities Research Board (as was) for awarding me a Research
Leave grant that turned one semester of study leave into a two-
semester sabbatical; to the British Academy who awarded me a Small
Grant to spend a month’s research in Germany during my sabbatical;
to staff at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach for their support
during my stay there; to the University of Wales Bangor for allowing
me study leave, and especially to Tony Brown who encouraged me to
apply for the AHRB grant in the first place; to my former colleagues
in the Modern Languages department in Bangor for indulging me for
so long and then letting me go with so many kind words; and to the
many cohorts of Bangor students who seemingly never tired of
hearing about this project, and especially to those who gave me such a
moving send-off in December 2004. I should also like to thank two
very important people for their continued, invaluable encouragement:
Graeme Harper, for remaining such an inspiration and for pushing me
into academic areas I might otherwise have avoided, and finally my
wife Kate, who was working flat out on her PhD during my work on
this project and yet remained so supportive throughout. This book is
dedicated to her and my family.

This project would not have been possible without the support of these
people. If any errors remain, however, then these are solely my

Owen Evans
University of Wales Swansea
November 2005
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The following abbreviations are used throughout the book:
A Grete Weil, Meine Schwester Antigone

CH Bill Niven and David Clarke, eds., Christoph Hein

CIP Graham Jackman, ed., Christoph Hein in Perspective

DN Uwe Saeger, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen

E Günter Kunert, Erwachsenenspiele

EI Günter de Bruyn, Das erzählte Ich

H Jonathan Glover, Humanity

HOL Paul John Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories

ITM Primo Levi, If This is a Man

JSS Jean Améry, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne

KF Alfred Andersch, Die Kirschen der Freiheit

L Grete Weil, Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben

LH Heinz Ludwig Arnold, ed., Ludwig Harig

NDE Grete Weil, ‘Nicht dazu erzogen, Widerstand zu leisten’

PB Monika Maron, Pawels Briefe

Q Monika Maron, quer über die Gleise

SE Günter Kunert, Schatten entziffern

SL Joachim Walter, Sicherungsbereich Literatur

US Klaus Hammer, ‘Gespräch mit Uwe Saeger’

VA Christoph Hein, Von allem Anfang an

VJ Günter de Bruyn, Vierzig Jahre

WD Ludwig Harig, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt

WL Ruth Klüger, weiter leben

WM Ludwig Harig, Wer mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf

ZB Günter de Bruyn, Zwischenbilanz


In the aftermath of the collapse of East Germany and the reunification

of Germany in 1990, it has been striking just how many
autobiographies have been published in German which explore the
legacies of the country’s two totalitarian regimes. The reasons why
these books have appeared are difficult to ascertain. In his review of
Günter Kunert’s Erwachsenenspiele Tilman Krause celebrates the
reappearance of what he terms ‘diese vorsichtigen Überwindungs-
versuche einer theoretisch überwölbten Vernachlässigung des eigenen
Ichs’ that at last challenge ‘die These vom “Tod des Subjekts”’.1
Some have wondered, such as Jörg Magenau, whether the motivation
to write autobiography ‘etwas damit zu tun [hat], daß am
Jahrtausendende Bilanz gezogen wird?’.2 Although there may well be
some truth in this ‘pre-millenial’ theory, one senses that within
Germany it has more to do with a new type of Stunde Null, in socio-
political and cultural terms. Certainly, as Stephen Brockmann has
explored at length, there have been calls by commentators such as
Frank Schirrmacher and Karl-Heinz Bohrer for a new literature which
should ‘be a purely aesthetic game unencumbered by the heavy and
oafish moralism of political commitment’.3 Might the prevalence of
autobiography indeed suggest a move away from the political? Might
these texts be seen as an attempt to establish a moralism rooted in the
private sphere, whilst at the same time essaying a regeneration of a
genre recently much maligned?

Tilman Krause, ‘Rasender Roland der Zeitgeschichte: Unter düsteren Himmeln
grimmig komisch; Erinnerungen von Günter Kunert’, Der Tagesspiegel, 15 October
1997, p. 2.
Ludwig Harig, ‘Dieses nachgedachte Leben: Ein Gespräch mit Jörg Magenau’, in
Ludwig Harig, ed. by Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Munich: Text und Kritik, 1997), pp. 37-
46 (p. 37). All subsequent references to this volume will appear in the text in the form
(LH, 37).
Stephen Brockmann, Literature and German Reunification (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1999), p. 71.
2 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

The truth is that the reasons for this autobiographical trend

cannot easily be pinned down, and to attempt to do so would extend
beyond the scope of the present study. For the eight authors chosen for
scrutiny here, the motivation is a personal one and cannot be ascribed
to any external cultural agenda or aesthetic programme. Each author
wished to take stock of life under totalitarian regimes, and they
provide fascinating, often disturbing, insights into their experiences
with their mapping of the contours of oppression. A cross-section of
texts has been carefully selected for analysis and together they
embrace existence in the Third Reich and the GDR from male and
female authors of different ages and backgrounds. Three texts deal
exclusively with National Socialism and its aftermath. In Weh dem,
der aus der Reihe tanzt (1990) Ludwig Harig describes with
sometimes shocking candour how he was seduced as a boy by the
Nazis, whilst Ruth Klüger in weiter leben (1992) and Grete Weil in
Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben (1998) provide harrowing testimony
of the persecution they suffered as Jews. Uwe Saeger’s Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen (1991) and Christoph Hein’s Von allem
Anfang an (1997) meanwhile deal exclusively with life in the GDR,
with the former documenting the author’s sense of guilt at having
served as a border guard at the Berlin Wall and the latter describing
childhood in the 1950s. The remaining texts comprise a contrastive
approach, looking at both regimes in question. Günter de Bruyn’s
acclaimed two-volume autobiography, Zwischenbilanz (1992) and
Vierzig Jahre (1996), explores life as an ‘inner emigrant’ and the
attendant compromises one necessarily had to make in both regimes to
survive; Günter Kunert’s Erwachsenenspiele (1997) charts the
author’s life as a Halbjude during the Third Reich and then his
inevitable disgruntlement as a convinced Communist at the way in
which East Germany evolved along profoundly undemocratic lines;
and Monika Maron’s fascinating autobiographical collage of letters
and photographs in Pawels Briefe (1999), which tells her family
history beginning with her Polish grandparents and their eventual
persecution at the hands of the Nazis and concluding with her own
experiences in the GDR. Each author tackles their project in different
ways, as befits an individual personal document, but as we deal with
each account in turn, it is striking how many common features emerge
as they describe the impact of totalitarianism on their sense of identity.
Although it is not the intention here to propound a new theory
of autobiography as a literary genre, one must first address briefly the
current status of autobiography. There has been an array of recent
Introduction 3

studies of ‘life-writing’ which set out to test the credibility and value
of such texts in more detail. The primary concern is to examine each
of the texts here as a discrete piece of work, exploring how each
author deals with their personal material and seeks to imbue it with the
authenticity generally demanded of autobiographical writing.
Nevertheless, it has been possible to tease out certain similarities in
form and content, allowing for an inherently contrastive element to the
present study. In this way, the texts reveal what Linda Anderson has
called ‘the very pervasiveness and slipperiness of autobiography’.4
Perceptions of what constitutes autobiography have changed
considerably in what we might call the modern era, so that the
classical paradigms established by Augustine, Rousseau and, in the
German context, by Goethe are no longer deemed appropriate or
infallible. Feminism in particular has challenged these models, and so
it is unsurprising perhaps to note that women should have produced
the majority of recent studies of autobiography. In one of these,
Mererid Puw Davies offers a neat summation of this shifting
The traditional notion of autobiography has been identified intimately
with the concept of a coherent, articulate self and its intelligible, linear
evolution. Yet part of the twentieth century’s philosophical and
experiential legacy has been to show that such legible, serene
subjectivity is bought at a – perhaps unbearably – high price; or at the
very least, that it is only one of a number of psychological

Some of the texts selected here appear to fit the more traditional
pattern Puw Davies describes. The volumes by Günter de Bruyn
represent arguably the best example and bear the hallmarks of the
author’s very clear attachment to the German literary heritage of the
nineteenth century, and most notably to Theodor Fontane. By the
same token, however, his own theoretical work on autobiography
reveals a more nuanced appreciation of its limits as a form and
highlights some of the qualifications one must bring to the text.
Fittingly in this respect, de Bruyn’s other literary hero is the
iconoclastic Jean Paul, whose own fragmentary
Selberlebensbeschreibung was much less orthodox – and to
contemporary theoretical perceptions much more modern – than the

Linda Anderson, Autobiography (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 2.
Mererid Puw Davies, ‘Introduction’, in Autobiography by Women in German, ed by
Mererid Puw Davies, Beth Linklater and Gisela Shaw (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2000), pp.
7-15 (p. 7).
4 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Goethean model.6 If de Bruyn’s own autobiographical project does

ultimately conform more to the traditional pattern Puw Davies
illustrates, then Uwe Saeger’s Die Nacht danach und der Morgen is an
excellent example of the slipperiness that Anderson remarks upon.
Indeed, elsewhere Karen Leeder has identified an array of texts,
written like Saeger’s in response to the Wende, which reveal a
‘slippage between documentary and literature’.7 Saeger conflates a
wide range of different ‘texts’ in his putatively personal reflection
upon the incipient collapse of East Germany. In this way, the present
study sheds a little light on how problematic any normative, canonical
approach to autobiography has become; it does not attempt however to
extrapolate from these texts any new theory or model for wider
As a result of recent theories on the genre, it has become
problematic for academics wishing to work on autobiography to find a
definition of the form to satisfy every theoretical position. As
Anderson remarks: ‘The question […] is not simply what kind of
genre is autobiography; it is rather how does the ‘law of genre’, to
take the title of Jacques Derrida’s famous essay, work to legitimise
certain autobiographical writings and not others?’.8 Can the texts
under consideration here all be seen unequivocally as autobiographical
statements? To what extent can Christoph Hein’s Von allem Anfang
an – a ‘fictional autobiography’ – be dealt with alongside Grete
Weil’s traditional narrative in Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben? Is it
possible to settle on an inclusive term that embraces each of the texts?
It is Paul John Eakin’s excellent recent study, How Our Lives Become
Stories: Making Selves which has provided a useful model for the
present analysis, in that, as the title implies, there is an essential
element of fiction to any narrative about the self.9 Ironically enough,
Eakin’s title offers more than a faint echo of the Goethean paradigm
of the blend of Dichtung and Wahrheit. Without wishing to advocate
the continued application of Goethe’s text per se as in any way
canonical, one can advocate the key concepts of his title as still being
relevant for the creation of any autobiographical text in the modern

See Günter de Bruyn, Das Leben des Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (Halle:
Mitteldeutscher, 1975).
Karen Leeder, ‘“Vom Unbehagen in der Einheit”: Autobiographical Writing by
Women Since 1989’, in Puw Davies et al (eds), pp. 249-71 (p. 254).
Anderson, p.9.
Paul John Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1999). All further references in the text will appear in the form
(HOL, 43).
Introduction 5

era. The elements of Dichtung and Wahrheit in themselves, when

conflated in myriad combinations, can generate an infinite array of
possible narratives of self wholly congruent with recent theoretical
assertions that the genre is fluid.
As Anderson’s insightful study reveals, Virginia Woolf
provides a convincing example of the literary possibilities that exist
when fact and fiction – Wahrheit and Dichtung – are melded in the
pursuit of constructing literary subjectivity. In view of both the work
of Derrida and feminist theorists, Anderson illustrates how ‘modern’
Woolf’s perspective on autobiography was and how influential it
remains. The blending of fact and fiction was evident, Anderson
argues, in Woolf’s attitude to biography:
It is not possible to separate lives from books, or identities from how
they are represented, Woolf suggests, and much of what we think of as
‘true’ or historically given, is really an ideological construct; in other
words, a fiction. […]
[Woolf] tried to imagine a different kind of biography which could
bring together fiction’s attention to the ‘intangible personality’ and the
‘inner life’ with the veracity and substance of historical fact, which
could somehow create, as she said, ‘that queer amalgamation of dream
and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow’.

Anderson underlines how Woolf believed it was impossible to draw

the line definitively between writing history, biography and fiction,
and even though the author adopted a more factual approach for her
autobiographical ‘Sketch of the Past’ (1940), it was presented as an
‘improvisation’, thereby intimating the inclusion of more creative
extrapolations than conventional accounts would usually encompass.11
By extension then, autobiography would also be dependent on fiction
to plug the gaps that would inevitably appear in the narrative due to
the problematic nature of memory:
In the ‘Sketch’, Woolf writes a memoir which is profoundly sceptical
of what ‘remembering’ means. Instead of a subject who recalls the
past from some stable place outside it, Woolf traces moments which
slip from and exceed the conscious control of the subject, deciding
that ‘the things one does not remember are as important’ as the things
one does. Writing the self involves moments when the self is lost,
when cracks appear and unconscious memory floods in […]. The self
is never secure, nor can it form its own narrative. At best there are
scenes or moments to return to which ‘arrange themselves’, and which
are ‘representative’ or ‘enduring’. For Woolf the self is a construct

Anderson, pp. 96-97.
Ibid., p. 99.
6 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

which is known as much through its fragmentation as its unity. More

than most writers she makes us aware of the process of flux and
splitting which underlies, and constantly threatens, any notion of
attained subjecthood.

If the self is a construct, then any attempt to render it in written form

must also be a construct, in that it requires a form to convey it that can
only ever be an approximation. It is a fact that each author in the
present study readily concedes with caveats either explicit in the
content of the text or implicit in its form. In Das erzählte Ich: Über
Wahrheit und Dichtung in der Autobiographie (1995), even the more
traditionally-minded Günter de Bruyn remarks upon the inherent
artificiality of the form in terms strikingly reminiscent of Virginia
Woolf: ‘Ein getreues Abbild des vergangenen Geschehens können
Historiographie und Autobiographie schon deshalb nicht geben, weil
sie erzählen und damit der Vergangenheit eine Form geben, die sie
von sich aus nicht hat’ (EI, 66).13 Each author here duly strives to test
their memories and, where possible, to substantiate their accounts with
documentary evidence. They each employ a blend of Wahrheit/fact
and Dichtung/fiction, although the extent to which this process is
realised varies from author to author as our exploration will
If the texts to be explored are reliant upon a certain amount of
Dichtung, to what extent then does that impair their credibility as
autobiographical narratives, given the ongoing debates about such
forms of life-writing. If the self is a construct, does it mean that
autobiography as a literary pursuit is ultimately futile and worthless?
Of course, New Criticism attacked intentionality as any guarantee of
credibility, as Anderson also points out at the outset of her survey.
Whilst it is fair to assume that not every memoir is entirely
trustworthy – one need only consider the number of self-justificatory
autobiographies produced in the wake of the GDR’s demise for
sufficient evidence of this – by the same token, one should not
categorically reject all autobiographies as inauthentic or as fictions in
any negative sense.14 So, we return again to the problem of how best

Ibid., pp. 101-2.
Günter de Bruyn, Das erzählte Ich: Über Wahrheit und Dichtung in der
Autobiographie (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1995). All references to this volume will
appear in the main text in the form (EI, 66).
For an engaging overview of trends in the GDR memoirs and autobiographies
published in the five years after the Wende, see Julian Preece, ‘Damaged lives? (East)
German memoirs and autobiographies, 1989-94’, in The New Germany: Literature
Introduction 7

to define the texts selected for this survey, and how much credence we
can grant them. Given that the authors make varying use of Dichtung,
is there sufficient Wahrheit underpinning their texts for them to be
seen as meaningful personal narratives?
The texts to be analysed here are united first and foremost by
the palpable need of the authors to bear witness to their experiences of
totalitarian life, which had an intensely damaging impact on their
individuation. One senses that each author was motivated chiefly by a
personal, therapeutic need to examine the ways in which their sense of
self was shaped, or distorted, by external forces during this key period
in their lives, rather than any desire to provide a life chronicle for
posterity. Despite the unorthodox nature of some of the texts – chiefly
those by Hein and Saeger – none of the texts purposefully seeks to
deconstruct the autobiographical form; the desire to document the
experience of totalitarianism far outweighs any theoretical concerns
about the form and its reliability as a rendition of self. Indeed, the
subjectivity intrinsic to the form would appear to be paramount to the
authors. Each of them spent their formative years in an intensely
repressive socio-political regime that actively sought either to mould
individuals in its own image – exemplified best in the cases of Harig
and Saeger – or to categorise them, potentially fatally, as ‘other’, as
the accounts by Grete Weil and Ruth Klüger can attest. Each of the
authors consequently suffered from what the eponymous character of
Christa Wolf’s Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968) identified as the
‘Schwierigkeit, “ich” zu sagen’, which in her case compounded her
efforts to conform to dogmatic collective norms in the GDR and
thereby contributed to her demise.15 For the eight authors here, their
decision to adopt an autobiographical form to recount these
experiences in a liberal climate thus represents a quite deliberate
attempt to reassert, to rescue the self. In this way, they might even be
seen to be reconstructing a subjectivity that had been repressed, even
deconstructed, by totalitarianism.
Despite the questions raised about the role and reliability of
autobiography in the modern context, it has traditionally been seen to
reflect subjectivity. What is more, as a form it was deemed wholly
unacceptable in totalitarian contexts. Günter de Bruyn’s wish to tackle
his wartime experiences in an autobiography, for example, was
blocked by the GDR authorities, who insisted his project be

and Society after Unification, ed. by Osman Durrani, Colin Good and Kevin Hilliard
(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 349-64.
Christa Wolf, Nachdenken über Christa T. (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1986), p. 173.
8 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

transformed into a Socialist Realist Entwicklungsroman. By virtue

both of its traditional perception as the medium for self-expression
and its negative reception in totalitarian contexts, the autobiographical
form was ideal for it allows the authors to articulate their sense of self
unfettered. The modern condition may still insist there is ‘difficulty in
saying I’, not least in a text, but in relative terms, and compared to the
repression these authors had had to endure, the autobiographical form
represents a celebration, indeed a liberation, of the subjectivity denied
them during their formative years.
The way in which these texts tackle the assault on selfhood by
the repressive climates and explore the ramifications of this stifling
influence, is strongly reminiscent of Wolf’s Nachdenken über Christa
T., the epitome of her literary and theoretical investigations into
individual experience in the GDR throughout the 1960s. This
controversial, yet fascinating, novel made a decisive break from the
monolithic Socialist Realist model, drawing on the author’s discovery
of Brecht’s theoretical writings on realism and his call for a more
critical engagement with it. As Dennis Tate observes, Wolf believed
Brecht had ‘given her confidence in the validity of her subjective
perceptions as an author’.16 In his seminal study of the GDR novel,
Tate devotes a chapter to those works of the late 1960s and early
1970s which bore the hallmarks of ‘subjective authenticity’, the term
coined by Wolf in her writings at the time to describe her
preoccupation. Tate outlines that ‘the dominant theme of non-
conformist GDR writing after 1965’ was ‘the threat to identity
represented by a socialist society which has failed to develop
according to expectations’ (EGN, 136).17 Wolf was at the vanguard of
literary attempts to reorientate the focus onto the individuals who
comprised that society and their subjective experiences of daily life in
the GDR, warts and all. She sought to examine the everyday
experience of ordinary citizens – ‘die Banalität dieses Alltags’ – in a
form unencumbered by the dogmatic constraints imposed by the
Socialist Realist model, and in particular she was drawn to the diary as
a medium for this more individual approach.18 In her opinion, with the

Dennis Tate, ‘“Breadth and Diversity”: Socialist Realism in the GDR’ in European
Socialist Realism, ed. by Michael Scriven and Dennis Tate (Oxford: Berg, 1988), pp.
60-78 (p.69).
Dennis Tate, The East German Novel: Identity, Community Continuity (Bath: Bath
University Press, 1984), pp. 135-76. Further references to this chapter will appear in
the text in the form (EGN, 136)
Christa Wolf, ‘Tagebuch – Arbeitsmittel und Gedächtnis’, in Lesen und Schreiben
(Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1972), pp. 61-75 (p. 66).
Introduction 9

erection of the Berlin Wall surely signalling a reduced ideological

threat from the West, the typical GDR citizen by the mid-1960s could
no longer be found in the pages of schematic Socialist Realist works,
which located their characters firmly in a society where political
issues still dominated. On the contrary, for GDR society to evolve, its
literature had to reveal the existential concerns of the private sphere
and the hindrances to self-realisation that existed in order to help
foster personal development. Only if literature were allowed to convey
a recognisable, authentic picture of individual experience – the
‘Durchschnittsproblematik gewöhnlicher Menschen’ (EGN, 137) in
other words – could significant social progress be achieved: a back-to-
Basis approach, one might say.
As Tate explains, works such as Nachdenken über Christa T.
and Brigitte Reimann’s Franziska Linkerhand (1974) depict the
ongoing alienation of individuals, and suggest that ‘the dream of self-
realisation, still remote on account of the imperfections of socialist
society […] could again only be pursued on an aesthetic plane’ (EGN,
174). Wolf’s theoretical writings reaffirmed the influential role of
authors in GDR society, and she posited that an author’s ‘Sehnsucht
nach Selbstverwirklichung’ (EGN, 174) was an essential quality of
meaningful literature, thereby stressing the vital subjective element
that was to underpin such work. Wolf readily admitted to exploiting
autobiographical elements in her writing, in order to create fiction that
was both subjective and authentic, but stressed that it was not
necessarily explicit autobiography, which might restrict its application
on a wider scale. The best representation of this approach is
engendered in her novel, Kindheitsmuster (1976), which many
commentators have nevertheless classified as her autobiography. But
the tale of Nelly Jordan, who may well bear similarities with the
author, thematises the problems of rendering subjectivity and
reconstructing the past. At one point, the narrator remarks: ‘Die
Beschreibung der Vergangenheit – was immer das sein mag, dieser
noch anwachsende Haufen von Erinnerungen – in objektivem Stil
wird nicht gelingen’.19 The narrator endeavours nevertheless to
produce as coherent an account of her past as possible by resolutely
avoiding the first-person singular pronoun in her account: passage
between the three time planes in the narrative is recorded with the
pronouns du, sie and wir:

Christa Wolf, Kindheitsmuster (Berlin: Aufbau, 1976), p. 215.
10 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Der Endpunkt wäre erreicht, wenn zweite und dritte Person wieder in
der ersten zusammenträfen, mehr noch; zusammenfielen. Wo nicht
mehr ‘du’ und ‘sie’ – wo unverhohlen ‘ich’ gesagt werden müßte. Es
kam dir sehr fraglich vor, ob du diesen Punkt erreichen könntest, ob
der Weg, den du eingeschlagen hast, überhaupt dorthin führt.

Despite the difficulties the narrator faces with the first-person

pronoun, she does eventually resort to the ich-perspective on the very
last page. Wolf’s approach to the problems of rendering the self in
Kindheitsmuster, and indeed in Nachdenken über Christa T., recall
Virginia Woolf’s advocation of using fiction to supplement the factual
material of history writing and autobiography.
On account of certain parallels between the author and her
protagonist, recent commentators such as Barbara Kosta have treated
Kindheitsmuster as autobiography, albeit a text which both
‘transgresses the traditional borders of autobiography anchored in
liberal humanism’ and ‘unsettles the “autobiographical pact”
[proposed by Philippe Lejeune]’.21 In view of the decision to classify
the text in this way, one might usefully advocate Wolf’s text as a
modern – or perhaps, more accurately, a modernist – alternative to
challenge the hegemony of Dichtung und Wahrheit as the classical
model of the form, especially in the German literary context. If one is
unhappy about accepting the notion of the coherent self evident in
Goethe’s autobiography, then Wolf’s ‘subjective authenticity’, which
eschews the concept of the omniscient author/narrator and allows for a
more fluid combination of Dichtung – here meaning either the use of
unequivocally fictional elements or structuring devices common to
fiction – and Wahrheit in the pursuit of an authentic account of the
self, represents a useful counter-position. As if to underline this
paradigm shift from the classical model, Kindheitsmuster is prefaced
by a fascinating disclaimer, which declares at the outset: ‘Alle Figuren
in diesem Buch sind Erfindungen der Erzählerin’.22 As Kosta neatly
suggests: ‘The disclaimer serves as an acknowledgement of the limits
of autobiographical composition, an admission that writing and
imagination alter characters and events, and that only one version or
interpretation of the self is ultimately produced’.23 The authors in the
present survey are similarly aware that their accounts represent one

Ibid., p. 453.
Barbara Kosta, Recasting Autobiography: Women’s Counterfictions in Contem-
porary German Literature and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 55-6.
Kindheitsmuster, p. 6.
Kosta, p. 56.
Introduction 11

subjective position alone and are prepared to accept that this

perspective might be just one amongst many. That does not, however,
invalidate their testimony. In any event, they strive to authenticate
their accounts as much as possible with documentary evidence to
supplement their memories. This approach recalls Christa Wolf’s
intriguing statement at the beginning of Nachdenken über Christa T.
which states categorically that the protagonist is ‘eine literarische
Figur’, only to add: ‘Authentisch sind manche Zitate aus
Tagebüchern, Skizzen und Briefen’.24
Despite Wolf’s problematisation of autobiography,
emphasised not only by the disclaimer but also by the very form of
Kindheitsmuster itself with its interplay between three discrete
narrative time frames, ‘subjective authenticity’ remains a useful term
to describe the literary approach adopted by the authors of the texts in
the present study. Hein’s ‘fictional autobiography’ adheres closely to
Wolf’s model, whilst both Saeger and Maron employ some
unequivocally fictitious components in their accounts. But the others
too, by shaping their lives as stories – to borrow Eakin’s formulation –
can be seen to be using structural devices redolent of fiction: Harig
classifies his text as a ‘Roman’, for example, while the structure of de
Bruyn’s first volume recalls a traditional Entwicklungsroman. But in
each case the exploitation of Dichtung is designed to reflect as
authentically as possible the way in which identity is formed. As the
epigraph to Nachdenken über Christa T. ponders: ‘Was ist das: Dieses
Zu-sich-selber-Kommen des Menschen?’.25 Johannes R. Becher’s
quotation clearly does not apply solely to Wolf’s novel; it sums up
precisely what each author selected here is endeavouring to do with
their accounts, be it the unequivocal fiction of Hein or the more
traditional approach of de Bruyn. They are each exploring the way in
which their sense of self was formed under dictatorial regimes. In this
regard, it seems doubly apposite to adopt Wolf’s term to define the
autobiographical work here, inasmuch as ‘subjective authenticity’ was
conceived in extremis to depict the marginalisation of individual
experience in the repressive climate of a totalitarian regime. It would
therefore seem to remain a fitting medium for the transmission of such
experiences in hindsight, even though the shackles have long since
been removed.
The way in which the authors write subjectively and
authentically does vary, but it is equally striking how many common

Nachdenken über Christa T., p. 7.
Ibid., p. 5.
12 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

concerns emerge in their exploration of how the self is constituted and

the ways in which the process of identity formation was impaired in
the totalitarian context. In this respect, Paul John Eakin’s analysis of
the relational forces that shape the self has proved invaluable.
Drawing as much from neurobiological and psychological material as
existing literary theories on autobiography, Eakin challenges ‘the
myth of autonomy’ that has underpinned classical renditions such as
Dichtung und Wahrheit:
We tend to think of autobiography as a literature of the first person,
but the subject of autobiography to which the pronoun ‘I’ refers is
neither singular nor first, and we do well to demystify its claims. Why
do we so easily forget that the first person of autobiography is truly
plural in its origins and subsequent formation? Because autobiography
promotes an illusion of self-determination: I write my story; I say who
I am; I create my self. The myth of autonomy dies hard, and
autobiography criticism has not yet fully addressed the extent to which
the self is defined by – and lives in terms of – its relations with others.
(HOL, 43)

Eakin emphasises the ways in which the self is shaped in relation to

other forces, be they familial, social, cultural or linguistic, and makes
good use of textual examples to support his view. His focus is
principally on English-language literature, although, in view of his
problematisation of defining autobiography as ‘literature of the first
person’, he fittingly devotes some time to Kindheitsmuster. The
examples he cites were selected as they crystallised his ‘belief that all
identity is relational, and that the definition of autobiography, and its
history as well, must be stretched to reflect the kinds of self-writing in
which relational identity is characteristically displayed’ (HOL, 43-4).
The validity of Eakin’s contention seems axiomatic when
considering autobiographical treatments of life under a repressive
totalitarian regime which actively sought to shape its individual
citizens. As Harig’s account displays, young people were especially
susceptible to these pressures. Although the family might represent the
primary site of individuation, the inevitable penetration of the private
sphere by the public world under dictatorships naturally has a
damaging effect on a more natural, wholesome process of identity
formation. One feature which recurs is the importance of language to
the authors’ sense of self. For Harig, his susceptibility as a boy to the
Nazis was attributable to his seduction by a language that in hindsight
he realised was infected ideologically and morally, in ways that Victor
Klemperer laid bare in his memorable LTI: Notizbuch eines
Philologen. For the Jews Klüger and Weil, for example, the link to
Introduction 13

their native tongue was severely ruptured by National Socialism and

gave rise to problems in self-perception, which exacerbated their
exclusion from their original Austrian and German identities
respectively. A related concern here is the role the authors’ Heimat
played, either in providing a basis upon which a degree of resistance
to invidious ideological forces was founded – one thinks here of de
Bruyn’s inner emigration in the Mark Brandenburg , for example – or
in helping to rehabilitate a sense of identity once the danger had
passed, as in the case of Grete Weil whose devotion to her Bavarian
Heimat was crucial. Conversely, Ruth Klüger, a native Viennese, was
relieved to emigrate to America, and has since retained a deep
ambivalence about the city of her birth.
Another common feature to the accounts selected is the role
played by the family. Although this influence was not unequivocally
positive in every case – one need only cite the difficult
mother/daughter relationships evident in the works by Klüger and
Maron – the family naturally remains a significant relational
environment. Eakin sets great store by the notion that identity is
‘developed collaboratively with others, often family members’ (HOL,
57) and the family both represents ‘the key environment in the
individual’s formation’ and ‘serves as the community’s primary
conduit for the transmission of its cultural values’ (HOL, 85). For
most of the authors here the family generally acts as the antithesis of
the damaging socio-political environment outside, although the
protection it affords is not absolute. This antithetical position is
especially true in the cases of de Bruyn and Kunert, for example,
whose families endeavoured to cocoon them from National Socialism
and to instil in them an altogether more humanist ethos. Even though
in these instances the family stand in opposition to the community at
large, they simply reinforce Eakin’s basic premise of the family’s role
as a conduit. Moreover, even where tension exists between the author
and other relatives, the family is key to the individual’s identity
formation. Eakin observes that one family member generally emerges
as especially influential: he dubs this figure the ‘proximate other to
signify the intimate tie to the relational autobiographer’ (HOL, 86).
This influence is often, but not always, a parent – in Hein’s novel, for
instance, it is the protagonist’s ‘aunt’ who shapes his perceptions. But
even where the bond between the author/narrator and this ‘proximate
other’ is conflicted, as it is between Klüger and Maron and their
mothers, Eakin argues convincingly that this does not reduce the
significance of this figure for the self; the ‘proximate other’ does not
14 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

have to be a role model. It is by no means unusual, Eakin stresses, for

autobiography to be motivated by what he calls ‘unfinished business’
(HOL, 87) – an exceedingly apt term to describe both weiter leben and
Pawels Briefe.
Although the authors all shed light in their accounts on the
relational forces that shape the self, one does not find all the elements
explored above in every text. Broadly similar patterns can be
identified, yet it is fitting and unsurprising, given the necessarily
individual nature of the autobiographical project, that there should be
discrepancies and stark contrasts between the texts. Nevertheless, the
one feature common to each text is the overwhelming sense that the
account was motivated by a very personal, even existential, need, be it
guilt, shame, mourning or anger. In her theoretical work on literary
authenticity and the interplay in this regard between fiction and
autobiography, author Anna Mitgutsch has identified ‘die Aura des
Notwendigen’ as the key component for imbuing a text with
Es gibt eine Intensität der Sprache und der Darstellung, eine
Überzeugungskraft, die anders nicht zu erreichen ist. Diese Intensität
läßt sich schwer simulieren. Sie kommt aus der Verletzung, aus dem
Schmerz, der nicht rückgängig zu machenden Beschädigung. Sie
fordert eine Simplizität und eine Genauigkeit, eine ungeschminkte
Direktheit, die im freien Spiel mit Entwürfen und Möglichkeiten
gekünstelt wirken würde. Solchen Texten haftet die Aura des
Notwendigen an.

The imperative Mitgutsch speaks of underpins each text here.

Although theorists over recent decades have proclaimed the death of
autobiography or raised objections to its reliability or suitability as a
literary form, this issue is of secondary importance to the eight authors
here. In view of what they have endured under totalitarianism, all that
matters to them is dealing with this ‘seelischer Notstand’, and they
have quite purposefully chosen a subjective literary mode to do so.27 If
their accounts can be read as defences of the private realm in that they
reassert the legitimacy of individual experience, after either having
endured pressure to conform to a collective identity or had a
segregationist identity imposed upon them, then their work may
conceivably also be seen as an inadvertent defence of

Anna Mitgutsch, ‘Erinnern und Erfinden’, in Erinnern und Erfinden. Grazer
Poetik-Vorlesungen (Graz: Droschl, 1999), pp. 5-31 (p. 12).
Ibid., p. 25.
Introduction 15

autobiographical writing per se as a valid literary form; at the very

least the texts can be interpreted as a call for its reappraisal.
If autobiography has divided critical and theoretical opinion,
then so too has the perception of what constitutes totalitarianism. In
his acclaimed study of National Socialism, historian Michael Burleigh
casts his eye over the attempts to ‘banish the term […] from polite
academic society’ and concludes that the concept remains a useful one
‘for anyone who does not baulk at mentioning National Socialism in
the same breath as Soviet Communism, and for anyone interested in
the fundamental psychology rather than the surface of things’.28 It is
Burleigh’s emphasis on the ‘fundamental psychology’ which dovetails
neatly with the present study’s focus on the relational nature of
identity formation. Whilst it is possible to appreciate some of the
objections to theories of totalitarianism, such as whether one can truly
equate National Socialism with GDR socialism – and to that
comparison, of course, we must add socialism as practised in East
Germany – what interests us here is the fact that in spite of differences
these regimes sought to stifle individuality by broadly similar means.
As Burleigh remarks:
While the ‘ism’ part of the word is unappealing, the ‘total’ part
captures most strikingly the insatiable, invasive character of this form
of politics, which regarded the individual, freedom, autonomous civil
society and the rule of law with uncomprehending hatred.

Each of the texts selected here provides ample evidence of this

invasiveness and the ramifications for the sense of self in an
environment that pressurised or persecuted individuals.
In their respective recent studies of East Germany, the
historians Mary Fulbrook and Mike Dennis also raise the issue of the
applicability of the term ‘totalitarianism’, but specifically with
reference to the situation in the GDR. They both include sections
which carefully synopsise the differences between Nazi Germany and
the GDR, before agreeing that the aim of denying individuals the
space to develop their own identities free from state interference,
denotes a striking similarity between the two systems. The
autobiographies of de Bruyn and Kunert, which encompass these two
regimes and inevitably comprise a contrastive element, tend to support
the historians’ conclusions. The highly critical depiction of unsavoury
practices in the GDR in Erwachsenenspiele has particular resonance

Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich:. A New History (London: Pan, 2001), p. 14.
Ibid., p.14.
16 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

given the author’s experiences as a half-Jew in Nazi Germany and his

concomitant belief in Communism, suggesting perhaps that the
juxtaposition is not entirely unjustified. As Fulbrook and Dennis point
out, there was no programme of mass genocide in the GDR, but they
both nevertheless stress the insidious means by which the State
endeavoured to control the people. As Fulbrook observes:
The total claims made on citizens by the SED are clearly reminiscent
of those of the Third Reich, and have given some basis to attempts to
compare the two regimes under the general conceptual heading of
‘totalitarianism’. (It is perhaps in this preliminary, categorizing
function with respect to regime claims – if at all – that the concept is
of some use.) In general, the attempt at total influence on people, and
the total transformation of attitudes, was not a realizable goal in either
the Third Reich or the GDR. But, in different circumstances in each
case, the attempts were not without effects, some more and some less
conducive to the stability of the dictatorship.

In describing these attempts to shape identities, Dennis refers to the

‘sophisticated methods of “structural violence”’ deployed in the GDR,
for despite the ‘humanistic residue of Marxism’, the Stasi penetrated
public and private spheres with great alacrity and disturbing
thoroughness.31 So many of the myriad files that represent the Stasi’s
legacy in the new Germany document in great detail the concerted
efforts made to suppress individuality and induce conformity to the
accepted ideological norm.
By virtue of the coercive tactics employed in Nazi Germany
and the GDR with the aim of divesting the individual of any self-
determination, it seems appropriate, as Fulbrook remarks, to refer to
the two regimes as ‘totalitarian’, whilst at the same time stressing that
neither was totally successful in achieving total dominance over its
citizens. To find evidence of absolute totalitarian control one has to
turn to the realms of fiction and Orwell’s 1984. As part of his
rehabilitation following acts of ‘thoughtcrime’, Winston Smith is
given a lesson in what it means to be an individual in a totalitarian
society by his torturer, O’Brien:
‘It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first
thing you must realise is that power is collective. The individual only
has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the
Party slogan: “Freedom is slavery.” Has it ever occurred to you that it

Mary Fulbrook, Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989 (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 284.
Mike Dennis, The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic 1945-1990
(Harlow: Longman, 2000), p. 305.
Introduction 17

is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone – free – the human being is

always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed
to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make
complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he
can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-
powerful and immortal.’

Each of the eight authors in the present study detail the effects of this
degree of coercion, and none of them emerged from their experiences
unscathed; and yet each account also stands as testament to the ability
of individual spirit to endure. In his analysis of Hannah Arendt’s work
on totalitarianism, Michael Geyer highlighted the scholar’s belief in
this very capacity to endure as the fundamental weakness of
dictatorships to achieve total control:
[Arendt] reasoned in the face of terror that the ultimate object of
totalitarianism was human spontaneity as the ever-renewable source of
democracy. She also reasoned that one would have to destroy all of
humanity before one could destroy this perennial well-spring of
human rebirth and political renewal. Nothing less than the destruction
of humanity is what totalitarianism intended […]. But she upheld that
the human spirit could not be cowed.

By bearing witness to what they have experienced, each author

testifies to the durability of spirit Arendt perceived, reasserting the
individual’s capacity to survive and thereby giving the lie to the
totalitarian belief that the individual would be defeated and either
subsumed into the collective or extinguished. In this regard, the choice
of the authors to recount these experiences in an autobiographical
form appears significant. Despite debates as to the validity of the
genre and doubts about its capacity to convey truth, it would seem to
possess inherent value when depicting both totalitarianism’s
systematic assault on the self and the self’s ability to prevail despite
the violence inflicted upon it. Even where fiction is used to enhance
the authenticity of the narrative – ‘Was man erfinden muß, um der
Wahrheit willen’, as the narrator in Nachdenken über Christa T. puts
it – it is nevertheless a self-consciously subjective enterprise
confirming that individuality has not been defeated.34 In this case, the
medium of the narrative is as much the message as the material
relayed within. In many ways, this notion tallies with what Linda

George Orwell, 1984 (London: Penguin, 1989), p. 276-7.
Michael Geyer, ‘Restorative Elites, German Society and the Nazi Pursuit of War’,
in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany: Comparisons and Contrasts, ed. by Richard
Bessel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 134-64 (p. 139).
Nachdenken über Christa T., p. 29.
18 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Anderson has identified as autobiography’s potential role as ‘the text

of the oppressed’: ‘Autobiography becomes both a way of testifying to
oppression and empowering the subject through their cultural
inscription and recognition’.35 Given that the legacies of Nazi
Germany and East Germany are still the subject of scrutiny and
debate, autobiographical treatments of these periods offer valuable
insights not only into how individuals experienced them, but also into
the psychological pressures they exerted, all of which might explain
why so many autobiographies on these regimes have appeared on the
market since 1990. They represent an implicit call for understanding
and remembrance, breaking what Ernestine Schlant has called – in
relation to the Holocaust at least – ‘the language of silence’.36 Thus
proclamations about the death of autobiography are to be seen to have
been rather precipitate. The following chapters will indicate why this
is so.

Anderson, p. 104.
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the
Holocaust (New York: Routledge, 1999).

‘Auch ich hatte die Finger im Spiel’ – Ludwig

Harig, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt (1990)
Ich halte […] Harigs autobiographische Romane, insbesondere
aber das Buch Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, für eine der
bedeutendsten und wichtigsten literarischen Kommentare, die
mit dem Jahrhundert geführt worden sind.

In his contribution to one of the earliest major studies of Ludwig

Harig, Frank Schirrmacher was unequivocal in advocating the
considerable literary and moral qualities of the author’s
autobiographical novel, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt (1990):
‘Kein Autor ist bisher so weit gegangen in der ganz unaufgeregten,
lakonischen Art der Darstellung des Dritten Reiches’.2 This is high
praise indeed when one reflects both upon the myriad literary
treatments of the period and also upon the fact that Schirrmacher had
been at the vanguard of calls in the post-Wende period for a more
consciously aesthetic literary model to replace the political and moral
paradigms that had so dominated post-1945 German literature in East
and West. It is impossible to overlook the added irony here that Harig
himself had originally made his literary reputation as a disciple of
philosopher Max Bense and the Stuttgarter Schule, under the
influence of which he devoted himself to the production of avant-
garde texts that Schirrmacher amongst others appeared to be
advocating after 1989. Harig had been drawn to the concrete poetry of
Ernst Jandl and most particularly to the experimental poetry of
Raymond Queneau, which railed against the static nature of syntax
and vocabulary by adopting mathematical strategies to generate
literary texts. In an interview, Harig spoke of his enduring fascination
with language and how ‘die Magie, die von Wörtern, von der Sprache,
vom Erzählen ausgeht, ist bei mir unauslöschlich wirksam geblieben’

Frank Schirrmacher, ‘Halbe Ordnung, ganzes Leben: Ludwig Harig und die
Geschichte’, in Wörterspiel – Lebensspiel: Ein Buch über Ludwig Harig, ed. by
Alfred Diwersy (Homburg/Saar: Karlsberg, 1993), pp. 7-17 (p. 14).
Ibid., p. 16.
20 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

(LH, 41). By way of contrast, in a survey of Harig’s literary career the

exacting Marcel Reich-Ranicki declared himself decidedly
underwhelmed by the author’s own contribution to konkrete Dichtung.
Far from being entrancing, the critic adjudged Harig’s early efforts
‘Totgeburten’, although his assessment of these texts mellowed later
with the publication of Harig’s autobiographical novels: ‘[…]
Vielleicht war der lange Umweg tatsächlich nötig. Vielleicht brauchte
Harig die schwierigen Erfahrungen [mit konkreter Dichtung], um sich
der Eigenart seines Talents zu vergewissern’ (LH, 14).3 In truth,
Harig’s canon covers a broad spectrum, embracing essays and short
stories as well as poetry, but Reich-Ranicki is correct inasmuch as it is
the novels Ordnung ist das ganze Leben (1986), Weh dem, der aus der
Reihe tanzt and Wer mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf (1996) which
have brought him wider acclaim for precisely the reasons that
Schirrmacher has identified.
Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt represents an ideal
cornerstone for the present survey. Despite having abandoned the less
accessible aesthetic games of his early career, Harig still presents the
reader with something of a puzzle by defining the seemingly
unequivocally autobiographical account of his childhood as a
‘Roman’, thereby playing with traditional perceptions of the
autobiographical form: indeed, this categorisation pertains to each text
in his autobiographical trilogy. Various critics have stressed the
personal framework upon which each volume is crafted, but have
dealt with the identity of the narrator in contrasting ways. Frank
Schirrmacher, for example, is under no doubt as to the direct
correlation between the author and his narrator: ‘[…] Das ist ein Satz
des Erzählers, […] also ein Satz Ludwig Harigs’.4 Werner Jung,
however, provides a more nuanced appreciation of what Harig is
aiming to achieve:
Die Texte haben zwar einen hohen biographischen Anteil, suggerieren
jedoch von vornherein niemals die Idee einer
‘Selberlebensbeschreibung’. […] Hier wird keine Biographie in
chronologischer Ordnung mit teleologischem Finale berichtet, sondern
es werden die Brüche und Widersprüche von Personen, die
Ideosynkrasien [sic] in den Turbulenzen des 20. Jahrhunderts
geschildert. Und zwar als Roman, in erzählter Form. Darunter versteht

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, ‘Die Vergänglichkeit und die Ordnung’ in Ludwig Harig, pp.
Schirrmacher, ‘Halbe Ordung’, p. 13.
Ludwig Harig 21

Harig einen konstruktiven Akt: die literarische Umgestaltung bzw.

überhaupt Gestaltung von Erinnerungsfragmenten.

Although it is hard to concur with Jung’s suggestion that Weh dem,

der aus der Reihe tanzt never appears to read like an autobiography,
his analysis of the way in which the text has been constructed from
memory fragments is far more useful. By opting to categorise his text
as a novel, Harig is not suggesting that what is depicted is pure
invention: ‘Meine Bücher sind Romane, obwohl keine einzige
Episode erfunden ist’ (LH, 39). He is principally concerned with the
structural devices of a novel, which facilitate a far more accessible
engagement with the material than a merely documentary approach
could achieve:
[Ein Roman] ist das nachgedachte, nacherinnerte Leben. Das
nachgeschriebene, aber nicht das aufgeschriebene Leben, das
vielleicht ein Tagebuch wäre. Um romanhaft zu erzählen, muß man
der Suggestivkraft der Sprache mehr zutrauen als der
dokumentarischen Richtigkeit in sich selbst erklärender Literatur. Der
Leser muß sich im Text wiedererkennen können oder den eigenen
Vater, Großvater, die Mutter oder Tante. Er muß in den Personen
emotional mitleben können. […] Das rasche Erkennen des eigenen
Lebens im fremden ist das Entscheidende. Auch die Erzählstruktur des
Romans fehlt in den Berichten. Die plausible Erzählstruktur ergibt
sich aus der Bewegung der Erinnerung. (LH, 38) [original emphasis]

In this regard, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt anticipates the
approach adopted by most of the authors in the present survey in
giving shape to their memories.
As Jung has observed, Harig eschews a rigidly chronological
arrangement of his material, dividing the text fairly evenly into twelve
discrete chapters, each of which focuses on a particular theme –
signalled by programmatic headings such as ‘Juda verrecke!’ – while
simultaneously shedding light on the strands that underpin Weh dem,
der aus der Reihe tanzt as a whole, such as the seductive power of
language. Thus chapters variously examine Harig’s family
background and the political traditions inculcated into him, the
restoration of the Saarland to Germany in 1935 with overwhelming
public support in the plebiscite, the pageantry of National Socialism,
the onset of war and the consequences of anti-Semitism and
euthanasia. This collage of themes and events makes for an engaging
personal document, but one which conflates private and public
Werner Jung, ‘Erinnerung, Ordnung, Spiel’, in Sprache furs Leben - Wörter gegen
den Tod: Ein Buch über Ludwig Harig, ed. by Benno Rech (Blieskastel: Gollenstein,
1997), pp. 164-81 (p. 169).
22 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

perspectives on the history of the Nazi period. By not focusing solely

on his own experiences and placing them in a much broader context,
Harig’s account acquires a more universal dimension. Weh dem, der
aus der Reihe tanzt is thus both Bildungsroman and an analysis of a
generation, which is signalled indeed by the epigraph, a quotation
from Hitler in the Völkischer Beobachter: ‘Diese Jugend, die lernt ja
nichts anderes als deutsch denken, deutsch handeln. […] Und [diese
Knaben] werden nicht mehr frei, ihr ganzes Leben’ (WD, 5).6
Although one is aware that the text is firmly anchored in the author’s
own life – no attempt is made to conceal the biographical
correspondence between Harig and his narrator – one could equally
set Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt alongside works such as Günter
Grass’s Katz und Maus (1961) and Ödön von Horvath’s Jugend ohne
Gott (1938) as perceptive examinations of the susceptibility of a
generation to the trappings of totalitarian regimes. By the same token,
the knowledge that Harig is relaying personal experience serves to
enhance the impact of his analysis compared to the fictional renditions
of Grass and Horvath.
Although classifying Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt as a
novel could be seen as evasive in that it appears to free the author
from the constraints of having to guarantee absolute accuracy, Harig
implies in the interview quoted above that his decision ‘romanhaft zu
erzählen’ should actively improve, rather than impair, any claims to
authenticity. In this respect, his perception of how to handle
autobiography corresponds closely with that of Günter de Bruyn, as
articulated in his study Das erzählte Ich: Über Wahrheit und Dichtung
in der Autobiographie. As the title suggests, de Bruyn takes the
Goethean paradigm as his starting-point and examines the interplay
between the two fundamental elements of classical life-writing,
although one should make careful note of the crucial inversion. What
emerges strongly here, and in his own autobiographical volumes, is
the primacy of truth and authenticity, and the sense that Dichtung has
less to do with invention or fiction than with the way in which the
material is structured:
Banalität oder Langeweile zu erzählen, ohne banal oder langweilig zu
werden, ist eine Kunst, die, wenn sie gelingt, verdeutlicht, daß das
Erzählen von Wirklichkeit etwas anderes als diese ergibt. Denn aus
Geschehnisse oder Zuständen einen erzählenden Text zu machen,
heißt nicht nur, die Realität, soweit es geht, Wort werden zu lassen,

Ludwig Harig, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1994), p.
5. All references to this edition will appear in the text in the form (WD, 5).
Ludwig Harig 23

sondern auch, sie zu reduzieren und in eine Ordnung zu bringen, die

sie von Natur aus nicht hat. Auch wenn man das eigne Erleben nicht,
wie im Roman, durch Erfindung bereichert, reduziert oder verfremdet,
wird es durch Erzählen verändert, es wird neu und anders, eben
erzählbar, gemacht. Das Zu-Erzählende wird vom Erzähler sozusagen
gebändigt, er zwingt es in eine Form, die es vorher nicht hatte; er
bestimmt Anfang und Ende, bringt Details, wie das Wetter, die
Landschaft oder die Zeitgeschichte, in von ihm gewünschte
Zusammenhänge, so daß sie nicht nur für sich stehen, sondern eine
Bedeutung annehmen, und er legt die Schwerpunkte fest. (EI, 67)

It is this retrospective marshalling of the material in autobiography

that is redolent of the production of fiction, which for de Bruyn is
essentially little different from the approach adopted by historians:
‘Ein getreues Abbild des vergangenen Geschehens können
Historiographie und Autobiographie schon deshalb nicht geben, weil
sie erzählen und damit der Vergangenheit eine Form geben, die sie
von sich aus nicht hat’ (EI, 66). It is this same process that Harig
refers to in describing Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt as
‘nachgeschriebenes’ rather ‘aufgeschriebenes Leben’, and which for
Werner Jung represents ‘die literarische Umgestaltung bzw. überhaupt
Gestaltung von Erinnerungsfragmenten’.
Both Harig and de Bruyn illustrate that, in order to enhance
the resultant narrative and its accessibility as a text, the
autobiographer is forced to select his or her material and not just
attempt to list everything that occurred. Thus in the case of Weh dem,
der aus der Reihe tanzt, each chapter focuses on a particular
‘Schwerpunkt’, but the objective structuring of the material allows the
autobiographer to establish connections and juxtapositions that were
impossible to ascertain at the time, but which acquire a dramatic or
illuminating quality in the retrospective narrative. In the chapter
‘Siehst du im Osten das Morgenrot’, Harig draws a series of parallels,
the true significance of which can only be appreciated from the
narrative present. For the boys’ ‘abenteuerliche Indianer- und
Geländespiele’ (WD, 111) in the summer of 1939 are not only shown
as a more enjoyable variation on the paramilitary training they were
already undergoing as members of the Jungvolk, but are also
analogous to the ‘games’ being played by SS soldiers masquerading as
Poles in order to engineer the outbreak of war. As Hitler is making his
infamous speech on 1 September 1939, the boys’ games collide
fatefully with the real world, although the full ramifications are
unclear to them:
Plötzlich kam alles anders. Als wir tags darauf in den Wald
eindrangen, wurden wir gewahr, daß sich etwas verändert hatte, ja daß
24 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

es von nun an nicht mehr so sein würde wie früher. Wir stiegen am
Schächtchen zum Brennenden Berg empor, umgingen den Steilhang,
durchquerten das Tannenstück, brachen durchs Unterholz, und da auf
einmal, hinter dem Bunker am Eingang der Klamme, regten sich
uniformierte Gestalten. […] Es waren nicht Hirschbacher Rattenköpfe
in Indianerkleidern und auch nicht Dudweilerer Jungvolkpimpfe in
Sommerkluft: Was wir sahen, war anderes Kriegsvolk. Wir sahen
grüngraue Röcke mit Silberknöpfen. Es waren Soldaten. Es waren
Soldaten der Heeresgruppe West, die am 25. August in die Bunker des
Westwalls eingerückt waren. (WD, 118)

The significance of such developments eludes the boys at the time; the
episode merely seems exciting. To Harig looking back fifty years
later, and to a contemporary readership, however, the juxtaposition of
events possesses an inherent dramatic tension one would expect of
fiction, as well as indicating how susceptible the boys were to the
Nazis’ exploitation of their innocent adolescent attraction to adventure
stories. To have restricted the narrative focus to Harig’s private
experiences alone would have reduced the impact of such incidents
and made for a far less compelling account. As it is, the narrative
nears a point ‘an dem der Leser der Geschichte einen Sinn
abgewinnen kann’.7
In addition to producing a text that encourages interpretation,
the structuring of the material in this fashion also allows the author to
examine the nature of what he remembers; in other words, to test the
authenticity of his account, the Wahrheit. Despite averring that
nothing in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt has been invented, Harig
constantly places his memories under scrutiny, making use of
contemporary materials such as newspaper articles or photographs to
test the accuracy of his recollections; in this way, he never appears
complacent. In particular, Harig returns to the locations of his
childhood and, where possible, speaks to people there about what they
themselves remember of the time. He revisits the scenes of the
innocent ‘Indianerspiele’, the town of Idstein where both his boarding
school and the dreaded Kalmenhof – a mental asylum from where
patients were transported to their death – were located, and also to the
woods near Hülen where his liberation from National Socialism
occurred. The interplay between past and present is common to each
volume of Harig’s trilogy, which in itself is not an unusual feature of
autobiography, as most of the texts in the present study reveal. As de
Bruyn observes: ‘Dieses ständige Spielen mit dem Damals und dem
Heute gibt der Autobiographie ihren besonderen Ton’ (EI, 65).

Ludwig Harig, ‘Erzähltes Leben’, Freitag, 28 June 1996, quoted in Jung, p. 170.
Ludwig Harig 25

Nevertheless, it is striking how often the formulation ‘jetzt, fünfzig

Jahre später’ (WD, 180) recurs in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt,
for it reveals the rigour with which Harig works to authenticate his
memories. Thus the reader must concede that this is no naïve attempt
either at self-justification or to rewrite history.
The chapter ‘Nix wie hemm’ provides the finest example of
Harig’s reconstruction of the period, documenting how the young boy
experienced the campaign that preceded the plebiscite about the future
of the Saarland. Indeed, it reflects precisely that fine line between
historiography and autobiography that de Bruyn has remarked upon. If
the author in the narrative present is not naïve, his younger self most
definitely was at the time under scrutiny, utterly transfixed and
confused in equal measure by the rhetoric:
Was sollte ich davon halten? Ich war ein kleiner Junge, ich konnte
nicht wissen, was dieses Nationale, was dieses Demokratische
bedeutete, wie weit das Sozialistische in beider Namen voneinander
entfernt lag. Ich buchstabierte auf meine kindliche Weise an den
unverständlichen Wörtern herum, kam aber zu keiner Lösung. Nur
dieses ‘Nix wie hemm!’ war ein handfestes, ein greifbares Wort, das
keine Zweifel aufkommen ließ. Auch wenn es ein Heimkehren ins
Reich und nicht ein Heimkehren zu Vater und Mutter unter das
häusliche Dach bedeutete: Heimkehren ist gut, Heimkehren ist schön,
Heimkehren ist etwas Beglückendes, läßt das Herz höher schlagen und
den Puls an den Schläfen klopfen. (WD, 56-7)

In the narrative present, Harig pours over contemporary newspaper

articles and photographs in order to supplement his account and
compensate for his understandable ignorance and bewilderment at the
time. In particular, with the aid of the documents he reconstructs a
picture of the meeting, in his home of Sulzbach, of the ‘Einheitsfront’
(WD, 60) who opposed National Socialism, while he also imagines his
father and grandfather at a rally in Koblenz addressed by Hitler: ‘Ich
stelle mir die Männer vor, die diesem Führer lauschten, die Fahne
grüßten, im Fackelschein durch die Nacht marschierten und das
Saarlied sangen’ (WD, 58). The evocation of the turbulent period
recalls Grass’s descriptions of Danzig from the childhood perspective
of his protagonists. If Harig displays none of Oskar Matzerath’s
picaresque qualities in Die Blechtrommel, his seduction by National
Socialism and the resultant moral distortions he experiences can be
compared to those of Heini Pilenz in Katz und Maus. Poring over
various newspapers and photographs, Harig extrapolates a more
panoramic picture from his own, naturally more limited, memories,
26 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

but is unable to resolve satisfactorily his frustration that the events

seem as incomprehensible now as they did to the seven-year-old then:
Ich sitze da, den Kopf in die Hände gestützt, und lese. Mehr als ein
halbes Jahrhundert keucht und ächzt vorüber und hat es nicht zu Atem
gebracht. Nein, die großen Worte leben noch immer nicht, es ist kein
Hauch in sie gefahren, sie stehen steif und ungerührt, sie leben als
Buchstaben weiter. Ich lese in den Zeitungen von damals, in meinem
Kopf gehen Menschen ein und aus, doch es sind nicht wirkliche
Menschen, die ich gekannt habe, ich sehe nur unbekannte Gesichter,
höre nur fremde Laute, sie sind auf eine seltsame Art schrill und
widersprechen sich auf schamlose Weise. (WD, 62)

On the one hand, he is able to imbue his recollections with sufficient

form and colour to evoke a picture of the period in his account, and
yet there is a deep dissatisfaction that everything ultimately remains
rather too vague: ‘Alles ist schwarzweiß vor meinen Augen wie die
alten Fotos, auf denen nicht zu sehen ist, ob die Fahnen schwarzweiß
oder schwarzrotgold in der Sulzbacher Augustsonne glänzten’ (WD,
62-3). Yet it remains a fine example of the way in which Wahrheit and
Dichtung are conflated in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, even if
the only certainty in this particular instance is the overwhelming
support in the Saarland for a return to the German fold: ‘Am 13.
Januar 1935 war die Frist abgelaufen. Das Saarvolk trat an die
Wahlurnen und stimmte ab: 90,8 Prozent für die Rückgliederung an
Deutschland, 8,8 Prozent für den Verbleib unter
Völkerbundverwaltung, 0,4 Prozent für den Anschluß an Frankreich’
(WD, 66). It is as evocative of the time as Grass’s snapshots of
If the depiction of the Saar plebsicite is relayed from the
relative detachment of an innocent bystander, Harig’s examination of
his direct participation in the Zeitgeist, employing the same dual
temporal perspective, makes no effort to conceal either his complicity
or his sense of shame: he was not always so innocent. In his analysis
of Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, which he defines as Harig’s
‘Gewissensprüfung’, Hermann Lenz describes the author as a
‘schonungsloser Registrator’ of the time, ‘besonders, was ihn selbst
betrifft’ (LH, 48).8 It is this ‘Schonungslosigkeit’ that makes Weh
dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt such a compelling analysis of personal
complicity with National Socialism and its impact is undiminished by
its apparent status as a novel. Indeed, it invites comparison with

Hermann Lenz, ‘Ludwig Harigs Gewissensprüfung: Über seinen Roman Weh dem,
der aus der Reihe tanzt’, in Ludwig Harig, pp. 47-50.
Ludwig Harig 27

Alfred Andersch’s Die Kirschen der Freiheit (1952), which

contemporary reviews similarly praised for its candour. Harig sets the
tone from the outset with his sudden recollection of René, the boy
who remains synonymous with the author’s guilt and whose unknown
fate underpins the text:
Mehr als fünfzig Jahre habe ich nicht an den kleinen René gedacht.
Mit dem ersten Schultag fing sein Unglück an, wie habe ich es
vergessen können! Sein Unglück ist nicht zu meinem Glück
ausgeschlagen, wie man damals hätte denken können; was ich ihm
angetan habe, ist nicht wiedergutzumachen. (WD, 7)

On the first day at school, while all the other children stood with their
mothers, the narrator recalls René was dropped off by an elegant
woman in a French car, and from that day onward was forever alone:
‘Er hatte sich abseits von uns an die äußerste Hausecke gestellt […]
und sah noch bleicher und ernster aus als wir anderen’ (WD, 9). René
was destined to be cast in the role of victim, since he was ‘klein’ and
‘schmächtig’ (WD, 9), and perhaps most significantly of all his name
was French:
Immer blieb er übrig. Und hatten wir uns in langer Reihe zu zweien
hintereinander aufgestellt und es fehlte niemand, so daß für ihn ein
Nachbar hätte da sein müssen: Es war niemals jemand zu finden, der
sich neben ihn in die Reihe gestellt hätte. […] Eher kam ein
ermogeltes Dreierglied zustande, als daß sich aus der geraden Anzahl
lauter Zweireihen gebildet hätten. Der Kleine in seinem hübschen
Kleidchen blieb übrig. Er war überzählig, er war überflüssig. An
diesem ersten Schultag hatten sich die Banknachbarn im Nu
zusammengefunden, schon vor der Treppe, die uns hinaufführte in
eine neue, unbekannte Welt, hatten wir Fühlung genommen,
Bündnisse geschlossen, waren Spießgesellen geworden, paarweise
aneinandergeschweißt, und alle zusammen waren wir die Meute, die
ihr Opfer braucht. (WD, 11)

Although the description of children’s cruelty is by no means original,

as in Grass’s Danzig novels it is the historical context that makes the
constant repetition of terms denoting René’s exclusion so chilling.
Although nobody would be his friend, he was still indispensable: ‘Er
war so nützlich in unserem deutschen Charakterstück, in dem es ja nie
an einem Außenseiter fehlen darf, sei es, daß er Jude, Zigeuner oder
Franzose ist, zumal wenn er so scharf gezeichnet ist wie René’ (WD,
The themes of Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt as a whole,
as well as the clues to Harig’s motivation for writing, are distilled into
this opening chapter, the programmatic nature of which is signalled by
its bearing the same title as the novel. The problems of recreating a
28 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

picture of the past are addressed, along with Harig’s fruitless efforts to
establish what happened to René. Interviewing people in the village,
the author can find no evidence of René’s family having ever owned a
French car, and learns only that the boy’s mother may have suffered
mental illness and fatefully been institutionalised as a result. A class
photograph proves just as unhelpful: ‘Doch je aufmerksamer ich in die
vertrauten Gesichter schaue, um so gründlicher zerfasern mir die
Bilder vor den Augen, und mir scheint, als sei das Leben trügerischer
als die Erinnerung’ (WD, 23-4). He recognises all but two faces, but is
uncertain which one is René. It is no surprise when his quest for
information about the orphaned boy comes to a bureaucratic dead-end:
‘Die Akte ist ausgesondert’ (WD, 25). The only certainty is that racial
segregation compelled René to step out of line and that the narrator
himself, who suppressed any sympathies he had for the boy, was no
less culpable than the others in rejecting him: ‘Ich roch den Duft der
Seife, mit der er gewaschen worden war, ein feines Parfüm, das ihm
entströmte, es gefiel mir, so nahe bei ihm zu sein, doch als er mir
seine Hand auf den Arm legen wollte, rückte ich von ihm ab und stieß
ihn aus der Bank’ (WD, 22). Shortly thereafter, in the wake of the
Saar plebiscite, René disappeared and, to the narrator’s shame, was
expunged from his memory for fifty years: ‘Die Vernunft schwieg.
Die Erinnerung schwieg. Das Gewissen schwieg’ (WD, 17).
The sudden recollection of René unsettles the author,
manifesting itself in a gruesome nightmare, and thereby stimulates his
personal reckoning with a childhood spent under the influence of
National Socialism. Thus he reflects upon his time at the boarding
school at Idstein and draws parallels between the ease with which
René’s disappearance was absorbed and the way in which he
perceived events at the Kalmenhof:
[…] Ich dachte an kahle Zellen im Kalmenhof in Idstein, der
Nervenklinik, wo wir täglich die Kranken sahen, die in gestreiften
Leinenanzügen durch den Krankenhausgarten schlurften. […] Immer
neue Transporte kamen an, doch das Haus wurde nicht voll. Am
Rathaus lasen wir die amtlichen Mitteilungsblätter für Sterbefälle: Die
Liste der Toten aus dem Kalmenhof war immer seitenlang.
Es wurde gemunkelt, [der Leiter] lasse Autobusse voller Kranker nach
Hadamar transportieren, wo sie auf dem Mönchsberg in
Sterbekammern gebracht, mit Spritzen getötet, in Krematorien
verbrannt, schließlich in den Lüften aufgehen würden als ein violetter
Rauch, der die ganze Umgebung mit Ruß und Gestank verpeste, bis
nach Limburg zöge und schon dem Bischof in die Nase gezogen sei.
Ludwig Harig 29

Was wir gesehen hatten, behielten wir für uns, anfangs sprach keiner
zu anderen davon, hörte keiner von anderen darüber, später erkannte
ich, daß jeder etwas bemerkt hatte, was ihn hätte stutzig machen
müssen. Dann, als wir freimütig darüber sprachen, waren wir längst
von der Notwendigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Rassenhygiene
überzeugt und hätten selbst den Praktiken der wilden Euthanasie
zugestimmt, die in den letzten Kriegsjahren auch im Kalmenhof
praktiziert wurde. (WD, 175-8)

Harig makes no attempt to defend his willing suppression of the

horrors committed in the name of National Socialism or his part in it.
This refusal to absolve himself from blame is underlined by the
closing section of Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt in which he
concedes: ‘Auch ich hatte die Finger im Spiel, und ich spielte auf
meine Weise mit’ (WD, 271). He can describe what occurred, but
offers no explanation. Reflecting once more upon the fate of René and
the victims of Kalmenhof, he states simply: ‘Nein, ich kann nichts
ungeschehen machen’ (WD, 272). Thus Weh dem, der aus der Reihe
tanzt starts and ends with a sincere acknowledgement of guilt that can
never be expiated.9 Indeed, it drives the narrative and in this way is
very reminiscent of Katz und Maus. Just as Harig is unable to atone
for his persecution of René, so the narrator of Grass’s Novelle is left
regretting the way in which he and others had treated their eccentric
contemporary, Mahlke, with the enlarged Adam’s apple, who like
René had tried so hard to fit in. Pilenz, who may have been
responsible for the apparent death of Mahlke when the latter dives to a
submarine wreck and disappears, is racked with guilt like Harig.
Rather than suppressing his guilt any longer, he opts to record his
experiences: ‘Ich […] muß nun schreiben’.10 But Pilenz, again like
Harig, is forced to admit that he cannot ultimately right the wrongs
done unto others: ‘Wer schreibt mir einen guten Schluß?’.11 Despite
his desperate efforts to track Mahlke down, he knows his efforts will
be in vain, and so his missing contemporary becomes the
personification of his guilty conscience. René fulfils the same role for
Comparisions of Harig’s text with Katz und Maus are
intriguing, for both deal with patterns of persecution and the moral

It is perhaps interesting at this point to note Anderson’s reading of Paul de Man’s
interpretation of Rousseau’s Confessions in which the expression of guilt often
appears insincere and staged: ‘The point therefore is not what Rousseau confesses but
the act of confession, the drama of the self’. See Anderson, p. 51.
Günter Grass, Katz und Maus (Darmstadt and Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1986), p. 5.
Ibid., p. 111.
30 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

perversion of youth under National Socialism. Nevertheless, by virtue

of its autobiographical nature Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt has
far closer ties with Andersch’s Die Kirschen der Freiheit. Classified
as a ‘Bericht’ – presumably to underline its authenticity – and widely
praised by contemporary critics for its reputedly honest exploration of
its author’s involvement with National Socialism, Die Kirschen der
Freiheit now appears a decidedly inauthentic response, ironically
surpassed by Harig’s ‘Roman’. Andersch seems more concerned with
aesthetics, dwelling at length on existentialism and justifying his
desertion in those terms. Irrespective of whether his desertion was
anything other than a question of self-preservation, which in itself is
reason enough, Andersch’s evocation of the eponymous cherries at the
conclusion seems to owe more to Arthur Rimbaud’s sonnet ‘Le
dormeur du val’ than any genuine moment of existential freedom. The
exaggerated aestheticism of the scene – with Andersch stumbling
across a blossoming cherry tree, a metaphorical oasis in the ‘Wildnis’
– fails to convince, imbuing the moment with too much symbolism for
it to appear genuine: ‘In der Mulde des jenseitigen Talhangs fand ich
einen wilden Kirschbaum, an dem die reifen Früchte glasig und hellrot
hingen. Das Gras rings um den Baum war sanft und abendlich grün’
(KF, 130).12 When one considers the historical context within which
Andersch was writing Die Kirschen der Freiheit, trying to reconcile
his left-wing politics with the existing Cold War atmosphere whilst at
the same time denying any complicity with Nazism, it reinforces the
view of the text as a piece of carefully contrived literary opportunism
rather than true autobiography. The sharpness of the apparently
luscious cherries thus neatly reflects his awkward position, puncturing
the idyllic illusion, just as Rimbaud’s sleeping soldier in the serene
valley is, in fact, dead: ‘Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,/
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit’.13
For Harig, his liberation also occurs in nature, but its
depiction is less suffocated by symbolism. Indeed, as the author
observes: ‘Ich hätte nicht gedacht, daß die Freiheit etwas so Banales
sein würde’ (WD, 234). Having escaped from an American truck
carrying German POWs, Harig and his companion make it to the edge
of a wood and lie in the grass staring up at the clouds in the sky: ‘Das

Alfred Andersch, Die Kirschen de Freiheit (Diogenes: Zurich, 1968). The final
section is called ‘Die Wildnis’, pp. 117-30. All references to the text will appear in the
form (KF, 130).
Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Le dormeur du val’, in Anthologie de la poésie française, ed. by
Georges Pompidou (Hachette: Paris, 1961), p. 441.
Ludwig Harig 31

also war die Freiheit, sich ausstrecken im Gras unter blühenden

Apfelbäumen’ (WD, 235). Feeling ‘zum erstenmal frei’ (WD, 234)
Harig finds that the bellicose poems in an anthology presented to the
young boy soldiers earlier appear to have been transformed: ‘Auf
einmal wirkten sie gar nicht mehr so waffenstrotzend wie noch in den
letzten Kriegswochen’ (WD, 236)’. Even here there is an intriguing
echo of Andersch’s text, for where the latter appears to employ an
allusion to Rimbaud in his moment of freedom, Harig finds his own
situation mirrored in a Hölderlin poem: ‘Das Gedicht Hölderlins aber
[…] spricht von Jünglingen, die im Gras liegen und schlümmern’
(WD, 236-7). Where Harig’s account convinces, however, is in his
refusal to allow the description of this moment to deflect away from
his involvement in National Socialism. It is presented soberly as an
undeniable turning point in his life, but his observation that the poem
induces in him ‘den Schlaf des Vergessens’ (WD, 237) does not in
any way imply that he believes he had been washed clean. The
apparent ease with which Harig and his family were able to forget the
past is heavily criticised in the remainder of Weh dem, der aus der
Reihe tanzt, especially with regard to the strange, disturbing visits
made by an acquaintance of Harig’s father. He would sit silently in the
corner of the kitchen, bearing the scars of Nazi brutality on his body:
Haben wir über ihn gesprochen? Haben wir uns je mit seinem Leiden
auseinandergesetzt? Nein, wir haben ihn vergessen und sein Leiden
auch. Erst heute fällt mir alles wieder ein, und wenn ich so angestrengt
wie in diesem Augenblick an ihn denke, höre ich seine schweren
Atemzüge und sehe seine gefurchte Stirn, hinter der er Gedanken
wälzte, die unausgesprochen blieben. Damals scheuten wir uns, ihn
danach zu fragen. Vielleicht hatten wir Angst vor einer Antwort, die
unsere Schuld bezeugt hätte. Ich kann mich drehen und wenden, wie
ich will, heute ist es zu spat. (WD, 242)

Idyllic though his freedom may have been, Harig is at pains to reveal
how it too was illusory and in no way alleviated his guilt.
As a reflection of how he does not seek to abdicate his
responsibility, Harig tackles his liberation once more at the beginning
of the third volume in the trilogy, Wer mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf
(1996), reiterating how ‘an jenem Tag am Waldrand von Hülen war
ich frei von Zwang und Gewalt, doch nicht frei von Schuld’ (WM,
11).14 Yet not everyone is convinced by Harig’s description, as is
evidenced by the response of a teacher at a reading:

Ludwig Harig, Wer mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer,
1999). All page references to this edition will appear in the text in the form (WM, 11).
32 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

‘Entweder sind Sie ein oberflächlicher Mensch, an dem alles abläuft

wie an einer Regenhaut, oder Sie sind ein Lügner, ein raffinierter
Provokateur, der seinen Lesern eine sentimentale Damaskusgeschichte
auftischt, eine Bekehrung aus heiterm Himmel, in welcher der böse
Saulus zum frommen Paulus wird’, wetterte [der Lehrer] und
attackierte mich mit schamlosen Vorwürfen. (WM, 10)

The author’s irritation is clear, and understandable up to a point, for

one cannot overlook the astringent self-criticism that pervades Weh
dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt. Once again, a comparison with Die
Kirschen der Freiheit uncovers the considerable candour of Harig’s
account and calls into question the validity of the teacher’s criticism.
Whereas Andersch seeks to distance himself from the Nazi state at
every opportunity, rejecting his ‘sogenannten Kameraden’ (KF, 63) –
a phrase he repeats on a number of occasions – and professing that he
responded to ‘den totalen Staat mit der totalen Introversion’ (KF, 46),
Harig at no time attempts to suggest that he was anything other than
an enthusiastic young Nazi. One need only consider his enthusiastic
Referat on the racial peculiarities of Jewishness – ‘Ich hatte mich in
einen Rausch gesteigert, innerhalb einer Minute war ich zum
Propagandaredner geworden’ (WD, 201) – as an example of how he
had ‘die Finger im Spiel’ (WD, 271). Harig does not get lost in
intellectual abstraction. He simply presents events as he remembers
them, tests the accuracy of his memories as much as possible by
facilitating the interplay of past and present in the narrative. In
keeping with the detached tone he maintains throughout, no claims are
made as to what the text should achieve. He thereby provides an
objective, credible, and at times severely self-critical, account, but
without ever offering any explanation for how he was seduced and
why he behaved as he did. Most importantly of all, there is no trace of
self-justification. It is left to the readers to judge it, even if they may
ultimately be as unconvinced as the young teacher.
By way of contrast, in Die Kirschen der Freiheit Andersch
frequently appears evasive. By purporting to tell the truth, one senses
that his account veers towards self-exoneration:
Dieses Buch will nichts als die Wahrheit sagen, eine ganz private und
subjektive Wahrheit. Aber ich bin überzeugt, daß jede private und
subjektive Wahrheit, wenn sie nur wirklich wahr ist, zur Erkenntnis
der objektiven Wahrheit beiträgt. (KF, 71)

Although claims as to the universal application of autobiographical

accounts is by no means unusual, it is rather inappropriate, especially
in the modern era perhaps, for the autobiographer to make these
claims so boldly on his or her own behalf without corroborative
Ludwig Harig 33

evidence or issuing caveats about the accuracy of what is recalled, as

Harig does. The weakness of Die Kirschen der Freiheit stems from
the absence of any real self-interrogation and the attendant attempt to
imbue events with some deeper significance. Andersch’s absolute
certainty strikes a discordant note, not least when he also professes
that his book has ‘die Aufgabe, darzustellen, daß ich, einem
unsichtbaren Kurs folgend, in einem bestimmten Augenblick die Tat
gewählt habe, die meinem Leben Sinn verlieh und von da an zur
Achse wurde, um die sich das Rad meines Seins dreht’ (KF, 71). On
the face of it, Harig’s liberation can also be seen as an ‘Achse’, but he
neither buries the past thereafter – his guilt about René in particular
haunts him too much – nor claims to have been following a
mysterious ‘unsichtbaren Kurs’. There was no other agency at work in
his life but his own convictions. By way of contrast, despite
Andersch’s own claims on behalf of his ‘Bericht’, and
notwithstanding the valuable insights it affords into the period, Die
Kirschen der Freiheit rarely appears more than an aesthetic construct,
more Dichtung than Wahrheit.
Whereas Andersch claims to have achieved inner emigration
in the Third Reich – ‘Der Ausweg, den ich wählte, hieß Kunst’ (KF,
45) – Harig was absorbed fully into the totalitarian system of Nazi
Germany and does not seek to conceal this fact. As a consequence,
one of the most compelling aspects of Weh dem, der aus der Reihe
tanzt is the picture of totalitarianism it paints, and those features that
so entranced the young author. Primary amongst these is the seductive
power of language. Harig’s career has constantly revolved around the
myriad qualities of language, as we have seen from his association
with the Stuttgarter Schule, so it is no surprise that Weh dem, der aus
der Reihe tanzt should explore the origins of this enduring fascination.
Most of the chapters bear as titles contemporary slogans and sayings
with strong propagandistic overtones, the tenor of which George
Orwell adapted for the fictional ‘Newspeak’ in 1984. Alongside the
eponymous statement, Harig selects headings such as ‘Wer nicht
arbeitet, der soll auch nicht essen’ and ‘Unsere Fahne flattert uns
voran’ to shed light on how, in the absence of strong corrective
influences, his generation were susceptible to the conditioning
signalled by Hitler in the quotation which forms the epigraph to Weh
dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt: ‘Diese Jugend, die lernt ja nichts
anderes als deutsch denken, deutsch handeln’ (WD, 5). Christian
Bergmann has produced a searching study of the formative power of
language in totalitarianism, focusing in particular on its use in Nazi
34 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Germany and the GDR as an ‘Instrument der Macht’.15 Bergmann

teases out aspects specific to both totalitarian regimes in his analysis,
but his general findings on the way language structures were
predicated on the integration of the individual into the collective in
both dictatorial systems, together with his exploration of the various
means by which this process was achieved, correlate closely with
some of Harig’s experiences as articulated in Weh dem, der aus der
Reihe tanzt.
Bergmann’s examination of the ritualisation of language,
which was designed to embed each individual firmly into the socio-
political system, recalls Harig’s early school experiences where group
recitation was practised and only René, fatefully, refused to
Wir liebten das Sprechen im Chor, den gedehnten Leiergesang, der so
praktisch war. Ja, wir schätzten ihn sehr, weil wir so mühelos in ihn
hineinschlüpfen konnten, ohne daß Herr Peiter es bemerkte. Es war
der namenlose Singsang der Menge, in dem jeder seinen eigenen
Mund verlor, wenn er nicht gerade Vorbeter oder Wortführer sein
wollte. Nur René betete die Litaneien nicht mit […]. Er möge den
Mund aufmachen, sagte der Lehrer, er möge sich an uns ein Beispiel
nehmen und nicht aus der Reihe tanzen. (WD, 19-20)

The process not only fostered a sense of belonging to the

‘Gemeinschaft der Klasse’ (WD, 20), within which one could abdicate
responsibility, but also, as evidenced by the case of the nonconformist
René, served the equally useful purpose of revealing the consequences
of stepping out of line. As Bergmann underlines, language rituals in
such repressive climates do not fulfil a communicative, but rather a
formative psychological function:
Die Sprache teilt [bei rituellen Kommunikationshandlungen] nichts
mehr mit, wie es sonst in der Kommunikation üblich ist. Statt dessen
übt sie eine vereinnahmende Kraft aus. Dadurch wirkt die Sprache
verhaltenssteuernd, und das macht sie außerordentlich wichtig.

In particular, it is in the chapters dealing with his time at Idstein that

Harig provides substantial empirical evidence to support Bergmann’s
argument. Indeed, he makes the level of conditioning to which he was
subjected explicit, by entitling one of these important chapters ‘Ein
pawlowscher Hund’.

Christian Bergmann, ‘Totalitarismus und Sprache’, Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 38
(1999), 18-24 (p. 18)
Ibid., p. 19.
Ludwig Harig 35

In music lessons with the fanatical Toni Piroth, the boys sang
songs that conveyed the ‘völkischen Werte aus den Idealen der
Jugendbewegung’ (WD, 161) which they did not have the capacity to
grasp, but which in the case of Harig at least entranced him just the
Ich weiß bis heute nicht genau, wovon Toni Piroth sprach, wenn er
diese Werte und Güter beschwor, es war für mich etwas Ungewisses,
etwas Verschwommenes, das aber, in großen Worten und im Stabreim
ausgedrückt, für meine Ohren wunderbar klang. […] Piroth sang vor,
Piroth sprach vor, ich sang mit, ich sprach mit, ich hatte kein Gespür
für den Kitsch in diesen Sprüchen und Gesängen, hörte nicht die
verlogenen Worte, nicht die falschen Töne. Ich nahm sie gierig in
mich auf, ich wurde ganz satt davon. (WD, 162)

What is more, Bergmann argues, the formulaic, clichéd nature of these

‘verlogenen Worte’ facilitated ‘das Ausschalten eines anderen
Denkens’, especially in the absence of any external moral agent
providing an alternative model.17 In his allegory on fascism, Jugend
ohne Gott, Ödön von Horváth’s narrator, a teacher, finds himself at
odds with his class, disturbed both by their innate aggression and
passive absorption of the propaganda. Tellingly, he employs a
linguistic metaphor to illustrate the differences between himself and
this generation: ‘Ich rede eine andere Sprache’.18 Unbeknownst to the
narrator, a small group of his pupils do speak his language and form a
‘Klub’ committed to the preservation of the humanistic ideals he
espouses, which doubtless reflects the author’s inherent optimism that
the evil would not endure. In ‘Ein pawlowscher Hund’, Harig devotes
some time to the fate of Willi Graf, one of the key figures in the
‘Weiße Rose’ and whose fate he juxtaposes with that of René. He
therefore reveals that there were indeed those who spoke ‘eine andere
Sprache’ in the Third Reich, but crucially for him, they had no direct
impact on his life.19 Thus, while the ‘Weiße Rose’ and the
‘Edelweißpiraten’ were agitating against the Nazi regime and René
was being persecuted, Harig and his schoolmates were dutifully
digesting Goebbels’s infamous speech in the wake of the defeat at
Der Lautsprecher des Radioapparates war bis zum Anschlag
aufgedreht, es dröhnte und schepperte, die Fenster standen weit offen,

Ibid., p. 20.
Ödön von Horváth, Jugend ohne Gott (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1994), p. 16.
It is interesting to note here that in Zwischenbilanz, Günter de Bruyn encountered
two teachers who resemble Horváth’s fictional narrator in activating the minds of
their charges.
36 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

als sollten auch die verschlafenen Idsteiner Bürger diese Kunde vom
totalen Krieg vernehmen. Im tosenden Geschrei der Parteigenossen,
das uns ansteckte und zu Händeklatschen und Trampeln mit den
Füßen aufreizte, bekannte Goebbels seine fanatische Entschlossenheit,
mit Sehnsucht erwarte er die Stunde, in der der Führer die neuen
Waffen austeile und seinen Truppen wieder den Befehl zum Angriff
geben könne […]. (WD, 170-1)

The depiction of Harig’s susceptibility to propaganda in Weh

dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt reflects what Bergmann has identified as
the capacity for language in Nazi Germany – the vernacular famously
defined by Victor Klemperer as ‘Lingua Tertii Imperii’ (LTI) – to
prioritise emotion over intellectual reflection: ‘Sie sollte nicht zum
Denken anregen; ihr Ziel bestand vielmehr darin, Massen in einen
rauschhaften Zustand zu versetzen’.20 Nowhere is this more apparent
than in the disturbing chapter ‘Juda verrecke!’, which documents the
young author’s unquestioning adoption of anti-Semitic attitudes. The
chapter relates Harig’s selection to present a paper on Hans Günther’s
Rassenkunde des jüdischen Volkes and the enthusiasm with which he
ultimately embraced his task. The most unsettling aspect of the
chapter derives from the young Harig’s systematic suppression of his
innate sense that the theories posited in the book are at odds with
empirical reality. As a young boy, Harig had only had the most
positive of associations with Jews, recalling with a measure of
fondness ‘feine, freundliche Menschen’ (WD, 185) who had run
Levy’s clothes store, his mother’s favourite shop:
Behagliche, wohltuende Viertelstunden bei Levys! Der Geruch nach
Mottenkugeln und Appretur zog in meine Nase ein, es waren scharfe
und doch angenehme Gerüche […]. Von Mutter wußte ich, daß Herr
Rothenburg Jude war, wie schon Herr Wallenstein vor ihm und Herr
Levy vor Herrn Wallenstein Juden gewesen waren. Mutter hatte mir in
leisem Tonfall und mit einem seltsamen Klang in der Stimme davon
gesprochen, so daß ich das geheimnisvolle Entzücken an Herrn
Rothenburgs Duftpalast für ein Gefühl halten mußte, wie es nur in
jüdischen Umgebungen geweckt wird. (WD, 186)

Misunderstanding his mother’s surreptitious observations about Herr

Rothenburg, Harig savours this ‘jüdisch[e] Entzücken’ (WD, 186)
until he sees, much later, a graffito declaring ‘Die Juden sind unser
Unglück’ (WD, 184) and feels ashamed of his previously positive
perception of the Jews. Harig’s sudden shame provides further
substantiation of Bergmann’s thesis on the transformative power of

Bergmann, p. 24; Victor Klemperer, LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen (Leipzig:
Aufbau, 1975).
Ludwig Harig 37

language in a totalitarian context, and the chapter charts the steadily

changing connotations of Jewishness for the author in the increasingly
anti-Semitic climate.
As he begins to research his paper, Harig is struck by the way
Günther’s racial ‘theory’ clashes with his own experiences. He
juxtaposes images of ruthless Jewish merchants with the friendly Herr
Rothenburg, has reservations about the ability to detect Jews by their
physiological appearance and is especially troubled by the suggestions
that they have a distinctive smell – ‘Und am Geruch, sagt Dr Günther,
am Geruch erkenne man sie am ehesten’ (WD, 197) – when his
memories are of the pleasant ‘Duftpalast’ at Levys’. But his complete
immersion in the book inexorably, and chillingly, effects a change in
his perceptions, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary:
Was sollte ich denken? Nichts anderes konnte die Wahrheit sein als
das, was dieses Buch mit wissenschaftlichem Titel, 305 Abbildungen,
Schlagwörterverzeichnis und einem Motto aus Goethes Dichtung und
Wahrheit ausführlich beschrieb. Ich las und war verhext. (WD, 190)

In the ensuing presentation, Harig enthusiastically regurgitates

what he has read and reiterates the persuasive power of the text
he has been reading:
Aus meinem Mund sprudelten die Thesen Dr. Günthers, über die
Lippen sprangen seine Argumente, drängten sich Bilder und
Vergleiche, und so eitel er mir auch erschienen war, wie er dastand in
meinem Halbschlaf und eine Idee beschwor, ich mußte ihm folgen in
seinen Beispielen und Beweisen, ich hatte keine Wahl. Ja, es mußte
wohl sein, zum Schutze des deutschen Blutes, der deutschen Ehre.
Doch wußte ich, was das war: deutsches Blut? Wußte ich, was das
bedeutete: deutsche Ehre? Ich hatte mich in einen Rausch gesteigert,
innerhalb einer Minute war ich zum Propagandaredner geworden […].
(WD, 201)

It is an insightful depiction of the morally distorting effects of

propaganda on innocent minds in the Third Reich, exploring the way
in which childhood perceptions unencumbered by prejudice were
displaced by the most unsavoury of values. In Jugend ohne Gott,
Horváth’s narrator is dismayed at the way his charges recycle racist
slogans gleaned from the radio and the newspapers in their geography
essays – ‘Alle Neger sind hinterlistig, feig, und faul’ – and in Weh
dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt Harig describes his own susceptibility to
equally distasteful attitudes, but those which the State held to be
38 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

wholly commensurate with notions of ‘deutsch denken’ and ‘deutsch

handeln’ (WD, 5).21
Harig’s description of his ‘conversion’ to the extreme
perceptions of National Socialism provides useful corroboration for
Jonathan Glover’s dissection of patterns of behaviour during the
period, and in particular for what he calls the ‘assault on the moral
resources’ (H, 327), in his exhaustive study of moral values in various
regimes and conflicts in the twentieth century.22 Drawing on an array
of material, such as psychological studies and eyewitness accounts,
Glover explores in his chapter on National Socialism the way in which
the Nazis moulded German attitudes. He refers to the ‘psychological
mechanism of adjustment’ (H, 345), whereby the movement fostered
the persecution of the weak and defenceless, as well as the
dehumanisation of those segments of society infamously selected as
The Nazis systematically attacked the human responses. They
set out to erode the moral status of Jews, homosexuals and others,
denying them the protection of respect for their dignity. In the spirit of
what they took from Nietzsche, they worked to replace sympathy with
hardness. […]
People were to be transformed. There was to be a new Nazi identity,
rooted in an outlook actively hostile to the responses which constitute
our humanity. […] Nazism was a more fundamental assault on moral
values [than Stalinism and Maoism]. It was a twisted deontology:
hardness and inhumanity were seen as desirable in themselves, aspects
of an identity that expressed ‘the will to create mankind anew’. (H,

Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt provides ample evidence to support
Glover’s analysis. The victimisation of René, for example, is
presented as inevitable, and even fostered by the teachers in Harig’s
school, and despite later being disturbed by practices in the
Kalmenhof clinic, the boys come to accept the ‘Notwendigkeit der
nationalsozialistischen Rassenhygiene und hätten selbst den Praktiken
der wilden Euthanasie zugestimmt, die in den letzten Kriegsjahren
auch im Kalmenhof praktiziert wurde’ (WD, 177-8). That Harig
should subsequently espouse so wholeheartedly and without question
the Nazis’ spurious views on the racial impurity of Jews comes as no
surprise. What Harig illustrates, and Glover remarks upon in his study,

Jugend ohne Gott, p. 13.
Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (Jonathan
Cape: London, 1999), p. 327. All references to this volume will appear in the text in
the form (H, 327).
Ludwig Harig 39

is the way in which propaganda can fill minds, especially innocent

minds, with information and opinion, while at the same time inhibiting
the capacity for critical thought.
For Harig, it was the language in particular that intoxicated
him, and one can cite the ‘Juda verrecke!’ chapter as an especially
clear demonstation of Bergmann’s theory of how language can dictate
behaviour, and thereby facilitate the psychological and moral
reorientation that Glover concentrates on. Harig makes no secret of
having been entranced by the Nazi’s racist beliefs and the words that
conveyed them: ‘Ich nahm den Mund voll. Ich käute wieder. Ich
spuckte es aus’ (WD, 202). Yet it is important to stress that Harig is
not seeking to exonerate himself in this way or to abdicate any sense
of responsibility. His paper is juxtaposed in the chapter with a
quotation from Goebbels’s diary in the wake of the infamous Wannsee
Conference of January 1942 detailing how the Endlösung is to be
applied. Harig does not comment on this stark juxtaposition. He
simply proceeds to describe the jokes he and his contemporaries make
when using soap in the showers, purportedly made from the human
remains of concentration camp victims, which seems far more
harrowing than Goebbels’s diary entry concerning the logistical issues
of the process:
Wenn Schwimmseife ausgegeben wurde, sagte der Führer vom
Dienst: ‘Reibt nicht gleich wie die Wilden, damit ihr nicht beim ersten
Waschen einen ganzen Juden verbraucht’. Und eines Tages, als wir
uns nach einem Fußballspiel duschten und der Schaum der
Schwimmseife in dicken Flocken durch den Waschraum flog, meinte
einer: ‘Jetzt haben wir in einem Abwasch eine kinderreiche
Judenfamilie abgerieben’. Wir lachten. Es schäumte und spritzte;
unser Gelächter war so herausfordernd, als wären wir selbst
unsterblich und niemand auf der Welt könnte uns je das Fell über die
Ohren ziehen. (WD, 203)

Glover refers to the so-called ‘cold jokes’ that people use as a device
to assuage their consciences, but stresses too that there is an inherent
aggression to such jokes – ‘The cold joke is a display of power over
its victims’ (H, 341) – so that they become a ‘flaunting display of the
joker’s own hardness in the face of the claims of compassion’ (H,
341). The boys’ jokes in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt display this
hardness, and yet as Harig remarks in the narrative present: ‘Ja,
Schwimmseife war etwas Feines, und sie roch so gut’ (WD, 203).
None of the boys appears to have reflected on the perverse irony that,
despite its alleged origins, the soap was so sweet smelling, or perhaps,
as Glover suggests, the joke was indeed ultimately some kind of
40 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

defence mechanism. An episode at the conclusion of the chapter

would support the assertion that, in truth, there were moments when
the boys were aware of the iniquity of what they were doing. Sent to
Frankfurt to help clear up the rubble from an air-raid, the boys see a
Jewish man in the street:
[…] Es war ein alter Mann, mit Bart und Brille, er trug ein
schwarzes Käppchen auf dem Kopf und an der Steppjacke aufgenäht
den gelben Stern. Ich sah ihn an und wußte nicht, was ich denken
sollte. Einer sagte zu Kurt Groth: ‘Du kannst hingehen und ihn
anspucken, niemand wird dich daran hindern.’
Kurt rührte sich nicht vom Fleck. (WD, 206)

Although the author’s guilt at his complicity with National

Socialism underpins the whole text, nowhere is his horror at his own
behaviour more palpable than in this chapter. He cannot be accused of
evasion or self-deception, charges which one might easily level at
Andersch in view of his stance in Die Kirschen der Freiheit. Why
would one include such disturbing anecdotes if not to expect, or even
invite, criticism? He can provide no explanation for his behaviour, but
equally attempts no self-justification and cites no mitigating
circumstances, for how can one excuse or justify the morally
inexcusable? When he remarks upon the manipulation of the youth by
the Nazis, referring to himself as ‘ein Pawlowscher Hund’ (WD, 182),
Harig is simply stating the bald facts with which we are familiar. He
does not seek to exonerate himself, a point he reiterates at the
conclusion of the text, lest anyone is under any misapprehension as to
his motives: ‘Auch ich hatte die Finger im Spiel, und ich spielte auf
meine Weise mit’ (WD, 271).
In the course of its exploration of the psychological effects of
growing up under the Nazis, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt is
especially effective in conveying the intoxicating visual appeal of
National Socialism, which also recalls elements of Jugend ohne Gott.
Harig explores this phenomenon most clearly in the programmatically
titled chapter ‘Unsre Fahne flattert uns voran!’. The scene is set with
his grandfather’s intense chauvinism, which naturally finds its focus in
the Saarland in hostility towards the French, support for the
reintegration of the region into the Reich, as well as his feelings of
‘Schmach’ and ‘Schande’:
Wenn [mein Großvater] von ‘Schmach und Schande’ sprach, rumorte
es mir unter der Schädeldecke; ich warf die Wörter hin und her und
zwängte sie durch die Windungen des Hirns, doch was sollte es
bedeuten, wenn er meinte, Schmach und Schande empfinden zu
Ludwig Harig 41

müssen, weil er nicht mit einer Fahne zeigen durfte, für welches Land
sein Herz in der Brust schlug? (WD, 68)

Thus begins the author’s captivation with flags in particular, which are
prominent prior to the plebiscite and naturally on 1 March 1935, the
day the Saarland rejoined Germany. Harig describes this day as ‘ein
Festtag im Fahnenrausch’ (WD, 69), but in the remainder of the
chapter we learn of his own deep-rooted ‘Fahnenrausch’, stimulated
by the words used by his grandfather. So captivated is he by his
friend’s swastika flag that he steals it for himself, but his flag fetish
finds its most potent outlet in the propaganda film Hitlerjunge Quex
(1933). The film, depicting the eponymous hero’s murder by
Communists, seduces the young Ludwig, who is particularly struck by
the martyred Hitler Youth boy’s defiant dying words: ‘Unsere Fahne
flattert uns voran’ (WD, 79):
Aus diesem Fahnentraum wollte ich nicht wieder erwachen. Als ich
dann zu mir kam und die roten Polster der Kinostühle unter dem
Lichtschein zu prunken begannen, blinzelte ich mit den Wimpern, ließ
willenlos die Augen übereinandergehen in der Hoffnung, wieder
einzutauchen in den beglückenden Fahnenrausch. (WD, 80)

As a measure of how deep an impression the film left on the young

boy, Harig notes that images from the film have not left him despite
the passage of time: ‘In wieviel stillen Stunden ist mir diese
Kinofahne aus dem Gedächntnis aufgetaucht, in wieviel wilden
Träumen ist sie mir seither erschienen, und es ist mehr als ein halbes
Jahrhundert vergangen’ (WD, 76).
Although the orchestrated pomp and ceremony of the Nazis,
as depicted in Leni Riefenstahl’s masterful, but disturbing, film of the
Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1934, Triumph des Willens (1935), did not
only have an effect on the young, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt
reveals just how much more susceptible children were in the absence
of any more dynamically wholesome formative influences. In reality,
for Harig there was little difference between a strong attraction to the
Quex story and an unquestioning acceptance of Günther’s racist
agenda, in that the messages conveyed by both texts were unchecked
by any strong moral authority, which would have permitted a more
objective appraisal of each. Both aspects contributed to what Glover
calls the ‘psychological atmosphere’ (H, 353) of National Socialism,
which he argues was intrinsically as important as any actual belief in
what the Nazis set out to do. It is this mood which Harig captures so
disturbingly well in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, as
Schirrmacher has observed:
42 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Nachgeborene haben es schwer, sich die Atmosphäre von Faszination,

Verbrechen und Bedrohung vorzustellen, für die das Dritte Reich
damals stand. Hier, wenn irgendwo, kann man die allmähliche
Verrückung, die stillschweigende Verführung eines Bewußtseins im
Detail studieren.

As so often in the text, Harig reflects with hindsight on his

‘Fahnenrausch’, and especially his feelings towards Hitlerjunge Quex;
in the narrative present he is unable to account for the impact the film
and its key moment exerted upon him at the time: ‘Der Fahnenrausch
dauert ein paar Augenblicke’ (WD, 83). It is a despairing last line of
the chapter, its concision reflecting incredulity at how impressionable
he had been.
In truth, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt is not as ingenuous
as it may appear in its interrogative approach. Indeed, the title of each
volume of Harig’s autobiographical trilogy emphasises precisely why
he was so susceptible to the ‘psychological atmosphere’ he depicts,
for each implies a compulsion to obey, to conform, to fit in with the
rest. The roots for this compliant behaviour lay in his family’s ethos,
embodied most clearly in his father, for whom a sense of duty was
paramount. In the volume devoted primarily to his father – the
appositely titled Ordnung ist das ganze Leben – Harig examines the
attitudes inculcated into him at home by the man who had fought in
the First World War and whose view of the world had been shaped by
Prussia. Harig places his text firmly in the tradition of other
Vaterbücher, in which the authors described the influence their
fathers’ generation had on them:
Diese Autoren gehören zu meiner Generation, deren Väter stark
wirksam in einem verhängnisvollen Erziehungsprozeß waren, denn
die meisten von ihnen kamen aus deutschnationalen, revanchistischen
Verhältnissen. Sie hatten im Ersten Weltkrieg gekämpft und waren
von preußischer Ordnungs- und Prinzipienfestigkeit geprägt und nach
dem nicht bewältigten Versuch, eine Demokratie zu schaffen, anfällig
für den Nationalsozialismus. Ohne wirkliche Nazis zu sein, sind viele
dieser Ideologie verfallen, weil sie sich eben nationalistisch,
revanchistisch, militaristisch gab. (LH, 37)

In Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, the focus shifts to explore the
specific nature of his father’s influence upon him, and it is striking
how this conditioning manifested itself in apparently innocent
childhood activities. Harig’s father took interest in his son’s plasticine

Schirrmacher, ‘Halbe Ordnung’, p. 16.
Ludwig Harig 43

creations, for example, especially if the boy crafted elephants and

camels, which he described as ‘die nützlichen Tiere’ (WD, 85):
[…] Ihm imponierte der willige Elefant, das willige Kamel, der
willige Sohn: gerne bereit sein zu tun, was gefordert wird, das fand
seinen Anklang, das Willige als Prinzip, ja das war nach seinem
Geschmack. (WD, 85)

Just as the plasticine is ‘biegsam und beweglich’ (WD, 84) in the

young Harig’s hands, so he himself appears to have been equally
The most striking representation of the father’s influence on
his son is found in the prominence of the colour blue in Harig’s
memories – ‘“Blau ist eben die schönste Farbe, die es gibt”, sagte
Vater […]’ (WD, 85) – and ‘vor allem Preußischblau’ (WD, 86). Once
again, Harig’s proclivity towards using blue plasticine for his animals
seems on one level typical of children who love to use all kinds of
colours in their drawings, yet as the chapter ‘Wer nicht arbeitet, der
soll auch nicht essen’ underlines, Harig’s choice of blue was not as
innocent as it may appear. The colour permeates his childhood just as
the ‘Blaubach’ runs through his home village of Sulzbach: ‘Sein
Wasser war wirklich blau, und wenn man die Hand hineintauchte und
wieder herauszog, dann war sie blau gefärbt, als hätte man in einen
Topf voller blauer Farbe gegriffen’ (WD, 86). Inevitably, Harig is
himself figuratively stained by the colour inasmuch as he dutifully
adopts the Prussian mode of behaviour it connotes, despite not fully
comprehending the implications of it. If Harig was struck by his
father’s passion for Prussian blue, then the onset of National
Socialism is similarly reflected in his grandfather’s predilection for
brown. Although he was bewildered and transfixed by slogans and
‘Wörter, die damals imposant aufklangen’ (WD, 58), the young Harig
was nevertheless able to register the emergence of a new dominant
ideology by the new colour:
Es kam zum Blauen das Braune hinzu, Vaters Preußischblau wurde
durch Großvaters Parteibraun aufs beste ergänzt, wie Vater das Blau
hielt Großvater das Braun für eine schöne, eine symbolische Farbe, es
ist die Farbe des Bodens und des Brotes, von welcher der
Reichsminister gesprochen hatte. (WD, 89)

Although he spends time with his grandfather, Harig seems less drawn
to brown; Prussian blue remains the pre-eminent colour within the
family, not least in the wake of his grandmother’s death and the
inevitable impact it has on her kith and kin:
44 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Es begann eine neue Zeit. Großvaters Hunsrücker Einfluß schwand

dahin, sein Parteibraun hellte sich im Jungvolk- und
Hitlerjugendbraun auf. Doch so sehr ich mich von Braunhemd und
Fahne zum Schwärmen verleiten ließ, die Hände nicht immer nach
blauem Plastilin auszustrecken und auch den Pinsel nicht nur ins Blau
des Malkastens zu tauchen: Zu Hause dominierte Preußischblau die
Palette. Überall wo ich hinsah, herrschte Preußischblau […]. (WD,

Harig thereby reiterates that his father was not a true Nazi, whilst
accepting that his views were nevertheless fertile ground upon which
National Socialism could build, especially in the case of his son.
In many respects, Harig’s depiction of his father is
sympathetic. Despite the accentuation of ‘Fleiß und Ordnung’ (WD,
93) in their family life, Harig’s father is not presented as tyrannical.
With hindsight, however, the author is critical of his father’s
adherence to otiose values, reflected in a life-long devotion to the
Kaiser: ‘Wie gern wäre er bis zu seinem Tod ein loyaler Soldat des
Kaisers gebleiben!’ (WD, 88). Later, after reading Fontane’s Frau
Jenny Treibel, Harig is able to recognise his father’s Weltanschauung
in the character of Herr Treibel, and thereby learns where his own
attitudes originated:
Vater hatte seine Lektion gelernt, und ich lernte sie von Vater. Alles
ist Preußischblau, lautet die Lektion, Preußischblau ist die Farbe des
Konservatismus, und der Konservatismus fügt die Bretter zusammen,
auf denen wir spielen. (WD, 87)

It is clear from this chapter as a whole, how Harig’s sense of

self was moulded by his father along the lines that Paul John Eakin
has explored in his engaging study of autobiography, How Our Lives
Become Stories: Making Selves. Eakin argues persuasively that
‘autobiography criticism has not yet fully addressed the extent to
which the self is defined by – and lives in terms of – its relations to
others’ (HOL, 43). In this respect, Eakin is drawn to the psychologist
John Shotter, from whose work he quotes directly, paying particular
attention to his notion of ‘social accountability’:
‘[…] What we talk of as our experience of reality is constituted for us
largely by the already established ways in which we must talk in our
attempts to account for ourselves – and for it – to the others around us.
[…] And only certain ways of talking are deemed legitimate.’ […]
The premise of Shotter’s concept of social accountability is that ‘one
ontologically learns how to be this or that kind of person’ in
conversation with others. Identity formation, then, is socially and
more specifically discursively transacted […]. (HOL, 62-3) [original
Ludwig Harig 45

It is natural, Eakin goes on, ‘that the key environment in the

individual’s formation is the family, which serves as the community’s
primary conduit for the transmission of its cultural values’ (HOL, 85),
and he accentuates in particular the crucial role of what he dubs the
‘proximate other’ (HOL, 86) in this constitutive social process. As we
have seen in the introduction, this key figure is described as anyone
who exerts a strong influence on the self, but is most usually a parent:
in Harig’s case, unsurprisingly, it was his father. What makes Eakin’s
theory so compelling with regard to Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt,
but by extension to each text in the present study, is that it is
axiomatic just how powerful this process of shaping the self would
have been in regimented totalitarian systems, such as in Nazi
Germany or East Germany, which sought actively to create a new
social identity. It is not always the case that the family operates
uncritically. In the case of Günter de Bruyn, as we shall see in Chapter
4, the family was able to operate as a protective barrier up to a point,
as they did not embrace Nazi ideology and sought to shield the
youngest child from it. But with Harig in particular, whose family was
so receptive to the values embodied in the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft
because of its Prussian ethos, it is not difficult to appreciate how he
would have been so much more susceptible to Nazi attitudes, not least
on account of the strong influence of his ‘proximate other’. In the
same way that his father had internalised the need to obey authority,
reflected in a devotion to the Kaiser, Harig himself was conditioned to
behave likewise. The title of the novel is indeed apposite.
In truth, Harig’s father is not presented as having embraced
National Socialism without question. As news of synagogues being
burnt reaches the village, he tries to shield his children:
Als ein Nachbar erzählte, er habe in Saarbrücken die Synagoge und
vor der Synagoge eine Stoffpuppe in jüdischem Gottesdienstgewand
brennen gesehen, die habe sich im Feuer bewegt, als sei sie lebendig,
sagte Vater: ‘Erzähl vor den Kindern nicht solche Geschichten.’ Vater
achtete darauf, daß kein schlimmes Wort unser Ohr traf […]. (WD,

Much later on, Harig’s father chastises him for his anti-Semitic
comments: ‘“Die Juden”, sagte Vater, “das sind Menschen genau wie
wir, nur haben die eine andere Religion”’ (WD, 205). Even his
father’s attendance at a Nazi rally in Koblenz addressed by Hitler
shortly before the Saar plebiscite is seemingly justified as having been
motivated ‘aus blindem Gehorsam’, as opposed to his grandfather
participation ‘aus Lust’ (WD, 59). Thus in many respects, the
depiction of Harig’s father in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt does
46 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

indeed tally with the author’s suggestion that he had been ‘anfällig für
den Nationalsozialismus’ but without having been a Nazi. Yet by the
same token, he is presented as having prejudices, being especially
bigoted towards Catholics – ‘Diese seien nämlich bekannt dafür, daß
sie nicht so tüchtig und aufgeschlossen für das Nützliche seien wie die
Evangelischen’ (WD, 108) – and his apparently trivial dislike of cats –
‘Sich in eine Katze vergaffen sei liederlich, sagte Vater, so jemand
vergesse leicht das Notwendige, habe nur ein Auge für Kinkerlitzchen
und Nichtsnutzigkeit’ (WD, 108) – leads his son almost to kill a cat:
‘Es kam mir vor, als wären alle Katzenhalter katholisch, und nur die
Katholischen würfen ein Auge auf so etwas Unnützes wie eine Katze’
(WD, 108). The incident not only reveals a less savoury side to his
father’s character, but also the extent of his influence over the
impressionable boy. Moreover, the simple equation the boy makes,
inspiring him to try and kill the cat, bears the hallmarks of the crude,
and cruel, nature of Nazi propaganda which dehumanised the Jews,
and indeed other groups, deeming them similarly ‘unnütz’. In this
way, the incident foreshadows Harig’s later anti-Semitic school
project by revealing how such obedience could be so evilly exploited.
Harig’s portrait of his father reveals the extent to which his
sense of self was formed by his family background, instilling in him
an ethic of duty and discipline which made his exploitation by the
Nazis inevitable. But Eakin also refers to Shotter’s contention that
identity formation is as much a discursive as a social transaction. In
Harig’s case, one might cite his seduction by language at this time as
evidence of that discursive process, a process which clearly cemented
the social aspect of individuation. He is not only affected by
contemporary slogans, such as the ones he employs as chapter
headings in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, but also by the emotive
language of people such as his grandfather, although he can barely
grasp what these terms mean: ‘Schmach und Schande, gekränkte Ehre,
verletzte Ehre, abgeschnittene Ehre: Ich habe diese Wörter zuerst aus
dem Mund meines Großvaters gehört’ (WD, 68). Later on, these
patriotic phrases that evoke the sense of betrayal after the Versailles
Treaty – naturally a sensation that was felt especially strongly in the
Saarland – are superseded by more chilling references to ‘deutsches
Blut’ (WD, 201) in the context of racial purity. In particular, Harig is
transfixed by the term ‘Endlösung’:
Für uns hing alles an einem Wort. Eines Tages fiel das Wort. Es war
Dr. Gilbert, der es aussprach. Wir saßen im Rittersaal, der
Radioapparat war ausgeschaltet, der Führer vom Dienst stand auf der
Treppe, seine Trillerpfeife schwieg. Dr. Gilbert drängte den Führer
Ludwig Harig 47

vom Dienst zur Seite, rückte an seinem Dolch und öffnete den Mund.
Wir hörten das Wort. Es war das Wort ‘Endlösung’. […] Was sollten
wir uns vorstellen unter einer Endlösung? Wir wußten es nicht und
wußten es dennoch. (WD, 203)

Glover considers the term ‘Endlösung’ to be one of many euphemisms

to facilitate the process of denial for those complicit with the
extermination of the Jews, but who sought to evade the reality of what
was being carried out. When one considers how totalitarian regimes
instrumentalise language for their ideological purposes, his argument
has considerable force, and Christian Bergmann lends Glover’s thesis
support here, when he speaks of the ‘Aushöhlung der Sprache’:
Das Benannte ist anders, als man es von der Benennung her vermutet.
Es kommt zu einem Auseinanderfallen von Sprache und Welt. Das
bleibt für die Zeichenbenutzer nicht folgenlos. Sie haben keine
Sprache mehr, die die Welt hereinholen könnte; und so beginnen sie –
als Gefangene ihrer Sprache –, in einer fiktiven Welt zu leben. Die
Phrase tritt an die Stelle des tatsächlichen Seins. Das verhindert
letztlich dessen Bewältigung.

In view of Bergmann’s observation, one might assert that terms such

as ‘Endlösung’ were not actually defensive euphemisms for Harig. His
use of such terms reflected the way in which inchoate perceptions,
attitudes, and moral identities had been hijacked by the system.
Harig’s experiences reveal him to have become a ‘prisoner of
language’, as Bergmann puts it, not so much in denial as simply using
the linguistic terminology one was expected to. The fact that he
demonstrates how his sense of self was moulded by the Prussian
values inculcated into him by his father and then reinforced by the
language of National Socialism should not though be read as an
attempt at self-justification. He is simply recording how the
discrepancy between ‘Sprache and Welt’, between humanistic values
and Nazi values, came into being. Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt
examines how an individual’s identity was manipulated, how a moral
identity was eroded, and thereby reflects how a nation’s identity was
likewise adjusted, but Harig does not deny his own complicity with
National Socialism.
Having explored the roots of his seduction by National
Socialism and the impact its various features had on his sense of self,
Harig seeks towards the end of Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, and
especially in the final chapter, ‘Die Löwen von Saint Irénée’, to heal
the rift between language and the empirical world, or at least to

Bergmann, pp. 22-3.
48 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

initiate a process of moral reorientation. It is fitting, as a Saarlander,

that he should spend a year in Lyon, the site of Klaus Barbie’s crimes,
as an assistant d’allemand. Where his grandfather in particular had
harboured a deep antipathy towards the French – ‘“Ich bin nicht als
junger Mensch vom Hunsrück ins Saargebiet gekommen, um jetzt
neutral und später vielleicht Franzose zu werden”’ (WD, 51) – Harig
is able to contribute to a rapprochement, symbolised most potently by
his father’s fondness for his son’s best friend from Lyon:
Vater […] schüttelte dabei jedesmal den Kopf und fragte, wie es nur
hatte möglich sein können, daß deutsche und französische Männer
aufeinander hätten schießen und sich töten wollen. ‘Wenn ich euch so
sehe, kann ich es mir nicht mehr vorstellen,’ sagte er und drückte
seine Zigarettenkippe genau auf dem Wort ‘chagrin’ aus. Er schaute
mich an und nickte, schaute Roland an und lächelte, und da wußten
wir, wie stolz Vater war, daß wir uns gefunden hatten und Freunde
waren. (WD, 267)

Harig naturally encounters some hostility in Lyon, but accepts it as

inevitable and justified. He was doubtless prepared for the same
reception to Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt.
On the one hand then, his motives for producing the text are
clear: it is an attempt to come to terms with his own experiences,
whilst simultaneously creating a document of the period. But he is
equally concerned with the nature of language; if Weh dem, der aus
der Reihe tanzt illustrates how language became infected and explores
the ramifications of this infection, then Wer mit den Wölfen heult,
wird Wolf is concerned with charting how his personal reckoning with
the events depicted in the preceding volume was achieved by the
reacquisition of a language untainted by National Socialist rhetoric.
With linguistic reorientation came the moral realignment of the self.
The incipient recovery described in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt,
from the moment he fled the American soldiers and found tranquillity
in the countryside near Hulen – the significance of the moment is
underlined by his second treatment of it in Wer mit den Wölfen heult,
wird Wolf where it is defined as ‘der Tag, an dem mein zweites Leben
beginnt’ (WM, 8) – is cemented by his time in Lyon. The role that
language ultimately plays in the realignment then forms the primary
focus of the final volume of the trilogy. Although it is hinted at in the
final chapter of Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, in that Harig
completely immerses himself in French, revelling in this ‘new’,
untainted language and pondering the difficulties of translating
Rimbaud’s poetry. Where once he had been exposed to Volk ohne
Raum and exhorted to burn any copies of subversive texts such as
Ludwig Harig 49

Opfergang or Auf den Marmorklippen, in Lyon he encounters

Vercors’s Le silence de la mer and the work of Antoine de Saint-
Although Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt is our main
concern, it is worth looking briefly at Harig’s preoccupation with
language in the subsequent volume, dealing as it does with repairing
the damage inflicted by National Socialism. Harig has described the
text as a whole as ‘vor allem ein Roman über Sprache, von der Macht
der Sprache, ja ein Roman der Sprache selbst’ (LH, 42). Throughout
Wer mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf Harig declares his unconditional
love for words – one chapter is devoted to the mysterious word
‘Mutabor’ – but also seeks to liberate certain words and phrases from
the perversions they suffered under totalitarianism. Unsurprisingly he
devotes a sizeable section to the influence of Max Bense who opened
the author’s eyes to the intrinsic playfulness in language. In many
ways, Bense might even be considered another ‘proximate other’,
certainly in a professional context, for the way in which his teachings,
distilled in the periodical augenblick, inspired a whole new perception
of what language could achieve:
Da auf einmal fiel es mir wie Schuppen von den Augen! […] Ich las,
und ich schrieb, und die Augen gingen mir vollends auf. Eine ganze
Kindheit und Jugend lang hatte ich die Sprache, die ich hörte und die
ich selbst sprach, als ein Mittel der Verständigung begriffen, hatte von
Vater die Wörter Ordnung und Pünktlichkeit und von Mutter die
Wörter Fleiß und Sauberkeit gehört, beachtete, beherzigte, befolgte,
was sie meinten und sprach sie brav und willig nach. Nun aber lernte
ich das Sprachspiel kennen, und ich staunte Bauklötze. Hinter Vaters
altehrwürdiger Arbeitswelt tauchte Max Benses neuartige Kunstwelt
auf, dem Handwerkerszeug hielt er das Spielzeug entgegen, und ich
griff freudig danach. (WM, 231)

Words that had previously dictated his identity and governed his
behaviour were freed from their proscriptive role, and Harig began
producing experimental texts influenced heavily by Bense and other
purveyors of konkrete Dichtung such as Ernst Jandl, but also by the
work of French avant-garde poet Raymond Queneau. Queneau railed
against the static nature of syntax and vocabulary, and in the 1960s his
experimentation led him to adopt a mathematical approach to the
literary form and culminated in Cent mille milliards de poèmes –
translated by Harig in 1984 as Hunderttausend Milliarden Gedichte –
50 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

comprising ten sonnets composed on the same rhyme scheme and

grammatical structure.25
Reflecting on his own avant-garde texts, Harig suggests that
subconsciously they represented an outlet for him to purge himself of
the ‘Ordnungsprinzipien’ he had absorbed from his father:
Ich habe möglicherweise […] diese Ordnungsprinzipien in meiner
experimentellen Phase als junger Schriftsteller ausgelebt. In meinen
experimentellen Texten herrscht dadurch, daß sie aus mathematischen
Prinzipien entwickelt sind, eine unglaubliche Ordnung. Ich habe eine
ganze Reihe der Ordnungsprinzipien des Vaters, um nicht mit ihm
verwechselt zu werden, ins Schreiben verlagert. (LH, 39)

Although it is an interesting notion, it seems more convincing to view

the autobiographical trilogy as this outlet, in that each one deals
directly with the precise contours of his father’s influence, whilst
analysing his own efforts to tackle the problem. He professes in Wer
mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf to have been alarmed at the ease with
which others were able to employ ‘die alten Wörter’ of National
Socialism in the immediate postwar period, but concedes that during
this same period in his own family a veil was carefully drawn over the
past: ‘“An die Arbeit!” befahl Vater, “und kein Wort mehr über Hitler,
kein Wort über Stalingrad, kein Wort über den verlorenen Krieg. Wir
haben jetzt Wichtigeres zu schaffen”’ (WM, 27). The inevitability of
having to face up to the past at some stage underpins the earlier
sections of Wer mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf, and thus dovetails
with the later sections of Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, in which
the final chapter delights in the promise of a new beginning, whilst
soberly reiterating that the historical burden remains: ‘Nein, ich kann
nichts ungeschehen machen’ (WD, 272).
If there is an element of shame in Harig’s enjoyment of his
freedom in 1945 – ‘Es war eine Freiheit, die mir nicht hätte gefallen
dürfen, doch sie gefiel mir’ (WD, 244) – then the publication of such a
searching, self-critical examination of life under National Socialism as
Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt can be seen to atone for that.
Indeed, in view of Harig’s concerns with his susceptibility to
language, as well as the way in which the Nazis had infected
language, one can appreciate why an immediate reckoning with his
involvement in National Socialism did not seem prudent, irrespective
of his father’s reluctance to do so. Although it is far too late for the
wrongs of the past to be righted, Harig now makes every effort to

Raymond Queneau, Hunderttausend Milliarden Gedichte: Aus dem Französischen
übertragen von Ludwig Harig (Frankfurt a.M.: Zweitausendeins, 1984).
Ludwig Harig 51

assess that past objectively and in searching detail. He revisits the

locations from his past in order to test his memories, but even with the
benefit of hindsight he remains unable to explain why he acted as he
did. Revisiting the sites of certain events does little to help, and often
appears simply to deepen his dismay and disbelief. Yet it is this failure
to resolve his feelings of shame which imbue the text with its
importance, and lifts it above Andersch’s rather shameless attempt at
self-justification in Die Kirschen der Freiheit. Andersch professes to
have sought his escape in art, and in a way one might argue that he
succeeded, but only in creating an unconvincing fiction for himself to
escape into. In contrast, Harig never shirks his responsibility. Despite
the apparent evasion of classifying his text as a novel, this choice of
genre has more to do with the way the material is structured than with
its veracity. Moreover, the interplay between narrated past and
narrative present imbues his account with the sense of detached
reflection that is wholly lacking from Andersch’s apparently more
aesthetic preoccupations.
Defining Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt as a novel is not
an evasion; on the contrary, the novelistic framework facilitates a
more incisive, authentic exploration of the period, in which the private
sphere of Harig’s family also sheds light on the public sphere. The
author’s extensive examination of documentary material underlines
how we are not dealing with a fiction here. As Dieter Meier-Lenz
remarks: ‘Die Erinnerungsarbeit wird zu einer mühevollen
archäologischen Grabungsarbeit, die den Vorgang einer Verführung
exemplarisch und analytisch nachvollzieht’.26 The author truly
generates the impression in the text that he has been digging around in
his past, revealing himself to be a ‘schonungsloser Registrator’ (LH,
48), as Hermann Lenz observes. In the interview with Jörg Magenau,
Harig finds himself in agreement with the idea posited by Peter
Bichsel that ‘erst das Erzählen den Menschen zum Menschen macht’:
Bichsel sagte: Der Mensch ist nicht nur ein erzählendes, sondern auch
ein erzähltes Wesen. Indem von ihm erzählt wird, wird er Mensch.
Das ist am innigsten da vorhanden, wo er von sich selbst erzählt. Man
kann sagen, daß man nicht nur von sich erzählt, sondern daß man sich

Dieter Meier-Lenz, ‘Erinnern und Schreiben: Zum 70. Geburtstag von Ludwig
Harig über seine autobiografische Prosa’, Die Horen, 42 (1997), 39-47 (p. 44).
52 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

erzählt. Im Erzählen schafft man sich selbst und schafft sich neu. (LH,

At first glance, it might appear that Harig is justifying the kind of

process Andersch adopts in Die Kirschen der Freiheit, in effect
rewriting history. But in truth, when one analyses Weh dem, der aus
der Reihe tanzt, it is clear that Harig believes the process of writing
about oneself crystallises one’s sense of self, and in this regard his
formulation closely echoes the title of Eakin’s study of identity
formation and the registers of self in autobiography. By turning his
life into a ‘story’, Harig creates the necessary narrative space from
which to explore how his identity was formed. Nevertheless, although
he is able to isolate those influences which played a major part in his
individuation and instilled in him the need not to step out of line, he
cannot satisfactorily explain why he behaved as he did nor why he
held the beliefs that he held. He steadfastly refuses to exonerate
himself, and fittingly returns at the conclusion to the French boy,
whose fate he helped to seal:
Ich denke zurück, vierzig Jahre, fünfzig Jahre. Ich habe nichts
vergessen, und ich frage mich, ob ich nicht Schuld daran habe, daß der
kleine René ausbrechen mußte aus Reih und Glied und im Waisenhaus
verdarb? Daß der arbeitsscheue Nachbar im KZ verschwand und die
Peitsche zu spüren bekam? Auch ich hatte die Finger im Spiel, und ich
spielte auf meine Weise mit. Lachend hatte ich mich mit
Schwimmseife gewaschen und den alten Juden noch einmal
ausgelöscht. (WD, 271-2)

Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt represents a candid analysis of
subjectivity in a totalitarian context, which simultaneously sheds light
on the experiences of a generation that the Nazis sought to mould into
an ideal. Whilst the text cannot truly be seen as a defence of the
private realm – for Harig cannot defend his actions – it does
nevertheless explore the malign influences on the self under National
Socialism and embody the process of moral realignment. By
acknowledging complicity with the crimes of the Third Reich, one
might argue that the author has been able to rescue individuality from
the collective. He has, at last, broken ranks as René once did.

Interestingly Anderson believes Augustine’s Confessions evinces a similar
reconstitution of self: ‘The author does not so much remember the past as recast it,
grasping and reshaping himself in the process […]’. See Anderson, p. 19.

‘Das Ich liegt immer jenseits der Worte’ – Uwe

Saeger, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen (1991)

The inclusion of Uwe Saeger’s Die Nacht danach und der Morgen in
any study of autobiographical writing might provoke strong feelings
in those familiar with this complex, yet enthralling, text. In truth, it is
for this very reason that it deserves its inclusion; it challenges many of
the assumptions associated with the form and content of classical
autobiography, but in a more self-conscious and searching fashion
than we find elsewhere in the present study. Is it an autobiography per
se? Can it be viewed like Harig’s text as a novel which exploits the
freedom thus afforded the author to structure his material in pursuit of
the truth, or is it perhaps closer to Christoph Hein’s ‘fictional
autobiography’? In fact, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen seems
more complex still for it contains an array of different texts, which we
might usefully call ‘documents’. The author utilises both fictional and
autobiographical matter in various different forms – prose, poetry,
film screenplay, diary entries, notes, and transcripts – supplemented
by extensive use of quotation and allusion, to Greek mythology for
example. As a result, the postmodernist might consider Saeger’s text
a mouth-watering example of intertextuality, but that would be too
narrow a basis upon which to judge it. One need only consider the
subject matter of the text to appreciate that there is nothing playful or
experimental about Die Nacht danach und der Morgen. On the
contrary, it represents an intense personal enquiry – ‘eine wütende
Selbstanklage’.1 It is a private reckoning with a painful past, and
exploits the different literary forms in order to facilitate the
exploration at hand in as comprehensive a manner as possible, but
without relying on any traditional conception of autobiography as the
vehicle for such an investigation. The result is one of the earliest, and
least celebrated, post-Wende examinations of life in the GDR and the
compromises that citizens were compelled to make. The evaluation of

Hannes Krauss, ‘Geist und Nacht: Nachdenklichkeit und Selbstzweifel in Uwe
Saegers neuem Buch’, Freitag, 1 November 1991, p. 20.
54 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

the role intellectuals in particular played in the system, and the extent
to which they were complicit with, and thereby perpetuated, that
system underlines the importance of Saeger’s text to any investigation
of East Germany’s legacy.
But that is to stress the inherent value of the text, whilst
sidestepping the crucial generic issue. How are we to define Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen? The author himself avoids pinning the text
down in any way: Die Nacht danach und der Morgen bears no
specific description, although he described it as a ‘Bericht’ (US, 57) in
an interview which appeared prior to its publication.2 By way of
contrast, the synopsis on the dust jacket would appear to invite a
reading that it is unequivocally autobiographical, by referring without
qualification to the experiences of the ‘Schriftsteller Uwe Saeger’ in
the text. One should perhaps be rather cautious in citing the opinions
of the Piper Verlag’s publicity department as authoritative, especially
when they refer to the text with unconcealed enthusiasm, and no little
bias, as ‘die bisher gewichtigste literarische Auseinandersetzung mit
Vergangenheit und Gegenwart der Menschen in der ehemaligen
DDR’.3 Austrian author Anna Mitgutsch has highlighted the tendency
of publishing houses to pander to the public’s thirst for true-life stories
with a degree of bitterness, for she feels her work has been devalued
to some extent by this approach:
Der Markt bedient eilfertig dieses Bedürfnis und achtet darauf, keine
Zweifel an der Echtheit des Dargestellten, d.h. an der Identität von
Leben und Werk aufkommen zu lassen. Das Erklären eines Buches
zur Autobiographie ist oft eine Marktstrategie, der der Autor
ausgeliefert ist, ohne gefragt zu werden. Das sogenannte
autobiographische Schreiben, dieses Kokettieren mit einer konkreten
Wirklichkeit, die das Dargestellte erst legitimiert, ist eine Erfindung
des Marktes und eine bewußte Mißachtung des Kunstanspruches eines

Although Mitgutsch’s objection relates specifically to the accentuation

of autobiographical elements in fiction – the ‘Identität von Leben und
Werk’ – her reservations are shared to some degree by Paul John
Eakin, who comments on today’s ‘decadent culture of disclosure’

Klaus Hammer, ‘Gespräch mit Uwe Saeger’, Neue deutsche Literatur, 39.5 (1991),
51-59 (p. 57). All subsequent references to the interview will appear in the form (US,
Uwe Saeger, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen (Piper: Munich, 1991). All page
references will appear in the text in brackets in the form (DN, 67). The quotations
here are taken from the inside of the original dust jacket.
Mitgutsch, p. 30.
Uwe Saeger 55

(HOL, 157), which may be a bi-product of the proliferation of

confessional talk shows on television and which may account in part
for the sustained popularity, and commercial potential, of different
forms of life-writing in contemporary society. But even with the
comments of Eakin and Mitgutsch in mind, one must nevertheless
observe that the principal narrator of Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen is called ‘Uwe Saeger’. Moreover, the description of the
narrator’s military service in the opening section does correspond with
the dates provided in available biographical sketches of the author.5
One can find any number of clues in the text that the narrator and the
author, Uwe Saeger, are identical. An interesting contrast in this
regard would be Christoph Hein, whose Von allem Anfang an has
appropriated the autobiographical form, but whose narrator is not
synonymous with the author, despite a broadly similar biography.6
However, that has not prevented some reviewers from talking of
Hein’s text as an autobiography, which would doubtless not surprise
Anna Mitgutsch in the slightest.7
Due to the very absence of any definitive genre appellation,
the author does appear highly evasive, in a manner that Mitgutsch
might well approve of, but it is a potentially infuriating approach
when one considers the highly variegated nature of the text as a
whole. There are, in fact, no fewer than four versions of ‘Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen’ present in the text, each bearing the same
title: (i) the overarching work itself; (ii) a short prose text written by
the narrator, following completion of his military service as a border
guard at the Berlin Wall; (iii) a screenplay derived from this original
version, also by the narrator; and (iv) the prose text purportedly
written by Mike Glockengiesser, the son of a former army
acquaintance of the narrator, as a riposte to the latter’s original text. In
the absence of the term ‘Autobiographie’ or some such definition on
the title page, one ought to resist a straightforward autobiographical
reading of the text, and yet the author does little to deflect such an
investigation once and for all. If one is prepared to accept the terms of
the ‘autobiographical pact’ posited by Philippe Lejeune, whereby
amongst other criteria any work in which protagonist, narrator and
Peter Hanenberg, ‘Uwe Saeger’, in Kritisches Lexikon zur deutschsprachigen
Gegenwartsliteratur (Munich: Text und Kritik, 1978- ), pp. 1-9 (p. 1). This entry in
the KLG was revised on 1 April 1999.
For a detailed analysis of Hein’s text, see Chapter 6.
See, for instance, Irmtraud Gutschke, ‘Die grünen Augen des Evangelisten Lukas:
Christoph Hein legt alle Masken beiseite und spricht über sich selbst, seine Kindheit’,
Neues Deutschland, 2 September 1997, p. 10.
56 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

author share the same name can be deemed autobiographical, then we

would appear to have found a useful means not only of justifying the
inclusion of Die Nacht danach und der Morgen in the present study,
but also of plugging the gap Saeger has studiously neglected to fill.8
Nevertheless, it is the existence of that very lacuna which needs to be
explored. Why is it there? With its inherent ambiguity, then, Die
Nacht danach und der Morgen presents us with a more challenging
case than any of the other works in this study. Even the playful
Christoph Hein avoids any such ambiguity by calling his narrator
The problematisation of the narrator’s identity, which
underpins the narrative, is bound up completely with the text’s aim.
The difficulty of establishing whether the author and narrator are
synonymous reflects the pressures exerted on individuals in the GDR,
who necessarily lived their lives in a schizophrenic tension
somewhere between conformity and contradiction. In his survey of
patterns of behaviour in the GDR, especially amongst intellectuals,
Hans-Peter Krüger identified ‘eine Kultur sich selbst
widersprechender Individuen’, a condition which the ambiguous
relationship between author and narrator in Saeger’s text appears to
mirror.9 Although by no means a new topic for eastern German
authors to explore, the nature of Saeger’s investigation of the
phenomenon Krüger describes, throws new light on this complex
psychological problem, which extends far beyond earlier
representations. Günter de Bruyn’s treatment of it in Preisverleihung
(1972), for example, in which the psychological ramifications of the
protagonist’s dilemma are signified by the odd shoes he wears before
the award ceremony of the title, now seems rather tame alongside a
literary examination which raises the complex issue of identity
formation itself. Without doubt, Saeger’s account derives extra
piquancy from its genesis at a time when the GDR was crumbling and
the future was unclear, which in turn necessitated an Aufarbeitung of
the past on both a public and private level. Moreover, its publication
in the wake of the furore following the appearance of Was bleibt
(1990), which was both an assault on Christa Wolf and her colleagues
in the GDR, as well as on GDR culture as a whole, is significant.

See Philippe Lejeune, ‘The Autobiographical Pact’, in On Autobiography
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1989), pp. 3-30.
Hans-Peter Krüger, ‘Ohne Versöhnung handeln, nur nicht leben’, Sinn und Form, 44
(1992), 40-50 (p. 46).
Uwe Saeger 57

Even if others have revealed that it is not without its flaws,

Lejeune’s thesis on autobiography is a useful tool up to a point with
which to deal with this text, but we need first to examine Saeger’s
own comments in the Nach-Sätze appended to his text.10 They
underline the author’s own grasp of the complex nature of identity
formation, and his doubts about the representation of this process in
literary form. Saeger appears almost reluctantly to have engaged
himself ‘als mein eigener Chronist’ (DN, 225), by acknowledging his
decision as an ‘anrüchige Eitelkeit’. He suggests, therefore, that his
use of his own name is simply a ‘Notation’ and concedes ‘daß
allenthalben immer ein Ich zuviel im Text ist’. Nevertheless, he
proceeds with a statement that signals the factual nature of the
framework upon which the material is crafted, while simultaneously
allowing for different interpretations of the events depicted:
Alle Namen sind unverfälscht gebraucht. Personen und Begebenheiten
sind so wiedergegeben, wie sie sich mir vermittelt haben, sie sind
dargestellt als mein Bild von ihnen; sie sind also im Sinne anderer
Erfahrung korrigierbar. (DN, 225)

In effect, Saeger is advocating that his text possesses a measure of

‘subjective authenticity’. He accepts that his own perception cannot
but be limited; it is necessarily a subjective interpretation, which can
be challenged. However, key information is ‘unverfälscht’, with clear,
concrete and presumably verifiable correspondence outwith the text; it
has an undeniable authenticity as a result. It underlines that we are not
dealing with a traditional form of autobiographical writing. Saeger’s
approach thus problematises the issue of rendering personal
experience, whilst still attempting so to do. In this way, one can locate
his text in the literary tradition of ‘subjective authenticity’ in the GDR
that was prompted by Christa Wolf’s theoretical work in the 1960s
and subsequently found expression in her highly controversial
Nachdenken über Christa T..
As has been explored in the introduction to this volume,
Wolf’s narrators in the seminal novels Nachdenken über Christa T.
and Kindheitsmuster make ready use of invention in order to facilitate
their account, incorporating imagined dialogues or situations into the
texts for example. Within the realms of the fiction of these two works,
this is entirely to be expected. Given the complex nature of Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen, it comes as no surprise that Saeger should
muddy the waters still further by admitting to the same practice:

See, for example, Anderson, pp. 2-3; Eakin, (HOL, 2-4).
58 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

‘Ausschließlich in meiner Zuständigkeit befindet sich der Text von

dem Punkt an, wo sich die Realität der Fiktion bediente’ (DN, 225).11
For any reader, seduced by the dust jacket’s invitation, who has
approached the text as unequivocally autobiographical, this disclaimer
– recalling those issued in the above-mentioned texts by Christa Wolf
– comes as something of a shock, and provokes further questions. At
first glance, this declaration may just relate to the inclusion of the
various ‘fictions’ within Die Nacht danach und der Morgen, which
bear that same title. However, when one bears in mind the
qualifications Saeger has voiced about how his interpretation of events
cannot be definitive, doubts begin to surface about where precisely the
dividing line falls between fact and fiction. In Mitgutsch’s opinion, the
question of distilling a text into these two components is actually
Aber es wird wohl nicht so sein, daß es nun zwei Wirklichkeiten
parallel oder gleichzeitig gibt, die korrekte, nicht mehr faßbare, und
ihre fiktionalisierte Bearbeitung, sondern die beiden verschmelzen zur
erzählten Geschichte. Und der wahre Sachverhalt kann neben der
Fiktionalisierung, zumindest im erzählenden Text, nicht bestehen,
einerseits weil auch die Fakten im Text zu einer Funktion des
Erzählens und damit fiktionalisiert werden, andererseits weil das
biographische Erinnern zum bloßen Rohmaterial für die neue
Wirklichkeit des Texts wird.

Though Mitgutsch’s assertion is valid when dealing with an overt

fiction, it cannot help us with Die Nacht danach und der Morgen.
Saeger’s avoidance of any label whatsoever for his text makes it
impossible to apply Mitgutsch’s thesis in this instance. Moreover, his
observation that his responsibility begins ‘von dem Punkt an, wo sich
die Realität der Fiktion bediente’ acknowledges that ‘zwei
Wirklichkeiten’ do co-exist in the text.
Not only in its formal construction, then, but also in its
texture, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen is an almost bewilderingly
complex assemblage. As the author explains:
Eine besondere Kennzeichnung dieser Situation habe ich mir
zugunsten des Textes untersagt. Denn, und unbedeutend, ob dieser
Text es ist oder nicht ist, das Kunstwerk überlebt durch sein
Vermögen, sich, in die Realität gestellt, dieser zu öffnen. Denn das
Werken der Kunst ist, so, wie die Zeit die Wahrheit des Raumes
darbietet, die Wahrheit der Zeit zu schaffen. (DN, 225)

Saeger’s strategy of using fiction to supplement fact recalls that of Virginia Woolf
explored in the introduction. See also Anderson, pp. 92-102.
Mitgutsch, p. 10.
Uwe Saeger 59

That Saeger should not wish to tie his text down, and thereby allow it
room to move, adds to the appeal of this ‘Merkwürdigkeit ersten
Ranges’.13 It invites and evades categorisation at the same time,
exploiting gaps in formal definitions, but it is not intended as a playful
device. Saeger has far too much on his mind to be dabbling in
postmodern artifice. Carsten Gansel believes that the inherent
dynamic at work in Saeger’s text is reminiscent of Uwe Johnson’s
writing which was characterised by ‘der bis zur Selbstaufgabe
gehende Versuch von Wahrheitsfindung’: ‘Die verschiedenen
Darstellungsarten [in Die Nacht danach und der Morgen] stehen
gegeneinander, sie ergänzen, korrigieren und relativieren sich. Es ist
dies ein Kreisen um die “Wahrheit” jenseits der Neigung zu schnellem
(Ab)Werten’.14 With its blend of Dichtung and Wahrheit – a
‘Mischung authentischer und simulierter Szenarios’ – it does, in fact,
evoke the classical Goethean autobiographical paradigm, albeit
without Goethe’s grand claims to the universality of his experience,
revealing instead a more interrogative, and less self-assured,
approach.15 In an engaging article, Karen Leeder has explored how
recent purveyors of autobiography have produced increasingly hybrid
texts that interweave fact and fiction and experiment ‘precisely with
self-conscious “fictions of autobiography”’.16 Although Leeder
focuses principally on women’s writing, her observations are useful in
placing Saeger’s text in a broader context.
Does this therefore mean that plans to invoke Lejeune’s pact
should be abandoned outright? If the author himself rejects a
definitive label, presumably not wishing to anchor his text too firmly,
would it not be prudent to avoid any attempt to read Die Nacht danach
und der Morgen as autobiographical? Clearly, as stated above, the
author rules nothing out, but equally rules nothing in. We too have
room within which to operate. In actual fact, we might argue that Uwe
Saeger has quite deliberately left his fingerprints all over his text, to
such an extent that, for all the caveats he issues, he still invites us to
approach it, albeit with due caution, as a predominantly personal
account,. The various different directions in which the text seems to

Wolfgang Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR (Kiepenheuer: Leipzig,
1996), p. 492.
Carsten Gansel, ‘Notiertes Leben als Versuch der Entlügnung’, Neue deutsche
Literatur, 41.1 (1993), 135-38 (p. 137).
Gert Oberembt, ‘Trojas Pferd hat einen leeren Bauch: Der Mecklenburger
Schriftsteller berichtet in seinem Roman über die Mauer und den Mauerfall’,
Rheinischer Merkur, 29 May 1992, p. 20.
Leeder, p. 260.
60 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

be pulled can be seen as a reflection of the author’s own disorientated

sense of self in the Wende period, suddenly prey like his fellow GDR
citizens to completely new internal and external pressures almost
overnight. Moreover, by virtue of the absence of any categorically
subjective label, Saeger’s account also becomes that of others. It is a
representative depiction of an individual coming to terms with a
suddenly changed socio-political reality.
Although the form and content of Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen is not typical of autobiography, it nevertheless exploits a
number of forms and devices redolent of the genre. Most prominent
amongst these is the explicit use of passages purported to be extracts
from the narrator’s diary.17 These serve to record his thoughts and
feelings as the momentous events of the autumn of 1989 unfold during
the main narrative, thus fixing the events described firmly in their
historical context. Indeed, in a manner reminiscent of Was bleibt, the
period of the text’s creation is recorded at the end, in this case from
November 1989 to February 1990: tellingly, the period during which
the GDR’s future was at its most unstable encompassing the
Alexanderplatz demonstration on 4 November, Helmut Kohl’s ‘Ten-
Point-Plan’ and preparations for the GDR’s first freely democratic
elections. Just as importantly in the context of our exploration,
however, the diary operates as a medium for confession for the
narrator, through which he reflects upon his lethargy during the
Wende with caustic self-criticism. At one point he writes
pessimistically: ‘Dieses Tagebuch ist mein Beichtstuhl, aber es kann
mir keine Absolution erteilen’ (DN, 117). Despite the different
documents that comprise the entire text, and the professed conflation
of fact and fiction within, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen can be
seen, in part at least, to adopt the form of a personal confession.
Having made subtle allusions to Goethe in the Nach-Sätze, Saeger
appears also to be recalling the classical autobiographical form
established by Augustine, mirrored later by Rousseau.
Such formal echoes alone clearly offer little more than
circumstantial evidence that we are dealing here with some form of
autobiographical writing. Nor does the presence of an Ich-narrator
provide sufficient corroboration. Many commentators on
autobiography underline how indistinguishable the form can be from
the first-person novel, and cite examples of novels that parody or

Christa Wolf purports to use authentic ‘Zitate aus Tagebüchern, Skizzen und
Briefen’ in the creation of Christa T. See Nachdenken über Christa T., p. 7.
Uwe Saeger 61

masquerade as autobiographies.18 Although we must, naturally, treat

Saeger’s own comments with caution, we cannot ignore the fact that
Uwe Saeger is very much a character in his own work, as he concedes
in his interview with Hammer: ‘Es ist ein unangenehmer Text
geworden, das formuliere ich so für mich, er enthält keinen Satz, aus
dem ich mich herausnehmen kann’ (US, 57).
That the author and the narrator are synonymous is indicated
in part by the biographical correlation between the two. But at various
instances within the text, this equivalence is cemented still further.
Like Saeger, the narrator is married with three children, and worked as
a teacher. In recounting in his diary the family’s participation in the
‘Aktion Sühnezeichen’ demonstration in Breest on 3 December 1989,
the narrator provides not only a concrete description of events on the
day Egon Krenz was ousted as leader of the GDR, but also an intimate
portrait of family tensions. Crucially, each family member is named
and their various attitudes to the Wende are indicated. Such depictions
by the narrator are doubtless easily verifiable, but also, as indicated in
the Nach-Sätze, ‘im Sinne anderer Erfahrung korrigierbar’ (DN, 225).
But it is the obvious willingness of the author to identify himself so
unambiguously as the narrator on other occasions in the text that is
most striking, in view of his reluctance to categorise it definitively.
For example, he recalls his appearance on a cultural television
programme in 1980 discussing his first novel, Nöhr. Nöhr was Uwe
Saeger’s début novel, published in 1980 by Hinstorff, the publishing
house that, according to the text, had earlier rejected his original prose
version of ‘Die Nacht danach und der Morgen’. Nevertheless, he
meets an employee there ‘der eben darum interessiert war’ and who
was subsequently to become the author’s ‘Entdecker’ (DN, 17).
Similarly, in a diary entry on 20 November 1989, alarmed by his
lethargy the narrator refers to himself as ‘mein Problembürger’ (DN,
117), which alludes directly to an essay, ‘Der Problembürger’, written
by Saeger and published in Litfass in 1989.19 The narrator’s open
letter – ‘ein laues offenes Briefchen’ (DN, 215) – to which the Stasi
man, Mike Glockengiesser, disparagingly refers, would appear to
correspond to an article Saeger published in Freie Erde on 28 October

For a recent survey of the form, and examples of the complex nature of the dividing
line between autobiography and the novelistic equivalent, see Martina Wagner-
Egelhaaf, Autobiographie (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2000), pp. 4-10 (p. 4).
Uwe Saeger, ‘Der Problembürger’, Litfass, 45 (1989), 137-43.
62 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

1989 titled ‘Neue Taktik für alte Strategie?’.20 And finally, in the same
vein, the poem included in the main body of the text, ‘Heimat.
Vorletzter letzter Versuch’, appeared as ‘Heimat. Vorletzter Versuch.
Mein Oktoberlied’ in Temperamente under the author’s name.21
Ultimately, in the key section, where the narrator confronts his own
complicity with the GDR regime by having served at the Berlin Wall
as a border guard, he directly accuses ‘den Soldaten Saeger’ for his
response to the ‘betonierte Grenze zur Welt, vor der er in
machtgenehmer Pose seiner staatsbürgerlichen Pflicht genügte’ (DN,
191-92). As a result, the direct association between author and
narrator, which subtly underpins the text without dominating it, cannot
be overlooked at moments such as these, nor can its effect on the
reader, who only stumbles across Saeger’s caveats about the personal
dimension of the text at the very end. By then the link has been made
and is hard to sever, even if we can accept that the work is not an
autobiography in any traditional sense.22
The main narrative thread of the text covers the period 17
November to 31 December 1989, dealing with the narrator’s
reflections on the Wende and providing temporal coordinates by
means of chronological, if irregular, diary entries. The opening
section, by contrast, contains no specific reference to when it was
written, although we can assume from its synoptic nature that it was
the final segment to be completed, presumably therefore in February
1990. In the manner of a preface, it prepares the reader for what will
follow, such as the discussions about coping with the GDR past or the
role of critical intellectuals, and recounts in concise form events that
will be explored in greater detail later, such as the negotiations about
filming the screenplay entitled ‘Die Nacht danach und der Morgen’. It
appears more objective than the later sections of narrative, which by
contrast contain bitter, self-critical and introspective observations,
conveying a sense of greater immediacy, of having been compiled as
events unfolded before the narrator’s eyes. By virtue of its sober
recording of detail, the introduction generates an impression of greater
reflection and detachment, indicated best by the laconic, factual tone
of the opening sentence: ‘Am 4. Mai 1972 begann mein

Uwe Saeger, ‘Neue Taktik für alte Strategie?’, Freie Erde, 28 October 1989.
Reprinted in Neue deutsche Literatur, 38.3 (1990), 168-70.
Uwe Saeger, ‘Heimat. Vorletzter Versuch. Mein Oktoberlied’, Temperamente
(1990), 95-98.
See Leeder’s analysis of Daniela Dahn’s Westwärts und nicht vergessen for an
interesting comparison with Saeger’s approach, pp. 261-62.
Uwe Saeger 63

eineinhalbjähriger Wehrdienst bei der Nationalen Volksarmee der

DDR’ (DN, 5). The opening section bears the hallmarks of the
detached reflection one might indeed expect to find in a retrospective
analysis of the key moments in one’s life. There is no indication that
we should not read it as the observations of the author; the details
appear concrete and verifiable, and tally with Saeger’s biographical
details on the dust jacket.
On account of the problems of being entirely certain that the
author and narrator are identical, Wolf’s notion of ‘subjective
authenticity’ is a most welcome tool. It allows us to explore, and
validate, those features which might be deemed autobiographical, but
without restricting the text’s ability to engage openly with reality as
fiction would and as Saeger presumably intends. Die Nacht danach
und der Morgen does indeed provide an authentic and credible picture
of an East German intellectual’s attempt to come to terms both with
events in 1989, but also, and most crucially, with GDR life as a whole.
When one considers the nature of the Literaturstreit unleashed by the
publication of Was bleibt in 1990, the anxiety and disorientation that
are the most striking feature of the narrative present are utterly
believable ramifications of the GDR’s collapse. Since the state gave
prominence to its intellectuals, its subsequent demise encumbered
those same people, such as Christa Wolf, with the invidious legacy of
being seen as ‘Staatsdichter’ by certain Western commentators. It
appeared to matter little that many of these intellectuals had courted
persecution or expulsion in the struggle to reform the system.23 What
we find in Die Nacht danach und der Morgen is an individual’s
perspective on this period of re-adjustment, which actually anticipates
some of the issues that would arise with the demise of the GDR – the
extent of the Stasi’s penetration of the cultural scene, the process of
Abwicklung and the border guard trials, to name but three – as well as
depicting the emotional turmoil one would expect to find in such a
subjective account of this period.
Saeger’s own problematisation of the nature of writing about
oneself, which recalls Nelly Jordan’s realisation in Kindheitsmuster
‘daß es um vieles schwieriger ist, über sich selbst zu schreiben als
über allgemeine Ideen, die einem geläufig sind’, underpins the text.24
Even if Saeger has left his fingerprints all over the material of his

For the most comprehensive treatment of the row, see Thomas Anz (ed.), ‘Es geht
nicht um Christa Wolf’: Der Literaturstreit im vereinten Deutschland (Munich:
Spangenberg, 1991).
Kindheitsmuster, p. 296.
64 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

narrative and indicated that he is writing about himself, he

acknowledges simultaneously how this process of self-depiction can
only ever offer an approximation, a fictional construct, which militates
against us calling Die Nacht danach und der Morgen an
autobiography in any traditional or authoritative sense. That would be
too definite, too certain, and the abiding impression of Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen is the uncertainty, the doubt, and the despair
of ever understanding why one acted as one did and whether one can
ever forgive oneself. Saeger cannot claim such authority, even over
his own self, and therein the core concern, and critical thrust, of Die
Nacht danach und der Morgen are to be found.25 It is a concern,
moreover, which essentially transcends the issue of how to categorise
this work. For this very problem of writing about oneself, articulated
in the opening section, not only foreshadows the narrator’s
subsequently extensive self-analysis during the Wende, but also
symbolises the universal problem of identity formation in the GDR,
especially for those who spent most, if not all, of their lives under the
socialist system.26 Paradoxically, Saeger contends that writing was an
existential process for him: ‘Ich schreibe in erster Instanz für mich, es
ist mir Lebenshilfe, es ist als Tätigsein wie als Begriff für
Selbstverwirklichung das einzige Vehikel, das meine biologische
Existenz zu tragen vermag’ (US, 54). The crisis thus appears all the
more acute for the author.
In the opening section, the narrator synopsises the eighteen-
month period of his military service in the National People’s Army
(NVA), before concentrating on the final hours of his military service
at the Treptow barracks in considerable detail. It is sufficient to
provide an insight into the ritualised life of aggression, the
consumption of alcohol and border patrols at the Berlin Wall, which
created ‘eine hundehafte Haltung’ (DN, 6) in the conscripts:
Konnten wir so ein Besäufnis einmal nicht realisieren, kamen schnell
und zumeist grundlos Aggressivitäten auf. Wir haben uns nie
schikaniert, aber es wurden Schläge ausgeteilt und kindliche, aber
nicht mehr korrigierbare Feindschaften entstanden. Das sich konkret
nie personalisierende aber uns permanent vorgestellte Feindbild wurde
so möglicherweise mit abreagiert. […] Und vielleicht wars sogar

Leeder identifies a comparable disorientation in Volker Braun, expressed in his
poem ‘Das Eigentum’: ‘und unverständlich wird mein ganzer Text’. See Leeder, p.
Karsten Dümmel provides a useful study of literary representations of the problems
of identity formation in the GDR in Identitätsprobleme in der DDR-Literatur der
siebziger und achtziger Jahre (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 1997).
Uwe Saeger 65

Methode, uns durch Lebensentzug in eine gewisse Beißstimmung zu

versetzen. (DN, 6-7)

As Stefan Wolle has observed, it was one of the major ironies of the
GDR that its military adhered to the stereotypical Prussian model from
the past, and he cites the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the
changing of the guard at the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden every
Wednesday afternoon: ‘Preußens Gloria war auferstanden mitten im
Herzen der Hauptstadt der sozialistischen DDR’.27 In the context of
the decidedly mixed ideological message of this practice, Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen sheds light on the repercussions this historical
continuity had on individuals in the GDR. The Prussian nature of the
barracks not only had an impact on the interpersonal relationships of
the soldiers, and their intellectual capacities – the narrator remarks
that he had been unable to finish reading a single book during 548
days in the NVA – but more damagingly upon the narrator’s family
life: ‘Mein Sohn wurde vier Wochen nach meiner Einberufung
geboren, als ich entlassen wurde, war ich ihm ein Fremder’ (DN, 7).
As soon as he is able to free himself from the primitive conditions in
the barracks, he resolves to record his experiences, and after
reiterating this fact to his fellow ‘Entlassungskandidaten’, he even
wields his intention as a threat to an overly punctilious officer, who
tries to prevent him boarding a direct train home:
Die ganze Scheiße schreibe ich auf, sagte ich, die ganze Kacke Tag
für Tag fünfhundertachtundvierzigmal und diesen Mist, den Sie jetzt
mit mir machen, und das auf einer Extraseite. Der Leutnant musterte
mich, grinste weiterhin. So, so, sagte er, der Herr ist wohl ein
Künstler! (DN, 11)

Thus begins an obsessive, and initially perhaps slightly pretentious,

preoccupation with fulfilling this promise: ‘[…] Jetzt war ich ein
Künstler, ich mußte es beweisen’ (DN, 12).
While trying to rebuild his marriage and cope with the
‘marternde Schuldienst’ (DN, 12), the narrator struggles to find the
creative outlet to allow him to confront his experiences. The inability
to resolve the problem expresses itself in physical terms reminiscent
of withdrawal symptoms: ‘Ich war noch immer wie krank, wie wund,
und die alten Schmerzen stellten sich immer wieder wie neu ein,
sobald ich im Muster gemachter Erfahrung dachte’ (DN, 13).
Principally, it is the ‘formale Schwelle’ (DN, 13) that prevents him

Stefan Wolle, ‘Staatsfeind Faschist’, in Die Gegenwart der Vergangenheit. Die
Spiegel-Serie über den langen Schatten des Dritten Reichs: Spiegel Special – Das
Magazin zum Thema, ed. by Rudolf Augstein, 1 (2001) 182-88 (p. 186).
66 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

from being able to transpose the wealth of memories and moods into
literary form:
[…] Ich brauchte eine Konstruktion, in die ich all das einbringen
konnte, die aber dennoch erlaubte, daß ich in meinem Eigenen
unangetastet blieb. So endeten alle Schreibversuche in den Anfängen,
und sobald Uniformiertes oder militärisches Zeremoniell zu gestalten
war, geriet es in die altbekannten Witzeleien, jede Demütigung
verflachte zur Karikatur, die Typen zur Maskerade, die Dressur zur
nur peinlichen Übung. Ich brauchte die exemplarische Situation, in die
ich diese 548 Tage bringen konnte. (DN, 13)

Eventually he settles on prose fiction as the medium, and begins work

on the tale that would become ‘Die Nacht danach und der Morgen’,
the text, it transpires, allegedly only the Stasi now have a copy of.
But his travails do not ease. Driven less by ‘die Wucht der
Inspiration’ than by ‘der Zwang des Versprechens’ (DN, 14), the
narrator likens the exercise to ‘eine Flucht auf Krücken’ (DN, 14), all
the more frustrating when he had ‘nach nichts Stofflichem zu suchen’
(DN, 14). The frustratingly painstaking process of transposing his
experiences into fictional form is described in detail, so that the sense
of disappointment with the end product is wholly expected. He
concedes that, although unable to write himself ‘frei vom Gewesenen’
(DN, 15), the original prose version of ‘Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen’ successfully reduces the impact of his military service to ‘ein
mir ertragbares Maß der Schmach’ (15), which would tally with his
comments about the existential import of writing in the interview with
Klaus Hammer. But the modest therapeutic benefits in psychological
terms are tempered, if not undermined, by his dissatisfaction with the
initial outcome in literary terms. The tale amounts to no more than
nineteen handwritten pages, which seem insufficient ‘den Riß durch
die Welt etwas deutlicher in seiner ganzen Schäbigkeit präsentieren zu
können’ (DN, 16). Worse still, the narrator cannot shake his ‘Zweifel
des Ungenügens der Worte’ (DN, 16) but offers no concrete analysis
of the inadequacy of language.28 Nevertheless, the problems outlined
here presage the narrator’s situation in the main narrative, when we
find him mired in a creative crisis and unable to overcome writer’s
block, which appears to have been unleashed by the incipient demise
of the GDR. As in the opening section, the crisis appears to be both of
a linguistic and psychological nature, deriving from an inability to
locate a literary construction suitable for the analysis and resolution of

This concern is one of the principal features of Was bleibt and also recalls Harig’s
experiences as witnessed in Chapter 1.
Uwe Saeger 67

another ‘Riß durch die Welt’, but this time pertaining to the collapse
of East Germany and the hole being torn in the Wall. His original tale
offered at best a partial solution to the problem, but its only concrete
success was in getting him noticed by his eventual publisher. The
screenplay adaptation, with which we are presented in its entirety at
the end of the introduction and which comprises one-third of Die
Nacht danach und der Morgen, appears destined never to be filmed,
on account of the author’s apparent ambivalence about the project.
Ultimately, the narrator is forced to admit that the material may have
become exhausted for him as a source of inspiration, ‘doch bleibt
seine in mich gegründete und verwachsene und durch nichts
aufhebbare Gegenwärtigkeit erhalten’ (DN, 20-1). He seems
pessimistic about ever finding a means of exploring the forces that
have shaped his own identity, a concern for GDR intellectuals and
citizens alike in a post-Wende climate marked by accusation,
denunciation and Abwicklung.
So what are we to make of the original ‘Die Nacht danach und
der Morgen’? Is it truly as flawed as the narrator would have us
believe? In a bid to objectify his experiences, the narrator creates a
protagonist, Frank, and follows him during the evening of his release
from military service. There is clear correspondence between the
narrator’s account of his experiences in the opening section and the
fictional rendition. Both have served at the Berlin Wall and find the
return home exposes how they have changed irrevocably, and not in
any positive way. Both must pay a heavy price for their time in the
NVA, as their private lives are ravaged by destructive tensions. In
view of the problems facing readers of the main overarching text, the
parallels do not seduce one into an autobiographical reading in this
instance, largely because of the attention to the fate of other
Within the screenplay itself, Frank’s predicament is mirrored
by that of his erstwhile colleague, Jürgen Glockengiesser, nicknamed
Glogies, who comes from the same town and whose marriage has
already fallen victim to his military service. For Frank, his relationship
with Kathrin foundered following the birth of their daughter: ‘Damals,
nach der Geburt, konnte ich nicht gleich fahren, da waren die
Entlassungen, und ich bin ja auch kein Verheirateter […]. Sie hat
nicht begriffen, daß ich am nächsten Tag nicht mit Blumen da sein
konnte’ (DN, 29). As a consequence, the burden of the specific nature
of their military service – defined by the narrator in the opening
section as ‘Dienst […] Aug in Aug mit dem Klassenfeind, dem
68 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

sogenannten’ (DN, 5) – weighs especially heavily upon them. Whilst

Frank and his colleagues must contemplate the ruins of their private
lives, they are also confronted with widespread social ignorance of
what military service entailed for the young men. In particular, it is the
morbid fascination of civilians, eager to hear about incidents at the
Wall with the so-called ‘Friedenswacht’ (DN, 65), which upsets the
returnees most. As Frank snaps at the two girls who flirt with him and
Glogies in the station buffet: ‘Ihr sagt Mauer, und dann seid ihr fertig
damit’ (DN, 65). Yet it does not deter one of them from enquiring:
‘Aber ne echte Möglichkeit hattet ihr da doch nicht? ne Möglichkeit
rüberzukommen?’ (DN, 65). She cannot know that Frank had indeed
prevented his companion’s bid for freedom, and that she is therefore
rubbing salt into a wound, however inadvertently.
Although it focuses solely on the first hours of his release, the
screenplay indicates how problematic the readjustment to everyday
life is going to be for Frank in particular, and by implication for the
others as well. At the conclusion, when Frank is devastated to learn
that Kathrin has given up their daughter for adoption, his earlier relief
at having left the army with ‘eine glatte Rechnung’ (DN, 53) is shown
to be totally illusory. Like the narrator of the main text, he may not
have been required to use his firearm at the border, but in Frank’s case
it is small compensation for the personal loss he has suffered. As
morning arrives, he collapses, a little melodramatically perhaps, on the
street overwhelmed by grief and engulfed by images from his past,
central to which are shots of him on duty at the Wall.
The interplay between the narrator’s autobiographical
observations in the opening section and the fictional rendition of them
in the screenplay also titled ‘Die Nacht danach und der Morgen’ is
intriguing, not least in the context of investigations into the precise
nature of the overarching text. It reveals how trying to provide a
definitive label for the material is somewhat irrelevant, if not futile.
The key concern is that the accounts should ring true as believable
treatments of individual experience. As the narrator observes: ‘Die
Lüge der Kunst schafft die eigentliche Wahrheit des Lebens, denn die
Wahrheit der Kunst ist außerhalb jeglicher Faktizität’ (DN, 15). By
this token, the screenplay serves its purpose relatively effectively on
the whole, bearing the hallmarks of ‘subjective authenticity’. And yet,
the narrator’s evident dissatisfaction with the outcome suggests he
cannot totally accept the validity of it, for the material at its heart
remains too personal to him perhaps, too close, and therefore requires
a more directly subjective approach. But ultimately, Die Nacht danach
Uwe Saeger 69

und der Morgen seems to suggest that no written account can ever
heal the ‘Bruch in meinem Leben’ (DN, 5) constituted by his
deployment at the Berlin Wall. The text reveals that this rupture runs
very deep, affecting his sense of self and thereby his capacity for self-
expression. Thus no one format or rendition can heal this wound, all
of which might explain why Saeger should adopt an eclectic approach
in the end, reflecting a, possibly futile, desire to unite disparate
aspects of his identity into a more unified whole.
It is this sense of frustration that pervades the main narrative
of Die Nacht danach und der Morgen. It begins - after the insertion of
the screenplay - with a diary entry for 17 November 1989.
Unsurprisingly, the sense of betrayal is expressed strongly as the full
scale of the corruption and hypocrisy of the ruling elite emerges. The
narrator remarks bitterly: ‘Jahrealt der Witz: Der Kapitalismus steht
am Abgrund - wir sind einen Schritt weiter. War der Abgrund so tief,
daß wir jahrelang stürzen mußten, um so weit unten anzukommen?’
(DN, 97). His children pester him about when they can travel to the
West, and already appear to have turned their backs on the GDR. The
narrator intimates that they require ‘einen (einen nur) Punkt, an dem
sie Halt finden können’ (DN, 97), but as the narrative progresses, and
the magnitude of his own disorientation becomes clear, it is surely he
who most needs this security. Driving home from D., following a
meeting of Neues Forum and his first encounter with the mysterious
Mike Glockengiesser, he is overwhelmed by a sense that he has been
[…] Ein Stück von dem Unbennenbaren Heimat war mir abhanden
gekommen, und je näher ich meinem Ort kam, desto häufiger brachen
weitere Stücke davon ab. Ich fuhr heimwärts in die Fremde. Düstere
Ortschaften. Manchmal ein sterniges, fernhöhnendes, wolkenfreies
Himmelsstück. Mehrmals die Verlockung, einen Baum als Zielpunkt
zu nehmen. (DN, 111)

This disturbingly suicidal compulsion anticipates the nightmare he

suffers later that night, in which he is stoned and buried under rocks in
a hole in the ground.
The narrator’s disorientation manifests itself twofold, and
both conditions are potentially damaging for him as a writer. Firstly,
he is unable to rid himself of a debilitating creative lethargy, at a time
when critical intellectuals could, and should in his opinion, be offering
Aber ich kann nicht aus meiner Lethargie, verloren ist meine
innervative Energie der zweiten Oktoberhälfte, die irgendwie
glückhafte Taumelei einer aus dem Tag gewachsenen Arbeit. Worüber
70 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

ich vor Wochen noch leichthin reden konnte, daß sich das deutsch-
deutsche Problem in diesem Herbst ebenso rasant wie eindeutig
miterledigen würde, nämlich in einer Föderativen Deutschen
Republik, dafür werden mir nun die Worte falsch und widerborstig,
nichts behält mehr Bestand in seiner ehemaligen Gültigkeit, als hätte
ich alles nur in Täuschungen gekannt. (DN, 116)

The views expressed here are those shared by many GDR intellectuals
and writers at this time, especially at the large demonstration at
Alexanderplatz on 4 November 1989, where luminaries such as
Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym and Christoph Hein grasped the
unprecedented opportunity to address the public at an open,
democratic forum and called for a reformed democratic GDR. For
some reason, the narrator’s optimism and engagement has ebbed
away. At several points in the narrative, he laments his ‘Trägheit’
(DN, 116; 171) and ‘Verzweiflung’ (DN, 174), but appears unable to
combat them in any way, least of all by writing himself free. For the
plain truth is that the changing circumstances of the GDR have not
only affected him politically, but also creatively, which is potentially
far more damaging.
Frustrated by this second symptom of his disorientation, the
narrator attempts to find inspiration and motivation by turning to the
work of other authors, such as Thomas Mann’s Betrachtungen eines
Unpolitischen, from which he deploys an extensive quotation,
including telling observations such as: ‘Der politische Künstler ist der
wirkungshungrigste Künstler, den es gibt, aber er verdeckt seinen
Wirkungshunger mit der Lehre, die Kunst müsse Folgen haben, und
zwar politische’ (DN, 115). Against this yardstick, the narrator has
fallen a long way short. Ironically, his failure to fulfil the role set out
by Mann by engaging with the socio-political currents sweeping East
Germany does nonetheless find literary expression, in the long
hermetic poem entitled ‘Heimat. Vorletzter letzter Versuch’, which
recalls the work of the Prenzlauer Berg poets.29 At first glance the
narrator’s poem would appear to correlate with Stephen Brockmann’s
definition of the poetry produced in the avant-garde scene by writers
such as Uwe Kolbe and Bert Papenfuß-Gorek as being predicated on
‘the refusal of meaning itself and thus explicit political messages’.30
The language is certainly disjointed with idiosyncratic use of syntax
and orthography, which militate against simple comprehension.

One wonders whether the title is an allusion to Christa Wolf’s essay collection
Fortgesetzter Versuch (1979), but one which implies that continuity is increasingly
Brockmann, p. 91.
Uwe Saeger 71

Nevertheless, a string of images do emerge, despite the linguistic

complexity, which conjure up an impression of the events surrounding
the Wende. As a result, rather than transgressing ‘boundaries into a
land beyond meaning’, as Kolbe believed the aim of the avant-garde
texts to be, the narrator’s poem both embodies the efforts of the lyrical
‘I’ to connect somehow with what is going on around him and
frustration at his ultimate failure to do so.31
A collage of images and expressions in the poem generate
ready associations with the circumstances of the GDR in the autumn
of 1989. Obvious images of borders and fences rest alongside
references to the ‘Leichen unserer Umweltinitiativ’ (DN, 121),
reflecting the disastrous ecological conditions in the GDR, as well as
possessing metaphorical force with regard to the state of the country
as a whole.32 ‘Die Traurigkeit des alten/Mannes angesichts seiner
selbst gegenüber der Parade’ (DN, 122) makes one think of a tired,
bewildered Honecker on 7 October 1989, as Gorbachev initiated the
machinations to topple the hardliner from power and the sealed trains
travelled from Czechoslovakia and Hungary through the GDR to the
West: ‘Im Zug der quer durch/Hier/Nach Westen fährt’ (DN, 122).
Yet the mood of the poem is in no way celebratory. From the outset,
the ‘I’ is trapped:

Im Eisen steck ich

Verschmiedet in Zäunen, Drähten, Gittern
Angetan mit der Fessel der freien Wahl meines
Freien Raumes ohne FreiRaum. (DN, 120)

His exclusion from the euphoria and optimism around him, he senses,
is due to his ‘Heimat’ itself:

Doch Heimat, auf was ich tret

Hier, was mir den Buckel
Krümmt, das Maul (wie?)
Mir stopft, die (womit?)
Haut mir macht zum dicken Fell, den (warum)

Ibid., p. 92.
Wolfgang Gabler has examined Saeger’s preoccupation with the theme of borders,
and its presence here provides another clue to the synonymity of author and narrator.
See Wolfgang Gabler, Erzählen auf Leben und Tod: Uwe Saegers Prosawerk der 80er
Jahre (Neubrandenburg: Literaturzentrum, 1990), pp. 41-9.
The imagery again evokes Saeger’s work, as the publication directly preceding the
text in question was a collection of short stories called Haut von Eisen (Munich:
Piper, 1990).
72 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Arsch mir ankert bis auf den Grund (wo?)

Grundlos und mich
Hinreißt in Disziplin & Vernunft & Sicher
Heit und mich ausgrenzt
Vom Terrain der Hoffnung. (DN, 122)

A disturbing image to be sure, especially as the frequent use of

oxymoronic constructions - ‘das Land in Jubeltrauer’; ‘vom eignen
fremden Land’ (DN, 121) - imply the lyrical ‘I’’s ambivalence, rather
than indifference. Structurally, the oxymoron might also suggest the
ideological divide between West and East Germany, terms which until
1989 operated as political antonyms.
Although we see him skulking about ‘verschlagen in
Tümpeln, Löchern, Teichen’ (DN, 121), it is apparent that he longs,
but is unable, to take part in this new freedom heralded by the

Es öffnet der Raum sich.

Es ballt sich der Zeit.
Und ich treib und treib und bin doch bereit
Will wanken nicht und weiche doch
Vorm dialogischen Gebet
Hab mich nicht und will mich noch
Gesellen zum Letzten der wi(e)dersteht.
Wie leb ich weiter? (DN, 123-4)

But the blackbird’s voice is ‘wohl schrill’, and the ‘I’ succumbs to a
pessimistic evaluation of the country’s future:

Dann stehn die alten Bremser wieder vorn

Diese von Vernunft ganz Ausgebufften
Und stoßen frisch ins alte Horn
Und lächeln lieb und lassen schuften. (DN, 123)

The presence of the blackbird as a commentator on events echoes the

work of Georg Trakl, in which the bird is often a critical or
melancholic voice. Indeed, one might argue that the tone of the poem
is reminiscent of Trakl’s work; it may not be as apocalyptic, but it has
an inherent bleakness and evokes a sense of decay which one finds in
the Austrian’s canon.34 With these possible Trakl allusions in mind, it
does not come as a surprise that the lyrical ‘I’ signals earlier in the

See for example ‘Verfall’, in Georg Trakl, Werke, Entwürfe, Briefe, ed. by Hans-
Georg Kemper and Frank Rainer Max (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984), p. 39.
Uwe Saeger 73

poem that he expects little to change; he speaks of the ‘tollkühn

verzögert[e] Schußfahrt nach Sankt Reform’ (DN, 122). What initially
appears a positive assessment of the courage displayed by many at the
time, is quickly moderated by the ironic ‘Sankt reform’ and a rather
complex constellation of oxymorons: for the surge towards reform is
both audacious (‘tollkühn’) yet subject to delay (‘verzögert’), and one
must beg the question whether this truly constitutes a headlong rush
(‘Schußfahrt’). Thus the enduring impression is of an energy
restrained, or worse still dissipated, and in turn anticipates the image
of ‘die alten Bremser’.
Far from representing a land beyond meaning, the poem
invites a reading on both a personal and political level. Its depiction of
the ebb and flow of events, mirrored in stylistic devices such as
oxymoron, reflects the uncertain future ahead for the GDR and its
citizens. One might argue in light of events since reunification in
1990, especially from the perspective of eastern Germans, that the
poem contains a degree of prescience. In the context of Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen, however, the poem is significant for offering
insights into the narrator’s disorientation. His citation of Thomas
Mann would suggest that he is not advocating or seeking to adopt an
overtly apolitical stance in the manner of the Prenzlauer Berg poets.
He does try to evade an invitation to attend the Neues Forum meeting,
however, by stressing his intention to remain ‘weiterhin wie ehedem
ohne parteiliche oder andere organisatorische Zugehörigkeit’ (DN,
102). Moreover, at this point he highlights how fundamentally the
socio-political situation has already changed, so much so in fact that
he would now feel ‘nur noch als Nachredner’. By the time he writes
the poem, despite having stressed the need ‘jetzt nur nicht ermüden in
den Anfängen’ (DN, 102), he appears to have fallen victim to just
such inertia, reflected in the stasis afflicting the lyrical ‘I’. The poem
is an expression of frustration at not being able to engage with events,
but in itself does not embody a solution. The lyrical ‘I’ appears to
draw comfort from language:

[…] Ach
Lieb, die Worte
Sind die
Meiner Leidenschaft. (DN, 124-5)

For the narrator, however, there is no suggestion that the poem has
helped him cure his creative block. What the poem does provide,
74 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

though, is a clue to the root of the problem. It intimates that the

narrator’s disorientation stems from the changes that his ‘Heimat’ is
presently undergoing.
Irrespective of whether one is prepared to view Uwe Saeger as
being synonymous with his narrator, the clue to the narrator’s crisis –
his ‘seelischer Notstand’ – provided by the poem is substantiated
considerably when one consults the author’s biography and recalls
Eakin’s theory of the ‘relational self’.35 Is it not the case that the
narrator’s unsettled condition during the Wende can be attributed to
the incipient collapse of the only society he has ever known? As
Karsten Dümmel has observed, Saeger, born in 1948, belongs to the
‘mittlere Autorengeneration’.36 Wolfgang Emmerich borrows the title
of a poetry collection by Uwe Kolbe, another of this young generation
who began publishing in the 1980s, in describing these authors as
‘hineingeboren’ into the GDR.37 Emmerich focuses primarily on the
literary characteristics to which we shall return, but Dümmel’s survey
is useful in teasing out the psychological traits of this generation, not
least because Saeger is one of the authors he cites. Indeed, Dümmel
himself belongs to this same generation, born as he was in Zwickau in
For the likes of Saeger, the erection of the Berlin Wall
destroyed any theoretical hopes of an alternative mode of existence in
the GDR. In effect, their world shrunk overnight. As a consequence,
the lives of most of these authors followed a broadly similar pattern,
with many of them trying many different jobs before finally
embarking on a literary career. Citing examples of some of these jobs,
Dümmel posits the theory that they mark the authors’ early attempts
‘möglichst viele Erfahrungen zu sammeln’, a form of compensation
for the opportunities that had been curtailed after 1961.38 Many had
believed that the Wall would, in truth, facilitate a more openly critical
relationship with the GDR regime, but such hopes were swiftly
dashed. The writers who belonged to the middle generation and would
have benefited from the more emancipated atmosphere that many
expected once the growing pains of the GDR had ceased, came to
embody, and then articulate, this frustration: ‘Ihre Zeit beurteilten sie
als geschichtslos; dabei empfanden sie sich selbst als hineingestellt

Mitgutsch, p. 26; Eakin (HOL, 43-98)
Dümmel, pp. 38-48.
Emmerich, Literaturgeschichte, pp. 401-18.
Dümmel, p. 40.
Uwe Saeger 75

und hineingeboren in eine für sie längst nicht mehr veränderbare

If the dogmatic experiences of childhood and adolescence had
suppressed this generation’s capacity to engage uninhibited and
unhindered in a truly dynamic process of socialisation and
individuation, then events such as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in
1968, the Biermann expatriation in 1976 and the expulsion of nine
authors from the Schriftstellerverband in 1979 underlined the
fundamental incongruity between the theory and practice of
Communism. Dümmel is surely correct to point out that the older
authors of this generation, such as Christoph Hein and Volker Braun,
who had some experience of life before the GDR came into existence,
naturally found it easier to preserve hopes of reforming the system
despite these events.40 Such hopes were illusory for the younger
writers, and their disillusion manifested itself in themes such as
‘Stagnation, Werteverlust, Verwahrlosung der Alltagsästhetik’ and the
depiction of ‘die Kleinigkeiten des Alltags mit ihren tausendfachen
Demütigungen’.41 Sigrid Damm even went as far as to insist in 1988
that this was a ‘Generation ohne Biographie’.42
Damm’s thesis is arguably a little too strong. Writers of
Saeger’s generation did have a biography, albeit a dull and restricted
one where opportunities were curtailed by the nature of the society
around them. But it was a society that deliberately set out to shape
them by controlling their formative experiences. If, as Eakin argues,
our sense of self is dependent upon relational forces, at the macro and
micro level, then even a critical perspective upon society can be seen
ex negativo as a product of that self-same society. Consequently, the
narrator’s disorientated condition in the main narrative of Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen can be interpreted as an identity crisis
unleashed by the collapse of familiar surroundings, notwithstanding
his long-standing rejection of them. His ambivalent attitude towards
contemporary events in the autumn of 1989, therefore, reveals the
depth of the GDR’s influence on his sense of self. Modes of behaviour
and expectation had been inculcated in him. He is unable to turn his

Ibid., p. 40.
Christoph Hein was another to address the demonstration on 4 November 1989 and
voice hopes of reform, rather than reunification, thereby underlining his resilient
optimism. By contrast, as we have seen, Volker Braun was less sanguine.
Dümmel, p. 47.
Sigrid Damm, ‘Unruhe’, Sinn und Form, 40 (1988), 244-49 (p. 247). Interestingly,
Saeger described himself as having ‘keine Biografie’ in the interview with Hammer,
p. 57.
76 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

back on that literally and figuratively bankrupt state, unlike his

children who have not yet been subjected to the same degree of
conditioning. In fact, the opposite occurs: he begins an intense and
thorough re-examination of his own role in that state, which results in,
what Hannes Krauss has called, ‘die Selbstbezichtigung des Autors’.
Krauss suggests, moreover, that the fragmentary nature of the text as a
whole is not the result of ‘Nachläßigkeit oder gestalterischem
Unvermögen […], sondern aus elementarer Not’.43
Confronted and ashamed by his inertia, the narrator initiates a
sustained, caustic deconstruction of his role as a writer in the GDR. It
is a relentless excoriation:
[…] Ich bin immer nur der Verschlossene, Eigenartige, Kauzige, aber
doch der Vernünftige, nach ihrem Sinne Vernünftige gewesen, ich war
mein Problembürger, aber ich war keine Gefahr. Und das sollte man
sein, ist das Vaterland in Gefahr, für die, die es in Gefahr gebracht
haben. Und nun, da alles auf dem Spiel steht, kann ich mich nicht
einmal dazu überwinden, einen Aufruf zu unterzeichnen. Die
Karawane zieht weiter, diesmal laufen sogar die Hunde mit, nur der
Dorftrottel sitzt unverändert am Brunnen und klappert mit den leeren
Eimern, aber es wird keiner mehr kommen, der sie ihm füllt - und
dieser, der da blöd himmelwärts grinst und die Sonne wieder einmal
auf der falschen Seite sucht, der bin ich. (DN, 117)

Far from being the ‘engineer of the soul’ that Stalin envisaged, the
narrator presents himself as the village idiot encapsulating his feeling
of having been neither a meaningful moral authority nor a genuine
threat to the totalitarian system. Saeger had earlier made the same
observation in his interview with Klaus Hammer: ‘Ich habe mich als
Person nie in totaler Gegnerschaft zum totalitären Regime befunden.
Ist das nun ein Schuld? Oder Versagen? Ich muß antworten: Ja’ (US,
56). The self-critical assessment of his ineffectiveness as a thorn in the
State’s side leads naturally into an appraisal of the function of GDR
authors in general, which to a large extent parallels the issues in the
Literaturstreit that erupted in the summer of 1990. Initially directed at
Christa Wolf and Was bleibt, the debate later escalated to embrace all
GDR authors, and ultimately post-1945 German literature as a whole.
If we are to believe the dates between which Saeger worked on the
material in Die Nacht danach und der Morgen – and there is little

Hannes Krauss, ‘Verschwundenes Land? Verschwundene Literatur? Neue Bücher –
alte Themen’, in Verrat an der Kunst, ed. by Karl Deiritz and Hannes Krauss (Berlin:
Aufbau, 1993), pp. 273-78 (pp. 275-76). This more general article is derived, in part,
from his specific review in Freitag.
Uwe Saeger 77

reason not to – then his self-critical analysis of the role of the writer in
the GDR shows remarkable foresight.
Wolf was accused of cowardice for not having published her
short piece at the time of its creation, purported to be 1979. But any
text that made surveillance by the Stasi its explicit theme would have
stood little chance of publication in the GDR, especially in the wake
of the Biermann expulsion and the cultural freeze that ensued. Her
only option would have been to publish in the West, but as Stephen
Brockmann indicates: ‘One of the reasons for Wolf’s effectiveness as
a medium for debate and reflection in the GDR was that her books
were available to ordinary East German citizens in book stores and
libraries’.44 He goes on to compare the situation of GDR authors who
remained in the country with the inner emigrants under the Third
Reich, and highlights the dilemma that faced them: ‘For many writers
who had left the GDR, staying in that country meant conforming to an
intolerable political system; for many writers who had remained in the
GDR, leaving the country meant abandoning all hope for positive
reform from within’.45
The narrator of Die Nacht danach und der Morgen ponders
this very question, from the perspective of one who remained and now
feels compelled to reassess the validity of this decision: ‘Warum
denke ich jetzt, daß es anderer, wesentlicherer Mut gewesen wäre,
wenn ich nicht hier geblieben wäre? Warum jetzt die Überzeugung,
daß mir da doch eine Wahl war?’ (DN, 119). The answers he proposes
echo arguments advanced by those who believed that GDR literature
would cease to be relevant with that country’s demise:
Weil die Literatur hier erledigt worden ist, weil sie, wie schillernd
auch immer, Indiz für Enklave, Versperrtsein, des
Insichgeworfenseins bleibt, bedeutsam und lächerlich, Kunstbe- und
Kunstnachweis ohne Trennlinie? Dichter wachsen aus der Enge.
Oder? (DN, 119)

It would appear that his creative crisis derives largely from existential
concerns, a fact that Saeger makes explicit in his interview:
‘Schreiben war, ist und bleibt alles, was ich wirklich vermag und was
ich mit Leidenschaft tue, und würde sich das erledigen, gleich durch

Brockmann, p. 68.
Ibid., p. 69. Günter de Bruyn, an author who stayed in the GDR, provides a
balanced personal view of this same dilemma in the chapter ‘Auf der Kanzel’ in
Vierzig Jahre (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1996), pp. 215-22. It is especially illuminating
in describing the reactions that emigrations unleashed in writers and readers alike. See
Chapter 4.
78 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

welche Umstände, hätte sich auch die Person des Schreibers erledigt’
(US, 53). Even if he had been by his own estimation ineffectual as a
writer – ‘Ich bin […] zuallererst ein gescheiterter Autor’ (US, 58) –
the incipient collapse of the only socio-political system he has ever
known threatens his livelihood: ‘Aber woraus rekrutiert die Kunst ihre
Wahrheiten in einer lügefreien Gesellschaft? Was hätte die Kunst
noch zu verhandeln, wenn die tatsächliche Freiheit einmal die des
künstlerischen Gewissens übersteigt?’ (DN, 119). Here too, the
narrator’s understanding of literature as a purely political tool, which
may well struggle to survive in the currently changing environment, to
some extent anticipates the debate stirred by critics such as Karl Heinz
Bohrer and Frank Schirrmacher. For as Brockmann outlines, those
critics who were suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, politically
committed literature advocated the reassertion of more aesthetic
criteria after 1989:
Literature […] should be a purely aesthetic game unencumbered by
the heavy and oafish moralism of political commitment. The political
role of literature in the two Germanys, critics argued, was a relic from
the unhappy authoritarian past, and it should be discarded as writers in
both Germanys integrated themselves into a normal western

Naturally, for authors inured to a dogmatic perception of

literature – even if it was a perception they sought to undermine or rail
against – a seamless transition to a new approach is inconceivable.
And although there is a strong case for arguing that Die Nacht danach
und der Morgen does essay a more aesthetic – it would be
inappropriate to call it playful – method, which bears none of the
hallmarks of Socialist Realism whatsoever, one cannot overlook the
narrator’s inherent understanding of his role as that of a moral
authority, albeit a capacity in which he believes he has failed
Und wachsend die Schuld, meine persönliche Schuld, auch das
geringe Wissen um Verhältnisse, und zumeist waren es ja Ahnungen,
nicht stärker verlautbart zu haben, daß ich meine oft gebrauchte
Wendung ‘Ich bin ein Schreiber, und mehr kann und will ich nicht
sein’ heute wie ein schlechtes Alibi für Feigheit, Trägheit und
Inkonsequenz betrachten muß. Und wenn ich in Gesprächen noch
darauf bestehe, daß ich nie anderes getan hätte, als nun angeblich alle
tun, nämlich ehrlich, d.h. nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen das
Seine zu tun, so weiß ich doch, daß das zu wenig war, und das war es
immer und unter allen Umständen. (DN, 116)

Brockmann, p. 71.
Uwe Saeger 79

The feeling that one could, and should, have done more as an author is
not uncommon in work published by GDR authors after 1989. In Was
bleibt, for instance, the narrator reflects on ‘ein bevorzugtes Leben
wie das meine’ that can only be justified by ‘hin und wieder die
Grenzen des Sagbaren zu überschreiten, der Tatsache eingedenk, daß
Grenzverletzungen aller Art geahndet werden’.47 In Die Nacht danach
und der Morgen, the narrator concedes that he never truly pushed the
authorities, never put his head on the block for the sake of truth. Worst
of all, rather than violating any borders, either physically or
metaphorically, he spent twelve months protecting the Berlin Wall for
the State. And therein lies the root of his debilitating personal crisis.
It emerges forcefully that the nature of his military service has
haunted him. Not only from the vivid nightmares he suffers at regular
intervals, all of which can be seen to possess an inherent metaphorical
force stemming from his time as a border guard, but also in the
manner in which his original fictional treatment reappears once the
Wall has fallen, it is clear that a personal reckoning with his past is
essential. Measuring his achievements alongside the original
motivation and rationale for embarking on a writing career, the
narrator feels that he has fallen well short of his avowed intention to
expiate his sense of guilt in literary form for having complied with the
State. In the course of his discussions with the director and producer
about realising the ‘Die Nacht danach und der Morgen’ film project,
the narrator is appalled at the effect his reminiscences have on him:
Ich fühlte körperhaft Scham in mir wachsen. Ich schämte mich, daß
ich so gedient hatte. Ich redete die Armeerlebnisse wie einen Wall vor
mich. Jede Minute der 548 Tage hatte ich klar vor mir. Ich redete den
Jargon, ich roch und schmeckte, wovon ich sprach. Und die Herren
fragten nach mehr, wollten zusätzliches Futter für den Film. Und ich
redete und redete. Und ich schämte mich. Es war noch immer in mir.
Ich sah die Gesichter, ich lief die Wege. Die beiden bekundeten, wie
nötig dieser Stoff gerade jetzt wäre, jetzt müsse man die ganze
Perversion und den ganzen Deformismus, den diese Dinge zur Folge
hatten, vor die Leute bringen. (DN, 184)

The corporeal impact of these memories shock and overwhelm him.

That he can recall his ‘Armeerlebnisse’ in such vivid, sensual detail,
reveals how deeply engrained they have become in him; they are
latent, finding expression principally in dreams. On the journey home,
his thoughts elide into the detailed recollection of a military exercise
at Streganz, crawling through the tunnels of the army range during a
Christa Wolf, Was bleibt (Munich: DTV, 1994), pp. 20-21. In light of the criticisms
levelled at the author, quotations such as this seem doubly apposite.
80 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

simulated gas attack. The claustrophobic, disorientating experience is

relayed in the present tense, which not only intensifies the description,
but also hints at the enduring resonance of the memory for the narrator
– ‘Es war noch immer in mir’. He is so utterly transfixed that he
remembers nothing of the drive home: ‘Ich wußte nichts von den
letzten gefahrenen Kilometern’ (DN, 188). From the narrator’s
perspective, the failure to tackle his problems satisfactorily in literary
terms is symptomatic of an inability to deal satisfactorily with his
As the narrator reflects upon his memory of the Streganz
exercise, the full extent of his collusion with the State becomes clear
to him:
In diesen Minuten […] begriff ich, daß man auch ohne nachweisbare,
anklagbare Schuld schuldig sein kann, und daß eine solche Schuld, die
als eine politisch-moralische zu fassen ist, nur in der Haltung eines
andern – vielleicht als Erbpflicht zum Widerspruch? – abgetragen
werden kann. Und Die Nacht… war ebenso Indiz dafür, daß ich vor
18 Jahren nichts begriffen hatte […]. (DN, 190)

In the most bitterly self-critical passage in the text, ‘der Soldat Saeger’
(DN, 192) is castigated for having accepted the Berlin Wall as an
‘Antifaschistisch-Demokratischen-Schutzwall’ (DN, 192), thereby
swallowing the official euphemism without question. With hindsight,
the narrator intimates that even at the time he knew that passive
resistance was problematic, or most likely ineffectual. In the face of
an apparently incontrovertible reality, he compares his response to that
of Willy Brandt, the Mayor of West Berlin in 1961, whom he quotes
extensively at this point in the text. Although as powerless as Saeger,
Brandt resolved never to accept the Wall: ‘“Es macht keinen Sinn, mit
dem Kopf durch die Wand zu wollen – es sei denn, die wäre aus
Papier. Aber es macht sehr viel Sinn, sich mit willkürlichen
Trennwänden nicht abzufinden”’ (DN, 191). In contrast, Saeger’s
‘kleinliche[s] Ziel’ amounted to ‘ohne Schuld nach 548 Tagen wieder
heimkehren zu können’ (DN, 191). Moreover, whereas Willy Brandt
channelled his considerable energies and political will into the
diplomacy of détente, in order to effect a meaningful response to the
situation, Saeger adopted an altogether less productive attitude – ‘er
Und hätte der Soldat Saeger nicht gesoffen, wäre möglicherweise die
einzige Kampfhandlung gewesen, daß er sich eine Kugel in den
eigenen Kopf schoß, aber eine offen bekundete Gegnerschaft, eine
Ablehnung der Dinge und Verhältnisse, ihre Bekämpfung auch hätte
er nie in Erwägung gezogen. (DN, 192)
Uwe Saeger 81

Once again, the impact of this personal experience is rendered in

physical terms, for the narrator feels his service in Berlin as ‘heute ein
wuchernder Wundfraß’, quite literally a caustic image. Yet again,
there is an indication that Saeger’s motivation derives from an intense
personal pain, which had led him to consider suicide.
As Eakin has argued most persuasively in a section entitled
‘The Embodied Self’, such obvious physical and psychological
disfigurement will naturally have ramifications on the individuation
process.48 In this context, the narrator’s citation of Georg Trakl at this
point in the text is illuminating, for here is a man whose identity was
truly disfigured by his torturous experiences, especially in the First
World War at the battle of Grodek. Trakl wrote the eponymous poem
in hospital following a nervous breakdown in the wake of the battle.
For the narrator, it represents the ‘schmerzhafteste Dichtung, die ich
kenne’ (DN, 192). The poem is, indeed, a powerful, and disturbing,
evocation of the poet’s traumatic experiences, replete with the
apocalyptic images of decay and destruction which characterise much
of Trakl’s later work, and tragically anticipate his subsequent death
from a cocaine overdose. As we have seen, the poem included in the
main body of the text underlines the affinity the narrator feels with
Trakl. The fate of Trakl perhaps puts his own into perspective.
Nevertheless, events in the autumn of 1989 and their impact upon him
underline the way his fate appears to be bound up irrevocably with the
Wall: ‘Die Mauer ist mein Trauma’ (DN, 191). The experience of
having been a border guard is not erased by the Wall’s collapse, ‘denn
das Ausbrechen der andern (die Flüchtigen, die Landesverräter, die
Staatsfeinde!) entschuldigt nicht den, der bestellt war, es zu
verhindern, es zu unterbinden mit allen Mitteln’ (DN, 193). It is only
now, on the verge of the Wall’s disappearance, that he finally
recognises ‘wie [die Mauer] mir eingewachsen ist’ (DN, 191). The
symbol of division and oppression is quite literally a part of him, in an
image that recalls the opening lines of his poem.
By examining the complex, introspective nature of the
narrative, the more insidious aspects of totalitarianism in the GDR and
its impact on identity can be detected, but we must also consider the
more overt external structures and manifestations of totalitarian rule
that are presented in the text. For as with Was bleibt before it, Die
Nacht danach und der Morgen illustrates the overt pressure placed
upon intellectuals in the GDR by the Stasi. The tactics of intimidation

Eakin (HOL, 26-42).
82 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

generally employed by the East German secret police have been well
documented.49 In the shape of the mysterious Mike Glockengiesser,
Saeger’s text reveals the lengths that the Stasi were prepared to go in
order to induce cooperation, or at least to keep critics of the regime in
check. At the end, we are still unsure whether the Stasi man truly is
the son of one of Saeger’s erstwhile army comrades. When one
considers Saeger’s admission that he has exploited invention in his
account, it matters little whether the Stasi officer is actually real or
fictional. That no mention of Glockengiesser is made in the opening
section of the text, which in all other respects establishes a factual
framework to Die Nacht danach und der Morgen that corresponds to
Saeger’s biography, might hint at the character’s fictitious nature.
Nevertheless, in view of what we now know about the Stasi’s
involvement in the cultural scene, the fact remains that Glockengiesser
is an entirely credible character. His contact with the narrator betrays
the hallmarks of ‘Zersetzung’, according to Joachim Walter ‘eine der
wichtigsten und am häufigsten angewandten MfS-Methoden der
siebziger und achtziger Jahre’.50 The Stasi’s own guidelines, quoted
by Walter, detail how anonymous or pseudonymous correspondence
was a key facet of the strategy aimed at imposing psychological
pressure on an author, which could be ‘so nachhaltig, da der
Bearbeitete die Ursache seiner Verunsicherung oft nicht orten,
sondern nur ahnen konnte und sollte. Dieses Gefühl eines anonymen
Bedrängtseins schlug nicht selten um in Selbstzweifel und
Resignation, was ausdrücklich beabsichtigt war’.51 Although the
intimidation of the narrator of Die Nacht danach und der Morgen does
not originate from an anonymous source, its effect is no less
unsettling. In fact, one might argue that the intimidation deriving from

One of the earliest, and best, studies is provided by Joachim Gauck, Die Stasi-
Akten: Das unheimliche Erbe der DDR (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1991). For an alternative,
but no less illuminating, perspective, Timothy Garton Ash’s The File (London:
HarperCollins, 1997) can be recommended. Joachim Walter has compiled the seminal
study of Stasi’s interface with literature with his monumental Sicherungsbereich
Literatur: Schriftsteller und Staatssicherheit in der Deutschen Demokratischen
Republik (Berlin: Ullstein, 1999). For a recent study of this area, see also Paul Cooke
and Andrew Plowman (eds.), German Writers and the Politics of Culture: Dealing
with the Stasi (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
Joachim Walter, ‘“Kosmonauten der stillen Erkundung”: Schriftsteller und
Staatssicherheit’, in Günther Rüther (ed.), Literatur in der Diktatur: Schreiben im
Nationalsozialismus und DDR-Sozialismus (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1997), pp. 283-
302 (p. 288). The article offers a condensed, and very accessible, summary of aspects
of his larger survey.
Ibid., p. 289.
Uwe Saeger 83

someone purporting to be related to a former colleague of the narrator

is actually more disturbing.
It is the first communication from Mike Glockengiesser, nine
days after the collapse of the Wall, which actually triggers the
narrator’s renewed efforts to come to terms with his military service
The mysterious correspondent claims to have come into possession of
the narrator’s original prose version of ‘Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen’ following his estranged father’s death. The narrator is
initially mystified: ‘Ich kann nicht erklären, wie der Text an Glogies
gekommen sein könnte’ (DN, 101). When he meets Glockengiesser,
however, the narrator is immediately disturbed by the man’s odd and
threatening manner. He occupies a flat recently vacated by refugees
who have fled to Hungary, boasts of his skills in ‘die lautlose
Sprechakustik’ (DN, 109) and jousts semantically with the narrator,
who soon wishes he had not allowed a mixture of curiosity and vanity
to inspire him to seek the man out:
Ich wünschte, nicht in diese Wohnung gelangt zu sein, mich nicht in
so ein Gespräch verwickelt. […] Und was ging mich ein Mike
Glockengiesser an und seine Fragen nach einem längst erledigten
Text? (DN, 110)

As the text as a whole reveals, the material in question is far from

‘erledigt’. As he makes to leave the flat, Glockengiesser thrusts an
envelope into his hand containing a copy of his own version of ‘Die
Nacht danach und der Morgen’, a riposte to the narrator’s original.
The following week, the narrator is telephoned by a DEFA producer,
seemingly out of the blue, about the possibility of filming the
screenplay. Ultimately, the sudden interest would appear to have little
to do with coincidence. The unsettling impact of this sequence of
events on the narrator is doubtless accentuated by his own creative
impasse. Ironically, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen itself would
appear to embody a resolution of this problem, and thus represents the
diametric opposite of the Stasi’s probable aim.
The narrator reads Glockengiesser’s literary response to the
original story with reluctant fascination. In essence, it borrows heavily
from the original tale, recounting the return home of two conscriptees,
but with the added dramatic tension of being set in October 1989. As a
result, the narrator grudgingly concedes that it surpasses his own,
rather laboured, version:
Die Politisierung des Materials war eindeutiger, brisanter, und auch
wenn hier ebenfalls das Thema auf einen Strich abgehandelt, der
Handlungsrahmen mit dem ersten Wort vorgegeben war und nie
84 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

verlassen wurde, griff der Text stärker als der meine ins Allgemeine.
[…] Der Text des M.G. war nicht nur heutiger, das mußte er ja sein, er
würde auch nie altern. Der Text des M.G. (& Co.) war nur noch eine
Variante. Das Plagiat, das ist eine Kennzeichnung zum Selbstschutz,
behauptete sich gegenüber dem Original. (DN, 169)

The external action of Glockengiesser’s version of ‘Die Nacht danach

und der Morgen’ illustrates the self-same mixture of public confusion
and disillusion that the narrator witnesses at the Neues Forum meeting
and that characterises his own response to the Wende. In expressing
fears about the future direction of the GDR, Glockengiesser’s text
does indeed display a degree of foresight, not least in raising the issue
of how former border guards will now be judged. Like Frank in the
original tale, the narrator of Glockengiesser’s text – who incidentally
is also called Glockengiesser – has the good fortune never to have
needed to fire his weapon. In contrast to Frank’s relief at his
supposedly ‘glatte Rechung’, however, his relief is tempered by recent
events and the realisation that sweeping changes are inevitable:
Wir alle, die keine Mörder geworden sind, hatten nur Glück, wir sind
davongekommen, aber wir sind es nicht für immer, denn einmal
werden wir auch nach dem Möglichen gerichtet werden, einmal, wenn
wir wissen, daß dieses Glück nur in der Vernunft anderer gegründet
war. (DN, 158-9)

In this respect, Glockengiesser’s text is decidedly prescient, for the

first border guard trials actually took place in 1991 and were highly
problematic in legal terms.
In spite of Saeger’s suspicions that Glockengiesser’s tale is
‘ein gestellter Text’ (DN, 167) with an ulterior motive, it possesses
validity as a vivid commentary on the GDR of the Wende period.
Glockengiesser later sends the narrator a cassette, a disjointed,
drunken monologue in the form of a Werkstattgespräch, one might
say, which confirms Saeger’s suspicions and explains how various
aspects and details of the text were allegedly drawn from Stasi files –
if the Stasi man is to be believed. The plan had been to inveigle
Saeger into helping Glockengiesser, or the man purporting to be the
son of Jürgen Glockengiesser, with his writing: ‘Und, Uwe, wär nicht
dieser Herbst gewesen, du hättest angebissen! (DN, 199). Naturally,
we do not learn what form the ‘Zersetzung’ may eventually have
taken, although Glockengiesser confirms that a similar attempt had
been made to ensnare the narrator ten years or so before, but had
foundered on his ‘beschissnes Mißtrauen’:
Ach, Uwe, weißt du noch, wie du uns einmal mit einem unserer
eigenen Männer angeschmiert hast? Der Kerl hat zehnmal so viele
Uwe Saeger 85

Blätter wie ich beschrieben, und es lief gut an. Du galtest schon als
kooperativ. Ist ein Aktenvermerk. Hab ich selbst einsehen können.
Aber so war die Strategie damals. Festnageln den Mann, und so fest
wie nur möglich. Und als der sein Mikro aufbaute, weil du ja, und wie
wars anders zu erwarten von dir, für alles so wunderbare Sätze hattest,
weil er sie sich zu Hause in Ruhe anhören wollte, diese goldenen
Worte des großen Meisters Saeger, da ist bei dir der Groschen
gefallen. (DN, 204)

The narrator’s sudden recollection of encountering the Stasi at that

time reveals how the tactic of ‘Zersetzung’ could affect those targeted
by the MfS, as Joachim Walter has documented at considerable
length. Two men had visited him and denied that the budding author,
with whom he had been in contact, was one of their operatives:
Und da wußte ich sicher, er war ihr Mann gewesen. Und sie waren nur
gekommen, um zu ermitteln, wo der Fehler war mir gegenüber, falls
sie die Aktion als Fehlschlag werteten, und um sich ein Alibi zu
verschaffen. Aber ob so oder so, im Netz war ich ihnen doch gewesen,
und war es da am Tisch vielleicht stärker als je, denn wenn sie es
drehen wollten, konnten sie es drehen, sie brauchten den eigenen
Mann nur mit Harmlosigkeit lackieren und konnten mich als
Denunzianten ausspielen. Ich habe den ganzen Sommer ’80 gebraucht,
um damit fertig zu werden. Ich war immer in Erwartung eines
Unheils, das von dieser Episode seinen Ausgang nahm. Ich trank viel
und ich schrieb nichts. (DN, 213)

Having just published his début novel, Nöhr – a text dealing with the
inability of individuals to break away from a restrictive everyday
existence – the author would doubtless have been a prime target.
Clearly unsettled, it is striking that the narrator should resort to
alcohol once more, as he had following his tour of duty at the Berlin
Wall. Mike Glockengiesser obviously believes that his more personal
‘Legende’ – the Stasi term for such entrapment scenarios – might have
achieved a similarly unsettling effect on Saeger, had it not been for the
events of the Wende.
Despite the failure of the operation on account of the socio-
political upheaval of 1989, it transpires from Glockengiesser’s
cassette that the Stasi have clearly still been keeping tabs on the
narrator throughout the autumn. In an ironic twist, when one considers
the proactive role the Stasi played in combating insurgency, the
narrator is chided for his inactivity and apparent indifference towards
the fate of the GDR:

This passage is reminiscent of Was bleibt, in which the narrator is similarly afflicted
by a debilitating paranoia.
86 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Aber jetzt! Wir wußten, daß was kommen würde diesen Herbst,
glaubs nur. Aber der Meister schreibt ein laues offenes Briefchen,
dichtet ein paar Verschen und zimmert ein fremdgehaltenes
Komödchen und…Und sagt im übrigen, leckt mich am Arsch, oder?
Einmal hast du deine Demo-Runde durch die Stadt mitgemacht, hast
dir obligatorisch für zwei Stunden einen abgefroren im Ueckerpark,
damit mans sah, der Meister war mit dem Volk, der Meister war unter
uns – und das wars dann schon von ihm. Kein Wort weiter, kein
Schritt mehr vor die Tür. Hatte der Meister etwa Angst? War er sich
zu schade? Wars doch nicht seine Stunde, nicht seine Zeit? (DN, 215)

Ultimately Glockengiesser dismisses his assignment – ‘du warst

meine Aufgabe’ (DN, 216) – as a dull waste of time: ‘Warst du nie
wert, den Einsatz’ (DN, 204). In complaining that Saeger always hid
‘hinter deinen Worten immer brav’ (DN, 203) and that words are all
one can expect from him, the Stasi man unwittingly sounds a second
ironic note: for the narrator’s words have, in fact, dried up, at least for
the present. Furthermore, the existential situation of the two
diametrically opposed characters seems strikingly similar, thus
reflecting a far broader social pattern, for both are plagued by doubts
about their professional futures. On the one hand, mercifully,
Glockengiesser is now unemployed: ‘Ich war ein Stasi. […] Das färbt
durch’ (DN, 216). Conversely, the narrator himself is uncertain
whether he will be able to write again now that the Wall has fallen.
Shaken by the Stasi, and as if to free himself from the expectations
placed upon a political mode of literature, he resigns from the
Schriftstellerverband in what amounts to ‘der letzte mögliche Schritt,
mir die Schreibfähigkeit zu sichern’ (DN, 222).
In the final analysis, the Stasi’s effort to hook the narrator can
be seen to have exacerbated a latent identity crisis. He was already
suffering from writer’s block prior to Glockengiesser’s letter, but the
latter’s intervention arguably forced the narrator to confront an issue
that had long been suppressed, namely guilt at his complicity with the
State as a border guard, but also at his timidity as an author. Indeed,
the narrator can be seen both as Täter and Opfer. The text thus depicts
most effectively not only the causes, but also the symptoms, of the
pressures exerted on individuals in the GDR. What is more, the
psychological ramifications of this pressure are manifest in the very
form of Die Nacht danach und der Morgen, the disjointedly hybrid
nature of which reflects the disorientation of the author.
The conflation of different documents in Die Nacht danach
und der Morgen, some of which appear overtly autobiographical and
others of which may be fictional, makes it impossible to define it as a
conventional autobiography. Saeger provides a kaleidoscopic collage
Uwe Saeger 87

– ‘Ein Konvolut aus Fiktion, Tagebuch, Bekenntnis, reflektierender

Erinnerung und Lesefrüchten’ – which is more restricted in its
temporal scope than Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt or
Zwischenbilanz for example, the anecdotal and thematic approach of
which offer insight into the personal development of the respective
authors over sustained periods of their lives and thereby mirror the
structure of the Entwicklungsroman.53 In Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen, the primary focus is on two key historical periods when, as
the title of the text suggests, the narrator’s life changed overnight: the
author’s eighteen-month military service in the NVA in 1972-73 and
the Wende period from November 1989 to February 1990. The
narrative time is not chronological; rather it is syncopated with leaps
back and forth within passages of interior monologue, giving the
effect of snatches of memories being flung together. In this respect,
the movement between temporal planes in the narrative closely
resembles the same almost arbitrary process in Kindheitsmuster, in
which the narrator glides between three different periods in her life:
the Third Reich, her return to the site of her childhood in 1971, and
the writing up of both experiences from 1972 to 1975. Carsten Gansel
sees striking similarities between the two texts in their handling of
Christa Wolf fragte […], was das Ergebnis wäre, ‘wenn wir den
verschlossenen Räumen in unseren Gedächtnissen erlauben würden,
sich zu öffnen und ihre Inhalte vor uns auszuschütten’. Uwe Saegers
Buch […] ist der poetische Versuch, eben das zu tun.

On that basis then, Saeger opts to focus on two key personal moments,
both of which are presented effectively as a ‘Bruch in meinem Leben’
(DN, 5), rather than a detailed, or at least more comprehensive,
overview of his individuation. The reasons for this decision emerge
within the text, as it would appear to indicate that thorough self-
knowledge lies beyond the grasp of the author. If this is true, how can
subjectivity be conveyed in textual terms? On several occasions, the
narrator throws up his hands in despair at being unable to explain
himself and find the words or the form to do so. Contemplating his
meeting with the DEFA producer and the director, and the memory of
the military exercise it unleashed, the narrator is frustrated to find
himself ‘wieder außerhalb der Worte, diesen Orten meiner
Leidenschaft’ (DN, 190), an allusion to the conclusion of his earlier

Krauss, ‘Geist und Nacht’, p. 20.
Gansel, p. 135.
88 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

poem, and deeply ironic in the context of his current creative block.
The notion of elusive subjectivity is reiterated when he is unable to
explain his resignation from the Schriftstellerverband: ‘Ich will es
erklären, vermag es aber nicht. Wie auch, das Ich liegt immer jenseits
der Worte’ (DN, 221). If the narrator has apparently failed
consistently to find a linguistic rendition of self, it is little wonder that
he should avoid defining Die Nacht danach und der Morgen as an
autobiography, for how can Saeger produce his life-story if he
believes the ‘Ich’ lies beyond words? The dilemma is one he shares
with the narrator of Kindheitsmuster:
Der Endpunkt wäre erreicht, wenn zweite und dritte Person wieder in
der ertsen zusammenträfen, mehr noch: zusammenfielen. Wo nicht
mehr ‘du’ und ‘sie’ – wo unverhohlen ‘ich’ gesagt werden müßte. Es
kam dir sehr fraglich vor, ob du diesen Punkt erreichen könntest, ob
der Weg, den du eingeschlagen hast, überhaupt dorthin führt.

And yet, despite his protestations about the intangible ‘Ich’, Uwe
Saeger’s fingerprints are all over the text. Of his initial prose version
of ‘Die Nacht danach und der Morgen’, he remarks: ‘Dabei war ich
mein Material und ich war mein Thema’ (DN, 14), but that holds true
for Die Nacht danach und der Morgen as a whole, irrespective of
whether it constitutes an autobiography in any traditional
understanding of the genre. The use of verifiable factual detail from
the author’s life, such as references to his family and his publications,
together with the extended use of the diary form and dream sequences,
all combine to indicate that, in its fabric and texture, Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen is an unequivocally subjective book.
So what is Saeger trying to achieve? Is this not postmodern
playfulness after all, an aesthetic game? One need only acknowledge
the strong moral and self-critical tone of the narrative to reject such an
interpretation. As the preoccupations of the narrators in Die Nacht
danach und der Morgen and Kindheitsmuster reveal, there are striking
parallels between Wolf’s belief in an author’s ‘Sehnsucht nach
Selbstverwirklichung’ (EGN, 174) and Saeger’s approach to his text.
Nevertheless, whereas Wolf’s narrator in Nachdenken über Christa T.
speaks of the ‘Schwierigkeit, “Ich” zu sagen’, Saeger’s description of
the self lying ‘jenseits der Worte’ must be interpreted as being more
pessimistic still.56 In spite of the narrator’s greater problems with
‘Selbstverwirklichung’ in Die Nacht danach und der Morgen, the fact

Kindheitsmuster, p. 453.
Nachdenken über Christa T, p. 173.
Uwe Saeger 89

that he remains preoccupied with the issue of personal identity would

appear to show the continued validity of Wolf’s concern with
individuation as a fundamental feature of GDR society, not least as
that socio-political entity was on the brink of collapse. How could it
be otherwise in a totalitarian system that sought quite deliberately to
mould its citizens to fit a template? Equally significantly, Wolf also
spoke of the ‘der Zwang des Aufschreibens, als vielleicht einzige
Möglichkeit des Autors, sich nicht zu verfehlen’ (EGN, 174). Saeger
is driven by this same existential imperative: it underpins not only the
description of his tortured efforts to write about his military service in
the opening section, but also his struggles to deal with the social
upheaval during the Wende. The compulsion to write is evident, and
even though the words prove frustratingly, almost cripplingly, elusive,
it is this very compulsion that is key; it marks an attempt at least to
articulate the self as coherently as possible, instead of surrendering to
If Wolf’s work of the late 1960s acts as a social barometer of
its time, then Saeger’s text from 1991 performs a similar function.
Indeed, it confirms the persistence of the dangers Wolf had earlier
identified as an inherent threat to the GDR’s evolution into a true
socialist state. By 1989, individuation was still subject to debilitating
pressures that stunted the growth of fully rounded identities. As a
representative of the middle generation, Saeger bears all the scars of
his GDR upbringing. He appears to lack Wolf’s optimism or
conviction that socialism is intrinsically a positive phenomenon.
Whereas Wolf believed self-realisation could be attained in aesthetic
spheres, as a first step to its development in society as a whole,
Saeger’s text suggests that, a generation on, this is no longer a realistic
hope. That the text bears no genre description underlines this fact: he
simply does not know how best to define this intrinsically subjective
text, and simply exploits a blend of different literary materials more in
hope, it seems, than expectation of achieving his aim. Despite the
unequivocally autobiographical elements, Saeger cannot pin his
concept of self down with any certainty, as a consequence of the
State’s persistant efforts to mould its citizens in its own image and not
to allow them room in which to develop naturally as individuals. Die
Nacht danach und der Morgen thus remains a collage of fragments,
mirroring the fragmented identities of those individuals – ‘sich selbst
widersprechende Individuen’ to borrow Krüger’s phrase again – born
into the GDR who had been pulled in different directions by the
pressure exerted upon them. As Günter de Bruyn has observed:
90 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Dieses Gespaltensein oder Verstecken gab es in vielen Schattierungen

und Nuancen, von der vollkommenen Trennung der beiden Leben bis
zum Ineinanderfließen der Grenzen, was im ersten Fall zu Zynismus
führte, im zweiten eine äußerst diffuse Denk- und Gefühlslage

All in all, Saeger’s text reveals how the GDR had made no progress at
all since Wolf revealed her concerns in the late 1960s, and at the time
of Die Nacht danach und der Morgen’s creation was on the brink of
total collapse.
Die Nacht danach und der Morgen stands as a fine example
of ‘subjective authenticity’, albeit a more self-conscious blend of
autobiographical and fictional elements than some of Wolf’s finest
work: self-conscious indeed, but not self-assured, for Saeger reveals
how debilitating the sense of personal disorientation had become,
especially for those of his generation who had known nothing beyond
the borders of GDR experience. As such, Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen is a desperately important document, published at a time
when many former East Germans were already beginning to
appreciate the hollowness of Helmut Kohl’s seductive promises of
blossoming landscapes. In a final dream-vision sequence, the narrator
sees himself as Laokoon – like Cassandra, destined never to be
believed – warning the Trojans about gifts from the Greeks: ‘Aber das
Volk! Es bleibt wie es war und wie es ist, ein Haufen auf dem Weg
zum bessern Markt’ (DN, 223). It is no advocation of ‘Ostalgie’, but
rather a plea for restraint, since Die Nacht danach und der Morgen
uncovers how difficult the personal legacy of the GDR is to bear.
Overnight, the world has changed, arguably for the better, but it will
take time to adjust to the changed Heimat:
[…] Es waren andere Landschaften, die sich auftaten, ich hörte
anderes Tönen, faßte die alten Dinge wie fremd, schmeckte neuen
Stoff im Gewohnten, roch zwischen den alten Düften und dem alten
Mief die Ingredienzen des Neuen, und dieses eiserne Gebilde, in das
ich verfügt bin, härtete unverändert, und doch entwickelte sich
unentdeckter Raum darunter. (DN, 221)

On this occasion, the narrator describes himself as being trapped in an

iron construction, but aware of space opening up below, presumably
room in which he might move. Yet, paradoxically, at other times, the
narrator describes himself as ‘wurzellos’ (DN, 185). Can one be

Günter de Bruyn, ‘Deutsche Zustände’, in Deutsche Zustände: Über Erinnerungen
und Tatsachen, Heimat und Literatur (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1999), pp. 7-65 (pp.
Uwe Saeger 91

trapped in iron, but truly rootless? The paradox, which recalls the
oxymorons of the ‘Heimat’ poem, does not represent a contradiction.
It is more an expression of the ambivalence the narrator feels about
events, which derives from the need to deal with the past, before truly
engaging with the present: ‘Immer fühlte ich das gelebte Leben wie
Ballast, wie Makel, die subjective Geschichte als Fessel, auf die
unlösbar nur weitere Verstrickungen folgten’ (DN, 185).
As the complex structure of Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen indicates, however, confronting the past is easier said than
done, due to the depredations inflicted upon individuals by the State.
Naturally, absolute conformity was demanded of the people, but as de
Bruyn has indicated ‘Scheinanpassung’ was tolerated as an alternative
by the regime, as it was ‘eine Geste der Unterwerfung’.58 In a culture
of constructed, rather than organic, identity formation, the individual
could to some extent be absolved of any responsibility for his or her
own actions. For Saeger, as we have seen, his passivity in the GDR
engenders a deep sense of shame and guilt, but it is hard to censure
him, when one considers the environment within which he grew up.
For surely the State was guilty of unleashing a policy of ‘Zersetzung’
upon its people at large, and not just against its active opponents. The
problems that Saeger has in coming to terms with his actions reflect
the scale of those pressures, arguably in a more effective manner than
Wolf was able to achieve in Was bleibt. No matter how unjust the
criticisms of the text were, Was bleibt does deal with experiences that
were remote from those of most ordinary citizens, to the extent that it
might appear far too élitist at times. Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen does raise similar concerns, but offers more insight into the
nature of GDR society at large. By virtue of its eclectic construction, it
might be seen to be trying to combat ‘Zersetzung’, by creating space
to facilitate as detached a reflection upon one’s experiences as
possible in the circumstances by means of interweaving
autobiographical fact and fiction. In that way, much as Wolf hoped in
the 1960s, it might then be feasible to achieve ‘Selbstverwirklichung’
and reconstruct a sense of self that a climate so inimical to the concept
of subjectivity had hindered for so long.
And therein lies the considerable strength of this remarkable,
challenging book. Ultimately, it matters little where precisely the line
between fact and fiction is drawn in Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen: what does count is that it conveys an authentic sense of

Ibid., p. 28.
92 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

subjective experience that transcends the confines of classical

autobiography, as Saeger intimates in his ‘Nach-Sätze’. Thus, the
pressures placed upon individuals come to the fore, together with the
sense of disorientation that many people were to feel as the GDR
crumbled; not so much because the State was much beloved by its
people, but rather that it had been their home and embodied familiar
surroundings. Many GDR commentators have described the effects of
this overnight transition to freedom with detachment, but Saeger has
arguably provided the earliest searching literary analysis of the
ramifications from a subjective perspective. Although many may not
have shared his reservations about events during the Wende period
itself, by the time Die Nacht danach und der Morgen appeared in
1991, it is certain that many readers from the former East Germany
would have recognised the prudence in the notes of caution he had
sounded with regard to the GDR’s legacy. Indeed, his tackling of the
Stasi issue in such detail has been seen ‘als Vorwegnahme dessen, was
die Öffentlichkeit einige Monate später als “Stasi-Plantage” erfahren
Eakin’s exploration of the psychological and social forces that
shape the self helps us to understand just how disorientating it must
have been for GDR individuals with the collapse of the State. In view
of Eakin’s findings, Saeger’s account stands as an entirely plausible
and convincing account of the damaging effects of totalitarian
structures on identity. In this regard, Die Nacht danach und der
Morgen can be compared with Harig’s Weh dem, der aus der Reihe
tanzt, for both authors actively colluded with the respective regimes.
They were Täter, therefore, but by the same token on account of their
relative youth they might also be seen as Opfer. In his survey of
autobiographical attempts to heal ‘damaged lives’ in the GDR, Julian
Preece posits the theory that ‘it will be left to literature to depict the
variegated nuances of biographical experience’ from the former East
Germany.60 He also feels that more youthful voices had been absent
from the ‘autobiographical symphony’ of the post-Wende period.61 In
both respects, Die Nacht danach und der Morgen would appear to fit
the bill: its highly complex blend of Wahrheit and Dichtung makes it

Emmerich, p. 492.
Preece, p. 364.
Ibid., p. 361. It should be noted that these young voices can now be heard. Recent
important texts by Jana Simon and Jana Hensel detail the experiences of the so-called
‘Zonenkinder’, who feel that their childhood experiences in the GDR are being
devalued in the new Germany.
Uwe Saeger 93

an apposite tool with which to examine the ‘variegated nuances’

Preece speaks of, whilst Saeger, a representative of the middle
generation, is a younger figure with whom many can identify. Despite
the problems in finding the appropriate ‘Konstruktion’ (DN, 13) for
his self-analytical piece and the later frustration at his writer’s block,
the narrator appears with Die Nacht danach und der Morgen to have
taken steps towards the resolution of a personal crisis, whilst
simultaneously providing a potential model for reorientation for
This page intentionally left blank

‘Für jeden war es einmalig’ – Ruth Klüger, weiter

leben: Eine Jugend (1992)
It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are

In view of the wealth of documentary information now available on

the subject of the Holocaust, and especially that compiled by
survivors, Primo Levi’s simple declaration of the authenticity of his
account at the conclusion of the preface to If This is a Man might
strike one to be as superfluous as the author himself implies. Levi
ranks alongside intellectuals such as Paul Celan, Jean Améry and
Jorge Semprun as one of the Holocaust survivors whose work, infused
with the horror experienced in the concentration camps, has justifiably
won critical acclaim. Nevertheless, as Ernestine Schlant’s recent,
thought-provoking study of West German literary treatments of the
Holocaust reveals, the gentle insistence inherent in Levi’s assertion
that the details of his account have not been invented remains
important for breaking the silence that can still shroud this dark
period. In this context, the autobiography of academic Ruth Klüger,
the simply titled weiter leben, is not out of place alongside Levi’s
Holocaust account.2 As a Germanist, Klüger has written extensively
on the problems inherent in representations of the Holocaust in art,
and it is naturally a preoccupation that permeates her own account of
her experiences. It is axiomatic that she should have been drawn to
Levi’s work in particular, as both were imprisoned at Auschwitz, and
she cites his experiences of the camp as a counterpoint to her own in
weiter leben. In a review of both a recent biography of Primo Levi and
a collection of interviews with the author, Klüger takes the biographer
to task, in particular, for producing ‘eher ein Sammelsurium an

Primo Levi, If This is a Man - The Truce (London: Abacus, 1987), p. 16. All
subsequent references to this volume will appear in the text in the form (ITM, 16).
Ruth Klüger, weiter leben: Eine Jugend (Munich: DTV, 1998). All page references
to this edition will appear in the text in he form (WL, 12).
96 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Material als ein ausgewogenes Werk’ which contrasts starkly with

Levi’s own concise, and precise, treatment of his life:
Gerade die Eigenschaften, die Levis Werk so unvergeßlich machen –
stilistische Disziplin, Logik, kurz, der Geist der Aufklärung im Reich
der organisierten Unvernunft – fehlen dieser Biografin, die sich hin-
und herreißen lässt, von einem Thema zum anderen übergeht, oft
anscheinend nur ihren eigenen Vorlieben folgend […].

The qualities of clarity and concision she extols in the Italian’s work
have significantly been ascribed to her own account of a life affected
by the persecution she suffered as a child. On the occasion of Klüger’s
receipt of the Grimmelshausen-Preis, Marcel Reich-Ranicki
underlined the affinity between these two survivors when he spoke of
her proclivity for ‘das Understatement – doch ist es ein leidendes, ein
schreiendes Understatement, sie liebt die vielsagende, provozierende
While the objective tone of the autobiographical accounts of
Klüger and Levi is undeniably similar, and highly effective, in
rendering the horror both authors suffered, there are also certain
crucial differences. Both profess to have been motivated by a desire to
bear witness to all they have seen, and to this end composed
documents during their internment: Klüger composed poems which
she memorised and recited to herself, and then published immediately
after the war, while Levi began committing his impressions to paper in
Auschwitz itself:
My need to tell the story was so strong in the Camp that I had begun
describing my experiences there, on the spot, in that German
laboratory laden with freezing cold, the war, and vigilant eyes; and yet
I knew that I would not be able under any circumstances to hold on to
those haphazardly scribbled notes, and that I must throw them away
immediately because if they were found they would be considered an
act of espionage and would cost me my life. (ITM, 381)

The importance of literature not only as a means of recording one’s

experiences of the concentration camp but also of preserving one’s
humanity therefore finds its ultimate expression in the
autobiographical accounts both duly published. On account of the
intensely subjective motivation underpinning their texts, both authors
Ruth Klüger, ‘Verschüttete Aufklärung: Der Schriftsteller Primo Levi lässt sich
nicht von seinem Tod, sondern von seinem Leben her verstehen’, Die Zeit, 9 March
2000, p. 58.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, ‘Vom Trotz getrieben, vom Stil beglaubigt: Rede auf Ruth
Klüger aus Anlaß der Verleihung des Grimmelshausen-Preises’, Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, 16 October 1993.
Ruth Klüger 97

deny any didactic intent. Whilst this assertion undoubtedly holds true
for Levi, who maintains his distance in the text and provides a
detached chronicle of life in Auschwitz, there are sections of weiter
leben where Klüger intrudes more directly in the text, employing
rhetorical devices aimed at evoking a response from the readers or
challenging certain attitudes and modes of behaviour. In this way, for
all the contextual and stylistic correlations that exist, one ought to
view If This is a Man and weiter leben rather as complementary texts
which broaden the focus of debate on the Holocaust.
If one is to adopt a comparative approach in order to locate
Klüger’s text in the canon of Holocaust literature, another author one
should mention at this juncture is Jean Améry. Although weiter leben
generally echoes Levi’s work in its objective chronicling of
experiences, there are numerous sections where Klüger addresses her
readers more directly in a manner recalling the essayistic, but
unequivocally autobiographical, writings of the Austrian intellectual
in collections such as Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne:
Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten.5 Indeed, the title of
Klüger’s text can be seen as an allusion to Améry’s Weiterleben –
aber wie?, whilst providing an answer to the question of how it is
possible to live on.6 Améry’s essays in the former collection are
marked by a style which is as subjective and emotional as Levi’s is
objective and detached. At times, Améry replicates his trains of
thought, as if wondering aloud, as he wrestles with how best to assess
the impact Nazi persecution had on his sense of self. On occasion,
there is evidence of similar discursiveness in Klüger’s own approach.
The differences between the accounts of Klüger and Levi, and
even Améry who was also imprisoned at Auschwitz, illustrate how the
KZ experience cannot in fact be reduced to a simple template. When
one considers literature produced by Holocaust survivors as a whole,
despite the mutually corroborative subject matter, the subtle
differences between various accounts can be seen as a reassertion of
the authors’ individuality. Survivors have come to terms with their
experiences in a personal manner, and in this way their individual
reflections rescue a sense of self from the collective dehumanisation
that the concentration camps sought to impose on the prisoners. For

Jean Améry, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines
Überwältigten (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1977). Subsequent page references to this
edition will appear in the text in the form (JSS, 77).
Jean Améry, Weiterleben – aber wie? (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1968).
98 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Klüger, this degrading process was best exemplified by the enforced

nakedness of the prisoners on their entry into the camp:
Die auferlegte Nacktheit ist […] Selbstentfremdung, Verlust an
Identität. Wer sich selbst auszieht, der sagt, ich mach, was ich will,
oder sogar, bitte, du kannst mich. Ein Zuwachs an Selbstgefühl. Wer
gezwungen wird, sich nackt bloßzustellen, verliert sich streckenweise.
Der Zustand ist neutral; der Kontext ist alles. (WL, 144)

Each subjective account interprets that context anew, providing fresh

perspectives on the experience and thereby contributing to a more
differentiated appreciation of the Holocaust and its victims. Despite
the status of Levi’s text and the authenticity of the picture he paints,
Klüger indicates nevertheless that her perspective on Auschwitz
differs considerably as she was twelve years younger and in her short
life had never known anything but persecution:
Das Autoritätsgebaren in Auschwitz war stets auf Aberkennung
gerichtet, Ablehnung der menschlichen Existenz des Häftlings, seines
oder ihres Rechts dazusein. Primo Levi hat das in seinem Buch ‘Ist
das ein Mensch?’ beschrieben. Der aber kam mit dem Selbstgefühl
eines erwachsenen, fertigen Europäers dahin, geistig als Rationalist
und geographisch als Italiener beheimatet und gefestigt. Für ein Kind
war das anders, denn mir war in den wenigen Jahren, die ich als
bewußter Mensch existierte, die Lebensberechtigung Stück für Stück
aberkannt worden, so daß Birkenau für mich einer gewissen Logik
nicht entbehrte. (WL, 113)

It is interesting to observe that Améry suffered the same disorientation

that Klüger attributes to Levi, where ‘Selbstentfremdung’ stemmed
principally from ‘Heimweh’, from being forcibly uprooted from a
recognisable, stable environment: ‘Die Vergangenheit war urplötzlich
verschüttet, und man wußte nicht mehr, wer man war’ (JSS, 77).
Although the picture of, what has been termed, the univers
concentrationnaire may seem quite clear, by virtue of the many
artistic and documentary representations of the Holocaust that now
exist, each new account can provide different insights to shock or
elucidate that humiliating experience still further.7 The enduring
fascination with mankind’s capacity to inflict evil in general, and with
genocide in particular, would indeed seem to underline the scope that
remains for discussion of the Holocaust. One need only consider
Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of Schindler’s List (1993) or Daniel
Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners as recent, and

For a detailed examination of the term univers concentrationnaire, see Schlant, p. 2.
Ruth Klüger 99

contrasting, examples of the ongoing debate.8 In his preface to If This

is a Man, Levi indicates that his book ‘adds nothing to what is already
known to readers throughout the world on the disturbing question of
the death camps’, but believes it ‘should be able […] to furnish
documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’
(ITM, 15). Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben represents an equally insightful
contribution to this same process revealing ‘the continued significance
of the Holocaust for German self-understanding’.9
As with so many of the texts in the present study, it does not
suffice to call weiter leben an autobiography without first looking
more closely at the text’s form. Although the essential content is
unequivocally personal, the form can be seen to invite a variety of
different categorisations, not least because the author’s own subtitle is
the rather nebulous ‘Eine Jugend’. Whereas Günter de Bruyn’s
fundamentally traditional autobiography Zwischenbilanz is defined as
‘Eine Jugend in Berlin’, weiter leben has little in common in terms of
structure or form. The text is carefully divided into sections relating to
the various ‘Stationen’ (WL, 79) in Klüger’s life: ‘Wien’; ‘Die Lager’
– sub-divided into the chillingly significant sections ‘Theresienstadt’,
‘Auschwitz-Birkenau’ and ‘Christianstadt (Groß-Rosen)’;
‘Deutschland’; ‘New York’; and finally ‘Göttingen’. Yet, as an
example of the text’s inherently reflective nature, Klüger appears to
harbour doubts about the suitability of marshalling her material in this
Ich wollte meine Erinnerungen ‘Stationen’ nennen und ganz
unbefangen an Ortsnamen knüpfen. Erst jetzt, an dieser Stelle, frage
ich mich, wieso Orte, wenn ich doch eine bin, die nirgendwo lange
war und wohnt. Wiederholt bin ich gestrandet, und so sind mir die
Ortsnamen wie die Pfeiler gesprengter Brücken. Wir können nicht
einmal sicher sein, daß es die Brücken hier, wo es nach Pfeilern
aussieht, gegeben hat, und vielleicht müssen wir sie erst erfinden, und
es könnte ja sein, daß sie, obwohl erfunden, trotzdem tragfähig sind.
Wir fangen mit dem an, was blieb: Ortsnamen. (WL, 79)

That she should ultimately opt for this structuring, inappropriate

though it may seem to her, reflects how autobiography imbues one’s
memories with a structure not present at the time of experience,
thereby creating an artificial, yet necessary, interpretative framework:
in other words, turning one’s life into a story, to cite Eakin. This
resolution may seem all the more unsatisfactory when dealing with the
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the
Holocaust (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1996).
Schlant, p. 19.
100 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Holocaust, inasmuch as the autobiographer is trying to make sense of

the inherently senseless. Ultimately, as weiter leben indicates, it is not
the form but the content of the material dealing with the univers
concentrationnaire which counts. Klüger reiterated the point in a
review of various additions to the wealth of Holocaust literature:
Die oft aufgeworfene Frage, ob man den Holocaust ‘ästhetisieren
darf’, wird irrelevant vor diesem Sachverhalt. Die Holocaust-Literatur
ist im Schnittpunkt zwischen dem einmaligen und dem
wiederholbaren Megaverbrechen angesiedelt. Sie mag Gedicht,
Fiktion, Drama, Berichterstattung und was es sonst noch gibt, sein.
Auch ob sie ‘schön’ oder gräßlich ist, ist Nebensache, solange sie uns
hilft, die ‘Wahrheit’ zu verstehen, nämlich wer wir wirklich sind.

Klüger is surely right to stress the primacy of truth over form,

especially when there remains a strong tendency to question the
validity of the Holocaust as a subject for art. It is interesting to note
how the recent Hollywood adaptation of Jurek Becker’s Jakob der
Lügner (1969) was severely censured for trivialising the persecution
of the Jews, despite the original text’s widely positive reception and
the success of an earlier GDR film adaptation, which was
paradoxically nominated for an Oscar in 1975. One cannot help but
feel that objections to Jakob the Liar stemmed largely from the
casting of eccentric comedian Robin Williams in the lead role.
Conversely, the controversial La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful), the
film written, directed by and starring Italian comedian Roberto
Benigni won three Oscars, including Best Foreign Picture and Best
Actor in 1999, despite its fundamentally comic perspective on life in a
KZ and the broad similarities with Becker’s tale in depicting attempts
to keep hope alive.11
Klüger’s own account of the Holocaust and its aftermath is
grounded in an essentially reflective approach, akin to essay or
reportage and thus reminiscent of Jean Améry’s writings. In contrast
to Günter de Bruyn’s autobiography, which as we shall see in Chapter
4 is neatly divided into short, discrete chapters bearing poetic titles
redolent, perhaps, of short stories, Klüger’s sections are
unostentatious, and largely chronological and factual. Where de Bruyn
is content to marry factual Wahrheit with an element of literary
Ruth Klüger, ‘Was ist wahr? Kann man “schöne Literatur” über den Holocaust
schreiben? Welchen Anspruch erheben die jüngst erschienenen Romane und
Erzählungen über KZ und Verfolgung?’, Die Zeit, 12 September 1997, p. 64.
For coverage of the film’s reception, see Robert Gordon, ‘Real Tanks and Toy
Tanks: Playing Games with History in Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella/Life is
Beautiful’, Studies in European Cinema, 2 (2005), 31-44.
Ruth Klüger 101

Dichtung, Klüger appears to strive more specifically for sober

accuracy, and often interrupts her narrative to deliberate on the
implications not only of what she is saying, but how she is saying it:
Gestern schrieb ich diese Sätze, heute scheinen sie falsch, verquer. Ich
will sie löschen, zögere. Was stimmt hier denn nicht? Schon der
Ausdruck ‘Wer je…’ Ich spreche von einem Augenblickszustand in
meinem Leben, als hätte er Offenbarungscharakter. Autoritäre Sätze,
‘ich weiß etwas, was du nicht weißt’, das mich berechtigt zu
verallgemeinern. Was weiß denn ich von freien Entscheidungen, außer
daß ich manchmal, zum Beispiel damals, die Trägheit überwunden
habe, die ich als das eigentliche Lebenselement, anzusehen gewohnt
bin. (WL, 167)

Such interpolations highlight the dialogic quality of weiter leben, in

which Klüger consistently addresses her readers, whom she believes
incidentally to be exclusively female: ‘Wer rechnet schon mit
männlichen Lesern? Die lesen nur von anderen Männern
Geschriebenes’ (WL, 82). Although occasionally ironic asides such as
the above might appear evocative of novels from the Romantic period,
Klüger’s dialogue with her readers is not conceived to illustrate the
text’s fundamental artificiality, but is predicated instead on a desire
both to engage the reader in discussion and to strive for accuracy.
Nevertheless, by virtue of its very hybrid nature, Marcel Reich-
Ranicki proposed that weiter leben could indeed be seen as a prime
example of the ‘Mischform’ he perceives the novel to be:
Haben wir es etwa mit einem Bildungs- oder Erziehungsroman zu tun,
hätte das Buch auch – wie ein Kritiker meinte – ‘Ruth Klügers Lehr-
und Wanderjahre’ betitelt sein können? Die Antwort hängt davon ab,
was sich der Leser aus der Sache macht – in des Wortes schöner
doppelter Bedeutung. Das soll heißen: Von einem geschlossenen
Ganzen kann hier nicht die Rede sein, das Skizzenhafte und
Fragmentarische dieses Buches wird von seiner Autorin nicht
verheimlicht, sondern programmatisch betont. Und letztlich bietet sie
uns vielleicht weniger als einen Roman, doch zugleich mehr: Ihre
Aufzeichnungen enthalten Geschichten und Porträts, Episoden und
Miniaturen, die unmerklich und wohl unbeabsichtigt ins
Gleichnishafte übergehen und in denen, mag vieles nur in Umrissen
erkennbar sein, die Epoche ihren Wiederschein findet, einen düsteren,
einen unheimlichen.

Reich-Ranicki’s analysis of the diverse nature of Klüger’s text aptly

illuminates the key difference between weiter leben and If This is a
Man. Albeit unwittingly perhaps, Klüger has produced a more
structurally complex and self-consciously literary text than Levi. In
Reich-Ranicki, ‘Vom Trotz getrieben, vom Stil begläubigt’.
102 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

terms of its form, it arguably resembles Uwe Saeger’s Die Nacht

danach und der Morgen more closely than any other text in the
present survey, in that it comprises a variety of different types of
document. More specifically, where other authors underline the
authenticity of their texts with materials such as letters, photographs
or files – Grete Weil, Monika Maron and Günter Kunert being good
examples – Klüger, like Saeger, exploits more ‘aesthetic’ documents
such as poems.
The importance of poetry for Klüger is a recurrent theme of
weiter leben, and her academic work indicates how this passion has
endured. She recounts how her great aunt reproached her when she
noticed ‘daß ich Gedichte aufsagte, eine Angewohnheit, die bei mir
bis zur Manie gedieh und zweifelsohne ebensosehr neurotischen als
kunstliebenden Ursprungs war, so daß ich auch auf der Straße Reime
vor mich hinmurmelte’ (WL, 13). But this precocious attachment to
poems, most notably Schiller’s ballads, would subsequently become a
means of survival during her internment at Auschwitz. Klüger finds
nothing out of the ordinary in her recitation and composition of poetry
at this time, insisting that ‘viele KZ-Insassen Trost in den Versen
gefunden [haben], die sie auswendig wußten’ (WL, 123). Whilst she
concedes that others may have derived comfort from religious or
philosophical pieces, from her own point of view it was not so much
the content of the poems as the recitation per se that was crucial, both
as ‘Zeitvertreib’ and as a potentially life-saving mental stimulus:
Ist die Zeit schlimm, dann kann man nichts Besseres mit ihr tun, als
sie zu vertreiben, und jedes Gedicht wird zum Zauberspruch. Denn
dem Inhalt nach war nicht viel in den Schillerschen Balladen, das
mich den Durst bei den endlosen Appellen in Auschwitz hätte
vergessen lassen […]. In gewissen Lagen, wo es einfach darum geht,
etwas durchzustehen, sind weniger tiefsinnige Verse vielleicht noch
geeigneter als solche, die das Dach überm Haus sprengen. Übrigens
gab es schon vorher im normalen Leben Situationen, zum Beispiel
beim Zahnarzt, wo ich die Zeit nicht genießen konnte, sondern sie,
etwa mit Hilfe von ‘Die Kraniche des Ibykus’, vertreiben mußte. Die
Schillerschen Balladen wurden dann auch meine Appellgedichte, mit
denen konnte ich stundenlang in der Sonne stehen und nicht umfallen,
weil es immer eine nächste Zeile zum Aufsagen gab, und wenn einem
eine Zeile nicht einfiel, so konnte man darüber nachgrübeln, bevor
man an die eigene Schwäche dachte. (WL, 124)

Despite the seemingly reductive function of poetry as a way of

passing the time, its significance in keeping the author mentally alert
should not be overlooked. Clearly there is no right or wrong way of
‘using’ poetry, least of all in such a desolate and God-forsaken
Ruth Klüger 103

location, where the mere presence of poetry could keep an individual

in touch with their humanity and the humanistic traditions of the past.
Schiller’s poems might be viewed as the means whereby Klüger was
able to retain a defiant claim to the German cultural heritage, despite
her apparent exclusion from it as a designated Jew. Although it may
not necessarily have been a conscious strategy, when one considers
Klüger’s young age at the time, it was significant nonetheless as a way
to preserve her identity. Unsurprisingly, one finds a similar
preoccupation in If This is a Man, where Levi endeavours to recite,
and translate into French, the ‘Canto of Ulysses’ from Inferno for his
companion, Pikolo. Frustrated by his inadequate mastery of French
and the gaps in his memory, Levi is nonetheless encouraged to
continue his recital: ‘How good Pikolo is, he is aware that it is doing
me good’ (ITM, 119-20). Over and above the intellectual stimulation
of trying to piece the canto together, Levi wonders too if Pikolo
‘despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary,
[…] has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him,
that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular’ (ITM,
120). Both Klüger and Levi therefore express a belief in the life-
affirming quality of poetry.
Amidst the moral darkness, one can sense how brightly such
poetry must have shone for the likes of Klüger and Levi. And yet, as
an interesting counterpoint to this apparently redemptive quality of
poetry, in his evaluation of the experience of intellectuals in
concentration camps based on his own time at Auschwitz, Jean Améry
argues that intellect was transformed ‘zu einer Art unerlaubtem
Luxus’ (JSS, 26). Momentarily catching sight of a flag one evening on
the march back from a work detail in the IG-Farben factory, Améry
too is reminded of a poem:
‘Die Mauern stehn sprachlos und kalt, im Winde klirren die Fahnen’,
murmelte ich assoziativ-mechanisch vor mich hin. Dann wiederholte
ich die Strophe etwas lauter, lauschte dem Wortklang, versuchte dem
Rhythmus nachzuspüren und erwartete, daß das seit Jahren mit diesem
Hölderlin-Gedicht für mich verbundene emotionelle und geistige
Modelle erscheinen werde. Nichts. Das Gedicht transzendierte die
Wirklichkeit nicht mehr. Da stand es und war nur sachliche Aussage:
so und so, und der Kapo brüllt ‘links’, und die Suppe war dünn, und
im Winde klirren die Fahnen. (JSS, 26)

Set alongside the accounts of Klüger and Levi, Améry’s description of

poetry drained of its power and a situation where ‘der isolierte
Einzelne noch dem letzten SS-Mann die gesamte deutsche Kultur
samt Dürer und Reger, Gryphius und Trakl überlassen [mußte]’ (JSS,
104 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

28) reflects the highly differentiated nature of the individual’s

experience of the univers concentrationnaire. It is futile, even facile,
to attempt to reduce that experience to a universal template.
Klüger composed two Auschwitz poems – ‘Auschwitz’ and
‘Der Kamin’– in 1944, but not until she had been transferred to
In Birkenau wäre es mir nicht gelungen, von 5 Millionen Ermordeten
zu reden. […] Da war die Sache noch zu hautnah, der Kamin löste
panisches Entsetzen aus, und der Impuls zur dichterischen
Bewältigung wäre dem stärkeren Bedürfnis nach Verdrängung
erlegen. Im nächsten Lager war es umgekehrt, da wollte ich mein
Erlebnis verarbeiten, auf die einzige Weise, die ich kannte, in
ordentlichen, gegliederten Gedichtsstrophen. (WL, 126)

On the one hand, Klüger dismisses these poems as ‘Kindergedichte’

(WL, 126), and devotes considerable time to a meticulous, even
pedantic, analysis of their structural and aesthetic shortcomings. Yet,
conversely, the explanation she provides of how and why they were
thus conceived offers fascinating insights into their immeasurable
importance for her at that time: ‘Es sind Kindergedichte, die in ihrer
Regelmäßigkeit ein Gegengewicht zum Chaos stiften wollten, ein
poetischer und therapeutischer Versuch, diesem sinnlosen und
destruktiven Zirkus, in dem wir untergingen, ein sprachlich Ganzes,
Gereimtes entgegenzuhalten’ (WL, 127). Despite the author’s
retrospectively critical assessment of the poems, the extracts included
in the text in truth betray a remarkably mature quality which belies the
youth of the poet. Confronted in Auschwitz by the ‘Muselmänner’ –
described as the embodiment of ‘apathische Hoffnungslosigkeit’ and
‘Menschen, denen der Selbsterhaltungswille im KZ abhanden
gekommen war’ (WL, 107) – Klüger resolved with ‘Der Kamin’ ‘eine
Sprache zu finden’ (WL, 107), which would enable her to retain a
sense of hope, born of a mixture of ‘kindische Verblendung und
Todesangst’ (WL, 107) that these poor unfortunates had lost.13 As she
says simply: ‘Ich hab den Verstand nicht verloren, ich hab Reime
gemacht’ (WL, 128).
In an interview in Die Zeit, Klüger underlined her belief in
literature ‘als Mittel der Wahrheitsfindung’, a means of interpreting

Levi refers to the ‘Muselmänner’ in his chapter ‘The Drowned and the Saved’,
which describes those prisoners who were equipped to survive and those, such as the
‘Muselmänner’, who were doomed. Améry too describes them in his survey of
intellectuals in Auschwitz, (JSS, 28-9).
Ruth Klüger 105

the world.14 As one might expect, therefore, Klüger categorically

rejects Adorno’s provocative assertion ‘daß man “keine Gedichte nach
Auschwitz” schreiben dürfe’ (WL, 38). On the contrary, she argues
vigorously in weiter leben in defence of poetry’s inherent value as
‘eine bestimmte Art von Kritik am Leben’ (WL, 127), which helps
one understand the world far more comprehensively and directly than
historical documents allow. The intellectual and emotional investment
in literature, it seems, facilitates an active response instead of a
passive absorption of the facts:
Wer nur erlebt reim- und gedankenlos, ist in Gefahr, den Verstand zu
verlieren […]. Ich hab den Verstand nicht verloren, ich hab Reime
gemacht. Die anderen, die vor den zweidimensionalen Dokumenten
stehen, verlieren den Verstand natürlich auch nicht, denn sie sind ja
nicht mit dem Geschehenen, sondern nur mit einem unausgegorenen
Abklatsch konfrontiert. Wer mitfühlen, mitdenken will, braucht
Deutungen des Geschehens. Das Geschehen allein genügt nicht. (WL,

Klüger’s argument amounts to a passionate defence of an

aestheticisation of the Holocaust which engages the reader. In view of
her comments above, it is axiomatic that she should reject the theory
posited by some intellectuals that the Holocaust should only be
processed ‘ausschließlich mit Hilfe solcher hermetischer Lyrik’ (WL,
128). It comes as no great surprise, therefore, that in spite of her
admiration for Paul Celan, she should be so critical of his complex
Ernestine Schlant provides a detailed survey of the debate
about whether or not the Holocaust should ever be conceptualised
linguistically, summarising in particular how Adorno eventually
rescinded his initially dogmatic refusal to countenance any literary
adaptation thereof. As the title of her study indicates, Schlant is
especially interested in literary representations of the Holocaust that
deal with silence or speechlessness, taking issue with George Steiner’s
proposal ‘to relegate Auschwitz to silence in order not to contaminate
human language’:
Yet a language that serves only as the ‘creator and bearer of humane,
rational truth’ and expurgates the frightening, inhuman, and
unspeakable aspects is a censored language, and is on the road to
becoming as barbaric as any of the manipulated languages of
totalitarian regimes. The language George Steiner desires would not

Marita Pletter, ‘Der Pazifik hat die richtige Farbe: Ein Gespräch mit der
Schriftstellerin Ruth Klüger über Auschwitz, über das Judentum, über das Schreiben’,
Die Zeit, 3 March 1995, p. 67.
106 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

retain the memory that is perhaps the only meaningful association we

can have with Auschwitz: never to forget the abyss of inhumanity of
which man is capable.

Schlant’s position is thus very close to Klüger’s own, for large

sections of weiter leben are concerned with filling the silence, and
rescuing the individual’s experience from being forgotten. Moreover,
Schlant indirectly provides legitimation of Klüger’s own Auschwitz
poetry; it may not possess the same aesthetic quality as the work of
Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs - whose remarkable work Schlant believes
forced Adorno into his recantation - but it is no less authentic or
Klüger’s ruthless excoriation of her own poems indicates that
she perceives them solely as useful emotional documents to enhance
the authenticity of her account, but does not attribute any significant
literary quality to them. Irrespective of her own, rather harsh,
assessment of their deficiencies, those of her poems that she
interpolates into the text of weiter leben represent significant attempts
to interpret the univers concentrationnaire and consequently possess
intrinsic value for their blend of Wahrheit and Dichtung. The first
poem she cites is one dealing with her father, who left his family
behind in Vienna, only to perish in a concentration camp in France. In
Klüger’s eyes, it is an interesting example of the
‘gedächtnisfreundliche Verse’ (WL, 35) she composed to reconcile
her vague memories of her father with the fact of his violent death. In
truth, she feels that her father ‘ist zum Gespenst geworden. Unerlöst
geistert er’ (WL, 30). In this way, her poems about him are to be seen
as purely functional personal documents with validity solely as
exorcisms. Her Auschwitz poems might therefore be seen to perform a
similar function.
Whatever their perceived frailties, Klüger’s Holocaust poems
anticipate weiter leben in one key respect: tone. Although the author
could not tackle Auschwitz directly as a topic until she had been
moved to the next camp, the detachment with which she deals with the
experience is remarkable, as in these lines from ‘Der Kamin’, for
example: ‘Jeder ist zermürbt von Leiden,/Keine Schönheit, keine
Freuden./Leben, Sonne, sie sind hin./Und es lodert der
Kamin./Auschwitz liegt in seiner Hand,/Alles, alles wird verbrannt.’
(WL, 107). In his assessment of weiter leben, Thomas Steinfeld
referred to the ‘schlichten, einfachen, manchmal schroffen Ton, den

Schlant, p. 9.
Ruth Klüger 107

man braucht, um das Außerordentliche, ja auch das Entsetzliche mit

dem Gewöhnlichen verbinden zu können, damit die Welt an
Deutlichkeit gewinnt’.16 It is difficult to raise too many objections to
Steinfeld’s analysis, for in the sections dealing directly with her KZ
experiences the texture of Klüger’s narrative closely resembles the
unemotional tenor found in If This is a Man, in endeavouring to
articulate the indescribable. One can cite any number of examples
from weiter leben of Klüger’s largely unsentimental narrative, but it is
the sections recounting life in the concentration camps that provide the
most effective illustration. At this point, the text is replete with
aphoristic observations – ‘In Birkenau bin ich Appell gestanden und
hab Durst und Todesangst gehabt. Das war alles, das war es schon’
(WL, 119) – or anecdotes delivered with an economy of style –
‘Schließlich war diese alte Frau so weit. Setzte sich meiner Mutter auf
den Schoß und urinierte’ (WL, 110). No attempt is made to embellish
the description or to inject any sense of drama or pathos into the text.
Klüger simply records in bald terms the reality of life in the KZ and
how one had to adapt to it:
Zwei alte Frauen stritten. Worte wechselnd standen sie am Eingang
der Baracke. Ich sehe sie gestikulieren mit ausgemergelten Händen.
Da kam eine dritte Frau, Blockälteste oder was immer, und stieß den
beiden die Köpfe aneinander. Die Brutalität dieser Dritten, die
offensichtlich dazu befugt war, war mir wie ein Schlag auf den
eigenen Kopf. Tiefer Schreck, Auflösung des Umgangs unter
Menschen. (WL, 122)

Levi is equally detached in his description of the so-called

But with the […] men in decay, it is not even worth speaking, because
one knows already that they will complain and will speak about what
they used to eat at home. Even less worthwhile is it to make friends
with them, because they have no distinguished acquaintances in camp,
they do not gain any extra rations, they do not work in profitable
Kommandos and they know no secret method of organizing. And in
any case, one knows that they are only here on a visit, that in a few
weeks nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some
near-by field and a crossed-out number on a register. (ITM, 95)

Levi explains the simple truth that these people were of no use to
one’s own survival, and so nothing was to be gained from associating

Thomas Steinfeld, ‘Von der Hexenküche. Preis der Frankfurter Anthologie:
Lobrede auf Ruth Klüger, die herbe Meisterin des mittleren Maßes’, Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, 15 May 1999.
108 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

onself too closely with them. To readers now, such ruthless

pragmatism is decidedly unsettling.
In Lektionen des Verborgenen Helena Janeczek records how
much her Polish-Jewish mother, herself a Holocaust survivor, values
Levi’s autobiography, yet curiously enough dislikes weiter leben on
account of what she considers ‘eine[n] allzu aggressiven Ton’.17 It is
an exaggeration, perhaps, to suggest that Klüger is in any way
aggressive, for she is generally successful in eschewing any lingering
bitterness. In this context, one need only compare Klüger with Jean
Améry, who makes no secret of his resentment of Germany, and
especially the way the country has rebuilt itself whilst trying to
consign the Third Reich to history and to relativise the crimes
committed between 1933 and 1945:
Hartnäckig trug ich Deutschland seine zwölf Jahre Hitler nach, trug
sie hinein in das industrielle Idyll des neuen Europas und die
majestätischen Hallen des Abendlandes. […] Ich hegte meine
Ressentiments. Und da ich sie nicht loswerden kann, noch mag, muß
ich mit ihnen leben und bin gehalten, sie jenen zu erhellen, gegen die
sie sich richten. (JSS, 109)

Although Klüger too has certain reservations about postwar German

attitudes, there is no evidence in weiter leben of the deeply engrained
bitterness that Améry articulates. Nevertheless, as Steinfeld observes,
there is no mistaking a frequent brusqueness in weiter leben. At
certain points in the narrative, a hint of resentment does break the
surface, such as where Klüger describes how various people after the
war, including her husband, cast a ‘Schleier über unsere Erfahrungen’
(WL, 235):
Wir waren wie Krebskranke, die die Gesunden daran erinnern, daß sie
sterblich sind. Oft erzählt mir [mein Mann], wie kalt der Winter 44/45
für ihn war. Einmal faßte ich mir ein Herz und sagte, daß ich selbst
den harten Winter, von dem die Rede sei, ohne die guten Decken, die
warme Kleidung und die ausreichenden Rationen der amerikanischen
Streitkräfte, und daher sehr genau, im Gedächtnis habe. Er gerät aus
der Fassung, weil ich ihm Erinnerungen auftische, die mit seinen
konkurrieren. Da hab ich gelernt, daß die Kriege den Männern
gehören. (WL, 236)

The author is similarly perturbed that certain people often underplay

the validity of her Holocaust experiences because she was ‘only’ a
child at the time:

Helena Janeczek, Lektionen des Verborgenen (Cologne: Kiepenheuer und Witsch,
1999), p. 96.
Ruth Klüger 109

Heute gibt es Leute, die mich fragen: ‘Aber Sie waren doch viel zu
jung, um sich an diese schreckliche Zeit erinnern zu können.’ Oder
vielmehr, sie fragen nicht einmal, sie behaupten es mit Bestimmtheit.
Ich denke dann, die wollen mir mein Leben nehmen, denn das Leben
ist doch nur die verbrachte Zeit, das einzige, was wir haben, das
machen sie mir streitig, wenn sie mir das Recht des Erinnerns in Frage
Kindern, die Pogrome und anderen Katastrophen entkommen sind, hat
man oft untersagt, diese Erfahrungen zu verarbeiten und sie dazu
angehalten, sich wie ‘normale’ Kinder zu benehmen. (WL, 73)

Klüger is equally frustrated by the notion that ‘Frauen keine

Vergangenheit [haben]’ (WL, 12). History, she argues, is seen as the
preserve of men: ‘Und ich schweige und darf nur zuhören und nicht
mitreden’ (WL, 111). As she had endured and railed against the
patriarchal nature of Judaism as a child – in particular, she was
precluded from saying the Kaddisch (‘Todesgebet’) (WL, 25) for her
father as he had wished – one can forgive Klüger the sense of
resentment that punctuates the text on this issue. In recounting the
death of her grandmother, Klüger underlines how the Holocaust
explodes the ‘alte Vorstellung, oder vielmehr das alte Vorurteil, daß
Frauen von Männern beschützt und geschirmt werden’ (WL, 84). As a
result, women should be entitled to articulate their memories in the
same way as men, for there was an undeniable equality in persecution
and suffering. A commitment to feminism underpins the text,
therefore, but must be seen in the context of wresting a voice for all
witnesses whose testimonies have been drowned out or ignored, for
whatever reason. In an interview, Klüger tellingly described her text
as ‘eine Befreiung aus der Sprachlosigkeit’, but to suggest that weiter
leben possesses a primarily feminist agenda, as Jennifer Taylor has
done, might be seen as a rather too reductive approach.18 That said,
aspects of weiter leben can certainly be seen to herald the later essay
collection, programmatically titled Frauen lesen anders.19 But even
here, not least in the title piece, Klüger’s criticism of male readers
appears essentially ironic, rather than overtly feminist.

Anton Legerer, ‘Irgendwo muß jeder leben dürfen: Im Gespräch die
Staatspreisträgerin Ruth Klüger’, Die Furche, 30 October, 1997, p. 7; Jennifer Taylor,
‘Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben: Eine Jugend: A Jewish Woman’s “Letter to Her
Mother”’, in Out of the Shadows: Essays on Contemporary Austrian Women Writers
and Filmmakers, ed. by Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger (Riverside: Ariadne, 1997), pp.
Ruth Klüger, Frauen lesen anders (Munich: DTV, 1996).
110 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Despite the desire to set the record straight on several matters

and to convey a more nuanced picture of the univers
concentrationnaire, Klüger insists that weiter leben was not motivated
by any didactic intent: ‘Das Buch ist keineswegs pädagogisch. Es liegt
mir fern, darüber zu befinden, was “richtig” ist’.20 The initial stimulus
to put pen to paper turns out to have been a near-fatal accident in
Göttingen and the encouragement she subsequently received from
friends who visited her in hospital: accordingly weiter leben bears the
dedication: ‘Den Göttinger Freunden – ein deutsches Buch’ (WL,
284). In the way that Klüger addresses her ‘Freunde’ throughout the
text, it is indeed possible to view it principally as a dialogue, as
‘Kommunikation’ rather than ‘Selbsttherapie’.21 The narrative is
generally so assured and calm that Klüger, looking back on her life,
seems to have reconciled herself already to her experiences. In this
way, weiter leben is not simply a therapeutic exercise in itself, but can
also be seen to chart the stages of Klüger’s recovery from her
experiences of the Holocaust and her successful development of a
voice with which to describe the process.
In particular, it is the poems that are interpolated into the text
that offer glimpses of an individual coming to terms with the
Holocaust and rescuing a sense of self. As well as being contemporary
documents that can be used to further understanding of the horror,
Klüger acknowledges that the poems possess a therapeutic quality that
transcends any putative artistic value. This feature of her poetry is
epitomised in the section where Klüger assesses the poem she wrote
for her father, in lieu of the Kaddisch she was not allowed to say for
him at the time of his death:
Ich meine nicht, daß man ‘keine Gedichte nach Auschwitz’ schreiben
dürfe. Ich meine nur, daß Gedichte neben ihren Schaukelrhythmen
und unreinen Reimen auch aus sinnträchtigen Sätzen bestehen, und
hinter diesen lauert oft wieder ein anderer Sinn, der in meinem, in
diesem Fall aus einer zähneklappernden Angst besteht, sich der
Wahrheit zu stellen. Was hier nicht zur Sprache kommt, ist die
knirschende Wut, die unsereiner irgendwann haben muß, um den
Ghettos, den KZs und den Vernichtungslagern gerecht zu werden, die
Einsicht, daß sie eine einzige große Sauerei waren, der mit keiner
traditionellen Versöhnlichkeit und Märtyrerverehrung beizukommen
ist. Man muß diese Wut gehabt haben, um sich wieder zu beruhigen,
und wenn man sie gehabt hat, dann wird man keine solchen Gedichte
mehr schreiben, wie das obige (‘Mit einem Jahrzeitlicht für den

Pletter, p. 67.
Ibid., p. 67.
Ruth Klüger 111

Vater’), keinen Exorzismus der Gaskammer, Beschwörung mit

Kerzen und anderem Spielzeug. (WL, 38)

When she talks of having needed to exorcise the ghosts of the

Holocaust victims, like her father, one is minded of Levi’s motivation
for If This is a Man, which he describes in the preface as ‘an interior
liberation’ (ITM, 15). In this respect, weiter leben signals the
successful resolution of those psychological problems that Klüger had
to confront, such as dealing with the uncertain nature of her father’s
death, a potentially suicidal depression in the early days in New York
and the ‘knirschende Wut’ she mentions above.
Klüger’s text may be best understood as a chronicle of her life
up to the 1950s in the United States, with by far the longest section
devoted to her time in the concentration camps of Theresienstadt,
Auschwitz-Birkenau and Christianstadt. In addition, Klüger appears
especially eager in weiter leben to provide at times a corrective view
of the Holocaust to militate against a perceived proclivity to reduce
commemoration of the horror to the level of kitsch. It is a concern that
she has dealt with subsequently in essays, most unequivocally in
‘Kitsch, Kunst und Grauen. Die Hintertüren des Erinnerns: Darf man
den Holocaust deuten?’.22 As we have already seen, Klüger is
perturbed by those who have sought to marginalize the experience of
women and children, but as the above essay makes clear, she has
identified a widespread tendency to trivialise the Holocaust as whole.
The problem, she argues, stems from too many people being unable to
deal with uncomfortable or traumatic memories, either their own or
those of other people. In this regard, the essay opens bluntly:
Das menschliche Erinnerungsvermögen ist eine Fähigkeit, keine
Tugend. Wir erinnern uns, nicht weil wir sollen oder wollen, um
keines kategorischen Imperativs willen, sondern weil wir so veranlagt
sind, weil es uns nicht gegeben ist, uns nicht zu erinnern. Das
Erlöschen der Erinnerung ist eine Krankheitserscheinung, kein

But she is not only stressing the legitimacy of her need to articulate
her own memories; more importantly, she is also demanding that
others should listen. The German wife of a colleague at Princeton,
referred to in weiter leben as Gisela, embodies this unwillingness to
accept the truth, and Klüger cites several examples of this woman’s
gaucheness to illustrate her point: ‘Auschwitz, ja, nach allem was sie

Ruth Klüger, ‘Kitsch, Kunst und Grauen. Die Hintertüren des Erinnerns: Darf man
den Holocaust deuten?’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 2 December 1995.
112 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

gehört habe, sagte Gisela, das müsse arg gewesen sein, aber da sei ich
doch nicht so lange gewesen, oder?’ (WL, 93). Once again, and with
considerable justification perhaps, Klüger appears rather resentful
‘wie sie mir blitzsauber und kellnerinartig die Gnade ihrer späten
Geburt serviert und mir das Pech meiner früheren Geburt ungnädig
übelnimmt’ (WL, 111). Klüger recounts how, in a number of
situations, she is made to feel like an embarrassment because of what
she had to endure and the way in which her very existence challenges
the oversimplified preconceptions of many of those she encounters:
Theresienstadt sei ja nicht so schlimm gewesen, informierte mich
[Gisela], die sich der Gnade der späten Geburt erfreute. […] [Es] war
ihr daran gelegen, alles Geschehene in ihre beschränkte
Vorstellungswelt einzuordnen. Alle Kriegserlebnisse sollten auf einen
einzigen Nenner, nämlich den eines akzeptablen deutschen
Gewissens, zu bringen sein, mit dem sich schläfen läßt. […] Giselas
Besserwisserei war unüberhörbar aggressiv. Sicher hat sie mir unter
anderem übel genommen, daß ich bei warmem Wetter keine langen
Ärmel trage oder auf andere Weise, etwa durch Armschmuck, die
tätowierte Auschwitznummer zu verbergen trachte. (WL, 85-6)

Klüger’s brutally honest account can therefore be seen to counter this

resistance to acknowledge the past. In reality, she remarks, although
life in Theresienstadt was ironically far better in many respects than it
had been in Vienna, the camp was still synonymous with ‘Hunger und
Krankheit’ (WL, 86) and the site of persecution that should never be
The text is replete with other such examples aimed at
correcting some of the preconceived ideas the author has encountered.
The horrific, cramped conditions that the deportees had to endure in
the railway trucks on the way to Auschwitz, for example, in Klüger’s
view find no correlation in film and fictional representations; her
description, therefore, can be seen to set the record straight: ‘Waren
wir 60 oder 80? Bald stank der Wagen nach Urin und Kot, man mußte
dafür Gefäße vom Mitgebrachten finden, und es gab nur die eine
Luke, um diese zu leeren’ (WL, 109). Klüger also illustrates on a
number occasions how little solidarity existed between the prisoners
in the camps. In common with Levi’s account, she reveals how the
Jews were ‘der letzte Dreck’ for political prisoners ‘wie wir es für die
Nazis waren’ (WL, 137). As a telling postscript to this situation, she
believes that the postwar refusal of the Poles to commemorate
separately the Polish Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz indicates
a disturbing level of anti-Semitism and a significant distortion of the
truth. As she tells two German students, who spent their community
Ruth Klüger 113

service whitewashing fences at Auschwitz: ‘Die Polen sollten nicht

einfach die polnischen Juden als polnische Opfer zählen, denn vergast
worden seien ja vor allem die Juden, und die ermordeten Kinder seien
allesamt Juden- oder Zigeunerkinder gewesen’ (WL, 78). It
undoubtedly sticks in her craw that, in her opinion, Auschwitz has
subsequently been transformed ‘vermutlich zu einer einträglichen
Einkommensquelle für Polen’ (WL, 78).
On account of her rejection of the Polish attitude to
Auschwitz, it comes as no surprise to learn that Klüger should be so
suspicious of, what she calls, the ‘Museumskultur der KZs’ (WL, 69).
Rather than promoting a better understanding of what happened, these
memorials paradoxically run the risk of distorting the past because
they cannot possibly recreate the horror experienced by the prisoners.
On a visit to Dachau, she is struck by the artificiality of the camp,
which is now ‘sauber und ordentlich’ and has more in common with a
‘Ferienlager’ than a site of ‘gefoltertes Leben’ (WL, 77). The
reconstruction in the present demands of the visitors ‘schon mehr
Phantasie, als die meisten Menschen haben, um sich vorzustellen, was
dort vor vierzig Jahren gespielt wurde’ (WL, 77). The horrific nature
of the past thus remains elusive, beyond the reach of imagination.
Primo Levi voices similar reservations following a visit to the
museum at Auschwitz, in which gruesome relics are displayed: ‘Tons
of human hair, hundreds of thousands of eyeglasses, combs, shaving
brushes, dolls, baby shoes, but it remains just a museum – something
static, rearranged, contrived’ (ITM, 390). But rearranged for whose
benefit, one might ask? Is it not possible that these pitiful collections
of mundane objects might bring home the reality of the Holocaust to
those fortunate enough not to have been there? weiter leben makes it
clear that Klüger considers these symbols far too reductive, merely
inspiring an exaggeratedly emotional response that hinders a true
appreciation of the reality of what had occurred:
Ein Besucher, der hier steht und ergriffen ist, […] wird sich dennoch
als ein besserer Mensch vorkommen. Wer fragt nach der Qualität der
Empfindungen, wo man stolz ist, überhaupt zu empfinden? Ich meine,
verleiten diese renovierten Überbleibsel alter Schrecken nicht zur
Sentimentalität, das heißt, führen sie nicht weg von dem Gegenstand,
auf den sie die Aufmerksamkeit nur scheinbar gelenkt haben, und hin
zur Selbstbespiegelung der Gefühle? (WL, 76)

With their fetishising of the personal effects of the victims, the KZ

memorials are to be seen as the apotheosis of kitsch, becoming art
forms in themselves – ‘something static, rearranged, contrived’ to
quote Levi again – but which distract away from the reality of what
114 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

occurred there. As a consequence, the sincerity of the emotional

response they arouse must be called into question. As Schlant
observes in The Language of Silence, the authenticity of the hysterical
responses generated in Germany by the broadcast of the American
television film Holocaust in 1979 was equally suspect. She identifies
instead ‘a false identification [with the fate of the Jews] premised on a
media-generated portrayal and resulting in an overwrought response
juxtaposed with a surprised and new awareness of the Holocaust’.24
weiter leben might be viewed, therefore, as the attempt to relocate the
Holocaust in an authentic setting and to militate against such
hysterical responses to the historical reality. For this reason, it is
possible to understand why Klüger dislikes the epithet ‘erschütternd’
(WL, 201), a term she finds all too often in reviews of Holocaust
memoirs. It is clear that she would rather readers of these texts – and
by extension, visitors to concentration camp memorials, or viewers of
television programmes – displayed the same emotional detachment
which underpins weiter leben. Although Klüger herself has never
returned to Auschwitz, unlike Levi, she did travel to Theresienstadt
and, significantly, was delighted to find the bustling little Czech town
of Terezín in its place:
Da ging ich beruhigt fort. Theresienstadt war kein KZ-Museum
geworden. Es war ein Städtchen, wo Menschen lebten. Nach Saars
trüber Soldatenstadt der 1840er Jahre und meinem übervölkerten
Durchgangslager der 1940er Jahre hat es dort wieder Wohnlichkeit
und Gewöhnlichkeit gegeben. (WL, 105)

In effect, the return of normality to the area is the best

commemoration for the horrors of the past. Instead of an unnatural
vacuum, life has begun again.
Her dislike of the museum culture surrounding some KZ can
be seen in the wider context of the problem she has raised of how best
to represent the Holocaust. In view of Klüger’s aim of facilitating a
more rational, unsentimental and unprejudiced attitude to the horror, it
is informative that she should cite two literary examples that, she
believes, are guilty of the ‘KZ-Sentimentalität’ she opposes: Bruno
Apitz’s Nackt unter Wölfen (1957) and Anna Seghers’s Das siebte
Kreuz (1942). Provocatively, Klüger intimates in her critique of both,
otherwise celebrated, novels that they distort reality to such an extent
that they are little more than fairy tales. Her objection to Apitz’s
autobiographical novel, which relates how political prisoners save a

Schlant, pp. 97-8.
Ruth Klüger 115

Jewish child in Buchenwald, derives from the harmonious picture of

solidarity painted therein; she duly dismisses it as ‘ein Kitschroman’
(WL, 75). With regard to Seghers’s novel, which recounts the escape
of seven prisoners from a KZ, only one of whom eludes recapture, she
appears to bristle at its reception as ‘das schönste Buch über das Dritte
Reich’, and ponders whether ‘dessen Schönheit sich jedoch darin
ausdrückt, daß die gelungene Flucht des Einzelnen, das Überleben des
Einen von Sieben, für den Triumph, den Sieg des Ganzen, des Guten
steht’ (WL, 140). In her analysis, Klüger makes no mention of the
political motivation underpinning both texts, focusing solely on what
she feels is their fairy-tale depiction of the situation. By implication, it
is such works that have helped shape the perceptions of those such as
Gisela, who have subsequently trivialised or sentimentalised the
Holocaust accordingly. There are, Klüger argues, two forms of
aestheticisation: ‘Die eine ist Wahrheitssuche durch Phantasie und
Einfühlung, also Interpretation des Geschehens, die zum Nachdenken
reizt, die andere, die Verkitschung, ist eine problemvermeidende
Anbiederung an die vermeintliche Beschränktheit des Publikums’.25 It
is clear into which category Klüger believes these two novels fall.
In truth, Klüger’s critique does not take into consideration the
different contexts within which Apitz and Seghers were writing. Her
objection to the depiction of Buchenwald in Nackt unter Wölfen is the
most easy to understand. Although Apitz himself spent eight years in
the camp, his account was produced in the GDR in the mid-1950s and
duly bears the hallmarks of Socialist Realism, with the attendant
partial interpretation one would expect from such a work. Despite its
perceived value as an example of GDR Vergangenheitsbewältgung,
one can imagine Klüger’s reaction to the inherent pathos that pervades
the novel’s elegiac dedication: ‘Ich grüße mit dem Buch/unsere toten
Kampfgenossen aller Nationen, die wir auf unserem opferreichen
Weg/im Lager Buchenwald zurücklassen mußten. Sie zu ehren,/gab
ich vielen Gestalten des Buches/ihre Namen’.26 In the case of Seghers,
however, Klüger’s assessment appears rather harsh. Produced in exile,
Das siebte Kreuz is underpinned by a defiant optimism that National
Socialism could be defeated and that a sense of humanity would
prevail. The escape from KZ Westhofen thus symbolises ‘ein Zweifel
an ihrer Allmacht. Eine Bresche’.27 In the same way that both Klüger
and Levi demonstrate how important the preservation of hope was, so

‘Kitsch, Kunst und Grauen’.
Bruno Apitz, Nackt unter Wölfen (Leipzig: Reclam, 1975), p. 5.
Anna Seghers, Das siebte Kreuz (Frankfurt: Luchterhand, 1989), p. 82.
116 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Das siebte Kreuz reflects the same conviction of the author in exile.
The inherent message in Seghers’s novel would, therefore, appear to
correlate closely with Klüger’s own experience:
In der ganzen Hitlerzeit habe ich keinen Juden je den Gedanken
aussprechen hören, Deutschland könne siegen. Das war eine
Möglichkeit, die einer Unmöglichkeit gleichkam, ein Satz, der tabu
war, ein Gedanke, den man nicht zu Ende dachte. Hoffen war Pflicht.
(WL, 106)

The dedication in Das siebte Kreuz is also significantly less exclusive

than Apitz’s: ‘Dieses Buch ist den/toten und lebenden
Antifaschisten/Deutschlands gewidmet’.28
Although Klüger’s desire to correct certain perceptions
generally corresponds with the intrinsically dialectical purpose of the
narrative, it is inevitable that weiter leben should veer at times towards
a more overtly didactic course. It is especially evident on those
occasions when the author addresses her readers directly. Anticipating
scepticism during her account of how she was able to avoid selection
in Auschwitz, for example, she remarks: ‘Hört zu und bekrittelt sie
bitte nicht, sondern nehmt es auf, wie es hier steht, und merkt es euch’
(WL, 135). At another juncture, she criticises those who believe it to
be in the gift of the victims to provide absolution for the perpetrators:
Ein Unrecht wird ja nicht ausgeglichen durch die Gemütsverfassung
derer, die davon betroffen waren. Ich bin mit dem Leben
davongekommen, das ist viel, aber nicht mit einem Sack voller
Schuldscheine, die mir die Gespenster etwa mitgegeben hätten zur
beliebigen Verteilung. Dann könnten ja gleich die Täter den Opfern
dafür verzeihen, daß die Opfer sie in eine schwierige Gewissenslage
gebracht haben. […]
Gebt euch doch die Mühe zu fragen, was diese gewaltsam
entwurzelten Menschen sich dachten oder was sie von sich aus
wollten. (WL, 159)

In the face of such attitudes, Klüger’s cynicism is wholly

understandable, but her use of the imperative appears incongruous
amidst the generally controlled tone of the narrative. It is as if the
author herself has been overwhelmed, albeit briefly, by her emotions
or outrage, and resorts to the kind of sermonising approach that runs
the risk of perpetuating the very responses she is endeavouring to

Ibid., p. 7.
Ruth Klüger 117

The problem stems, perhaps, from Klüger’s uncertainty about

who her readers might be, who might be interested in her experiences:
‘Für wen schreib ich das hier eigentlich?’:
[…] Schreib ich es für die, die nicht mit den Tätern und nicht mit den
Opfern fühlen wollen oder können, und für die, die es für psychisch
ungesund halten, zuviel von den Untaten der Menschen zu lesen und
zu hören? Ich schreibe es für die, die finden, daß ich eine Fremdheit
ausstrahle, die unüberwindlich ist? Anders gesagt, ich schreib es für
Deutsche. Aber seid ihr das wirklich? Wollt ihr wirklich so sein?
Ihr müßt euch nicht mit mir identifizieren, es ist mir sogar lieber,
wenn ihr es nicht tut […]. Aber laßt euch doch mindestens reizen,
verschanzt euch nicht, sagt nicht von vornherein, das gehe euch nichts
an oder es gehe euch nur innerhalb eines festgelegten, von euch im
voraus mit Zirkel und Lineal säuberlich abgegrenzten Rahmens an, ihr
hättet ja schon die Photographien mit den Leichenhaufen
ausgestanden und euer Pensum an Mitschuld und Mitleid absolviert.
Werdet streitsüchtig, sucht die Auseinandersetzung. (WL, 142)

Even if, as the form of the imperative implies, the addressees may
well be her friends and even though these apparent lapses from the
generally detached tone of the narrative do not diminish the overall
force of weiter leben, there is a provocative, almost irritable, edge to
passages such as the above that one does not find in Levi’s work. Levi
never abandons the ‘calm, sober language of the witness’ (ITM, 382)
and thereby carefully ensures the objectivity of his account, which
resembles a testimony in court. As he remarks: ‘The judges are my
readers’ (ITM, 382). One never feels that Klüger wishes to be judged
by her readers. She wants not only to engage them in discussion, but
also to provoke a response in them.
The considerable strength of weiter leben derives from the
disturbing clarity of its depiction of totalitarianism from a child’s
perspective, providing a fascinating insight into the formative
influences of National Socialism that both complements and contrasts
with Ludwig Harig’s depiction of the same period in Weh dem, der
aus der Reihe tanzt. The resilience Klüger displayed despite the
traumatic nature of what she experienced is remarkable, from the
increasingly repressive climate in Vienna to the darkness of
Auschwitz. In view of the extermination that took place at Auschwitz,
the fact that she was not allowed to sit on a park bench at seven years
of age might seem banal. Yet the contrast explains the distorted view
of the world that Klüger acquired during her formative years and why
she should have suffered psychological problems after the war, having
to readjust to a way of life predicated on ‘normal behaviour’. The
action of a stranger, who surreptitiously gives her an orange on a tram,
118 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

can no longer be interpreted simply as a gesture of kindness when

viewed in its totalitarian context: ‘Ich stand ratlos vor dieser
moralischen Ausweglosigkeit, wo man nichts richtig machen konnte’
(WL, 52). By the same token, the ‘Ablehnung der menschlichen
Existenz des Häftlings’ at Auschwitz is not without ‘ein[e] gewisse
Logik’ (WL, 113) for the young girl. By way of contrast, Jean Améry
demonstrates the problems that faced adults who found themselves in
the same situation:
Ein langes Training, die Erscheinungen der Alltagswirklichkeit in
Frage zu stellen, verbot [dem geistigen Menschen] das schlichte
Eingehen auf die Lagerrealität, denn diese stand in allzu schroffen
Gegensatz zu allem, was er bisher als möglich und dem Menschen
zumutbar angesehen hatte. Er hatte in der Freiheit stets nur mit Leuten
Umgang gehabt, die der human-vernünftigen Argumentation
zugänglich waren, und durchaus wollte er nicht begreifen, was nun
wahrhaftig gar nicht kompliziert war, nämlich: daß ihm, dem Häftling,
gegenüber die SS eine Logik der Vernichtung gebrauchte, die in sich
ebenso folgerichtig operierte wie draußen die Logik der
Lebenserhaltung. (JSS, 30)

The fact that Klüger could view this same environment as a logical
progression from her experiences in Vienna underlines the full,
alarming extent of the damage inflicted upon her childhood by
It is interesting to observe in autobiographies dealing with the
Nazi period how often the role of cinema emerges, providing evidence
of its value as both a propaganda tool and a barometer of the period.
The young Harig was captivated by the Nazi films he saw and was
duly seduced into the Hitler Youth, while Günter de Bruyn’s visit to
Emil und die Detektive was overshadowed by Hitler’s accession to
power. For Klüger, encouraged by her mother to go and see Disney’s
Snow White illegally, the experience represents one of her most
traumatic moments in Vienna, when she is spotted by the baker’s
daughter, the epitome of a zealous young Nazi:
Die Falle war, wie gefürchtet, zugeschnappt. Es war der reine Terror.
Die Bäckerstochter zog noch ihre Handschuhe an, pflanzte sich
endlich vor mir auf, und das Ungewitter entlud sich.
Sie redete fest und selbstgerecht, im Vollgefühl ihrer arischen
Herkunft, wie es sich für ein BDM-Mädel schickte, und noch dazu in
ihrem feinsten Hochdeutsch: ‘Weißt du, daß deinesgleichen hier
nichts zu suchen hat? Juden ist der Eintritt ins Kino gesetzlich
untersagt. Draußen steht’s beim Eingang an der Kasse. Hast du das
gesehen?’ Was blieb mir übrig, als die rhetorische Frage zu bejahen?
(WL, 47)
Ruth Klüger 119

The incident leaves the young girl in no doubt for the first time as to
the perilous situation she and her family find themselves in: ‘Ich hatte
das Gefühl gehabt, in tödlicher Gefahr zu schweben, und dieses
Gefühl verließ mich nicht mehr, bis es sich bewahrheitete. Ohne es
richtig durchdenken zu müssen, war ich von jetzt an den Erwachsenen
voraus’ (WL, 49). Defiantly Klüger later went to cinemas in the city
centre, which afforded greater protection with their anonymity, in
order to watch Nazi propaganda films. Not only were these visits an
act of subversion, but they also allowed her to acquaint herself with
‘die herrschende Ideologie […], die mich ja betraf, die ich nicht
einfach durch Gleichgültigkeit quittieren konnte’ (WL, 54). By
familiarising herself with the nature of anti-Semitism in films such as
Jud Süss, Klüger was better able to appreciate the irrational
mechanisms of National Socialism, and especially the bitter irony of
how the Nazis exploited persecution for profit:
Die Nazis haben sich für alles bezahlen lassen, und dieser
kommerzielle Zynismus steht in enger Verbindung mit den
Untugenden, die sie den Juden nachsagten. Wo ein unsauberer Profit
zu machen war, und sei er auch noch so kleinlich, wie die 10 Pfennige
pro Judenstern, haben die Nazis einkassiert. (WL, 50)

With its exposure of the Nazis’ hypocrisy in this regard, this passage
underlines the spurious nature of their racial perceptions, and echoes
Harig’s similar observations when reflecting upon his Referat.
The unsettlingly banal nature of the threat that underpinned
daily life in Vienna, which Klüger’s precocious grasp of the
ideological workings of National Socialism clearly exacerbated, is in
many respects more unnerving for the reader than her experiences of
the concentration camps, the reality of which has been the subject of
so many accounts and depictions. Yet Klüger is at pains to emphasise
the differentiated nature of the KZ experience, which cannot be
summarised simply or reduced to a series of universal criteria: ‘Hinter
dem Stacheldraht-Vorhang sind nicht alle gleich, KZ ist nicht gleich
KZ’ (WL, 83). There were fundamental differences between the three
camps she was imprisoned in, which explains why she devotes time to
each in turn in her account. Nevertheless, highlighting the individual
nature of each camp does not detract from the suffering that existed in
them all. Whether or not Theresienstadt was officially a KZ, or simply
a ghetto, for example, is an irrelevance; as Klüger points out bluntly,
no matter its ‘true’ designation, it remained ‘der Stall, der zum
Schlachthof gehörte’ (WL, 82). Similarly, although conditions in
Christianstadt were much better than in her previous camps – the
120 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

prisoners were issued with proper clothing, for instance, and the
female guards are described as not unfriendly – the inmates were still
perceived as animals: ‘Das Kalb, mit dem man spielt, bleibt trotzdem
Schlachtvieh’ (WL, 147). Although the experience was less brutally
degrading than at Auschwitz, it was dehumanising nonetheless.
In addition to her painstaking depiction of life in each camp,
Klüger is careful to stress how each subjective account of that reality
will naturally differ: ‘In Wirklichkeit war auch diese Wirklichkeit für
jeden anders’ (WL, 83). Certainly, although her general depiction of
Auschwitz does tally in many external aspects with Levi’s, for
example, her perspective as a young girl is naturally quite different.
From her point of view, despite the acute overcrowding and the fact
that one was ‘mit Haut und Haar einem anonymen Willen ausgeliefert,
durch den man jederzeit in ein unklar wahrgenommenes
Schreckenslager weiter verschickt werden konnte’ (WL, 86-7),
Theresienstadt emerges, with disturbing irony, as ‘ein besseres Milieu
für ein Kind’ than Vienna had been. The months she spent at the camp
‘haben ein soziales Wesen aus mir gemacht’ (WL, 103); she managed
to acquire something of an education from fellow inmates – all the
more attractive to the precociously rebellious young girl for being
forbidden by the camp authorities – and was exposed to a rich cultural
heritage on account of the array of intellectuals amongst the prisoners.
‘Ich hab Theresienstadt irgendwie geliebt’ (WL, 103), she concedes,
fully aware of the reaction such a confession might elicit. In relative
terms, juxtaposed alongside the description of her childhood in
Vienna, it is easy to see why she might feel this way. Yet one must not
overlook the important qualification in her remark. For all the
beneficial influences she was exposed to in the camp, it remained a
Ich hab Theresienstadt gehaßt, ein Sumpf, eine Jauche, wo man die
Arme nicht ausstrecken konnte, ohne auf andere Menschen zu stoßen.
Ein Ameisenhaufen, der zertreten wurde. […] Wer will schon Ameise
gewesen sein? Nicht einmal im Klo war man allein, denn draußen war
immer wer, der dringend mußte. In einem großen Stall leben. (WL,

There is no qualification now. What is more, the disgust underpinning

the description of the conditions militates against the notion that
Klüger is in any way truly ambivalent about Theresienstadt: ‘Da kam
man sich wie der letzte Dreck vor, das war man auch’ (WL, 104).
There is, Klüger admits, a fundamental problem with every
account of Holocaust survival from which weiter leben itself is not
exempt: ‘Der Bericht, der eigentlich nur unternommen wurde, um
Ruth Klüger 121

Zeugnis abzulegen von der großen Ausweglosigkeit, ist dem Autor

unter der Hand zu einer “escape story” gediehen’ (WL, 140).29 Rather
than being universally celebrated, the fact of that escape can give rise
to particularly insensitive theories as to how it was achieved: ‘Ein
Bekannter, ein Jude in Cleveland, verlobt mit einer Deutschen, sagt
mir ins Gesicht: “Ich weiß, was ihr getan habt, um euch am Leben zu
erhalten. […] Ihr seid über Leichen gegangen”’ (WL, 72). It is an
unsavoury and disturbing image in the context, and Klüger was
depressed by this perception, for survival was in reality purely a
question of good fortune: ‘In Wirklichkeit war es Zufall, daß man am
Leben geblieben ist’ (WL, 73). In Auschwitz, life or death was
predicated on the arbitrary nature of the various ‘Selektionen’ that
took place. In If This is Man Levi describes this degrading process,
during which one had to present oneself naked to the guards, and
concurs with Klüger that survival on these occasions ‘depended above
all on chance’ (ITM, 131). Klüger underlines how ‘das Wort Selektion
in Auschwitz einen bösen Klang [hatte]’ as one could never be sure
‘daß es wirklich eine Selektion für ein Arbeitslager und nicht eine für
die Gaskammer war’ (WL, 128-9). In Klüger’s case, her good fortune
stemmed from her mother’s insistence that they present themelves for
selection for a putative work detail requiring women aged between
fifteen and forty-five. The chances of successful selection for the
author were remote; she was just twelve and was certain she did not
look any older than thirteen. As a result, she was duly rejected, but
exceptionally managed to slip into the other queue, where the
intervention of a young woman assisting the SS guard saved the girl’s
life: ‘Dieser Mensch war eine junge Frau, in ebenso hoffnungsloser
Lage wie wir alle, die nichts anderes gewollt haben kann, als einen
anderen Menschen zu retten’ (WL, 132). She urged Klüger to pretend
to be fifteen and then successfully countered the guard’s reservations
about the girl’s physique: ‘Fast jeder Überlebende hat seinen “Zufall”,
das Besondere, Spezifische, das ihn oder sie unvermutet am Leben
erhalten hat. Meiner hat die Besonderheit, daß sich die Fremde
einmischte’ (WL, 134). Klüger cannot explain why the woman
interceded on her behalf, thus enabling her transfer with her mother to
the camp at Christianstadt. She describes this selfless act as ‘etwas
Beispielloses and etwas Beispielhaftes’ (WL, 132), thereby
underlining her good fortune, but also refuting the ‘pauschales Fehl-

One might argue that Jean Améry did not ever escape, despite his survival, which is
why his essays are imbued with a sense of barely suppressed despair that tragically
anticipates his eventual suicide.
122 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

und Vorurteil’ according to which ‘in allen Lagern nur die brutalste
Selbstsucht gefördert worden [sei], und wer von dort herkomme, sei
vermutlich moralisch verdorben’ (WL, 91). On the contrary, Klüger
argues, the incident reveals ‘daß gerade in diesem perversen
Auschwitz das Gute schlechthin als Möglichkeit bestand, als ein
Sprung über das Vorgegebene hinaus’ (WL, 136). Irrespective of the
role of good fortune, that there was still the capacity for humanity to
prevail is crucial. Klüger is adamant that her survival be seen in these
terms, as a confirmation of humanity, rather than something morally
Klüger’s reservations about Seghers’s Das siebte Kreuz
derived from its suggestion that the escape of one person could in
some way represent a triumph. Yet, ironically, weiter leben might be
viewed in a similar way. The truth is that accounts such as those by
Levi and Klüger are so important precisely because they do celebrate
human endurance in the face of inhumanity. For all the harrowing
detail that they contain documenting the way totalitarian regimes
persecute those deemed outsiders, there is something inevitably
uplifting about the survival they depict. It is especially the case for
Klüger, for whom liberation from oppression constituted freedom for
the very first time in her life. Escaping with her mother and a friend
from the enforced march following the evacuation of Christianstadt,
Klüger ‘erlebte […] das unvergeßliche, prickelnde Gefühl, sich neu zu
konstituieren, sich nicht von anderen bestimmen zu lassen, ja und nein
nach Belieben zu verteilen, an einem Scheideweg zu stehen, wo eben
noch gar keine Kreuzung gewesen war, etwas hinter sich lassen, ohne
etwas vor sich zu haben’ (WL, 169). In retrospect, Klüger includes a
poem in the text which problematises the apparent self-determination
of the moment: ‘schwimmend weitergeschwemmt/im flüssigen
Teer/einem Meer zu/aus Wasser – ah Wasser! – /dann doch nur Salz’
(WL, 168). The poem appears to anticipate the disillusionment that the
author would feel in the immediate postwar period, but by her own
admission this fact should not diminish the elation of the freedom so
suddenly attained. The mood of elation in the section titled ‘Flucht’
echoes sections in Harig’s and de Bruyn’s autobiographies dealing
with comparable moments of liberation from the yoke of National
Socialism. Common to all three is a carefree, idyllic depiction of the
moment, located significantly in nature, but by virtue of what she had
had to endure, Klüger’s savouring of freedom far transcends that of
the other two:
Ruth Klüger 123

Es war, als ob man die Welt in Besitz nähme, nur weil man aus
eigenem Antrieb von der Landstraße Gebrauch machte. Die Frage war
nicht so sehr, wohin, das war nicht mein Anliegen. Freiheit bedeutete
weg von. Weg von dem tödlichen Marsch, von den vielen Menschen,
von der ständigen Bedrohung. Die Luft roch anders, frühlingshafter,
jetzt, da wir sie für uns allein hatten. Jeder nächste Tag war sowieso
unerforschlich, und da wir nicht vorsorgen konnten, machte ich mir
keine Sorgen.
[…] Neu war, daß das Dasein federleicht wurde, wo es gestern noch
bleiern gewesen war, da denkt man nicht, jetzt kann dich einer
wegblasen, sondern man denkt, daß man fliegt. Es war da ein
Wohlgefühl, als sei endlich das eingetroffen, worauf ich, seit ich
denken konnte, gewartet hatte. (WL, 172)

In view of the conditions Klüger had endured in the various camps,

the sensuous nature of freedom and a carefree attititude to where each
day would lead display a childhood innocence that the author had
never previously been able to enjoy. Not even the sense of danger that
still remained could dim Klüger’s spirits:
Wenn ich vorhin schreib, man möge in meine Geschichte nicht den
Optimismus, der einen Roman wie ‘Das siebte Kreuz’ bestimmt,
hineinlesen, so ziehe ich diese Bitte jetzt, wenn auch mit Vorbehalt,
zurück, denn auf diesen ostdeutschen Landstraßen zu der Zeit vor
Kriegsende waren wir drei so hoffnungsvoll wie nur je, voller
Lebenslust und Gelächter. Das ist subjektives Verhalten und
verringert das Elend der Zeit um keinen einzigen Toten. Wir haben
viel gelacht auf dieser Flucht. […] Wir genossen das, was wir hatten,
das nackte Leben, denn es war zum ersten Mal wirklich unser. (WL,

It is telling that, looking back, Klüger feels compelled to defend this

blitheness, in much the same way that her retrospective poem qualifies
the true extent of this freedom. It is as if she is eager not to allow the
fact of her own survival to deflect from the Holocaust, conscious that
many people, such as Gisela, have relativised the horror in this way
and view survivors as an alibi. And yet, one cannot fail to be affected
by this simple reassertion of individuality and humanity, for one rarely
has a sense of the author smiling or laughing in weiter leben.
It is inevitable that this idyll could not last. In possession of
false papers acquired from a kindly priest – itself, reminiscent of the
help afforded Georg Heisler in Seghers’s novel – the three escapees
settle temporarily in Straubing and reintegrate themselves into society
as the war draws to an end. In view of Klüger’s obvious attachment to
the German cultural heritage, it is striking that she should signal this
assimilation with an allusion to Hölderlin: ‘So kam ich unter die
Deutschen’ (WL, 182). Although they are able to blend in relatively
124 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

seamlessly, two incidents have a profound effect on the author and

signal the end of their untroubled existence. Firstly, Klüger is shaken
by the sight of KZ prisoners being escorted through the streets of
Straubing and feels, however inappropriately, as if she is guilty of
Ich hatte ‘uns’ noch nie von außen gesehen. Was mich von denen
trennte, waren nur einige Wochen, nach jahrelanger Gemeinsamkeit.
Sie waren so müde, sahen allesamt wie Muselmänner aus. Dagegen
waren die Schäferhunde an ihren Seiten munter und wohlgenährt.
Meine früheren Leidensgefährten gingen ganz langsam und kraftlos,
ich hatte mir schon einen viel festeren Schritt angewöhnt. Ich war ein
deutsches Kind geworden, das an manchen Sonntagen in die Kirche
ging, dort mit einiger Mühe gelernt hatte, ein Kreuz zu schlagen, auf
dem Kartoffelfeld aushalf und im übrigen kam und ging, wie es ihr
paßte. Und da waren sie nun, meine Leute. […]
Das war mein letzter Kontakt mit denen im KZ. Sie gingen mitten
durch die Stadt, mitten auf der Fahrbahn, in vollem Tageslicht, und
rechts und links von mir standen Menschen, Männer und Frauen, auch
Kinder, und sahen beiseite. Oder verschlossen ihre Gesichter, so daß
nichts eindringen konnte. Wir haben unsere eigenen Sorgen, behelligt
uns bitte nicht mit humanen Ansprüchen. Wir warteten auf dem
Bürgersteig, bis die Untermenschen alle vorbeigezogen waren. Als die
Amerikaner kurz darauf einmarschierten, hatte niemand je was
gesehen. Und gewissermaßen stimmte es sogar. Was man nicht
wahrnimmt und aufnimmt, hat man tatsächlich nicht gesehen. In
diesem Sinne hatte nur ich sie gesehen. (WL, 185-6)

The pivotal nature of this moment is underlined by Klüger’s first

encounter with an American soldier, who seems uninterested in the
fact that she and her mother are camp survivors. Although the arrival
of the Americans is ‘ein unvergeßlicher Tag’ (WL, 191), the sense of
elation Klüger had imagined fails to materialise: ‘Hier war mein erster
Amerikaner, und der hielt sich die Ohren zu. Also eines stand fest:
nicht unsertwegen war in diesem Krieg gekämpft worden’ (WL, 191).
That Klüger should commit her Auschwitz poems to paper so soon
after the end of war and send them to a newspaper, bespeaks the
urgency of the moral responsibility incumbent on survivors to bear
witness to the Holocaust and combat the apparent blindness of the
Germans to the Jews’ fate.30 As with Levi, one senses that Klüger was
determined to ‘survive with the precise purpose of recounting the
things we had witnessed and endured’ (ITM, 398). Yet, in the
immediate postwar period, the Germans did not want to acknowledge

Schlant’s study explores at length just how difficult this task was to become, and
indeed has remained to the present day.
Ruth Klüger 125

the brutal extremes of anti-Semitism, while the Americans apparently

did not wish to hear about it, both of which anticipate the attitudes that
were to confront the author throughout her adult life. That the
Holocaust should to this day remain a controversial subject – one is
minded of the recent furore that engulfed Goldhagen’s Hitler’s
Willing Executioners – reveals how important the testimonies of the
likes of Levi, Améry and Klüger remain, both as insights into the
darkness of totalitarian regimes and provocative reminders not to
forget the crimes committed. They are significant attempts to break
the silence, to articulate that which others cannot or will not.
When one considers the terror and repression that marked
Klüger’s formative years, it is not a surprise that many of the elements
that constitute the framework of identity in other texts in the present
study should be problematised in weiter leben. Where for other
authors a sense of self is predicated on the influence of a ‘proximate
other’, or a strong affiliation with one’s Heimat or indigenous
language and culture, Klüger’s relationship to each of these
constituents was distorted, or inchoate at best. It is especially true of
her relationship with her mother, which is rarely less than
antagonistic, despite the common suffering they endured in
concentration camps. As Eakin has observed, tension between the self
and this ‘proximate other’ does not necessarily render the influence on
the self invalid or insignificant:
When the bond is conflicted, however, the motive for memoir is likely
to be more intense, and a great number of relational lives could be
classed under the heading of ‘unfinished business’. These lives are set
in motion by the existence of tensions and secrets; there is a
disruption, distortion, or omission in the family narrative that must be
repaired. […] The autobiographical act in these cases affords the
opportunity to speak the previously unspoken, to reveal what has been
hidden or repressed. (HOL, 87)

Jennifer Taylor’s reading of weiter leben can be seen to correspond

with the notion advanced by Eakin, arguing as she does that one might
read Klüger’s text as a ‘modern “Brief an die Mutter”’, in other words,
a conscious allusion to Kafka’s Brief an den Vater, ‘written,
published, and yet meant (perhaps) never to be read by the
addressee’.31 It is an interesting hypothesis, albeit one that overlooks
the fact of the book’s actual dedication to ‘den Göttinger Freunden’.
In her article ‘Autobiography, Memory and the Shoah’ Carmel Finnan
proposes a more convincing argument that the author’s decision to

Taylor, p. 79.
126 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

produce her account in German was largely ‘guided by the dynamics

of her relationship with her mother. Her mother, she states, does not
read German books’.32 In reality, then, the author appears to be
deliberately excluding her mother from discourse, an action that seems
highly ironic for an author who devotes so much time in the text to
dialogue and combating the perceived silence that shrouds the
Klüger’s mother emerges as a capricious figure, who could be
suffocatingly tender or alarmingly indifferent and cruel.33 On one
occasion, she treated her daughter’s head lice with petrol and ignored
the obvious distress this caused; Klüger admits that she began to doubt
‘ob die Grausamkeiten der Erwachsenen zufällig seien’ (WL, 62). Her
mother later refused to allow her to be evacuated from Vienna to
Palestine on the grounds that they should never be separated: ‘Ich
glaube, das hab ich ihr nie verziehen’ (WL, 63). On arrival at
Auschwitz, Klüger is appalled both by her mother’s suggestion that
they should commit suicide together by throwing themselves against
the electrified fence and then her almost nonchalant reaction to her
daughter’s refusal, ‘als hätte es sich um eine Aufforderung zu einem
kleinen Spaziergang in Friedenszeiten gehandelt’ (WL, 115). And yet,
ultimately, it was her mother’s insistence in not being separated and
presenting themselves for selection that probably rescued Klüger’s
life. Herein lies a fundamental ambivalence in the author’s
relationship with her mother that one can also adduce in Monika
Maron’s Pawels Briefe. In both cases, the commonality of experience
fails to mitigate the generational conflict. Even though during the
immediate postwar period Klüger’s relationship with her mother was
at its most stable – ‘Es war die Zeit, in der ich sie am meisten geliebt
und auch verehrt habe’ (WL, 206) – and her mother encouraged her in
her education, culminating in her precocious enrolment, at the age of
fifteen, at the University of Regensburg, their emigration to the United
States placed their bond under immense strain once more. The
emotional dislocation is reflected in the lack of correlation that exists
between their memories – ‘Ihre Erinnerungen deckten sich nicht mit

Carmel Finnan, ‘Autobiography, Memory and the Shoah: German-Jewish Identity
in Autobiographical Writings by Ruth Klüger, Cordelia Edvardson and Laura Waco’,
in Jews in German Literature since 1945: German-Jewish Literature? ed. by Pól
O’Dochartaigh (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), pp. 447-61 (p. 452).
Taylor proposes another reading of weiter leben as Klüger’s attempt to reclaim the
German fairy tale, and thus argues that the text is a reworking of Schneewittchen with
the author’s mother as the evil stepmother.
Ruth Klüger 127

meinen’ (WL, 234) – and, more damagingly still, in their lack of a

common language:
Meine Mutter und ich hatten keine Sprache miteinander. Die ihrige
dient nicht dem Gedankenaustausch, sondern der Manipulation. Meine
Mutter ist nicht identisch mit ihrer Sprache, war es nie, ihre Sprache
ist wie die Garderobe der Schauspieler, sie sucht sich aus, was gerade
in ihre jeweilige Rolle paßt. Sie verwendet die Wörter wie Schminke.
(WL, 255-6)

On account of this conflicted linguistic bond, one can understand

perhaps why Klüger should have had no qualms about opting to write
her account in German, thereby excluding her mother from
participation therein.
In spite of the shared trauma, there is no impression that the
experience brought them closer together. In fact, Klüger already
anticipates this tension in the narrative, recounting how in Vienna her
family seemed constantly riven with animosity. That the author and
her mother should apparently adhere to this pattern, stands in stark
contrast with Klüger’s affectionate, if indistinct, picture of her father,
who himself was not averse to, often violent, mood swings. In truth,
therefore, the influence of Klüger’s ‘proximate other’ is reflected not
in emulation, but in reaction, and the emotional deficiencies are offset
by the close bonds the author enjoyed with her nanny, Anja – who
briefly fulfilled the role of surrogate mother – and then much later
with her three closest friends, all of whom she met at college in the
United States. Tellingly, she observes: ‘Wir waren vaterlos, unsere
Väter hatten wir nicht oder kaum gekannt, und die Mütter waren uns
allen ein Problem. Wir ersetzen einander die Eltern’ (WL, 251).
Although it is tempting, perhaps, to view weiter leben as conforming
to the typical pattern of myriad mother-daughter texts that have been
the focus of many recent feminist studies, it would be a rather narrow
interpretation of the text as a whole. Klüger’s portrait of her mother is
underpinned by a sense of regret, if not unequivocal forgiveness, but
within the context of the text it throws light on the author’s
remarkably resilient sense of self, that had to withstand not only the
persecution of the Nazis but the idiosyncracies of her mother. It seems
to have imbued the young girl with a sense of independence and a
strong-willed outlook that finds expression in the narrative tone of
weiter leben.
If the author’s relatively dysfunctional family ties provided no
stable foundations for individuation, other than in steeling her
emotionally, then identification with her Heimat and her linguistic and
cultural background provided no compensation; her liaisons with both
128 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

became profoundly ambivalent as well, despite very strong

attachments initially. As a young girl, Klüger was infused with a
‘nestwarmen Patriotismus’ (WL, 39) and admits in hindsight to having
been ‘für ein Heimatgefühl sehr empfänglich’ (WL, 41). It is apparent,
and wholly understandable, how Austria’s transformation into
Ostmark, with the greater institutionalisation of anti-Semitism that the
Anschluß brought, should erode Klüger’s patriotism, despite her
attempt to preserve a, rather romanticised, concept of her home:
Wenn die Deutschen erst weg sind, so dachte ich lange, dann ist das
alles auch wieder meine Vergangenheit, meine Legende, und die Stadt
ein Ort, wo auch ich hingehöre. Inzwischen galt es, sich den Glauben
an Tannengrün und Ährengold nicht nehmen zu lassen, also den
Glauben an ein Land, das Österreich hieß und nicht Ostmark, und wo
die Deutschen nichts zu suchen hätten. Ich verfaßte dementsprechend
einige vaterländische Verse, zeigte sie meiner Mutter und erfuhr zum
ersten Mal die Beschämung einer vernichtenden Kritik am eigenen
Werk. Tränenvoll plädierte ich für das andere, wahre Österreich, das
gibt es doch, das sagt ihr doch selbst oft, dieses Österreich ist’s,
worüber ich schreibe. Nichts zu machen. (WL, 41)

It is the distortion of this affiliation with her home that signalled the
onset of National Socialism. From being the site of her patriotism,
Vienna became the ‘Stadt, aus der mir die Flucht nicht gelang’ (WL,
19) and where ‘Juden und Hunde waren allerorten unerwünscht’ (WL,
18). Améry coins the oxymoronic term ‘Feindheimat’ (JSS, 85) to
describe this dramatic exclusion from previously safe, familiar
Boa and Palfreyman have underlined how the concept of
Heimat can be seen to belong ‘to an antithetical mode of thinking in
terms of identity and difference, of belonging and exclusion’, where
the binary constellation of self and other helps to forge a sense of
identity.34 For Klüger, the Anschluß turned her status on its head,
completely undermining her inclusion in an Austrian identity and
pushing her, first figuratively and then literally, beyond the
boundaries. She no longer belonged; she became exclusively Jewish,
and therefore representative of the other. Reflecting upon her
problematic relationship with the city of her birth, Klüger neatly sums
up her ambivalence by describing Vienna as ‘heimatlich unheimlich’
(WL, 68), an oxymoronic phrase not only echoing Améry’s term but
also the binary system that Boa and Palfreyman identify as
fundamental to Heimat. Any inclusive, positive affiliation with Vienna
is irrevocably juxtaposed with exclusion and persecution:
Boa and Palfreyman, p. 27.
Ruth Klüger 129

Sprechen und lesen kann ich von Wien her, sonst wenig. An
judenfeindlichen Schildern hab ich die ersten Lesekenntnisse und die
ersten Überlegenheitsgefühle geübt. […] All, die nur ein paar Jahre
älter waren, haben ein anderes Wien erlebt als ich, die schon mit
sieben auf keiner Parkbank sitzen und sich dafür zum auserwählten
Volke zählen durfte. (WL, 19)

In effect, Klüger’s experiences of National Socialism epitomise the

fact that Heimat ‘contains within itself its negative and other’.35
This same inherent antagonism also underpins Klüger’s
affiliation with her native language. The poems she adored as a child
were written in German, but so too were the anti-Semitic posters that
comprised her first reading. As we have seen, composing and reciting
Germans poems contributed to her survival of the concentration
camps, most especially in Auschwitz, and yet after the war she was
desperate to emigrate as soon as possible, for fear that a prolonged
delay would stimulate ‘unbeabsichtigt und ungewollt eine
zunehmende Verbundenheit mit Deutschland, deutscher Sprache,
deutschen Büchern, auch mit deutschen Menschen’ (WL, 204-5).36
Her extreme ambivalence towards German is evidenced by her willing
suppression of the language in the United States, signified by
choosing to write poems in English, only for a German academic at
Princeton to persuade her much later to join his department on the
strength of the poems she composed in Auschwitz. She therefore finds
her way back to the German language, but remains torn about her
So bin ich über meine Auschwitz-Gedichte zur Auslandsgermanistin
geworden. Wenn ich schlecht gelaunt bin, ist mir das nicht recht, denn
ich werde den Verdacht nicht los, daß dieser Beruf für eine wie mich
eine Charakterlosigkeit ist. Als wäre ich dadurch in die Schuld der
Deutschen geraten. […] Wenn ich gut gelaunt bin, sehe ich eine
poetische Richtigkeit, wenn nicht Gerechtigkeit, darin, daß gerade von
diesen Gedichten der Weg zu meinem passend-unpassenden Beruf
geführt hat. (WL, 202)

Rather than signifying any degree of reaffirmation of a cultural or

linguistic identity, her profession remains rooted in an enduring
In the light of her problems with the concept of identity
predicated on a spatial or linguistic Heimat, Klüger has subsequently

Ibid., p. 28.
Améry expresses a similar ambivalence towards Germany and the language: ‘Ich
vermied es, seine, meine Sprache zu sprechen, und wählte ein Pseudonym
romanischer Resonanz’ (JSS, 107).
130 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

challenged the notion that one needs to have roots to guarantee a sense
of one’s own identity:
Heimat – ich weiß nicht, ob man den Begriff braucht. Wir leben in
einer Zeit, in der es mehr Flüchtlinge gibt als je zuvor. Die halbe Welt
wohnt nicht mehr dort, wo sie geboren wurde. Da muß man sich
andere Vorstellungen machen, als daß der Mensch irgendwo Wurzeln
haben muß, das müssen die Bäume, aber nicht die Leute.

In view of the incarceration she suffered as a child – even Vienna is

described as ‘ein Gefängnis, mein erstes’ (WL, 19) – Klüger’s
advocation of a sense of belonging that does not necessarily
presuppose a physical Zuhause, tallies with her admission in weiter
leben to being eternally restless. She defines herself as ‘ein
ungeduldiger, zerfahrener Mensch, eine, die leicht was fallen läßt, mit
oder ohne Absicht, auch Zerbrechliches, Geschirr und Liebschaften,
nirgendwo lange tätig ist und oft auszieht, aus Städten und
Wohnungen, und die Gründe erst erfindet, wenn sie schon am
Einpacken ist’ (WL, 9). Klüger’s sense of identity appears instead to
derive from itinerancy: ‘Denn Flucht war das Schönste, damals und
immer noch’ (WL, 9). That a sense of freedom should have remained
important to the author is axiomatic. On escaping from the
concentration camp march, she observes: ‘Freiheit bedeutete weg von’
(WL, 172). Having been classified as a ‘displaced person’ in 1945 –
which for many people constitutes a stigma – Klüger has chosen to
remain so; displacement has become more important for forging her
sense of self than any static or communal Heimat: ‘Eine Nationalität
braucht niemand. Das bildet man sich ein. Mir genügt das Pendeln
zwischen Amerika und Europa’.38 Despite many of the similarities
that exist between the positions of Klüger and Améry then, they
diverge on the issue of Heimat. Améry argues that ‘Die Heimat ist das
Kindheits- und Jugendland. Wer sie verloren hat, bleibt ein
Verlorener’ (JSS, 84), but Klüger’s formative years were spent in
conditions far from conducive to the development of any natural
affiliation to one’s environment. For Améry however, forced into
exile in Belgium as an adult and having to adapt to a new culture, it is
understandable that, for all his conflicted feelings towards German, he
should have believed it ‘nicht gut, keine Heimat zu haben’ (JSS, 101).
In view of the divergence in opinion between Klüger and
Améry on this issue, it is interesting briefly to contrast Klüger’s

Legerer, p.7.
Pletter, p. 67.
Ruth Klüger 131

aversion to and Améry’s advocation of a sense of identity anchored in

a traditional notion of Heimat, with the perception of two other
women authors and academics, both of whom were forced into exile:
Hilde Domin and Grete Weil.39 Although in no way a victim of the
same intense persecution as Klüger, Hilde Domin was nevertheless
forced into exile by the Nazis and spent time in three different
countries. As a result, she concedes, her earlier poems testify to a
longing to be able to remain in one place:
Außer dem Gehen kommt in meinen Gedichten […] vielleicht nichts
soviel vor wie das Wohnen oder Wohnen dürfen. Bleiben dürfen. Die
meisten Wohnungen in meinem Leben waren Fluchtwohnungen,
Zufluchtwohnungen, oder verwandelten sich plötzlich, aus scheinbar
ganz normalen Behausungen. Das steckt einem in den Knochen ein
Leben lang.

In effect, her position is the inverse of Klüger’s; whereas Klüger was

incarcerated and now celebrates a rootless existence, Domin was
continually on the run and requires rootedness. The only similarity
exists in the way these early experiences have subsequently
conditioned their attitudes. The same contrast can be found in their
perception of German. As one might expect after enforced exile,
Domin longed for nothing so much as the opportunity to return home:
[…] Ich verwaist und vertrieben, da stand ich auf und ging heim, in
das Wort. […] Von wo ich unvertreibbar bin. Das Wort aber war das
deutsche Wort. Deswegen fuhr ich wieder zurück über das Meer,
dahin, wo das Wort lebt. […] Ich war 22 Jahre weg gewesen.

What for Domin was the apparently natural synonymity of language

and Heimat, which together engendered freedom and security, was
ruptured for Klüger, whose childhood was marked by persecution that
found linguistic, as well as physical, expression. German words such
as ‘Selektion’ and ‘Kamin’ and ‘Untermenschen’ connoted a threat to
her very existence.
Grete Weil’s reaction to her enforced, and at times hazardous,
exile in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation has much in common
with Hilde Domin’s. Weil had to adapt to life in a country she found

Grete Weil’s experiences will be the focus of Chapter 7, but brief mention at this
point is informative.
Hilde Domin, ‘Meine Wohnungen – “Mis moradas”’, in Gesammelte
autobiographische Schriften: Fast ein Lebenslauf (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1998), pp. 71-
138 (p. 71).
Hilde Domin, ‘Unter Akrobaten und Vögeln: Fast ein Lebenslauf’, in Gesammelte
autobiographische Schriften, pp. 21-31 (pp. 21-2).
132 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

ugly and whose language she did not speak. As any lapse into her
native tongue could lead to arrest, she had to suppress her identity.
Consequently, when the Allies liberated Amsterdam, the author
sought to return to Germany at the earliest opportunity, even though
she knew that her Heimat would be much changed. More important,
however, was the chance to rediscover her true voice. As we shall see
in Chapter 7, she shared Domin’s ‘Glück, die eigene Sprache sprechen
zu dürfen und sprechen zu hören’, not least because she was
determined to record all she had witnessed.42
If Weil differed greatly from Klüger with regard to their
relationship to language, the manner in which their Jewish identities
were imposed upon them by National Socialism, and the ensuing
persecution they suffered, is identical. Weil had considered herself a
German through and through and had rarely been to a synagogue;
Klüger was a patriotic Austrian, and although her family observed
certain Jewish traditions and festivals, they ate pork and, like the
Weils, went ‘ausnahmsweise in die Synagogue’ (WL, 42). For Weil, it
was the arrest of her husband in 1933 that made her aware of the
ramifications of her ‘new’ identity; for Klüger it was primarily the
Anschluß that heralded the change. The young Austrian patriot
became ‘jüdisch in Abwehr’ (WL, 41). She wore her star with pride –
‘Unter den Umständen schien er angebracht. Wenn schon, denn
schon’ (WL, 50) –, delighted in attending the Nazi propaganda films
and even changed her name from Susanne to Ruth in the belief that it
was more Jewish: ‘Niemand hat mir gesagt, daß Susanne genau so gut
in der Bibel steht wie Ruth. Wer war schon bibelfest bei uns zu
Haus?’ (WL, 41-2). She admits that as a child she did not really grasp
what it meant to be Jewish, and concedes in the narrative that she
remains ‘eine sehr schlechte Jüdin’ (WL, 44), not only, one assumes,
because she cannot remember any of the festivals, but also on account
of her rejection of the patriarchal nature of Judaism. And yet weiter
leben underlines just how important her Jewishness has been for her,
reflected in the effect her KZ tattoo had on her:
Mit dieser Tätowierung stellte sich bei mir eine neue Wachheit ein,
nämlich so: Das Außerordentliche, ja Ungeheuerliche meiner
Situation kam mir so heftig ins Bewußtsein, daß ich eine Art Freude
empfand. Ich erlebte etwas, wovon Zeugnis abzulegen sich lohnen
würde. […] Niemand würde abstreiten können, daß ich zu den
Verfolgten zählte, denen man Achtung entgegenbringen mußte […],

Hilde Domin, ‘Leben als Sprachodyssee’, in Gesammelte autobiographische
Schriften, pp. 32-40 (p. 40).
Ruth Klüger 133

wegen der Vielfalt ihrer Erlebnisse. Man würde mich Ernst nehmen
müssen, mit meiner KZ-Nummer […]. (WL, 116)

Despite her expectations, however, both her victim status and her
record of events were challenged after the war, so that it became
necessary for her to bear witness to the Holocaust, a process which
reached fruition with weiter leben. In this respect, again, she has much
in common with Grete Weil, whose Jewish identity truly crystallised
in the aftermath of the war, but could not be conceived of in any
conventional sense: ‘Das Judesein ist vorhanden, doch gelingt es mir
nicht, es mit Inhalt zu füllen. […] Übrig bleibt, daß ich als Jüdin
erfahren habe, was Leiden bedeutet’.44 Weil resolved, as a result, to
tackle the Holocaust in her literary work: ‘Es gab nur noch die eine
Aufgabe: Gegen das Vergessen anzuschreiben’.45
Klüger’s position, expressed in her essay ‘Kitsch, Kunst und
Grauen’, indicates that Weil’s personal definition of Jewishness might
equally be applied to her: ‘Die Erinnerung an das Leiden ist auch eine
Art Schatz, ein Besitz, und wer ihn uns entreißt, macht uns ärmer’.46
Indeed, weiter leben makes this equation of Klüger’s suffering with
her Jewish identity quite explicit. Confronted by others’ wishes that
she should suppress her memories and refrain from walking around
‘wie ein Mahnmal’ (WL, 237), Klüger felt that her experiences were
either being trivialised by the likes of Gisela, or worse still were being
ignored. With barely concealed contempt, the author recalls the advice
her aunt gives her in America:
‘Was in Deutschland passiert ist, mußt du aus deinem Gedächtnis
streichen und einen neuen Anfang machen. Du mußt alles vergessen,
was dir in Europa geschehen ist. Wegwischen, wie mit einem
Schwamm, wie die Kreide von einer Tafel.’ Und damit ich sie mit
meinem schwachen Englisch auch verstünde, vollführte sie die Geste
des Abwischens. Ich dachte, sie will mir das einzige nehmen, was ich
hab, nämlich mein Leben, das schon gelebte. Das kann man doch
nicht wegwerfen, als hätte man noch andere im Schrank. (WL, 229-

Unsurprisingly therefore, after arriving in New York, the author was

plagued by deep depression, which appeared to be both a delayed

For Améry, his tattoo is a similarly crucial element of his Jewish identity: ‘Ich bin
Jude, dann meine ich damit die in der Auschwitznummer zusammengefaßten
Wirklichkeiten und Möglichkeiten’ (JSS, 146).
Quoted in Lisbeth Exner, Land meiner Mörder, Land meiner Sprache: Die
Schriftstellerin Grete Weil (Munich: A1, 1998), p. 109.
Ibid., p. 68.
‘Kitsch, Kunst und Grauen’.
134 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

reaction to the recent past and to the pressure on her to suppress what
had happened:
Ich kam mir wertlos vor, sah mich durch fremde Augen, und es gab
Stunden, da hatte ich das Gefühl, ich sei nicht befreit worden, sondern
ich sei davongekrochen, wie eine Wanze, wenn das Haus
ausgeräuchert wird. Sicher ist so ein Bild eine Nachwirkung der
Nazipropaganda, doch zu einer Zeit, die die Frauen abwertete, war es
naheliegend, mich selbst abzuwerten. (WL, 239)

Despite the impact of gender inequality, however, she acknowledges

that the only remedy for this sense of her own superfluousness would
have been ‘womöglich kein Jude [zu sein]’ (WL, 239); being male
would not have made a difference. She posits the theory, with
hindsight, that she was suffering from culture shock. It is nevertheless
striking that she should have associated her problems at the time with
her Jewishness. With the passage of time, she clearly came to view the
unwillingness of people around her to acknowledge her past suffering
as a stifling of her identity. From her own point of view, her
Jewishness was no longer a problem; it was part of who she had
become. Thus weiter leben might be seen both as the realisation of her
desire, as a Jew, ‘Zeugnis abzulegen’, but also as a reaffirmation of
self, albeit a self with which at the time of writing she was
comfortable. She has effectively rescued her identity.
In the interview in Die Furche, Klüger explains how her
identity was a source of concern when she was younger – during the
period covered in weiter leben, therefore – but that it is no longer an
Ich bin in einem Alter, wo man nicht mehr an seinem eigenen Wesen
oder Wert verzweifelt. Meine Identität setzt sich aus so vielen Dingen
zusammen, daß ich mich nicht festlegen möchte, und sagen möchte,
also Priorität hat, daß ich Jüdin bin oder daß ich eine Frau bin, daß ich
Amerikanerin bin oder daß ich Mutter bin oder daß ich Germanistin

Her assertion is borne out by weiter leben, which documents the

pressures she had to withstand and distils out the elements that have
enabled her to stay alive and have shaped her sense of self. Having
been forced into various roles since the advent of National Socialism –
as Jew, concentration camp prisoner, ‘German’, ‘displaced person’
and finally American – and gathered an array of different experiences
as a result, Klüger obviously delights in the multiple roles deemed so
typical of the modern condition. Klüger’s identity rests in an
Legerer, p. 7.
Ruth Klüger 135

eclecticism that transcends conventional notions of belonging, but is

no postmodern affectation. Nevertheless, about one thing she is
adamant. Of all the elements that constitute her identity, Auschwitz
should categorically not be seen as one of them:
Das Wort Auschwitz hat heute eine Ausstrahlung, wenn auch eine
negative, so daß es das Denken über eine Person weitgehend
bestimmt, wenn man weiß, daß sie dort gewesen ist. Auch von mir
melden die Leute, die etwas Wichtiges über mich aussagen wollen, ich
sei in Auschwitz gewesen. Aber so einfach ist das nicht, denn was
immer ihr denken mögt, ich komm nicht von Auschwitz her, ich
stamm aus Wien. Wien läßt sich abstreifen, man hört es an der
Sprache, doch Auschwitz war mir so wesensfremd wie der Mond.
Wien ist ein Teil meiner Hirnstruktur und spricht aus mir, während
Auschwitz der abwegigste Ort war, den ich je betrat, und die
Erinnerung daran bleibt ein Fremdkörper in der Seele, etwa wie eine
nicht operierbare Bleikugel im Leib. Auschwitz war ein gräßlicher
Zufall. (WL, 139)

One finds the same emphatic refutation of Auschwitz’s ‘benefits’ in

Améry’s work: ‘Wir sind in Auschwitz nicht weiser geworden, sofern
man unter Weisheit ein positives Wissen von der Welt versteht: Nichts
von dem, was wir dort erkannten, hätten wir nicht schon draußen
erkennen können; nichts davon wurde uns zu einem praktischen
Wegweiser’ (JSS, 44). The corrosive imagery Klüger employs is also
strongly redolent of Grete Weil’s novel Generationen, in which the
narrator remarks: ‘Meine Krankheit heißt Ausschwitz, und die ist
unheilbar. Ich habe Auschwitz, wie andere Tb und Krebs haben’.48
The refusal to countenance the use of Auschwitz as anything other
than a destructive metaphor accords with Stephen Brockmann’s
rejection of Günter Grass’s notion that Auschwitz was ‘the ultimate
guarantor of German identity’ as ‘from a practical standpoint, it is
unclear how any positive political identity can emerge solely on the
basis of Auschwitz’.49 To underline her wish not to be associated with
the epitome of hell on earth, Klüger has never returned to Auschwitz,
a place where nobody belonged.
By virtue of its unsettling insights into the brutal depredations
inflicted on Ruth Klüger by the Nazis, the value of weiter leben
resides in its attempt to rescue individuality and assert the subjective
nature of the Holocaust experience. Despite the broadly similar
elements that pervade the literature of Holocaust survivors – evident
in the comparison of Klüger’s text with Levi’s If This is a Man, for

Grete Weil, Generationen (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1989), p. 7.
Brockmann, pp. 189-90.
136 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

instance, or Améry’s essays – the experiences of the authors must be

seen in their own terms. It is a point that Klüger is eager to make:
Die Rolle, die so ein KZ-Aufenthalt im Leben spielt, läßt sich von
keiner wackeligen psychologischen Regel ableiten, sondern ist anders
für jeden, hängt ab von dem, was vorausging, von dem, was nachher
kam, und auch davon, wie es für den oder die im Lager war. Für jeden
war es einmalig. (WL, 73)

Each of the survivors’ testimonies together therefore contributes to a

more differentiated understanding of the Holocaust, and prevents it
from being trivialised or reduced to the level of kitsch and simply
explained away. Klüger is determined in weiter leben to combat this
tendency, and her strong reservations about the ‘KZ-Museumskultur’
chime with Ernestine Schlant’s observations about the ‘epidemic of
Remembrance engages in works of atonement, erupts in conflicts and
protests, settles as spectacle and ritual, but always retains its
ambivalent, irresolute quality. There is danger that public observances
of remembrance days and anniversaries lead to ritualization und
relieve the individual from the responsibility to remember. This
increasingly public memory work is further enhanced through a
plethora of films and TV series, documentaries, and exhibitions […].
Institutionalization, ritualization, mythization, spectacularization – all
tend to absorb and obscure the reasons for which they were created
and to replace individual memory work with public gestures.

Ruth Klüger has conceived weiter leben as her contribution to

‘individual memory work’. By virtue of its discursive, and frequently
provocative, narrative approach, Klüger’s autobiography actively
seeks to engage the readers in dialogue, thereby initiating a dynamic
commemoration of the Holocaust that she clearly deems more
appropriate than any static, artificial monument. But weiter leben is a
very private text too, dealing with the period of the author’s life when
memories and a sense of self were formed. That they were forged in
an atmosphere of repression and persecution, and later subjected to
other people’s wish for silence, makes the text indeed a defence of the
private realm. It breaks the silence others sought to impose, whilst
also celebrating the capacity of humanity to prevail, reflected most
obviously in the title. When one considers what has befallen many
other Holocaust survivors such as Jean Améry and Paul Celan,
Klüger’s testimony is an ‘escape story’ that is cause for celebration

Schlant, p. 243.

‘Taktieren mit der Macht’ – Günter de Bruyn,

Zwischenbilanz: Eine Jugend in Berlin (1992) and
Vierzig Jahre: Ein Lebensbericht (1996)

The second volume of Günter de Bruyn’s autobiographical project

was arguably one of the most eagerly anticipated publications of the
post-Wende period.1 The author, whose literary achievements in the
GDR had to a large extent been overshadowed by more illustrious,
high-profile colleagues such as Heiner Müller and Christa Wolf,
published the first volume of his autobiography, Zwischenbilanz, to
universal acclaim in 1992 and thereby emerged as one of the most
successful of former GDR authors to survive the transition to the new
Germany.2 His enhanced status was cemented by his enunciation by
the leading conservative politician Wolfgang Schäuble as the
‘Schriftsteller der deutschen Einheit’.3 Although de Bruyn was
uncomfortable with such accolades, which demanded that he
surrender precious time in order to make public appearances, his
acclaimed integrity, supported by his extensive literary historical work
and underpinned by a firm belief in the cultural unity of Germany that
forty years of division had not weakened, imbued him with a symbolic
quality at a time when the euphoria of 1989 had given way to a more
strained atmosphere between the old and new Bundesländer.
It seemed inevitable that Vierzig Jahre would be weighed
down by so much expectation, and unsurprisingly the reception it was
accorded was more mixed than that of its predecessor. Nevertheless, it
was a striking feature of the reviews that there was broad consensus
concerning not only the author’s honesty, but also his carefully

Günter de Bruyn, Vierzig Jahre: Ein Lebensbericht (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1996).
Subsequent page references to this volume will appear in the text in the form (VJ, 29).
Günter de Bruyn, Zwischenbilanz: Eine Jugend in Berlin (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer,
1992). Subsequent page references to this volume will appear in the text in the form
(ZB, 29).
Schäuble, Wolfgang, ‘Laudatio auf Günter de Bruyn’, in Verleihung des Preises der
Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V. an Günter de Bruyn: Weimar, 15. Mai 1996, ed. by
Günther Rüther (Wesseling: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 1996), pp. 7-17 (p. 17).
138 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

balanced attitude to his experiences of the forty years in question,

which he stressed related principally to this period of his own life, but
which naturally also coincided with the lifespan of East Germany.
Many reviews identified in Vierzig Jahre the ambivalence that
characterised de Bruyn’s attitude towards the GDR; indeed, it is
reflected in some of their titles: ‘Anpassen, widerstehen’ or ‘Einer mit
Wenn und Aber’, to cite just two.4 In this regard, the review titles
evoke associations with the protagonist of the novel Preisverleihung
(1972), Teo Overbeck, who is plagued by the dilemma of whether to
conform or criticise, and ultimately effects a clumsy compromise. Yet,
there is nothing clumsy about de Bruyn’s measured description in
Vierzig Jahre of how he faced the same predicament and allowed his
‘Ruhebedürfnis’ (VJ, 228) to dictate his actions wherever possible.
The majority of reviews welcomed de Bruyn’s text enthusiastically,
praising its self-critical candour. Johannes Wendland for one admired
the way it had done away with ‘falscher Nostalgie und ebenso falscher
Verteufelung’.5 Nevertheless, some critics – interestingly enough,
mainly from the East – felt he had pulled far too many punches for
Vierzig Jahre to be an effective analysis of the GDR. They had failed
to take into consideration de Bruyn’s deliberate description of his text
as ‘ein Lebensbericht’ [my emphasis], which implied that the primary
focus of the text was to be his life, and not that of the GDR. For
Michael Opitz, the text was ‘zu glatt, zu paßgerecht’ and lacked
‘Reibungsmomente’.6 In truth, however, de Bruyn’s narrative
approach was no different from the one he had adopted in
Zwischenbilanz, in which the tone was both balanced and self-critical.
All that had changed were the expectations of some critics, who
appeared to be demanding a searching socio-political survey,
undoubtedly because the subject of the GDR and its legacy was very
much on the contemporary agenda, with ever more Stasi revelations in
particular making the headlines at the time. But it was inappropriate to
expect an author, whose fiction is marked by his even-handed
treatment of his characters, to abandon discretion all of a sudden and
to adopt the more denunciatory tack that many appeared to demand.

Charlotte Wiedemann, ‘Anpassen, widerstehen’, Die Woche, 30 August 1996; Rolf
Michaelis, ‘Einer mit Wenn und Aber: Der zweite Band von Günter de Bruyns
Lebensbericht: Vierzig Jahre’, Die Zeit, 1 November 1996.
Johannes Wendland, ‘Widerstand ohne Triumph. Günter de Bruyn hat seine
Autobiographie geschrieben: Vierzig Jahre in der DDR’, Sonntagsblatt, 9 August
Michael Opitz, ‘Ohne zu stören. Zu glatt: Der zweite Teil von Günter de Bruyns
Autobiographie Vierzig Jahre’, Freitag, 20 December 1996.
Günter de Bruyn 139

The template that de Bruyn would later employ for his

autobiographies was established much earlier with his sympathetic
biography of Jean Paul, the remarkable details of whose life acquire
fascinating definition by means of the biographer’s skilful socio-
political contextualisation of the subject. The material is kept on a
tight rein, being divided neatly into short thematic chapters that
introduce an array of other characters – family, friends, writers,
philosophers, aristocrats – with the result that Das Leben des Jean
Paul Friedrich Richter (1975) reads in the main like an historical
novel. Both autobiographical volumes largely share this same
construction, which allows de Bruyn to interweave private and public
history to great effect, thereby revealing just how potentially
damaging to the individual this interface could be in totalitarian
climates. The Jean Paul biography also illustrates de Bruyn’s
commitment to factual accuracy, in that he celebrates, rather than
conceals, the many contradictions that underpinned the iconoclastic
author’s ‘bewegtes Leben’, in order to avoid creating a distorted
picture of his subject.7 In the case of his own life, de Bruyn attempts a
self-critical analysis of his experiences and maps the contours of
conformity and contradiction that shaped his life under two German
dictatorships. His voice is diffident and never heroic; it is left to the
reader to judge the author’s actions.
Despite the criticism that has been levelled at Vierzig Jahre
from some quarters, it is noticeable the extent to which de Bruyn’s
credibility as an autobiographer has never been impugned. The
declaration of the ‘berufsmäßige Lügner’ (ZB, 7) at the beginning of
Zwischenbilanz to abandon fiction and ‘die Wahrheit zu sagen’ (ZB,
7) has never been called into question. The nature of truth has
preoccupied protagonists in his fiction, and on account of the
autobiographical elements that pervade his work, de Bruyn’s approach
adheres closely to the tenets of ‘subjective authenticity’ established by
Christa Wolf. He himself contributed to the debate in the GDR about
the need for a more differentiated, less dogmatic, brand of literature
with a series of essays such as ‘Über den Schriftsteller als Entdecker’,
in which he proposed that literary authenticity was contingent upon
the conflation of elements he referred to as ‘Erlebtes’ and
‘Erfundenes’, elements which recall the Wahrheit and Dichtung of the
Goethean autobiographical paradigm.8 In Zwischenbilanz, de Bruyn

Das Leben des Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, p. 113.
Günter de Bruyn, ‘Über den Schriftsteller als Entdecker’, in Jubelschreie,
Trauergesänge: Deutsche Befindlichkeiten (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1991), pp. 57-65.
140 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

recalls how he learnt the importance of this blend of narrative

elements as a boy, when regaling his friend with tales of his
involvement in his brother’s gang:
Ich erzählte nur gern von [Wolfgangs Clique] – und ich lernte dabei,
daß man Wirklichkeit durch Erzählen nur schattenhaft wiederbelebt,
wenn die Fähigkeit fehlt, sie um Mögliches, das wie Wirkliches wirkt
zu ergänzen. Tatsachenberichte einfallslos aneinandergereiht, ergeben
nur blasse Geschichten; erst die Erfindung verleiht ihnen Kontur. (ZB,

De Bruyn’s preoccupation with the nature of truth and

authenticity has continued, and his essay collection on the nature of
autobiographical writing bears the revealing title Das erzählte Ich:
Über Wahrheit und Dichtung in der Autobiographie (1995). The
allusion to Goethe’s famous text hints at de Bruyn’s adherence to the
traditional conception of autobiography as a literary medium, but the
significant inversion of the original title signals that his principal
concern is with the authenticity of any such account. It is only natural
that the qualities deemed essential for producing authentic literature
should pertain to autobiography as well, a genre demanding the
highest guarantee of authenticity to be in any way credible.
The essays advocate constantly the need for a critical
approach to the autobiographical material in question, adding the
important qualification that the end result can only ever be a construct
of what actually happened:
Ein getreues Abbild des vergangenen Geschehens können
Historiographie und Autobiographie schon deshalb nicht geben, weil
sie erzählen und damit der Vergangenheit eine Form geben, die sie
von sich aus nicht hat. Um Geschichtsquellen oder Erinnerungen
erzählbar zu machen, muß eine Auswahl getroffen, eine Ordnung
hergestellt und Schwerpunkte gesetzt werden. Erreicht wird damit
eine Wahrheit, die Goethe eine Grundwahrheit genannt hat, man
könnte auch sagen: eine Wahrheit der Kunst. (EI, 66)

In both volumes of his autobiographical project, de Bruyn selects and

arranges his material in the manner outlined in the passage above, in
an attempt to produce an accessible, and authentic, account. In de
Bruyn’s view, it is this structuring process that constitutes Dichtung in
an autobiographical context: ‘Dichtung im autobiographischen
Schreiben ist die Fähigkeit, das Vergangene gegenwärtig zu machen,
Wesentliches in Sein und Werden zu zeigen, Teilwahrheiten
zusammenzufassen zu dem Versuch der ganzen Wahrheit über das
schreibende und beschriebene Ich’ (EI, 31-2). Autobiography has the
intrinsically constructed nature of literary fiction, but de Bruyn
Günter de Bruyn 141

stresses that, unlike fiction, this process of Dichtung does not have
anything to do with literary invention; it simply represents how one
gives shape to one’s memories and experiences, ‘inventing’ a coherent
form and structure for them, in other words, to enable others to relate
to them. His view therefore tallies with Ludwig Harig’s approach to
the material in Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt. Nevertheless, de
Bruyn is careful to underline the conditional nature of the texts thus
constructed. In the opening paragraph of Zwischenbilanz he talks of
the text as a ‘Vorübung’ and a ‘Training im Ich-Sagen’ (ZB, 7), whilst
in Das erzählte Ich he indicates how any analysis of the GDR in
Vierzig Jahre can only ever be provisional due to the ‘Mangel an
Distanz’: ‘Die politischen Zustände von gestern sind noch nicht zur
Historie geworden; die Flut der Geschehnisse hat sich noch nicht zur
Geschichte geklärt und geformt’ (EI, 59). Rather than reducing the
sense of authenticity, such caveats serve to enhance the credibility of
the texts produced in that de Bruyn can be seen to be striving for the
truth and seeks to corroborate his account wherever possible. It is an
approach to autobiography that is both subjective and authentic.
De Bruyn’s primary concern is the problematic nature of
memory. It is a particular feature of Zwischenbilanz, where the gap
between narrated past and narrative present is wider than in the second
volume of his autobiography, but attention is also drawn to unreliable
memories in Vierzig Jahre, albeit less frequently. In Das erzählte Ich,
de Bruyn warns of the problems intrinsic to well-polished anecdotes
‘denen man anmerkt, daß sie schon oft in geselliger Runde erfolgreich
erzählt wurden’ (EI, 41) and that would probably fail any
‘Echtheitsprüfung’. He is duly sceptical of some of the memories
included in his autobiography, such as his apparent encounter with an
American pilot the morning after his house has been bombed: ‘Ob ich,
wie meine Erinnerung will, die Begegnung mit dem US-Piloten an
diesem Tag hatte, stelle ich lieber in Frage: sie paßt hier zu gut’ (ZB,
162). That both volumes of his autobiography excel, nevertheless, in
the neat division of the material into short, episodic chapters, might
appear to contradict his assertion that ‘das Leben kunstvoll gesetzte
Pointen nur selten parat [hält]’ (EI, 41), were it not for the repetition
throughout of qualifications such as ‘wenn mein Gedächtnis mich
nicht täuscht’ (ZB, 49). He can vouch for the veracity of certain
memories on account of the deeply painful impression they made. His
war experiences, for example, which culminated in a severe head
injury that in turn caused temporary aphasia, gave rise to
‘Angstträume […], die durch den Schock dieser Tage ausgelöst
142 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

wurden und sich bis heute von ihm nähren’, but which also ‘die
Klarheit meiner Erinnerungsbilder nicht verwischt, sondern gefestigt
[haben]’ (ZB, 225). Similarly, and even more poignantly, de Bruyn
recalls Christmas 1941 when news of his brother Wolfgang’s death
reached the family on Christmas Eve. ‘Und den Menschen ein
Wohlgefallen’ is arguably the most affecting chapter in either volume
of his autobiography, in that the extremes of emotion it embraces are
amplified by the context, as signalled by the opening lines: ‘Die
Weihnachten der Kindheit habe ich mit lebenslangen
Weihnachtsleiden bezahlt’ (ZB, 116). De Bruyn conjures up a
delightfully rich description of the family’s festive customs, being
able to draw on an array of photographs which provide ‘fast lückenlos,
eine Foto-Chronologie’ (ZB, 118). Having thus established the
context, de Bruyn undercuts the mood with the verbatim inclusion of
the letter from Wolfgang’s company commander notifying them of his
death: ‘Diszipliniert wie wir waren, fand die Feier unter dem
Weihnachtsbaum trotzdem statt’ (ZB, 120). On account of the
extremes of emotion, reflected in the juxtaposition of the fateful letter
with ‘das vertraute zweite Lukas-Kapitel (ZB, 120) – the cornerstone
of the family celebrations, as the quotation in the chapter title
indicates – and accentuated by the family’s resolutely disciplined
reaction to the tragic news, one can appreciate why this memory has
remained so vivid.
Where he is unable to corroborate an episode fully, de Bruyn
is careful to draw attention to his misgivings, as in the scene with the
American pilot, or to concede that some events may not have
coincided exactly as he describes, even though it is entirely plausible.
The example he cites in Das erzählte Ich relates to the chapter
‘Kinofreuden’, in which de Bruyn indicates how his first cinema visit,
to see good triumph over evil in Emil und die Detektive, could well
have taken place on the evening of 30 January 1933:
Die Weltgeschichte aber trat an diesem Abend, oder an einem
ähnlichen, am Buschkrug in Erscheinung, und zwar in Gestalt von
Herrn Mägerlein aus Nummer 5. Der nämlich kam […] angetrunken
und in bester Laune aus der Kneipe, schloß sich uns an und redete
davon, daß es nach all den bösen Jahren nun mit Deutschland wieder
aufwärts gehe, denn endlich sei, seit vormittag 11 Uhr, der Adolf dran.
(ZB, 53) [my emphasis]

Even though they were not prompted by Hitler’s rise to the

chancellorship of Germany, the young de Bruyn’s tears at the end of
the film unwittingly anticipate the tragedy that was to befall his
Günter de Bruyn 143

family. In this way, de Bruyn has instilled in his account a dramatic

tension, which is only achievable with the benefit of hindsight:
Wie im ganzen Buch ist auch in diesem Stück nichts erfunden, und
doch verquicken Dichtung und Wahrheit sich hier miteinander, weil
Verbindungen zwischen verschiedenen Bereichen hergestellt werden,
die erst der Erzähler im nachhinein sieht. (EI, 68)

Even if the events were not quite as synchronous as described, it is

nevertheless an authentic depiction of the fateful nature of the Nazis’
seizure of power and its impact on ordinary people. The scene
acquires a representative quality by setting de Bruyn’s personal
memories in their broader historical context, and is one of myriad
examples of the way in which de Bruyn’s family history
simultaneously reflects that of Germany. As with ‘Den Menschen ein
Wohlgefallen’, ‘Kinofreuden’ is a good example of de Bruyn’s
understanding of how Dichtung and Wahrheit operate in an
autobiographical context.
This collision of the private and public spheres continues in
Vierzig Jahre, but in contrast to Zwischenbilanz, de Bruyn’s
recollection of these moments naturally appears more authoritative.
As an adult he was more often an active participant in contemporary
events and can vouch more forcefully for the accuracy of his
depictions thereof, as in the chapter ‘Schlachtenbummel’, for
example. De Bruyn quite literally steps into history on 17 June 1953,
motivated by the desire ‘Geschichte mitzuerleben’ (VJ, 46) when the
demonstrations against the inflated work norms swept past his East
Berlin office. Although not without the occasional ‘Erinnerungslücke’
(VJ, 48), de Bruyn’s personal account provides insight into the tense
atmosphere on a day, which ultimately accelerated the State’s desire
to perfect its monitoring of the people. It is no less important a day,
therefore, than 30 January 1933, in that both had ramifications for
ordinary individuals; the only difference in Vierzig Jahre, however, is
that the author knows the juxtaposition of private and public
experience on 17 June 1953 definitely occurred.
The unreliability of his memories in general is a leitmotif in
both volumes, and it is this candour which ensures their credibility.
From the apparently trivial interrogation of memories derived from
family photographs to the more anguished realisation that his contact
with the Stasi endured far longer than he remembered, de Bruyn
shows himself to be unrelentingly suspicious about the accuracy of
what he is able to recall:
144 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Nie darf man gegen [die Erinnerung] das Mißtrauen verlieren, muß
sie, wenn möglich, überprüfen und korrigieren. Widersprüche, die sich
nicht auflösen wollen, sollte man nicht vertuschen, sondern stehen
lassen, mit einem Erklärungsversuch vielleicht. (EI, 42)

Where possible, de Bruyn employs documentary evidence in his

reconstruction in order to test, correct, or supplement his memories.
Extant photographs and letters shed light on friends and relatives,
although in the case of his elder brother, Karlheinz, who went missing
in 1944, the end result of such a process remains fragmentary at best:
Zwar kann ich neben meinen Erinnerungen auch Briefe, seinen
Nachlaß und Auskünfte Dritter benutzen, aber dem durch Verklärung
unklaren Bild von ihm kann das alles keine klareren Umrisse geben:
zu sehr wirkt die Verehrung aus Kindertagen noch nach. (ZB, 220)

To underline further still the difficulties facing any autobiographer, de

Bruyn, who as a youngster assiduously maintained a diary, is forced to
acknowledge the inherent unreliability of this document. In the
chapter detailing de Bruyn’s desperate attempts to conform during his
Kinderlandverschickung period, he expresses his surprise on re-
reading his journal entries from this time:
Der Tagebuchschreiber, in dem ich mich selbst kaum wiedererkenne,
scheint damit genauso einverstanden zu sein wie mit der Kontrolle des
Bettenbaus und der Schrankordnung, der Wäsche und der Füße, der
Lektüre und des Ausgangs, der nur gruppenweise möglich ist. Eigne
Meinungen scheint er nicht zu haben […]. Von Heimweh ist genauso
wenig die Rede wie von Angst […]. Zu dem Privaten, das ausgespart
bleibt, gehört nicht nur die Familie, die Briefe an Reni und die eine
abrupt endende Freundschaft, sondern auch die Lektüre […]. Nie ist
von Polen oder Juden die Rede, aber auch nicht von Hitler. […] Da
andere politische Meinungen als die herrschenden nicht vernehmbar
werden, wird Politisches nie zum Problem.
Die 45 Jahre, die das Tagebuchschreiben vom Wiederlesen trennen,
haben die Erinnerung an manche Ereignisse, die damals
erwähnenswert schienen, getilgt; andere, die verschüttet waren,
wurden durch das Lesen wieder freigelegt; und wieder andere, die nie
vergessen waren, lassen deutlich werden, was der Chronist
verschweigt oder entstellt. Ob das aus Vorsicht, aus Unfähigkeit oder
in selbstbetrügerischer Absicht geschah, ist im Einzelfall nicht
auszumachen, insgesamt herrscht aber der trübe Eindruck vor, daß
dieser Knabe von 14 Jahren hier konformes Verhalten übt. Er gibt sich
Mühe, so zu erscheinen, wie er die anderen sieht. (ZB, 109-10)

Rather than plugging gaps, his diary poses more questions. Yet the
resultant tension between what the present self recalls and what the
past self records, exposes the psychological pressure the teenager was
under to fit in with his surroundings and the ‘Angst des Außenseiters,
Günter de Bruyn 145

als solcher erkannt zu werden’ (ZB, 111). In conjunction, memory and

documentation do therefore recreate an impression of the past, even if,
ironically in this instance, it is the process of remembering that
appears more accurate. In effect, the episode simply confirms the
autobiographer’s need for caution and a dialectical confrontation with
the past in its various forms.
That memory is not always so reliable is evinced by the
‘Streng geheim’ chapter in Vierzig Jahre, which recounts the Stasi’s
attempt to recruit de Bruyn as an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (IM). The
author’s encounter with his Stasi file is a chastening experience. He
draws attention to the unreliability of some aspects of the files, such as
‘die widersprüchlichen Charakterisierungen’ of him compiled by
various of his literary colleagues who acted as informants and who
clearly ‘nur wenig von mir [wußten]’ (VJ, 190). Nevertheless, he is
forced to concede that other details significantly contradict his own
recollection of events:
Auch bei wiederholter Lektüre kommen Angst und Scham wieder,
und es quält mich das Mißtrauen in mein Erinnerungsvermögen, das
offensichtlich in den inzwischen vergangenen Jahren schönfärbend
und entlastend tätig gewesen war. Ohne Kenntnis der Akten hätte ich
diese Episode anders berichtet. Ich wäre guten Gewissens schonender
mit mir umgegangen, weil einiges, das mich belastet, verdrängt oder
vergessen war. In meiner Erinnerung hatte ich mich standhafter
verhalten, und das endgültige Nein hatte ich früher gesagt. (VJ, 192)

The whole chapter is derived from the article de Bruyn published in

the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in February 1993, entitled ‘Dieses
Mißtrauen gegen mich selbst’.9 Die Welt responded with a short,
rather sensational report in which the self-critical tenor of de Bruyn’s
article, as well as the actual facts of the contact, were disregarded.10 In
contrast, an article in Neue Zeit drew attention to the author’s own
revelation of these contacts as soon as he came across them in his files
and praised his response:
Vor allem aber schafft er etwas, was bisher keiner der betroffenen
Schriftsteller fertigbrachte: sich zu schämen. Günter de Bruyn spricht
von eigener Feigheit, von Schuld und Verzweiflung. Er ist entsetzt
über sich selbst. Dieses Schamgefühl und diese Erkenntnis verdienen
Respekt. So tief wie de Bruyn hat niemand bisher die Wahrheit
ausgelotet. Er zerstörte seine Lebenslegende, die – wie er meint –

Günter de Bruyn, ‘Dieses Mißtrauen gegen mich selbst. Schwierigkeiten beim
Schreiben der Wahrheit: Ein Beitrag zum Umgang mit den Stasi-Akten’, Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 February 1993.
Anon, ‘De Bruyn gibt Kontakte zur Stasi zu’, Die Welt, 19 February 1993.
146 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

‘wohl jeder erfindet und braucht’. Um zu leben, um wahrhaftig zu

schreiben, braucht es solcher Abgründe der Erkenntnis. Hut ab vor
Günter de Bruyn.

His handling of the whole episode reflects both his integrity and the
rigorous self-assessment that characterises his autobiographical work.
The confrontation with the Stasi files indicates indeed how difficult it
is to write the truth. In fairness, one cannot reasonably accuse de
Bruyn of complicity; on the contrary, his refusal to be snared by the
Stasi’s ‘Legende’ strikes one as very brave, especially for one so
diffident. De Bruyn’s own assessment of the episode bears no trace of
self-justification or victimisation. Instead, the passage is shot through
with feelings of ‘Beschämung’, ‘Verzweiflung’ and ‘Schmach’, and
the whole experience is consequently defined as ‘die Tragödie meines
Versagens’ (VJ, 201). The original article bears the illuminating
subtitle ‘Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit’, thus the
chapter can be viewed with some justification as a template for the
narrative approach in Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre as a whole, in
which the autobiographer wrestles constantly with suspicions about
himself and his capacity to remember.
In Das erzählte Ich, de Bruyn opines that ‘für die
Selbstdarstellung der Grundsatz der Schonungslosigkeit gelten [muß]’
(EI, 58), and the credibility of his autobiographical project derives
from this rigorous self-appraisal, as adduced by chapters such as
‘Streng geheim’. He does not denunciate or condemn; he is merely
critical where criticism is required. In the post-Wende period, when
accusations of Stasi involvement were rife, often stoked by a frenzied
media as in the case of the Literaturstreit that engulfed Christa Wolf
in the early 1990s, de Bruyn’s measured, detached tone in both
volumes emerged as a paradigm. No less a figure than Marcel Reich-
Ranicki drew attention to this exemplary quality of the narrative in his
review of Zwischenbilanz:
[…] Er schreibt ernst, doch nie schwerfällig, nüchtern, doch nie
trocken, er vermeidet gewagte Bilder und angestrengte
Formulierungen. […] Was immer er erzählt, er tut es mit Gleichmut
und Gelassenheit, ohne daß ihn je Gleichgültigkeit oder gar
Gefühllosigkeit bedrohen würden.

The moderate tone is enhanced by the inclusion of humour, most often

at the author’s expense, but it is not without its own melancholic
Anon, ‘Respekt’, Neue Zeit, 20 February 1993.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, ‘Deutsche Mittellage’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18
April 1992.
Günter de Bruyn 147

nuances. In particular, de Bruyn pokes fun at his various unrequited

infatuations with women, such as G. and Ilse, whom he placed on a
pedestal and preferred to worship from afar. It is in the chapter
describing his marriage, however, that the ramifications of this
idolisation of women, which his experiences of military life had
intensified, become clear: ‘Eine Glanz von Idealität umgab [alle
Frauen], der sie schön, doch auch unnahbar machte, und der, das war
die traurige Seite der Sache, Erwartungen an sie knüpfte, die
einzulösen ihnen unmöglich war’ (ZB, 359). That this realisation
strikes him only on his wedding day, the description of which
otherwise proves an effective vehicle for comedy, suggests that the
portents for the newly-weds are not encouraging.
In Vierzig Jahre, de Bruyn describes how not even the
ominous fracture of both wrists during a riding lesson can deter him
from his long-held dream of keeping horses, spurred by the Karl May
stories he adored in his youth: ‘Mit zwei Gipsarmen winkte ich ab, als
mir das Aufgeben meiner Pferdepläne empfohlen wurde, betrieb
meinen Ruin nur noch eifriger weiter’ (VJ, 163). He proceeds to
outline in embarrassing detail how the reality does not match the
expectations aroused by Karl May, alluding perhaps to the same
discrepancy between theory and practice in the GDR as a whole. The
horses are ill-tempered and frequently escape, and instead of being
able to devote himself to his work, de Bruyn spends most of his time
ensuring the horses are fed or chasing after them. With great relief, he
is finally able to sell them.
As well as injecting humour into the narrative, such self-
deprecating moments ensure that de Bruyn never appears in any way
heroic. At times, his self-portrait recalls the diffident anti-heroes in his
fiction, thereby underlining the subjective authenticity of his work. It
comes as no surprise that Teo Overbeck’s public difficulty in
Preisverleihung is very closely based on de Bruyn’s own
embarrassing contribution at a Böll reading in East Berlin, at which
people hoped ‘hier Wahrheiten zu hören, die sie selbst nicht äußern
durften’ (VJ, 133). Charged with initiating the discussion in front of a
large, and highly expectant, audience, de Bruyn is unable to keep his
stagefright at bay and nervously stammers out a long, and allegedly
nonsensical, question:
Mich quälte mein Versagen noch lange, bis ich es einer Romanfigur
anhängen konnte, die mit zwei verschiedenen Schuhen bekleidet auf
das Rednerpult geht. Ein bißchen plump ist dieses Symbol für das
Schwanken zwischen Wahrheitsbemühen und Feigheit hier wohl
148 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

geraten, aber auch Bölls Symbole waren ja nicht immer glücklich

gewählt. (VJ, 139)

Once again, the humour is underpinned by a more serious point,

namely the ‘Taktieren mit der Macht’ (VJ, 133) that life in a
totalitarian environment necessitated. Nevertheless, de Bruyn emerges
as a figure with whom one can readily identify. By means of the
moderate and differentiated tone of the narrative, together with the
selection and structuring of the material, his private experiences
appear both authentic and accessible, thereby acquiring a universal
quality that critics such as Reich-Ranicki were quick to praise: ‘Das
Private und das Allgemeine, sie gehen hier unentwegt und doch
unmerklich ineinander über’.13 This blend of private and public is the
key to de Bruyn’s credibility as a chronicler of how individuals sought
to cope with the pressures of life under two contrasting German
models of totalitarianism.
The abiding impression of both Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig
Jahre is of a man plagued with fear and forced into uncomfortable
compromises with the prevailing totalitarian regimes. In order to
preserve his personal integrity, de Bruyn kept his distance from
authority wherever possible, withdrawing into an inner emigration
particularly in the GDR. At times this position demanded outward
conformity, but his ‘Unfähigkeit zum Leben im Kollektiv’ (ZB, 27)
and ‘Parteilichkeitsmängel’ (VJ, 25) emerge as leitmotifs of his
autobiographical project. The author continually wrestles with the
issue of conformity and whether he could, and should, have been a
more active opponent of the regime. The scale of his attempts to
conform during the Kinderlandverschickung alarms him when
confronted with his diary, but his subsequent conscription as a
Flakhelfer and ultimately into the Wehrmacht simply underlines how
the development of many of his generation was inevitably stunted by
these ‘Zwangsgemeinschaften’ (ZB, 147): ‘Zum Reifeprozeß junger
Menschen gehört das Erkunden fremder Sozialbereiche; das aber war
uns Frühkasernierten verwehrt. Wir kannten nur Familie und Militär,
Unterordnung und Abhängigkeiten’ (ZB, 146). In this regard, de
Bruyn’s experiences provide a neat contrast to those of Ludwig Harig
and Günter Kunert; the former was willingly subsumed into the Nazi
system and attended the élite Hitler Youth school at Idstein, while the
latter was able to keep his distance from all organisations on account
of his status as a Mischling, but whose life in Hitler’s Germany was

Reich-Ranicki, ‘Deutsche Mittellage’.
Günter de Bruyn 149

constantly overshadowed by the persecution of the Jews. Although not

as compliant as Harig, de Bruyn possessed none of Kunert’s
impudence, which also marked the latter’s resolutely critical stance in
the GDR, as documented in Erwachsenenspiele, which will form the
focus of discussion in Chapter 5. Despite the significant differences,
however, the three accounts provide mutual corroboration of the
pictures of Nazi Germany conveyed, especially in the case of de
Bruyn and Kunert who were both born and raised in Berlin.
Readers of de Bruyn’s autobiographical volumes gain lucid
insights into the experience of living under totalitarianism, despite the
auhtor’s best efforts at the time to evade the most damaging of its
effects. The description of how National Socialism began to impinge
on daily life is finely drawn, and whereas Harig’s family
enthusiastically embraced the changes in the Saarland, de Bruyn’s
family sought to shield the private sphere from what was going on
around them. To some extent, as a Catholic family in Protestant
Berlin, theirs was a detached position that was already well-
established; in hindsight, however, de Bruyn is critical of his parents’
efforts to protect him from the reality:
Die Seelenruhe meiner frühen Kindheit beruhte zum Teil auf
Unwissenheit. Durch Verschweigen glaubten meine Eltern bei Hitlers
Machtantritt die heile Welt des Sechsjährigen erhalten zu können. Sie
verschonten mich also mit den Berichten von Verhaftungen und
Morden, die meinen Vater an seiner Arbeitsstelle […] erreichten; doch
hatte das nur zu Folge, daß Politisches tabuisiert wurde, ich meine
Angst vor der Zukunft für mich zu behalten lernte und so der Bereich
des Nicht-Sagbaren in der Familie wuchs. (ZB, 53)

The onset of National Socialism was signalled by the ‘plötzlich[e]

Einheitlichkeit der Fahnen, die nun bei jeder Gelegenheit vor den
Fenstern hingen’ (ZB, 54) – an image familiar from Weh dem, der aus
der Reihe tanzt or Horvath’s Jugend ohne Gott – and the increasing
number of bans imposed.14 With a degree of humour, de Bruyn
observes how personal physical contact was directly problematised as
a result of Hitler’s rise to power, in that people were uncertain
whether to greet one another with a traditional handshake or the new
Hitlergruß. Although de Bruyn paints a picture of the ludicrous
‘Verdopplung der Leibesübung’ (ZB, 55) that could result, there is an
inherent seriousness to his description, nevertheless, underlining the
insidious effects of the new regime in Germany on its people and the
psychological ramifications thereof. He indicates how the new

See, for example, the chapter ‘Fahnen’ in Jugend ohne Gott, pp. 112-13.
150 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

chancellor was widely accepted, not least by the Catholic Church,

whose tolerance of the Nazis he blames for his parents’ inability to
respond more purposefully at the time. By contrast, his brother,
Karlheinz, who was active in the Catholic Neudeutschland youth
organisation, explained what was happening outside the confines of
the family, and in the process exerted a strong influence on the young
boy as a positive model of resistance, albeit largely passive in nature.
It was a stance exemplified by the critical Catholic newspaper, Junge
Welt, the tactics of which are summarised as being ‘dabei, die Grenze
dessen, was man sagen durfte, zu erreichen, aber nicht zu
überschreiten und es den Lesern zu überlassen, die vorgegebenen
Schlüsse selbst zu ziehen’ (ZB, 58-9). Although he could barely read,
the paper introduced the young de Bruyn to ‘Begriffe wie Zensur,
Zwischen-den-Zeilen-Lesen und Totalitätsanspruch’ (ZB, 58) that
would remain a feature of his life and work until 1989.
Despite the inherent critique of his parents’ instinctively
protective behaviour, it is clear just how important the family sphere
as a whole was in shaping de Bruyn’s attitudes at the time, instilling in
him key moral values, but also equipping him for survival not only in
Nazi Germany but the GDR as well. In particular, he attributes this
stoicism to his mother’s deep-rooted Prussian attitude to life:
Jenes Pflichtbewußtsein, das uns auch in schlechten Lagen zum
Aushalten zwang, haben wir wohl in erster Linie unserer preußischen
Mutter zu verdanken, die ihre Grundsätze zwar nie klar formulierte,
uns aber ein Beispiel gab. […] Pflichterfüllung, gleichgültig wo,
wofür und warum, hatte ihren Wert in sich selbst; jedes Aufgeben war
Niederlage, das die Selbstachtung kostete. Und deren Verlust war
schlimmer als die Verachtung, die von anderen kam. (ZB, 127-8)

Although such stoicism bordered on subservience in his mother’s

case, to the extent even that she only once talked about her rape by a
Russian soldier after the war, it is clear that de Bruyn, despite some
token rebellion, inherited the same commitment to endurance. As a
result, he feels compelled to resist Karlheinz’s efforts to engineer his
exemption from further participation in the hated
Kinderlandverschickung on medical grounds: ‘Ich mußte Karlheinz
des Verrats bezichtigen, das Attest über meine Blutarmut vernichten,
vor Verzweiflung heulend in den D-Zug steigen, um in Oberschlesien
noch ein halbes Jahr auszuharren: als Gefangener des eignen Zwangs’
(ZB, 129).
The importance and sanctity of the moral values acquired at
home were reinforced by his profoundly negative experiences outside
the family in the Hitler Youth, during the Kinderlandverschickung and
Günter de Bruyn 151

in the army. Although never a formal member of the Hitler Youth, de

Bruyn did attend a camp at the behest of his friend Hannes, only to be
horrified by the bullying atmosphere he encountered. Victimised for
his inability to march properly, de Bruyn is humiliated by one of the
leaders. It instills in him further his sense of individuality:
Später nahm mich einer der verständigeren Führer beiseite und
versuchte, mich von der Macht der Gewöhnung zu überzeugen; was
ich vorgäbe, nicht zu können, könne doch jeder; jeder habe
Einordnungs- und Anpassungsfähigkeit. Aber das beeindruckte mich
wenig. Ich war nicht jeder. Und unter den vielen, die sich einordnen
konnten, waren nicht die, die ich suchte und brauchte. Und deshalb
gehörte ich dort nicht hin. (ZB, 91)

Although he managed to keep his distance from the Hitler Youth after
that, he was unable to remain entirely immune from the deformation
of youth that the Nazis were responsible for, as outlined more
extensively in Harig’s account. His stubbornness at the Hitler Youth
camp was replaced by a desperate attempt to conform during his
Kindlandverschickung experience. What Zwischenbilanz uncovers is
the all-pervasive influence that National Socialism exuded on society
and how susceptible youngsters in particular were to these morally
distorting forces. In comparison to Harig, who was completely
immersed in the system without access to any corrective influences in
the home, de Bruyn’s retention of his values, and with them a measure
of inner resistance, reveal how, for the most part, his family attitudes
inoculated him against the most corrosive effects. Nonetheless, there
remained a life beyond the private sphere that had to be endured, and
survived. Yet even during his military involvement, first as a
Flakhelfer and then as a soldier, de Bruyn encountered positive
models of resistance that alleviated the ‘Militäralltagsöde’ (ZB, 141),
as well as providing crucial corrective markers.
In the chapter ‘Kunsthonig’, de Bruyn provides a sensitive
analysis of his generation’s experiences under National Socialism, the
credibility of which was confirmed by reviewers such as Reich-
Ranicki and Ludwig Harig, the latter of whom was an apposite critic.
De Bruyn stresses that these immature young men were ‘patriotisch
oder auch nationalistisch, aber nicht national-sozialistisch’ (ZB, 142),
but concedes ‘natürlich waren wir alle, die wir 1933 Lesen und
Schreiben gelernt hatten, von der herrschenden Ideologie infiziert
worden’ (ZB, 142):
Von der Welt isoliert, dumm gehalten und mit Vorurteilen beladen,
waren wir als williges Kanonenfutter aufgewachsen; aber fanatische
Nazis waren wir wider Erwarten nicht geworden. […]
152 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Die Einseitigkeit unserer Erziehung hatte uns zu politischen

Analphabeten werden lassen. Man könnte auch sagen: wir waren
unpolitisch, wenn man unter politischem Denken die Fähigkeit zur
Entscheidung versteht. Der innere Widerstand, der sich da und dort,
auch bei mir, regte, war weder politisch motiviert, noch wurde er so
empfunden. Man fühlte sich unfähig zu dieser Art Leben; man lernte,
sich zu entziehen; aber systemkritisch zu denken lernte man nicht –
oder nur schwer, oder nur wenn ein Anstoß von außen kam. (ZB, 143)

By stressing the immaturity of his generation in his analysis, de Bruyn

is careful to play down the suggestion that any coherent will to resist
existed. His assessment is sober and not uncritical, but he is equally
mindful to underline how the exclusion of more enlightened, critical
influences inevitably led to their general conformity and stunted
development. That de Bruyn did not fall prey to the same level of
indoctrination as Harig – who saw himself as ‘ein Pawloscher Hund’
rather than a ‘politischer Analphabet’ – is not only attributable to his
family, but also to the influence of brave individuals such as
Referendar Krättge and Studienrat Dr Neumann, who taught German
and History, two of the subjects whose content was extensively
adapted by the Nazis for their ideological ends. Both teachers
combatted the partial syllabi with provocatively allegorical
interpretations in their respective subjects that threw critical light on
the present, allusions not lost on the more perceptive pupils such as de
Bruyn. For Krättge, teaching the class ‘die Folter-Ballade Die Füße im
Feuer gab ihm Anlaß, über die mörderische Verfolgung
Andersdenkender so zu reden, als seien nicht nur die
Hugenottenkriege gemeint’ (ZB, 107). Moreover, he was brave
enough to teach Wilhelm Tell ‘dessen Behandlung in der Schule schon
ein Jahr zuvor von Hitler untersagt worden war’ (ZB, 107). Dr
Neumann was equally adept at tackling historical issues, such as
Caesar’s fall and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, in such a manner
‘daß sie Aktuelles streifte’ (ZB, 145). But de Bruyn adjudges the
teacher’s influence to have been more significant for having opened
his pupils’ eyes to the plurality of ideas. In particular, Neumann’s
ethos was reflected in his lectures on the Weimar Republic: ‘Das
Führerprinzip der Nazis war ihm nur eine politische Idee unter vielen;
zu keiner davon wollte er uns bekehren’ (ZB, 145). The role of these
critically minded teachers recalls that of the narrator in Jugend ohne
Gott, whose efforts to counter the prejudice inculcated in his pupils
initially lead him into trouble, but ultimately finds resonance with a
Günter de Bruyn 153

small group within the class.15 Despite the pressure on de Bruyn to

conform, it is clear how the influence of Krättge and Neumann formed
a crucial connection with his private values, by sustaining his
awareness of the existence of contrary opinions in a totalitarian
climate outwith the family. More significantly still, one might see in
both teachers’ use of allusion and oblique reference an early object
lesson for the future author in how to convey critical views in
repressive socio-political and cultural climates, a subtle technique
characteristic of de Bruyn’s best work.
Conscripted into the Wehrmacht while still a teenager, de
Bruyn was subjected to the same regime of brutality and conformity
that had marked his brief, and misguided, dalliance with the Hitler
Youth, even if his subsequent ‘vormilitärische Erfahrung’ had better
prepared him for the rigours of military training. Nevertheless, as a
reluctant recruit, de Bruyn was victimised once more:
Die nie offen verweigerte, aber immer lustlose und langsame
Befehlsausführung mußte den Unmut der Vorgesetzten erregen, und
besonders die primitivsten unter ihnen, die Demut, Beflissenheit oder
doch wenigstens Angst erwarteten, ließen oft ihre Wut über die
Mißachtung ihrer Macht an mir aus. (ZB, 202)

De Bruyn strikes no heroic poses, indicating simply how incompetent

a soldier he was, equally as clumsy at firing a weapon as driving a
tank. But the humorous overtones of this self-portrait do little to
mitigate the almost crippling mundanity of the military experience,
which Heinrich Böll’s early fiction captures so well. That Böll’s early
postwar fiction should consequently have exerted so strong an
influence on the young de Bruyn, who was struggling at the time to
come to terms with his own experiences, culminating alarmingly in a
severe head injury, comes as little surprise:
Als eifriger Leser verfolgte ich alles, was in den auf den Krieg
folgenden Jahren über diesen geschrieben wurde, doch konnte ich
darin die Kriegswirklichkeit, wie ich sie erlebt hatte, nicht
wiederfinden, bis mir Bölls erste Bücher in die Hände gerieten und
mir die Gewißheit gaben, daß ich mit meiner Art des Erlebens so
alleine nicht stand. (VJ, 135)

The affinity de Bruyn felt towards his older colleague – de Bruyn

compares him to a surrogate older brother – is reflected in the

In Jugend ohne Gott, the narrator is encouraged by the group of pupils who are
inspired to form ‘Der Club’, in order to propagate his humanitarian ideals.
154 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

thematic similarities that can be traced between his début novel, Der
Hohlweg (1963) and Böll’s Wo warst du, Adam?.16
In contrast to the critical figures Krättge and Neumann, and in
the absence of any immediate role models such as Böll, de Bruyn was
surrounded by those whose ‘Systemeingepaßtheit’ (ZB, 202) he could
never hope nor wish to emulate, such as Oberleutnant Krell, for
example, de Bruyn’s commanding officer during his brief active
service. Though Krell was critical of Hitler’s credentials as a military
leader, ‘das hinderte ihn aber nicht daran, ihm bis zum letzten Tag
noch zu folgen, wie das Gesetz es befahl’ (ZB, 206). Thus, in ‘Das
Frontschwein’, Krell stands as an archetype of the dutiful German
soldier, embodying the values that helped to sustain National
Socialism for so long. Although de Bruyn does not seek to play down
his own dutiful and compliant nature, he shared none of Krell’s
inherent passion for conflict, which overrode any reservations he
entertained about the Führer. Nevertheless, the portrait of Krell would
be unequivocally sympathetic, were it not for the military vernacular
he employed, blending vulgar, scatological and sexual imagery in the
most inappropriate contexts. Whereas his mother’s idiosyncratic use
of language is celebrated, the author’s rejection of Krell’s linguistic
propensity to the vulgar can be seen as further evidence of the
insidious effects of the Nazi regime’s pollution of a more wholesome
and enlightened human sensibility. The vernacular itself is endemic of
military life, nevertheless in ‘Das Frontschwein’ de Bruyn reveals
how these intrinsically aggressive attitudes were encouraged to thrive
under the Nazis. If sexual relationships are described in terms
resembling hand-to-hand combat – ‘[ein] Nahkampf’ (ZB, 218) – then
it is possible to see how some soldiers could be equally desensitised to
the horrific excesses of National Socialism, especially towards those
groups whose human dignity had been eroded by their treatment and
classification as Untermenschen. That Krell’s ‘ständige[r] Gebrauch
kriegerischer Metaphern […] bei Zeitungsschreibern und Politikern
Schule gemacht [hat]’ (ZB, 218) should perturb de Bruyn still is
wholly understandable.

For a more detailed examination of Böll’s influence on de Bruyn, see Owen Evans,
‘“Für mich ist er früh schon wichtig gewesen”: How Heinrich Böll gave Günter de
Bruyn a Helping Hand’, in University of Dayton Review 24.3 (1997), 125-32, and J.
H. Reid, ‘“Das unerreichbare Vorbild”: Günter de Bruyn und Heinrich Böll’, in
Günter de Bruyn in Perspective, ed. by Dennis Tate (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999), pp.
Günter de Bruyn 155

Not susceptible to such linguistic traits himself, the author

nevertheless ascribes his own problematic relationships with women
to the experience of National Socialism in general, a problem
exacerbated still further by his military service. He admits to having
always idealised women, and the various finely drawn portraits in
Zwischenbilanz reveal the features of, what he dubs, his
‘mariologisches System’ (ZB, 361) which inspired him ‘in jeder
Geliebten Maria zu suchen’ (ZB, 359):
Die Männerwelt aus Stumpfsinn, Gleichschritt, Zoten und Gestank
ließ alles Schöne in so unerreichbar weite Ferne rücken, daß die
Distanz zwischen den Frauen und der Krone aller Frauen fast
verschwand. Dem Träger von Waffenröcken konnten Weiberröcke
heilig werden, und eine Küchenfrau unterschied sich nicht viel von
Unserer Lieben Frau. (ZB, 360)

Each new love is placed on a pedestal, and the young man is clearly
happiest worshipping the subject of his affections from afar. With
hindsight, he observes how his almost mediaeval conduct – captured
in the apposite title of the short story ‘Frauendienst’, a fictional
rendition of his own wedding day and recounted in Zwischenbilanz in
the chapter ‘Astronomisches’ – enabled him to preserve his feelings as
long as possible from the inevitable disparity between Sein und Schein
upon which each relationship ultimately foundered. Most alarmingly
of all, it emerges that his wife is the only girl not fit into his system.
That the marriage subsequently failed is alluded to with the utmost
discretion in Vierzig Jahre.
A striking feature of Zwischenbilanz is the degree of de
Bruyn’s ignorance of the Holocaust. Far from being a disingenuous
attempt to deflect from any complicity with the fate of the Jews, it
simply emphasises how relatively sheltered the author had been.
Sharing a hospital ward with SS men, de Bruyn hears harrowing,
drunken accounts of massacres of Jews, about which he had never
‘auch nur andeutungsweise gehört’:
An keinen Gedanken an [die Juden], an kein Gespräch über sie, ob mit
Gleichaltrigen oder Erwachsenen, kann ich mich aus der Zeit nach
ihrer Deportation erinnern. Wer keine persönlichen Bekannten unter
ihnen hatte, dem kamen sie, als sie ihm aus den Augen waren, auch
schnell aus dem Sinn – oder er behielt für sich, was er dachte; denn
Mitleid oder gar Sympathie zu zeigen, konnte gefährlich sein. (ZB,

His only direct encounters with anti-Semitism form the subject of the
two ‘Hanne Nüte’ chapters, which both underscore his ignorance of
the deeper implications. The first instalment deals with the de Bruyn
156 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

family’s Jewish doctor, Dr Jakoby, and is effective as a portrayal of

anti-Semitism from the perspective of a young boy who cannot
comprehend why two SA men should be barring entry to the kindly
doctor’s surgery: ‘[Die SA-Männer] sagten, ich sei doch ein deutscher
Junge; und als ich darauf bestand, von Dr. Jakoby behandelt zu
werden, wollten sie meinen Namen wissen; da riß ich mich los und
lief, ohne zu antworten, davon’ (ZB, 80). The reasons for the doctor’s
eventual emigration, reputedly to London, are never explained to the
young boy, which naturally feeds his own anxiety still further: ‘Mich
hat seine Vertreibung sicher nicht nachhaltig erschüttert, aber doch
meine Zukunftsängste verstärkt’ (ZB, 81). In the second instalment, de
Bruyn tackles the disintegration of his infatuation with Reni during a
trip with her to the centre of Berlin in 1941 and a walk along the
Große Hamburger Straße. De Bruyn and Reni barely exchange a
word, so the boy records the hopelessness of wooing the girl in his
diary as the ‘Abschied von der Kindheit’. Yet, the boy’s
disappointment, and his melancholic rendition thereof, masks the
deeper significance of the backdrop to this adolescent drama:
In Renis Gegenwart war ich für die Straße wie blind gewesen; erst auf
dem Rückweg bemerkte ich die ärmlich gekleideten Passanten, die
gelbe Sterne auf Jacken und Mänteln trugen, und einen bleichen
Jungen meines Alters, der an einem Parterrefenster stand. Auch er trug
den Stern; sein Hemd war schmutzig; und da ihn eine Zigarette
zwischen den Lippen klebte, sah er weniger mitleiderregend als
unheimlich aus. […]
Erst Jahre danach, als ich in dieser Gegend wohnte, erfuhr ich, daß ab
1942 die Berliner Juden in der Großen Hamburger Straße gesammelt
und in den Osten abtransportiert worden waren, in ihren sicheren Tod.
(ZB, 86-7)

The inherent tension in the passage between de Bruyn’s perception of

the incident at the time and the true historical context stimulates the
author’s retrospective sense of shame, although the episode per se
once again underlines the boy’s basic lack of understanding of the
world beyond the protective family sphere. That he should have
remained relatively, and perhaps luckily, sheltered from the Holocaust
and the violent excesses of National Socialism in general as a young
adult is apparent in his strained attempt to describe the cold-blooded
murder of Canadian POWs in Der Hohlweg. The insertion of this
fictional episode into the novel betrays the fledgling author’s
adherence to the tenets of Socialist Realism, which demanded a
crudely schematic assemblage of obviously positive and negative
characters, but fails to convince by virtue of a clear lack of
Günter de Bruyn 157

authenticity – it was ‘erfunden’, not ‘erlebt’, an example of Dichtung

without Wahrheit.
In the closing chapters of Zwischenbilanz, especially the
programmatically titled ‘Rückblick auf Künftiges’, the author reflects
upon his experiences of National Socialism, as well as anticipating his
treatment of East Germany and his perspective thereon. It underlines
most effectively how the majority of his life has been spent under
totalitarianism, but indicates the lessons he learnt in the Third Reich
and his resolve to resist as much as possible the onset of similar
modes of behaviour in the GDR, which were already apparent by
1949. Despite having managed to avoid joining the Hitler Youth, de
Bruyn still witnessed at first hand Nazi methods of indoctrination, and
so the re-emergence of similar practices in the immediate postwar
period in Berlin had little effect on him:
An mir ging die Propaganda spurlos vorüber, weil sie dem
widersprach, was ich täglich erlebte; sie erinnerte mich an die
Diskrepanz zwischen dem Krieg und den Kriegsfilmen; die Stalin-
Verehrung war mir der Hitlers zu ähnlich; und der Zwang zum
verordneten Denken und zum Eintritt in Organisationen war auch
wieder nah. Die Dressurversuche am Menschen, die meine Kindheit
vergiftet hatten, schienen mir unter anderen Farben und Fahnen
wiederzukommen. (ZB, 323)

De Bruyn briefly entertained the notion of joining the Antifa

movement, but concedes he was motivated less by genuine political
conviction than his romantic designs on the group’s leader, Ilse.
Uneasy at the girl’s proselytising zeal and alarmed by the naïve
discussions within the group, de Bruyn sees little evidence of political
maturity. Tellingly, he reiterates the phrase used earlier to describe
his generation in the Third Reich:
Allesamt waren wir politische Analphabeten, und ich war in dieser
Hinsicht der Dümmste von ihnen, denn mein Interesse an Politik war
gering. Mein Grundsatz war lediglich: was gewesen war, sollte nicht
wiederkommen, und darunter verstand ich vor allem, daß keine
Zwangsorganisation mehr mein Leben bestimmen durfte, am
wenigsten Militär. (ZB, 307)

He is ambivalent about Ilse’s commitment to the cause, admiring her

apparent sense of responsibility, yet conversely unable to suppress
doubts about her sincerity. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he
soon withdraws from the group, and the end of his infatuation with
Ilse simultaneously signals his last flirtation with socialism. But it is
characteristic of de Bruyn’s self-critical tone throughout his
autobiographical project that he should not portray his own stance as
158 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

an ideal model for the postwar period. Older, and arguably less
malleable a personality, de Bruyn adopted an essentially selfish
position, encapsulated in the essay he produced at the time titled ‘Lob
des Individualismus’and sent to Horizont, the youth periodical.
Described with hindsight as ‘sehr ehrlich, aber auch dumm’ (ZB,
308), the essay significantly prefigures, albeit in inchoate form, de
Bruyn’s disposition throughout the GDR to keep as much distance as
possible from the authorities: ‘Ich wollte auf eigne Verantwortung
leben und von jeglicher Ordnung, wenn sie schon sein mußte, in Ruhe
gelassen werden’ (ZB, 307).
To a large extent, his career choices in the postwar period and
the early years of the GDR granted him a degree of relative freedom
from the worst aspects of the prevailing ideological climate. Training
initially as an emergency schoolteacher, a decision taken principally
for material and existential reasons, de Bruyn was punished for
refusing to join the SED by his placement in a remote village in the
Westhavelland. De Bruyn indicates how the village was idyllic in
many ways, but not without its problems, exemplified best by a child
abuse scandal involving his Schulleiter and in which de Bruyn himself
became embroiled. Even in this isolated geographical location, it is
clear that one was not beyond the reach of the Party, which sent along
Sittenpolizisten to investigate the matter and thereby stimulated deep-
rooted resentment within the community. The Party’s dogmatic
reaction to the incident thus anticipates the GDR’s constantly evolving
methods of monitoring and shaping its citizens, a preoccupation which
prompted de Bruyn to reject the notion that an inviolate private sphere
existed beyond the Party’s orbit. That geographical isolation was no
guarantor of privacy from the prying eyes of the GDR authorities not
only underpins the author’s last novel to date, Neue Herrlichkeit, but
is also evidenced by the Stasi’s appearance at his own remote cottage
near Beeskow, the apparent inaccessibility of which, described in the
chapter ‘Walden’, had attracted him to it in the first place.17
In the librarian school in Berlin, where de Bruyn began
training in October 1949, he was also able to witness the Party’s
concerted efforts to incorporate individuals into the collective. The
picture he draws at the end of Zwischenbilanz, and expands upon in
Vierzig Jahre, serves as a microcosm of the GDR, in which the
opportunists and careerists thrived, but where certain individuals such

In Neue Herrlichkeit, the anti-hero, Viktor, son of Politbüro member Jan Kösling,
becomes infatuated with one of the staff at an isolated Party retreat. Despite the
remoteness of the house, news of this unacceptable liaison soon reaches his parents.
Günter de Bruyn 159

as de Bruyn were tolerated, as long as they were not rebellious, ‘weil

jede Anpassungsgeste Unterwerfungswillen signalisiert’ (VJ, 16). It
tallies with Mary Fulbrook’s assessment of the SED’s pragmatic
acceptance over time of conformity rather than genuine ideological
conviction, despite its firm commitment in the early years to the
creation of the ‘new socialist person’.18 As Vierzig Jahre outlines, de
Bruyn’s own position was characterised by the delicate balancing of
conformity with a more critical attitude, or at the very least a healthy
scepticism, towards the Party’s view. This ambivalence, which has
been a constant thematic concern in de Bruyn’s fiction, marked his
career both at the Zentralinstitut für Bibliothekswesen and as an
author. Compared to Günter Kunert, who in Erwachsenenspiele
catalogues myriad occasions when he came in direct conflict with the
Party, de Bruyn might at first glance appear far too timorous an
intellectual to have been an effective critic. Yet Kunert’s more
provocative stance is directly attributable not only to his more
extrovert personality, but also to his greater political conviction – he
was a member of the SED until he was expelled – and the attendant
disappointment at how far short of the Communist ideal the SED fell
in the GDR. Despite no longer being a ‘politischer Analphabet’, de
Bruyn retained a proclivity to evade politics wherever possible and
thus never shared his colleague’s initial optimism in the GDR.
Although Kunert’s account offers fascinating insights into the
problems facing the most critical intellectuals and the impact their
stance had on their lives, one can imagine that ordinary east Germans
might relate better to de Bruyn’s more reticent and diffident tone in
Vierzig Jahre. The author continually subjects his behaviour to
scrutiny. Whilst documenting the schizophrenic nature of everyday
life in general, the text is underpinned with a self-critical appraisal of
his own actions. One senses that de Bruyn wishes he could have been
bolder and laments his anxiety; as with Zwischenbilanz, his self-
portrait invites identification precisely on account of its self-critical
candour, which ensures in addition that the text never slips into self-
justification. With its examination of the compromises one was
constantly required to make to survive, it provides a credible
psychological profile of East Germans.
On account of the persecution two of his closest friends
suffered in the GDR, de Bruyn categorically rejects the concept of the
Nischengesellschaft, which he feels trivialises the intimidation and

Fulbrook, pp. 129-50 (p. 130). See too Dennis p. xvi-ii.
160 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

threat that could penetrate the private sphere: ‘Wie privat auch immer
die Liebes- und Freundschaftsverhältnisse waren, irgendwann kamen
sie doch mit politischer Macht in Konflikt’ (VJ, 23). In view of the
State’s heavy-handed treatment of his friends Herbert and Hans-
Werner, colleagues and kindred spirits at the Zentralinstitut, de
Bruyn’s biting critique of the system that could institutionalise such
perversions of justice is wholly understandable, but also unsettling,
inasmuch as the author rarely succumbs to such bitterness in his work.
It is a measure both of his deep-rooted rejection of the State, but also
of his dismay at his own perceived impotence. Herbert had been
arrested with his wife for attempting to flee to the West in the vain
hope of rekindling their marriage, while Hans-Werner had been
denounced for trying to arrange a petition to secure his friend’s
release. De Bruyn is appalled and terrified by the resultant trials with
their orchestrated audience responses and premeditated judgements
for ‘Straftaten’ which amounted to little more than ‘Lappalien’ (VJ,
84). In the case of Hans-Werner, the trial was exploited as a public
display of the inherent dangers of ‘intellektuelle Verworfenheit’ (VJ,
84), and de Bruyn is all too aware that the example being made of his
friend was designed to intimidate people like him:
Sollte der Zweck der Großveranstaltung aber in der Einschüchterung
gelegen haben, war sie wohl ein Erfolg.
An mir selbst merkte ich, wie diese Machtdemonstration wirkte:
Während ich sie leicht durchschaubar, lächerlich und empörend
nannte, fühlte ich, neben der Verachtung, auch eine Angst in mir
wachsen, die künftig mehr Vorsicht empfahl. War es doch nur dem
Zufall zu danken, daß ich nicht dort saß, wo Hans-Werner jetzt sitzen
mußte. (VJ, 84-5)

Despite numerous other miscarriages of justice in the GDR,

such as the Harich-Gruppe trial or the Biermann expulsion to name
but two high-profile examples, it is the inappropriately ruthless
treatment of his friends that made the most indelible impression on de
Bruyn. That he should ultimately dismiss the attempts of critical
socialists to salvage aspects of the GDR’s early years as alarming
distortions of the reality, can be ascribed to his outrage at the
needlessly heavy-handed persecution of his friends: ‘Daß [die mit
ihrer Partei oft im Streit lebenden Sozialisten], die den menschlicheren
Sozialismus wollten, damit ausgerechnet jene Zeit gelten ließen, die
man als die des Staatsterrorismus bezeichnen könnte, wurde von ihnen
kaum reflektiert’ (VJ, 232). His assertion that the GDR of the 1980s
might be perceived as a ‘Rechtsstaat’ (VJ, 233) compared to its
Günter de Bruyn 161

incarnation in the 1950s is thus laced with irony, citing how the State
became more civilised, but without becoming any more democratic in
the process:
Wesentlich hatte sich am Staatsapparat nichts geändert, er war nur
geschmeidiger und leiser gelaufen und hatte die Überwachung
vervollkommnet und verfeinert. Geheimdiensttarnung zog man der
Brachialgewalt vor. Man sperrte Andersdenkende nicht gleich ein,
sondern füllte mit ihren Verfehlungen die Akten, um Material gegen
sie bei der Hand zu haben, wenn Einsperren nötig sein sollte. (VJ,

One must read this segment as a reminder of the cold realities of the
GDR Alltag, for it stresses that any system capable of intimidating its
citizens is beyond redemption or reform. Inevitably, de Bruyn is
dismissive of those opposition groups who adhered to the belief that
the GDR could ever be reformed along democratic lines. Moreover, in
the post-unification context, his argument embodies an unequivocal
rejection of ‘Ostalgie’.
If the insidious mechanisms of social control meant that, in de
Bruyn’s estimation at least, there was no true niche within which one
was able to let off steam or ward off fear and intimidation, Vierzig
Jahre nevertheless depicts how it was possible to eke out a relatively
untroubled existence on the fringes of that society. Unable to escape
being subsumed into the National Socialist system by virtue of his
age, de Bruyn was able to remain far more detached in East Germany,
having learnt valuable lessons from his childhood. Despite not
belonging to the Party, his professional competence as a librarian
made him indispensable, especially when he was required to
participate in initiatives and projects that demanded his expertise, but
the validity of which he was distinctly uncomfortable with from an
ideological standpoint. As a librarian, for example, he had been
involved in the assessment of works ‘die das Verbot nazistischer oder
unter Nazismusverdacht stehender Literatur überstanden hatten, aber
ihres Erscheinens in den zwanziger oder dreißiger Jahren wegen
verdächtigt wurden, bürgerlich infiziert, also feindlich zu sein’ (VJ,
34). His description of the commission as ‘eine Art Volksgerichtshof
für Bücher’ indicates his deep misgivings about his involvement, and
his shame is exacerbated by being listed as one of the research
assistants in the resultant publication:
Für mich aber war und ist dieses Papier ein Grund zur Beschämung,
doch zog ich damals daraus nicht die Lehre, daß Mitmachen
Mitverschulden bedeutet, sondern hielt an der Meinung, daß man, um
Schlimmeres zu verhüten, schlimme Posten wenn möglich besetzen
162 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

sollte, noch lange Zeit fest. Man mußte nur, dachte ich mir, die
Methoden verfeinern. Die Offenheit, mit der ich im
Aussonderungsgremium die mir teuren pazifistischen Titel verteidigt
hatte, war tapfer, aber auch töricht gewesen und hatte bei den
Funktionären nur Mißtrauen erregt. Um wirksam zu werden, mußte
man die verordneten Theorien nicht zu widerlegen, sondern zu
benutzen zu versuchen, und das Vokabular mußte der Sprachregelung
angepaßt sein. (VJ, 35-6)

His stance at this time very much anticipates the ‘Taktieren mit
seinem dauernden Wechsel von Mitlaufen und Distanzhalten’ (VJ,
204) which he feels characterised his literary career, and also holds
true for many other critical authors. In this respect, then, de Bruyn’s
experiences at the institute provided excellent training, not least in
how to infuse apparent conformity with subtle subversion.
One need only consider Preisverleihung as an example of this
same approach in his fiction. Although superficially adhering to the
dogmatic template of Socialist Realism by portraying an apparently
model marriage, the events depicted continually jar with the reader’s
expectations of a socialist model. Moreover, the narrative is laced with
seemingly innocent asides – presumably from the narrator who has
been charged with the task of examining the Overbeck family – which
serve to shed light on the discrepancies between appearance and
reality. As a result, the requisite happy ending is far from satisfactory
for those who have been reading between the lines. Surprisingly, the
book was dismissed as Trivialliteratur by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, for
whom the subtleties of de Bruyn’s tone were clearly too finely
nuanced.19 East German critics such as Heinz Plavius, however,
tellingly censured the novel for its ‘Tendenz zu Wirklichkeitverlust’.20
Preisverleihung took two years to pass the censor, which underlines
how problematic the original manuscript must have been. That the text
retains enough of a critical edge in its published form is testament to
how well de Bruyn had learnt to use the dogmatic system against
itself. By way of contrast, with Neue Herrlichkeit de Bruyn adopted a
more unequivocally satirical tone, thereby indicating his unwillingness
to pull so many of his punches. The authorites in the GDR responded

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, ‘Zwei verschiedene Schuhe’, in Günter de Bruyn:
Materialien zu Leben und Werk, ed. by Uwe Wittstock (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer,
1991), pp. 165-72 (p. 172).
Heinz Plavius, ‘Gefragt: Wirklichkeit’, Neue deutsche Literatur, 21.3 (1973), 150-
54 (p. 153).
Günter de Bruyn 163

to the favourable reviews of the text in the West with a ban in East
Without doubt the most fascinating aspect of Vierzig Jahre is
de Bruyn’s analysis of his development as a writer and his evaluation
of the role he played. The fundamental issue was the delicate balance
between criticism of the State and the compromises one was forced to
make: ‘Kritische Bücher wollte ich schreiben, aber die sollten in der
DDR gedruckt und gelesen werden können. Auch Erfolg wollte ich
damit haben, nicht aber durch diesen von einem Staat anerkannt
werden, der von mir nicht anerkannt war’(VJ, 144). Was this delicate
balance achievable? Could this tension ever be viewed as productive?
It is clear from Vierzig Jahre that de Bruyn constantly entertained
doubts about his efficacy as a critical voice, just as Uwe Saeger did.
His decision to publish in the GDR was a major bone of contention
with various friends, who felt he was sacrificing his integrity for the
sake of ambition. In truth, de Bruyn had always contemplated writing
for a career, and the desire to tackle his traumatic wartime experience
in literary form, much as Böll had in his early career, was strong. But
the troubled evolution of this project merely underlined the problems
inherent in producing literature in an ideological climate. It had a
significant effect on the subsequent course of de Bruyn’s career,
reflecting in addition how vulnerable one’s sense of self could be.
It is fascinating to note in Vierzig Jahre just how ambivalent
de Bruyn was about his literary career. It is refreshing that he should
admit to having been motivated, to some extent at least, by ambition,
but that the appearance of his first two short stories, Wiedersehen an
der Spree (1960) and Hochzeit in Weltzow (1960), should then have
troubled him is typical of his attitude. He was clearly uncomfortable
about being seen as conforming to the role he was expected to play:
Als mir die beiden Broschüren, die in eine billige Anfänger-Reihe
gehörten, vor Augen kamen, blieb die erwartete Freude aus. Meinen
Namen auf den schäbigen Heften zu lesen machte nicht stolz, sondern
beklommen. Nun war mein Autorenehrgeiz, den ich verheimlicht
hatte, ans Licht gekommen. Nun konnte jeder die Diskrepanz
zwischen meinen hohen literarischen Ansprüchen und meinen
bescheidenen Produkten erkennen, und jeder, der meine Ansichten
kannte, mußte deren Unterdrückung oder Verfälschung sehen. (VJ,

For a fascinating insight into the way the GDR censors dealt with de Bruyn’s work,
see York-Gothart Mix, ‘Zwischen den Zeilen und zwischen den Stühlen: Günter de
Bruyn und die Literaturpolitik in der DDR’, Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift,
47 (1997), 457-62.
164 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

This feeling of having betrayed his principles was most prevalent in

the wake of the publication of his first novel, Der Hohlweg, in 1963
and for which he was awarded the Heinrich-Mann-Preis the following
year. Originally conceived as an autobiographical attempt to come to
terms with his military experiences, the material was eventually
manipulated into the form of a Socialist Realist Entwicklungsroman so
typical of work produced at this time. He outlines his dismay at ‘die
Verlogenheit des Buches’ (VJ, 115) in the chapter entitled ‘Der
Holzweg’, which amplifies a much earlier essay with the same title.22
Although he sets his work on the novel in context, indicating how
writing about the war and the immediate postwar period was only
possible ‘mit Verschweigen und Lügen’ for ‘alles, was uns in diesen
Jahren Angst gemacht hatte, war tabuisiert’ (VJ, 117), it in no way
tempers the biting criticism of his own ‘Willfährigkeit’ (VJ, 116):
Mein Ehrgeiz, gedruckt zu werden, war größer als die Verpflichtung
zur eignen Wahrheit gewesen. Um den Erwartungen des Verlages
entgegenzukommen, hatte ich meinen Erlebnissen und Erfahrungen
einen anderen Sinn untergeschoben und die Verbote dabei immer im
Kopf gehabt. Mein Blick war beim Schreiben starr auf die Zensur
gerichtet gewesen, und diese erwies sich dankbar dafür. Das Buch
wurde gedruckt, gelobt und mit einem Preis ausgezeichnet. (VJ, 116)

In truth, the novel has little in common with the fictional work that
followed, so one can understand de Bruyn’s feeling that the book ‘war
für mich tot’ by the time of its release.23 It is a long and sprawling text
that corresponds fully with the Socialist Realist template established
by Georg Lukács and thereby betrays ‘das ursprungliche Thema ans
Erziehungsschema’ (VJ, 116-7). A fledgling author’s adherence to
such a model is surely understandable, especially when one considers
both the circumstances in which he embarked upon his literary career
and the fact that the success provided him with the financial means to
establish himself as a writer. Nevertheless, one can adduce from de
Bruyn’s excoriation of Der Hohlweg a deep shame that he had been
too ambitious, had therefore made too many compromises and
sacrificed his ideals in the process. In truth, de Bruyn’s subsequent
work must be viewed as an ample corrective to this initial conformity,
even if the author constantly feared that he might forever be viewed as
in some way complicit with the State.

Günter de Bruyn, ‘Der Holzweg’, in Lesefreuden: Über Bücher und Menschen
(Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1986), pp. 310-15.
Ibid., p.315.
Günter de Bruyn 165

The dilemma de Bruyn faced was ameliorated significantly by

the resonance his work elicited from his readers, even with those early
Man signalisierte mir Einverständnis, behauptete, zwischen den Zeilen
lesen zu können, und sah mein Eingehen auf Machthaberwünsche als
notwendiges Opfer an. Man machte mich glauben, daß meine
individuelle Sicht auf Menschen und Dinge durch Sprachregelung
zwar verdeckt, aber nicht in eine parteigemäße verkehrt werden
könnte. Gleichempfindende läsen das Ursprüngliche schon heraus.
Daß ich das gerne hörte, ist leicht verständlich. Es besänftigte mein
schlechtes Gewissen, machte mir Mut, auch künftig ans
Veröffentlichen zu denken, und gab mir den Eindruck, Stimme
mancher gleichgesinnter Stummer zu sein. (VJ, 98)

He had successfully transposed the subtle subversion honed in his role

as a librarian into his fiction, which, in spite of his own misgivings,
reflected just how much critical voices could achieve by undercutting
the prevailing ideology. As well as being cheered by the existence of a
community of like-minded individuals for whom he might act as a
mouthpiece, in many senses de Bruyn received an affirmation of his
sense of self. Despite apprehensions and reservations about his
writing, others had perceived him as a critical intellectual, thus
legitimising his decision to risk compromising his ideals by
embarking on a literary career. If he was ashamed of his complicity
with the Nazis, here then was the opportunity to expiate his perceived
guilt by subtly cutting against the grain in East Germany to the
acclaim of certain readers.24 In this regard, one might compare his role
to that of the teachers who had made an indelible impression on him
as a young man.
Viewed in this light, de Bruyn’s career embodies the concept
of Eigen-Sinn (‘a sense of one’s own self’) that Mike Dennis has
identified as a feature ‘central to several recent investigations into
those areas of life which, though by no means islands of political
seclusion, enjoyed a certain breathing space from the all-
encompassing institutions and mechanisms of SED domination’.25
Dennis talks of this space being ‘located at the base of society’, but in
de Bruyn’s case it is arguably more appropriate to refer to an existence
on the margins of society.26 Decidedly uncomfortable in most cultural
By way of contrast, Kunert and Saeger profess that their work was not necessarily
motivated by any responsibility to potential readers.
Dennis, p. xvi.
Fittingly, de Bruyn’s most recent publication to date bears the title Abseits:
Liebeserklärung an eine Landschaft (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2005).
166 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

circles, as evinced by his unease at his own prizegiving – he wonders

‘wann ein Preisgekrönter, ohne die Konvention zu verletzen, die Feier
verlassen darf’ (VJ, 120) – or the reluctance with which he attended
gatherings of the Schriftstellerverband, de Bruyn endeavoured to keep
his distance from the centre as much as possible. He held the
Schriftstellerverband, for example, to be little more than a means for
the Stasi to monitor and control the intelligentsia:
Denn die Existenz der meisten Autoren war vom Wohlwollen des
Verbandes abhängig, der auch Gewerkschaftsaufgaben, und sogar
ausgezeichnet, erfüllte, und viele von ihnen waren Parteimitglieder,
die man vor Abstimmungen, Diskussionen und Wahlen zu
parteigemäßigem Verhalten vergattern konnte; jeder
Verbandsversammlung ging eine instruierende Parteiversammlung
voraus. […] Immer war von der Partei, und wohl auch von der Stasi,
der gesamte Verlauf bis ins Einzelne vorbereitet und inszeniert. (VJ,

To seek corroboration of de Bruyn’s picture, one need only turn to

Günter Kunert’s account, which details at length his various conflicts
with the Schriftstellerverband, as well as the extent of the Stasi’s
penetration of the cultural sphere with all too compliant informants,
whose reports on Kunert form a substantial part of the text’s fabric.
Indeed, on a number of occasions Kunert was a direct target of the
overt intimidation that de Bruyn describes as underpinning some of
the more tense meetings of the writers’ organisation. De Bruyn
avoided this intimidatory atmosphere as much as possible, and
following the expulsion of nine writers from the organisation in 1979,
he no longer attended any meetings. For de Bruyn, the acquisition of a
remote cottage in the Mark Brandenburg was intended to afford him
the seclusion into which he could withdraw:
Waldeinsamkeit ist mir nie unheimlich gewesen. Immer waren es
Menschen, die mich erschreckten. Denen war ich nun ausgewichen.
[…] Ich war, dachte ich, in die Emigration gegangen, ohne das Land,
das mich hielt, verlassen zu haben. Dem Staat war ich auf seinem
eignen Territorium entflohen. Hier würde es mir besser als vorher
gelingen, die Zensur beim Schreiben aus meinem Bewußtsein zu
tilgen. (VJ, 158)

Russian military manoeuvres during his first night in the cottage,

together with a later visit from the Stasi, indicated how illusory this
notion of complete freedom was, as Dennis has suggested. Even if de
Bruyn’s belief that he might better disregard censorship by relocating
to the country must be seen as naïve, the physical intrusions are
nevertheless presented as isolated incidents. One was not entirely free
Günter de Bruyn 167

on the fringes of society, but in essence one could exist relatively

untrammelled in an environment more conducive to the preservation
of a sense of self.
De Bruyn’s natural proclivity both to keep a low profile and
eschew a provocative tone in his fiction did not mean that his work
could be dismissed simply as Trivialliteratur. Evidence unearthed
since the Wende reveals the extent to which many of his texts were
subjected to intense scrutiny from the censors. Indeed, the problems
that marked the publication of Buridans Esel contributed to a severe
nervous breakdown in the author, ‘eine Art geistiger Ohnmacht […],
die neben dem Ehrgeiz auch das Verantwortungsgefühl betäubte,
Probleme in weite Ferne rückte und in mir eine wohltuende Leere
erzeugte, in der nur noch das therapeutische Reglement wichtig war’
(VJ, 139). The text itself was deemed ‘parteifeindlich und
revisionistisch’ (VJ, 142), which duly caused a long delay in its
appearance. On its publication, however, Buridans Esel enabled de
Bruyn to exorcise the demons after Der Hohlweg, and to establish
himself as a leading writer:
[Buridans Esel] wurde gut verkauft und günstig beurteilt, oft übersetzt
und filmisch verwertet; er beendete meine finanzielle Notlage, und er
hob mich, nicht zuletzt weil er auch im Westen gedruckt wurde, auf
eine höhere Bekanntheitsstufe und damit höher hinauf in der
literarischen Rangfolge, die, ohne daß jemand ihre Kriterien hätte
benennen können, im Urteil einschlägiger Kreise bestand. (VJ, 143)

If a higher profile in the West furnished him with a greater degree of

protection and opportunites for travel abroad, the expulsion of Wolf
Biermann in November 1976 called this position into question.
The affair had immediate ramifications for the cultural life of
the GDR, initiating a wake of expulsions and departures of leading
artists to the West. Along with many of his colleagues, de Bruyn was
forced to reassess the tenability of his role, already marked as it was
by an intrinsic ambivalence. Visiting relatives in the Mark
Brandenburg when news of the Biermann expulsion reaches him, de
Bruyn is shocked to discover that there is little sympathy amongst the
people at large for the abrasive artist ‘weil er doch hätte wissen
können, was einem bei Frechheit blüht’ (VJ, 207). The author finds
such conversations ‘deprimierend, aber auch nützlich, weil sie die
Illusion zerstörten, daß die Artikulierung des eignen
Freiheitsbedürfnisses sozusagen im Auftrag des Volkes geschah’ (VJ,
207-8). During many of his subsequent church readings, de Bruyn was
irritated and dismayed by the attitudes of audiences to all those critical
intellectuals who had chosen or been compelled to leave for the West:
168 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Was sie im Westen, so hieß es [in Briefen und Diskussionen], über die
DDR auch noch schreiben würden, könnte nicht mehr die
Authentizität des Erlebens haben, weil sie nicht mehr Mitleidende,
sondern nur noch Zuschauer waren, der Gefährdung nicht ausgesetzt.
Als Vordenker und Vorbilder konnte man sie nicht mehr gebrauchen.
Man hatte, so war zu vermuten, weniger den Inhalt ihrer Kritik als den
Mut zur Kritik bewundert und die Autoren zu Heldengestalten erhöht.
(VJ, 218)

Interestingly, in his own, not uncritical, portrait of Wolf Biermann, de

Bruyn himself appears just as guilty of admiring the courage rather
than the substance of the former’s political convictions. In de Bruyn’s
estimation, Biermann emerges as an egotistical figure, whose belief in
a Communist utopia is naïve, but whose boldly critical voice is
nevertheless admirable. Once more, de Bruyn’s ambivalence – a
constant throughout his autobiographical project – cannot be
overlooked: ‘Statt ihm zu Füßen zu sitzen, wollte ich ihn lieber von
den hinteren Rängen aus bewundern, wo ich zwar in die Ovationen
mit einstimmen, aber manchmal auch ein Kopfschütteln riskieren
konnte, ohne ihm weh zu tun’ (VJ, 208). His critical attitude towards
Biermann’s political convictions to some degree mirrors his emphatic
rejection of the notion, advocated by some of his colleagues, that a
reformed socialist GDR was the way forward in 1989: ‘Von [der
DDR] hatte ich wahrlich genug’ (VJ, 254).
Arguably the most engaging aspect of Vierzig Jahre is the
examination of the complex and interrelated reasons why de Bruyn
remained in the GDR. One element was undoubtedly a sense of
responsibility to readers, even if the Biermann expulsion had
suggested that they to some extent resented the privileges intellectuals
enjoyed. When de Bruyn stressed at a reading in Dresden that he had
no intention of leaving the GDR, he received overwhelming applause,
despite his defence of those authors who had left the country in the
aftermath of the Biermann affair. He failed to confess to the audience
that a sense of responsibility to the people was one of the least
significant of his reasons for remaining, and yet conversely he
admitted earlier that he was ‘stolz darauf, aller Bedrückung zum Trotz
auszuhalten’ (VJ, 204). This segment of Vierzig Jahre offers
unequivocal evidence of the conflicting emotions that afflict de Bruyn
constantly whenever he considers his career and what the correct
course of action should have been for a critical intellectual. What at
first arouses pride is then despised as ‘Seßhaftigkeit […], an deren
Ende womöglich die provinzielle Verblödung stand’ (VJ, 204). As
such, de Bruyn’s dilemma mirrors the soul-searching that the
Günter de Bruyn 169

protagonist of Uwe Saeger’s Die Nacht danach und der Morgen

undergoes. It was a dilemma that clearly plagued all critically minded
Although de Bruyn refused to see the departure of many of his
colleagues as ‘eine Art Desertion’ (VJ, 217), he acknowledges that
there were inevitable ramifications within the GDR with the exodus of
authors of the calibre of Kunert, Becker and Kirsch: ‘Die unruhigsten,
kritischsten und politisch aktivsten Leute suchten das Weite und
schwächten damit die innere Opposition’ (VJ, 216). As such, the
Biermann petition represented the zenith of such activities in the
cultural sphere, but the rebelliousness of the intellectuals was brief
and could not be transformed into more direct action. As Mary
Fulbrook observes:
[…] Cultural revolt did not eventuate into much by way of political
activism; rather, in the following years there were many intellectuals
who followed Biermann to the West, whether willingly or unwillingly.
Others maintained a marginal existence within the GDR; whether
through the ‘alternative scene’ of the Prenzlauer Berg, or on the
fringes of the Church. There individuals were able to contribute to a
mood of critical disaffection with the nature of life in the GDR; they
were, however, less important organizationally, as forces for change.

As far as the Biermann petition itself is concerned, de Bruyn concedes

that the document was significant solely for what it represented, with
well over a hundred signatories, rather than its content, which was
truthfully rather tame.28 It is interesting, therefore, to observe that de
Bruyn’s eagerness to play a part in the protest was not motivated by
conviction that anything concrete could be achieved; it was simply
‘um nicht als Befürworter der Regierungsmaßnahme zu gelten’ (VJ,
210). It was in truth an important political gesture from a man who
had previously sought to avoid direct confrontation with the State
wherever possible.
In anticipation of a more repressive cultural climate in the
aftermath of the Biermann affair, which would probably make the
publication of novels very difficult for those who had signed the
protest, de Bruyn was not unduly perturbed. Having recently
completed his extensive study of Jean Paul, he resolved to research the
forgotten and overlooked writers of the Mark Brandenburg ‘um diese
Eiszeit zu überleben’ (VJ, 214). A preoccupation born initially of
apparent necessity, de Bruyn’s interest in the literary history of his

Fulbrook, p. 84.
With hindsight, Günter Kunert is similarly critical. See Chapter 5.
170 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

beloved Mark has since spawned a whole array of essays and editions
focusing on the likes of Fouqué and Ludwig Tieck. With the exception
of Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre, he has devoted himself
exclusively to this research since publishing Neue Herrlichkeit in
1984. In effect, he endeavoured to establish a mode of inner
emigration predicated not only on physical distance from the State by
securing the property near Beeskow, but also on intellectual
detachment from the dogmatic practices and concerns of the GDR’s
cultural life. It is indicative of de Bruyn’s natural predilection for
privacy that the fall of the Wall has done little to alter this approach,
even with his considerable popularity following the Wende. Despite
this apparent self-indulgence, one could not in any way accuse de
Bruyn of disinterest in socio-political matters. During the latter period
of the GDR, stimulated perhaps by his experience of the Dresden
reading, de Bruyn became a more strident critic of the State. As with
his participation in the Biermann protest, the banning of Neue
Herrlichkeit in 1984 for its perceived satire of leading members of the
Politbüro was a further indication that de Bruyn’s continued presence
in the GDR had little to do with support for the regime:
[…] Nun war ich im Abseits, in das ich gehörte. Mein Mißverhältnis
zum Staat war offenkundig geworden. Mein Vertragsabschluß mit S.
Fischer, den das Hinfälligwerden des Lizenzvertrages erfordert hatte,
war für mich auch ein fröhlicher Abschied von dem ständigen
Rücksichtnehmen auf die Zensur. Kompromisse wollte ich mir fortan
nicht mehr gestatten. Als mir ein DDR-Leser wenig später
vorwurfsvoll sagte, er habe die Neue Herrlichkeit wie das Buch eines
Autors gelesen, der der DDR schon Ade gesagt habe und ihr keine
Chancen mehr gebe, stimmte ich ihm erfreut zu. (VJ, 250)

Where previously he had subtly used Jean Paul’s critique of

censorship to inveigh against the practice in the GDR, in 1987 he
made an important speech at the Tenth Schriftstellerkongreß, in which
he articulated his own critical appraisal of what he dubbed the State’s
‘Druckgenehmigungspraxis’.29 He became involved with a peace
group until an unpalatable Stasi Zersetzungsmaßnahme – ‘eine
pornographische Fotomontage’ (VJ, 239) – forced him to keep his
distance, and in October 1989 he refused the GDR’s Nationalpreis,
although the subsequent demise of the State, he remarks a little
ruefully, meant that ‘meine Geste, die Halbheiten, Feigheiten und
Versäumnisse von Jahrzehnten gutmachen sollte, ins Leere ging’ (VJ,
253). Despite de Bruyn’s care not to paint himself as a hero of passive

Günter de Bruyn, ‘Zur Druckgenehmigungspraxis’, in Wittstock, pp. 19-21.
Günter de Bruyn 171

resistance, Tilman Krause argues that the significance of the writer’s

stance should not be underestimated: ‘Das alles ist mehr als innere
Emigration. Es ist Zivilcourage, die im Rahmen des Möglichen die
dem Charakter des Autors adäquaten Spielräume ausmißt’.30
De Bruyn’s modest underplaying of his actions is typical of
the autobiographical volumes, characterised as they are by a
constantly balanced tone that contrasts with the more abrasively
jaunty style of Kunert’s autobiography. He is forced to concede that to
a certain degree the State’s bestowing of privileges on intellectuals did
have the desired effect, at least as far as he was concerned. The sense
of shame he feels at his involvement with the Third Reich in
Zwischenbilanz is mirrored by that at his perceived complicity with
the GDR:
Ich wurde nicht nur in Ruhe gelassen, sondern war ohne Ankündigung
in eine Privilegiertenstellung befördert worden, was angenehm, aber
auch unheimlich war. Ich ahnte, daß man mich für mein Abseitsstehen
belohnte und vielleicht auch dafür, daß ich im Lande blieb. Man nahm
an, daß einer, den man in Ruhe ließ, auch keine Neigung hatte, die
Ruhe zu stören. Auch Dankbarkeit stellte man möglicherweise in
Rechnung; bei einem, der Ruhe zum Arbeiten brauchte, war das so
abwegig nicht. Störend war nur der Gedanke, daß Gewährenlassen
auch Vereinnahmen bedeuten konnte. Für die Propaganda im Ausland
war mein Name als Beweis für tolerante Kulturpolitik nützlich. Ich
sollte nach dem Willen des Außenministeriums auch im Pariser DDR-
Kulturzentrum lesen, aber das lehnte ich ab. (VJ, 251-2)

But not everyone shared Krause’s opinion of Vierzig Jahre and praise
for its author’s stance in the GDR. For others, such as Michael Opitz,
the text was too timid and ‘manches klingt nach
Rechenschaftsprosa’.31 It is hard to agree with such assessments,
however, since so many of them appear to base their criticisms on the
text’s perceived lack of personal information or the author’s care not
to point the finger too much or denounce a host of names. Those
individuals whom de Bruyn does take to task – two examples being
his critical portrait of Arnold Zweig, whom he had admired as a young
man, and the somewhat egotistical Wolfgang Harich – are not treated
with any malice; the author simply seeks to present a nuanced picture,
which does not mask their shortcomings, in a manner wholly
consistent with his balanced assessment of his own actions.
Nevertheless, in the words of Opitz, everything is ‘zu glatt, zu
paßgerecht geraten’, which appears to insinuate that de Bruyn has

Tilman Krause, ‘Ein Zauderer behauptet sich’, Der Tagesspiegel, 14 August 1996.
Opitz, ‘Ohne zu stören’.
172 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

something to hide.32 When one considers de Bruyn’s shame at the

contents of his Stasi file, the enduring dilemma of how his literary
career in the GDR might be perceived and whether he could have been
a more dynamic critic, Opitz’s comments must be called into question,
or attributed to the critic’s misgivings about autobiography as a
suitable vehicle for analysing the GDR’s legacy. On the contrary,
Vierzig Jahre offers a searching insight into the compromises
demanded of individuals in the GDR, who were required to juggle
private and public concerns. On another level, de Bruyn analyses the
role of critical intellectuals in a totalitarian climate and reveals how
one’s actions could be exploited by the authorities for propaganda
purposes, thereby confronting one with the difficult choice of whether
to remain in one’s home country or go into exile. Vierzig Jahre
ponders the consequences of both decisions, and is unable to resolve
the problem. Leaving the GDR might well have been an easy option,
and yet exile in itself was a privilege not afforded the majority of
GDR citizens. Even though de Bruyn did not concur with the view
that exile was a form of desertion, his reasons for remaining were
ultimately less political: he could not contemplate leaving behind
family and friends.33 The value of Vierzig Jahre inheres in its
depiction of these conflicting emotions and pressures that faced many
in the GDR, and not just the cultural élite. Its message quite simply is
that people should not be placed in a position that stifles their sense of
identity with the constant pursuit of compromise. Although the
message is by no means unique to de Bruyn in the post-Wende period,
that should detract neither from its validity nor the sensitivity with
which the author conveys the problematic issue of reflecting upon life
in a repressive climate.
As we have seen, de Bruyn managed to withstand the pressure
by withdrawing as much as possible to the margins of society. It is
telling that he should so frequently choose to describe his position in
the GDR as being one of ‘abseits’. Geographically, this peripheral
position meant not only his isolated cottage but the Mark Brandenburg
as a whole. It was the location of his long walks with Herbert, where
they were briefly able to evade the psychological ramifications of
everyday compromise in the library institute, itself a microcosm of the
GDR Alltag. In this sense, it is no surprise that he should have
subsequently begun to map the literary and historical topography of

De Bruyn’s dilemma forms a neat contrast with the one facing Günter Kunert, as
we shall see in Chapter 5.
Günter de Bruyn 173

the area so extensively in his essays, as well as exploiting it as the

setting for the novels Neue Herrlichkeit and the aptly titled Märkische
Forschungen.34 The prevalence of ruined stately homes and
monuments – the splendour of which Fontane had commemorated in
his famous Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg – revealed
how little the State cared for these remnants of a past it wished to
forget. The region thus becomes synonymous with escape, with
relative freedom from pressure. Although de Bruyn is uncomfortable
with the notion of the private niche in the GDR, his love of the region
of Brandenburg and his preoccupation with its literary and political
history created a private space nevertheless, which compensated for
the pressure he was otherwise subjected to as an author. Moreover, the
obvious importance of the Mark Brandenburg for de Bruyn recalls
Boa and Palfreyman’s spatial definition of Heimat as an ‘intrinsically
conservative value connoting originary or primary factors in identity,
or at least it expresses the longing, perhaps illusory, for such an
absolute foundation or unchanging essence’.35 This suggestion should
be viewed in conjunction with the theory posited by the author himself
that the GDR’s endurance over a forty-year period can partially be
attributed to the Prussian characteristics of a sizeable section of its
citizens. In spatial terms, the Mark Brandenburg can be viewed as the
core of historical Prussia, and in Neue Herrlichkeit de Bruyn employs
clear allusions to the continuity that exists between the old and new
orders, inherent not just in the hierarchical socio-political structures,
but also in the attitudes and behaviour of the people:
In der DDR-Geschichte spielen [diese sogenannten preußischen
Tugenden] eine große Rolle. Die Leute, die ich in der Mark
Brandenburg kenne, sind ausgesprochen preußischer Prägung, mit
allen Vor- und Nachteilen: sehr verläßlich, arbeitsam, leicht zu lenken,
immer nach Obrigkeit Ausschau haltend. Diese treue Nüchternheit in
kleinen Verhältnissen hat etwas historisch-Geprägtes.

Many of de Bruyn’s protagonists display these very attributes, with

Teo Overbeck providing arguably the clearest personification of the
damaging ramifications of the conflicting emotions that result in a
GDR context: his wife chides him for his ‘fast asozial zu nennende
For a more detailed analysis of this facet of de Bruyn’s work than is possible here,
see: Owen Evans, ‘Living in the Past?: Günter de Bruyn, Prussia and the Mark
Brandenburg’, in Townscapes and Countryside in Contemporary German Writing, ed.
by Osman Durrani and Julian Preece (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004), pp. 225-41.
Boa and Palfreyman, p. 23.
Helmtrud Mauser, ‘Blick zurück: Günter de Bruyn im Gespräch’, in Wittstock, pp.
111-20 (p. 111).
174 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Moralität’.37 Whether one might reasonably extend de Bruyn’s thesis

to include the GDR population as a whole is debatable, perhaps, and
the author himself is careful not to do so, however compelling the
argument may be. It is certainly true of de Bruyn himself, who
admitted to an innate Prussian ‘Haltung des Aushaltenmüssens’
inherited from his mother.38
In many respects, the figure of de Bruyn’s mother, Jenny,
stands out in Zwischenbilanz as the most memorable of the myriad
portraits, but also as the most consistent influence on the author. It is
no surprise that family and friends should have been so important and
influential on someone as diffident as de Bruyn. His elder brother,
Karlheinz, was a role model, but one that the author was unable to
emulate. Amongst his friends there were those such as his abrasive
friend H. or the melancholic Herbert, who were significant
companions, but their influence on de Bruyn was ultimately limited by
fundamental differences in opinion, most notably pertaining to his
decision to embark upon a literary career. Although she is a much
more peripheral figure in Vierzig Jahre, de Bruyn’s mother’s lasting
influence upon her son comes to the fore in the text in his decision to
remain in East Germany. In this way, the short introductory chapter
‘Möglichkeiten’ is programmatic. The author outlines how his ‘aus
Harmoniebedürfnis entstandene Kompromißbereitschaft’ (VJ, 7) was
key to his survival in the GDR, and concedes that ‘Schlimmeres, als
geschah, hätte immer geschehen können’ (VJ, 7). It is an attitude
strongly redolent of Jenny de Bruyn’s stoicism in Zwischenbilanz,
most starkly evidenced by the way she relativises her rape by a young
Russian soldier in 1945. De Bruyn’s aphoristic encapsulation of GDR
life recalls those sayings so beloved of his mother: ‘Was sein muß,
muß sein! Jammern nützt nichts! oder Hilft ja nichts! Mehr als diese
Redensarten bekamen wir von ihr darüber kaum zu hören, aber täglich
lebte sie uns Klag- und Selbstlosigkeit vor’ (ZB, 127). By instilling in
her son ‘jenes Pflichtbewußtsein, das uns auch in schlechten Lagen
zum Aushalten zwang’ (ZB, 127), Jenny de Bruyn might therefore be
seen as the author’s ‘proximate other’. She is the personification of
those values, endemic in the Mark Brandenburg, that proved crucial to
de Bruyn’s own sense of self and enabled him to survive in the face of
whatever adversity might have loomed. Although Zwischenbilanz

Günter de Bruyn, Preisverleihung (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1982), p. 106.
Günter de Bruyn, Was ich noch schreiben will: Gespräch mit Ingo Hermann in der
Reihe ‘Zeugen des Jahrhunderts’, ed. by Ingo Hermann (Göttingen: Lamuv, 1995), p.
Günter de Bruyn 175

signals how this dutiful attitude might have made de Bruyn

susceptible initially to aspects of life under National Socialism, a
sense of duty did not connote blind obedience. The structures of
totalitarianism were to be endured, but this attitude was not
synonymous with wholehearted endorsement. After learning the
painful lessons from his experiences of the Third Reich, as an adult de
Bruyn was far less susceptible in the GDR, as Vierzig Jahre outlines,
even though his behaviour was still essentially marked by a stoical
acceptance of his situation, which mirrored that of many in East
Germany. Despite his general diffidence and the anxiety and self-
doubt that have plagued him throughout his professional career, de
Bruyn’s sense of self has remained relatively robust, anchored firmly
in his Heimat, the characteristics of which were embodied by his
mother. Crucially, the candour and self-critical honesty that pervade
both volumes of his autobiography reveal how de Bruyn never
succumbed to the ‘provinzielle Verblödung’ (VJ, 204) he feared might
result from his remaining in the GDR. Indeed, that he was constantly
wrestling with the implications of his role as a writer demonstrates the
pressures individuals faced on a daily basis, as well as revealing how
it was possible to retain one’s integrity.
For all the self-doubt about what his literary career could truly
achieve, there is little doubt that de Bruyn made a noteworthy
contribution to sustaining the critical mood of significant sections of
GDR society. Less strident than colleagues such as Christa Wolf or
Volker Braun he may have been, but his willingness to attend readings
in the churches should not be underestimated. Indeed, one senses that
the acclaim he has enjoyed since the Wende might be attributed to his
deep scepticism of East Germany as an ideological phenomenon,
unlike many of his colleagues who believed in reform of the GDR
along true democratic lines as a viable alternative to reunification. In
addition, on account of his more obviously diffident persona, de
Bruyn emerges as an individual with whom many former East
Germans could doubtless identify. His sensitive, yet objective, essays
on the plight of former GDR citizens since 1989, such as ‘Deutsche
Befindlichkeiten’ or the more recent ‘Deutsche Zustände’, emphasise
how appropriate an advocate for his fellow eastern Germans de Bruyn
has been in the post-Wende period.39 Rather than being vilified, his
self-critical candour about his Stasi involvement was welcomed, and

Günter de Bruyn, ‘Deutsche Befindlichkeiten’, in Jubelschreie, Trauergesänge:
Deutsche Befindlichkeiten (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1991), pp. 27-45; ‘Deutsche
Zustände’, pp. 7-65.
176 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

as Dennis Tate remarks, he was able to enjoy ‘a fully deserved moral

bonus’ as a result.40 One might speculate that the understanding de
Bruyn received can also be ascribed in part to the considerable success
of Zwischenbilanz, with its honest and accessible portrayal of the
inherent problems of coping with the pressures of totalitarian life.
Without necessarily meaning to, de Bruyn spoke for a generation,
interweaving private and public concerns and becoming in the process
a figure with whom many could readily identify. As Sibylle Cramer
emphasises, his credibility was significantly enhanced by the style and
tone of his work:
De Bruyns Prosa ist ohne Glanz ganz auf Genauigkeit des Ausdrucks,
auf Wahrheit bedacht. […] De Bruyn verwandelt seinen
Lebensbericht in ein offenes Gespräch mit sich selbst, […] ein
experimentierendes Schreiben vor lesenden Zuschauern, die Zeugen
des beweglichen Spiels und Gegenspiels von Gewißheiten und
Zweifeln, Vorbehalten und vorsichtigen Schlüssen werden.

So what were the author’s motives for commencing his

autobiography? In Das erzählte Ich, de Bruyn admits that one of the
principle reasons for writing was to produce a chronicle:
Es ist der Chronist im Schreiber, der sich hier regt. Hier gilt es, das
Ich in die historischen Geschehnisse einzuordnen, es aus ihnen
erklären, durch sie vielleicht auch bewerten zu können. Das Ich und
die Zeitläufe müssen aufeinander bezogen werden, in der Hoffnung,
daß beide dadurch Konturen gewinnen und daß aus dem Einzelfall so
etwas von einer Geschichtsschreibung von unten entsteht. (EI, 20)

He has spoken elsewhere of the ‘Chronistenpflicht des Autors’, which

in itself is not by any means a motivation unique to de Bruyn.42 In this
instance, however, his aim is expressed in terms of the interweaving
of private and public, and the generally positive reception of both
volumes of his autobiography underlines how successfully this
juxtaposition has been achieved. Even though some felt that Vierzig
Jahre did not provide the same panoramic sweep of its predecessor,
with its naturally tighter focus on the cultural sphere of the GDR,
there is still sufficient insight into the mechanisms of East German
daily life to satisfy those readers who demanded such a focus.
Nevertheless, de Bruyn was careful to stress that Vierzig Jahre would
Dennis Tate, ‘Changing Perspectives on Günter de Bruyn: An Introduction’, in
Günter de Bruyn in Perspective, pp. 1-8 (p. 1).
Sibylle Cramer, ‘Selbstgespräche eines Wahrheitssuchers’, in Neue deutsche
Literatur, 44.6 (1996), 121-24.
Sigrid Töpelmann, ‘Interview mit Günter de Bruyn’, Weimarer Beiträge, 14 (1968),
1171-83 (p. 1177).
Günter de Bruyn 177

depict ‘mein Erwachsenenleben, das sich zwar in der DDR abspielte

und von ihr beeinflußt wurde, aber doch mein Leben blieb’ (EI, 17-8)
[original emphasis]. Despite the ‘aufklärerische Zug’ (EI, 20) inherent
in de Bruyn’s perception of himself as a chronicler, the text was first
and foremost to be an autobiographical reckoning with his own life – a
‘Selbstbefragung’, as Cramer terms it – rather than an analysis of the
GDR per se.43
When one reviews de Bruyn’s canon and teases out the
themes he has tackled in his fiction and essays, the articulation of
subjectivity emerges as a recurrent concern, and in particular the
degree of authenticity that subjective expression generates in a text. In
his exploration of other authors’ work, he has constantly been drawn
to the autobiographical features of their writing, examining the
differing levels of authenticity thereby achieved. Jean Paul is
advocated as a paradigm for having crafted his work around a core of
personal experience, to such an extent in fact that de Bruyn extols his
favourite author’s ‘Realitätsabhängigkeit’.44 Naturally, de Bruyn has
proceeded to analyse autobiography per se as the purest embodiment
of ‘subjective authenticity’, and it is this survey which is at the heart
of Das erzählte Ich. Just why he should have been so preoccupied
with the subjective features of writing can be explained by the
problematic creation of his first novel, Der Hohlweg. What began as a
private attempt to tackle his traumatic wartime experiences –
especially the serious head wound he suffered – and was to have been
an unequivocally autobiographical exploration was transformed
inexorably into a formulaic Socialist Realist novel. The creative
processes he was compelled to adopt refracted the subjectivity of the
material to such a degree that most of the author’s personality was
expunged from the finished product: ‘Als das Buch gedruckt war, war
es für mich tot’.45 Although, on one hand, the experience represented a
valuable introduction to the pressures facing an author in the GDR,
which necessitated walking a thin line between conformity and
subversion, the suppression of the subjective dimension of his début
work conversely unleashed a far more damaging ‘Hemmung, sich
selbst zu offenbaren’.46 Given both the State’s aim of creating ‘good
socialist personalities’, irrespective of whether the individuals
concerned wanted to be thus transformed or not, and the existence of

Cramer, p. 123.
Das Leben des Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, p. 255.
‘Der Holzweg’, p. 315.
Ibid., p. 314.
178 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

the so-called ‘Nischengesellschaft’ in the GDR, we might argue that

this inhibition was a feature of daily life under totalitarianism in
general, and therefore did not just afflict those engaged in the
production of literature.47
In view of the problems de Bruyn had faced with his
attempted autobiographical reckoning with the war, it is clear how
Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre can be seen to embody a therapeutic
process. Zwischenbilanz in particular stands as a corrective of the
début novel, covering as it does much of the same thematic ground as
Der Hohlweg, but in a considerably more concise and accessible style.
Both volumes of his autobiography facilitate the freedom to unfold,
assess and express his sense of self that was necessarily precluded
from the work he was able to publish in East Germany. At the
beginning of Zwischenbilanz, when he talks of the text as ‘ein
Training im Ich-Sagen, im Auskunftgeben ohne Verhüllung durch
Fiktion’ (ZB, 7), de Bruyn is not being entirely ironic; his diffidence is
entirely to be expected after years of totalitarianism had inhibited self-
expression. He had, after all, begun school in 1933 and spent the next
fifty-six years under two German dictatorships. One need only
consider the awkwardness of Teo Overbeck’s speech in
Preisverleihung, itself based directly on de Bruyn’s own
embarrassment at a Böll reading, or de Bruyn’s breakdown after
Buridans Esel was published as examples of the crippling pressures
individuals had to endure in such a repressive climate. Although
reading and writing literature offered de Bruyn a means ‘um das
Leben bestehen zu können’ (VJ, 242), his own interest in the
autobiographical dimension of other authors’ work seemed to dictate
that he would eventually seek to complete his own
‘Selbstauseinandersetzung’ (EI, 18), not only to lay the ghost of Der
Hohlweg, but also to exorcise the personal demons unleashed by his
experiences of totalitarianism in general.
With the completion of his autobiographical project, de Bruyn
achieved the blend of subjectivity and authenticity he had long sought,
and arguably surpassed the best of his fiction in the process. The
success of Zwischenbilanz in particular, reinforced by the numerous
accolades that have been bestowed upon the author since 1989,
supports this contention. While Zwischenbilanz effectively completed
the circle begun, rather inauspiciously, with Der Hohlweg in 1963,
Vierzig Jahre brought the autobiographical project up-to-date in 1996

Fulbrook, p.130.
Günter de Bruyn 179

shortly before his seventieth birthday. It remains to be seen whether de

Bruyn’s intimation that he will deliver the definitive overview of his
life at eighty is ironic or not; there would seem to be few areas left
Might Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre be seen to connote
the resolution of some kind of identity crisis for de Bruyn? In truth,
this would be to overexaggerate the nature of the problem, which
pertains principally to the capacity for self-expression. As Vierzig
Jahre makes quite explicit, however, de Bruyn did suffer a deep-
rooted ambivalence about his role in the GDR and, despite his
Prussian stoicism, struggled with the compromises demanded of him.
His works of fiction are testament to the difficulties of balancing
conformity and criticism, not only in their construction, as in the case
of Der Hohlweg, but also in the dilemmas facing protagonists such as
Teo Overbeck and Ernst Pötsch. In this respect, de Bruyn’s admission
that ‘sich fast alles, was ich geschrieben habe, von subjektiver
Erfahrung nährte’ (VJ, 242) is telling. With his autobiographical
volumes, he was finally able to give free rein to self-expression and
thereby initiate ‘der Versuch, mich über mich selbst aufzuklären,
Grundlinien meines Lebens zu finden, mir auf die Frage zu antworten,
wer eigentlich ich sei’ (EI, 19). If his career up to that point had been
a form of Vorarbeit, an attempt to achieve the same kind of
‘Selbsterforschung’ (EI, 18), albeit one mitigated by the State’s
dogmatic resistance to the articulation of individuality that forced him
‘lange um mein Leben [herumzuschreiben]’ (ZB, 7), then the
successful completion of Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre does
appear to have resolved that self-analytical imperative. This thesis can
be substantiated by the fact that since 1984 de Bruyn has produced no
further works of fiction. With the exception of his autobiography, he
has dedicated himself exclusively to his work on Germany,
concentrating primarily on his research into the literary and political
history of his beloved Brandenburg. It certainly suggests that his
creative work was driven by a need for self-expression, in order to
affirm his sense of self, but it is a need that has now been stilled. He
currently appears at ease professionally, happy to potter along the
highways and byways of the past, free at last to devote himself to
simple, personal pleasures, untroubled by any continual need to rescue
a sense of identity directly in his work or to justify his actions.
Amongst the myriad prizes he has won since 1989, he was awarded
the notable Ernst-Robert-Curtius-Preis für Essayistik, while his recent
full-length publications have been studies of leading figures in
180 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Prussian history, namely the Finckenstein family and Königin Luise,

and cultural histories of Berlin and Brandenburg.48 Having long been
engaged in mapping the contours of his private realm, de Bruyn
reveals with his recent work – perhaps with considerable relief – that
it is the lives of others that now hold his attention.

Günter de Bruyn, Die Finckensteins: Eine Familie im Dienste Preußens (Berlin:
Siedler, 1999); Preussens Luise: Vom Entstehen und Vergehen einer Legende (Berlin:
Siedler, 2001) and Unter den Linden (Berlin: Siedler, 2002).

‘Die Katalyse des Schreibens’ – Günter Kunert,

Erwachsenenspiele: Erinnerungen (1997)

Although the title of Günter Kunert’s Erinnerungen appears at first

glance to promise a more carefree life story than the other texts in the
present survey – an impression reinforced by the paperback edition
with its cover photograph of the author as an impish-looking young
boy – one is swiftly and unequivocally disabused of this expectation.
Despite the playfulness that pervades swathes of Kunert’s account of
his childhood in Berlin, which was anything but untroubled on
account of his status after 1933 as a ‘Mischling ersten Grades’ (E, 21),
it becomes evident in Erwachsenenspiele that ‘the games that adults
play’ are not always as harmless as the card games his parents
regularly enjoyed with friends:
Hier wird nicht gepokert, sondern Skat gespielt. Manchmal beteiligt
sich als vierter Mann aus der Nachbarschaft mein künftiger
Schwiegervater. Als ich seine Tochter heirate, ist er längst tot.
Gemütlich um den Tisch versammelt, rufen sie einander ‘Kontra’ und
‘Re’ zu, ‘Grand mit Vieren’ und ‘Passe’!
Inzwischen tagt die ‘Wannseekonferenz zur Endlösung der
Judenfrage’, mit deren Beschlüssen die fröhliche Skatrunde insgesamt
zu Verlierern wird. (E, 42)

We have already seen elsewhere – with Harig and de Bruyn, for

example – how some accounts of this period chillingly juxtapose
private and public events, thereby indicating the threat to unsuspecting
souls, and imbuing the texts with a dramatic tension and construction
redolent of fiction. That persecution did not cease with the defeat of
the Third Reich, but continued in an ever more refined, insidious
manner in the GDR is the stark truth that underpins
Erwachsenenspiele. Despite Kunert’s best efforts to preserve the
generally light-hearted tone with which he recounts his childhood
experiences, he is unable to prevent an understandable level of

Günter Kunert, Erwachsenenspiele: Erinnerungen (Munich: DTV, 1999). All
references to this text will appear in the form (E, 41).
182 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

bitterness and despair from permeating his autobiography in the

sections documenting life initially in the Soviet-occupied zone (SBZ)
and subsequently in the GDR. He objects to the fact that the Stasi’s
Operativer Vorgang (OV) against him was codenamed ‘Zyniker’, but
by the time of his Ausreise on 10 October 1979, his bitterness and
disillusionment about the GDR’s capacity to change was irrevocable:
‘Wir schütteln den besagten Staub von unseren Füßen’ (E, 445).
Erwachsenenspiele thus charts in detail the gradual frustration of one
man’s political beliefs.
In keeping with the reception of earlier autobiographical
accounts of life in the GDR, Erwachsenenspiele elicited a broadly
mixed response from reviewers, which would indeed support de
Bruyn’s contention in Das erzählte Ich that it was still too soon to
expect the definitive personal history of the GDR:
Noch sind die Erlebnisse zu nah, um die wesentlichen von den
unwesentlichen trennen zu können. Die politischen Zustände von
gestern sind noch nicht zur Historie geworden; die Flut der
Geschehnisse hat sich noch nicht zur Geschichte geformt. Man kennt
Daten und Fakten, ist sich aber über die Höhe- und Wendepunkte
nicht einig. Man weiß, wann die DDR endete, aber nicht wann und
wie das Ende begann. (EI, 59)

Although relating specifically to his own text, de Bruyn’s attempts to

moderate expectations do possess a much broader relevance. His own
Vierzig Jahre was greeted with noticeable disappointment in some
quarters that had been wildly enthusiastic about the earlier
Zwischenbilanz, and a similar pattern emerged in the reviews of
Erwachsenenspiele. As an author who had wrestled with the
authorities throughout his career before his emigration and had been
widely published in the West, but not in the East, Kunert’s
autobiography was eagerly anticipated. Surely, where de Bruyn had
been careful to pull his punches in typically diplomatic fashion,
Kunert would be eager to settle some scores? He had, after all, been a
far more abrasive intellectual than the reticent de Bruyn. Moreover,
having been resident in the West for a decade before the fall of the
Wall, and thus a distanced observer of the implosion of East Germany,
was Kunert not especially well placed to assess events with the
detachment that de Bruyn stressed was essential, but lacked himself?
When one considers that Kunert has been an exponent of
shorter literary forms – lyric poetry, Erzählungen, essays – it is
interesting to note the form of his autobiography, which just happens
to be the longest single volume in the present study. In the same way
that de Bruyn uses the key historical coordinates of 1949 and 1989 as
Günter Kunert 183

natural breaks in his account, since they represent undisputed ‘Höhe-

und Wendepunkte’, Kunert opts to concentrate solely on the first fifty
years of his life, culminating in his departure for West Germany in
1979. We do not learn, therefore, how he perceived the events of
1989. For an author who has only written one novel, Im Namen der
Hüte (1967), fifty years might appear to be a lot of ground to cover in
prose form. Rather than divide his material into the short, discrete
sections that one finds in Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre or Weh
dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, Kunert constructs an elongated narrative
that is, at times, breathless. His material is assembled in nine chapters
only, the breaks in which are only loosely predicated on historical
moments. It is testament to the engaging nature of Kunert’s style that
the structure works, simulating the rush of memories that confront the
autobiographer and giving the impression that his account is, perhaps,
less consciously constructed than others. The very fluidity of the text
might therefore be seen to reflect the author’s intent to render his
experiences more directly, without them having first been filtered,
weighed up or shaped in the manner of de Bruyn’s or Harig’s
autobiographies. The impression of immediacy is reinforced by
Kunert’s adoption throughout of the present tense, which itself mirrors
the autobiographer’s apparent reluctance to look back on events with
the wisdom of hindsight. It is as if he is caught up in the events and
being slept along. There are very few examples of the author imposing
on his narrative a retrospective interpretation of key moments and
thereby implying that he had recognised the historical importance of
events at the time. Certainly this rhetorical device of the dramatic
present is at its most effective during the earlier sections of
Erwachsenenspiele, where the narrator’s experiences underline the
precariousness of the situation in which he and his family found
themselves in Nazi Germany. In this way, then, the form of
Erwachsenenspiele and Kunert’s reluctance to impose himself too
much on the text might be seen to reflect not only the random process
by which memories are recalled, where one incident can spark a whole
chain of associations, but also the inability of the individual to attain
an overview of one’s own life as it unfolds.
In her rather disparaging review of Erwachsenenspiele,
Andrea Köhler is particularly bothered by her belief that Kunert’s
autobiographical account must be viewed as ‘das Zeugnis eines
Verrats am literarischen Ich’.2 She justifies this accusation with

Andrea Köhler, ‘Selbstporträt im Scheinwerferlicht. Diesseits des Erinnerns: Günter
Kunerts Erwachsenenspiele’, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 14 October 1997.
184 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

reference to a short piece written by Kunert in 1968, in which the

author muses on the difficulties of portraying oneself on paper. The
fact that, in Erwachsenenspiele, ‘das fremdelnde Ich aus dem Schatten
der Poesie herausgetreten [ist]’ is thus a source of great
disappointment to Köhler: ‘Alles wirft der Selbstbiograph über Bord,
was dem Dichter heilig war: das Wissen um “die Fremde, die man
selbst ist”, und das Bewusstsein von der Unzuverlässigkeit jeder
Erinnerung’.3 In the piece in question, ‘Selbstporträt im Gegenlicht’,
Kunert does indeed underline the problems inherent in any self-
Sich selbst darstellen: Paradoxie, denn wie schlüpft man unter das
eigene Gesicht, ohne sich vorher des eigenen Gesichtes als Maske
bewußt zu werden, das ja danach nicht länger mehr das eigene,
ursprüngliche Gesicht sein kann. Reflexion entfremdet es. (SE, 11)

As Kunert goes on to define literary self-portraiture as the

‘Verwandlung von DIN A4 Bogen in so etwas ähnliches wie einen
Menschen durch die Katalyse des Schreibens’ (SE, 12) [my
emphasis], implying clearly that such work could only ever be an
approximation of the individual, a construct, is Köhler not then correct
in her assertion that Erwachsenenspiele signals some kind of betrayal
of this earlier position?
Where Köhler’s argument loses force is in her failure to
examine the form of the narrative in Erwachsenenspiele. Kunert’s text
eschews the structural coherence of de Bruyn’s volumes, quite
deliberately it would seem. Although he splits his account into nine
chapters, these divisions are so loose, and at times almost arbitrary on
account of his avoidance of fixing the narrative with precise dates, that
he might just as well not have bothered with these divisions at all.
The lack of any clear structure in the ordering of the material reveals
his approach to be less than orthodox, acknowledging the qualified
nature of any attempt to render one’s life in written form. In this way,
the very structure of Erwachsenenspiele might in fact be seen to
support Köhler’s contention: ‘Wer kann da noch “ich” sagen, wo
selbst die Natur sich den Mächtigen unterwirft?’.5 Kunert does not
avoid the first-person pronoun as Wolf does in Kindheitsmuster, but
the hybrid nature of the material in Erwachsenenspiele, together with

‘Selbstporträt im Gegenlicht’, in Schatten entziffern: Lyrik, Prosa 1950-1994, ed. by
Jochen Richter (Leipzig: Reclam, 1995), pp. 11-13 (p. 11). All references to the
anthology will be in the form (SE, 11).
Günter Kunert 185

the consistent use of the present tense, problematises the degree of

interpretation and analysis that underpins more traditional literary
autobiographies. Where de Bruyn orders his material carefully around
key events, or muses upon the apparent coincidence of private and
public moments, Kunert tends to allow his memories a free rein, with
the result that his narrative comprises principally episodic sections,
rather than the more neatly rounded, seemingly more polished
anecdotes we see in Zwischenbilanz, for example. De Bruyn does
constantly question the accuracy of his memory, but admits to a
degree of literary licence in producing an accessible account for
readers. In many respects, Kunert appears less concerned with
accessibility; with the style and structure of Erwachsenenspiele
Kunert seems to be suggesting, even more forcefully than de Bruyn,
that one’s memories cannot be easily tamed or fully trusted. While
describing the first of several visits to Bulgaria, he readily concedes to
not being able to remember which memories relate to which trip:
Simone de Beauvoir schrieb einst, die Erinnerungen an ihre vielen
Reisen hätten sich überlagert, wo was wann sei ihr ungewiß
geworden. Mir geht es kaum anders. Mehrere Bulgarienreisen
vermischen sich zu einer einzigen, die Chronologie ist von einer
gefühlsmäßigen Folge abgelöst worden. (E, 231)

On occasion, the reader senses the same is true of other details that
Kunert seeks to recall; after all, why should this problem simply
pertain to trips abroad? In his study of autobiography, Eakin devotes
some time to the exploration of ‘neural Darwinism’ with its notion
that ‘memories are perceptions newly occurring in the present rather
than images stored in the past and somehow mysteriously recalled to
present consciousness’ and, accordingly, ‘“every recollection refers
not only to the remembered event or person or object but to the person
who is remembering”’ (HOL, 18-9). By its very form,
Erwachsenenspiele acknowledges this dynamic and is consequently
very much in keeping with the problems of getting inside one’s own
head Kunert had identified in ‘Selbstporträt im Gegenlicht’. If
Erwachsenenspiele appears at times a rather unreflective
autobiography, it can be attributed to the author’s attempt to minimise
the alienation that he believes accompanies any attempt to slip ‘unter
das eigene Gesicht’ (SE, 11). Nevertheless, as Kunert confesses,
producing a ‘Selbstporträt’ is a paradox, and Erwachsenenspiele is
inevitably founded on just such a contradiction. As much as he
eschews too much ‘Reflexion’ (SE, 11), Erwachsenenspiele does
contain isolated moments where the author allows himself the
186 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

opportunity to analyse with hindsight the significance of certain

narrated events. By so doing, he reveals both the constructed nature of
the narrative and the ultimately reflective motivation behind the
creation of the text, which represents, perhaps, a contradiction of his
apparent reservations about the accuracy and viability of the
autobiographical form. Yet in the short piece ‘Heimat’ from 1986,
Kunert had already admitted to an ambivalence about what the first-
person pronoun embodied. At the outset he suggests that ‘Ich zu
behaupten, Ich zu schreiben’ constitutes a breach of the ancient
‘Gebot der Bescheidenheit’:
Und zwar ohne vordem eine Legitimation für solche einsilbige
Subjektivität geliefert zu haben. Mit ‘Ich’ beginnen Geständnisse und
Bekenntnisse. Das Entblößerische eines derart unverfrorenen
Daherkommens zwingt den Leser oder Zuhörer in eine Intimität
hinein, die ihm peinlich sein muß. Jemand, der als erstes sein Ich in
die Waagschale wirft, hat wohl kaum mehr zu bieten als dieses.
Dennoch: Auch ich hebe auf diese fatale Weise an. Wohl weil, was
ich anmerken will, eben den besagten Geständnischarakter besitzt, und
so will ich es ungesäumt aussprechen: Ich gestehe. Ich bekenne. Ich
gebe zu, viele meiner Texte aus keinem anderen Grunde verfertigt zu
haben, als für diese kurze Weile des Schreibvorganges andernorts zu
sein, abwesend von den äußeren Umständen meiner Existenz. (SE, 46)
[original emphasis]

But writing does not only provide escapism for the narrator; it also has
an existential function which recalls Uwe Saeger’s situation: ‘Wo
sonst kann man denn eigentlich leben außer in Wörtern und Sätzen,
die den immer unbetretbaren Ort benennen?’ (SE, 47). With this
observation in mind, one might see Erwachsenenspiele as operating in
just this way, for the text is a construct – a Dichtung – allowing the
author to project himself back to a similarly ‘unbetretbaren Ort’,
namely the past. If confessions begin with ‘Ich’, then so too do
memories. Kunert’s text hardly constitutes the betrayal Köhler
believes, therefore, for it is simply a means ‘für diese kurze Weile des
Schreibvorganges andernorts zu sein’. The author is making no great
claims on behalf of his text, but is seeking merely to recreate an
impression of a past no longer accessible in any form other than

One might compare Kunert’s comments here with those of Uwe Saeger in the
‘Nach-Sätze’ to Die Nacht danach und der Morgen, in which he acknowledges ‘die
anrüchige Eitelkeit, mich als mein eigener Chronist bestellt zu haben’ (DN, 225), but
concedes to having done it anyway.
Günter Kunert 187

But Andrea Köhler was not the only reviewer to express

disappointment with Erwachsenenspiele. In by far the most critical
review of the text, the author Jan Faktor was troubled by this loose
style, and it was precisely the perceived absence of any reflection at
all that jarred:
Kunerts Buch fehlt aber noch mehr: Reflexion, Selbstbefragung. Und
es ist schon mehr als verwunderlich, wie blockiert er hier ist, daß er
seine essayistischen Fähigkeiten völlig brachliegen lassen muß. Er
erzählt, bechreibt, und erzählt – und versucht nicht zu bündeln, innere
Zusammenhänge zu verfolgen, versucht nicht einmal, die Ansichten
von damals mit denen von heute in Beziehung zu setzen. Ganze Teile
sind rein deskriptiv, lesen sich wie breit ausformulierte, trotzdem aber
nur stichpunktartige Tagebucheintragungen oder wie eine kleine
Chronik von – für die Familie wichtigen – Urlaubserlebnissen; also
wie Notizen, die als Erinnerungsstützen dienen sollten.

In Faktor’s view, rather than countering any sense of Entfremdung in

his text, Kunert had, on the contrary, merely exacerbated it by a
complete lack of engagement with his material. Although there are
sections which tally with Faktor’s observations as to the episodic,
diary-like quality of the text, such as the descriptions of the Kunerts’
visits abroad, there are crucial moments where the author does
intercede in his text from the narrative present, thereby establishing
the reflective process that Faktor wishes to see, but considers deficient
in Erwachsenenspiele. Whilst it is true that such authorial
interventions do not predominate in the narrative, it is misleading to
suggest they do not exist at all. Indeed, Kunert’s account of the
drafting of the petition in support of Wolf Biermann in November
1976 represents one of these rare, yet significant, departures from the
apparently unreflective narrative stance in Erwachsenenspiele,
suggesting that the text has not been assembled quite as randomly as it
might initially appear.
The description of the gathering of intellectuals at Stephan
Hermlin’s home, in itself a criminal act, is vividly relayed, and Kunert
makes it clear that everyone present was aware of the magnitude of
the undertaking:
Die Petenten sitzen in Hermlins Empfangsecke, hochgradig aufgeregt
und schon die Folgen solchen Tuns körperlich verspürend. Uns allen
ist bewußt, daß man uns kaum freundlich für den Protest gegen die
Ausbürgerung danken würde. Der Grad unserer Beunruhigung ist
individuell verschieden, doch sorglos ist keiner. […]

Jan Faktor, ‘Strapaziöse Affären. Oberflächenironie: Günter Kunerts
Erinnerungsband Erwachsenenspiele’, Freitag, 10 October 1997.
188 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Christa Wolf äußert Zukunftsvisionen, die insgesamt um Bautzen oder

sonstige Zuchthäuser kreisen. Das hebt nicht gerade die Stimmung.
Jeder von uns rechnet sowieso mit dem Schlimmsten. Jedes Gesicht
signalisiert den einen Gedanken: Das werden DIE nicht hinnehmen!
DIE werden Maßnahmen ergreifen! (E, 376)

On returning home, Kunert’s anxiety is so acute that he proceeds to

burn everything ‘was der Anklage als Indiz gegen uns nützen könnte’
(E, 378). Although his account underlines the genuine fear of the
signatories at the time, Kunert now appears rather dismissive of the
‘dürftigen Sätze’ (E, 383) of the document drawn up primarily by
Hermlin and Stefan Heym. He draws an ironic comparison of the
‘Unternehmen Hermlin’ (E, 379) with Guy Fawkes, remarking
dismissively: ‘Was für dürftige Verschwörer sind wir gewesen,
Freunde’ (E, 375). Yet, for all his criticism of the perceived timidity
of the intellectuals’ response, he does now consider Biermann’s
infamous concert in Cologne and its aftermath to have been the
beginning of the end for the GDR: ‘[…] Die gesamte DDR wird in
zwölf Stunden nicht mehr derselbe Staat sein. Diese
“Mitternachtsmesse”, obschon das noch keiner zu vermuten vermag,
läutet das Ende der DDR ein’ (E, 374-5). It is a view widely held
today, as the event represents one of the acknowledged
‘Wendepunkte’ of GDR history, but it acquires an added weight from
the fact that Kunert should share it, having been directly involved in
the petition and experienced the aftermath.
Another perceived failing of Erwachsenenspiele in Jan
Faktor’s eyes is that it contains ‘keine Anstrengung um Ehrlichkeit
vor sich selbst wie bei de Bruyn, kein unbedingtes Bemühen um
Genauigkeit’.8 Once again, while it is certainly true that Kunert does
not directly issue the same caveats about the reliability of his memory
that one finds in other texts in the present study – not least in
Zwischenbilanz – there are still many instances where he admits that
he is not entirely sure of the accuracy of his account. As we have
already seen, he is unable to separate out different memories of trips
abroad. During the drafting of the Biermann petition, he admits that he
had forgotten about some of the people who were present: ‘Als
Augenzeuge unterliege ich Ausblendungen wie die meisten
Augenzeugen’ (E, 376). On a number of occasions, Kunert confesses
that he tends to be better able to remember scenes rather than precise
dates – ‘Das Gedächtnis reproduziert Szenen, keine Daten’ (E, 410) –
and it is characteristic of Erwachsenenspiele, that the narrative is

Günter Kunert 189

seldom punctuated with precise historical coordinates. Moments that

are already accepted as significant for the GDR’s history – 1953,
1956, 1961, 1976 – all feature as they do in Vierzig Jahre, but like de
Bruyn, Kunert had no intention of producing a socio-political history
of East Germany. There also appears to be little ground to accuse
Kunert, as Faktor does, of a lack of ‘Selbstbefragung’. At several
points in the narrative, Kunert tries to recall how he felt or wonders
why he reacted as he did. He cannot remember, for instance, how he
and his wife felt after witnessing the Berlin Wall for the first time:
‘Worüber haben wir gesprochen? Wie ist uns zumute gewesen? Wohl
ziemlich übel’ (E, 218). The sense of disbelief at what they have seen
is palpable in Kunert’s inability to recall what they said. Similarly,
while contemplating the consequences of his involvement with the
petition, he observes: ‘Warum hole ich mir neuen Ärger an den Hals?
Habe ich aus meinen Erfahrungen nichts gelernt?’ (E, 376). There is
nothing heroic in this statement. It indicates instead the moral
obligation that critical intellectuals in the GDR such as Kunert felt,
which compelled them to react to the expulsion, regardless of the
likely consequences.
It is certainly true that the narrative reads, at various points,
rather like the author has been jotting memories down as he goes
along, thereby simulating the act of remembering, reflecting indeed
what Faktor refers to as the ‘stichpunktartige Tagebucheintragungen’.
Erwachsenenspiele thus appears at first glance to lack the same
detachment that one finds in de Bruyn’s autobiographical volumes,
alongside which Kunert’s text comes across as a more wilfully
subjective document. But the impression that Erwachsenenspiele is a
less constructed and composed text is deceptive. As de Bruyn remarks
in Das erzählte Ich, no autobiographer ‘kommt […] ohne das
Auswählen aus’: ‘Er muß, will er sein Leben erzählen, die großen und
kleinen Teilchen desselben sondern und wägen, Wichtiges von
Unwichtigem trennen, einen Aussonderungsprozeß also vollziehen’
(EI, 12-3). Although Kunert may have been less precise in his
selection than de Bruyn, eschewing the more aphoristic approach of
his contemporary, he must still have engaged in an
‘Ausssonderungsprozeß’ of his own to produce Erwachsenenspiele.
The clearest indication of his careful selection is evident in his
extensive use of documents from the period covered by his account,
which have the additional function of enhancing the authenticity of his
190 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Other texts in the present survey incorporate documents into

the autobiographical account, in order both to facilitate the
reconstruction of their lives and those of other significant people, as
well as to test the accuracy of what they are recounting. In particular,
Grete Weil’s Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben employs photographs
regularly throughout, and as the title of Monika Maron’s Pawels
Briefe indicates, the source material is derived principally from family
letters, as well as photographs, as the author seeks to add detail and
definition to the sketchy picture that she has of her grandparents in her
personal quest for a sense of her own self. In Erwachsenenspiele,
Kunert’s extensive use of extracts from his Stasi files, together with
critical reports and reviews on him and his work, have a slightly
different function. Rather than being employed to provide insight into
the author’s sense of self, such documents serve to contextualise his
life and experiences by indicating the extent to which the GDR sought
to monitor and control individuals, most particularly intellectuals, who
were perceived as a threat. As Wolfgang Emmerich explains:
Die Schriftsteller und ihre Werke waren kein Objekt des 1950
gegründeten Ministeriums für Staatssicherheit (MfS) von Anfang an.
Auch nachdem 1954 (als Konsequenz des 17. Juni 1953) eine
Hauptabteilung V (HA V), zuständig für die Überwachung im eigenen
Staate, gegründet wurde, stand die Literatur noch lange nicht im
Brennpunkt des geheimdienstlichen Interesses. Eine gewisse
Veränderung trat im Gefolge der vom Ungarnaufstand im Oktober
1956 ausgelösten Prozesse gegen Intelligenzangehörige und
Schriftsteller wie Walter Janka, Wolfgang Harich und Erich Loest

The precise nature of what Emmerich dubs, presumably with

calculated understatement, a ‘gewisse Veränderung’ is explored in
length in Erwachsenenspiele, and it provides one of the most striking
sections of the text. Kunert was himself a member of the so-called
‘Donnerstag-Club’, a diverse collection of intellectuals, inspired by
the spirit of reform sweeping through Hungary and united by the
‘Wunsch nach Veränderungen’ (E, 194): ‘Wir glauben ernstlich an
einen sozialistischen Frühling’ (E, 195). At the same time, Kunert was
involved with the periodical, Sonntag, the editors of which were
equally keen to tap into this new spirit of reform:
Dialoge, denen im ‘Donnerstag-Club’ gleich, dehnen die Redaktions-
konferenzen der Zeitschrift Sonntag. Die beiden Chefredakteure Heinz
Zöger und Gustav Just breiten ihre Pläne vor uns aus. Vorbild ist der

Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR, p. 63.
Günter Kunert 191

‘Petöfi-Club’ unter der Leitung von Georg Lukács – unsere Zeitschrift

muß ein Forum für die Liberalisierung.
Die Redaktion erläßt einen Aufruf an alle Schriftsteller: Man möge
doch jene Manuskripte einsenden, die entweder der Zensur zum Opfer
gefallen oder aus Vorsicht nirgendwo eingereicht worden sind. Heraus
aus den Schubladen mit den gewagten Texten! (E, 195-6)

The brutal suppression of the regime in Budapest brought with it an

equally swift, and decisive, response from the GDR regime against its
own perceived miscreants, and the ringleaders were arrested ‘als
Umstürzler, Verschwörer, Staatsfeinde’ (E, 198).
The fear unleashed both by the sudden crushing of any hopes
for liberalisation and shock at the severity of the sentences imposed on
the likes of Harich and Loest, reverberates through Kunert’s account.
Because of his affiliation with these perceived counter-revolutionaries,
Kunert inevitably came to the attention of the Stasi at this time, and
the constant presence of ‘der unsichtbare Dritte’ (E, 200) is reflected
in the regular extracts from his file which appear in the text from this
point onwards. Despite the banality of much of what is recorded
therein, the reports reveal the extent of the surveillance, representing
arguably the most invasive infringement of the private sphere of any
text here. In truth, that such banalities were recorded makes this
intrusion all the more unsavoury. Equally palpable is the debilitating
impact of this level of intimidation on the author:
Man ist auf der Hut und meidet ‘heiße’ Themen. Die Lage ist derart
hoffnungslos, daß sich ihre Erwähnung erübrigt. Mißtrauen grassiert,
und mich wundert, daß niemand an unsere Tür klopft, um mich über
meine Rolle während der Mitarbeit beim Sonntag zu befragen. Ich
ahne ja nicht, daß der unsichtbare Dritte längst dagewesen ist, ohne
daß etwas Auffälliges mich gewarnt hätte. Unter den guten Bekannten
und Fast-Freunden tummeln sich jene, die mir mit großer Verspätung
Vergessenes vermitteln. Wie in Briefen aus der Vergangenheit,
obschon sie keineswegs an mich addressiert sind, lese ich nun, in den
gestern noch geheimen Akten, wer und was ich in den Augen des
Großen Bruders gewesen bin […]. (E, 200)

That the files have enabled Kunert to plug lacunae in his memory
cannot but be seen as heartily ironic. Indeed, the author’s observations
underline just how he uses the documentation at his disposal in quite a
different manner from others. Rather than helping to sharpen the focus
of his self-portrait, the reports are deemed too unreliable or inaccurate
to be of any value in this regard. Picturing Erich Honecker approving
his exit permit, Kunert ponders: ‘Ob [Honecker] sich nach den
Hintergründen der Angelegenheit erkundigt hat? Was weiß er
überhaupt von mir? Vermutlich nur, was ihm Mielke vorlegt. Also gar
192 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

nichts’ (E, 440). These reports provide, instead, insight into both the
minds of those who worked for the Stasi and the system they served.
In this respect Erwachsenenspiele is akin to Reiner Kunze’s
Deckname Lyrik, the sole contents of which comprise documents
selected from the poet’s Stasi file.10 Jochen Hieber for one laments the
inclusion of such files in Erwachsenenspiele, for if Kunert’s ‘Methode
des ermüdenden Zitieren Schule machen [sollte] bei Selbstbiographen,
die zumindest einen Teil ihres Lebens in der DDR verbrachten, haben
wir noch viel schlechter Prosa zu erwarten’.11 Has Kunert survived
decades of persecution by the Stasi, he muses, ‘um nun nicht besser zu
schreiben als die Spitzel, die ihn denunzierten’.12 Indeed, Hieber is
particularly scathing of perceived deficiencies in Kunert’s use of
language, citing examples of grammatical errors and a perceived
preponderance of substantives throughout, all of which leads the critic
to conclude that Erwachsenenspiele is ‘eine mittlere Katastrophe’
Despite Hieber’s pedantic analysis, there is little evidence to
support his contention that Kunert’s prose has become infected by his
exposure to his Stasi files. Is it not possible to see the intermittent
looseness of the author’s syntax as an idiosyncratic expression of
individuality, akin to the liberal – at times anarchic – linguistic
aesthetic of the Prenzlauer Berg poets? One must surely allow a lyric
poet of Kunert’s stature a measure of poetic licence, if for no other
reason than that it undercuts the torturous, stilted prose style of the
Stasi that features increasingly in Erwachsenenspiele. There is an
undeniable quirkiness to Kunert’s style in the text, established from
the very outset and maintained throughout. It recalls not only the best
of his creative work, in which the role and form of language is a
central concern, but crucially is a reflection of Kunert’s sense of self,
of his individuality. As Peter Smith remarks, Erwachsenenspiele
conveys the picture of a ‘stubborn individualist’, and nowhere is this
identity more clearly defined than in the text’s highly idiosyncratic

Reiner Kunze, Deckname ‘Lyrik’: Eine Dokumentation (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer,
Jochen Hieber, ‘Anthrazit und Eierschale. Erwachsenenspiele: Günter Kunert hat
seine Erinnerungen geschrieben’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 October 1997.
Peter D. Smith, ‘Once a dissident…’, Times Literary Supplement, 17 July 1998, p.
Günter Kunert 193

While it undoubtedly lacks the coherent structure one finds in

de Bruyn’s autobiographies, for example, which imbues those
particular volumes with greater narrative objectivity and consequently
a more novelistic quality, Erwachsenenspiele displays instead a
greater sense of freedom, as the narrative flows from one episode to
the next, in breathless fashion at times. That the material is allowed
much more of a free rein in terms of style and structure affords the
readers an insight into Kunert’s personality and his sense of self. It
comes as no surprise that the author of Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig
Jahre is an author who established a reputation as a reflective figure,
who preferred to maintain as safe a distance as possible from the
ideological concerns of the GDR; conversely, the author of
Erwachsenenspiele was a far more impulsive and committed
individual, who, as a convinced Communist, belonged to the SED, but
became embroiled in a series of controversies. Where de Bruyn
emerges in his depiction of his childhood as an anxious boy who was
relatively sheltered by his family and their status as Catholics in
Protestant Berlin, Kunert, by stark contrast, displays a reckless nature,
in spite of his precarious status as a Halbjude, which leads him into
various potentially fatal scrapes. In any other context, the impish
antics of the young Kunert would simply be interpreted as typical
behaviour for boys of that age; that the backdrop for these episodes is
Berlin in the grip of National Socialism lends the episodes a decidedly
picaresque quality, which is enhanced significantly by the jaunty
narrative style employed to relate them.
The young Kunert is both precocious and rebellious, who
loathes the ‘Purgatorium preußischer Provenienz’ of school: ‘Da wird
geprügelt und geohrfeigt, gebrüllt und geschlagen, gehöhnt und
erniedrigt’ (E, 19). On the few occasions when he does attend, it
becomes clear that he does not fit in, despite his half-hearted attempts
to do so: ‘Der Instinkt meiner Mitschüler verrät ihnen, daß ich mich
bloß in Mimikry übe. Sie nehmen mich nicht an, und ich lege keinen
Wert auf ihre Akzeptanz, und das wiederum spüren sie deutlich’ (E,
20). On account of his voracious reading at home, he alone knows that
the poem, ‘Die Loreley’, purportedly written by an unknown poet, is
in fact by Heine. That he knows the true identity of the poet underlines
his status as an outsider: ‘Der Unbekannte ist einer von uns’ (E, 21).
As with Ruth Klüger, it is a role he is quite proud of. Although
unaware at this stage of the potentially dangerous situation he finds
himself in, Kunert’s exclusion from certain activities, such as religion
classes, has already marked him for life: ‘Ich bin ja durch eine
194 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Bezeichnung stigmatisiert, welche mir vierzig Jahre später, obschon

aus anderen Gründen, noch einmal als Markenzeichen verliehen
werden wird: “Dissident”’ (E, 20).
His absence from school allows him to indulge his strong
passion for reading, art and for the female form. A magazine
containing pictures of French nudes captivates Kunert, until it is
discovered by his mother and flushed down the toilet. Undeterred, he
transfers his affections to an array of film actresses, such as Karin
Himboldt: ‘Eine blonde Fee von sanftem Typus, und ich kaufe mir
sofort eine Künstlerpostkarte meiner Abgöttin und trage sie in der
linken inneren Brusttasche direkt über meinem Herzen’ (E, 55).
Unsurprisingly, Kunert’s appreciation of the feminine charms brings
about early sexual exploration, commencing with the girl who sells
newspapers opposite their house and whose sudden evolution into a
young woman entrances him: ‘Wie bringt man in so kurzer Zeit einen
derart auffälligen Busen zustande?’ (E, 64-5). He invites the girl to
visit the ruins of their recently bombed flat, and threatens to blow
them up with a piece of shell-casing if she refuses to sleep with him:
Wir beide wissen, das Geschoß […] kann gar nicht explodieren. Doch
meine Gefangene spielt mit, entkleidet sich mit verdächtiger
Geschwindingkeit und begibt sich umstandslos aufs Bett, damit ich
meine geringen anatomischen Kenntnisse vervollständigen kann. Ich
folge zitternd. Und muß von der Theorie zur Praxis übergehen. Nichts
ist komplizierter, wie man weiß. Theoretisch beherrscht man alles
Erforderliche, doch bei der Praxis ergibt sich oftmals
Unvorhersehbares, mit dem man nicht rechnet. Ehe ich zur Besinnung
und zum Bewußtsein meines Tuns komme, ist dieses Tun bereits
vorbei. Der Abschied an der Haustür schließt zwar eine neue
Verabredung mit ein, doch niemals mehr begegne ich der gutwilligen
Rothaarigen. (E, 65)

Kunert is not too perturbed by this disappointingly brief encounter, as

there are to be a string of other women, such as the young woman in
the air-raid shelter, whom he is caressing when news of Hitler’s death
reaches them, and two fiancées, the second of whom he locks in a
room when he meets his future wife at a New Year’s Eve party in
1950. Marianne Kunert’s importance to the author as an indispensable
source of support and encouragement subsequently becomes a major
element of Erwachsenenspiele.
Kunert’s roguish, reckless behaviour is not only evidenced by
the machinations that characterise his love life. His passion for the
cinema, especially for glamorous actresses – ‘Damen aus Schatten und
Licht’ –, proves irresistible: ‘Magisch, magnetisch und manisch
angezogen, schleiche ich mich in die Kinos, wo ich in
Günter Kunert 195

weichgepolsterte Klappsitze einsinke, der Aktricen gewärtig. Darum

verlocken mich die “nicht jugendfreien” Filme ganz besonders’ (E,
54). Kunert’s strategy of puffing on a cigar and effecting a deep voice
at the box office brings him considerable success, but it is almost
pyrrhic in nature, revealing the dangers of life in the Third Reich.
Having survived one narrow escape, he is eventually caught by a
Hitler Youth patrol leader in the cinema:
Nachdem ich [dem Oberhitlerjugendführer] meine Herkunft
gebeichtet habe, kommt die rhetorische Frage: ‘Du willst wohl nach
Osten geschickt werden!?’ Das klingt kaum nach einer Einladung zu
einer Vergnügungsreise. Meine Taschen muß ich ausleeren, den Inhalt
auf seinem Schreibtisch ausbreiten. Außer einem Zigarettenetui
besitze ich nichts Belastendes. Das Etui wird beschlagnahmt: ‘Du
weißt doch, daß Jugendlichen das Rauchen verboten ist!’ (E, 69)

More terrifyingly still, a Gestapo man later catches Kunert issuing a

rather foolhardy defence of the American bombing of Berlin in the
air-raid shelter. Kunert is interrogated in a neighbouring pub, the
occupants of which ‘sind allesamt Doppelgänger des Mannes hinter
Ledermäntel en masse. Offensichtlich ein heiterer Abend unter
Gestapobeamten. Mir wird kaum Interesse zuteil, während mein böser
Geist sein Notizbuch hervorkramt, um mit genießerischer oder nur
alkoholbedingter Langsamkeit die Personendaten des Eingefangenen
festzuhalten. (E, 71)

Managing to convince the interrogator of his regret at an ill-judged

comment, Kunert escapes simply with a warning, the inherent threat
of which, however, meant that he has never forgotten it: ‘“Du hörst
von uns!”’(E, 71). When one considers how fragile his family’s
existence was at the time, Kunert’s apparent audacity seems wholly
irresponsible. Yet, the author does not seek to portray his actions as
heroic in any way, self-critically acknowledging instead that his
‘Unvernunft’ could have had tragic consequences:
Die Ankündigung eines Nachspiels schleppe ich die nächsten Wochen
mit mir herum. Sobald mir der böse Geist einfällt, meldet sich mein
Magen und eine sinnlose Reue und Selbstbezichtigung: Wie konntest
du nur so leichtsinnig sein!? (E, 72)

And yet, the impishness of the narrative conveys an inherent sense of

triumph at having resisted the pressure to conform, indeed, at having
continued to play the role of the dissident. In the more sober passages

This incident echoes a similar experience for Ruth Klüger. See Chapter 3.
196 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

that follow in the later sections of his account dealing with the GDR,
there is evidence of this same nonconformity despite the different, yet
very real, threat imposed on him by the State and the anxiety his
provocative attitude inevitably induces. He appears not to have learnt
any lessons at all from his close encounter with the Gestapo.
To ensure that the depiction of his experiences of life under
the Nazis acquires no heroic sheen, Kunert provides a telling self-
definition of himself at this time: ‘Ich bin ein Nachfahre des
Simplicius Simplicissimus. Einer, der dank seiner überwältigenden
Naivität fast unangefochten durch die Schrecken und
Scheußlichkeiten praktizierter Historie schlendert’ (E, 57). Although
this description holds true for the early sections of Erwachsenenspiele,
there is little doubt that the Kunert who inhabits the GDR is a very
different individual, no longer protected by innocence. As a
consequence, the author’s jauntiness is gradually eroded as he begins
to realise the extent of the GDR’s moral and political bankruptcy. The
natural impishness of the young boy is replaced in the older man by a
necessarily more concerted, yet problematic, effort to retain an
irreverent attitude to life, with the result that the narrative tone of the
sections dealing with the GDR succeeds only in underlining the
increasing dichotomy between what Kunert says and how he says it.
The tension is revealed in the greater bitterness of the narrative at key
moments. Hieber may object to the prevalence of secondary
information from Stasi sources, but the presence of extracts from these
files increasingly reflect the relentless pressure to which Kunert was
subjected and under which it was hard to retain a sense of innocence.
It is inevitable that the author’s perspective should grow more
That is not to say that impishness is expunged completely
from the narrative in the sections dealing with the post-war period, but
it is increasingly tempered by the socio-political context. This more
nuanced approach is evident in Kunert’s gently irreverent portraits of
influential literati such as Johannes R. Becher and Bertolt Brecht.
Whilst their achievements as cultural figures are not denigrated,
Kunert is equally careful to avoid subscribing to any hagiographical
agenda. He uncovers their foibles without malicious intent, but is
careful to moderate his portraits with self-effacing descriptions of his
own idiosyncracies.
Becher acted as the young poet’s first patron and wrote of him
in his diaries: ‘Ein junger Mensch hat mir seine Gedichte geschickt
und sie sind begabt. […] Er ist ein aufmerksamer und talentierter
Günter Kunert 197

Schüler, und wir hoffen, ein fleißiger auch”’ (E, 133-4). While
praising Kunert’s work, Becher was less impressed by the young
man’s appearance: ‘“Schlecht gekleidet, beinahe grotesk schlecht, mit
eckigen verlegenen Bewegungen, ein verhungertes Vogelgesicht”’ (E,
134-5). For his part, ‘der begabte “Grashupfer”’ (E, 135) expresses his
gratitude for the great man’s patronage, but it did not prevent him
from a critical appraisal of Becher and his work:
Bechers blasser Klassizismus behagt mir nicht. Alles Routine,
Klischee und Schematismus, wie es mir vorkommt, ohne das durchaus
Gelungene wahrzunehmen. Man kann nicht Dichter der Nation und
Kulturfunktionär in Personalunion sein. Ostberlin ist nicht Weimar
und Walter Ulbricht kein Karl August. Eine beklagenswerte Gestalt,
ein Schicksal, wie es deutscher wohl nicht sein kann, zerrieben
zwischen ideellem Anspruch und machthungrigem Ehrgeiz. (E, 134)

Kunert was an unwitting pawn in Becher’s ‘kulturpolitische Fehde

innerhalb des Parteiapparates’ (E, 135), becoming embroiled in a row
with the literary editor of Neues Deutschland about formalism at his
patron’s behest. By the same token, Kunert admits that he was
protected on more than one occasion by Becher’s support of him, and
signalled his gratitude by writing the screenplay for the dead poet’s
autobiographical novel, Abschied, at the request of Becher’s widow.
Kunert’s ‘lockere Bekanntschft’ (E, 169) with Brecht is
similarly depicted. Despite not having been especially influenced by
Brecht either, the usually brash Kunert was sufficiently terrified of
meeting him that he drank a small bottle of vodka beforehand ‘zur
psychischen Stärkung’ (E, 138). Kunert’s portrait of Brecht verges on
caricature, illustrating his ‘verzwickten Familienverhältnisse’ (E,
138), his tendency to throw himself into activities ‘deren Scheitern
vorauszusehen gewesen wäre’ (E, 165) and his cavalier driving:
Brecht löst die Hände vom Lenkrad und knotet sich den Schal fester
um den Hals, mich aus den Augenwinkeln aufmerksam musternd. Der
Wagen läuft ungelenkt schnurgeradeaus. Ich muß wohl die erwartete
Miene machen, denn ich höre die von Stolz getragene Äußerung: ‘Ja,
Autofahren ist das einzige, was ich wirklich kann!’ (E, 163)

Such irreverence is underpinned by a clear appreciation of the man’s

literary talent. Kunert is excited by Brecht’s original documents of the
‘Kriegsfibel’, comprising newspaper photographs with four-line
poems appended, and happily allows himself to be used as go-between
in the resultant publication negotiations. Brecht also shows him a
sonnet cycle, with each poem dedicated ironically to Thomas Mann,
who had sought to prevent Brecht’s immigration into the United
States, ‘indem er eine Warnung ans State Department sandte: Den
198 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Kommunisten Brecht nicht einreisen lassen!’ (E, 167). Kunert laments

that ‘diese zotigen Vergnüglichkeiten unter Verschluß bleiben’ (E,
167), but concedes that no publisher would ever have dared touch
them. Kunert also expresses his gratitude for the advice he received.
Brecht proves himself a valuable critic of Kunert’s poetry, advocating
ever greater concision: ‘[Er] streicht, kritzelt kaum Leserliches an den
Rand. “Hier – das ist zu lang. Kürzer, kürzer, alles Überflüssige muß
weg”’ (E, 165). Yet, in many respects, Brecht’s most significant
contribution to Kunert’s career was to support the latter’s acquisition
of a typewriter, that at that time was ‘keineswegs umstandlos
erwerbbar’ (E, 164). Kunert’s debt of gratitude to Brecht permeates
the moving description of their last meeting:
Zum letzten Mal vor seinem Tode besuche ich ihn in Buckow bei
Berlin. Er zeigt ein verändertes, fremdes Gesicht, leicht gedunsen von
den verordneten Medikamenten. Da sitzt er an einem Gartentisch, ein
Kind auf dem Schoß, ein kleines Mädchen […]. Hohe Bäume
ringsum, leichter Wind, Rascheln und Rauschen in den Zweigen, eine
Idylle zum Schluß, ein Genrebildchen aus dem 19. Jahrhundert und
für Brecht völlig unpassend. Er beugt sich zu dem Kind und weist mit
ausgestrecktem Finger hinaus in die Wipfel:
‘Siehst du, wie der Wind mit den Bäumen arbeitet?’
Das ist, jedenfalls für mich, sein letztes Wort, sein Abschiedssatz. (E,

Having been slightly critical of Brecht’s predilection for

‘Zitierfähiges, Prägnantes, Spruchartiges’ (E, 165), Kunert rather
poignantly chooses to set just such a poetic epitaph to his memory.
It is at the inaugural ‘Schriftstellerlehrgang’ (E, 139) that we
see Kunert at his most mischievous in the GDR, although the
acrimonious conclusion of that experience anticipates the problems he
would later encounter. Kunert and his partner in crime, Erich Loest,
seek to alleviate the tedium of the course ‘mit infantilem Unfug’: ‘Wir
geistern nachts durch die Gänge, leuchten mit einer Taschenlampe
aufschreckenden Referenten ins Gesicht und können uns vor Übermut
kaum lassen’ (E, 141). They delight in ruffling the feathers of the
‘Thüringer Mafia’, a group comprising the conformist authors Armin
Müller, Walter Stranka und Harry Thürk, ‘strenge Dogmatiker und
ganz gewiß mit der Parteileitung des Unternehmens im Bruderbunde’
(E, 140). In particular, they tease one participant, a girl ‘deren
primäres und eindeutig einziges Talent darin besteht, die Mehrheit der
männlichen Tagungsteilnehmer in ihr Bett zu locken’ (E, 141). When
the girl complains about their antics, the miscreants are compelled to
explain themselves in front of a tribunal – an early example of what
Günter Kunert 199

was to become a recurrent feature of Kunert’s career – at which the

accuser is ‘würdig gekleidet: im Blauhemd der FDJ’ (E, 142). Barely
able to stomach such hypocrisy, Kunert nevertheless plays along with
the whole performance: ‘Ich, der Gestrauchelte, zeige überzeugend
Reue und Einsicht. Dabei würde ich lieber vor versammelter
Mannschaft kotzen’ (E, 142). Significantly, it is the first and last time
that Kunert conforms to the ritualistic self-criticism demanded on such
occasions in the GDR. Inevitably, the author lands in more hot water
as a result of a caricature he draws of Kuba (Kurt Barthel), whom he
finds particularly odious, as well as the revue he composes with his
like-minded colleagues, which represents ‘die Gelegenheit für uns, die
Thüringer aufs Korn zu nehmen’ (E, 144). However, the vehemence
of the response stuns everyone:
Heiligste Güter sind angetastet worden, an Tabus gerührt – wir haben
den Bogen überspannt.
Armin Müller erhebt sich und erklärt, nein, verlautbart, sich an mich
‘Du gehörst ins Lager!’
Habe ich das richtig gehört? (E, 144)

Kunert protests furiously at this over-reaction, but is more angered

‘über das Schweigen der Gesamtheit, das ich nur als Zustimmung
werten kann’ (E, 144). The episode foreshadows the tribunal nearly
thirty years later at which Kunert is expelled from the SED – the
inevitability of which is inherent in the description of the writers’
course – where the author again remarks with disdain: ‘Die Majorität,
wie vorherzusehen, folgte willig ihren Hirten’ (E, 400). Thus the
experience of the course, on the one hand, was a salutary one for the
young author, providing his first exposure to the dogmatic attitudes
with which he would have to contend from that point forward.
Conversely, and more worryingly, it also gave an indication of how
disobedience might be dealt with: ‘Daß man Gegensätze und
Gegnerschaften mittels simpler Gewalt aus der Welt schafft, haben sie
von Hitler gelernt, den Lehrmeister vergessen, doch die Lehre
behalten’ (E, 144).
Such sober punctuations of the hitherto predominantly impish
narrative become increasingly prevalent in Erwachsenenspiele as
Kunert becomes mired in the pettiness, inflexibility and mundanity of
the GDR. He employs an array of euphemistic expressions and
epithets to underline the suffocating atmosphere that prevails and is in
his opinion redolent of the ‘Mittelalter’ (E, 408). Thus the GDR is
200 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

described variously as ‘das sozialistische Narrenparadies’ (E, 356) and

as an ‘armes sächsisches Preußen’ (E, 405), where an ‘Eiszeit
herrscht’ (E, 298). The State’s doctrinaire servants, and the various
organisations they serve, naturally do not escape ridicule. The
Politbüro is dubbed ‘der Rat der Unsterblichen’ (E, 373), its chairman
is ‘der kleine saarländische Trompete’ (E, 439), and the Party as a
whole is referred to as the ‘Club der toten Seele’ (E, 370). In the
cultural sphere, Kunert’s contempt for the leading figures in the
Schriftstellerverband is inherent in his dismissal of the likes of Roland
Bauer and Hermann Kant as belonging to the ‘Clan der Cosa Nostra’
(E, 396). In truth, these euphemisms no longer appear impish, but
mirthless and bitter, for the general tone of the narrative by this stage
lacks the coruscating moments of the earlier sections as the experience
of GDR life increasingly wears Kunert down. Any wit has been
tempered by the cold chill of the socio-political context, with the
result that these epithets simply point up how Kunert’s erstwhile
carefree demeanour has been steadily eroded by growing frustration
and despair at the pettiness and dogmatic nature of his surroundings.
The turning-point in the narrative, the point at which the more
carefree elements become fewer and farther between, is the repression
of the supposed counter-revolutionaries in 1956. While critics such as
Hieber object to the author’s use of his Stasi files in
Erwachsenenspiele, they serve an important structural purpose over
and above any documentary import. By dislocating the hitherto easy
flow of the text and introducing a less accessible literary register into
the narrative, these interpolations increasingly overwhelm Kunert’s
natural idiom. Moreover, the intrusion of the overwrought
bureaucratic language of surveillance into the text reflects the
unrelenting violation of Kunert’s private sphere by the Stasi from
1956 onwards. As a result, one acquires a sense of Kunert’s genuine
dismay and disbelief on learning just how extensively the State
endeavoured to monitor his activities, and the lengths to which it
would go to secure information. That bitterness should become an
increasing feature of the text is only to be expected.
But what does this say about the depiction of totalitarianism in
Erwachsenenspiele? Can Kunert be accused of having trivialised the
Holocaust and the oppression of National Socialism, while
demonising the GDR disproportionately? In truth, by illustrating the
different nature of the persecution he was subjected to Kunert is
careful not to equate the two regimes that victimised him. What does
emerge is his deep disenchantment that the socialist GDR with its
Günter Kunert 201

antifascist legitimacy succeeded only in replacing one system of

oppression with another, as the incident at the writers’ course
appeared to confirm at a relatively early stage.
The picaresque dimension of Kunert’s description of life as a
young boy in Berlin does nothing to undermine the very real danger
that faced his family. If anything, the precariousness of their existence
is brought out much more by the narrative tone, which simultaneously
evinces the incredible spirit of resistance that existed. It is ironic that
Kunert should harbour severe reservations about Anna Seghers’s Das
siebte Kreuz, when his own account displays the self-same
indomitable spirit that the novel suggested would ultimately defeat the
Was für wackere Deutsche, die dem KZ-Flüchtling in die Freiheit
jenseits der Reichsgrenze verhelfen! Diese selbstlosen und mutigen
Menschen hätten mir doch vor Kriegsende unbedingt auffallen
müssen. Meine Erfahrungen widersprechen der Segherschen Fiktion,
und in meinem Ohren hallt die x-mal vernommene, larmoyante Frage
nach: ‘Was hätten wir denn tun sollen?’ Der Erfolg des Romans
beruht ja gerade auf der Konstruktion eines Märchens. Man bebt mit
dem gejagten Helden und ist sich von Anfang an sicher, daß ihm ein
glückliches Ende, eben die Freiheit, vorbestimmt ist. (E, 120)

When one considers the threat that Kunert experienced in Berlin, it is

easy to appreciate why he should be somewhat sceptical of the
inevitability of the protagonist’s escape in Segher’s novel. Many of
Kunert’s family were not so lucky; the only inevitability was that they
were doomed. His grandfather was deported to Theresienstadt in
Das Unternehmen, wie jedes seiner Art, trägt die heuchlerische
Bezeichnung ‘Evakuierung’. Die Endstation Theresienstadt gilt als
Gnadenerweis für ‘arisch’ Versippte, für ‘Geltungsjuden’, für
‘Priviligierte’ – das Todesurteil mit Verzögerungseffekt. (E, 49)

Despite the euphemisms that shrouded the process, his grandfather

was under no illusions as to his fate, giving his grandson his beard
comb as a present: ‘Daß der alte gepflegte Mann, er ist
zweiundsiebzig, darauf verzichtet, signalisiert seine
Hoffnungslosigkeit’ (E, 48). By contrast, and as an indication of the
ignorance of many Jews, Kunert’s uncle reports voluntarily to the
Gestapo, confident that his American roots would protect him:

It is interesting to note Ruth Klüger’s similarly dismissive attitude to the novel. See
Chapter 3.
202 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Mein Onkel glaubt, als Abkömmling von Amerikanern eine

Sonderbehandlung verlangen zu können, ahnungslos, daß dieser
Begriff bereits zum Euphemismus für Mord geworden ist. Als er von
der Gestapo nicht wiederkommt, gibt es keine Zweifel mehr. Und weil
Cilly eine getreue Ehefrau ist, meldet sie sich freiwillig bei der
Gestapoleitselle. Und weil in Deutschland Ordnung herrscht, erhält sie
– nachem mein Onkel zu Nummer 1282 geworden ist – die
anschließende: 1283. Beide verschwinden mit ‘Welle 47, 33.
Osttransport v. 3.3.43’ aus meinem und ihrem Leben. Sie lassen ein
zartes Abbild im Kopf eins [sic] Knaben zurück, der drei Tage nach
ihrem Abtransport seinen vierzehnten Geburtstag begehen soll –
zwangsläufig im engsten Familienkreis. (E, 48)

Kunert achieves a poignant depiction of the way in which the circle of

family and friends dwindles, and how as a consequence his family
endeavoured to remain ‘auffällig unauffällig’ (E, 51).
Although Kunert and his mother were technically protected by
his father’s Aryan status, there was always the danger that this special
dispensation could be revoked at any time, and the narrative conveys
to great effect the anxiety and fragility of existence in a climate
governed by chance and unpredictability. A small and ever decreasing
network of friends was formed to provide sanctuary for those
threatened by ‘Judenaktionen’ (E, 52). Mysterious telephone calls
with coded warnings would signal the onset of deportations, and the
Kunerts kept a small suitcase packed ready for just such an
eventuality. Kunert wonders who the ‘geheimnisvoller Anrufer’ (E,
52) might be, and concludes that it was possibly a good acquaintance,
‘Sohn einer ebenfalls “gemischten” Familie’ (E, 52). But the source of
his information remains unclear, although Kunert speculates that it
may have come from the man’s girlfriend. Stella only visited the
Kunerts once, but she made a lasting impression on the author.
However, Kunert now suspects that her ‘strahlende Schönheit, bei
deren Anblick es mir die Worte verschlägt’ (E, 53) concealed a
potentially more deadly truth, which would explain why she would
have had access to information about Nazi raids:
Die Person und ihr Vorname decken sich hundertprozentig: Stella.
Doch der Stern ist, wie ich nach Kriegsende erfahre, Greiferin der
Gestapo, spürt untergetauchte Juden auf, um sie den Deporteuren
auszuliefern. Gefoltert und mit dem nicht eingehaltenen Versprechen
geködert, ihre Eltern zu verschonen, versorgt sie Auschwitz mit
einigen hundert Opfern. […]
Daß Stella vielleicht einige Leute zu schützen suchte, paßt ins
Psychogramm von Untätern. Im defekten Gewissen soll eine gute Tat
die zahllosen üblen aufwiegen. Und mit einiger Verdrängungskunst
gelingt das fast jedem. (E, 53)
Günter Kunert 203

That danger lurked even within such a tight-knit private circle, and
from such an apparently incongruous source, merely underlines how
precariously the Kunerts lived through the Third Reich. Without
doubt, it also explains why Kunert should consider the role of
Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter so morally reprehensible. Although the
consequences of such deceptive infiltration in the GDR were in no
way as deadly, the violation of the private sphere was no less
malicious in its intent.
How does one deal with such a personal tragedy? Kunert
portrays, with considerable pathos, his mother’s daily vigil on the
balcony in the immediate postwar period, gazing for hours on end at
the street:
Sie wartet auf Angehörige. Auf ihren Vater, ob er, den Rucksack auf
dem Rücken, den Homburger auf dem weißen Haar, nicht von seinem
Aufenthalt in Theresienstadt zurückkommt. Der Bruder, die
Schwägerin, die Cousinen und Cousins, Verwandte und Bekannte,
ach, irgendwer, so glaubt sie, muß doch auftauchen. Ein Glaube, trotz
der Zeitungsfotos von den Leichenbergen, trotz der Berichte und
Aussagen Überlebender im Funk, trotz der Dokumente, trotz des
‘Nürnberger Prozesses’, trotz der Wochenschaubilder in den Kinos.
Aber wir reden nie davon. (E, 97)

Where once his family had deliberately avoided confronting the

reality, and ramifications, of the Holocaust as much as possible,
Kunert illustrates in Erwachsenenspiele his retrospective sense of
responsibility to commemorate those who died:
Ich will ja, daß unvergessen sei, was an den Schandplätzen Menschen
von Menschen angetan worden ist. So werde ich über den Spielberg in
Brünn schreiben, das k.u.k. Völkergefängnis, später Gestapo-Kerker.
Über das Anne-Frank-Haus in Amsterdam, über Westerbork, das
Sammellager holländischer Juden vor ihrer Deportation. Über Dachau.
Über Buchenwald. Über Theresienstadt. Über Plötzensee. […] (E,

On account of these visits to sites of former concentration camps such

as Mauthausen and Stutthof, Kunert becomes a ‘literarische[r]
Denkmalspfleger, da ich über das Gesehene schreibe’ (E, 244).
Readers familiar with Kunert’s work will doubtless be unsurprised to
learn of the personal motivation behind the writer’s commitment to
commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. His visits to the sites of
Nazi horror confront him with his good fortune at having survived
National Socialism unscathed. Recalling the pile of thousands of
decaying childrens’ shoes at Stutthof, he remarks: ‘Daß nicht auch
meine eigenen Schuhe hier oder an gleichartigem Ort verrotten, war
204 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Zufall und ist mein Schicksal geworden’ (E, 282). In his Nachwort to
Schatten entziffern, Jochen Richter describes the personal impact of
the Holocaust on Kunert as ‘ein Grunderlebnis’ that recurs in his
work, especially in his use of ‘die in der Lyrik heraufbeschworenen
Metaphern von Rauch und Asche’ which ‘halten uns Diesseits des
Erinnerns, wenden sich gegen unsere Vergeßlichkeit, unser
The self-imposed moral obligation to bear witness to the
Holocaust, to write ‘“Gegen das Vergessen”, wie eine Phrase die
deutsche Verdrängungskunst aufzuheben meint’ (E, 244), is one he
shares with Grete Weil and Ruth Klüger, key aspects of whose own
accounts tally with Erwachsenenspiele. Weil has been described as a
‘Zeugin des Schmerzes’, a term which holds equally true of Klüger,
the only one of the three to have been interned by the Nazis.18 It is
surely no coincidence that in contemplating their imperative to record
their varied experiences of persecution, all three of these authors
should allude to the tragic fate of authors such as Primo Levi, Paul
Celan and Jean Améry, who survived concentration camps only to
commit suicide much later.19 Kunert maintained a correspondence
with Améry, the titles of some of whose publications seem to intimate
all too clearly now the insufferable burden of the Holocaust survivor,
and he was devastated by news of the Austrian’s suicide in Salzburg
in 1978:
Es ist der Selbstmord eines überlebenden Opfers, wie der Selbstmord
Peter Szondis und Primo Levis und Paul Celans. Auch wenn sie
Auschwitz und ähnliche Stätten überstanden hatten – was sie gesehen,
erlitten und verloren, ließ sich nicht mehr ausgleichen. Sie zogen sich
zurück in die Finsternis.
Ein Tag, an dem man nicht schreiben kann. (E, 352)

He may not have been able to write on that day, but there seems little
doubt that Améry’s death merely steeled Kunert’s resolve to combat
any tendency towards amnesia.
That the GDR had, at best, an ambivalent attitude to the
persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich imbued Kunert’s personal
motivation to tackle the past with a public dimension. His stance was
in no way unique, as Wolfgang Emmerich points out, citing Jurek

Jochen Richter, ‘Nachwort’ in Schatten entziffern, pp. 238-47 (p. 238).
Exner, p. 110. Interestingly, Exner also defines Weil’s work as the attempt to write
‘gegen das Vergessen’. See p. 68.
As we have seen in Chapter 3, Klüger argues vigorously that Levi’s death was, in
fact, a tragic accident.
Günter Kunert 205

Becker’s work - not least his début novel, Jakob der Lügner (1969) -
as a prime example of attempts to reactivate the debate about the Nazi
past.20 Emmerich quotes an interview with Stephan Hermlin – another
prominent figure in Kunert’s autobiography – in which he laments the
elevation of all GDR citiziens to the status of ‘Sieger der Geschichte’,
which duly obviated the need for a self-critical appraisal of the past:
Diesem eingebürgerten Sachverhalt der Abkehr von der NS-Epoche
setzte Hermlin die Forderung entgegen, ‘daß man […] sich nie zur
Ruhe setzen darf. Weil die Vergangenheit ununterbrochen täglich
weitergelebt werden muß. Weil die Vergangenheit auch immer eine
Gegenwart ist. Ich glaube, daß dieser Fehler, die Vergangenheit für
überwunden zu erklären, bei uns sehr deutlich begangen wird. Leider
auch von vielen Genossen, die mit einer gewissen Selbstzufriedenheit
sagen, wir haben die Vergangenheit bewältigt, die da drüben nicht, die
sind sozusagen noch mittendrin’.

Although many of the SED’s leading figures, such as Erich Honecker,

had indeed fought against and suffered under National Socialism, any
commemoration of the victims concentrated primarily on political
prisoners and thus distorted the historical detail. Even the celebrated
GDR novel of resistance, Bruno Apitz’s Nackt unter Wölfen, cannot
be absolved from this attitude in its depiction of the resistance of
Communist prisoners in Buchenwald, who not only smuggle weapons
into the camp but also hide a Jewish girl from the camp guards.
However, as J. H. Reid observes: ‘Regretfully, the narrator of Jakob
der Lügner has to admit there was no resistance of the kind described
in Apitz’s novel at all’.22 In his recent analysis of the collapse of East
Germany, David Childs illustrates that it was not until April 1990 that
the GDR’s distorted view of the Nazi period was corrected, when the
Volkskammer finally acknowledged ‘joint responsibility for the
humiliation, expulsion and murder’ of Jews. The tenor of the new
Volkskammer’s statement was unequivocally contrite:
‘We feel sadness and shame and recognise this burden of German
history. We ask Jews all over the world for pardon. We ask the people
of Israel for forgiveness for the hypocrisy and hostility of official
GDR policy towards the state of Israel and for the persecution and
degradation of Jewish fellow-citizens in our country since 1945.’

Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR, p. 318.
Ibid., pp. 318-19.
J. H. Reid, Writing Without Taboos: The New East German Literature (Oxford:
Berg, 1990), p. 145. See too Klüger’s rejection of Apitz’s novel in Chapter 3.
David Childs, The Fall of the GDR: Germany’s Road to Unity (Harlow: Longman,
2001), p. 137.
206 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

The extent of the apology, together with its tone, indicates just how
much the old regime had washed its hands of any involvement in the
Nazi past. Most telling of all in the statement is the inherent
suggestion that the GDR’s attitude to the Jews represented a degree of
continuity with the Nazi regime. It is a topic that the latter sections of
Erwachsenenspiele reflect, which in turn adds more definition to
Kunert’s disllusion with the self-proclaimed antifascist state.
As Kunert’s account begins to tackle the postwar period and
the foundation of the GDR, any notion that his family belonged to the
‘Sieger der Geschichte’ is presented as profoundly ironic. For in
addition to the absurdity of suggesting that those who narrowly
escaped deportation could feel any true sense of elation or triumph –
one need only consider Kunert’s mother’s poignant balcony vigil – it
swiftly becomes evident that the antifascist regime itself possesses a
vindictive side from which the Kunerts are not spared. When his
father refuses to insert anti-Western leaflets in the stationery he
produces, justifiably fearing that he will lose customers in West Berlin
as result, he is accused of ‘Verweigerung der Teilnahme am
Friedenskampf’ (E, 158) and must suffer the consequences:
Aufgrund seiner fehlenden Einsicht in die Erfordernisse der global
sich verschärfenden Auseinandersetzung zwischen Kriegstreibern und
Friedensfreunden muß er seinen OdF-Ausweis (Opfer des
Faschismus) abgeben. Bei der nächsten Lebensmittelkartenzuteilung –
Opfer bekommen die Schwerarbeiterkarte – ist er schon
heruntergestuft auf Karte fünf, auf die Hungerration, der dumme Goi,
dem seine Kunden wichtiger sind als der Freidenskampf. Wer es
ablehnt, zu den ‘Siegern der Geschichte’ zu gehören, wird unter die
Verlierer eingereiht. Und zwar rigoros. (E, 158)

It is difficult to ignore the bitterness that begins to creep into the

narrative at this point, as the gap between the theory and practice of
socialism in the new state yawns ever wider. As a boy, Kunert had felt
protected on account of his status as an outsider, convinced that he
was somehow ‘bombensicher’ (E, 46). In particular, he had been
captivated by the word ‘Moskau’, which in adversity seemed to
possess special properties:
Mit ungewöhnlich ernster Miene sagt [meine Mutter] eindringlich und
fast feierlich:
‘Sprich nie das Wort ‘Moskau’ aus. Sonst werden wir abgeholt!’
Die gute Frau ahnt nicht, was sie damit anrichtet. Mit dem Tabu, das
sich aufs verbotene Radiohören bezieht, implantiert sie mir ein Ideal.
Das Wort gilt mir fortan als hoher, allein mir (und meinen Eltern)
gehörender Wert. Das Wort bezeichnet den Heiligen Gral, von dem
Günter Kunert 207

aus die Erlösung von Hitler sich vollziehen würde. Dessen ist man
sicher. Mit dem volltönenden Zweisilber ist dem Kind eine
Gefühlsrichtung vorgegeben, die später in ideologischer Verblendung
kulminieren soll. (E, 22)

Mindful of Kunert’s criticism of Das siebte Kreuz, one might be

tempted to comment on the fairy-tale character of this description,
were it not for the inherent qualification. Just as Seghers’s idealistic
portrait of resistance to the regime was deemed to be at odds with the
reality of life under the Nazis, so Kunert anticipates in this passage the
same dichotomy between his expectations and the subsequent
experience of Communism by referring to his ‘Verblendung’. Thus, in
the wake of his father’s victimisation, Kunert remarks with heavy
irony: ‘Es war eben doch nicht alles schlecht in der DDR. Es konnte
einem nur schlecht werden’ (E, 158). The subsequent description of
his literary career illustrates what he means and defines the parameters
of his disillusion with the GDR.
A number of reviews of Erwachsenenspiele felt that the
author was rather too evasive in his depiction of intellectual life in the
GDR, and for some commentators, such as Konrad Franke ‘die langen
Zitate aus Stasi-Akten und Zeitungsartikeln bringen Zeilen, aber kaum
vermehrte Erkenntnis’.24 One might debate the amount of insight the
reader gains into the author from such documents – and Kunert
himself underlines how wide of the mark most reports on him were –
but their undeniable value resides in bringing to light, in more detail
than many previous accounts, the mechanisms of cultural life in East
Germany. In particular, the fact that Kunert was a Party member and
active in the Schriftstellerverband, with which he appears to have
been in regular conflict by virtue of his outspoken views, gives rise to
fascinating pictures of the arcane bureaucratic nature of the GDR’s
cultural sphere. Although Günter de Bruyn throws light on his
dealings with publishers and censorship in Vierzig Jahre, as a less
abrasively critical author his experiences were in essence less
confrontational than his contemporary’s. As Erwachsenenspiele
reveals, Kunert was forced to face a series of public tribunals, at
which he was expected to retract statements or recant his seemingly
pessimistic attitude towards the GDR.
The most extensive example of the State’s punitive response
to his work relates to the three aphoristic poems published in
Weltbühne in 1962 and reprinted in Erwachsenenspiele, and the

Konrad Franke, ‘Günter Kunert, Erwachsenenspiele’, Die Woche, 10 October 1997,
p. 14.
208 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

subversive nature of which unleashed a backlash in the press. The text

includes in their entirety four reader responses from various press
sources, all of which underline what they consider to be the poems’
lack of socialist commitment. In particular, the reviewers censure
Kunert for producing work that serves no useful purpose, and the
similarity of their criticisms would seem to corroborate the author’s
contention that the response was orchestrated at a higher level. One
asks, for example: ‘Für wen oder gegen wen nimmt Kunert Partei?’
(E, 249). Another amplifies this point:
Für wen eigentlich schreibt Günter Kunert? Für die Arbeiter und
Bauern? Für unsere Intelligenz? Die werden sich dafür bedanken! Für
wen aber, wenn nicht fürs Volk, schreibt ein Schriftsteller? Wem
nützen Kunerts Produkte? Wem dienen diese lebensfremden,
snobistischen (neuen!!) Gedichte? (E, 251)

Together with Peter Hacks, Peter Huchel and Stephan Hermlin,

Kunert is summoned to appear before a disciplinary hearing at the VI.
Parteitag of the SED in January 1963. Kunert is unmoved by the
process designed to bring him back into line, seeing it merely as a
clear example of what the State envisaged the new socialist person to
Viele von den Anwesenden hatten selber Ähnliches durchstehen
müssen und waren aus dem Mahlwerk zerbrochen hervorgegangen.
Deswegen gönnten sie mir den Prozeß von Herzen. Denn die
Erzeugung des Neuen Menschen besteht darin, ihn zum wirbellosen
Säuger und Säufer zurückzubilden, damit er verfügbar und gefügig
sei. (E, 257)

As the extracts from Kunert’s Stasi files reveal at this point, the poet
was very much at the eye of an ideological storm because of his
stubborn, provocative refusal to toe the Party line. As a result, as he
remarks rather tersely, ‘die Pogromstimmung dauert an’ (E, 263).
Summoned before the Central Committee (ZK) of the SED, the author
was expected to demonstrate a self-critical appraisal of his actions:
Ich bestreite, zur raunenden Unzufriedenheit meiner Zuhörer,
hinterhältige Absichten. […]
Unruhe im Saal, Zwischenrufe, ich solle zur Sache kommen. Zur
kritischen Einschätzung meiner Fehler. Ich stelle mich an, als begriffe
ich gar nicht, was man von mir wolle. Ich hätte ein Gedicht über ein
Grundmotiv des Kafkaschen Werkes geschrieben und ein anderes über
die Problematik des Dichterseins. Wenn man mich mißverstehe, tue
mir das leid. Ich rede um den merklich heißen Brei herum, zur
Empörung einiger Henker, die meinen Kopf gefordert, diesen jedoch
nicht von mir untertänigst überreicht bekommen. (E, 265)
Günter Kunert 209

The whole process collapses when the Communist author Jan Petersen
leaps to Kunert’s defence, citing both Johannes R. Becher’s patronage
of the young man and the Party’s professed commitment to a ‘Vielfalt
der Schreibweisen’: ‘Wer Vielfalt wolle, müsse auch die
Konsequenzen akzeptieren’ (E, 265).
This key segment of Erwachsenenspiele depicts in fascinating
detail the obvious pressure exerted on writers in the GDR, even those
who were Communists, to comply with the State-sanctioned approach
to work, which represented another instance of the gulf between
theory and practice. In spite of Kunert’s apparently wilful nature, he
does not attempt to assume an heroic pose; on the contrary, he
indicates at length how anxious he was about the consequences of his
actions, reflected in burning ‘im Ofen als mögliche Beweisstücke
gegen mich dienliche Texte’ (E, 270). Seen by many in authority as a
persona non grata after the Party proceedings against him, Kunert
finds himself increasingly marginalized in the GDR. With much of his
work falling prey to censorship, the Kunerts are plagued by material
concerns, which would eventually cease with the West German
Hanser Verlag publishing his first volume of poems: ‘Jan Petersen hat
recht. Nur durch zunehmende Bekanntheit sichert man sich bis zu
einem gewissen Grade ab’ (E, 274). Kunert was by no means alone
amongst GDR authors in enjoying the protection afforded by a good
reputation in the West as a critical intellectual, but his descriptions of
the various tribunals he had to face, as well as the ramifications of the
1956 Hungarian uprising and the Biermann affair, emphasise how that
protection could only ever be relative, and never absolute. Summoned
before the Parteileitung of the Schriftstellerverband after threatening
to leave the organisation when it withheld permission for a foreign
visit, Kunert’s position was made clear to him, off the record, in
chillingly unequivocal terms by Roland Bauer: ‘“Biermann kann die
DDR nicht kaputtmachen. Stefan Heym kann die DDR nicht
kaputtmachen. Auch Kunert kann die DDR nicht kaputtmachen. Aber
die DDR kann Kunert kaputtmachen”’ (E, 305). Kunert can look back
at such intimidation with the benefit of hindsight and observe wryly:
‘Die Ironie der Geschichte will, daß die DDR von Roland Bauer und
seinesgleichen “kaputtgemacht” worden ist’ (E, 305). Nevertheless,
such menacing behaviour from those in authority made him
susceptible to genuine fears for his safety, as evidenced by his anxiety
surrounding the planned publication in the West of his collection
Unterwegs nach Utopia in 1977:
210 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

[Mein Verleger] solle, selbst wenn ich schriftlich oder mündlich das
Manuskript zurückfordern würde, auf keinen Fall darauf eingehen.
Die Gedichte, durch einen der zutunlichen Boten expediert, müßten
unbedingt erscheinen. Was mir auch geschehe – Pardon wird nicht
gegeben. (E, 386)

The aftermath of the Biermann affair and the intimidation he had

experienced throughout his career, make such caution wholly
understandable. In this particular instance, Erwachsenenspiele makes
it clear just how much pressure was exerted on critical authors like
Kunert. The machinations of the Stasi exposed in Kunert’s account
indicate the extent to which it was possible to have genuine fears
about one’s capacity to act and speak for oneself. Erwachsenenspiele
thus reveals the considerable courage of those critical intellectuals in
the GDR.
Kunert’s disappointment at the widespread social conformity
in the GDR is manifest at various points in the narrative, but he tends
only to censure such attitudes when they pertain to leading intellectual
and political figures. It is clear that he believed it incumbent upon
certain individuals to display a more critically differentiated response
on certain issues, by virtue of their privileged position within the
socio-political hierarchy. Christa Wolf is one such figure whom he
singles out for criticism. Described as ‘entnervt’ (E, 375) at the
drafting of the Biermann petition, Wolf is portrayed more
unfavourably still at the SED Central Committee meeting called to
censure the petitioners: ‘Christa Wolf wird ans Pult gerufen und redet
lange und unkonkret. Ein Satz bleibt haften: So etwas wie diese
Protestaktion mache man nur einmal…Deutlicher kann der Wink mit
dem Zaunpfahl kaum sein’ (E, 400). Whilst Wolf escaped with a
reprimand, her husband, Gerhard, was expelled from the Party, and
Kunert is dismayed that she does not resign in solidarity. That she is
the only abstention when Kunert’s expulsion is put to a vote does little
to mollify him either:
Christa, dachtest du denn, deine Stimme würde etwas verhindern oder
befördern; angesichts der massenhaften Gegenstimmen? Du hast mir
den letzten Rest geringfügiger Solidarität verweigert. Du warst feige,
und ich war nicht mutig. Macht das einen Unterschied? Manchmal
schon. (E, 400)

Whereas Wolf’s nervousness about the consequences of the petition is

wholly excusable and Kunert’s picture of her on this occasion
arguably a little unkind – ‘Christa Wolf äußert Zukunftsvisionen, die
insgesamt um Bautzen oder sonstige Zuchthäuser kreisen. Das hebt
Günter Kunert 211

nicht gerade die Stimmung.’ (E, 376) – her apparent faint-heartedness

later is presented as less forgivable.
Erwachsenenspiele contains a number of small portraits of
literary figures, who are described in an altogether less sympathetic
light than Christa Wolf, however. With access to his Stasi files,
Kunert stumbled across an array of colleagues who consistently fed
information on him to their security masters, and it is upon these
people that Kunert pours unalloyed opprobrium. Inevitably, Kunert’s
generally equitable narrative approach hitherto crumbles in his
description of the likes of Hermann Kant, Paul Wiens and Uwe
Berger, all of whom all acted as IMs. By means of their extensive
contributions to the fabric of Erwachsenenspiele, these figures emerge
as the personification of all that Kunert deemed to be wrong with the
GDR: the mediocrity, pettiness, and moral bankruptcy. Kunert is
unable to approach these people with anything other than sarcasm and
contempt, an aspect of the text that Karin Hirdina found rather
unpalatable.25 It would be harsh to criticise Kunert for his bitterness in
this regard, though, for it is hard to appreciate how deeply upsetting it
must have been for the author to read the reports compiled by the IMs.
Indeed, the intensity of Kunert’s reaction to them suggests that, in
spite of the intimidation he suffered from functionaries such as Roland
Bauer, the infringement of his private sphere affected him more
Kunert is not the first GDR intellectual to have heavily
reproached Hermann Kant for his slavish adherence to the Party line,
but it seems clear that Kunert held a deep antipathy towards the last
chairman of the Schriftstellerverband that predated Kant’s exposure as
IM ‘Martin’. Kant had visited Kunert shortly before the Central
Committee proceedings against him, which did little to alleviate the
defendant’s mood: ‘Daß auch noch der sich mir widmet, ist zuviel des
Schlechten’ (E, 262). His dislike of Kant is underlined by the latter’s
response to the statement Kunert makes prior to his expulsion from
the SED, during which he quotes Roland Bauer’s intimidatory
remarks in 1970 and concludes: ‘Mir scheint, das hat weder etwas mit
den Normen des Leninschen Parteilebens zu tun noch mit den Normen
menschlichen Zusammenlebens überhaupt. Das ist nicht anderes als
die Erzeugung von Furcht und Angst’ (E, 398). Kant accuses Kunert
of slander, but as Kunert reiterates contemptuously in the narrative:
‘Dabei hat Hermännchen damals selber dabeigesessen, als mich der

Karin Hirdina, ‘Suchanzeige: Ironisches in der Autobiografie’, in Günter de Bruyn
in Perspective, pp. 189-206 (pp. 193-5).
212 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

bösartigste Bauer meines Lebens verwarnte’ (E, 398). Thus Kant,

disparagingly referred to elsewhere in Erwachsenenspiele as ‘der
Präsident aller Bleistifthalter’ (E, 421), is presented as the epitome of
the conformist writer, motivated by ambition rather than conviction
and who willingly becomes part of the corrupt machinery. It is a
picture totally at odds with Kant’s own rendition of the cultural life of
the GDR, and his role therein, in his autobiography, Der Abspann
(1991), which has been heavily censured for its self-justificatory tone,
not least by former colleagues.26 Summarising Kant’s book, Wolfgang
Emmerich remarks:
Kant hält sich viel darauf zugute, gerade als Vorsitzender des
Schriftstellerverbandes immer souverän gehandelt und das Rechte
getan zu haben, so z.B. den Druck von Strittmatters Der Wundertäter
III, Loests Es geht seinen Gang und Heins Horns Ende ermöglicht zu
haben. Selbst wenn das so ist, bleibt auf Kants Konto ein viel zu
großer Gegenposten der Beihilfe zu Zensur und Schickanierung. Unter
dem Strich entsteht der Eindruck, daß der Autor sein Tun nachträglich
schönredet […].

Karl Corino has compiled essays analysing Kant’s Stasi activities,

thereby producing a detailed picture of the writer’s involvement in the
cultural sphere.28 Needless to say, Erwachsenenspiele is also able to
provide documentary evidence of Kant’s deployment as an informer,
reporting to his control officer that Kunert had given ‘keine klare und
konkrete Stellungnahme’ (E, 421) to support his decision to leave the
GDR. Kunert’s response to this disparaging remark is telling:
Nun – unter Repressalien die Kraft zur Kreativität einzubüßen, scheint
so unkonkret nicht.
Als hätte Schreibtischtäter Kant nicht genau gewußt, an welcher
Suppe er mitgekocht hat. Vor der kleinen Ewigkeit von drei Jahren hat
er verlauten lassen, er selber hätte den Liedermacher [Biermann] ganz
gut ertragen können. Meine Verlautbarung, würde ich sie artikuliert
haben, klänge anders. Daß ich nämlich Kant und Konsorten nicht
länger ertragen könne und mich daher selber ausbürgern müsse. (E,

The irony intrinsic to this passage cannot disguise the enduring

bitterness that the insidious behaviour of such people still causes him
in hindsight.

See, for example, Günter de Bruyn, ‘Scharfmaul und Prahlhans’, Die Zeit, 19
September 1991, pp. 65-p6.
Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR, p. 482.
Karl Corino, ed., Die Akte Kant – IM ‘Martin’: Die Stasi und die Literatur in Ost
und West (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1995).
Günter Kunert 213

If Kant is targeted on account of his synonymity with the

repression of cultural freedom, two other literary IMs appear regularly
in Erwachsenenspiele. With hindsight, that their paths crossed so
frequently with Kunert’s seems to have had little to do with
coincidence and appears far more sinister. For instance, Paul Wiens,
the poet and IM ‘Dichter’, belonged to Harich’s ‘Donnerstag-Club’
and made the need for ‘eine teure Abhöranlage’ (E, 195) redundant.
That Wiens, by implication, contributed to the imprisonment of the
leading figures of this group illustrates the dangers critical authors
such as Kunert were unknowingly exposed to. On holiday in
Jugoslavia, sunbathing naked on a remote beach on the Adriatic, the
Kunerts are stunned by an apparently chance encounter with Wiens
and his wife:
Wie sind die hergekommen, woher haben sie unsere Adresse, was ist
da eigentlich los?
Wiens […] will mit einer haarsträubenden Lüge sein Auftauchen
legitimieren. Er und seine Frau seien zu einer Tagung von Autoren im
Süden Jugoslawiens unterwegs, und da hätten sie gedacht, da haben
sie eben gedacht, sie sagen mal guten Tag…
Dabei mustern sie unsere intimsten Details, als sei das der eigentliche
Grund ihrer Reise gewesen. (E, 299)

Whilst Wiens’s curiosity about Kunert’s physical attributes is

portrayed as comic, there is an altogether less savoury reality
underpinning an apparently innocuous scene. It not only makes a
mockery of Kunert’s original joy at his ‘Unerreichbarkeit’ (E, 298),
but more disturbingly the scene possesses an implicit allegorical force,
underscoring the extent to which the most private of spheres is in no
way inviolate or beyond the prying eyes of the totalitarian State and
their agents.
The second IM, Uwe Berger, is presented initially as a kind of
literary rival, whose dreadful poetry collections – ‘jedesmal eine
geballte Ladung ideologischer Plattheiten’ (E, 367) – are published at
regular intervals by Aufbau, whilst Kunert’s material is generally
blocked at every turn. The Cheflektor’s justification that Berger’s
work is being published in recognition of his allegedly terminal illness
provokes a typically acerbic response from Kunert:
Das Jahr vergeht, im Gegensatz zu Uwe Berger. Das Spiel widerholt
sich. Berger stirbt einmal jährlich mit erwarteter Regelmäßigkeit. Und
lebt selbstverständlich noch heute. Aber es ist nicht der imaginäre
Sarg, auf den pochend der Autor um Mitleid heischt und die
Druckgenehmigung erhält. […] Es handelt sich nicht einmal darum,
den allgemeinen literarischen Geschmack zu verderben. Berger besitzt
214 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

eine ganz andere Waffe, sein Zeug durchzusetzen. Diese Waffe ließe
sich mit ‘Schild und Schwert der Partei’ umschreiben. Denn Berger
ist, wie Doktor Jeckyll und Mister Hyde, zwei Personen in einer. Der
‘zaitbesaitete Poet’, am Rande des Grabes vegetierend, verwandelt
sich zeitwillig in den IM ‘Uwe’, als welcher er seine Kollegen
bespitzelt und anschwärzt. (E, 368)

Those of his reports on Kunert that are reproduced here are

assiduously detailed and highlight how conscientiously certain IMs
embraced their role by trying to elicit compromising information from
their targets. Also included in its entirety is Berger’s assessment of
Unterwegs nach Utopia for the Stasi, in effect a denuciation
maskerading as academic analysis, which reveals his willing
immersion in the mechanisms of repression. Kunert’s volume is
compared ‘mit Reiner Kunzes letztem Machwerk’ – presumably Die
wunderbaren Jahre (1976) – in that the perspective of both texts is
‘rechtsreaktionär, ohne roten oder rosa Anstrich’ (E, 387). He
identifies in Kunert’s poetry ‘eine kompakte Feindseligkeit’ (E, 387),
and proceeds to deliver a damning indictment of the work with the
very faintest of praise:
Gefahr besteht also. Objektiv ist bei Kunert ein künstlerischer
Niedergang zu verzeichnen, eine Perversion seines Talents. Die
wirkliche literarische Qualität des Bändchens ist mittelmäßig oder
noch darunter. […]
Kunert scheint hierbleiben und ‘Maulwurf’ spielen zu wollen. Viel
wäre schon gewonnen, wenn es gelänge, ihn zu veranlassen, seinen
Weltschmerz in sich, in den Kosmos oder sonstwohin, nur nicht gegen
uns zu kehren. Aber er ist schon zu weit gegangen, hat sich fixiert, ist
eine seelische und charakterliche Ruine. (E, 388)

Berger’s enthusiasm as an informant is well documented in

Joachim Walther’s monumental study of the Stasi’s extensive
interaction with the cultural sphere. Walther reports that IM ‘Uwe’
was ‘einer der eifrigsten Informanten unter den Schriftsteller-IM’,
producing ‘sechs wohlgefüllte Berichtsbände (2 255 Blatt), davon
allein 432 handschriftliche IM-Berichte’ (SL, 373)29. By virtue of his
diligence, Berger was commissioned to assess literary texts for the
Stasi, and these, Walther opines, were characterised by ‘eine
besondere Schärfe’:
Über Günter Kunerts Kurzgeschichten schrieb er beispielsweise
folgendes Resümee: ‘In den vorliegenden Arbeiten nimmt Kunerts

Joachim Walter, Sicherungsbereich Literatur: Schriftsteller und Staatssicherheit in
der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Berlin: Ullstein, 1999). All references to
this volume will appear in the text in the form (SL, 373).
Günter Kunert 215

nihilistische, zynische, doppelbödige Haltung zweifellos eine

konterrevolutionäre Qualität an’. (SL, 373)

After the fallout of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, for a trusted

informant to describe Kunert’s work in such negative terms, and
especially to call it ‘counter-revolutionary’, could have unleashed the
most serious repercussions for the author. Kunert can surely be
forgiven his bitterness towards such individuals, and his portrayal of
the writers who willingly spied upon their colleagues reveals how
such activity cannot but be seen as a betrayal in a totalitarian context,
where literature has a duty ‘sich zu wehren, um wieder frei zu werden’
(SL, 15). Walther argues forcefully that the moral demands on
literature are necessarily much higher in a dictatorship, so it is
axiomatic that his view of collaboration from within the ranks of the
intellectual élite concurs with Kunert’s:
Das Thema DDR-Literatur und Staatssicherheit hat zu Recht etwas
fundamental Irritierendes. Sowohl das Ethos als auch die
emanzipatorische Funktion der Literatur sollten ein konspiratives
Mitwirken an repressiver staatlicher Macht ausschließen. Die Akten
der mit der DDR-Literatur beschäftigten Diensteinheiten des MfS
lassen die Illusion verwehen, die Literatur in der DDR sei ein Ort und
Hort der heilen Seelen gewesen. Wiewohl die Literaturgeschichte
zeigt, daß das Geist sich mal mehr, mal weniger von Macht
korrumpieren läßt, muß am Schriftsteller als Spitzel etwas
Kontradiktorisches sein. Der Dichter als Denunziant, petzende Poeten:
ein Widerspruch. Mielke und die Musen: ein Paradoxon. (SL, 14-5)

Walther concedes that the sense of dismay one feels about such
collaboration stems from the picture of the writer, who as paradigm of
‘höchste moralische Integrität und Immunität’ can fulfil the role of the
‘Gewissen der Nation, allein der Freiheit des Wortes und dem Ethos
seiner Kunst verpflichtet’ (SL, 15). But it was precisely because of
this perceived moral authority of writers, which was especially
important under Communism, that the State endeavoured to bring
them under its control. As Walther’s study reveals, many succumbed
to the State’s overtures for myriad reasons; as Erwachsenenspiele
suggests, none of these reasons were excusable.
Despite the bitterness that marks Kunert’s depiction of the
collaborators and conformists amonst his intellectual colleagues, it is a
notable, and perhaps surprising, feature of his autobiography that he
shows himself to be quite sympathetic towards some leading
representatives of the State. One of these is Klaus Höpcke: ‘Alle
Autoren hassen den “Buchminister”. Ich nicht’ (E, 385). Kunert paints
a picture of a relationship marked by constant jousting, for they would
216 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

never be of one mind, and yet both men respected the other. Even
though it was clear at the time that a man in Höpcke’s position – chief
of the Hauptverwaltung für Verlage und Buchhandel, the main
censorship authority, in other words – would have been an important
conduit for the Stasi, Kunert appears to respect his opponent’s
sincerity and conviction, which did not preclude a more critical
appreciation of the socio-political and cultural situation of the GDR
and an apparent understanding of the important role that critical
intellectuals such as Kunert could play. Whereas Hermann Kant is
relatively ambivalent about Kunert’s decision to leave the GDR,
Höpcke, the man in charge of GDR censorship, is almost in tears. It is
a striking, almost paradoxical, image, and Kunert, who talks of them
having had a ‘“dialektische[s]” Verhältnis’ (E, 385), emerges as an
unexpected apologist for Höpcke:
Ach, Klaus, du warst nicht sehr überzeugend als Vertreter der Macht.
Wie unwohl dir bei diesem scheiternden Versuch war, merkten wir
sofort. So dumm wie dein Generalsekretär bist du ja nie gewesen, um
nicht zu wissen, daß die Partei, weil sie meinte, Biermann eine Grube
gegraben zu haben, selber hereinfiel. (E, 386)

Of all the representatives of the State, Höpcke appears to have been

one of the few in Kunert’s experience who tried to preserve a
dialectical approach in cultural matters, by engaging in debate and
listening to criticism. He therefore epitomised an approach whereby
theory and practice almost elided.
Even more remarkable in the pages of Erwachsenenspiele is
the description of Kurt Hager, the leading ideologue of the SED and a
notorious hardline Stalinist. Summoned to Hager’s office to explain
his reasons for wanting to leave the GDR, Kunert is genuinely amazed
to discover that the fearsome politician is exceedingly knowledgeable
about the author’s work. It transpires that Hager is especially fond of
Kunert’s ‘Englisches Tagebuch’ (E, 432), having been in exile there
during the war. Much later, Kunert learns that from the beginning the
Stasi had ‘eine Ausreisesperre über mich verhängt, die Hager, wenn
eine Auslandsreise für mich anstand, immer wieder aufheben ließ’ (E,
431). Thus, Hager, like Höpcke, emerges as having been far less
dogmatic in certain ways than one might have imagined, and is
admired for having maintained the courage of his convictions. This
unexpectedly differentiated picture of Hager gains even more
definition by Kunert’s sympathetic judgement of the ideologue as ‘ein
lebenslänglich Gefangener seiner Biographie’ (E, 431). Kunert is
alarmed that Hager justifies the tight literary controls in the GDR on
Günter Kunert 217

the basis of the tense political situation and is genuinely convinced of

the West’s wish ‘“uns aufzuhängen”’: ‘Das meint er ernst. Hier
spricht das Trauma von 1933. Jude, Kommunist und Emigrant – das
ergibt ein Syndrom, das kein Psychiater aufzulösen imstande wäre’
(E, 430). Once more, as with the picture of Höpcke, there is
significantly no trace of irony in Kunert’s description. Even Hager’s
apparent ignorance that Kunert would have been able to send certain
items of bric-à-brac from England to the GDR by post elicits
amazement rather than a disparagement, although the implications of
such unworldliness are both clear and disturbing:
Während unserer Heimfahrt bewegt mich am meisten diese seine
letzte Frage. Wandlitz hätte ebensogut in ‘Wolkenkuckucksheim’
umbenannt werden können. Was wissen die Wandlitzianer schon von
ihrer Umwelt, von der sie nur gefilterte, manipulierte, verfälschte
Informationen erhalten? Sind doch sogar unsere eigenen Kenntnisse
fragwürdig. Ohne meine fast tägliche Ausflüge zum Schlachter, zur
Kaufhalle, zur Reparaturwerkstatt, zum Friseur, zu Klempnern und
Tischlern wäre mein Wissensstand mittelmäßig gewesen. (E, 432-3)

Despite the inherent criticism of the SED élite’s remoteness from

quotidian matters, a measure of sympathy for Hager abides in that in
Kunert’s description he appears truly to have been a prisoner of his
past, which had created political certainties but also given rise to
personal insecurities.
The inclusion of these nuanced portraits of Hager and Höpcke
enhance Erwachsenenspiele’s value as an objective account of
Kunert’s experiences. He has not produced a wholesale rejection of
the GDR, even if the enduring impression of the text is of a repressive
climate that became ever more oppressive and unendurable. Critics
have complained about the lengthy, self-indulgent descriptions of trips
to America, Britain and France, as well as behind the Iron Curtain.
Despite the validity of some of these criticisms, the travelogue
sections do set the GDR in a broader social context with illuminating
contrasts emerging. Although Kunert naturally views his Western
experiences positively in terms of the freedom he was able to enjoy,
so that each return home was difficult – on the way home from
Austria, Kunert remarks: ‘Das Vacuum nimmt uns auf’ (E, 300) – it is
largely the contrasts in cultural climate, rather than material comfort,
which occupy him. But even here, he does not find everything better
in the West. He is disappointed with the Gruppe 47 meeting he is
invited to attend in Wannsee with two other East German authors, for
the group appears to be too much like a clique: ‘Wir sind nur zur
Dekoration anwesend’ (E, 289). In contrast, however, he marvels at
218 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

the friendly treatment he receives at the French border, once the guard
discovers him to be an author: ‘In der DDR darf man getrost mit einer
konträren Reaktion rechnen: Gleich wird der Kofferraum noch
gründlicher nach “Druckerzeugnissen” durchsucht’ (E, 404-5). The
fact that de Gaulle was so tolerant of Sartre’s Maoist activities whilst
the GDR had displayed no compunction in expelling Wolf Biermann
simply reinforces Kunert’s irrevocable disaffection with his country:
Mein Motiv, mich gegen die Ausbürgerung Biermanns zu wenden, ist
ganz simple: Grundlage meines eigenen Werkes, und das ist allen
bekannt, ist meine konsequente antifaschistische Haltung. Für mich
stellt die DDR einen wirklich antifaschistischen Staaten dar – um so
stärker der Schock über eine Maßnahme, die in der Welt das Bild
unserer Republik, das immerhin auch ich vermittelt und mitgeprägt
habe, verfärben muß. (E, 397)

To underline how intolerable ‘dieses anachronistische Staatsgebilde’

(E, 434) had become, the word ‘Moskau’ which had so captivated the
young Kunert no longer possessed its erstwhile force: ‘Bei dem einst
magischen Wort “Moskau” regt sich nur noch Widerwille’ (E, 402).
The depressing discovery that he was the victim of a KGB ‘Legende’,
shortly before his departure for West Germany, merely reinforces the
discrepancy between the theory and practice of GDR socialism
depicted in Erwachsenenspiele.
Inevitably, the State intensified its pressure on Kunert after his
support of the petition in an appreciably less surreptitious manner than
hitherto. Even if one had suspicions or was aware that the State had
spread its tentacles throughout society, as Kunert himself admits, he
was shocked to learn from his Stasi files just how many people had
spied upon him. However, as Kunert’s account of his last years in the
GDR attests, the Stasi was not averse to a more visible profile when
greater intimidation was demanded:
Unsere ungebetenen Besucher haben es sich drunten gemütlich
gemacht. In drei Autos lümmeln sich acht oder zehn junge Männer,
der Hitze halber haben sie die Jacketts abgelegt, alle tragen weiße
Nylon-Oberhemden und dezente Krawatten. […]
Nun steigt einer aus und knallt die Tür zu: Aufwachen! soll das wohl
heißen. Er lehnt sich an die Karosserie und ruht sich vom
Klassenkampf aus. Beim zweiten Wagen läßt ein Insasse den Motor
an und gibt probeweise Gas und stellt die Maschine wieder ab. […]
Türenklappen, Motorengeheul.
Wir sind da! Wir sind bei dir! signalisiert das akustische Treiben.
Marianne wird übel. Der Aufmarsch ist sowohl lächerlich als auch
zum Kotzen. (E, 414)
Günter Kunert 219

The protagonist of Was bleibt is subjected to the same coercion, to

such an extent that it begins to affect her behaviour. Wolf’s narrator
anticipates the formation of an ‘andere Sprache, die in mir zu wachsen
begonnen hatte, zu ihrer vollen Ausbildung aber noch nicht
gekommen war’, but which ‘mehr und mehr, das unsichtbare
Wesentliche aufscheinen lassen [würde]’.30 The narrator appears to
derive comfort from her belief that this new language will eventually
emerge, so that she will one day be able to speak ‘ganz leicht und
frei’.31 As Erwachsenenspiele indicates, subjected to the same
coercion, Kunert shares none of this optimism:
Im Zustand des Ausgeliefertseins kreisen alle Überlegungen um nichts
anderes als ebendiesen Zustand. Ich habe über diesen Zustand
geschrieben, ich schreibe über diesen Zustand und begehe
‘Staatsverleumdung’ und die ‘Herabwürdigung führender
Repräsentanten’. Täglich neue Verordnungen, Gummiparagraphen,
denen zufolge ein politischer Witz ins Zuchthaus führt. (E, 416)

Whereas Wolf’s narrator feels she need only be patient, Kunert finds
the potentially terrifying consequences of producing critical work
unpalatable and the enduring totalitarian atmosphere in the GDR
intolerable. After tearful goodbyes to family and friends, Kunert and
his wife are relieved to leave the GDR with a three-year exit visa on
10 October 1979: ‘Wir schütteln den besagten Staub von unseren
Füßen’ (E, 445).
Unlike other authors in the present survey, Kunert professes to
have felt little genuine attachment to his Heimat. In contrast to Günter
de Bruyn, whose ties to his Heimat were strong and a major factor in
his decision to stay in the GDR, Kunert reiterates throughout
Erwachsenenspiele how the very concept of Heimat, or a ‘Fatherland’,
is anathema to him: ‘Aus. Vorbei. Heimat – was ist das?’ (E, 416).
And yet, in an apparent contradiction, he did not wish to lose his GDR
nationality. Does this suggest that national identity did have some
influence on Kunert’s sense of self after all? Initially, as we have seen,
the nascent GDR’s antifascist credentials were important for the
young Kunert since they tallied with his own and appeared to promise
a fruitful interaction. Despite his attempts to contribute productively
and critically to the evolution of the GDR, the scale of his eventual
disllusion with the State’s adoption and refinement of a totalitarian
ethos erodes any attempt to assert that Kunert’s own sense of identity
was in some way influenced by or linked with that of the GDR. One

Was bleibt, p. 13.
Ibid., p. 108.
220 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

need only consider his reluctance to return to the GDR after his
periods abroad. If Kunert displays any affinity to an area then it is
solely on a regional level. A proportion of Kunert’s work deals with
Berlin, his birthplace; the clearest example is the poetry collection
Berlin beizeiten (1986), which includes a series of melancholic
snapshots of the city.32 In his essay ‘Ich – Berlin’ (1994), Kunert
concedes: ‘Die Wahrheit, wir gewönnen erst im Moment des Verlusts
das Verlorene ganz für uns, indem es sich unauslöschlich einprägt, gilt
auch für mich und meinen Geburtsort’ (SE, 25). To lose his
citizenship would necessarily have distanced him from Berlin, and his
family there, which would explain why a three-year exit visa was
preferable. But of far greater significance than any spatial factor in
Kunert’s sense of identity was the freedom, or rather the lack of it, he
had to pursue a literary career. As he states in ‘Selbstporträt im
Gegenlicht’: ‘Schreiben ist Rettung vorm Tode, solange es anhält’
(SE, 13).
Erwachsenenspiele reveals the extent to which the State’s
attempts to block Kunert’s work had serious existential, as well as
material, ramifications. His precociousness in reading books in his
childhood is presented as a vital means by which he was able to keep
body and soul together throughout the terror of the Third Reich: ‘Wie
mit der Wells’schen “Zeitmaschine” reise ich aus dem Dritten Reich
in die Weimarer Republik. Lesend entschwinde ich aus der verhaßten
Realität und werde Teilnehmer leidlosen, weil imaginären
Geschehens’ (E, 35). But his reading amounts to more than mere
escapism, for it is telling that Kunert was especially drawn to art and
literature that had been banned: ‘Alles Verbotene gewinnt an Wert,
wenn auch nur einen symbolischen’ (E, 35). His affinity for such
works connotes a level of nonconformity and resistance to dogmatic
models that crucially would continue to underpin his attitude in later
life. After his experiences of the Nazi dictatorship, it is easy to
appreciate the scale of Kunert’s disappointment with the regime that
replaced it in the East, imposing its own brand of dogmatism on the
people. It is equally apparent that Kunert should have railed against
the new conditions.
By virtue of the indissoluble link established in
Erwachsenenspiele between Kunert’s writing and his life, allied to his
political convictions, the clash between the author and the system was
inevitable. It is this inevitability that gives Erwachsenenspiele its

Günter Kunert, Berlin beizeiten (Munich: Hanser, 1986).
Günter Kunert 221

value as a document, casting fascinating light on the GDR’s cultural

scene. Although, in this regard, their accounts are mutually
corroborative, the autobiographies of de Bruyn and Kunert also reveal
the contrasting ramifications of being a critical author in a totalitarian
climate. De Bruyn was largely able to maintain a relatively
withdrawn, low-key existence, despite suffering a breakdown in the
wake of the difficulties that accompanied the publication of Buridans
Esel. For Kunert, however, the strident critic who was constantly
writing against the grain and whose work was consistently blocked by
the authorities, the illness and anxiety he suffered as a result were
seemingly more damaging. His description of turning in desperation to
Klaus Höpcke for help in warding off the cold in his flat initially
appears rather humorous, since ‘ein erfrorener Dichter, selbst wenn er
nur Ärger und Irritation hervorriefe, wohl keine gute Reklame für die
“sozialistische Menschengemeinschaft” gewesen [wäre]’ (E, 363). In
truth, it highlights the serious existential and material corollaries of his
consistently provocative stance, which at times created a situation
whereby the Kunerts’ cats were better fed than they were themselves:
‘Unser Haushaltsetat beträgt wöchentlich fünfzig Ostmark, gespeist
aus den Resten des Heinrich-Mann-Presies und vor allem aus meinem
Sündenlohn, den Honoraren für meine filmischen Verfehlungen’ (E,
269). In order to secure a steady income, Kunert indicates at several
points that he had been prepared to adopt a more pragmatic attitude to
his work, initially finding solace in the fact that William Faulkner had
also produced film screenplays ‘um leben (und schreiben) zu können’
(E, 271). In Kunert’s case, however, the censors had still raised
Schreib, was du denkst. Aber was auch immer ich der DEFA […]
anbiete, wird prompt abgelehnt. Irgend etwas haftet den Stoffen und
Themen an, was den Verantwortlichen in die Nase sticht.
Dabei haben wir uns darauf eingerichtet, in der Misere auszuharren.
Es muß doch möglich sein, sein Dasein ohne permanente Besorgnisse
hinzubringen. Ich bin jetzt zweiundvierzig, kein ‘Jungtürke’ mehr,
und kann nicht begreifen, daß ich auch da Verdacht errege, wo ich
mich selber für kompromißbereit halte.
Über die vielen Anläufe, den Lebensunterhalt zu sichern, staune ich
im nachhinein. Was habe ich an Zeit und Kraft verpulvert, damit
irgendein amtliches Arschloch sein ‘Njet!’ unter das jeweilige
Manuskript setzen konnte. (E, 358)

Inevitably, the point was reached where remaining in the East was no
longer an option. Success in the West, prompted by his critical attitude
towards the State and unwittingly fostered by the State’s criticism of
222 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

him, brought with it opportunities to travel – a privilege he readily

acknowledges – together with greater financial security, but the
Biermann affair proved the decisive watershed.
In response to Kurt Hager’s enquiry as to why he wanted to
leave the GDR, Kunert had underlined the existential condition of
being an author for whom ‘Leben und Schreiben eine Einheit bilden’:
Man habe keine Wahl, weil man in einem schmerzlichen
Abhängigkeitsverhältnis zu sich selber stehe. Man könne nicht
freischweifend zwischen Stoffen und Themen pendeln. Das durchaus
Zwangsneurotische, von dem alle literarische Selbstbekundung
angestachelt werde, ließe sich nicht wegtherapieren. Oder doch nur
mit dem Ergebnis des seelischen Absterbens. Darum wollen wir uns
eine Weile absentieren. (E, 430)

The definition of writing as ‘literarische Selbstbekundung’ –

interestingly recalling Wolf’s ‘Sehnsucht nach Selbstverständigung’
that was explored in Chapter 2 – reinforces the synonymity of life and
work for Kunert. The production of literature is not simply a material
concern; more crucially it underpins his sense of self, and to be denied
the freedom of self-expression would consequently lead to a
‘seelisches Absterben’. By the time of their departure to West
Germany, Kunert presents himself as something of a disembodied
entity, whom people treat as normal, yet ‘niemand merkt, daß er es
mit einer mir täuschend ähnlichen Hülle zu tun hat, in der ich gar nicht
mehr stecke’ (E, 443). It is an alarming image, especially in the GDR
context where life was marked by a schizophrenic daily existence of
balancing conformity and dissent.33 Dieter Noll is quoted as referring
to the troublemakers amongst the writers as the ‘kaputten Typen’ (E,
440), which, in Kunert’s case, seems ironically appropriate. It is
interesting to note that Kurt Hager of all people alludes to the
implications for Kunert’s mental well-being of being denied an exit
visa in his letter to Honecker:
‘Es zeigte sich jedoch, daß Kunert in einem Zustand völliger
Depression ist. Er erklärte, daß er gegenwärtig außerstande sei, in der
DDR auch nur eine Zeile zu schreiben und daß er dringend eine
Luftveränderung brauche, um wieder zu sich selbst zu kommen. Seine
Frau, die sehr besorgt um ihn ist, bat eindringlich, dem Antrag
zuzustimmen, damit Kunert nicht zugrunde gehe.’ (E, 439)

Apparently even one of the hardliners in the Politbüro could recognise

how essential Kunert’s departure was for the preservation of his sense
of self.

See, Fulbrook, pp. 129-50 (esp. p. 139).
Günter Kunert 223

For all that writing appears to be an existential necessity for

Kunert, Erwachsenenspiele uncovers an apparent ambivalence in the
author about his role in GDR society. Responding to questions in Italy
about his motivation for writing, Kunert irritates his audience of
Germanists by rejecting their utilitarian understanding of and
approach to literature that entails ‘die Verbesserung des
Menschengeschlechts, die Aufklärung seiner Mitbürger, die
Veredelung des Homo sapiens, die Bewußtseinserweiterung seiner
Zeitgenossen’ (E, 327). In this respect, his position can thus be
compared to Uwe Saeger’s. Kunert professes not to write for an
audience ‘denn das Publikum, der einzelne Leser, lebt in dem Wahn,
allein seinetwegen sei der Autor geschaffen worden’ (E, 327). And
yet, paradoxically, his earlier description of the ‘Schriftsteller-Basar’
both confirms that a furtive solidarity exists between the people and
‘their’ authors and acknowledges furthermore the importance of
literature in a repressive climate:
Mit dem Signieren des verkauften Buches bestätigt man ‘seinem’
Leser, daß man mit ihm in jeder Hinsicht, insbesondere in politischer,
übereinstimme. Schließlich sind die Bücher nicht zum Lesen da,
geschweige denn zur Unterhaltung. Das Buch ersetzt, was sonst
unsagbar und unhörbar zu sein hat. Zwischen Autor und Leser meldet
sich für Minuten augenzwinkerndes Einverständnis. (E, 288)

In particular, Kunert stresses how important a medium poetry is in a

system marked by its ‘Sklavensprache’, which necessarily transforms
every poem into a ‘Kassiber an Gleichgestimmte’, a ‘Rebus für
Rätselfreunde’ and a ‘Botschaft für zur Dekodierung willige
[…] Man schreibt als Sklave des Zwangs, Worte in Bilder
umzuwandeln. Dieses der Lyrik eingeborene Gebot der
Transfiguration ist in Diktaturen ein schätzenswerter Vorzug. Nicht
zufällig hat sich in Unterdrückungssystemen die Lyrik als die einzige
gegen geistige Korruption resistente Gattung erwiesen. (E, 350)

How then do we explain this apparent contradiction in

Kunert’s stance? Clearly Kunert is not seeking to play down the
importance of critical literature in a totalitarian context, having
professed to have benefited himself from access to subversive works
in the Third Reich. Nonetheless, it would appear that he rejects the
assessment of literature predicated solely on utilitarian criteria, a
perception which by definition casts writers themselves in a similarly
It is interesting that Kunert should hold to this belief, in view of the Stasi
penetration of the Prenzlauer Berg scene that came to light after 1989.
224 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

functional role. For a writer who perceives his craft in existential

terms, it is axiomatic that he should abhor a dogmatic interpretation of
literature. In ‘Warum schreiben’ (1972), Kunert spoke of writing as
‘ein wellenartiges Sichausbreiten nach allen Seiten, das Grenzen
ignoriert und immer mehr und immer Unbekannteres einbezieht und
erhellt’ (SE, 143). Writing thus possesses an intrinsic dynamic which
militates against a precise categorisation of its nature and function
‘weil Schreiben nichts Endgültiges konstituiert, sondern nur Impulse
gibt’ (SE, 143). He is not attempting to denigrate the way in which
literature can operate in a totalitarian context; on the contrary, he is
arguing how its importance derives from the capacity to transcend
borders, doctrines and categories, which is a necessarily subversive
attribute in such an environment. In this respect, Kunert is a clear
disciple of Brecht, who insisted in his theoretical writings that
literature should be fluid and that Socialist Realism should be
‘synonymous with the uncompromising pursuit of truth’.35 What is
more, if his life and work are synonymous, then Kunert demands the
same freedom both for himself and for the way he is perceived. In this
way, it is clear why he should dismiss those of his colleagues who
revelled in their perceived public importance:
Ein Schriftsteller ist kein Arzt, ein Leser kein Patient, dem das
gebrochene Rückgrat mittels eines Romans geheilt wird. Alibihafte
Beruhigungen des eigenen schlechten Gewissens. Und mangelnder
Mut vor den Konsequenzen, vor die man sich unabweislich gestellt
sah. Verleugnung jeder Alternative. (E, 434)

Kunert does not seek to play down his responsibility as a writer, he

merely qualifies it, and it is a qualification that intimates a slight
unease with the role he played. Christoph Hein expressed himself
equally uncomfortable with the public role he had been expected to
fulfil in the GDR, and spoke of the reservations he had harboured
about the impact of this pressure on literature per se:
Ich hatte in meiner Zensur-Rede von 1987 über die falschen Gewichte
gesprochen, die unsere Literatur scheinbar gewichtig machen. Das
waren damals politische Gewichte. Weil es keine Presse gab, waren
die Bücher dieser DDR-Autoren […] besonders wichtig. In den
Büchern stand immer mehr als in der Zeitung.

Tate, ‘“Breadth and Diversity”’, p. 68.
Bill Niven and David Clarke, ‘“Ich arbeite nicht in der Abteilung Prophet”:
Gespräch mit Christoph Hein am 4. März 1998’, in Christoph Hein, ed. by Bill Niven
and David Clarke (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), pp. 14-24 (p. 24).
Günter Kunert 225

Hein’s concern about this burden on literature and authors would

appear to tally with Kunert’s position. For Hein, the more relaxed
environment after the Wende, with an attendant release of this
pressure, was an ‘Erleichterung’.37 For Kunert, this relief would come
only by leaving the GDR, once his refusal to conform had created an
intolerable pressure of an infinitely different character. Thus, Kunert
explores the inherent dilemmas of the writer’s role in the GDR that
Uwe Saeger and Günter de Bruyn tackle in their accounts, although he
is writing from the perspective of one who ultimately felt compelled
to leave.
Far from presenting his persistent refusal to compromise with
the State in any heroic light, Kunert reiterates how his conflict with
the authorities had psychological repercussions: ‘Die Angst, die mich
überfällt, lähmt das Denken und die Zunge und bringt die elende
Vergangenheit zurück’ (E, 255). In view of his critical stance towards
the State and the pressure exerted upon him as a result, it is clear from
Erwachsenenspiele just how important a role Marianne Kunert plays
in his life. On the one hand she is portrayed as immensely protective:
‘Ich werde von einer Löwin beschützt’ (E, 256). But time and again he
marvels at his wife’s dogged support of his unwillingness to
compromise. Prior to the most important public reprimands, Marianne
urges him resolutely to maintain his position; indeed, the Stasi identify
her as an obstreperous influence on the author: ‘Die Ehefrau des
Kunert habe sich aber immer in günstigen Situationen in das Gespräch
eingemischt, und sie vertritt eine aggressive und harte Haltung;
dadurch bestärkt sie Kunert ständig in seiner falschen Haltung’ (E,
384). Marianne Kunert cannot really be seen as her husand’s
‘proximate other’, in the strictest sense of Eakin’s application of the
term, for Kunert’s sense of self was already well formed when they
met. Nevertheless, his growing dependence upon her as a source of
strength is testament to the immense pressure he had to withstand as a
critical intellectual in the GDR. In his prose piece ‘Eins plus eins
gleich eins’ (1972), Kunert acknowledges his debt to his wife for the
support she provides: ‘Sobald den einen, mich eigentlich, die
Lebenskraft verläßt, als wäre man schwer verwundet, was man ja auch
ist, nur nicht äußerlich sichtbar, dann vollzieht sich eine Art Vitalitäts-
Transfusion, derer kein Arzt, kein Seelenklempner, fähig wäre’ (SE,
9). Viewed now in the context of the picture painted in
Erwachsenenspiele, one can understand just why Kunert would have

Ibid., p. 24.
226 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

needed such moral, and spiritual, support. That Marianne should

ultimately have recognised the need for her husband to leave the GDR
is significant, where once she had urged him to be resolute in the face
of his critics. It seems that a point had been reached where she was no
longer able to heal his wounds, so choked had his spirit become by the
State’s refusal to publish his work, thereby preventing him from
expressing his sense of self.
Is Kunert’s apparent fragility not at odds with the generally
robust nature of the narrative in Erwachsenenspiele? Is the text able to
convey effectively any impression of the pressure to which Kunert
was subjected? In the opinion of Jan Faktor, Kunert’s ‘spaßiger
Dauerton […] ist den jeweiligen Begebenheiten oft so wenig
angemessen, daß man sich bald nur noch ärgert’.38 In addition, Faktor
is irritated by what he perceives to be a lack of composure on the part
of the author in recounting his experiences with the benefit of almost
twenty years of hindsight. In truth, Erwachsenenspiele illustrates how
and why Kunert is wholly unable to preserve the detached, and at
times mercurial, tone throughout. His efforts so to do appear
increasingly desperate as the voice of the Stasi begins to punctuate the
account with ever greater regularity, not only breaking the flow of the
main narrative, but also distorting the register. Kunert juxtaposes his
own ironic euphemisms alongside the jargon of the Stasi, but they
appear laboured, even bitter, rather than light-hearted, and there is an
impression that the author is trying too hard to retain his idiosyncratic
style. Whereas the earlier sections are a picaresque delight, with the
narrative ironically appearing freer despite the nature of the Nazi
threat, those segments describing the GDR become less free,
reflecting the more focused, and insidious, nature of the persection to
which he was subjected. In effect, Kunert’s voice is increasingly
stifled by these linguistic infringements. The shift in the narrative tone
reveals the effects of this repression and the State’s increasingly
regular encroachment on his private sphere, especially in the wake of
Wolf Biermann’s expulsion. The greater inhibition to self-expression
that Kunert felt in the GDR is therefore manifest in the style and
register of his recollection of those experiences in Erwachsenenspiele.
Moreover, by deliberately recounting his autobiography in the present
tense, which creates the impression of greater immediacy rather than
composed detachment, Kunert might be seen to be attempting to
reconstruct the mood of the time and render more directly the damage

Günter Kunert 227

done to his sense of identity. The disruption to the flow of the

narrative, which some critics perceive as a weakness, does in fact
enhance the authenticity of Kunert’s account. Although he eschews
the more objective approach demanded of more traditional
autobiographies, which the texts by Harig and de Bruyn embody in the
present study, Kunert does still carefully select materials for inclusion,
such as the extracts he chooses from his Stasi files, which are
designed to provide a more differentiated picture. In this regard, the
construction of Erwachsenenspiele as a whole has more in common,
perhaps, with Saeger’s Die Nacht danach und der Morgen, in which
the variegated structure reflects the perceived limitations of the
subjective perspective, but strives to objectify the material as much as
possible. Both Kunert and Saeger therefore achieve a highly self-
conscious interweaving of Wahrheit and Dichtung.
Critic Andrea Köhler wonders why Kunert has rescinded his
apparent belief in the impossibility of rendering the self on the page
by penning his autobiography. One credible explanation relates to the
fact that the Stasi effectively transformed Günter Kunert, an
intellectual for whom writing and life are synonymous, into a long
document entitled ‘Operativer Vorgang “Zyniker”’. It is evident from
Erwachsenenspiele that the author believes the Stasi created in the
process a distorted picture of the man in question. As Kunert
comments: ‘Der mir diesen Decknamen verpaßt hat, weiß nichts von
mir’ (E, 416). As a result, it seems entirely plausible that Kunert
would feel obliged to correct this picture with his own more
‘authoritative’ account. Moreover, one can only imagine what effect
the discovery of an ‘Aktenberg’ in the Normannenstraße devoted
solely to him would have unleashed. In Erwachsenenspiele, Kunert
can be seen to be digesting the details of his GDR past, charting how
the erstwhile ‘Opfer des Faschismus’ fell foul of the supposedly
progressive Communist regime that replaced the Nazis. The author’s
motives for his unapologetically personal account thus appear to be
therapeutic in nature. When one considers his abhorrence of a
programmatic approach to literature, especially in a totalitarian
context, it seems inappropriate to ascribe to Erwachsenenspiele a
didactic purpose. The author is too unsure of his facts to make any
definitive interpretation of certain events, and the text itself is too
subjective, too partial to be suited to the delivery of any lesson. That
the Stasi should be allowed with such regularity to interrupt the text
with their interpretation of Kunert and their record of events – which
seldom, if ever, tally with Kunert’s – does little to dispel the notion
228 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

that Erwachsenenspiele is highly subjective; their interjections simply

indicate the existence of a multiplicity of interpretations that militate
against Erwachsenenspiele being seen as a definitive chronicle.
And yet Erwachsenenspiele is a chronicle of sorts, amounting
to a personal intellectual history of fifty years of German
dictatorships. The fact that both the present tense and very few precise
dates are employed throughout enhances the impression of this being a
history told from below, sufficiently lacking in objectivity and
detachment to become ‘History’, but no less valuable as an eye-
witness account for all that. The Stasi documentation used is of
undoubted historical interest, as it is in Deckname Lyrik, although
paradoxically the veracity of its content is constantly questioned
throughout Erwachsenenspiele. For Manfred Wolter, in his
enthusiastic, even grateful, review of Erwachsenenspiele, Kunert
shows himself to be ‘ein Chronist persönlichster Art’, which neatly
defines the conflation of perspectives contained therein.39 Wendelin
Schmidt-Dengler provides an equally apposite summation, describing
Kunert’s text as an ‘explosive[s] Gemisch aus Dokumentation und
“Oral history”’, which points to the book’s idiosyncratic blend of
Dichtung and Wahrheit.40
With its very style and form, Erwachsenenspiele embodies the
problems Kunert faced in dealing with his experiences and underlines
the inherent irony of the title. Although the text is playful at times –
Kunert’s entertainingly irreverent portraits of the likes of Brecht and
Marcuse being prime examples – one is left nevertheless with the
abiding impression of how the adult ‘games’ of the title were far from
playful in the totalitarian climates depicted. As we learn nothing of
how easy or not the Kunerts found it to acclimatise in the West, we
can only speculate on whether the reality of Western life matched
their expectations. But it is clear to Kunert himself from the smooth
running of his car engine as they drive into West Germany, that things
will be different from now on in any event:
Eigentümlicherweise hat sich der Motor besonnen, mir keine Sorgen
mehr zu bereiten. Er ist daheim. Und läuft brav. Außer ihm würde
nichts mehr so wie immer laufen. Dessen bin ich sicher. (E, 447)

It is arguably the most optimistic passage in the whole text, without

actually suggesting that things will necessarily be better in the West.

Manfred Wolter, ‘ “Lüge nicht. Schreibe”: Günter Kunert ist in seinem neuen Buch
ein Chronist persönlichster Art’, Neues Deutschland, 13 October 1997, p. 11.
Wendelin Schmidt-Debgler, ‘Sprich nie das Wort “Moskau” aus! Kunerts
Autobiographie: Dokumentation und “Oral history”’, Die Presse, 31 January 1998.
Günter Kunert 229

When one considers the dogmatic nature of Socialist Realist writing

with its mandatory happy ending, it is fitting, perhaps, that the ending
to Erwachsenenspiele should be rather ambiguous. This deviation
from expectations is, in fact, an expression of freedom in itself and
wholly in keeping with the author’s highly idiosyncratic literary ethos.
This page intentionally left blank

‘“Man soll nie lügen. Oder nur, wenn es nicht

anders geht”’ – Christoph Hein, Von allem Anfang
an (1997)
Das ist nicht meine Geschichte, von dem Jungen. Ich habe wie bei
jedem Buch meine Biographie genutzt, wie einen Steinbruch, und
dann ist alles mögliche dazugekommen, aber letztlich ist es ein
Roman, der nur damit spielt, mit Versatzstücken, wie in jeder anderen
Geschichte. Es gibt eine große Nähe zur Biographie, aber eine
Identität gibt es nicht. Aber es half natürlich, dass man ein bisschen in
einer vergleichbaren Situation drinsteckte.

The inclusion of Christoph Hein’s successful Von allem Anfang an

(1997) in the present survey might seem slightly anomalous in view of
his comments in an interview in 1998, in which he maintained that the
text in question was no more autobiographical than his previous
publications. Having described Von allem Anfang an in an interview
as a ‘fiktive Autobiographie’, Hein is asked to elaborate on this
particular definition:
Jeder Autor arbeitet mit seiner Biographie, und wenn wir die
Gesamtheit seiner Arbeit vorliegen haben, dann haben wir auch ein
ziemlich gutes Bild vom Autor. Das einzelne Werk ist nicht identisch
mit ihm, es ist nicht Autobiographie, aber wenn ich die Gesamtheit
der Schriften von Hemingway oder Franz Kafka kenne, dann kenne
ich genau den Burschen auch, der es geschrieben hat. Das ist es, was
ich mit fiktiver Autobiographie meinte. Das Napoleon-Spiel ist
genauso nah. Das schließt sich direkt nach Von allem Anfang an an.
[…] Die äußeren Punkte sind wahrscheinlich schwieriger erkennbar,
aber von der inneren, fiktiven Autobiographie ist das nicht anders.
(CH, 15)

As seasoned observers of Christoph Hein are aware, there is a playful

evasiveness in many of his pronouncements upon his own work, and
one should approach his comments above with due caution. As one of
Bill Niven and David Clarke, ‘“Ich arbeite nicht in der Abteilung Prophet”:
Gespräch mit Christoph Hein am 4. März 1998’, in Christoph Hein, ed. by Bill Niven
and David Clarke (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), pp. 14-24 (p. 15).
Further references to this volume will appear in the text in the form (CH, 15).
232 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

the most successful of GDR authors, especially in the post-Wende

period which has seen him hold office as the first president of the
reunified German PEN organisation, Hein might well have expected
intense scrutiny of his biography following revelations about the
nefarious activities of some of his high-profile colleagues in the East.
Although it might be tempting to interpret the observation that his
oeuvre as a whole provides autobiographical insights as a wry attempt
to stimulate further interest in his creative output, it is doubtless true
that in works such as Der fremde Freund (Drachenblut) (1982) and
Der Tangospieler (1989) one can see glimpses of the author in the
text, even if the various protagonists or the external facts of their lives
bear little, if any, direct resemblance to their creator. Yet that in itself
is not unusual, as Hein has made abundantly clear. In his work on
Theodor Fontane, for example, Günter de Bruyn has examined what
he calls the former’s technique of ‘Versteckspielen und Verfremden’,
a process that he himself has employed to great effect in his own
fiction.2 De Bruyn’s description of Fontane’s playfulness can easily be
applied in this instance to Von allem Anfang an.
Should Von allem Anfang an be included in the present study,
if its autobiographical dimension is as tenuous as its author suggests?
The answer lies in the form, rather than the content, of the text, which
may well stem from what Dennis Tate has called Hein’s ‘modernist
“game” with an autonomous reader’ (CH, 119).3 Despite being a
fiction, Von allem Anfang an bears a number of the features –
thematic, structural and theoretical – we have previously identified in
other texts in the present study. Klaus Hammer convincingly locates
Hein’s text in a tradition of ‘abgebrochene Autobiographien’ that
embraces recent work by the likes of Canetti, Koeppen, Bernhard and
de Bruyn, which he defines as follows:
Dabei geht es durchweg um eine bewußte Distanzierung von der
beschriebenen erinnerten Zeit – nur das soll berichtet werden, was der
Protagonist damals empfand, nicht, was er heute denkt. Die
zerschnittenen Bande zwischen dem Kind von damals und den
Erwachsenen bewirken an sich schon eine Fiktionalisierung. Die
ironische Brechung des Erzählten wird oft bis ins Groteske
weitergeführt. Die Autoren wollen nicht Memoiren schreiben, suchen
nicht das zu Erzählzwecken in sich Abgerundete, sondern das

Günter de Bruyn, ‘Das Oderbruch literarisch’, in Mein Brandenburg (Frankfurt
a.M.: Fischer, 1993), pp. 138-59 (p. 146).
Dennis Tate, ‘“Mehr Freiheit zur Wahrheit”: The Fictionalization of Adolescent
Experience in Christoph Hein’s Von allem Anfang an’, in Christoph Hein, pp. 117-34.
Christoph Hein 233

Fragmentarische und Prozessuale, den erhellenden Augenblick und

die besondere Begebenheit.

A brief analysis of Von allem Anfang an therefore provides a

fascinating contrast with the seven other texts under scrutiny here.
That it should play with the autobiographical form justifies its
inclusion, even if one must continually refrain from seeking too much
of the author in the text. As Graham Jackman has suggested, it is
perhaps better to view Von allem Anfang an as the autobiography of a
generation, even of the GDR itself: ‘The personal and psychological
elements [in Von allem Anfang an] simultaneously open up […]
perspectives on GDR reality in the 1950s, making this “fictional
autobiography” also a kind of “gesellschaftliche Autobiographie”’.5
Daniel’s formative experiences are thus juxtaposed with those of the
state he lives in. Helmut Böttiger contends that Hein’s text underlines
the symbiotic nature of this relationship:
Durch das assoziative Zusammenbringen eines Jugendlichen mit
einem heranwachsenden Staat wird auch dieser Staat zu etwas
Persönlichem, zum Strukturprinzip des Gemüts. Er ist ein
selbstverständlicher Bestandteil von Identität, von Heimat; es gibt
wenig Berührungen mit etwas Fremdem. Dadurch gelingt diesem
Buch die inventarisierende Beschreibung dessen, was eine bestimmte
DDR-Generation geprägt hat – und es war wohl die tonangebende

As Tate’s close reading of Von allem Anfang an reveals, in

spite of the freedom fiction affords the author to craft a compelling
tale of adolescence unfettered by the expectations, and confines, of the
traditional autobiography format, Hein ‘also appears to be providing
more scope […] for readers with a general awareness of his family
background and upbringing to read it as if it were also a work of
autobiography’ (CH, 120). With particular reference to Horns Ende,
Tate painstakingly uncovers links between the protagonist of that
novel, Thomas, and Daniel, the narrator of Von allem Anfang an, and
Hein himself, but these connections stem largely from the geography

Klaus Hammer, ‘Wahrheit nicht ohne Lüge’, Neue deutsche Literatur, 45.5 (1997),
168-70 (p. 168).
Graham Jackman, ‘Von allem Anfang an: A “Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man”?’, in Christoph Hein in Perspective, ed. by Graham Jackman (Amsterdam:
Rodopi, 2000), pp. 187-210 (p. 196). All further references to this article will appear
in the form (CIP, 196).
Helmut Böttiger, ‘Die Aktualität der fünfziger Jahre: Christoph Heins Miniaturen
aus einer vergangenen Gemütslandschaft’, Frankfurter Rundschau, 20 December
234 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

of their respective home towns.7 Tate’s detective work recalls de

Bruyn’s discovery in Fontane’s fiction of the ‘topographische
Mischtechnik […], die sich soweit wie möglich der Realität annähert,
diese aber, wenn der Roman es verlangt, auch verläßt’.8 Tate is quick
to emphasise how tenuous a basis this is for an autobiographical
reading of Von allem Anfang an, citing the significant differences in
the biographical details of the young boys. By way of contrast, critic
Peter von Matt provides an unequivocally autobiographical reading –
‘Der Stoff ist die eigene Kindheit’ – revealing how tantalising such an
approach to the text is because of the close correlation that appears to
exist.9 Indeed, the temptation is all the more seductive by virtue of the
author’s refusal to furnish Von allem Anfang an with a definitive
genre designation. In this regard, Hein’s text proves as slippery, and as
compelling, as Uwe Saeger’s Die Nacht danach und der Morgen.
It is the manner in which Von allem Anfang an mimics the
autobiographical form that is most significant and will form the focus
of this chapter. Which features of the genre does Hein employ and to
what end? Why does he not simply categorise his text as a novel, as he
has in interviews, and curb some of the speculation surrounding it?
One can attribute the latter ‘oversight’ doubtless to Hein’s predilection
for game-playing, a view apparently shared by the author’s
Verlagslektorin, Angela Drescher: ‘Über die Genrebezeichnung
können sich nun die Germanisten den Kopf zerbrechen’ (CH, 32).10 In
matters pertaining to the text’s construction, Drescher is a little more
forthcoming. Invoking Uwe Johnson, she underlines how some
authors have sought to produce a simulation, but not necessarily a
reflection, of reality, thus enabling them greater freedom to play with
different forms:
Eine dieser Spielformen ist es, Autobiographie vorzutäuschen. Von
allem Anfang an arbeitet mit Mitteln des Biographischen, ist aber

Graham Jackman has also isolated the similarities between the same two texts, but
he is ultimately more interested in the comparative ‘formal strategies’ (CIP, 189)
employed, specifically the way invention is used to supplement historical fact. Once
again, this technique echoes that adopted by Virginia Woolf, as we have seen in the
‘Das Oderbruch literarisch’, p. 142.
Peter von Matt, ‘Fort mit der Taschenguillotine: Christoph Hein schreibt ein
Meisterwerk nicht nur der Tantenkunde’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14 October
Drescher offers a fascinating, and at times wry, insight into the process of
producing Von allem Anfang an, including discussion of how best to define it. See
‘Unvollständige Rekonstruktion: Über das Lektorat des Buches Von allem Anfang an
von Christoph Hein’, in Christoph Hein, pp. 25-40.
Christoph Hein 235

keinesfalls eine Autobiographie. Selbst wenn Elemente aus Christoph

Heins Biographie zu erkennen sind (er erklärt, 10 Prozent des
Erzählten seien Rudimente eigenen Erlebens, 90 Prozent erfunden –
aber wer sollte wiederum diese Aussage nachprüfen können?), sind sie
untrennbar in Erfundenes verwoben: eine erfolgreiche Strategie, um –
wie er sagt – Lügen glaubhaft machen zu können. Eines seiner
Lieblingszitate lautet denn auch sehr frei nach Platon: ‘Alle
Schriftsteller sind Lügner’. (CH, 39)

The obvious trap to avoid as a consequence – which should perhaps

go without saying in these postmodern days of ours – is any attempt to
see in the use of the first-person narrator any autobiographical intent.
Daniel is not automatically a conduit for the author; indeed, the
experiences he relates are, in fact, broadly applicable to all adolescent
boys as they become aware of their sexuality.11 The best of several
good examples of sexual awakening can be found in the touching
chapter ‘Die schlummernde Venus und die Hausordnung’, in which
the thirteen-year-old Daniel has his first directly erotic encounter, with
Mareike, a girl from one of the other schools at a drama festival in
Dresden. In some respects, therefore, as Tate explains, the text is more
akin to a Bildungsroman, although without the same panoramic sweep
of that particular genre. Tate draws compelling comparisons between
Von allem Anfang an and works such as Frühlings Erwachen and Die
Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless, as fine examples of literary
studies of adolescence. By way of contrast, Jackman evokes James
Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Given the text’s focus on Daniel’s formative teenage years,
the narrative perspective does imbue Von allem Anfang an with the
texture of autobiography, without necessarily inviting an explicitly
autobiographical reading. As Drescher observes, the moment in the
opening chapter where the narrator first addresses the reader directly –
one of very few occasions where this occurs – has seduced several
commentators into assuming that we are dealing here with a thinly
veiled autobiography.12 The narrator ponders at length the problems
he has had in reconstructing his memories of this long-distant period
and concedes that there are significant lacunae in his account:
[…] Jedesmal, wenn ich versuchte, darüber zu sprechen, musste ich
feststellen, dass die Geschichten in meiner Erinnerung merkwürdige
Lücken hatten, ein regelrechter Mottenfraß. Tante Magdalena kann ich

Tate quotes an interview with Hein in which the author explains how he was
surprised by the number of men who identified with Daniel (CH, 128).
See Tate (CH, 124-5) and Jackman (CIP, 188-91) for further details of the
narrator’s incursions into the text.
236 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

nicht mehr fragen. Ich glaube auch nicht, dass sie meine Fragen
beantwortet hätte, wenn ich sie früher gestellt hätte. (VA, 10)

Each of the texts in the present survey contains just such a caveat,
qualifying expectations of absolute accuracy, whilst underlining the
will to provide as authentic a record as is possible. In order to produce
a reconstruction of the past, the narrator of Von allem Anfang an
adopts the same process of blending Wahrheit and Dichtung to realise
his project as in Pawels Briefe, for example, where gaps have been
plugged by imaginative reconstructions:
Ich versuche, die Geschichten zu vervollständigen, sie mit
Bruchstücken der Erinnerung anzufüllen, mit Bildern, die sich mir
einprägten, mit Sätzen, die aus dem dunkel schimmernden Meer des
Vergessenseins dann und wann aufsteigen und ins Bewusstsein
dringen. Manche dieser Bruchstücke haben schartige Kanten, die in
mir etwas aufreißen. Kleine Schnitte in der Haut, aus denen etwas
hervorquillt. (VA, 11)

As Chapter 8 reveals, the passage echoes the introductory section of

Monika Maron’s reconstruction, although the narrator of Von allem
Anfang an has no apparent recourse to extant documentary material or
any other eye witness, with whom he can corroborate his memories.13
Is it possible to establish why Hein should go to so much trouble to
mimic autobiographical devices? For Drescher, the passage ‘gehört
zum Spiel des Autors mit Fiktion und Realität, oder der Fiktion von
Realität und Autobiographischem’ (CH, 33). It would seem telling in
this respect that the section, which has been the focus of much critical
attention, was considerably shortened prior to publication, rendering
its purpose in the text more playfully ambiguous, in order perhaps to
tease the critics and Germanists, of whom Drescher claims to be
mightily suspicious. A longer excursus at this early juncture in Von
allem Anfang an may well have weighed down the text with
excessive, and misplaced, expectations of its autobiographical import,
ultimately distracting readers from its true purpose. In truth, the
passage seems to have generated enough debate as it is.
If the mimicry of autobiography in Von allem Anfang an were
limited solely to exiguous narrative quirks, then it would be easy to
dismiss the whole enterprise as a linguistic game and view it without
distraction as a successor to Törless, as Tate proposes. And yet, in
another significant regard Von allem Anfang an sits comfortably
alongside the other works in the present study, inviting further
consideration of its form and the author’s motives for producing this

See Jackman (CIP, 189-90).
Christoph Hein 237

‘fiktive Autobiographie’. Although Daniel is clearly the focal point of

the narrative, it is impossible to overlook the significance of Tante
Magdalena therein, not only to the boy and his sister, in particular, but
to the text as a whole. Her importance was signalled by the author’s
original title for the text: ‘Anna Magdalena Birke und Ich. Kleines
Buch’.14 More so than anyone else in Von allem Anfang an, Tante
Magdalena emerges as a ‘proximate other’ for Daniel and the working
title recalls Eakin’s theory of the relational forces that shape the self.
Although the publishing house understandably objected to this
working title, an intimation of the character’s important role is
preserved in the final title, derived as it is from her seemingly
platitudinous adage:
Als Dorle sich einmal weinend bei Tante Magdalena beklagte und ihr
erzählte, dass Mutter und Großmutter ständig miteinander stritten und
alles nicht mehr so wie früher sei, sagte Tante Magdalena: ‘Dem
Leben muss man von allem Anfang an ins Gesicht sehen. Ihr seid jetzt
alle zusammen, das ganze Jahr über. Ihr müsst euch nicht mehr
trennen, ihr könnt euch jeden Tag sehen. Das ist einfach so schön,
dass man sich manchmal streiten muss’. (VA, 140)

Irrespective of how one should interpret this rather puzzling statement

– and it has certainly bothered critics and academics alike – it is
nonetheless telling that Tante Magdalena should be the one to utter
Despite not being related to Daniel, Tante Magdalena is both
confidante and surrogate parent, and although only the opening
chapter is devoted exclusively to her, she features in almost every
other chapter, albeit at times merely fleetingly. It reflects just how
substantial a part she plays in Daniel’s life. Ultimately, the personal
ramifications of Daniel’s attendance of the boarding school in West
Berlin – prompted by being barred from the local Oberschule in East
Germany because his father is a priest – are etched most strongly upon
him by his inability to attend Tante Magdalena’s funeral. Thus she is
the focal point of arguably the most bitter critique of GDR society to
be found in Von allem Anfang an, depicting how the private sphere is
adversely affected by the political:
Auch zu ihrer Beerdigung konnte ich nicht fahren. An dem Tag
machten wir das kleine Latinum und keiner bekam frei. Doch ich wäre

See Drescher for details of the publishing house’s discussions surrounding the title
(CH, 31-2).
For an analysis of the title of Von allem Anfang an see Tate (CH, 131-2) and
Jackman (CIP, 187).
238 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

ohnehin nicht gefahren. Der Schuldirektor und Pfarrer Sybelius hatten

mich dringend ermahnt. Es sei zu gefährlich, sagten sie, weil ich
heimlich nach Westberlin gegangen sei. Ich hatte die Republik
verraten und stand auf der Liste. (VA, 16)

It is undoubtedly this particular memory that possesses the ‘schartige

Kanten’ that rip the ‘kleine Schnitte in der Haut’ (VA, 11), and the
narrative can be seen as an attempt to heal these wounds. This
motivation instils in the text the ‘Aura des Notwendigen’ that Anna
Mitgutsch believes can seduce the reader into viewing a fictional text
as autobiographical ‘weil er spürt, daß hier der Autor, die Autorin mit
einer Erfahrung ringt, mit der er bzw. sie auch im Schreiben nicht
fertig geworden ist’.16 That Daniel’s sense of loss appears so genuine
signals how cleverly Hein has simulated autobiography, for the death
of a ‘proximate other’ – especially in the circumstances described in
Von allem Anfang an – would naturally form a focal point of any such
Daniel particularly treasures Tante Magdalena for she is
someone with whom he can talk openly about most things. On a
number of occasions, Daniel and his siblings are kept in the dark by
their parents and grandparents about various matters, or are given
clumsy explanations, all of which echoes Claudia’s experiences of the
same period of the GDR’s history in Der fremde Freund, most notably
when the Russian tank appears in her home town:
Ich begriff nicht, warum [über den Panzer] nicht gesprochen werden
durfte. Aber da tatsächlich keiner der Erwachsenen über den Panzer
sprach, spürte ich, daß auch ein Gespräch etwas Bedrohliches sein
konnte. Ich fühlte die Angst der Erwachsenen, miteinander zu reden.
Und ich schwieg, damit sie nicht reden mußten. […] Ich lernte zu

Just like Claudia, Daniel is old enough to sense that something is

wrong, if not able to grasp fully the significance of certain events. In
some cases, such as his mother’s refusal to talk to his father during her
pregnancy, the situation may ultimately be relatively trivial, but in
others, such as his grandfather’s dismissal as foreman of the farm for
refusing to join the SED – which to a large extent anticipates his own
exclusion from the Oberschule – the consequences are more grave.
Daniel’s reaction at these moments betrays a mixture of frustration
and anxiety. As nobody explains the implications to him, his response
tends to be inappropriate. He is mistakenly terrified that his parents

Mitgutsch, p. 12.
Christoph Hein, Der fremde Freund (Berlin: Aufbau, 1997), pp. 145-46.
Christoph Hein 239

are on the brink of divorce on account of his mother’s uncharacteristic

behaviour, whereas in spite of his grandmother’s obvious distress at
his grandfather’s dismissal, Daniel clearly has no concept of what
joining the Party really means. The full extent of his incomprehension
is evident when Pille, whom he has tantalisingly just seen bathing
naked in the Russensee, indicates her intention to join the SED:
Ich war fassungslos. Die schöne Pille will in die Partei eintreten, das
Mädchen, das ich eben ganz nackt gesehen habe, das Jochen
rangelassen hatte, diese Pille wollte in die Partei eintreten. Das war
unmöglich. Ich wusste doch, was Großvater von diesen Leuten hielt
und was mein Vater über sie sagte, er konnte richtig grob und unflätig
werden, wenn er im Familienkreis über die Parteibonzen sprach. […]
‘Und warum gehst du in die Partei?’
‘Warum nicht? Wer was ändern will, muss da eintreten. Und ich will
was erreichen. Ich will was aus meinem Leben machen, etwas
‘Ach so’, sagte ich und nickte. Das schien mir vernünftig zu sein.
Vielleicht hatte sie Recht, und man musste wirklich in die Partei
gehen, wenn man etwas erreichen wollte. Wenn Großvater in der
Partei wäre, könnte er Inspektor bleiben. Es war einleuchtend, was
Pille sagte. Andererseits erinnerte ich mich an die Erzählungen meines
Vaters, der mit der Partei viel Ärger hatte und häufig vom
Bürgermeister vorgeladen wurde, der ihn dann beschimpfte. Aber
wenn Pille in die Partei eintrat, war das vielleicht doch nicht so
schlecht, wie Vater und Großvater sagten. Ich hatte ihre Brüste
gesehen, die großen roten Brustwarzen, das feuchte Schamhaar, von
dem die Wassertropfen herabrollten. Diese Bilder mischten sich in
meinem Kopf mit der Partei, und ich war verwirrt. (VA, 98-9)

The long passage, with its repetition of conflicting information to

reflect Daniel’s confusion, ends with the apparently positive, and
attractive, association of Pille’s naked wet body with the SED. It is an
effective representation of Daniel’s adolescent confusion, all the more
potent where the worlds of childhood and adulthood collide at such an
early stage in a totalitarian context, and compounded still further by
the narrator’s sexual arousal. Daniel knows that his family do not
support the Party, but nobody has explained the implications of
membership. All he does know is that his father, the priest, grows
uncharacteristically, and therefore disturbingly, ‘grob und unflätig’ on
the subject.
Crucially, it is this void that Tante Magdalena fills. Although
he is reticent about discussing some topics, such as his sexuality,
Daniel turns to Tante Magdalena in the wake of most of his
experiences in order to make sense of it all. Even on the one occasion
240 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

when he cannot talk to her – having accidentally ejaculated over

Pille’s bicycle saddle, he is terrified on learning of her pregnancy that
he may be responsible – Daniel suggests it is very much an exception:
‘Aber darüber konnte ich mit keinem sprechen, nicht einmal mit Tante
Magdalena’ (VA, 142) [my emphasis]. On all other occasions, Tante
Magdalena provides a vital outlet for his teenage tribulations.
Enquiring about his time at the theatre festival in Dresden, Tante
Magdalena divines Daniel’s ‘Liebeskummer’ (VA, 166), following his
coy sexual encounter with Mareike. Instead of pressing him about
what happened, she sensitively affirms the need to keep secrets
sometimes before revealing her secret wishes to own a black satin
dress and to travel to London by boat. This subtle change of subject,
and Tante Magdalena’s general demeanour of unconcern, seems to
ease Daniel’s worries – he has been criticised at school ‘wegen
ungebührlichem Betragen’ (VA, 165) in Dresden – so that Mareike’s
failure to reply to his letters does not appear to leave any lasting
For all her jollity, it soon emerges that Tante Magdalena’s life
has not been especially happy or blessed with good fortune. Her good
humour and mild eccentricity, which is reflected by her quaint flat
above the bakery and her possession of both the musical Spieluhr and
the politically incorrect Krieg zur See board-game, appear to mask a
more complex personality. Daniel’s description of her decidedly
theatrical laugh indicates that he too suspects her dissembling nature:
Tante Magdalena lachte viel. Ihr Lachen begann stets mit einem
lauten Juchzer und verlief sich in einem abschwellenden Gekicher.
Den Juchzer stieß sie mit geöffnetem Mund hervor, sie hielt rasch die
rechte Hand über die Lippen und nahm sie erst weg, wenn sie sich
ausgelacht hatte. Sie lachte über die Scherze der Erwachsenen ebenso
herzlich wie über die Späße der Kinder. Sie lachte auch, wenn es
eigentlich überhaupt nichts gab, worüber man lachen konnte. Ich
glaube, sie lachte, weil sie verlegen war. Sie lachte, weil sie nicht
mehr weiter wusste und nichts mehr sagen konnte. Aber sogar wenn
sie traurig und verzweifelt war, klang ihr Lachen unbeschwert und
fröhlich. Auch der laute Juchzer, mit dem sie selbst dann zu lachen
begann. (VA, 13)

Her tendency of placing her right hand over her mouth reinforces the
impression of concealment. However, it is the way in which she
jealously guards the privacy of her bedroom that bespeaks her
intrinsically secretive nature: ‘Wenn [Tante Magdalena] etwas aus der
Kammer benötigte, vergewisserte sie sich zuvor, dass wir beschäftigt
waren. Sie huschte hinein und verschloss die Tür hinter sich, um dann,
sorgsam um sich blickend, mit dem Gesuchten herauszukommen’
Christoph Hein 241

(VA, 8). When she catches his sister, Dorle, in her room, Daniel
remarks with surprise how agitated Tante Magdalena becomes:
‘[Tante Magdalena] konnte sich gar nicht beruhigen’ (VA, 8). Dorle
later describes the room as being untidy and full of boxes, but could
not establish what they contained. At the very end of the text Tante
Magdalena reveals to Daniel that she has a suitcase in her bedroom
full of letters, but gives no other indication of what she has stored
away there and why she should have been so disconcerted by Dorle’s
incursion into this private space. Her predilection for long skirts and
keeping her hair in a bun might be seen as further reflections of her
secretive nature; when Daniel arrives early one evening and catches
her putting her hair up, Tante Magdalena’s rather sharp admonition of
him seems curiously out of character, so too her embarrassment. The
narrator does not dwell on the incident, which simply adds to her
enduring mystique in the text, whilst intimating a deep-rooted unease
that she is generally able to mask.
The two idiosyncratic, yet contradictory, objects with which
Tante Magdalena is most commonly associated in Von allem Anfang
an are the Spieluhr and the board-game, which together point up the
seemingly complex nature of her personality. Krieg zur See, a game
akin to battleships, originates from the Kaiserreich, so Tante
Magdalena is quick to warn the children that they ought not talk about
playing it at school. Naturally enough, the children have no problem
with that: ‘Es war also ein verbotenes Spiel, was seinen Reiz erhöhte’
(VA, 13). But it seems somewhat out of character for Tante
Magdalena, an otherwise law-abiding and deferential person, to
possess such an inherently militaristic – and in the context politically
incorrect – game, let alone to relish playing it: ‘Auch bei diesem Spiel
lachte sie vergnügt und herzlich’ (VA, 13). Although it hardly
amounts to outright subversion, in the totalitarian context of the GDR
possession of such an ideologically unwholesome game is
nevertheless of certain significance, especially as the old woman is
clearly well aware of how it would be perceived by the powers that be.
If the game hints at a mischievous, even subversive, quality to
Tante Magdalena’s character, the intricate musical box, with its
twenty different tunes, points to a more melancholy side. Although
she possesses a variety of different ‘Musikplatten’ for the contraption,
Tante Magdalena loves two songs in particular, namely ‘Das Gebet
einer Jungfrau’ and ‘Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe’, both of which
evoke great sadness in the old woman as their titles imply. She tells
the children about her fiancé’s death three weeks before their
242 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

wedding, which surely explains why the songs affect her so

profoundly. Yet, we later learn that her fiancé was terribly jealous and
violent, destroying all her shoes in the bath because she was not at
home when he returned on leave. She was unable to salvage any of
them, least of all her beloved dancing shoes:
‘Und ich habe gespart, um mir neue Schuhe zu kaufen. Viel verdient
hat man ja damals nicht. Aber neue Ballschuhe habe ich mir nie mehr
gekauft. Bernhard bekam noch einmal Urlaub, im März, mitten in der
Passionszeit, da wurde nicht getanzt. Und drei Monate später wurde er
vermisst und ich brauchte in meinem Leben keine Tanzschuhe mehr.’
(VA, 27)

Even though there appears to be some poignancy in this final

statement, her earlier observation appears of greater significance:
‘Nein, war das ein verrückter Kerl’ (VA, 25). It is difficult to imagine
this sweet old woman being happily married to such a bully, although
the narrator makes no judgement on this matter, and nor does Tante
Magdalena for that matter. It simply adds to her mystique, generating
the impression that appearances can indeed be deceptive. Tante
Magdalena appears as difficult to fathom as the machinery at the heart
of her Spieluhr, and it comes as no surprise that she should make a
similar association herself: ‘[Die Spieluhr] ist ein kostbares altes
Stück, fast so alt und kostbar wie ich’ (VA, 141). Although it is a
tongue-in-cheek comment, there is little doubt that the association
remains a strong one for the narrator, as the conclusion of Von allem
Anfang an attests:
Als [Tante Magdalena] starb, schrieb mir Vater einen langen Brief,
um mich zu trösten. Er berichtete, dass sehr viele zur Beerdigung
gekommen seien, viel mehr, als er erwartet hatte, und dass eine
Verwandte ihren Haushalt aufgelöst habe und inzwischen ein neuer
Mieter im ersten Stock bei Bäcker Theuring eingezogen sei, ein älterer
Herr von den Adventisten. Darüber, was in den vielen Kartons in ihrer
Schlafkammer war, schrieb er nichts. Und auch nichts über die alte
Spieluhr. Tante Magdalena hatte versprochen, dass ich sie erben
werde, doch ich habe sie nicht erhalten. Ich besitze nichts von ihr,
nicht einmal ein Foto. (VA, 196-7)

The mystery of the boxes died with her, but Daniel is more upset
about the musical box, clearly as he now has nothing by which to
remember her, all except for his memories which provide the frame
for Von allem Anfang an.
It is in the poignant closing line – ‘Ich besitze nichts von ihr,
nicht einmal ein Foto’ – that the clue to Hein’s view of the role of
autobiography behind Von allem Anfang an resides: it is a celebration
Christoph Hein 243

of individuality that should not be moulded to fit a template. If the

book had borne the title originally planned, this concluding line might
have seemed self-evident. As it is, it appears simply poignant, the true
significance of Tante Magdalena having been masked by the altered
title. For Von allem Anfang an is the narrator’s epitaph to this
remarkable woman, who helped nurse him through the troubled waters
of his adolescence, and ensures that he does possess something of her.
Her presence throughout, albeit in differing ways, should not be
underestimated, neither should the fact that her presence frames the
narrative itself, in the opening and closing lines. Although Daniel
appears to have a stable relationship with his parents, it is Tante
Magdalena alone who talks candidly to him, whether about his
mother’s moods during pregnancy or the worrying events in Hungary
in the autumn of 1956, which cast a shadow over Daniel’s life, and the
latter of which undoubtedly heralds the beginning of the end of his
childhood.18 She gradually reveals more about her own life, which
contrasts with the coyness of his parents and grandparents when
discussing their personal and political problems. Tate argues
persuasively that Tante Magdalena’s willingness to share these more
intimate details with Daniel signal not only his growing understanding
of ‘the ways in which adults can suffer and change behind their façade
of authority and control’, but also ‘the speed at which Daniel is
growing up’ (CH, 126). That is not to say that Tante Magdalena
surrenders all her secrets, as we have seen, but then neither does
Daniel tell her everything. He keeps the Pille episode to himself, as
well as the precise details of Mareike’s erotically charged naked
dance. But even here, Daniel can be seen to be adhering to Tante
Magdalena’s more pragmatic approach to the truth, rather than to his
father’s insistence: ‘Bleib du nur bei der Wahrheit, Junge, damit
kommt man in der Welt immer zurecht’ (VA, 166). In contrast, the old
woman suggests: ‘Man soll nie lügen. Oder nur, wenn es nicht anders
geht’ (VA, 166). While travelling to West Berlin, Daniel’s father is
forced to lie to a border guard, thereby confirming the practicality of
Tante Magdalena’s advice and reinforcing the important role she plays
in Daniel’s life. At times, therefore, she appears better equipped to
prepare the narrator for the vicissitudes of adult life, as well as helping

One can find other instances of the way in which key historical events cast
disturbing and significant shadows over the main narrative in other works of Hein. In
Der fremde Freund, for example, the presence of the Russian tank in Claudia’s town
evokes the panic of the June 1953 uprising in the GDR, whilst the action of Der
Tangospieler is set against events in Prague in 1968.
244 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

him to make sense of adolescence. One might argue, moreover, that

she better appreciates the problematic nature of these vicissitudes in
the totalitarian world of the GDR, and thus offers more cogent advice
on how to survive the GDR than Daniel’s own family.
By virtue of the inherent contradictions in her character, Tante
Magdalena stands out amidst the slightly restrictive, prejudiced, and
repressed background of Daniel’s family, but also the dullness of his
home town. Fritz Raddatz praises Hein’s depiction of the ‘Atmosphäre
einer gemütlichen Verlogenheit, des sanften Mitmachens und
gelegentlichen Spiels der Aufmüpfigkeit’ and ‘die verklebte
Normalität’.19 Daniel becomes increasingly conscious of, and
frustrated by, the monotony of everyday life, not least after having
visited his brother at his boarding school in West Berlin:
Es lebte sich leichter, wenn der nächste Tag sich nicht allzusehr vom
vorhergehenden unterschied, wenn die Veränderungen und
Überraschungen, die mich erwarteten, einen winzigen gemeinsamen
Nenner mit all jenen Erlebnissen und Katastrophen hatten, die ich
bereits überstanden hatte. Andererseits hasste ich Langweile, und was
mich an der Kleinstadt und meiner Familie aufs Äußerste verbitterte,
war der sich stets gleichende Ablauf des alltäglichen Geschehens, die
vollkommene Ereignislosigkeit. Doch die nun fast greifbar nahe
vollständige Veränderung meines Lebens schüchterte mich. (VA, 188)

The narrative is punctuated by Daniel’s dream of emulating his

brother, but it is being barred from attending the local Oberschule that
prompts the ultimate realisation of his wish. But leaving Tante
Magdalena behind, the one person who enlivened his daily life during
his regular visits to her flat to do his homework, is clearly hard, for
both of them. ‘Mir wirst du fehlen, Daniel’ (VA, 16), she says, and
despite his insistence that he would see her again soon, he never
managed it: ‘Ich habe Tante Magdalena nie wieder gesehen’ (VA, 16).
In this regard, the narrative can be interpreted not only as an epitaph to
Tante Magdalena, but also an attempt to alleviate the sadness Daniel
feels at not having seen her again. It is both the acknowledgment of
the debt he feels he owes her for preparing him for life with her
worldly advice, as well as his way of salvaging a picture of this
remarkable woman to compensate for his lack of an actual
photograph. In itself, it is a motivation one might find in a ‘true’

Fritz J. Raddatz, ‘Besonnte Vergangenheit: Christoph Heins wenig nette Märchen’,
Die Zeit, 19 September 1997, p. 66.
Christoph Hein 245

By having Daniel relate details of his formative teenage years,

and simultaneously offer significant insights into the life of Tante
Magdalena, Hein has with Von allem Anfang an created a ‘fictional
autobiography’ in two senses. Firstly, if the author is to be believed,
then aspects of his own life are secreted within the fictional narrative;
as Tate and Jackman have shown, these details can be extrapolated
from a creative tension with details from Hein’s earlier work. But
Hein has also adopted an unequivocally autobiographical format,
employing many of the devices evident in other texts in the present
study, in order to produce a convincing simulation of autobiography.
Tate detects playfulness in this approach by the author: ‘Rather than
seeing the writing of autobiography as a guarantee of authenticity,
Hein had relished the freedom fiction gave him to go beyond the
limits of autobiographical fact in a modernist “game” with an
autonomous reader’ (CH, 119). Hein is not the first writer to be
sceptical of the authenticity of the form. The widely held modern
view, as we have seen, is that conventional autobiography can only
ever deliver an approximation of the self. But irrespective of whether
one can believe absolutely what one reads in a particular
autobiography or not – and there are myriad examples of suspect
personal accounts, and one might again cite Hermann Kant’s Der
Abspann as a prime post-Wende example – the form possesses an
intrinsically subjective texture. It is still an expression of self, albeit
perhaps merely an approximation thereof, and it is precisely this
subjective quality which has drawn each of the eight authors under
discussion to this form in a bid to map the contours of oppression and
rescue a sense of self from the identities imposed upon them by the
totalitarian systems they lived under. Even as dishonest an account as
Kant’s can provide insights into the self and what motivated him to act
as he did, even if the veracity of his own explanations for those
actions is questionable. In the case of Von allem Anfang an, despite its
fictional nature, we do have an ‘autobiography’; it is just that it is not
necessarily the author’s, as Klaus Hammer neatly outlines:
Mag es auch viele biographische Übereinstimmungen oder
Bezüglichkeiten geben, der Ich-Erzähler ist nicht mit dem Autor zu
verwechseln. Schreiben als authentische Praxis hat neben einer direkt
therapeutischen Funktion auch die, sinndefizitäre Lebenswirklichkeit
in die ästhetische Simulation des Als-Ob zu übertragen.

Hammer, ‘Wahrheit nicht ohne Lüge’, p. 168.
246 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Just like Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster – which is categorised as a

novel – Von allem Anfang an repudiates Lejeune’s autobiographical
pact, and it is no less a celebration of subjectivity and the forces that
shape the self than its illustrious forerunner. In documenting the key
coordinates in his early adolescent years, Hein’s narrator produces an
authentic account of what it was like to grow up in the GDR of the
mid-1950s, but does not adhere to a strictly chronological treatment of
the material.21 Hein’s experiences were undoubtedly similar to
Daniel’s, but were doubtless shared by many others too. That the
Tante Magdalena figure is unique to Daniel’s account is axiomatic,
but then other individuals would certainly have had their own
‘proximate other’. In Daniel’s case, his narrative is truly a celebration
of subjectivity. Motivated by the desire to preserve an impression of
Tante Magdalena’s life, he necessarily has to tell his own life story so
as to articulate the old woman’s importance for him; it is a story he
has ‘schon immer erzählen wollen’ (VA, 10). Thus Von allem Anfang
an fulfils, or rather simulates, an important criterion of Eakin’s
understanding of what constitutes autobiographical writing, namely
the exposition of the relational forces that shape the self. A
simulacrum of autobiography it may be, but Von allem Anfang an
deserves to be considered alongside the more conventional accounts
of GDR life produced after the fall of the Wall. In spite of being a
fictional autobiography, it is no less convincing an expression of self
for all that. Indeed, the title of Eakin’s study – How Our Lives Become
Stories: Making Selves – is particularly apt in this context, with its
apparent conflation of fact and fiction in depicting individual
experience. It is understandable, as a consequence, why Von allem
Anfang an is usually included in post-Wende lists of personal
treatments of East German society, and why it deserves consideration
in the context of this study.
Tate argues that the form of Von allem Anfang an can be
explained to some extent by Hein’s propensity to flout expectations,
mingled with the recognition that many of his colleagues from the
former GDR were engaging in autobiography.22 Thus his own text
might be seen to go both with, and tellingly against, the grain.
Although Von allem Anfang an might appear at first glance to satirise
the spate of autobiographical accounts of the 1990s – or at least the
expectations that ex-GDR authors should be producing such texts –

For a more detailed analysis of the chronology of the episodes, see Jackman (CIP,
See Tate (CH, 118-20).
Christoph Hein 247

the measured tone of the text would tend to invite a less

confrontational reading. With its touching depiction of Daniel’s
emotional turmoil, the narrative emits far more warmth than Der
fremde Freund or Der Tangospieler, for example, with their bleakness
and protagonists who do not invite identification. In contrast with
most of Hein’s canon, Von allem Anfang an appears almost idyllic,
although it would be an exaggeration to press this particular point too
far. As Raddatz observes: ‘Das schmale Buch ist zu lesen als Märchen
von der Wirklichkeit, versunken und doch so sehr vorhanden. Nett
sind Märchen bekanntlich nicht’.23 Not everything runs smoothly in
Daniel’s life, and the poignancy of the conclusion, stemming as it
does from his exclusion from school in East Germany, illustrates how
the political impinges directly and decisively on the individual only
once a particular stage of his life has been reached, a fact which is
significant for the interpretation of Von allem Anfang an. Although the
narrator’s childhood might not be presented as idyllic, it is
nevertheless generally normal and relatively free from overt state
interference. Despite being the son of a priest, Daniel is not especially
victimised, until the key moment of his exclusion from the
Oberschule. From his perspective, the only negative consequence of
his religious background is his inability to watch football on Sundays
with his friends.24
Although Daniel’s experiences are, for the most part, typical
of boys of his age and there are relatively few moments when the
narrative appears specific to the GDR, there lurks a sense of threat
beneath the surface to which the narrator is mostly oblivious. As
Jackman indicates, the narrative is consistently anchored in the naïve
perspective of the child, with the exception of the adult Daniel’s
interventions at the beginning and end of the text. As a result, it is the
reader who must interpet and draw out the implications of what is
described: ‘The reader understands things incomprehensible to the
child, or recognises in them, thanks to his or her knowledge of adult
life or of GDR society, “Allegorien kultureller Erfahrung”’ (CIP,
195). Thus, Daniel is disturbed more by his mother’s strange
behaviour or the strange humming that emanates from a box in the
bedroom at his grandparents’ house, than by the potential dangers of
visiting West Berlin or the arrest of the scientist on account of his
alleged homosexuality. Even his grandfather’s dismissal by the

Raddatz, p. 66.
Jackman argues that the scheduling of football on Sundays was a deliberate State
ploy to undermine church attendances (CIP, 198).
248 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

ominous sounding ‘Bestimmer’ (VA, 59) is not experienced as a

threat, as signalled by the fact that Daniel’s sister cries at the news
simply because she will not be able to see the animals again.
Nevertheless, the opening chapter, which is chronologically the last
and forms a closed narrative frame with the final one, reveals a less
naïve narrator who is far more aware of the world he inhabits. When
he encounters the beautiful Lucie before leaving to attend school in
West Berlin, Daniel is decidedly wary about explaining what he is up
to: ‘Ich hätte [Lucie] beinahe erzählt, dass ich mich bei der Tante
verabschieden müsse, weil ich die Stadt verlasse und für immer nach
West Berlin ziehe, aber dann erinnerte ich mich noch rechtzeitig
daran, wie sie mich bei Fräulein Kaczmarek verraten hatte’ (VA, 5).
As we learn later, it was Lucie, a zealous ‘Thälmannpionier’, who
denounced him to the teacher for disseminating ‘feindliche
Propaganda’ (VA, 190) about the Hungarian uprising following his
first visit to West Berlin. It seems that Daniel has finally absorbed the
lessons in pragmatism from Tante Magdalena that facilitate survival in
the GDR.
Writing about the mood in Berlin at the turn of the twenty-
first century, Jonathan Steele remarked upon the continuing problems
that face Germans on both sides of the old ideological divide,
underlining how the commemoration of victims of the Berlin Wall, on
the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of its erection, descended into
unfortunate factional squabbles. Steele detected signs not only that the
psychological divide was growing, but that it was continuing to
exacerbate attitudes towards the old GDR, even more than a decade
after its demise:
The demonisation of the old German Democratic Republic seems to
be getting more, not less, extreme as time passes, with its former
citizens either patronised as helpless children of a bastard state or
condemned as collaborators. Opinion polls reflect the apparent
anomaly that those who lived there and felt the weight of the GDR on
their own skins condemn it less than do westerners.

It is tempting to view Von allem Anfang an as an earlier attempt to

counter the demonisation that Steele identified as a worsening
problem, in that it provides a more differentiated picture of life in the
GDR, in common with many other texts produced by former GDR
authors in the post-Wende period. In his positive reappraisal of Hein’s

Jonathan Steele, ‘Berlin Needs Bridges, Not Walls, to End its Cold War’, The
Guardian, 17 August 2001, p.14. Four years on from Steele’s article, one could assert
that little has changed.
Christoph Hein 249

much-maligned play, Randow (1994), Bill Niven found evidence that

the author had now brought his critical gaze to bear on life in the new
Federal Republic: ‘For years he measured socialism by its own
standards and found it wanting; now he does the same with Western
liberalism, and finds it equally wanting’ (CH, 103).26 If Randow
contains a critique of the West, which Niven plausibly suggests
accounted in part for the negativity of its reception, then it is not
unreasonable to view the author’s next major publication, Von allem
Anfang an, as a corrective to the blanket rejection of the GDR and its
legacy by Western commentators. If one were to view these two
works as complementary, then the author’s message appears to be that
both West and East had strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand,
East Germany certainly did not deserve to be consigned to the
historical scrap heap altogether, while the Federal Republic was no
flawless paradigm.
That is not to say that Hein had suddenly grown nostalgic for
the old days; one need only consider the bleakness of Der
Tangospieler, published in the spring of 1989, to grasp how flawed he
considered the GDR to have been: various characters’ suggestions to
Dallow, the protagonist, that the GDR is ‘ein Stück weiter gekommen’
are highly ironic in light of both his recent prison sentence for having
played the piano during a satirical cabaret performance and
contemporary events in Prague.27 By the same token, Von allem
Anfang an is far from being a document of Ostalgie. Yet it can
certainly be seen to purvey a more objective, less forthrightly
polemical, analysis of the GDR’s legacy, where it was possible for
somebody from Hein’s generation to spend their formative years
relatively unaffected by the ideological pressures. These forces
naturally impinge at certain times on Daniel’s family life, as
commentators such as Tate and Jackman have uncovered in detail, but
they are less of a destructive influence than a western reader might
expect. On many occasions Daniel is simply bewildered by situations
that are not necessarily specific to the GDR – it is surely debatable
how often parents in any society ever talk to their children about their
marital difficulties, for example, while the depiction of puberty is
equally universal. In effect then, Hein is here defending the private
realm, or at least part thereof, from the partial, and political,
distortions so often a feature of post-Wende approaches to the GDR,

Bill Niven, ‘On Private Utopia and the Possessive Mentality: Christoph Hein’s
Randow’, in Christoph Hein, pp. 100-16.
Der Tangospieler (Leipzig: Aufbau, 1999), pp. 36-37.
250 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

and which, as Steele underlined, were still prevalent more than a

decade after that country’s demise.28
One finds the same attitude underpinning the work, both
fictional and essayistic, of many former GDR authors, such as Christa
Wolf, Günter de Bruyn and Monika Maron, who advocate a much
more differentiated appraisal of the GDR and its people in the new
Germany. Like Hein, none of these authors was any great friend of the
SED regime, but in the wake of its collapse they sought to temper the
expectations placed upon the GDR’s former citizens in the new
Germany, which appeared to tar them all with the same brush and
thereby created an East German stereotype, both psychological and
socio-political. As Maron remarked in an essay from 1999: ‘Es ist
Zeit, in der öffentlichen Wahrnehmung nachzuholen, was in der
Wirklichkeit schon vor zehn Jahren passiert ist: die Ostdeutschen aus
ihrem Kollektivstatus endlich in die Individualität zu entlassen’.29 The
array of autobiographies produced during the same period by former
GDR authors must be seen as an attempt to realise this precise aim of
reclaiming their individuality from the collective identity that had
been thrust upon them, no matter that some of these accounts
possessed a distinctly self-justificatory air. Günter Erbe has spoken of
former GDR authors being ‘auf der Suche nach einem neuen
In his sensitive examination of the problems of coming to
terms with the GDR past and the different modes of analysis that have
been applied, Roger Woods underlines that the key element of any
such project is an appreciation of the complex texture of GDR life.31
But Von allem Anfang an is also not a purely aesthetic text either, akin to those that
Schirrmacher wished to see. See David W. Robinson, Deconstructing East Germany:
Christoph Hein’s Literature of Dissent (Rochester: Camden House, 1999), p. 206.
Monika Maron, ‘Penkun hinter der Mauer’, in quer über die Gleise: Essays, Artikel,
Zwischenrufe (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2000), pp. 139-47 (p. 147). Günter de
Bruyn has devoted many essays to the situation in Germany since 1989 in collections
with self-explanatory titles such as Jubelschreie, Trauergesänge: Deutsche
Befindlichkeiten (1992) and Deutsche Zustände (1999). See too Christa Wolf,
‘Abschied von Phantomen – Zur Sache: Deutschland’, in Auf dem Weg nach Tabou:
Texte 1990-1994 (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1994), pp. 313-39.
Günter Erbe, ‘Die ostdeutschen Schriftsteller auf der Suche nach einem neuen
Selbstverständnis’, in Changing Identities in East Germany: Studies in GDR Culture
and Society 14/15. Selected Papers from the Nineteenth and Twentieth New
Hampshire Symposia, ed. by Roger Woods and Margy Gerber (Lanham: University
Press of America, 1996), pp. 51-61.
Roger Woods, ‘“Nuancen und Zwischentöne” versus “muskelprotzende Prosa”:
Autobiography and the Project of Explaining “How it Was” in the GDR’, in Changing
Identities in East Germany, pp. 37-49.
Christoph Hein 251

In particular, any categorisation of the people into Täter and Opfer is

to be rejected as unacceptably simplistic, for the lines between
complicity and compromise were very difficult to ascertain. After
summarising the various officially-sanctioned and informal attempts
at reassessing the GDR, such as the Enquete-Kommission that was
established in 1992, Woods comments on the salient number of
projects ‘based on reconstructing biography – “Biographie- und
Lebenslaufforschung”’.32 Equally telling is Woods’s contention that
‘literature will turn out to be a particularly appropriate vehicle for
probing the complex and ambiguous reality of living in the GDR’, and
that GDR authors will be required to shoulder this responsibility.33 In
his insightful summary of autobiographical treatments of GDR
society, which includes accounts by intellectuals as well as leading
SED politicians, Julian Preece likewise feels that ‘it will be left to
literature to depict the variegated nuances of biographical
experience’.34 Implicit in both articles is that autobiography per se
might not necessarily constitute the ideal form for this survey; by
literature, both academics appear to be referring specifically to
creative fiction. Woods cites the distortions and suppressions of
memory that can afflict autobiography as the reason that fiction might
emerge as a more suitable mode of enquiry, and concludes his piece
with an exploration of Olaf Georg Klein’s intriguing collection of
fictional autobiographies, Plötzlich war alles ganz anders (1994):
In its format the book takes the tradition of GDR documentary
literature one experimental step further: the characters who tell their
life stories are invented, yet they interact with real figures from the
GDR. By inventing a wide range of characters, Klein is able to touch
upon many of the key questions about how to assess the GDR.

Although Von allem Anfang an clearly does not share the scope of
Klein’s project, which supplies a much broader and more
differentiated panorama of GDR society, the creation of seemingly
authentic biographies betrays a commonality of purpose. Unfettered
by the expectation of absolute truthfulness that naturally forms a key
criterion in the general reception of autobiography, fiction enjoys
‘mehr Freiheit zur Wahrheit’.36 The fictional autobiographies

Ibid., p. 42.
Ibid., p. 41.
Preece, p. 364.
Woods, p. 45.
Marlies Menge, ‘Nur die Masken erlauben Freiheit’, Die Zeit, 29 August 1997. Tate
adopts this quotation for the title of his article in Christoph Hein.
252 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

produced by Hein and Klein do not in any way signify an evasion of

reality; on the contrary, they are tailor-made to enable a more
sensitive, accurate depiction of ‘the variegated nuances of
biographical experience’ Preece describes, that is essential if the GDR
is to be assessed in a suitably objective manner, whilst taking into
account the individual’s experience of that socio-political
Hein may well be sceptical of autobiography as a vehicle for
truth, but as Von allem Anfang an reveals, he accepts the articulation
of individuality, the expression of subjectivity intrinsic to the form.
With its focus primarily on loosely connected events in and around
1956, Von allem Anfang an by no means represents the
comprehensive survey of East German society that many
commentators impatiently demanded of former GDR authors. Indeed,
as Hammer remarks: ‘Bei Hein aber bleiben Anfang und Ende offen,
auch wenn die erklärte Absicht des Jungen, nach West Berlin zu
gehen, die eigentliche Klammer bilden soll’.37 The cyclical nature of
the text would appear to militate against any definitive judgement of
the events depicted, and Daniel certainly does not draw any
conclusions, being more concerned it seems with salvaging a picture
of his beloved ‘aunt’. In common with authors such as de Bruyn, Hein
is suggesting, perhaps, that it is still too soon for the GDR’s legacy to
be resolved satisfactorily. Although a series of novels have appeared
in recent times – by relatively new authors such as Thomas Brussig,
Ingo Schulze and Kerstin Jentzsch – which deal with the Wende and
its aftermath, the GDR equivalent of Die Blechtrommel has still to be
produced. In that respect, perhaps, Hein was deliberately flouting such
expectations by producing merely a ‘Kleines Buch’. Instead, the
author was more concerned with resisting an outright rejection of the
GDR and its legacy, which explains why he should choose to entrust
the material to a naïve narrator who is not fully in tune with the world
around him. The political is not excluded, and as Daniel matures he
becomes ever more aware of the implications of living in a totalitarian
society. Nevertheless, Von allem Anfang an quite deliberately avoids
distorting the picture of GDR life. The political is not shown to be a
constant irritant in the private sphere; when it does have an impact,
however, the consequences are significant and damaging. In this way,
Von allem Anfang an is neither a study in nostalgia nor a eulogy of life
in a Nischengesellschaft. It is the rendition of a period in the life of a

Hammer, ‘Wahrheit nicht ohne Lüge’, p. 169.
Christoph Hein 253

young boy who, to some extent, is the embodiment ‘von nicht

besonders belasteten, nicht besonders heldenhaften “normalen”
Leuten, die […] durch eine nüchterne Durchmusterung der eigenen
Biographie mehr Freiheit gewinnen könnten und mehr
Wirklichkeitssinn’.38 Thus, when Woods talks of East Germany’s
quest for ‘a distinctive voice which transcends nostalgia and
bitterness’, Hein’s Von allem Anfang an would appear to fit that bill.39
Ultimately, as with Uwe Saeger’s Die Nacht danach und der Morgen,
it matters little whether Von allem Anfang an is truly an
autobiography. It is impossible to ascertain how much of the text is
derived from the author’s own life, and one ought to heed his assertion
that we are dealing here with fiction and listen to the caveats
expressed by his Verlagslektorin on the subject of an unequivocally
autobiographical reading. What does count is the form and style Hein
adopts. Fabricating an autobiography might well have been a playful
whim, in part, but the decision to work ‘mit den Mitteln des
Biographischen’ (CH, 39), thereby imbuing Von allem Anfang an with
an individualistic perspective, with ‘subjective authenticity’, means
that the text has made an important contribution to the more
differentiated appraisal of East Germany’s legacy that diverse
commentators such as Monika Maron, Christa Wolf and Roger Woods
have advocated.

Wolf, ‘Abschied von Phantomen’, p. 336.
Woods, p. 37.
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‘Es gab nur noch die eine Aufgabe:

Gegen das Vergessen anzuschreiben’ –
Grete Weil, Leb ich denn, wenn andere
leben (1998)
Warum, in drei Teufels Namen, will ich ein Buch schreiben? Weil
ich schreiben muß, ohne schreiben nicht leben kann?

The anguished narrator of Grete Weil’s novel Meine Schwester

Antigone (1980), herself a novelist, explains how her experiences of
National Socialist terror as a Jewish exile in Amsterdam during the
Second World War have necessarily remained a sole source of
creative inspiration: ‘Nach dem Krieg schreibe ich schließlich ein paar
Bücher. Sie handeln von Krieg und Deportation. Ich kann von nichts
anderem erzählen. Der Angelpunkt meines Lebens’ (A, 93). In her
study of Weil’s work prior to Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben (1998),
Carmen Giese expends much time in underscoring the extent to which
Weil’s narrator is to all intents and purposes synonymous with the
author herself.2 Exploiting verifiable information – in particular an
interview with the late author – Giese traces the similarities between
Weil and her narrator, and despite having earlier executed a thorough
comparative survey of autobiography and novel as discrete genres and
their contrasting relationship with Wahrheit and Dichtung, she
concludes that Meine Schwester Antigone is an autobiography in all
but name. Although it is evident that the novel makes use of
autobiographical elements, Giese’s argument for an unequivocally
autobiographical reading of Meine Schwester Antigone is rather
unconvincing; for she appears to disregard the implications of Weil’s
choice of genre definition and the freedom it affords the author to
manipulate her material. Giese speaks of a ‘Quasi-Transparenz’

Grete Weil, Meine Schwester Antigone (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2000), p. 25. All
further page references will appear in the text in the form (A, 93).
Carmen Giese, Das Ich im literarischen Werk von Grete Weil und Klaus Mann: Zwei
autobiographische Gesamtkonzepte (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 1997).
256 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

between the author and her narrators, which she then upgrades to a
‘Deckungsgleichheit’ on account of the biographical similarities.3 The
weakness of the argument, however, resides in the apparent structural
congruence perceived between Weil’s novels and autobiographical
paradigm that Giese adopts in her study. Yet Weil is not bound by any
obligation to the reader, contractual or otherwise, in Meine Schwester
Antigone to tell the whole truth. In reality, Giese’s suggestion that
Meine Schwester Antigone bears similarities to the exploration of
identity formation redolent of ‘Neue Subjektivität’ is much more
convincing than her explicitly autobiographical reading of the text.4
The publication of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben in 1998
reveals precisely how much of Meine Schwester Antigone had a basis
in autobiographical fact; so much so, in fact, that one might be
tempted to moderate criticism of Giese’s reading of the novel.5 In her
fine study of the author, Lisbeth Exner illustrates how Weil herself
advocated that her novels be used as sources of biographical detail,
and so in truth we might attribute the confusion that has arisen, in part
at least, to Weil herself.6 Exner proposes therefore that all of Weil’s
texts can be seen as ‘autobiographisch geprägt’, but without
suggesting, as Giese appears to, that fiction and autobiographical fact
are necessarily one and the same.7 Moreover, to support her argument
she cites Uwe Meyer’s assessment of Weil’s fiction:
Es handelt sich dabei um die literarische Transposition biographischen
Materials, das die Schriftstellerin um der Sinnstruktur ihrer Texte
willen sortiert und vorstellt und nicht in Bezug auf Kriterien der
Selbstbiographie (wie z.B. die Vollständigkeit, Wahrhaftigkeit,
Verifizierbarkeit der geschilderten Ereignisse und Personen).

Those similarities that do exist between Meine Schwester Antigone

and Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben are partly of a factual nature, but
in some cases extend as far as direct linguistic appropriation of
passages from the earlier text. Giese may therefore feel vindicated in
her argument of ‘Deckungsgleichheit’, but in truth the two texts are
fundamentally different in tone and texture, illustrating the divergence
between fact and its fictional rendition that Exner’s citation of Meyer

Giese, pp. 146-58 (p. 148).
Ibid., p. 161.
Grete Weil, Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2001). All
further page references will appear in the text in the form (L, 93).
Exner, p. 7.
Ibid., p. 22.
Ibid., p. 93.
Grete Weil 257

suggests is a feature of Weil’s work. Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben
eschews the introspection of Meine Schwester Antigone – which
manifests itself in a distinctly non-linear, fragmentary narrative – and
strives instead for a more sober and objective approach to its material,
strongly reminiscent of the author’s autobiographical contribution to a
collection of essays published in 1981.9 Her essay, ‘Nicht dazu
erzogen, Widerstand zu leisten’, is explicitly autobiographical and
anticipates Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben by virtue of its detached
tone; indeed, one might view it as an early synopsis of the
autobiography. It may well be that at the time of writing Meine
Schwester Antigone Weil shared the anguish of her earlier narrator,
but in the interim had managed to overcome, ot at least moderate, the
distress, thus enabling her to adopt the more balanced and reflective
mode of writing evident in the essay of the following year. One must
simply remember that Meine Schwester Antigone is a fiction, albeit
shot through with autobiographical elements, and there are many more
incidences of authorial invention therein than biographical fact. As
such, any juxtaposition of the narrator and the author should be treated
with caution, as was the case with Hein’s Von allem Anfang an.
By way of contrast, with Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben we
are dealing explicitly with a conventional autobiography, which traces
the author’s life chronologically from childhood to the immediate
postwar period, and concludes with an explanation of her decision to
return to Germany after 1945. Weil devotes the second part of her
autobiography exclusively to the depiction of her experiences of
persecution in occupied Amsterdam, and the extent to which this
period has become the ‘Angelpunkt’ for her own life emerges
strongly. In this respect at least, then, she does share with the narrator
of Meine Schwester Antigone a moral imperative to tackle the Nazi
legacy in literature. As she observed: ‘Es gab nur noch die eine
Aufgabe: Gegen das Vergessen anzuschreiben. Mit aller Liebe, allem
Vermögen, in zäher Verbissenheit’.10 It was this motivation that
prompted her first novel, Ans Ende der Welt, which proved too
provocative a text for German audiences in the immediate postwar
period, not being published until 1949, and then only in the GDR.11
Grete Weil, ‘Nicht dazu erzogen, Widerstand zu leisten’, in Weil ich das Leben
liebe…: Persönliches und Politisches aus dem Leben engagierter Frauen, ed. by
Dorlies Pollmann and Edith Laudowicz (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1981), pp. 171-
80. Subsequent references to the essay will appear in the text in the form (NDE, 171).
Quoted in Exner, p. 68. One might compare Weil’s determination to counter
forgetfulness with the Erinnerungsarbeit of Heinrich Böll.
Grete Weil, Ans Ende der Welt (Berlin: Volk und Welt, 1949).
258 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

By abandoning the refractive devices of fiction but adhering

to the same rationale of writing against forgetfulness, Grete Weil has
produced with Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben a moving, and
authentic, testimony of individual suffering which far surpasses Meine
Schwester Antigone. It tells a remarkable story which manages to
celebrate the resilience of human spirit in the face of terrifying
adversity, but simultaneously reveals Weil to be a ‘Zeugin des
Schmerzes’, haunted by a pain unimaginable to those who did not
experience the Holocaust.12 In formal terms, Leb ich denn, wenn
andere leben conforms closely to the pattern of a traditional
autobiography. In order to confirm this impression, one need only
consider Weil’s foreword, which invokes the Goethean paradigm by
way of both credo and qualification:
Wie hält es die Autorin mit der Wahrheit? Ich bin eine äußerst
unwillige und deshalb wohl auch schlechte Lügnerin. Was ich sage,
soll stimmen. Doch inwieweit trügt die Erinnerung? Und so sollte man
dem Lesenden wie sich selbst zugestehen, dass zu einer
Autobiographie auch Dichtung gehört. (L, 8)

There is nothing new or unusual about such a declaration, echoing as

it does Günter de Bruyn’s opening remarks in Zwischenbilanz. Weil
raises the usual caveats concerning a possibly deficient memory, but
avers that she will endeavour only to tell the truth, the facts she can
substantiate. But naturally, any attempt to tell the story of one’s life
can only ever be a construct. The selection of key episodes in one’s
life and portraits of the people who have played an influential role in it
lends coherence to the account that could not have existed at the time.
Herein lies the Dichtung, the structural device intrinsic to any
autobiography, just as it is in any fiction: in order that the material is
accessible to the reader, the author must sort the wheat from the chaff.
‘Ich bin mir der Gefahren einer Autobiographie bewusst’ (L, 8), says
Weil, and consequently the reader is well-disposed towards the author
and prepared to accept that her account will be authentic at the very
least, even if absolute accuracy cannot always be vouched for. Once
these caveats have been issued at the outset, the narrative of Leb ich
denn, wenn andere leben proceeds without undue concern about the
potential dangers that infest autobiographies. In this respect, the text is
the most conventional of those analysed in the present study, quite
possibly on account of having been compiled by the oldest author who

Quoted in Exner, p. 109.
Grete Weil 259

devoted her literary career to the issues which find expression in Leb
ich denn, wenn andere leben.
There is an inherent authenticity to Weil’s account which
recalls Primo Levi’s remark in the preface to If This is a Man: ‘It
seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented’
(ITM, 16). On a general level, as a Holocaust testimony the subject
matter of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben is one with which we are
now all too painfully familiar, and Weil’s depiction of occupied
Amsterdam and the plight of the Jews there in particular is entirely
credible. It is little surprise then that Weil should mention meeting a
certain Herr Frank, whose daughters died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen:
‘Eines der beiden an Typhus gestorbenen Mädchen hieß Anne’ (L,
240). The fleeting episode, with its evocation of the famous diarist,
reinforces the fact that her story is part of a broader network of stories,
although at one juncture during the second half of the text, she is at
pains to point out the individual nature of her own account:
Dieses Buch ist die Geschichte meines Lebens und nicht die
Geschichte der Vernichtung von über 100, 000 holländischen Juden
und der zahllosen, in die Niederlande geflüchteten Emigranten. Denn
diese Geschichte gibt es bereits, leider noch immer nicht ins Deutsche
übersetzt; das Buch Ondergang (Untergang) von Professor J. Presser.
Ich schreibe also nur das auf, was mich unmittelbar angeht, was ich
selbst erlebt habe. (L, 171)

With her citation of this Dutch study, Weil provides an external,

objective frame of reference that will allow readers to corroborate the
veracity of her account and place it within its historical context. At the
time, as Weil observes, she could not possibly have conceived of the
full scale of the horror, and therefore concentrates principally on
recounting her personal experiences of what happened as accurately as
possible. It is axiomatic, however, that the harrowing historical events
should invade and threaten the private sphere throughout Leb ich
denn, wenn andere leben, a feature of every text under analysis here.
Nowhere is this invasion more keenly felt than in the passage in Leb
ich denn, wenn andere leben describing the arrest of her husband,
Edgar, and his subsequent internment in the concentration camp at
Mauthausen in 1941: ‘Kaum einer hat bis jetzt diesen Namen gehört,
der bald in allen Entsetzen auslösen wird’ (L, 160-61). Only much
later would the author learn the details of her husband’s death, but her
recollection of his arrest conveys most effectively the genuine sense of
fear she must have felt, being so entirely ignorant of his fate at the
time. On account of the knowledge both Weil and we as readers now
possess, thanks to documentary works such as Ondergang and the
260 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

testimonies of authors such as Jean Améry and Primo Levi, the

tension in this section of the text is dramatically enhanced, but without
ever appearing inauthentic. It represents a convincing example of
Weil’s effective conflation of Dichtung and Wahrheit.
The careful selection of material enhances the authenticity of
Weil’s account. She provides a series of mini-portraits of family
members and friends who have played a role in her life, but without
diluting the main thread of her narrative and turning it into an
‘Aneinanderreihung von Namen, die wirkt, als würde dem Leser der
Who is Who zur Lektüre vorgesetzt’ (L, 8), one of the inherent
dangers of autobiography she speaks of. Each portrait has been
carefully chosen to throw light either on the author herself or on the
times she lived through, and as befits the account of a former
professional photographer, the descriptions of these influential
individuals are accompanied seamlessly by photographs. As a result,
Weil brings the historical period to life for the reader, but without
overstretching herself in pursuit of a panoramic sweep of society.
Although we catch glimpses of many people and learn of events at
that time, the dimensions of Weil’s life appear to have been quite
small, centring on those few people who were most important to her.
This was the result of choice before 1933, and of necessity thereafter,
especially during the darkest days of her exile in Amsterdam, when
she was ultimately forced into hiding: ‘Alle Lebensempfindungen, alle
Bedürfnisse waren gedämpft, alle Wünsche, alle Triebe. Ich habe
mich eingeigelt’ (NDE, 178). The tight focus of her narrative is
complemented by a style both sober and uncluttered. In the main Weil
employs relatively concise sentences, where the syntax is direct and
without embellishment. Although the linguistic structure is not
dissimilar to Meine Schwester Antigone, the more unemotional tone is
a significant difference. Where the narrator of the earlier novel
appears overwrought, as she wrestles with her guilt at having survived
the Holocaust, Weil simply recounts her experiences without an
excess of introspection and allows the facts to speak for themselves.13
As a result, there is little incidence in Leb ich denn, wenn andere
leben of the brooding passages which punctuate Meine Schwester
Antigone. Weil’s approach in her autobiography recalls Anna
Mitgutsch’s perception that the credibility of a literary text is
enhanced by ‘eine Simplizität und eine Genauigkeit, eine
ungeschminkte Direktheit’:

One can contrast Weil’s approach with that adopted by Ruth Klüger. See Chapter 3.
Grete Weil 261

Es gibt eine Intensität der Sprache und der Darstellung, eine

Überzeugungskraft, die anders nicht zu erreichen ist. Diese Intensität
läßt sich schwer simulieren. Sie kommt aus der Verletzung, aus dem
Schmerz, der nicht rückgängig zu machenden Beschädigung.

Although the description of the tone of Leb ich denn, wenn

andere leben generally holds true in contrast to that employed in
Meine Schwester Antigone, it is important to underscore the difference
in tone between the first and second parts of the autobiography. The
opening section comprises many short vignettes, focusing on the
author’s family members and friends, as well as some of the places
that were important to her before the onset of National Socialism. An
anecdotal quality underpins the vast majority, and in the context of
Weil’s life, one or two seem inconsequential, if not downright
frivolous.15 One could cite the chapter ‘Spielsachen’ as a prime
example, recounting as it does the author’s dislike of dolls and her
preference for playing ‘mit zwei leeren Fadenspulen, die ich an einer
Schnur hinter mir herzog und die ich Fips und Fops nannte’ (L, 43).
Far from being an irrelevance, chapters such as this one establish the
idyllic and uncomplicated atmosphere of Weil’s childhood in Bavaria.
She was able to grow up in a secure, close-knit and loving family
environment, the influence of which would ultimately protect her
through the ravages that were to follow, having instilled in her a sense
of stability and strength of character. Generally carefree though her
early years may have been, Weil manages to convey the growing
unease and sense of threat that increasingly pervaded her family’s life
during the Weimar Republic, such as the direct threat to her father
following the Bierkeller Putsch in 1923 and, more ominously, the first
arrest of her husband in 1933. In hindsight, the author identifies in her
account the warning signs that existed at the time, but indicates too
how it was possible to shield oneself from them. As she observes in
her autobiographical essay:
Nürnberger Gesetze, Berufsverbote, Juden durften nicht mehr in Kino,
Theater, Schwimmbäder, Anlagen, aber die eigentlichen
Verfolgungen kamen erst nach der Kristallnacht. Sehr, sehr viele
Juden begriffen nicht, was gespielt wurde, und im Grunde war es auch
gar nicht zu begreifen, an Genozid hat keiner gedacht. Es ist heute fast
unmöglich, sich in die Zeit des Nichtwissens zurückzuversetzen, in

Mitgutsch, p. 12.
One is reminded in places of Ernst Toller’s anecdotal approach in Jugend in
Deutschland, albeit that Toller’s focus is much more directed at political, rather than
private, matters.
262 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

die Zeit, in der Betroffene und Nichtbetroffene sagten: Es wird nichts

so heiß gegessen wie gekocht. (NDE, 175)

By means of such evasion, the happiness of her childhood and early

adulthood were not compromised, at least initially. In the context of
her autobiography, the preservation of the idyll is reflected by the
inclusion of occasionally twee chapters such as ‘Spielsachen’. Yet
such sections also serve to instil in the narrative a tension, since the
reader is only too well aware of the incipient danger facing the author
and her family. Weil’s subtle exploitation of Dichtung can be adduced
once more, as the relatively untroubled atmosphere of part one serves
as a strikingly dramatic contrast to the mood of the second half of Leb
ich denn, wenn andere leben with its unremitting terror and despair.
The chapters in the second half of the text, which commence
with the logistical and existential problems of emigration, retain an
anecdotal quality at times, but tend to be longer and a more reflective.
The immediacy of the description is enhanced by Weil’s adoption of
the present tense from the opening chapter of this section, the ominous
sounding ‘Verhängnis Amsterdam’, as the focus of the narrative shifts
to the reality of emigration for the author and he family. Gone is the
frivolity of part one, to be replaced by passages which chart the
contours of Nazi repression in occupied Amsterdam. Even the short,
anecdotal chapters have nothing inconsequential about them any
longer. In ‘Der Pelzmantel’, for instance, Weil describes her encounter
with a young German woman, who has been arrested on the street and
is distraught when she arrives at the Jewish deportation centre in
Amsterdam, the Schouwburg:
Im Gegensatz zu allen Menschen, denen ich hier begegnet bin,
strömen ihr die Tränen über das Gesicht, sie kann vor Schluchzen
kaum sprechen. Da sie mir Leid tut, versuche ich, mit ihr zu reden.
Dabei erfahre ich ziemlich schnell, sie weint nicht um sich, um keinen
geliebten Menschen, sie weint um ihren Pelzmantel.
‘So ein Pech, dass ich den gerade anhatte, als ich festgenommen
wurde. Wenn er mit in den Osten geht, habe ich doch bei der
Rückkehr nichts anzuziehen.’
Mir bleibt bei so viel Dummheit die Sprache weg, ich kann ihr doch
nicht sagen: Sind Sie so sicher, dass Sie überhaupt zurückkommen?
(L, 173)

Taking pity on the woman, whose complete inability to appreciate the

danger is alarming, Weil agrees to rescue the coat for her, only
narrowly avoiding problems herself in the process. What might have
been an amusing little tale of vanity in any other context, simply
Grete Weil 263

underlines the inherent dangers of life under National Socialism,

where even seemingly trivial situations could prove fatal.
Despite the tragedy that befell the author during her exile, the
narrative in part two retains its detached quality. A comparison of
Weil’s description of her reaction to Edgar’s arrest in Amsterdam with
the equivalent rendition in Meine Schwester Antigone depicting the
arrest of the narrator’s husband, Waiki, illustrates the markedly more
dispassionate tone of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben. When it
dawns upon the narrator of Meine Schwester Antigone that her
husband must have fallen into the hands of the Gestapo on his way to
a safe house, her despair overwhelms her and is conveyed clearly in
the text:
Der Schmerz fängt an mich zu zerreißen, er, der mich nie mehr
verlassen wird, mit dem ich leben muß, und als spräche ein anderer
Mensch, sage ich vor mich hin: ‘Ich wollte, es wäre schon alles
vorbei.’ Sage es zu meiner Mutter, die klein und unglücklich im
Zimmer sitzt, aufsteht, zu mir kommt, mich zu streicheln versucht,
worauf ich anfange zu schreien, als habe sie mich geschlagen. Ich
muß ihr irr vorkommen in diesem Moment. Ich bin irr, flehe sie mit
den Augen an, gib mir eine Fackel, damit ich die Welt in Brand setzen
kann, die ganze Welt, keiner soll überleben. Ich will zerstören,
zerstören, aber ich kippe nicht, es ist mir nicht gegeben, noch im
Wahnsinn behalte ich das bißchen Vernunft, mit dem ich mich
weitertaste von Stütze zu Stütze. (A, 159)

It is a convincing depiction of inconsolable grief, exacerbated by the

narrator’s certainty as to the fate of her husband: ‘Es hat mir an jenem
Abend niemand ein Foto der Todestreppe [im KZ Mauthausen]
gezeigt, aber ich brauchte kein Bild, um mir das, was geschehen
würde, vorzustellen’ (A, 160). The images of violence and destruction
– ‘zerreißen’, ‘zerstören’, ‘geschlagen’ – are especially prevalent in
the passage, together with the suggestion of the narrator’s incipient
madness and desire for violent revenge. She appears to be on the edge
of a nervous collapse. Although there are some similarities in the
equivalent passage in Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben, the explicitly
autobiographical rendition is striking, and rather disturbing, for its
greater composure, whilst sacrificing none of the tension of the novel.
Weil concentrates on the external events of Edgar’s departure, which
more effectively accentuates the poignancy of their final farewell, all
the more heart-rending for neither knew it was to be the last:
Dann kommt der Augenblick, in dem er fortgeht. Er sagt noch, dass er
anrufen wird, wenn er an einer der beiden Adressen angekommen ist.
Wir umarmen uns kurz.
264 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Das Warten beginnt. Kein Anruf kommt. Nur eine Freundin will mir
am Telefon erzählen, dass sie Edgar, gleich an der Ecke bei uns, mit
zwei merkwürdig aussehenden Männern hat stehen sehen. Doch ich
lasse sie nicht ausreden, weil ich ja auf seinen Anruf warte.
Hätte ich sie ausreden lassen, bräuchte ich nicht mehr zu warten. Nach
einer halben Stunde ist mir klar, dass Edgar der Gestapo in die Hände
gelaufen sein muss. (L, 157)

Like her narrator in the novel, Weil expresses the desire to set the
world alight with a flaming torch, has the impression that her voice
belongs to somebody else and flinches at her mother’s touch. Despite
these similarities, and a small degree of direct linguistic correlation,
the passage in Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben reads as a more
objective account of the author’s reaction. The emotions are held on a
much tighter rein than in Meine Schwester Antigone.
One can picture how Weil must have shared the despair of her
narrator at the time of Edgar’s disappearance – she admits, for
example, that following his arrest she had obtained enough sleeping
pills ‘um mich davonmachen zu können’ (L, 161) – but her intentions
are clearly different in her autobiography. By curbing long poetic
descriptions of her own feelings, akin to those in the above passage
from Meine Schwester Antigone, she is striving to maintain her
emotional detachment from the material, in order to provide an
authentic, yet objective, personal record of the time in question. In
particular, she achieves this by favouring aphoristic sentences
throughout the second half of the text, such as: ‘Wir umarmen uns
kurz’ (L, 157) or ‘Ende September ist keiner mehr am Leben’ (L,
161). It is difficult to overlook the emotional resonance intrinsic to
such concise statements, which say so much more to us than they
appear to. Indeed, the impression is very much of a writer
endeavouring to curb strong emotions which might otherwise threaten
to overwhelm her narrative and thus undermine the impact upon the
reader. In this respect, less is definitely more, and it is underlines the
considerable force of Weil’s autobiography, which surpasses the
novel’s coverage of similar ground. In Meine Schwester Antigone, the
narrative is driven by the heightened emotional state of the narrator;
with Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben, it is up to the reader to respond
to Weil’s account, and that engagement is much more effective at
rendering the horror.
It is a remarkable feature of Weil’s autobiography that her
sense of self appears so stable, in spite of the personal tragedy and
deprivations she had to endure at the hands of the Nazis. By way of
contrast, in Meine Schwester Antigone the damage inflicted on the
Grete Weil 265

narrator’s identity by National Socialism lies at the root of her soul-

searching in the narrative present of the late 1970s. Indeed, the novel
can be seen as an impressionistic rendition of an ongoing crisis. The
narrator’s guilt at not having resisted the Nazis effectively, resulting in
her feelings of complicity in the fate of her husband, underpins her
obsession with Antigone, who according to the myth as dramatised by
Sophocles and Aeschylus defied her uncle’s decree that her brother’s
body should not receive a proper burial and therefore emerges as a
potential figure of identification for the narrator.16 Starting on the ‘Tag
des Entsetzens, der 30. Januar 33’, the Nazis gradually eroded ‘fast
alles, was zu uns gehört’: ‘Land, Sprache, Sicherheit und schließlich
die eigene Identität’ (A, 181). The novel explores very effectively the
disorientating effects of emigration, described not as ‘der Sturz aus
der eigenen Klasse in eine tiefere’, but more dramatically as a ‘Fallen
ins Bodenlose’ (A, 182). The choice of a country to escape to is
likened to a game of roulette: ‘Ich bin die Kugel auf der Scheibe, im
Kreis herumgeschleudert’ (A, 183). By describing the experience in
such physically unsettling terms, she has already formulated an
answer to the question she poses moments later: ‘Ist Identitätsverlust
wirklich ein Unglück?’ (A, 183).
It is evident that Weil herself suffered a comparable
disorientation, and so the sensation of being ‘bodenlos’ in exile
naturally pervades the second half of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben
as well:
Alles ist fremd, sobald ich die Straße betrete. Ich weine jeden Tag.
Die andere Sprache, die fremden Menschen, das flache Land. Sogar
die Kühe haben eine andere Farbe als in Bayern. (L, 136)

In Amsterdam, Weil is forced to realise ‘dass man nicht mitzureden

hat, ein Ausgestoßener ist, ein Niemand, unwichtig für die Umgebung.
Unwichtig für sich selbst’ (L, 136). Yet the author displays
considerable personal resilience in the face of adversity, and two
factors may be adduced in Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben to
account for not only her ability ultimately to withstand the pressure
exerted on her sense of self – the success of which Leb ich denn, wenn
andere leben embodies –, but also her determination to return to
Germany after the war. The first is her Jewish background, which was
far from typical. The second factor was her strong attachment to her
Heimat, which as the text reveals comprises different elements. These

It is interesting to note that Jean Anouilh also adapted the myth, producing a highly
successful play in 1944 as an allegorical picture of the situation in Occupied France.
266 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

two factors combined to form an individuation framework stable

enough to protect the author’s identity, despite undergoing the most
terrible stress.
To describe Weil’s Jewish upbringing as unconventional is
not to exaggerate. In the tellingly titled chapter ‘Lebensgefährlich,
Jüdin zu sein’, the author details how insignificant Judaism was in her
family life prior to 1933, although it was subsequently to have such a
devastating impact upon them all, as it was for Ruth Klüger and Jean
Améry, both of whom had similiarly loose attachments to Judaism.
The author makes it abundantly clear that the family’s Jewishness
could not be ascribed to any religious conviction: ‘Wir gingen weder
zur Kirche noch zur Synagoge, sprachen keine Gebete, redeten nicht
über Gott, ganz sicher nicht über Jahwe’ (L, 73). Indeed, they
celebrated Christmas and Easter, and shared a pattern of existence
with those people around them in a community in which they were
fully assimilated: ‘In diesen [großbürgerlich-intellektuellen] Kreisen
hat man in der Weimarer Republik nur wenig Antisemitismus gespürt’
(NDE, 171). Even in the narrative present, the author is still hard-
pressed therefore to define what it is to be Jewish: ‘Jude, was ist das?
Ich habe es als Mädchen nicht gewusst und weiß es heute auch nicht
genau’ (L, 74). It is telling that Weil only retained her Jewish identity
as a young woman on account of her father’s persuasive influence. As
a successful lawyer, her father was a member of the Jewish council in
Munich, despite never having been in a synagogue in his life.
Nevertheless, he rejected his daughter’s argument that belonging to
the Jewish community was ‘verlogen’, countering that it would be
‘feige, aus seinem Jüdischsein davonzulaufen zu wollen und man
müsse aus vielen Gründen die Tradition aufrechterhalten’ (L, 21).
That the precise nature of the tradition remained nebulous is self-
evident in Weil’s inability to locate a stable definition:
[…] Dann bin ich geneigt, gewisse positive Eigenschaften wie hohe
Sensibilität oder auch Gerechtigkeitssinn für jüdisch zu halten,
obwohl ich genau weiß, dass es überall Sensibilität und
Gerechtigkeitssinn gibt, so gut wie unsensible und ungerechte Juden.
Auch mit diesem Unterscheidungsmerkmal ist es also nichts. Was ist
das: ‘Jude’? (L, 77)

Only much later did it become clear to the author that to be Jewish
was a ‘Todesurteil’ (L, 77). It is no surprise to find that Jean Améry
proposes an identical definition in Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne:
‘Wenn das von der Gesellschaft über mich verhängte Urteil einen
greifbaren Sinn hatte, konnte es nur bedeuten, ich sei fürderhin dem
Tode ausgesetzt’ (JSS, 134).
Grete Weil 267

If the full implications of her Jewish background initially

remained beyond her grasp, rooted in an indefinable concept of family
tradition, Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben explains how the exact
contours of this heritage were ultimately to be shaped by forces
external to the family. In reality, Weil’s Jewish identity was
effectively imposed from the outside, by means of official documents
such as school registration forms and burgeoning anti-Semitism in
Bavaria. The family suffered several incidences of prejudice: she and
her brother were excluded from the Munich branch of the Alpenverein
‘ohne Angabe von Gründen’ (L, 76); she and other Jews were not
invited to the party of a girl whose father was a doctor ‘mit
zahlreichen jüdischen Patienten’ (L, 75); and her father, despite
encouragement from some colleagues, never became chairman of the
Munich Anwaltskammer, discovering ‘lange vor Hitler, dass es nicht
gut sei, wenn ein Jude einen so einflussreichen Posten innehabe’ (L,
20). Weil describes these events simply as ‘Ablehnungen’ (L, 75),
thereby playing down their significance and revealing how it was
possible at the time to underestimate the incipient threat. Weil cites a
letter her father wrote to the local mayor of Egern complaining about
anti-Semitic graffiti on the road outside their house:
Der Brief meines Vaters, der sich beschwerte und meinte, es schade
dem Ansehen des Ortes, und der Bürgermeister könne etwas dagegen
tun, ist naiv, aber im Mai 1935 war man eben noch naiv und ahnte
auch nach zwei Jahren der Nazi-Herrschaft nicht, was kommen würde.
(L, 51)

Weil is relieved that her dying father never knew that a doctor refused
to treat him in hospital because he was Jewish.
Following the arrest of Edgar Weil in the wave of measures
that followed the Reichstag fire in 1933, the author and her husband
knew that emigration was inevitable. Where once the family had been
able to remain relatively oblivious to the scale of anti-Semitism, apart
from the few occasions when it impinged upon them, the inherent
dangers of persecution now the Nazis were in power could be ignored
no longer. Weil’s reaction to the release of Edgar underlines her
greater appreciation of the threat now posed: ‘Es war einer der
schönsten Momente, wenn nicht überhaupt der allerschönste
Augenblick meines Lebens’ (L, 109). Even though Judaism had
played a negligible role in the lives of both hitherto, they were
confronted after the advent of Hitler by the ramifications of their
Jewishness as never before, in an environment that others were
268 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

moulding around them. In this way, Weil’s experience tallies once

more with Améry’s:
Ich brauchte [die Nürnberger Gesetze] nur zu überfliegen und konnte
schon gewahr werden, daß sie auf mich zutrafen. Die Gesellschaft,
sinnfällig im nationalsozialistischen deutschen Staat, den durchaus die
Welt als legitimen Vertreter des deutschen Volkes anerkannte, hatte
mich soeben in aller Form und mit aller Deutlichkeit zum Juden
gemacht, beziehungsweise sie hatte meinem früher schon
vorhandenen, aber damals nicht folgenschweren Wissen, daß ich Jude
sei, eine neue Dimension gegeben. (JSS, 134)

In exile in Amsterdam, following the German invasion and the

installation of Seyß-Inquart as Reichskommissar in 1940, the
implementation of the first anti-Jewish laws in the Netherlands
effectively set the seal on this process. As Weil observes in the
preamble to the second part of the autobiography: ‘Die Zeiten der
Verfolgung, des Gejagtwerdens haben sich mir tief eingeprägt, wie die
Nummern im Arm der Auschwitzhäftlinge’ (L, 127). It is not simply
the experiences of persecution per se which have become imprinted in
her. One can adduce from Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben, and the
second half of the text in particular, the extent to which her Jewish
identity as a whole was scored into her sense of self by these
experiences, which were initiated by the Nazis and reached their most
terrifying manifestation in exile.
Is it not inappropriate then to assert that Weil’s Jewish
identity, imposed from outside and bearing such a terrible personal
price, can still be interpreted as a contributory factor to her personal
resilience? Weil herself corroborates the validity of this assertion,
when she ponders how to define Jewishness:
Eines ist zu der unklaren Definition hinzugekommen; Ich bin Teil
einer Gemeinschaft des Leidens, der Schmerzen. Kann ich davon
wegkommen? Offensichtlich nicht. (L, 74)

However reluctantly, the author concedes that the suffering appears

indeed to have given her a means by which to relate to her
background, to understand what it means to be Jewish. What emerges
in her account in the wake of Edgar’s death and during the period of
the deportations of Jews from the Netherlands, is the manner in which
she channelled her grief and the experience of persecution into
resistance, albeit with great difficulty:
Ich lebe noch, obwohl es mehr ein Vegetieren ist. Sich auflösen in
Schmerz. Noch immer hält man es für ein schreckliches
Einzelschicksal. Ich muss es hinnehmen, die Tränen zurückdrängen,
Grete Weil 269

wenn ich einem jungen Paar begegne. Und aufpassen, dass ich selbst
am Leben bleibe. Der Widerstand, die große Aufgabe. (L, 163)

The determination to fight on, ‘ihnen auf keinen Fall freiwillig in die
Hände [zu] laufen’ (L, 165) underpins the remainder of the text, and in
many respects is reminiscent of one of the most famous of German
exile novels, Das siebte Kreuz (1942). In the novel, Anna Seghers,
herself a Jewish exile who was forced to flee to Paris in 1933 and
thence to Mexico in 1941, depicts the successful escape from
Westhofen concentration camp of one man, Georg Heisler, who is
aided by the kindness and courage of friends and strangers. It is a
remarkable story, which uncovers the author’s inherent optimism,
deriving from her unshakeable faith in human spirit, that National
Socialism would ultimately fall because it would never fully
extinguish the essence of humanity. The concluding words of the
novel are significant in this regard: ‘Wir fühlten alle, wie tief und
furchtbar die äußeren Mächte in den Menschen hineingreifen können,
bis in sein Innerstes, aber wir fühlten auch, daß es im Innersten etwas
gab, was unangreifbar war und unverletzbar’.17 The same indomitable
spirit pervades the second half of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben, as
exemplified by the author and those around her, and corroborates the
authenticity of Seghers’s fictional manifestation of her conviction,
which may well have appeared hopelessly idealistic in 1942.18
Despite strong reservations about the morality of her decision,
Weil was able to secure employment with the Jüdischer Rat in
Amsterdam, initially as a photographer and then ultimately as a
secretary. The realisation that work for the council in some capacity
would facilitate the rescue of some Jews eased her doubts
considerably: ‘Ich wäre wohler, ich wäre nicht dabei gewesen, wenn
ich mir nichts vorzuwerfen habe, im Gegenteil, es ist mir gelungen,
ein paar Erwachsene (durch Überreden, doch noch unterzutauchen)
und viele Kinder (durch Überreden der Eltern, sie in christliche
Familien zu geben) zu retten’ (L, 166). In addition, Weil also derived
personal benefits from her position, ‘denn die Mitglieder des
Jüdischen Rats erhalten einen Stempel in den Personalausweis mit
dem großen roten “J”, dass sie bis auf weiteres vom Arbeitseinsatz in
Deutschland freigestellt sind’ (L, 166). In this way, Weil’s mother,
who had joined her daughter in Amsterdam by this time, was also
protected, albeit protection of a temporary, and exceedingly tenuous,

Seghers, p. 453.
By way of contrast, as we have seen in Chapter 3, Ruth Klüger expresses
reservations about Seghers’s novel.
270 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

nature: ‘Länger als bis “auf weiteres” kann und will ohnehin niemand
denken’ (L, 166). Thus, the author made sure she always worked at
night, as most arrests were made in the evening ‘und solange ich da
bin, besteht eine Möglichkeit, Mutter frei zu bekommen, sollte sie
geholt werden’ (L, 167). Through her work for the Jewish Council,
Weil was able to develop a network of contacts similar to the one
depicted in Das siebte Kreuz that manages to spirit Heisler away to the
Netherlands. Potential hiding-places for friends and family were
established and, where possible, advance warnings of police raids
could be relied upon with a little good fortune to provide enough time
for escape. Weil celebrates the courage of the Dutch who risked their
lives to help the Jews, and while the picture of such solidarity is heart-
warming, the author does not conceal the tension that nevertheless
marked relationships between Dutch and German Jews: ‘Wir sind für
die holländischen Juden, was einst die Ostjuden für uns waren, fremd,
abzulehnen. Außerdem glauben manche, dass ihr Land ohne uns
deutsch-jüdische Emigranten nie von den Nazis erobert worden wäre’
(L, 169).19
In a letter from 1947, written by Weil to the Jewish author
Margarete Susman and which forms the basis of the concluding
chapter of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben, the author endeavours to
explain what her Jewish background means to her. It seems clear that
this identity, thrust upon her by those who made her wear a yellow
star, was predicated on a rationale for survival and the will to fight
against the persecutors:
[…] In diesen langen Jahren habe ich versucht zu lernen, Ja zum
Leben zu sagen. Wenn ich es jetzt kann (trotz vieler Stunden der
Anfechtung), so ist es wohl nur aus meinem Jüdischsein heraus
erklärbar, und ich nehme es dankbar hin als Wunder, das unser stets
auf das Äußerste gerichtete und der Vernichtung preisgegebene Leben
bewahrt und trägt. (L, 251)

The will to resist that Weil derived from her Jewishness helped her
tackle the senselessness and despair. Yet, with the liberation, the
enforced nature of this identity became problematic once more. If
individuation is truly a relational process, as Eakin convincingly
argues, where the self is shaped by external forces, attitudes or values,
then National Socialism can be seen to have crystallised Weil’s
Jewishness more fundamentally than her own family. Her
determination not to submit, not to be exterminated for being a Jew,

Jonathan Glover eulogises the willingness of the Dutch to harbour Jews and defy
the Germans during the occupation in his study (H, 385).
Grete Weil 271

derived from her experience of the univers concentrationnaire: ‘Die

Nazis wollten mich umbringen, also hatte ich die Pflicht, dafür zu
sorgen, daß sie es nicht tun konnten’ (NDE, 178). With the fall of
National Socialism, however, and the disappearance of this
imperative, it ironically appears that Weil’s Jewish sense of self lost
definition. An identity formed in extremis clearly lacks a genuinely
wholesome foundation to enable it to endure once that threat no longer
exists. After the war the author did not join the newly formed Jewish
community, ‘weil ich es für ausreichend fand, dass ich mich vor aller
Welt in meinen Büchern als Jüdin bekannte’ (L, 21). Tellingly, Weil
confesses to Susman how, despite the strength she derived from
Judaism, she has failed ‘das Volkshafte des Judentums für mich zu
akzeptieren’ (L, 251). Her admission is not simply a reaction to the
tension she witnessed between Dutch and German Jews, although it
did have an impact upon her, but primarily an acknowledgement that
her true sense of self has been shaped by stronger, more fully-rounded
and organic influences: ‘Ich habe die Heimat Deutschland verloren
und keine andere dafür gefunden’ (L, 252). Important though Judaism
undoubtedly became for Weil in adversity, it is her attachment to what
she perceives as her Heimat that appears the more potent formative
influence. In this respect, then, Weil’s situation stands in direct
contrast to Ruth Klüger’s, for whom it is her Jewishness – also
imposed upon her by the Nazis – that becomes the fundamental
touchstone of identity, rather than her Heimat.
Precisely how one defines the elements that constitute Heimat
– a concept peculiar to debates on the nature of German identity – has
remained a vexed issue on account of its variegated application in
cultural and political discourse over recent centuries. In their very
engaging study of the concept, Elizabeth Boa and Rachel Palfreyman
have teased out the connotations contained within the term, finding
cultural examples that reflect its multifaceted nature. It is the
revelation by Boa and Palfreyman of the oppositional forces intrinsic
to the concept of Heimat that is of especial pertinence to our
exploration of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben. The constellations of
town versus country or reaction versus progression in themselves are
not uncommon, and one need only look at recent debates in the United
Kingdom concerning attitudes to the countryside, asylum seekers,
Islam, Celtic nationalism or Europe for evidence of how these are not
merely German concerns. What is fundamentally German, however, is
the relationship between regional and national affiliations, and the
issue of where one’s Heimat is located. Boa and Palfreyman illustrate
272 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

how these different forces remained, and remain, in a state of flux ‘as
individuals struggled to find stable ground from which to cope with
rapid change, to forge a liveable identity’.20 But are these affiliations
geographical, political, cultural, linguistic, ethnic? Boa and
Palfreyman examine the definitions coined by Eduard Spranger in the
1920s, and point up how his initially organic concept of one’s
subjective attachment to an area, with its decidedly socialist flavour,
was infiltrated by a more racist strain with the onset of National
Socialism. By adding ‘the collective concept of the Volk to his original
definition which had been couched in individual psychological terms’,
Spranger introduced terminology with exclusively racial
connotations.21 As Boa and Palfreyman observe, anti-Semitism was to
become useful, and potent, in any definition of German identity:
Anti-Semitism served at once to sustain German identity by providing
the antagonistic figure of the alien, non-German other, but also to fuel
anxiety of dilution of identity through infiltration: if the eastern Jew in
caricature represented a radically different, alien being, almost more
laden with hatred was the stereotype of the assimilated western Jew
who was identified with international capitalism and portrayed as a
mimic who could never become a true German but who, without roots
in a Heimat or national identity of his own, might infiltrate and
undermine German identity. These two figures fulfilled different roles
in the reactionary version of Heimat discourse in that Jews could be
portrayed both as an archaically demonic threat and as the very acme
of a rootlessly cosmopolitan modernity which threatened to destroy
traditional community values.

The case of Grete Weil, however, simply underlines the fallacy of this
racist notion of identity. According to the above definition, the author
technically belonged to the more insidious type of Jew. Yet, as she
remarks, a ‘beliebtes Thema’ in her family was: ‘Wer steht einem
näher, ein bayerischer Bauer oder ein Jude aus Polen?’:
Für Mutter, Fritz und mich […] war es der bayerische Bauer, schon
weil wir nichts, aber auch gar nichts über den Juden aus Polen
wussten. An welche Gebräuche hielt er sich? In welcher Sprache
redete er mit seinem Gott? Hebräisch? Polnisch? Jiddisch? (L, 74)

Even if the Weil family did not subscribe to the disparaging stereotype
of the eastern Jew, he was certainly an ‘alien being’ with whom they

Elizabeth Boa and Rachel Palfreyman, Heimat – A German Dream: Regional
Loyalties and National Identity in German Culture 1890-1990 (Oxford: Oxford UP,
2000), p. 2.
Ibid., p. 6.
Ibid., p. 7.
Grete Weil 273

had nothing in common. The Nazis saw it differently, and Judaism

was ultimately to become a vital Notgemeinschaft for Weil and her
In contrast to the provisional nature of her Jewish identity,
and despite everything she experienced at the hands of the Nazis,
Grete Weil had been raised a German, and remained a German. That
sense of identity was unshakeable, withstanding the disorientation and
terror of exile and persecution because Weil’s attachment to her
Heimat ultimately proved to be so strong and well-defined. By way of
contrast and to underline the highly individual way in which victims
of the Holocaust have worked through their experiences, it is
interesting to note that for Jean Améry the loss of his Heimat was
irrevocable and had severe ramifications on his sense of self: ‘Die
Heimat ist das Kindheits- und Jugendland. Wer sie verloren hat, bleibt
ein Verlorener’ (JSS, 84). His adoption of a French pseudonym
emphatically underlined his feeling that his homeland had now
become a ‘Feindheimat’ (JSS, 85) with which he no longer wanted
contact. And yet he concedes that he was trapped in a paradox, for ‘es
nicht gut [ist], keine Heimat zu haben’ (JSS, 101).
Although Améry was no longer able to view his own Heimat
as inviolate, which had consequences for his sense of self, his
observations nonetheless illustrate the importance of Heimat to
identity formation. Thus Boa and Palfreyman’s thesis that the concept
of Heimat has endured in German debates because it ‘connote[s] a
deep-seated psychological need, which may even be intrinsic to
identity formation’ finds a degree of corroboration in both Leb ich
denn, wenn andere leben and Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, albeit in
contrasting ways.23 The formative forces which shaped Weil, as
outlined in the first part of her narrative, stemmed from what Boa and
Palfreyman call the ‘spatio-temporal Heimat’, defined as ‘the notion
of a linking or connecting of the self with something larger through a
process of identification signified by a spatial metaphor’ (H, 23). In
Weil’s case, this connection was achieved through her personal
relationships, as well as a deep-rooted affection for the areas she grew
up in. The manner and conditions of her return to Germany from exile
in 1947 reveal just how potent these ties were.
The importance of Weil’s relationships to her notion of self is
axiomatic from the title of her autobiography, and its implications are
reinforced by the myriad mini-portraits of family and friends that

Ibid., p. 23.
274 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

comprise the opening section of the narrative. The picture is formed of

a happy, secure and supportive family environment, in which all
relationships were of immense value to the author. The one exception
proving the rule in this regard was her grandmother, on the subject of
whom Weil displays a decidedly atypical vehemence: ‘Ich hasste sie,
hasste sie wirklich […]. In unzähligen Schulstunden beschäftigte ich
mich mit dem Gedanken, wie ich sie am besten beseitigen könnte,
ohne mir dadurch allzu sehr zu schaden’ (L, 36). Weil readily
acknowledges the benefits she derived from her very privileged
background, all the more so for the privations she subsequently
suffered during the Third Reich. Just how essential her relationships
were to Weil emerges in the wake of Edgar’s death, when she sobs:
‘Ich kann nicht allein leben’ (L, 162).
The potted biographies of those close to her are fleshed out
lovingly with accompanying photographs allowing the readers to form
a more substantial picture of these influential figures. The important
stability provided by her parents underpins the first section of the text.
It is clear that Weil was closer to her gentle father, whose looks and
temperament she inherited and whose love of his daughter was so
deep that it imbued her with ‘Kraft für mein langes, wahrhaft nicht
immer einfaches Leben’ (L, 15). Conversely, her relationship with her
more robust mother was more vexed: ‘Ich dachte oft, wie sehr könnte
ich sie lieben, wenn sie bloß nicht meine Mutter wäre’ (L, 22). But for
all the conflict generated by her mother’s attempts to shape her along
more traditional gender lines, Weil acknowledges that her
dependability was to prove invaluable, especially when their
experiences of persecution brought them closer together. In a short
anecdotal chapter entitled ‘Die Eltern’, the author eulogises the
warmth that radiated from her parents, with an idyllic picture of
marital, and indeed familial, bliss. The chapter appears almost trivial
alongside the more disturbing sections that follow it, yet its
significance as a celebration of humanity and affection should not be
overlooked for this very reason.
The importance of Weil’s relationships can be seen most
clearly in the chapters devoted to her brother, Fritz, and her two
husbands, Edgar and Walter. Weil is very candid about how close she
was to Fritz, making no effort to conceal the vaguely incestuous
overtones: ‘Sollten Sie uns nur für ein Liebespaar halten, in gewisser
Weise waren wir es’ (L, 33). In truth, the siblings were kindred spirits
who shared many passions and Fritz’s death opens an ‘unendliche
Leere’ in the author: ‘Jetzt war auch der nächste Mensch von mir
Grete Weil 275

gegangen’ (L, 35). The physical expression of Weil’s grief at this

point in the text prefigures her reaction to Edgar’s arrest and
subsequent death, and illustrates the intimacy of these relationships.
These people appear to have been quite literally a part of Weil, so that
when she writes of falling in love with Edgar ‘dass wir uns an diesem
Tag ineinander verliebten, so sehr, dass wir nie mehr voneinander
loskamen’ (L, 58), it is hard to resist a literal interpretation of her
statement. In this respect, we have arguably the most fully-rounded
embodiment of Eakin’s thesis of the relational self in the present
study. As Exner remarks:
[…] Die Erfahrung, daß sie nur aufgrund der jüdischen Abstammung
von einem bürokratischen Apparat verfolgt wurde und für die
Vernichtung vorgesehen war, hatte ihr Selbstwertgefühl beeinträchtigt
und verändert. Die Tatsache, daß sie den gewaltsamen Tod Edgar
Weils überlebt hatte, obwohl sie davon ausgegangen war, eine
untrennbare Einheit mit ihm zu bilden, hatte diese Erfahrung noch

Weil’s autobiography lends considerable weight to Eakin’s contention

that when approaching the genre one must consider ‘the extent to
which the self is defined by – and lives in terms of – its relations with
others’ (HOL, 43).
Edgar is described as ‘die ganz große Liebe meines Lebens’
(L, 58), and his importance to the author underpins the whole
autobiography. Their love is depicted as being utterly unconditional,
intense and sensuous. For example, the author admits that she cannot
travel past Heidelberg without being moved by the memory of their
first kiss after a day trip there as youngsters. By way of contrast, his
release from custody in 1933 is described as ‘einer der schönsten
Momente, wenn nicht überhaupt der allerschönste Augenblick meines
Lebens’ (L, 109). Weil’s world revolved around her first husband. She
derived stability from him to such an extent that when his life was
under threat in Holland, her actions were governed solely by the desire
to protect him, to the exclusion of all others, including her mother.
With the outbreak of war, Weil suffered severe migraines for the first,
and last, time in her life on account of her ‘rasende Angst um Edgar’
(L, 146). As the German invasion of the Netherlands began, Weil and
Edgar cocooned themselves in their apartment for four days making
love and immersing themselves in Goethe’s poetry. Although it
appears on one level to be quite an idyllic period ‘weitab von der
Realität’ (L, 148), devoting themselves to each other, in truth it is

Exner, p. 56.
276 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

simply a desperate, and ultimately futile, attempt to combat fear: ‘Wir

sind allein. Allein in unserer Not und lieben uns’ (L, 148). By
juxtaposing the intense sensuality of these ‘Tage der größten Nähe
zwischen Edgar und mir’ (L, 148) with the fate of the Netherlands,
Weil intensifies that sense of desperation. One intuits from the scene
that the couple subconsciously realised their days together were
numbered. Presented with a fleeting opportunity to escape with Edgar,
at the expense of leaving her mother behind, Weil did not hesitate:
‘Ich muss Edgar retten’ (L, 150). Only later was she plagued by
doubts as to how her brother would react to this decision:
Was aber sage ich, wenn er mich nach Mutter fragt? Wird er mir
Vorwürfe machen, mich für hartherzig und egoistisch halten? Ich
tröste mich damit, dass Fritz optimischer ist als ich, er wird bestimmt
finden, dass einer alten Frau schon nichts geschehen wird. So schlecht
kennen wir noch immer den Faschismus. (L, 150-51)

But the escape bid was in vain, and the following month Weil
experienced directly the terror of fascism with Edgar’s incarceration
and death. In view of Weil’s close relationship with her husband,
Exner argues that this event has remained central to her work: ‘Die
Verhaftung, Deportation und Ermordung Edgar Weils waren für Grete
Weil eine traumatische Erfahrung. In ihren literarischen Texte
berichtete sie nicht nur von der Verfolgung der niederländischen
Juden, sondern immer auch vom gewaltsamen Tod ihres ersten
By the time news of Edgar’s death reached the author, she had
already abandoned her plan to commit suicide on account of her
mother: ‘Ich kann Mutter nicht das antun, was mir gerade angetan
worden ist’ (L, 161). Despite the severity of her grief, Weil fights
against wallowing in it – ‘Ich kann auch nicht Romeo und Julia
spielen’ (L, 161) – and affirms her faith in community and in trying to
preserve human ideals. Naturally, her mother is a key figure in this
regard, but so too the young couple’s friend, Walter, arguably the
most interesting figure in Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben. Despite
the intensity of Weil’s love for Edgar, she makes no secret of her
strong affinity with his friend. That he is by her side shortly after
Edgar’s death is indicative of their feelings for one another, as she
acknowledges: ‘Wenn ich nach Edgars Tod völlig verzweifelt war und
nicht mehr leben wollte, war ja immer noch Walter da, der einzige
Mensch, mit dem ich mir ein gemeinsames Leben vorstellen konnte’

Exner, p.46.
Grete Weil 277

(L, 143). Walter, who was not Jewish, remained in Germany and was
eventually conscripted into the army, albeit in a non-aggressive
capacity. Weil attributes her relatively swift return to Germany to her
feelings for Walter, who thereby acquires a symbolic quality for the
author as the sole tie with her homeland to survive the war. Her
decision to return offers further evidence, if any were needed, that her
perception of Heimat was to a large degree predicated on associations
of an intensely personal, and relational, nature.
Although friendships are integral to Weil’s perception of
Heimat, one should not ignore the geographical dimension that
anchors it. An entire chapter is devoted to ‘Orte der Handlung’, which
makes this spatial foundation explicit. Munich remained important to
Weil throughout her life, and it was where she spent her last years. In
the context of Weil’s experiences under National Socialism, however,
the most striking association is with the village of Egern, near the
Tegernsee. The Weils’ domestic idyll dovetails seamlessly with the
warm descriptions of ‘ein stilles, verträumtes Dorf’ (L, 47), where the
family owned a house. The recollections are sensuous and vivid,
evoking the sights, sounds and smells of life before National
Socialism, and thus enshrine an idealised mode of existence that was
to endure for the author. Even when confronted with the desolation
left after the war, Weil is moved to emphasise: ‘Es ist Heimat wie eh
und je’ (L, 245). She confirms, therefore, that her attachment to the
place, and its importance to her, transcends the purely superficial. In
physical terms, things may have changed, but at a deeper, one might
say more spiritual, level, these ties are inviolate, transcending the
purely socio-political and historical. Weil had intimated as much
earlier in the narrative while describing how anti-Semitism had begun
to permeate life in the village:
Ein Ort, in dem man zu Hause ist, wirklich zu Hause, auch dann noch,
als über dem Ortsschild ein Transparent mit der Aufschrift hängt:
‘Juden betreten den Ort auf eigene Gefahr.’
Das Transparent macht die Menschen hässlicher, nicht den Ort.
Der Ort wird erst hässlich, als der Massentourismus einsetzt. (L, 50)

That the idyll embodied by Egern could not be tarnished for Weil,
tallies with Boa and Palfreyman’s assertion that ‘Heimat is an
intrinsically conservative value connoting originary or primary factors
in identity, or at least it expresses the longing, perhaps illusory, for
such an absolute foundation or unchanging essence’.26 The author
Boa and Palfreyman, p. 23.
278 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

speaks of her ‘Verbundenheit’ (L, 47) with the area, citing how it
shaped her lasting love of mountains in particular, and thereby
pointing up its formative influence upon her in general. In her case at
least, the affiliation with these locations was certainly not illusory.
Indeed, one might employ Améry’s term ‘Heimatverwurzelung’ (JSS,
81) to underline more strongly the sense of rootedness that Weil seeks
to describe in Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben.
Just how fundamental these locations were to her sense of
identity is brought home to her by her forcible exclusion from them,
as it was with Améry who experienced a comparable disorientation in
Belgium. The shock of having to relocate to Amsterdam proved hard
to bear for Weil, who hated Holland at first sight: ‘Zu flach für mich,
zu fremd, die Menschen zu unattraktiv, zu farblos in ihren ewigen
Regenmänteln’ (L, 128). Her eventual appreciation of ‘die Schönheit
des weiten Himmels mit den hochgetürmten Wolken, das intensive
Licht, die Zuverlässigkeit der Menschen’ (L, 129) is mitigated starkly
by the fact that her relationship to Amsterdam will forever bear the
scars of her wartime experiences there:
Ich gehe durch eine schöne, eine besetzte Stadt und wäre nicht
erstaunt, wenn mir deutsche Soldaten über den Weg liefen, mich nach
meinen Papieren fragten.
Die Zeiten der Verfolgung, des Gejagtwerdens haben sich mir tief
eingeprägt […] Für mich bleibt Amsterdam besetzt. Die arme Stadt
kann nichts dagegen tun. Ich kann auch nichts dagegen tun. Es ist so.
(L, 127)

The extent to which these experiences have made a lasting impression

on Weil’s identity is axiomatic, but they stand in stark contrast to the
positive and ultimately protective influence of her Heimat upon her.
For Amsterdam connotes terror and loss, rather than warmth and
support. Although Weil’s mother had no desire to return to Egern,
remaining in Holland after the war, the author herself longed to leave
Amsterdam: ‘Bei mir war es anders, ich wollte unbedingt wieder hin.
Es war meine Heimat, nach der ich mich zurücksehnte’ (L, 142).
Irrespective of the fact that a return home at the time of the Third
Reich would have signified a death sentence, and that she justified her
work at the Jewish Council as a way to avoid deportation back to
Germany and to certain death, the author cannot still her longing for
the essential security – the ‘unchanging essence’ – of familiar
Exile did not just make Weil miss friends and home; crucially
she missed her native language too. ‘Die andere Sprache’ (L, 136) on
Grete Weil 279

the streets of Amsterdam underlines her detachment from all that she
holds dear. Just how damaging this dislocation had been is evinced by
the author’s reaction to being back in Germany for the first time after
the war: ‘Ich befinde mich in einem Glücksrausch, weil alle Menschen
Deutsch sprechen’ (L, 244). That the sound of her native tongue can
evoke such a delighted response reveals how fundamental to her sense
of identity it is, and yet, despite having always wanted to write since
she was a child, Weil suggests that it was only in exile that her love of
the German language, and crucially a true appreciation of its
importance, became clear to her: ‘Habe ich vor der Emigration und
dem erzwungenen Holländisch-Reden gewusst, wie sehr ich die
deutsche Sprache liebe?’ (L, 78). Her appreciation of the value of
literature was similarly enhanced by her horrific experiences, as
reading sustained her through the dark days of hiding in Amsterdam:
‘Die erste Zeit des Untertauchens hätte ich wohl nicht überstanden,
wenn an meinem Untertauchort nicht eine große Bibliothek gewesen
wäre’ (L, 80). That she should wish to record her experiences in
writing comes as no surprise either. Whilst in hiding, she produced a
sombre drama, the ‘Weihnachtslegende 1943’, reproduced in its
entirety in Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben and the allegorical nature
of which might be compared with Borchert’s Draußen vor der Tür.
Then, shortly after the end of the war she began work on her
‘Deportationsgeshichte’ (L, 239), Ans Ende der Welt, that was to
become her first publication in 1949. In the later chapters of Leb ich
denn, wenn andere leben, one senses the extent to which she felt it
morally incumbent upon her to produce a personal testimony, which
could only be realised through the medium of German: ‘Ich will
schreiben, deutsch schreiben, in einer anderen Sprache ist es mir
unmöglich, und dazu brauche ich eine Umgebung, in der die
Menschen Deutsch sprechen’ (L, 236). As a result of the persecution
she was subjected to, the impression abides at the conclusion of the
text that it was the forcible suppression of her language that ultimately
represented the greatest threat to her sense of self, as if a loss of the
means of expressing herself in German would forever obstruct her
reckoning with this painfully difficult past. Whereas her family and
locational ties remained stable, enshrined safely within her as a source
of strength to fight on, her linguistic capacities were desperately
fragile as long as she was in exile. For this reason, it was imperative
that Weil return home:
Ich will nach Hause, auch wenn ich weiß, dass alles, was ich früher
geliebt habe, nicht mehr existiert. Ich will dorthin, wo ich
280 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

hergekommen bin. Das Heimweh ist nicht kleiner geworden in all den
Jahren. (L, 236)

Weil’s position has much in common with Jean Améry, who

similarly points out how a loss of Heimat essentially robs one of one’s
native language:
Dem Verhältnis zur Heimat verwandt war in den Jahren des Exils die
Beziehung zur Muttersprache. In einem ganz bestimmten Sinn haben
wir auch sie verloren und können kein Rückerstattungsverfahren
einleiten. […] Statt von einem ‘Abbröckeln’ der Muttersprache würde
ich lieber von ihrer Schrumpfung sprechen. Wir bewegten uns
nämlich nicht nur in der fremden Sprache, sondern auch, wenn wir
uns des Deutschen bedienten, im enger zusammenrückenden Raum
eines sich ständig wiederholenden Vokabulars. […] Wir drehten uns
allemal im Kreis der gleichen Themen, gleichen Wörter, gleichen
Phrasen, und höchstens bereicherten wir unsere Rede aufs häßlichste
durch die nachlässige Einführung von Formeln aus der Sprache des
Gastlandes. (JSS, 88-9)

Although Weil had to suppress her native tongue in Amsterdam, she

was at least able to return to Germany and reclaim it; for Améry, who
was unable to contemplate a return home, the atrophy was irrevocable.
For Hilde Domin, another exile, the opportunity to return home
represented an essential liberation of language in much the same way
that Weil experienced it:
Es war […] nicht nur das Glück, die eigene Sprache sprechen zu
dürfen und sprechen zu hören. (Besonders regte es und regt es mich
auf, den rheinischen Tonfall zu hören, als täten es die Leute mir
zuliebe.) Es ist vor allem die Souveränität, die einer im Umgang mit
der eigenen Sprache hat. […] Die Freude, frei sagen zu können, was
ich will, wie ich es will, frei zu atmen und den Sprachduktus in
Übereinstimmung mit der eigenen Atemführung zu spüren, das ist
eine der Hauptfreuden beim Wieder-Zuhause-Sein, für einen Autor.

Although she is speaking explicitly of the liberation she feels as an

author, the existential connotations of Domin’s remarks – juxtaposing
the freedom to speak with the process of breathing – and the way she
reinforces the direct link between language and native Heimat – in her
case in the Rhineland – have a universal application. In the case of
Améry, through whose work a deep sense of despair percolates, the
chance to regain one’s language cannot compensate for the violent
persecution he has suffered. His work displays none of the euphoria

Hilde Domin, ‘Leben als Sprachodyssee’, in Gesammelte autobiographische
Schriften: Fast ein Lebenslauf (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1998), pp. 32-40 (p. 40).
Grete Weil 281

one witnesses in Domin; the reader gets instead an inescapable,

disturbing sense of the inevitability of Améry’s eventual suicide.
If not unequivocally euphoric, Weil was certainly relieved to
find the essence of her Heimat had survived when she finally returned
home. Even though she briefly considered settling somewhere else, it
appeared a foregone conclusion that she would return to Germany; the
precise timing, though, was contingent upon her relationship with
Walter. The couple eventually meet in the postwar period with an
understandable degree of trepidation, but any fears of estrangement
between them are unfounded: ‘Die Nähe von früher ist wieder da,
durch nichts zerstört’ (L, 244). Just as Weil’s affinity with Egern
survived, so too her friendship with Walter. Exile and the ravages of
National Socialism had not eroded the key foundations of her identity.
That Weil was in possession of Dutch citizenship following 1945, by
virtue of her work for the resistance, did not signal any attachment to
her adopted country; it was purely a bureaucratic convenience
allowing her to travel, and quickly became an irrelevance when she
received a German passport soon thereafter.28
The concluding chapter of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben is
the most telling with regard to the resilience of Weil’s sense of self.
Structured around a large extract from a letter written in 1947 to the
author Margarete Susman, it outlines the author’s reasons for
returning so quickly after the collapse of the Third Reich.29 Weil
herself underlines the letter’s inherent value as a contemporary
document detailing her motives. At the time, many were incredulous
about her decision, the addressee of the letter in particular, but the
letter is an eloquent, and potent, expression of the author’s capacity to
forgive. Weil admits that her decision is purely subjective and guided
in part by her feelings for Walter, yet the capacity for forgiveness she
displays is quite overwhelming, when one considers the suffering she
had endured. Whereas Améry entertains ideas of retribution – ‘Ich
hegte meine Ressentiments’ (JSS, 109) – Weil rejects any notion of
exacting revenge from Germany. Instead, she proposes that the
German nation be helped to help itself:
Sicherlich muss ‘die deutsche Erde sich selbst reinigen’, aber wie der
ausgetrocknete Boden des guten Regens bedarf, um wieder tragfähig
zu werden, so warten die deutschen Menschen – nicht die Nazis, aber

See Giese, p. 221. See too Exner, p. 67.
The letter, which Weil had forgotten about, was located in the Susman Nachlaß at
the German National Literary Archive in Marbach and was printed in its entirety in
the Süddeutsche Zeitung, 16-17 June 1994, p. 5.
282 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

die unzähligen, aus Trägheit des Herzens Schuldiggewordenen – auf

den Bruder von draußen. Solange im Kern von Europa eine verdorrte
Wüste ist, wird kein Leben in Frieden möglich sein. (L, 252-53)

In this way, Weil’s burgeoning relationship with Walter assumes

symbolic importance that far exceeds their personal happiness:
[Die wahrhaftige Verbindung eines Juden und eines deutschen
Menschen] ist die einzig reale Überwindung des Satanischen, nach
den Jahren des Unausdenkbaren inmitten des Chaos Freunde
zurückzufinden und auch neuen Menschen zu begegnen, die, ohne
Schaden an ihrer Seele zu nehmen, durch das Grauen
hindurchgegangen sind. Ihre Zahl ist nicht klein, man muss nur den
richtigen Ton anschlagen (und der richtige ist der selbstverständliche,
der nicht richtende und nicht mitleidige), um wieder gemeinsamen
Grund, den Grund des Nur-Menschlichen unter den Füßen zu haben.
Es ist vor allem die Gemeinschaft mit einem Menschen, die mich
zurückführt, und es ist wie ein ewiges Strömen des Lebens selbst, dass
es gerade ein Deutscher ist, der mir heute am nächsten steht. (L, 253-

On account of Weil’s personal suffering, one cannot impugn the

sincerity of her letter, even if her rationale is articulated in rather
ostentatious terms. But how do we account for the humanity and the
faith in the German people that pervade this section? Weil confesses
in the concluding paragraph that she has suffered like Heine from the
binary constellation of being a German and a Jew – friends once
defined her more specifically as a ‘Jüdin in bayrischer Landschaft’.31
Nevertheless, she maintains that the realisation of this duality was
responsible for sustaining her optimism. If Heimat is, as Boa and
Palfreyman propose, founded on ‘an antithetical mode of thinking in
terms of identity and difference’, then nowhere was this constellation
more damaging than during the Third Reich, which demonised the
racially impure Other and utilised it to justify genocide.32 Who better
then to facilitate reconciliation in the aftermath of National Socialism
than a German Jew, whose Jewishness had been thrust upon her, but
whose bond to her home had crucially not been severed and whose
very identity, like Heine before her, was built on this supposed
paradox? Her experiences had done nothing to diminish her German
identity, unshakeably encapsulated in those qualities that both formed

Weil reinforces these views in her reception speech for the Geschwister-Scholl-
Preis in 1988. See Grete Weil, ‘Nicht das ganze deutsche Volk’, Süddeutsche Zeitung,
22 November 1988, p. 10.
Quoted in Exner, p. 9.
Boa and Palfreyman, p. 27.
Grete Weil 283

her attachment to her Heimat and inevitably drew her back where she
knew she belonged:
Deutschland ist mein Land. Ich bin eine Deutsche, eine deutsche
Jüdin. Ich stamme aus dem deutschen Kulturkreis, deutsch ist meine
Sprache. Hitler hat mich nicht zu seiner Schülerin gemacht, daß ich
nun sage, eigentlich bin ich keine Deutsche. Ob ich es mag oder nicht
– und sehr oft mag ich es nicht –, ich bin eine Deutsche. (NDE, 179)

That the essence of her identity as a German was intact inspired

optimism that the past could be overcome, the wounds healed. In this
respect, one can understand why Antigone might have been such an
inspirational figure for the author: ‘Nicht mitzuhassen, mitzulieben
bin ich da’ (A, 18).
Weil’s contribution to the process of reconciliation is to be
seen in essentially private terms, although it clearly has import on a
broader level. When considering her motivation for writing in the
earlier part of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben, Weil makes her moral
duty explicit: ‘Nach der Verfolgungszeit das Bedürfnis, davon zu
erzählen. Zeuge zu sein. Weil so etwas nie mehr geschehen durfte’ (L,
78). The desire to make sense of such experiences in literature is by no
means unique, of course, but anyone familiar with Weil’s work can
attest to the consistency with which she has pursued this aim and
fulfilled her self-imposed duty.33 The problems she faced in getting
her début novel published merely strengthened her resolve to
persevere in her task. Whilst it is no surprise that Ans Ende der Welt
should have found a relatively contemporary audience in the GDR, it
is more of a concern that it should have been largely ignored in the
Federal Republic until 1987. Weil herself observed that the reception
of her novel was ‘ein Indiz dafür, daß es erst späteren Generationen
möglich wurde, sich mit der Geschichte des Nationalsozialismus offen
auseinanderzusetzen’.34 And yet, her interpolation into Meine
Schwester Antigone of a Wehrmacht officer’s eye-witness account of
the liquidation of the Petrikau ghetto in Poland, which covers roughly
one-seventh of the text, was completely ignored by critics, much to
her dismay: ‘Die Kritik schweigt diese Aufzeichnungen tot. […] Für
mich ist das ein Symptom dafür, wie wenig man wirklich bereit ist,
Günter de Bruyn has described his motivation in terms strikingly similar to Grete
Weil: ‘Erst die Kriegserlebnisse, die mich schockierten, änderten meine
Schreibmotivationen. Sie bereicherten sie um Aufklärerisches, ohne dabei von mir
wegzuführen; denn der Stoff, der sich mir anbot, war Selbsterlebtes, und die Aufgabe
war selbstgestellt. Das Glück, überlebt zu haben, verpflichtete mich, wie mir schien,
auch wahrheitsgetreu Bericht darüber zu geben, wie es gewesen war’ (EI, 15).
Quoted in Exner, p. 71.
284 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

sich ehrlich mit der eigenen Geschichte auseinanderzusetzen’ (NDE,

180). It seemed that still in 1980 there was a reluctance to confront the
past, even in the wake of the broadcast of the American television
film, Holocaust, which as Ernestine Schlant has indicated, provided a
‘jolt […] to German awareness of the Holocaust’.35 In this way,
Weil’s canon can be viewed as the necessary continuation of the
confrontation with the past that authors such as Heinrich Böll began.
She prefers the term ‘Trauerarbeit’ over ‘Bewältigung’; ‘Trauerarbeit
kann man leisten, der Begriff “Bewältigung” verlangt, daß etwas zu
bewältigen ist, was niemals bewältigt werden kann, weder von Tätern
noch von den Opfern’ (NDE, 180).
Weil’s choice of the word ‘Bedürfnis’ to describe her
motivation to bear witness to what occurred hints at an emotional
imperative, a therapeutic need to exorcise her demons in her writing
which remains deeply personal rather than public. For the narrator of
Meine Schwester Antigone, the emotional scars are deep indeed,
exacerbated by ‘dem entsetzlich schlechten Gewissen des
Überlebenden’ (A, 19), and she even ponders whether her compulsion
to write might not be an existential concern: ‘Warum, in drei Teufels
Namen, will ich ein Buch schreiben? Weil ich schreiben muß, ohne
schreiben nicht leben kann?’ (A, 25). For Anna Mitgutsch, the key to
a text’s authenticity resides in just such a need:
Ein Text muß den Eindruck der Notwendigkeit vermitteln, als hätte er
geschrieben werden müssen, als sei die Schöpfung nicht vollständig
ohne diesen Text. Die Hybris des Schöpferischen muß legitimiert
werden durch diese Notwendigkeit. […] Es ist unerheblich, ob die
Autorin schlaflose Nächte verbrachte, bis sie dieses Buch schrieb,
aber es mag etwas mit den Erinnerungen zu tun haben, die sich nicht
unterdrücken lassen, mit einer Erkenntnis, die sich nur in literarischen
Bildern ausdrücken läßt. Denn es ist ja selten eine abstrakte
Überlegung, die Erinnerungen in Gang setzt und sie zu tragfähigen
Bildern verdichtet, sondern viel öfter eine Art seelischen Notstands.

The argument is a compelling one which can sensibly be applied to

each of the texts in the present study: the authors’ need to tackle a
psychological crisis might be seen to imbue the texts with the
‘subjective authenticity’ one demands of autobiographical accounts. In
the case of Grete Weil, however, one must reiterate the need to
separate her from her narrator in Meine Schwester Antigone, even if
the biographical parallels are conspicuous, as Giese and Exner

Schlant, p. 239.
Mitgutsch, p. 25.
Grete Weil 285

emphasise. That Weil’s work has revolved around the

‘Verfolgungszeit’ doubtless bespeaks the necessity to which
Mitgutsch refers, but no matter that Meine Schwester Antigone in
particular may have been produced as a therapeutic release, we cannot
equate the author’s emotional state directly with that of her narrator.
The validity of such caution is evidenced by Leb ich denn, wenn
andere leben, in which the tone of the narrative is appreciably more
calm and controlled than in the novel. It provides evidence, in fact,
that the ‘Hoffnungsschimmer, der […] nicht wieder ausgelöscht
werden konnte’ (L, 255) and which underpinned her letter to
Margarete Susman, really did endure.
In the opening chapter of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben,
Weil explains that her decision to write an explicit autobiography was
inspired by an interview with Gräfin Dönhoff, in which the grande
dame of German media life outlined how her publisher convinced her
to commit her memories to paper. He suggested people today
‘wüssten kaum mehr, wie es damals gewesen sei, und die wenigen, die
noch lebten und es wüssten, könnten nicht schreiben’ (L, 7). Weil took
these words as a challenge too, not only as she was still in a position
to record her experiences, but especially because she felt they were
more typical than those of her eminent aristocratic contemporary:
[Unsere] Wohnung und unser Landhaus am Tegernsee waren sicher
typischer für ihre Zeit als Schloss Friedrichstein und den Menschen
von heute viel näher. So nahm ich die Herausforderung an, setzte
mich hin und begann zu schreiben. (L, 7)

Weil indicates not only that she is still driven by the need ‘Zeuge zu
sein’, but that her narrative, on account of her personal background,
will have greater relevance as a picture of life under National
Socialism, its authenticity no doubt deriving from the ‘Art des
seelischen Notstands’ Mitgutsch speaks of. Although Leb ich denn,
wenn andere leben indicates that Weil has largely reconciled herself to
the tragedy of her young life and that her pain has grown less acute
with age, one cannot but be struck by the photographs of the author
which accompany the text. In all but one of the portraits, one cannot
overlook the melancholy that seeps from them, especially the one
taken in 1939.37 Weil, who worked as a photographer in Amsterdam,
doubtless carefully selected these photographs for inclusion, and they
speak volumes.

This is a self-portrait and is reproduced on p. 176. Exner’s study also incorporates
many of Weil’s own photographs of herself and others.
286 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Weil’s depiction of a life under National Socialism

overshadowed by fear is familiar to us from a plethora of eyewitness
accounts and Holocaust testimonies. That mention should be made of
Anne Frank is apposite in this regard, as the latter’s celebrated
chronicle of hiding from persecution naturally intersects to a degree
with Weil’s own account. We have already referred to similarities of
Weil’s text with Das siebte Kreuz, but with its description of the
coming storm during the Weimar Republic, Leb ich denn, wenn
andere leben might also be compared to Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. Just
as in the latter text, Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben reveals time and
again how it was possible to misread the warning signs until it was too
late. No effort is made to be wise after the fact, and Weil’s candour
enhances the impact of the text. Despite being aware of the dangers of
possessing letters, documents and journals produced by authors
deemed politically undesirable by the Nazis, Weil believed that simply
burning these was enough, ‘noch immer im Glauben, es genüge den
Nazis nicht, dass jemand Jude ist, um ihn festzunehmen und
umzubringen, es müssten auch noch andere, belastende Dinge
hinzukommen’ (L, 153).
The device of the first-person narrator commenting in the
present upon her actions in the past, thereby introducing two narrative
planes into the text, not only reminds contemporary readers of the
privilege afforded us by hindsight, but generates tension in the
narrative.38 As a consequence, one begins to appreciate from the text
how it was possible for the Weil family, whose Judaism played no
fundamental part in their lives, to be so naïve. The reader might not be
able to imagine now how the danger could have been overlooked then,
and Weil can offer no explanation. Even after Edgar’s arrest in 1933,
she was still incapable of grasping the full implications of the
incipient threat:
In diesen Tagen begann ich zu verstehen, was Faschismus wirklich
bedeutete. Ich begriff, dass, wenn man einen Menschen vierzehn Tage
ohne Anklage, ohne Verhör grundlos festhielt, es auch vierzehn
Wochen, vierzehn Monate oder auch vierzehn Jahre sein konnten.
Trotz meiner Verzweiflung hatte ich in diesen Tagen nie das Gefühl
einer wirklichen Gefahr, das kam erst später. (L, 108)

The generally serene mood of the first part of the account, where
realisation still does not dawn upon the family, is irrevocably
overshadowed by the terror of life in Amsterdam, which comprises the

In truth, the heute/damals configuration is common to most of the texts in the
present study.
Grete Weil 287

second part and the immediacy of which is rendered all the more
effectively by the adoption of the present tense. In particular, Weil
makes it clear how deciding which country to emigrate to was not at
all straightforward. That fleeing to Amsterdam was a mistake only
struck the author much later: ‘Die Falle ist weit geöffnet, und wir
laufen blind und dumm hinein’ (L, 132).
Part two of Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben details the
precarious nature of an existence under a totalitarian regime. The
random and ruthless manner in which fear was exerted upon
individuals is evident, for example, in the chapter documenting how
Weil’s photographic studio was closed ‘auf Befehl der Gestapo’ (L,
175), shortly after all its contents had been inventoried by the
authorities. When the author, with impetuous defiance, professes not
to know the whereabouts of a missing pair of scissors, she is
threatened with deportation to Poland – the implications are clear – if
they do not turn up. The sadism underpinning this particular incident,
with its obvious and chilling disregard for basic human dignity, is
offset by the way in which good fortune intervenes at crucial junctures
in the narrative. Whereas Edgar had the misfortune to encounter a
Gestapo control, Weil was the beneficiary of remarkably good
fortune, in the same way that the likes of Ruth Klüger and Primo Levi
owed their survival at key moments to luck. Weil happened to be out
when the police came looking for her at her flat shortly after Edgar’s
arrest, in order to deport her to Germany. Moreover, the police were
looking for a woman with the maiden name Diopeker, a misspelling of
her actual name, Dispeker, which she had never corrected with the
authorities. As she readily admits, she was fortunate in more ways
than one:
Wie eine geschlossene Phalanx sagen […] die braven holländischen
Hausbewohner, als die Polizisten zurückkommen: Wir kennen
niemanden, der Diopeker heißt.
Hätte ich den Aufruf an diesem Tage bekommen, wäre ich vielleicht
gegangen. Ich will ja, dass jemand mir hilft zu sterben, und ich habe
das (richtige) Gefühl, dass mir dieser sogenannte Arbeitseinsatz dazu
verhelfen würde. (L, 164-65)

In ‘Meine sterntragende Mutter’, Weil provides a harrowing

description of the danger posed daily by the threat of police raids or
‘citizen’s arrests’: ‘Man stelle sich eine Stadt vor, in der regelrecht
Jagd auf Menschen mit gelbem Stern und erst recht auf solche, die ihn
tragen, gemacht wird. Für jeden, der eingeliefert wird, bekommt der
Jäger Geld’ (L, 183). Unsurprisingly in such an atmosphere of hatred,
288 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Weil was constantly fearful for her mother, especially as she refused
to wear the star. During the last major raid in 1943, two SS soldiers
woke Weil’s mother. After asking her if she knew of any Jews living
in the vicinity, they apologised for disturbing her and left:
Ich habe jahrelang darüber nachgedacht, wie dieses Wunder zu Stande
kam. Vielleicht hat einer an seine eigene Mutter gedacht, aber beide?
Die einfachste Erklärung: Sie hielten sie […] nicht für eine Jüdin (der
fehlende Stern, sie war so blond und blauäugig), sie hielten sie einfach
für eine Deutsche. Und das war sie ja auch. (L, 188)

Not only does Weil celebrate the good fortune that spared her
mother’s life, but the incident exposes the fallacy of the Nazi’s ethos
on racial purity. Although such a rejection of National Socialism is in
itself by no means unique to Weil’s text, it still manages anew to
provoke in the reader a deep sense of outrage at what occurred during
the Third Reich.
With its depiction of an environment where one’s life was so
precarious, where one was facing an uncertain fate on a daily basis,
Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben is truly a remarkable testament to the
resilience of human spirit. One can only admire how Weil did not
buckle under the pressure exerted upon her by a system that forcibly
suppressed individuality and sought to dehumanise various groups. As
we have seen, the strong relational forces that underpinned her
identity – the bonds with family, friends and Heimat – were
fundamental to her ability to overcome the personal tragedy that took
her to the edge of suicide. By opting to stay alive, her defence of the
private realm became an act of defiance that sustained her through the
nightmare. That Weil decided to return home after the war is even
more laudable, when set alongside the number of exiles who refused
to set foot in Germany again. The idealistic tenor of her letter to
Margarete Susman, doubtless fuelled by her feelings for Walter as she
readily admits, is tempered by her acceptance that reconciliation
between Germans and Jews will not be easy. After all, the intrinsic
duality of her own identity, which only became a problem with the
arrival of the Nazis, cannot but remind her of the difficulties ahead.
Indeed, her own inner tensions mirror the paradox at the conclusion of
Leb ich denn, wenn andere leben, as the author appears to call into
question her own belief in ‘die Bewältigung dessen, was nie und
nimmer zu bewältigen ist’ (L, 255), before crucially reaffirming her
optimism in the final sentence. That Grete Weil could still have faith
in humanity after the trauma she had endured is truly uplifting, and
one can only endorse wholeheartedly her assertion that postwar
Grete Weil 289

reconciliation was ‘kein Verrat an den Toten, sondern der tastende

Versuch, ihr geliebtes und geheiligtes Leben nicht ganz verwehen zu
lassen, solange man selbst dauert’ (L, 255).
This page intentionally left blank

‘Mutmaßungen über Pawel’ – Monika Maron,

Pawels Briefe: Eine Familiengeschichte (1999)
Was entscheidet darüber, ob wir uns eher an die glücklichen
Momente unseres Lebens erinnern oder an die unglücklichen; ob
uns unsere Triumphe vor den Demütigungen einfallen oder

In the summer of 1995, the Spiegel broke news of the collaboration of

Monika Maron with the Stasi, which dismayed many of those who had
previously perceived the author to be an influential critic during the
Wende.2 In the wake of revelations about the Stasi liaisons of eminent
literary figures such as Christa Wolf and Heiner Müller, the ‘outing’
of another prominent GDR author did seem to lend further weight to
Karl Corino’s contention that East German literature had lost
credibility with the collapse of the country.3 As for the author herself,
the revelations appeared to undermine the force of her own critique of
certain leading GDR intellectuals during the Wende period, and in
particular their idealistic notion that socialism could be reformed now
that the old Stalinist regime had been swept from power. If they
believed GDR socialism could be reformed, she argued, then they
were out of touch with the ordinary people, who saw in them another
privileged élite as reprehensible as the SED had been: ‘Auf Leipzigs
Straßen vollzog sich im politischen Alltag, was die Dichter in ihren
Proklamationen offenbarten: der Zwiespalt zwischen den Arbeitern

Monika Maron, Pawels Briefe: Eine Familiengeschichte (Frankfurt a.M: Fischer,
1999), p. 69. Further references to this edition will appear in the text in the form (PB,
For a thorough examination of Maron’s role in the Wende debates, see Karoline von
Oppen, The Role of the Writer and the Press in the Unification of Germany, 1989-
1990 (New York: Lang, 2000), pp. 105-22.
Karl Corino, ‘Vor und nach der Wende: Die Rezeption der DDR-Literatur in der
Bundesrepublik Deutschland und das Problem einer einheitlichen deutschen
Literatur’, Neue deutsche Literatur, 39.8 (1991), 146-64.
292 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

und den Intellektuellen’.4 News of her own apparent complicity

confirmed, albeit inadvertently, the validity of her assertion, that the
two sides had become alienated from one another.
The dismay that greeted Maron’s exposure was inevitable, as
she was another addition to an already long list of discredited authors.
Yet the reaction does overlook certain crucial details of her contact
with the Stasi. Most importantly, Maron was designated a
Kontaktperson (KP) rather than the Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (IM)
Wolfgang Emmerich suggests she was.5 Although it might simply
appear to be a case of splitting hairs, as many of Maron’s critics have
argued, Joachim Walther’s survey of the Stasi’s interference in the
literary scene reveals how its own definition of a KP underlines the
significant difference between the two categories:
[Kontaktpersonen] waren nach der Funktionsbeschreibung der
Richtlinie 1/58 keine Kategorie inoffizieller Mitarbeiter, sondern
lediglich vertrauenswürdige Bürger, die für die Lösung bestimmter
sicherheitspolitischer Aufgaben eingesetzt wurden. Ihre Bezeichnung
im MfS war variabel: Neben ‘Auskunftsperson’ wurde auch
‘Kontaktperson’ (KP) verwandt sowie ‘offizielle Quelle’ und
‘offizielle Kontaktpeson’. Sie wurden in der Regel weder förmlich
geworben noch im MfS registriert. Allerdings gab es auch hier zwei
Formen der praktischen Handhabung. Bei den einen wurde eine Akte
geführt, meist in Form einer Allgemeinen Personenablage […]. Bei
den anderen wurde nach gegenwärtigen Kenntnisstand keinerlei
personenbezogene Akte geführt, sondern die Informationsergebnisse
der offiziellen Quelle wurden in verschiedenen Sachakten abgelegt
[…]. Nur in Ausnahmefällen wurden Schweigeverpflichtungen
unterschrieben. […] Die Kontaktpersonen sollten in klar definierten
Bereichen, die zumeist identisch mit ihren Arbeitsstellen waren, dem
MfS zum wechselseitigen Informationsaustausch zur Verfügung
stehen. (SL, 747)

The definition hints at a more passive, informal, even unwitting, role,

although scope doubtless existed for the KP to operate in a more
active capacity. The Stasi’s classification per se may not be sufficient
to exonerate Maron completely, but when one considers that she
produced two reports only, and then scrutinises the content of those
reports, the scale of the outcry unleashed by the Spiegel article seems
rather inappropriate, even if the disappointment is understandable. In
her review of Pawels Briefe, Iris Radisch for one finds Maron’s
treatment of the episode exemplary: ‘Diese Ästhetik der Aufrichtigkeit

Monika Maron, ‘Das neue Elend der Intellektuellen’, in Nach Maßgabe meiner
Begreifungskraft (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1995), pp. 80-90 (p. 84).
Emmerich, p. 476.
Monika Maron 293

ist es auch, die ihren Lebensbericht so eindrücklich und überzeugend

macht. Sagen, wie es war, nichts weglassen, nichts dazuerfinden’.6
Unsurprisingly, the author issued a vigorous defence of her
position, originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in
October 1995, in which she asserted unrepentantly that she had
nothing to be ashamed of: ‘Jetzt […] sollte ich wieder eine Schuld
bekennen, die ich nicht empfinde, eine Tat zugeben, die ich nicht
begangen habe’ (Q, 35).7 While it was no doubt naïve of her not to
expect such a response to the discovery of her Stasi contact, not least
following the earlier revelations of collusion between authors and the
Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS), the critique of GDR society
that permeates her reports of visits to West Berlin cannot be ignored.
Her observations range from a categorical rejection of spying on
people to stark descriptions of the ‘Starre und Unbewohnbarkeit’ (Q,
26) that strike her about life in East Berlin after visits across the Wall:
Eine Schlange an der Taxihaltestelle, aber kein Taxi. Leute an der
Straßenbahnhaltestelle, aber keine Straßenbahn. Sonst wenig
Menschen, wenig Geschäfte, Kneipen überfüllt oder schon
geschlossen. Am Alex rundum, außer Rathauspassagen, alles
weitläufig und windig. […] Ich beschränke mich auf die Gedanken,
die einen in Mangelwirtschaft erfahrenen DDR-Bürger heimsuchen,
wenn er in dieses Sündenbabel des Imperialismus gerät. Die Frage,
warum bei uns alles hässlicher ist, wird er nicht los. Sie quält ihn,
solange er durch die Stadt geht. Die Stoffe werden gewebt, die Bäume
gefällt, das Leder wird gegerbt. Warum werden die Kleider
langweilig, die Möbel hässlich, die Schuhe plump? (Q, 26-7)

Should one condemn Maron for the last vestiges of her idealistic
socialism, which finds the material shabbiness of the GDR so
distressing? Can one interpret the use of SED jargon such as
‘Sündenbabel des Imperialismus’ as anything other than ironic in this
context? Indeed, one can detect striking parallels between the desolate
pictures conjured up of East Berlin in the reports and those of
Bitterfeld that would pervade Maron’s début novel, Flugasche (1981),
and gave rise to a critical appraisal of that manuscript by a Stasi
officer in 1980 that identified passages where ‘“die staatliche Ordnung
der DDR sowie die Tätigkeit staatlicher Einrichtungen und
gesellschaftlicher Organisationen sowie deren Maßnahmen

Iris Radisch, ‘Tausendmeterlauf des Lebens: Monika Maron schuldet ihrem
Großvater etwas und reist in die Vergangenheit’, Die Zeit, 31 March 1999, p. 48.
The article is reprinted in the collection quer über die Gleise: Artikel, Essays,
Zwischenrufe (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2000) as ‘Heuchelei und Niedertracht’, pp. 34-
43. All further references to the collection will appear in the text in the form (Q, 35).
294 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

herabgewürdigt werden”’ (SL, 368). In the light of her reports,

Maron’s Führungsoffizier adjudged her ‘“ideologisch […]
unzuverlässig und in vielen Fragen, besonders zur Politik der
Parteiführung, feindlich eingestellt”’ (SL, 624). On account of her
persistently critical stance, Maron’s role as a KP was terminated and
her status reclassified as the Operativer Vorgang (OV) ‘Wildsau’ – a
deliberately derogatory codename, it would appear. As a dissident, her
movements were subsequently monitored in considerable detail until
the collapse of the GDR, where none of her books were ever
published. To her considerable credit, Maron has made no reference in
self-defence to the extent of her victimisation by the Stasi, a stance
one might contrast with Günter Kunert’s in Erwachsenenspiele, in
which he not only appears to settle scores with those who spied on
him, but also objects to his Deckname – the decidedly less unflattering
In many ways, it is easy to see how some commentators might
have construed Pawels Briefe as a form of response to the Stasi
revelations, in that it endeavours to reconstruct aspects of Maron’s
family history, whilst revealing at the same time the problems inherent
in such a process of reconstructing the past. The author’s nemesis in
this regard is critic Corina Caduff, who believes the text can only be
understood ‘als Antwort [auf ihre Stasi-Mitarbeit]’.8 However, as
Maron herself points out, such an interpretation suggests that the
author has something to hide, whereas the documentary evidence
would seem to corroborate her protestations of innocence. In truth, the
section dealing with the Stasi contacts in the late 1970s forms a very
small part of the overall text. Although it cannot be ignored, to suggest
it contains the key to understanding Pawels Briefe is stretching the
point too far and is redolent of the partial interpretation of her links to
the Stasi that Maron found so distasteful in 1995. Moreover, it
denigrates an intensely private undertaking as something altogether
more self-serving and cynical. Having already defended her Stasi
contacts in her essay ‘Heuchelei und Niedertracht’, Maron did not
need, or wish, to protest her innocence at any great length in Pawels
Briefe. Despite referring to the incident as ‘meine etwas absurde
Geschichte’ (Q, 43), Maron is conscious nevertheless that it is
anything but trivial. In an otherwise positive review, Hermann Kurzke
comments on the paradox the author faced pertaining to any reference
to the Stasi in her text:

Corina Caduff, ‘Missbrauchte Geschichte’, Die Weltwoche, 25 February 1999, p. 43.
Monika Maron 295

Das Buch endet mit Erklärungen, wie es zu dieser Stasi-Episode kam.

Daß Monika Maron darauf zu sprechen kam, war unvermeidlich, denn
sonst hätte man ihr absichtliches Verschweigen vorgeworfen.
Dennoch ist es schade, daß diese apologetischen Teile am Ende
stehen, so daß alles andere auf sie hin geschrieben wirkt. Denn sie
sind der schwächste und künstlerisch überflüssigste Teil eines sonst
starken Buches.

How one confronts the past, and the nature of remembering and
forgetting have been thematic concerns in Maron’s fiction, especially
in Stille Zeile Sechs (1991), and the furore in 1995 merely
demonstrated how in the post-Wende period, as the GDR’s legacy was
being dissected, these concerns were as pertinent as ever. Thus the
episode, while not the specific focus of Pawels Briefe, imbued her
private text with a more general, public relevance as a piece of GDR
Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which doubtless contributed to her
motivation for publishing it. Moreover, the interface of private and
public concerns – typical of GDR literature, and indeed of East
German society as a whole – was a significant factor in its, essentially
positive, reception by critics. As Susanne Schaber observed: ‘Diese
kritische Distanz, die kaum je kokett erscheint, tut wohl’.10
The very title of the text reveals the intensely personal nature
of Maron’s account, in that it is founded upon the correspondence
between her grandfather and his children. As the author herself
concedes at the outset, however, she is not entirely certain what
inspired her to put pen to paper: ‘Seit ich beschlossen habe, dieses
Buch zu schreiben, frage ich mich, warum jetzt, warum erst jetzt,
warum jetzt noch’ (PB, 7). To a large extent, she attributes the timing
to serendipity: while looking for some old photographs for use in a
Dutch television documentary, Maron’s mother came across a box of
letters, the existence of which, much to her incredulity, she had
forgotten. Thus Maron accompanies her mother on the ‘Spur ihres
Vergessens’ (PB, 11), of which Pawels Briefe is the embodiment. She
returns time and again to the very nature of memory throughout the
text, and how it refuses to offer definite pictures and details. Even
when there are photographs available, they uncover discrepancies, as
Kurzke has noted: ‘Aus den Briefen und aus den erschütternden Fotos
des Buches spricht stumm und anklagend das authentische Damals,

Hermann Kurzke, ‘Eine geborene Iglarz: Monika Maron erinnert sich’, Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, 10 April 1999.
Susanne Schaber, Zeigt niemals dem Kinde: Marons Rekonstruktion der
Familienchronik’, Die Presse, 27 February 1999, p. viii.
296 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

das sich im Gedächtnis nicht mehr wiedererkennt’.11 As for the story

of Pawel and Josefa Iglarz itself, the author admits that it is one with
which she has long been familiar in its general outline, but which is by
no means unique: ‘Zeitgenossen und Leidensgenossen meiner
Großeltern haben berichtet, den Unglauben darüber, daß das
geschehen konnte und daß man das überleben konnte, noch in der
Stimme’ (PB, 7). As a result, Maron appears to feel that she must
justify an apparently self-indulgent project.
But how could it be otherwise, for at the very core of the text
is Maron’s quest for her own sense of self? She constantly appears to
be at odds with her mother, railing against the formative ideological
influences to which she was subjected, to such an extent that many
will doubtless see in Pawels Briefe another contribution to the wealth
of literature published since 1945 dealing with problematic
mother/daughter relationships, of which Klüger’s weiter leben is
another example. In the midst of her battles with her mother, Maron
looks to the figure of Pawel to provide her with guidance and
Ich wollte anders sein, als meine Abstammung mir zugestand. Und
weil die Fotografie meiner Großmutter, die schmal gerahmt in
meinem Zimmer hing, sie allzu deutlich als die Mutter meiner Mutter
auswies, fiel meine Wahl als einzigen Ahnen, von dem abzustammen
ich bereit war, auf meinen Großvater. (PB, 9)

The desire to identify with her grandfather would seem to have

intensified considerably by virtue of the antipathy that characterised
her relationship with her stepfather, Karl Maron, a leading SED
figure, close ally of Ulbricht and the GDR’s Interior Minister (1955-
63). That she was seen by many as a privileged ‘Bonzentochter’ (Q,
34) was clearly a source of irritation to her, not least when it proved a
significant factor in the reception accorded her début novel in the
West: ‘[…] Vor allem schien an mir zu interessieren, was ich mein
Leben lang am wenigsten sein wollte: Karl Marons Stieftochter’ (PB,
202).12 Consequently, one might approach Pawels Briefe primarily as
the author’s attempt to resolve a deep-rooted identity crisis and step
out from under his problematic shadow.
The reception of Flugasche appears symptomatic of a fundamental problem in the
way Western critics received GDR literature as a whole. Was good GDR literature
simply that which was politically subversive? Were Christa Wolf and her colleagues
truly admired for the aesthetic qualities of their work? In light of this, one can
understand Maron’s dismay, although her particular case was unique amongst GDR
Monika Maron 297

Yet such a personal reckoning with one’s GDR identity has

acquired broader significance in the context of post-unification
German society and the difficulties the East German legacy continues
to pose. Since 1989 Maron has been unremittingly outspoken in her
observations on how to deal with the GDR’s past, and not just on
account of the Stasi files. Nevertheless, that she has been obliged to
justify that particular aspect of her own past reinforces the extent to
which her biography has gained a representative status for many
others. In particular, Maron has criticised the tendency of the Western
media to tar all former East Germans with the same brush,
perpetuating a stereotype both inaccurate and obstructive to any
meaningful engagement with the GDR’s legacy. As essays from 1995
and 1999 reveal, Maron has been consistent in her demand for a more
differentiated understanding of the social and psychological profile of
her fellow eastern Germans.13 Yet she has also been unstinting in her
criticism of the phenomenon of Ostalgie and the tendency of, what she
stresses is, a minority of former GDR citizens still to see themselves
as second-class citizens. The root of the problem lies in a general lack
of self-confidence amongst eastern Germans, which Maron reiterates
is a natural ramification of forty years of dictatorship; the propensity
in the old Bundesländer to see former East Germans as ‘nostalgisch,
larmoyant und undemokratisch’ (Q, 147) does little to inspire greater
assertiveness. Maron argues forcefully, and eloquently, for this trend
to be arrested in two ways. Firstly, it is of paramount importance ‘die
Ostdeutschen aus ihrem Kollektivstatus endlich in die Individualität
zu entlassen’ (Q, 147). Only then might it be possible for them to
overcome the inhibiting influence of still apparently being told what to
do and how to behave:
Die Ostdeutschen haben Deutsche werden wollen und sind es auch
geworden, aber eben Deutsche mit einer schmuddeligen
Vergangenheit im Gegensatz zu den anderen Deutschen mit einer
sauberen Vergangenheit. Die Forderung, alle Schuld und Verstrickung
schonungslos offen zu legen, mag hochmoralisch sein, aber
möglicherweise bringt sie gerade das hervor, wogegen sie gedacht ist:
das Fortleben, sogar die Wiederbelebung eines alten, diesmal
positiven Identitätsgefühls mit der untergegangenen DDR.
Vielleicht hätten die Ostdeutschen die Chance gebraucht, ihre Irrtümer
und falschen Entscheidungen selbst zu erkennen, ihre Bereitschaft zur
Korrektur zu beweisen, ehe sie gezwungen waren, ihre Biografien
bloßzulegen. […]

See ‘Vortrag in Japan’, pp. 44-51, and ‘Penkun hinter der Mauer’, pp. 139-47 in
quer über die Gleise.
298 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Eine Diktatur entmündigt ihre Bürger. Sie können als Staatsbürger

nicht erwachsen werden. Erwachsenwerden braucht Zeit. (Q, 50-1)

Maron’s second request, that patience is required, is not unusual.

Many former GDR commentators, such as Günter de Bruyn, have
similarly pleaded for time to be granted those in the new
Bundesländer, whilst being equally alarmed at the sharp rise in those
now peddling a nostalgically distorted picture of life in GDR.14 What
Maron’s essays reveal is how much still needs to be done to
normalise, if not harmonise, relationships between the eastern and
western Bundesländer since the fall of the Wall.
A striking feature of Maron’s call for patience is her attitude
to memory, or more specifically her suggestion that it is acceptable,
even beneficial, to forget. A more cynical interpretation of this view
might point to Maron’s failure to declare her Stasi contacts, which in
itself echoes the criticisms aimed at Christa Wolf, an author who
thematised the problems of memory in her work and then professed
not to be able to recall her links with the MfS in the late 1950s. Yet
Maron’s argument is compelling. Citing Jorge Semprun, she speaks
‘von seinem Vergessen, ohne das er, nach seinen Erlebnissen als
Häftling im Konzentrationslager Buchenwald, nicht hätte weiterleben
können’ (Q, 47). She ponders whether her mother’s inability to
remember her correspondence with Maron’s grandfather stems from
the same existential requirement:
Vielleicht müssen die Menschen, ehe sie den Erinnerungen
standhalten können, sich der Möglichkeit weiterzuleben vergewissert
haben. […]
Wenn unseren Körper ein unerträglicher Schmerz zugemutet wird,
verweigert er das Bewusstsein. Wir fallen in Ohnmacht, bis der
Körper den Schock reguliert hat. Vielleicht ist das Vergessen die
Ohnmacht der Seele; vielleicht müssen wir eine gewisse Zeit
abwarten, ehe wir uns gefahrlos erinnern können. (Q, 47)

It is axiomatic that Maron should return to this issue in Pawels Briefe,

as traditional autobiography is dependent on the autobiographer’s
capacity to remember and judged on the accuracy and authenticity of
what is recalled. In the post-Wende period in Germany, however, the
credibility of one’s private recollections was subjected to even more
intense public scrutiny, as Maron was only too acutely aware:

See, for example, Günter de Bruyn, ‘Deutsche Befindlichkeiten’, in Jubelschreie,
Trauergesänge: Deutsche Befindlichkeiten (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1991), pp. 27-45.
Monika Maron 299

Das Vergessen steht unter Verdacht, dem Bösen und Schlechten in

uns dienstbar zu sein. Vergessen bedeutet Schuld oder körperliches
Versagen. Die Willkür, mit der etwas über unser Wollen hinweg
entscheidet, ob eine Erinnerung in uns auffindbar oder in den Kellern
unseres Gedächtnisses für eine Zeit oder sogar für immer verschlossen
bleibt, erscheint uns unergründlich und ist darum unheimlich. Als
meine Mutter sich an einen Briefwechsel, in dem es um ihr Leben
ging, nicht erinnern konnte, war das Vergessen in der öffentlichen
Meinung gerade zu einem Synonym für Verdrängung und Lüge
geschrumpft. (PB, 11)

She makes no attempt to conceal the problems of dealing with the

past, and makes allowances for the contradictions and different
interpretations that emerge in the narrative. That is not to say that she
is uncritical or unreflective, but Maron successfully eschews an overly
moralistic standpoint. She simply indicates the eclectic nature of
memory and suggests that no black-and-white picture of the past can
ever truly emerge as a consequence, which is a key theme in her novel
Stille Zeile Sechs.15
In view of her own travails in the summer of 1995 and the
pressure exerted on many former East Germans to confront their pasts,
Pawels Briefe would appear to provide a useful model for a more
differentiated, impartial approach to one’s biography. By factoring in
the problematic nature of memory, Maron reveals how the process of
reconstructing the past can never be entirely seamless or authoritative,
and declares, in common with other authors in the present study, that
one must accept that some aspects of the search will remain
tantalisingly out of reach. That inability to recall everything is not a
failure in itself, but certainly becomes problematic, and complex,
when one is subjected to an external moral assessment, as the
experience of many former East Germans in the post-Wende period
indicates. As Paul John Eakin reveals, recent research suggests that
‘memories share the constructed nature of all brain events’ and for
scientist Israel Rosenfeld, whose work Eakin quotes, ‘“recollection is
a kind of perception, […] and every context will alter the nature of
what is recalled”’ (HOL, 106). It follows that if memory is a kind of
perception, then perceptions may well change, not least as the
individual changes or if the circumstances in which one finds oneself
should change. As Maron remarks: ‘Ich kann oft nicht unterscheiden,
ob ich mich wirklich erinnere oder ob ich mich an eine meinem Alter

For a perceptive analysis of this issue in the novel, see Brigitte Rossbacher,
‘(Re)visions of the Past: Memory and Historiography in Monika Maron’s Stille Zeile
Sechs’, Colloquia Germanica, 27 (1994), 13-24.
300 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

und Verständnis angepaßte Neuinszenierung meiner Erinnerung

erinnere’ (PB, 167). If this is true – and the arguments as presented by
Eakin are compelling indeed – then Maron’s objections to the pressure
exerted on her fellow eastern Germans to tackle their pasts are valid.
In the context of post-unification explorations of the GDR, in an
atmosphere especially fraught with suspicion and accusations of
collusion with the Stasi, it should not be a surprise that distortions,
inaccuracies or gaps in what is remembered might occur. That is not
necessarily to say that all memories of the GDR are false or
unreliable, but it does acknowledge the ramifications of having one’s
recollection scrutinised by external agencies or of being pressurised
into some kind of personal reckoning with history. Moreover, if the
identity of former East Germans has been reduced to a stereotype, an
identity imposed from without by the media or public bodies, then that
too will inevitably alter the context and therefore ‘the nature of what is
Having flagged up these problems in her essays and been
subjected herself to the pressure described above, Maron recentres the
debate with Pawels Briefe back on the individual, freeing herself from
this ‘collective status’ that should no longer pertain and reasserting the
first person, the subjective dimension. She champions her own quest
to locate, and confront, her own sense of self with all its complexities,
ambiguities and contradictions, and by implication rejects all existing
external interpretative models as inadequate. Irrespective of whether it
was Maron’s true intention, her private account thereby acquires a
universal relevance. By pursuing her own individual process of
Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Maron employs an interpretative model
that allows her to examine her past whilst acknowledging the inherent
limitations. For the reconstruction can only ever be just that, a
constructed form, an approximation. Like the other authors in the
present survey, Maron clearly does not believe in what Eakin terms an
‘invariant memory that preserves the past intact, allowing the original
experience to be repeated in present consciousness’ (HOL, 107). But
by recognising memories as fluid, dynamic and essentially
constructed, Maron is not seeking to hide something, as some of her
critics have maintained, nor is she endeavouring to appropriate a past
more suited to her present. Instead, Maron draws attention to the
constructed nature of the autobiographical text, but without seeking to
question its inherent authenticity.
So what precise form does the reconstruction take in Pawels
Briefe? It is unique amongst the more conventional autobiographical
Monika Maron 301

texts we have already examined inasmuch as it extends far beyond the

limited scope of traditional autobiography, by simultaneously
embracing three narrative strands, which recalls the structure of
Kindheitsmuster. Described specifically as a ‘Familiengeschichte’, the
text in fact embraces five generations of the author’s family, although
the principal focus is on three of them: Pawel and Josefa Iglarz,
Maron’s grandparents; Hella Maron née Iglarz, Maron’s mother; and
Maron herself. These represent the trio of narrative planes in the text.
Pawels Briefe naturally has the texture of an autobiography, as the
author is self-consciously writing about her family, drawing from
various sources including her own memories, but crucially makes no
attempt to conceal her identity in the manner of Christa Wolf. Where
the latter seeks universality through fiction in Kindheitsmuster whilst
simultaneously problematising the attempt to reconstruct the past,
Maron wishes first and foremost to achieve the intensely personal aim
of constructing a relationship with her grandparents, about whom she
knew only that they had existed and were no longer alive:
Erinnern ist für das, was ich mit meinen Großeltern vorhatte,
eigentlich das falsche Wort, denn in meinem Innern gab es kein
versunkenes Wissen über sie, das ich hätte zutage fördern können. Ich
kannte die Umrisse der Geschichte, der das Innenleben und erst recht
meine innere Kenntnis fehlten. Das Wesen meiner Großeltern bestand
für mich in ihrer Abwesenheit. Fest stand nur, daß es sie gegeben
hatte. Sie hatten der Welt vier Kinder beschert, von denen drei noch
lebten. Es gab Fotos und ein paar Briefe. Vor allem aber gab es ihren
Tod, der sie immer mehr sein ließ als meine Großeltern. (PB, 8)

The material at the heart of Pawels Briefe is thus extracted from extant
documents, a fact underlined by regular, and at times extensive,
quotation from letters and the frequent deployment of photographs.
The photographs are of particular interest. They offer us a pictorial
representation of the key characters in Maron’s family,
complementing the author’s own mental picture of the grandparents
she never met:
Das Bild, das ich mir von meinen Großeltern mache, ist schwarzweiß
wie die Fotografien, von denen ich sie kenne. Selbst wenn ich mich
anstrenge und versuche, mir meine Großmutter und meinen Großvater
als durchblutete farbige Menschen mit einer Gesichts-, Augen- und
Haarfarbe vorzustellen, gelingt es mir nicht, die farbigen Bilder zu
fixieren. Immer schieben sich in Sekunden die schwarzweißen
Fotogesichter über die farbigen Fragmente. (PB, 18)

In addition, Maron employs a device whereby each new photograph is

followed a turn of a page later by an enlarged detail of the same
302 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

photograph, often focusing on a face or a particular person. In effect,

the author is drawing the readers into her text, making them party to
her reconstruction as she often remarks upon the impressions
stimulated in her by the photographs and how she interprets what they
depict. This investigative, deconstructive approach is evidenced most
clearly in her analysis of her great-grandfather’s photograph,
reproduced on page 26. She comments on the visual paradox intrinsic
to the image, for the man who could not read is posing with a book
and most closely resembles a librarian. For Jörg Magenau, the
photographs ‘dienen dazu, alle Zweifel am authentischen Charakter
der Reportage zu beseitigen’, but in actual fact the author herself is
often compelled to question their documentary value as this example
As the title implies, the authenticity of the text derives
principally from the correspondence recovered along with the
photographs, which allows Maron to trace the way in which the Nazis
broke up her family, with Pawel’s presumed death at
Kulmhof/Chelmno preceded by Josefa’s death from cancer. The
poignancy of the reconstruction is underscored by her mother’s
inability to remember the letters, which upsets Hella Maron deeply. In
order to fill this void in Hella’s memory, Maron talks to her mother at
length, asking myriad questions in order to ascertain not only how her
grandparents lived, but also to try and understand how it is possible to
forget so many significant details from one’s life. Mother and
daughter resolve to return to the villages in Poland where Pawel and
Josefa were born, ‘um dort nichts Bestimmtes zu finden, nur
hinzufahren, mir vorzustellen, wie sie dort gelebt hatten, und den
Faden zu suchen, der mein Leben mit dem ihren verbindet’ (PB, 12).17
But the trip proves to be fruitless, if not actually counterproductive.
Maron’s initial optimism that her mother, who spoke only Polish as a
child, would remember ‘einen Satz, vielleicht nur einen halben Satz
ihres Vaters, ein zufällig gehörtes und sorglos vergessenes Wort’ (PB,
108) by visiting Pawel and Josefa’s homeland, is dashed. Her mother
enjoys no ‘epiphanies of recall’ (HOL, 107) as Eakin calls it, and
suffers from the strain of trying to fulfil the function expected of her

Jörg Magenau, ‘Nichts mehr schuldig bleiben’, die tageszeitung, 20/21 February
1999, p. 13.
Helena Janeczek documents a similar journey back to Poland, and especially
Auschwitz, with her mother in Lektionen des Verborgenen. In Kindheitsmuster too,
the narrator returns to her home town in Poland in an attempt to recreate the past and
stir her memories.
Monika Maron 303

by her daughter: ‘Sie wußte, daß wir etwas von ihr erwarteten, und
manchmal war ihr Gesicht ganz leer von der Anstrengung, die ihr die
Suche nach dem verlorenen, vielleicht nie besessenen Wissen
bereitete’ (PB, 109). The author herself appears to concede that the
pressure she places on her mother mirrors that placed upon former
East Germans after the collapse of the GDR. Standing before her
grandmother’s grave she is then moved to ponder ‘ob mich all diese
Bilder nicht eher störten, ob die Festlegungen mir meinen Weg der
Annäherung nicht verstellten’ (PB, 94). The most disturbing aspect of
this visit, however, is the way in which all signs of Jewish life in
Poland appear to have been systematically eradicated: ‘Unter dem
Wort Jüdisch findet sich im Telefonbuch nichts, keine Gemeinde, kein
Museum, kein Büro, nichts’ (PB, 100). Where Ruth Klüger issues a
biting critique in weiter leben of the Polish failure to commemorate
the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Maron simply records the
impressions gleaned from their trip. They find the authorities
particularly obstructive, so that a residual anti-Semitism can be
detected – ‘Jüdische Nachkommen, die nach den Häusern ihrer
Vorfahren fragten, erweckten Argwohn’ (PB, 108) – but any criticism
is implied in a tone more redolent of pathos than censure:
Die geschriebene Geschichte von Ostrow-Mazowiecka ist polnische
Geschichte. Die sechzig Prozent Juden der Stadt werden nicht
verschwiegen; es gab sie einmal, und dann gab es sie nicht mehr. (PB,

Pawels Briefe reveals how the quest for causality in any

analysis of the past can only ever be approximate, and in no way
authoritative. It is merely one potential model, as Maron is at pains to
point out, of imbuing the past with a structure it does not possess:
‘Weil man das Chaos der Vergangenheit nicht erträgt, korrigiert man
es ins Sinnhafte, indem man ihm nachträglich ein Ziel schafft, wie
jemand, der versehentlich eine Straße ins Leere gepflastert hat und
erst dann, weil es die Straße nun gibt, an ihr beliebiges Ende ein Haus
baut’ (PB, 13). In truth, although Pawels Briefe is obviously one such
construction – and it could not be otherwise as an autobiographical
text – Maron makes no effort to conceal its constructed nature, in
keeping with the other authors in the present survey. The varied
devices employed in her account in trying to trace the contours of her
grandparents’ life underline how the extant documentation needs to be
supplemented in order for the lacunae to be filled. As the journey to
Poland failed to resurrect any possibly dormant memories in her
mother, the author resorts to her own imagination to flesh out the
304 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

picture of Pawel and Josefa, to breathe life into the characters derived
from black-and-white photographs. As a result, Maron often signals
the presence of conjecture in the text with the linguistic formula ‘ich
nehme an, daß’, alerting the reader to the extrapolated nature of what
follows but without reducing in any way the impression of
authenticity. There are many examples of this device throughout
Pawels Briefe. For instance, Maron speculates on her grandfather’s
departure from his hometown:
Ich nehme an, daß er Ostrow gern verlassen hat. Auf einem Foto aus
dem Atelier Wereschtschagin in Lodz blickt ein sehr junger zarter
Mann mit flaumigen Bart auf einen imaginären Punkt links neben der
Kamera, als erwarte er etwas aus der Richtung, in die er schaut. Ein
bißchen verträumt wirkt der junge Mann und sehr gefaßt. (PB, 29)

Having reproduced the photograph earlier on page 18, Maron invites

us to assess her interpretation for ourselves, and thereby we can
appreciate how she is not making it up as such, but merely using the
material at her disposal to fill in the gaps. Similarly Maron speculates
about why both Pawel and Josefa rejected the religious backgrounds
of their families, opting instead to join the Baptist community: ‘Ich
nehme an, daß Josefa und Pawel unter der orthodoxen Religiosität
ihrer Elternhäuser gelitten haben’ (PB, 30).
By the same token, there are aspects of Pawel’s life in
particular that Maron wishes had been quite different, namely his
membership of the Communist Party:
Was immer ihn bewogen hat, er wurde Kommunist, und ich kann ihn
mir in einer kommunistischen Parteiversammlung einfach nicht
Oder will ich nicht? Will ich mir nicht vorstellen, wie er in einer
kommunistischen Parteiversammlung redete, sich mit den anderen
gemeinsam erregte, abstimmte, weil es ihm das Geheimnis, mit dem
ich ihn seit meiner Kindheit umgeben habe, rauben könnte? (PB, 60-1)

Maron cannot dispute the fact of his membership, but is unable to

harmonise it with her image of him and his beliefs. In order to
compensate for this apparent anomaly, Maron constructs scenes with
Pawel in the GDR, in which she imagines his opposition to the SED,
despite, or rather because of, his political beliefs:
Ich glaube nicht, daß Pawel mit uns in den Osten gezogen wäre; ich
glaube, er wäre in Neukölln geblieben bei seinem Sohn Paul und Erika
und Sylvia. […] Ich kann mich nicht erinnern, mir als Kind je meinen
gegenwärtigen Großvater vorgestellt zu haben. Und jetzt gelingt es
mir nicht, einen Platz für ihn zu finden in dem Haus in Pankow neben
Monika Maron 305

dem Mann in der Generalsuniform, der sein Schwiegersohn gewesen

wäre. (PB, 182)

In her excellent study of five post-1945 novels, Chloe Paver explores

the device she dubs ‘overt fictionalization’, where the first-person
narrators in question continually draw attention to the fictions they are
creating.18 In particular, by virtue of painstaking textual analysis,
Paver uncovers the way in which provisional sections of narrative are
altered or erased altogether by the narrator, usually with a signalling
phrase similar to those used by Maron in Pawels Briefe. Although this
is not to impugn the authenticity of Maron’s account, the similarity of
the device employed in Pawels Briefe to ‘overt fictionalization’ is
nonetheless striking. It arguably draws more attention to the
hypothetical quality of the text at certain moments than any of the
more conventional autobiographical texts in the present study, in
which it is the way the material has been selected, or carefully divided
into rounded anecdotes or chapters, as with Harig, de Bruyn or Weil
for example, which connotes the use of Dichtung.19 Most interestingly
of all in this regard, however, is Paver’s analysis of Wolf’s use of this
device in Nachdenken über Christa T. Paver posits the convincing,
and highly original, thesis that the fictions employed by Wolf’s
narrator are not intended to blur our image of the eponymous figure as
many critics believe; on the contrary, ‘at the time of writing the
narrator is working towards a definite image of Christa T., and that
she is trying to bring this image into focus (not to blur it) by inventing
episodes in Christa’s life’.20 Maron’s intentions are surely identical in
Pawels Briefe, even though the text as a whole is patently not a fiction
per se.
Maron’s efforts to create a coherent family chronicle, whilst
acknowledging the inherently constructed nature of such a project, is
also complemented by the form of Pawels Briefe. A comparison with
the structure of Grete Weil’s autobiography, which one might
similarly call a ‘family history’ to a certain extent, sheds light on
Maron’s approach. Whereas Weil’s narrative is divided neatly into

Chloe E. M. Paver, Narrative and Fantasy in the Post War German Novel: A Study
of Novels by Johnson, Frisch, Wolf, Becker, and Grass (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1999), p. xii.
In view of Paver’s analysis of Uwe Johnson’s use of ‘overt fictionalization’, it is
interesting to observe how influential he was for Maron, and especially his novel
Mutmaßungen über Jakob. See ‘Ein Schicksalsbuch’ in quer über die Gleise, pp. 7-
23. Note too that the title of the essay collection is a quotation from the first line of the
Paver, p. 114.
306 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

discrete chapters, which themselves fall into two sections calibrated

along historical lines, Maron’s text interweaves parallel, non-
chronological investigations of three generations of her family. The
greater fluidity both reflects the intermingling of the influences upon
the author, as we shall see, but is also redolent of a stream of
consciousness narrative, mimicking the mental processes of memory
that are often random and non-sequential. In this respect, the parallels
between Pawels Briefe and Kindheitsmuster are compelling, but it is
also a feature of Stille Zeile Sechs, where the narrative fractures into
three voices. In her analysis of this rhetorical device in the novel,
Brigitte Rossbacher believes that the ‘multiple voices create an
overwhelming prism of recollections in which each angle sheds light
on the other’, which neatly anticipates what Maron is trying to achieve
in Pawels Briefe.21 It is in those sections dealing with Maron’s own
childhood memories, which glide into the text alongside her
deliberations upon her mother and her grandparents, where this device
is especially prevalent. It takes the form of snatched memories,
recalling Kunert’s free-flowing approach in Erwachsenenspiele.
Maron confesses to a healthy mistrust of her earliest memories,
finding only very few, apparently inconsequential, moments that she
can vouch for:
Ein paar gerettete Minuten, an deren Echtheit ich nicht zweifle. Das
meiste hat sich aufgelöst in einem allgemeinen zusammenfassenden
Wissen, in atmosphärischen Szenen, deren genauer Hergang zu
erfinden wäre, vielleicht nicht unwahrer als die wirkliche Erinnerung,
aber doch erfunden. (PB, 168)

Thus Maron provides a neat formulation of the way in which her text
treads that fine line between Dichtung and Wahrheit. In both its form
and the devices employed in its creation, Pawels Briefe reminds the
reader of its constructed nature, but without its personal authenticity
being undermined.
Critics such as Corina Caduff, who saw in Pawels Briefe
Maron’s attempt to construct ‘eine biologisch-familiäre
Opfertradition’ with which she could justify her apparent complicity
with the GDR state, had clearly ignored or been unaware of Maron’s
earlier treatments of the lives of Pawel and Josefa.22 For the opening
chapter of Flugasche is devoted to them both, albeit in a fictional
setting, and the novel was followed later by the essay ‘Ich war ein
antifaschistisches Kind’, first published in 1989. Significant for our

Rossbacher, p. 21.
Caduff, p. 43.
Monika Maron 307

understanding of Pawels Briefe is the obvious affinity Maron displays

in both texts towards her grandfather in particular. In the novel, the
narrator, Josefa Nadler, is deeply affected by the fear she can detect in
photographs of her grandfather, Pawel, which later serves as the basis
of her ‘Verwandschaft’ with him.23 Whereas one should treat the
autobiographical import of such observations with a degree of caution,
deriving as they do from a fiction, the validity of the essay is less
ambiguous in this regard. Indeed, as Maron herself notes, ‘Ich war ein
antifaschistisches Kind’ can be read ‘wie ein Exposé zu Pawels
Briefe’ (Q, 101). Fundamental to both pieces is the question of
identity. Whereas the essay approaches the topic primarily from a
national perspective, with Maron pondering ‘ob ich wirklich von
Deutschland spreche, wenn ich von Deutschland spreche’, it is
axiomatic that Pawels Briefe should adopt a more personal
approach.24 Yet both texts underline how the two perspectives are
inseparably linked in the process of individuation, albeit in an
antagonistic configuration in Maron’s case.
If we are prepared to accept Eakin’s persuasive thesis that all
identity formation is relational, then it is hard to refute his contention
that autobiography will naturally reflect this process: ‘The myth of
autonomy dies hard, and autobiography criticism has not yet fully
addressed the extent to which the self is defined by – and lives in
terms of – its relations with others’ (HOL, 43). Eakin is effectively
arguing for a broadening of the definition of autobiography ‘to reflect
the kinds of self-writing in which relational identity is
characteristically displayed’ (HOL, 43-4). It is interesting to note,
therefore, that he includes an analysis of Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster in
his study, which as we have seen in the introduction might be
proposed as a modern paradigm of autobiographical writing to replace
Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit as the standard model. With Pawels
Briefe, Maron presents us with yet another variation of the ‘self-
writing’ Eakin speaks of. Although the author is ostensibly concerned
with the lives of her grandparents and her mother – the
‘Familiengeschichte’ as revealed in the correspondence – her telling
of that particular story is simultaneously the telling of her own story.
For Maron is seeking ultimately to define her own sense of self, and in

Flugasche (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1981), p. 12. In the opening paragraph of
Pawels Briefe, Maron emphasises the significance of the character names in the novel.
‘Ich war ein antifaschistisches Kind’, in ‘Die Geschichte ist offen’: DDR 1990 -
Hoffnung auf eine neue Republik, ed. by Michael Naumann (Reinbek: Rowohlt,
1990), pp. 117-35 (p. 117).
308 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

this way Pawels Briefe can be seen primarily as the articulation of a

deep personal need.
The root of Maron’s problem – indeed the very core of
Pawels Briefe – is not her link to the Stasi, but rather her relationship
with her mother, who embodies what Eakin calls in this context the
‘proximate other’ (HOL, 86), the individual through whose life the
self’s story emerges. Thus, although the figure of her grandfather is
the overarching component, the author’s reconstruction of his life
actually sheds light upon her difficulties with Hella, causing some
commentators to lament the way in which Pawel becomes
increasingly marginalized in the text.25 In particular, it is the bitter
political differences between mother and daughter that most trouble
the author. This issue is alluded to in ‘Ich war ein antifaschistisches
Kind’, but at this juncture the problem appears to be essentially of a
public nature:
Vor einem Jahr hat Martin Walser gesagt, er müßte sich, um von
seinen Kindheitserinnerungen der frühen vierziger Jahre erzählen zu
können, in ein antifaschistisches Kind zu verwandeln.
Ich war ein antifaschistisches Kind.
Müßte ich mich, um von meinen Erinnerungen der fünfziger Jahre zu
erzählen, in ein antikommunistisches Kind verwandeln?

In Pawels Briefe, however, Maron relocates the problem to the private

sphere. Her natural, and affectionate, bond to her mother is shown to
have been placed under considerable strain by Hella’s dutiful
adherence to Communism as propagated by the SED. The resultant
ambivalence she feels towards her mother is a key leitmotif of the
text, as well as being a principal factor in the relational dimension of
Maron’s sense of self.
In outlining what he understands to be essential to identity
formation, Eakin emphasises that ‘the key environment in the
individual’s formation is the family, which serves as the community’s
primary conduit for the transmission of its cultural values’ (HOL, 85).
Although on the face of it a commonsense assertion, one must not
overlook the especial pertinence of this ‘transmission of values’ in any
totalitarian system. In Nazi Germany and East Germany, individuality
was to be subjugated to the needs and the will of the community at
large; in the GDR, it was the express aim of the SED to create ‘den

See, for example, Beatrice von Matt, ‘Die Toten drängen ans Licht’, Neue Zürcher
Zeitung, 4 March 1999, p. 35.
‘Ich war ein antifaschistisches Kind’, p. 125.
Monika Maron 309

neuen Menschen’.27 Even if the family sphere in the GDR were to

operate as a niche beyond the orbit of the state, and thus resisted
becoming a repository of the state’s ideology, family members could
not eradicate totally the influence of external forces. In Maron’s case,
however, the family circle was unequivocal in its support of the
prevailing ideology and its influence all-encompassing:
Alle Menschen, die wir, Hella, [Tante] Marta und ich, in den Jahren
nach dem Krieg kennenlernten und gern hatten, waren Kommunisten.
Von manchen sagten Hella und Marta, sie seien Kommunisten ohne
Parteibuch, was nachsichtig klang. Ich glaube auch, von jemandem
gehört zu haben, der gar nicht wußte, daß er Kommunist war. […]
Kommunistisch sein war gut; und gut sein war kommunistisch. (PB,

Maron cannot recall when the word ‘Kommunismus’ first entered her
vocabulary, but assumes it was at the end of the war, when she was
just four. Most important were the associations it generated in the little
girl: ‘Das Wort Kommunismus wird für mich bedeutet haben: Mama,
Marta, Trockenkartoffeln, keine Fliegerangriffe, Lucie und “Später,
wenn alles gut geworden sein wird”’ (PB, 61). One might compare the
associative power of the word ‘Kommunismus’ for Maron with
Kunert’s feelings towards ‘Moskau’ in Erwachsenenspiele, in that the
positive connotations in each case gradually became inverted as the
authors grew increasingly aware of the discrepancy between theory
and practice in the GDR.
In particular, it is the repeated, and potent, equation of
Communism with goodness that makes an impression on the young
Maron. She recalls her pleasure at receiving her Jungpionier uniform,
not least because she was ‘der einzige Junge Pionier in meiner Klasse,
vielleicht sogar in der ganzen Schule’ (PB, 165). Moreover, as an
indication of the efficacy of her family as an ideological conduit, the
young girl even defends her atheism in the playground with apparent
pride, although in hindsight the author concedes to being uncertain ‘ob
ich meine Religionslosigkeit als Mangel empfunden habe, oder ob ich
mich, was möglich ist, nur für aufgeklärter und fortgeschrittener hielt
als alle anderen, wir waren Kommunisten, und Kommunisten glauben
nicht an Gott’ (PB, 40). The author sees in a photograph of herself
with her mother in a crowd, possibly at a May Day demonstration, the
apotheosis of her political conditioning. Despite some scepticism
about the accuracy of the memories she associates with this particular
photograph, Maron is certain that she did take part in such a rally:

Fulbrook, p. 130.
310 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Meiner wirklichen oder unwirklichen Erinnerung haftet etwas

Feierliches an, den Menschen und dem Tag, der auf dem Foto ein
sonniger ist. Die Menschen waren Genossen, und wir gehörten dazu.
Die Gewißheit, daß Genossen bessere und klügere Menschen sind als
andere, war Teil meines kindlichen Denkens, das mir später, als ich es
längst besser wußte, zuweilen die Reflexe verwirrte und aus den
Denkwegen geräumt werden mußte wie lästiges Gestrüpp. (PB, 164-5)

On account of her mother’s deep commitment to the cause, it is only

to be expected that Maron would be so susceptible to the notion of the
apparent integrity and moral superiority of the Communists conveyed
to her at such an intimate level. Yet, as she indicates at this point, her
own engagement was set to unravel once the discrepancies between
theory and practice became evident, but it still required a concerted
effort to free herself completely from these formative experiences.
Although the tension between mother and daughter depicted
in Pawels Briefe is in essence a political one, the stimulus appears to
have been personal, embodied in the figure of Karl Maron, Maron’s
stepfather. It is noticeable how the author seems barely able to refer to
him by name, preferring rather elliptical and impersonal references to
‘Hellas neuer Mann’ (PB, 63; 58; 83), and only very grudgingly
accepts that he was her stepfather. But her antipathy towards her
stepfather, and the concomitant disappointment in her mother, is made
explicit in the text:
Eltern sind Schicksal; sie sind unser genetisches Schicksal und,
solange wir Kinder sind, auch unser biographisches. Hellas neuer
Mann war nur mein biographisches Schicksal. Es gab Jahre, in denen
ich ihr das Recht bestritt, mir dieses Schicksal zugemutet zu haben.
(PB, 83)

The details of her relationship with her stepfather remain under wraps;
Maron affords us no glimpses into the Marons’ family life, as if to
exclude his presence in her life as much as possible, and accordingly
she includes no photograph of him. She concedes simply that
following Hella’s marriage in 1955, she spent ‘die ersten zwei Jahre
unseres gemeinsamen Lebens […] im Internat’ (PB, 189). The ironic
reference to this new ‘communal life’ appears to speak volumes. More
revealing still is Maron’s reaction to Karl Maron’s death in 1975. She
collapsed the day after his funeral, and spent almost four months in
hospital as a result: ‘Nicht der Schmerz, sondern daß ich keinen
Schmerz empfinden konnte, daß ich diesen Tod wirklich als Befreiung
erlebte, hat mein verwirrtes Hirn dem ihm untergebenen Körper
offenbar so viele falsche oder einander widersprechende Befehle
erteilen lassen, bis er kollabierte’ (PB, 193).
Monika Maron 311

From the severity of Maron’s nervous breakdown one can

adduce the damage that must have been inflicted upon the author’s
sense of self by her life in the GDR up to that point. Her collapse
seems suggestive of a long suppressed internal conflict, between
increasing political disllusionment and filial loyalty, which could not
be reconciled much longer. It is telling indeed that she should view the
death as a ‘Befreiung’. On a personal level, it obviated the need ‘Hella
einer familiären Zerreißprobe auszusetzen und zu riskieren, daß sie
sich für Karl und gegen mich entscheiden würde’ (PB, 195). Being
aware of how her family had been forcibly broken up by the Nazis,
Maron would naturally have been terrified at the thought of a similar
eventuality occurring in the GDR. But equally importantly, her
stepfather’s death was to allow Maron to assert her own identity
unfettered by compromise and concession:
Ich weiß bis heute nicht genau, warum mir, solange Hellas Mann
lebte, alles unmöglich erschien, was ich, als er gestorben war, nach
und nach einfach tat, wie ein umgeleiteter Fluß, der sein natürliches
Bett wiederfindet, nachdem das künstliche Hindernis aus dem Weg
geräumt wurde. (PB, 194-5)

By a strange coincidence, Maron’s acquisition of a sense of freedom,

symbolised by her decision to start work on her début novel, was
followed soon afterwards by the Biermann expulsion, which allowed
her to express more forcibly still an incipient rebellion against the
orthodoxy of her upbringing:
Ich schrieb, ich trat aus der SED aus und veröffentlichte mein erstes
Buch, nachdem man es in der DDR nicht drucken wollte, entgegen
allen früheren Beteuerungen doch im Westen. (PB, 195)

But the appearance of Flugasche in West Germany in 1981 did carry a

personal cost, as mother and daughter did not speak for a year as a
direct consequence. The author’s distress at being used in some
cultural circles as a pawn in German-German relations, by virtue of
her stepfather, is genuine. Thus the private ramifications inevitably
marred the satisfaction of finally venting her political disillusion.
One can ascribe the damage done to Maron’s sense of self –
ultimately necessitating her departure from the GDR in 1988 – to the
interweaving of the private and the public at such an intimate level.
On account of her marriage to the powerful politician Karl Maron,
Hella came to personify the State as well. Had the State adhered to the
tenets of Marxism that enshrined equality and freedom – the very
concerns that had inspired Hella to join the Communists in her young
life – then, it is is implied, Maron would have understood her mother’s
312 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

unswerving dedication to the cause. But that Hella should be so

oblivious to the discrepancy between the theory and the practice of
ideology in the GDR was, and remains, a source of deep frustration
and amazement:
Wovon war Hella denn überzeugt? Daß der neue Staat gerecht war?
Er war nicht gerecht. Daß die Menschen frei und glücklich werden?
Sie waren nicht frei und glücklich und wurden es auch nicht. Daß die
Bildung für alle war? Sie war nicht für alle. Aber eine gerechte Welt
mit freien, glücklichen Menschen und gleichen Chancen für alle hat
Hella sich bestimmt vorgestellt, als sie mit ihrer Agit-Prop-Gruppe
durch die Neuköllner Hinterhöfe zog. Ihre Überzeugung, diese
ersehnte Welt könne nur eine kommunistische sein, hat sie weder den
Millionen Toten noch den Millionen Gefangenen des Stalinismus
noch der Realität des sozialistischen Alltags geopfert. Ich glaube,
Hella sieht in ihrer Treue eine Tugend; ich empfinde sie als
Unbelehrbarkeit und, angesichts der Willkür und des Unglücks, das
Kommunisten über einen halben Kontinent gebracht haben, als
Herzlosigkeit. (PB, 179)

On account of her mother’s support of the GDR, cemented by her

marriage to one of its leading apparatchiks, Maron was effectively
condemned by duty and fear to speechlessness of both a literal and
figurative nature. Karl Maron’s death freed her from this condition to
some extent, but Pawels Briefe itself allows her to voice the
frustration and disorientation her mother caused her and to set about
healing this wound. If her fictional work can be seen as a critique of
the GDR, Pawels Briefe redirects much of that same critique at her
mother, who became synonymous with a totalitarian state that Maron
categorically rejects.
Even if her essays since 1989 have sought to foster harmony
between western and eastern Germans, whilst simultaneously
highlighting the fallacy of stereotyping former GDR citizens, Maron
has consistently criticised, and been appalled by, any concept of
Ostalgie. In her eyes the GDR and its legacy are ‘absurd und
unverständlich’ (Q, 146), and Pawels Briefe reinforces the point, all
the more poignantly in that the public criticism is set in the context of
a mother/daughter relationship. In particular, Maron attacks the
dogmatic foundations of her mother’s convictions, which, she feels,
contributed to her inability to appreciate the GDR’s faults. Thus
Maron underlines her mother’s hypocritical application of terms such
as ‘Klasseninstinkt’ and ‘Klassenbewußtsein’, which did not preclude
her enjoying her privileged status as a ‘Bonzenfrau’ (PB, 129) in the
Monika Maron 313

Arbeiter- und Bauernstaat.28 Similarly, the author cannot understand

how her mother could support a system that advocated the benefits of
the process of Kritik und Selbstkritik. Both mother and daughter had
terrible experiences of the procedure – Hella at the Parteihochschule
and Monika at school – and the harrowing descriptions suggest that
the benefits of this arbitrary, artificial and intensely confrontational
practice were dubious at best, predicated as it was on denunciation. It
is unsurprising that Maron should invoke her painful memories of this
procedure in the essay in which she defended herself against the Stasi
It is Hella’s refusal either to abandon the official
interpretation of key events in the GDR’s history or to accept the
State’s crimes, that infuriates her daughter the most, revealing
unequivocally the incongruity between Hella as a good mother and
loyal Communist, and thereby explaining Maron’s resultant
Nichts in [Hellas] Leben vor diesem Mai 1945 – weder ihre Herkunft
noch ihre Erziehung, weder ihr Sinn für Gerechtigkeit noch ihre
Freiheitsliebe – kann mir erklären, warum sie für die nächsten
Jahrzehnte zu denen gehörten, die ihre politischen Gegner in
Gefängnisse sperrten, Christen drangsalierten, Bücher verboten, die
ein ganzes Volk einmauerten und durch einen kolossalen
Geheimdienst bespitzeln ließen. Was hatten Pawels Töchter Hella und
Marta unter solchen Leuten zu suchen? (PB, 154)

It is the question that pervades Pawels Briefe, but for which there does
not appear to be an answer. Freed from her inhibitions by Karl
Maron’s death, Maron begins to challenge her mother. Coincidentally,
the Biermann expulsion was the first incident to expose the tension
between mother and daughter. Maron is unable to recall how they
were reconciled on that occasion, but attributes it to their love for one
another, whilst simultaneously admitting quite candidly: ‘Ich habe
Hella damals auch gehaßt’ (PB, 202). The tension is not eased by her
infuriation at her mother’s selective, or partial, memory of the GDR’s
history. She casts doubt, for instance, on Hella’s description of the
emotional unification of the Communists and Social Democrats to
form the SED in 1946, and is struck by her mother’s simple omission
of other historical coordinates in her own personal chronicle:

Beerenbaum, a high-level SED functionary, refers to his ‘Klasseninstinkt’ in Stille
Zeile Sechs (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1993), p. 58.
See ‘Heuchelei und Niedertracht’ (Q, 34-5).
314 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

In ihren Aufzeichnungen erwähnt Hella weder das Jahr 1953 noch das
Jahr 1956, kein Wort über den Mauerbau 1961. Und 1968, ‘das
verfluchte Jahr 1968’, wie Hella schreibt, ist nicht das Jahr des
Einmarchs in Prag, sondern das Jahr ihrer Sorgen um Karl, der nach
dem Ausscheiden aus seinen Ämtern in Depressionen gefallen war.
(PB, 191-2)

She can find no explanation for her mother’s apparently staunch

conviction in Communism, which remains intact at the end of Pawels
Briefe with her affiliation to the PDS, much to her daughter’s
continued incredulity. The author harbours the suspicion – ‘der eher
eine nachgetragene Hoffnung ist’ (PB, 157) – that her mother’s love
for Karl Maron is largely responsible for her loyalty to the Party, and
thereby for distorting her view, although it is a thesis rejected by Hella
herself, forcing Maron to conclude: ‘Ihre Überzeugung […] ist Hella
implantiert wie ein lebenswichtiges Organ, und jeder Versuch, sich
ein Leben ohne sie zu denken, ist lebensgefährlich’ (PB, 157-8).
Maron’s choice of corporeal metaphor here reveals how much Hella
herself must have been shaped by relational forces and hints at the
disorientating repercussions of a sudden change in circumstances.
So what of the effect on Maron herself? That her mother’s
support of a corrupt regime dismayed the author is clear. Indeed,
Maron places her own ideological rebellion in the broader context of
other children of prominent Party functionaries, who became
‘Ruhestörer und Dissidenten’:
Es lag wohl an der ruinierten moralischen Integrität ihrer Eltern, daß
kaum jemand auf die Idee kam, ihre Revolte könnte das Ergebnis ihrer
Erziehung sein, weil die Kinder das Pathos des antifaschistischen
Widerstands Ernst genommen haben, während ihre Eltern schon dabei
waren, sich aus Widerstandskämpfern in Machthaber zu verwandeln.
(PB, 170)

Although this perspective accounts for Maron’s disllusionment with

her own mother in political terms, there is little doubt that the author’s
sense of self suffered more insidious damage at a deeper private level
because of her mother’s synonymity with the GDR apparatus that
came to see in Maron a ‘Staatsfeind’ (PB, 62). The interweaving of
the public and the private is a topos of critical GDR literature. With its

It should be pointed out that Maron herself makes no direct reference to these key
dates either. Although we can attribute this omission, in part, to her having been a
young girl during the earlier events, we might have expected some comment on the
erection of the Berlin Wall, for example, when she would have been twenty years old.
As her principal concern was clearly to focus on Pawel and Hella, her reactions to
1961 or 1968 might perhaps have appeared as a distraction.
Monika Maron 315

depiction of ideology impinging upon the intimate bond between

mother and daughter Pawels Briefe is reminiscent of Volker Braun’s
Unvollendete Geschichte, in which the protagonist, the daughter of
Party members, is compelled to abandon her boyfriend, whom the
State erroneously perceives as an undesirable.31 Under pressure to
conform to the Party line and pregnant by her boyfriend, the girl
begins to call into question her commitment to an ideology that can
ride roughshod over private concerns, and ultimately defies both the
State and her parents by having the baby and moving in with her
boyfriend and his family. As the title of Braun’s piece implies,
however, the ending is far too open to be unequivocally optimistic.
Although it would be an exaggeration to assert that Pawels Briefe
contains any of the bleakness of Braun’s tale, its portrayal of the way
in which a supposedly natural relationship is distorted by fundamental
political differences in East Germany does echo the fictional case,
lending it further credence.32 That Maron suspected her mother would
choose her husband over her daughter in any conflict must have been
painful, and perhaps explains the severity of her nervous breakdown.
As a result, it is conceivable indeed that the author should perceive the
Wende as her final release from an inevitably repressed childhood:
‘Manchmal denke ich, daß ich erst in diesem Herbst erwachsen
geworden bin; ich war achtundvierzig Jahre alt’ (PB, 131). At long
last, she could begin to see her mother just as her mother, rather than a
representative of the GDR, with whom her relationship was
necessarily founded on a barely sustainable compromise. Thus she
greets her mother’s disorientation at the collapse of the GDR not with
schadenfreude, but rather with a sense of relief:
Für einen kurzen Moment ihres Lebens, für eine Sekunde in der
Geschichte, gehörte Hella zu keiner Partei, zu keinem Staat, zu keiner
Idee und keiner Klasse. […] Dieser Augenblick gehört für sie
wahrscheinlich zu den schwersten in ihrem Leben. Ich wünschte, er
hätte länger gedauert. (PB, 131)

It seems natural that Maron should have wished this moment could
have lasted longer, when their relationship hitherto had been
incessantly entangled in, and penetrated by, politics. Irrespective of
Hella’s subsequent support of the PDS and her unwillingness to accept
the truth of the worst excesses of Stalinism, however, we are given the
impression that their relationship has happily evolved along far more
organic and wholesome lines since 1989: ‘Eigentlich haben wir uns

Volker Braun, Unvollendete Geschichte (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1977).
Braun has since revealed that his cautionary tale was based on a real situation.
316 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

schon vor fünfzehn Jahren versprochen, über Politik nicht mehr zu

streiten, was, wie Hella behauptet, dazu geführt hat, daß ich alles
sagen darf und sie nichts’ (PB, 65).
In view of the generational conflict that marked Maron’s adult
life, it appears axiomatic that she should have cast around for some
other means of coping with this private/public dilemma. Her
stepfather compounded, rather than eased the problem, whereas her
natural father, who died early, remained a peripheral figure in her life,
reflected in his brief appearance in the text. Already well-versed in her
family’s history before the discovery of Pawel’s letters, one can
understand why Maron should be so drawn to her grandfather,
especially as a child. As we have already seen, families play an
important role in a child’s individuation and, as Eakin suggests, that
influence is especially prevalent in the stories told within the family:
‘We can think of the child’s sense of self as emerging within a
crucible of family stories and cultural scripts’ (HOL, 117). The
opening chapter of Flugasche indicates the validity of this assertion
with regard to Monika Maron, wrought as it is in the form of familial
anecdotes, the autobiographical elements of which are now evident.
Yet Pawel’s significance for the author went far beyond his suffering
at the hands of the Nazis, which Caduff rather unkindly contends was
the author’s primary interest in her grandfather.33 If the family stories
reinforced the strong values her grandfather embodied and his
steadfast commitment to them, then they also revealed, in the context
of her mother’s support of the Stalinist regime in the GDR, the
dichotomy between Hella’s idealistic belief in Communism and the
reality of its application in East Germany. The belated discovery of
the letters, and the better defined picture of her grandfather that
emerges in the correspondence, confirms Maron’s long-held
conviction that Pawel would have shared her strong reservations about
Hella’s political views:
Ich wünschte, es hätte ihn [Pawel] in meinem Leben gegeben. Ich
kann mir einfach nicht vorstellen, daß unser Leben mit Pawel ebenso
verlaufen wäre, wie es ohne ihn verlaufen ist.
Alles, was ich inzwischen über ihn weiß, läßt mich vermuten, daß
Hellas fragloses Bekenntnis zu ihrer Partei und zu der neuen Macht in
Pawel wenigstens Zwiespalt geweckt hätte. (PB, 181)

Thus she identifies less with her grandfather’s victim status than with
his principles, which she is convinced would reaffirm her own, and

Caduff, p. 43.
Monika Maron 317

thereby bolster her sense of self. He personifies a delayed, but no less

important, justification of Maron’s political rebellion. Because of the
complex interweaving of private and public issues in her relationship
with Hella, one senses that the author needed some confirmation that
her actions – leaving the SED, publishing her books in the West,
leaving the GDR, and maybe even her links with the Stasi – were not
impulsive or shallow, or merely a daughter’s rebellion against her
In his penultimate letter from the ghetto, a ‘Vermächtnisbrief’
(PB, 112) written shortly before his death and intended for Monika
when she was old enough to read it, Pawel had written: ‘“Zeigt
niemals dem Kinde [Monika], daß es Haß, Neid und Rache gibt”’ (PB,
112; 181). On these grounds, and even though she may wish her
grandfather had not been a Communist, Maron feels certain that he
would have been ‘gefeit […] gegen den Unfehlbarkeitsanspruch’ (PB,
181) of the SED. She asks her mother how Pawel would have found
life in East Germany and is relieved at Hella’s inability, or
unwillingness, to answer, which to her mind merely confirms her own
Hellas bekennende Unzuständigkeit erleichtert mich. Zwar hätte ich
der entschiedenen Behauptung, Pawel wäre auf jeden Fall ein
Anhänger des neuen Systems gewesen, ohnehin nicht geglaubt, aber
indem Hella, die ihn ja besser gekannt hat als ich, sich dessen eben
nicht gewiß sein kann, überläßt sie meinen Großvater ganz mir und
meinen Mutmaßungen über ihn. (PB, 182)

Although her view may well be based on speculation –

‘Mutmaßungen’ – the importance of the mental picture of Pawel she
constructs with the help of his letters is crucial as a belated means of
identification for the author. For one has the impression that, as a
result of her ambivalent relationship with her mother – ‘die ich für
ihre Lebensklugheit liebte und deren politische Ignoranz mich um so
mehr empörte’ (PB, 201) – Maron suffered from a lack of self-
confidence throughout her life in the GDR and beyond, to such an
extent that she came to define her sense of identity chiefly in her
opposition to the State:
Vor allem war ich von dem Argwohn befallen, ich könnte meinem
Feind ähnlich werden wie ein Hund seinem Herrn, weil ich, um ihm
zuvorzukommen, zu oft versuchte, zu denken wie er; weil ich, selbst
wenn ich seine Erwartungen an mich mutwillig enttäuschte, ständig
damit beschäftigt war, sie zu enttäuschen, und somit doch er, mein
Feind, bestimmte, was ich tat und dachte, weil ich meine halbe
Phantasie darauf verwendete, mich von ihm nicht besiegen zu lassen.
(PB, 163)
318 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

When one considers the tension that already underpinned Maron’s

relationship with her mother, it is easy to appreciate how the author’s
emigration could only have been a matter of time.
Despite the overtly personal dimension of Maron’s
investigation in Pawels Briefe, the text does contain a more universal
relevance in its quest to reconstruct the past. Herein lies the book’s
considerable appeal. For without claiming to offer a definitive
interpretation of her family’s past, Maron nevertheless demonstrates
how one might effect an approximate, and useful, reconstruction
thereof. In the manner of both de Bruyn and Kunert, Maron’s family
history also encompasses two totalitarian structures, although her less
chronological approach to the material allows her to juxtapose the two
systems throughout.34 Without intimating that they were in any way
synonymous, Maron does uncover aspects of continuity between the
two socio-political regimes, from which she derives her disaffection
with her mother’s loyalty to the GDR. Particularly striking are the
parallels between the fate of her grandfather and that of Grete Weil’s
husband or Ruth Klüger and her family, for in each case Jewish
identity was imposed upon them by the Nazis with tragic
The fate of Pawel Iglarz overshadows the whole text, all the
more effectively as his suffering is conveyed with harrowing clarity in
the moving letters he writes to his family. It is hard, therefore, to
substantiate Beatrice von Matt’s assertion that he effectively
disappears from the text.35 Maron recounts how Pawel and Josefa left
their native Poland for Berlin in 1905, having been ostracised by their
families on account of their respective acts of religious apostasy:
Pawel abandoned his Jewish background, Josefa her Catholic
upbringing, with both becoming Baptists. Faced with her mother’s
inability to explain why Pawel and Josefa made this decision, Maron
speculates that they must have suffered ‘unter der orthodoxen
Religiosität ihrer Elternhäuser’ (PB, 30). But the point is interesting
on two counts. Firstly, in the light of what has already been discussed,
one can see here why Monika Maron would have been drawn to her
grandparents’ rebellion against dogmatic attitudes, but it reveals, in
addition, how Pawel and Josefa had kept their own pasts from their
children, a fact highlighted by the fruitless trip made by Maron and
her mother to Poland:

See Rossbacher, p. 15. Rossbacher identifies the same juxtaposition in Stille Zeile
Von Matt, p. 35.
Monika Maron 319

Es stimmt, daß Pawel mit dem Vergessen angefangen hat. Er hat

seinen Kindern nichts erzählen wollen über die orthodoxe Welt, die er
verlassen und die ihn totgesagt hatte. […] Wir wissen nicht, warum
Pawel Ostrow verlassen hat und nicht bleiben wollte, als was er
geboren war: Jude. Er hat die Erinnerung an seine Herkunft seinen
Kindern nicht hinterlassen wollen. (PB, 109-10)

The tragedy for the Iglarz family is that simply suppressing the past
did not eradicate it; it merely created a vacuum. One might argue,
therefore, that Pawels Briefe is the author’s attempt to atone for her
grandfather’s failure to confront his own past, whilst simultaneously
ensuring that she does not commit the same mistake. It would
certainly explain her preoccupation with the nature of memory and the
importance of the past, which in the context of post-unification
Germany remains a key concern. In particular, Günter de Bruyn has
reflected at length on the legacy of the past in the wake of the GDR’s
collapse, and his contention that history is a ‘Lebensbedürfnis’
intersects neatly with Maron’s project, if not all of those in the present
Geschichte ist also, so oder so, für die Gegenwart nutzbar. Man sollte
deshalb ihre Betrachtung immer mit Vorsicht genießen; doch kommt
keine Zeit ohne das Nachdenken über Geschichte und die eigne
Geschichtlichkeit aus. Denn wir sind sowohl Gegenstand künftiger
Geschichte als auch Produkt der Geschichte. Alles was wir tun oder
lassen, denken und sagen ist beeinflußt von Überkommenem. Wir
sind, was wir wurden, und wer mehr über sein Werden weiß, weiß
mehr über sich.

Berlin had attracted Pawel and Josefa, Maron assumes, on

account of Prussia’s famed religious tolerance, but the onset of racist
National Socialism was fatefully to drive them back to Poland, and
Pawel to his death, probably at Kulmhof, ‘das erste Vernichtungslager
für Juden’ (PB, 89). Although she was not Jewish and not obliged to
leave Berlin, Josefa opted to remain with her husband until he was
interned in the ghetto at Belchatow in 1942, shortly before her death
from cancer. If separation from the children was not bad enough, not
to have been with Josefa during her painful illness broke Pawel’s heart
and, as the letters indicate, sapped his will to live. In particular, Maron
is struck by Pawel’s attitude towards his Jewish identity, once rejected
and then reimposed. His overwhelming feeling is one of guilt for
having encumbered his entire family, and especially Josefa, with the
consequences of this fateful identity: ‘Von [seinen Kindern] erbittet er

Günter de Bruyn, ‘Deutsche Zustände’, p. 50.
320 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Verzeihung für seine Abstammung, für das Unglück der Mutter, für
seine Ohnmacht vor ihrem Tod’ (PB, 138). Whereas the experiences
of Grete Weil, Ruth Klüger and Günter Kunert fostered in them a
connection with their heritage from which they derived the strength to
resist, Maron’s grandfather could not overcome his resentment:
‘Es muß doch ein zu ungeheuerliches Verbrechen sein, Jüdischer
Abstammung zu sein, aber glaubt es mir, liebe Kinder, ich hab es
nicht verschuldet. Wenn mir die Eltern zur Wahl gestellt worden
wären, ich hätte mir womöglich auch andere Eltern gewählt aber ich
mußte es auch so nehmen, wie es mir geboten wurde’.
[…] Nur dieses eine Mal erwähnt er seine jüdische Familie, und nur
als die unfreiwillige Herkunft, die ungewollten Eltern. (PB, 98)

Maron supplements her reconstruction of Pawel’s last days in the

ghetto with a series of terse sections conveying the bald facts of the
Holocaust as it affected her grandfather, much as Weil does in her
autobiography with regard to the fate of the Jews in Holland. A
contemporary readership is now well versed in this terrible history and
so a more detailed commentary is not required. Yet, for Maron, it is
not the fact of Pawel’s death or the Holocaust per se that are so
disturbing: ‘Barbarischer und niederträchtiger als Pawels Ermordung
war die rohe Mißachtung der Gesetze seines Lebens; ihn zu töten,
erscheint nur noch als die kalte Konsequenz seiner moralischen
Auslöschung’ (PB, 137). It is in the infringement of an individual’s
rights and dignity – ‘die rohe Mißachtung der Gesetze seines Lebens’
– that the true personal cost of existence under a totalitarian system is
to be found, and Pawels Briefe maps poignantly the contours of the
suffering that results.
Although she does not seek to equate the GDR directly with
its fascist predecessor in her account, Maron naturally reveals how
similar infringements of human rights occurred under German
socialism, creating what she has called elsewhere ‘zerstörte Seelen’
(Q, 45). Despite her dismay at her mother’s uncharacteristic
insensitivity to the suffering that the system she supported was itself
to cause, in view of the Iglarz family’s own experiences under
National Socialism, Maron has nevertheless underlined how the
GDR’s redirection of responsibility for the crimes of Nazism to its
western neighbour was bound to have ramifications in the post-Wende
assessment of its own past:
Im Osten schlug man die Erbschaft einfach aus und ernannte das
gesamte Staatsvolk der DDR zu dem besseren, dem antifaschistischen
Teil der Deutschen. Indem die neuen Herrscher ihrer Bevölkerung die
Monika Maron 321

Auseinandersetzung mit der alten Diktatur ersparten, machten sie sie

unempfindlich für die nächste.
Seit 1989 liegt auch hinter uns, was in einem Teil Deutschlands seit
1945 im Namen der Zukunft angerichtet wurde: die zweite deutsche
Diktatur, die vierzig Jahre lang zwischen Vergangenheit und Zukunft
regierte, und zuweilen scheint es, als hätte erst jetzt, da sie zerbrochen
ist und die Ergebnisse ihrer Herrschaft offen zutage liegen – zerstörte
Seelen, zerstörte Landschaften, eine zerstörte Wirtschaft –, ihre
geistige Gegenwart begonnen. (Q, 45)

Maron is not trying to absolve her fellow eastern Germans from any
responsibility, but is merely articulating the problems they may now
face when morally compelled to confront the past:
Es gehört zum Wesen einer Diktatur, dass sie die öffentliche
Diskussion über sich selbst nicht zulässt. Sie unterdrückt den
Verständigungs- und Selbstverständigungsprozess einer Gesellschaft
nicht nur; sie stellt ihn unter Strafe. Erst wenn die materielle Existenz
der Diktatur beendet ist, kann ihre geistige nachgeholt werden. (Q, 45)

As someone subjected to public scrutiny, on account of her Stasi

contacts, the author herself is clearly in a position to talk with some
authority not only on the invasive nature of dictatorship, but also on
the problems of dealing with the ‘geistige Existenz’ in that repressive
environment. Time and again she has reiterated the need for this
process of ‘Selbstverständigung’ to be effected, as the term would
suggest, on an individual basis, in order to liberate the former East
Germans from the strictures of their enforced collective identity. In
this way, Maron echoes Christa Wolf’s advocation of ‘subjective
authenticity’ from the 1960s, which underpinned her novels
Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968) and Kindheitsmuster, both of
which can be read as explorations of the ‘Versuch, man selbst zu
sein’.37 In a climate now unfettered by censorship, with Pawels Briefe
Maron has arguably provided an updated model for this private, and
public, reckoning with the past and the reassertion of one’s sense of
self. Maron is surely correct in her assertion that these two concerns
are interdependent, especially in the context of German history:
Die Schwierigkeit, mit einer belasteten Vergangenheit umzugehen,
liegt in diesem heiklen Gleichgewicht zwischen Selbstbewusstsein
und selbstkritischer Einsicht. Ein Volk wie auch der Einzelne braucht
Selbstbewusstsein, um seiner Vergangenheit kritisch zu begegnen;
und es braucht selbstkritische Einsicht, um selbstbewusst zu werden.
(Q, 51)

Nachdenken über Christa T., p. 9.
322 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

Throughout Pawels Briefe, Maron makes no effort to conceal

the fact that the material conflates documentary evidence with creative
and imaginative extrapolations, thereby supplementing Wahrheit with
Dichtung. It allows her to develop a picture of her grandparents’ life
together, to imagine how they would have found life after the war, had
they survived it, and to construct a relationship with people she never
knew. Such Dichtung is no more fictional than trying to reconstruct
events and situations from memories, the reliability of which is
continually questioned in the text. On several occasions, Maron
highlights how people recall the same events in different ways, but
without being in any way judgemental. Their memories are real to
them; it does not necessarily mean that they are lying. In the same
way, it does not mean that Pawels Briefe is itself a study in deception,
or self-deception, simply because the accuracy of some components
cannot be vouched for definitively. In her essay ‘Erinnern und
Erfinden’, which criticises the tendency of readers to perceive literary
fiction as autobiographical, Anna Mitgutsch posits a compelling thesis
on the qualities that imbue texts with authenticity:
Es gibt eine Intensität der Sprache und der Darstellung, eine
Überzeugungskraft, die anders nicht zu erreichen ist. Diese Intensität
läßt sich schwer simulieren. Sie kommt aus der Verletzung, aus dem
Schmerz, der nicht rückgängig zu machenden Beschädigung. Sie
fordert eine Simplizität und eine Genauigkeit, eine ungeschminkte
Direktheit, die im freien Spiel mit Entwürfen und Möglichkeiten
gekünstelt wirken würde. Solchen Texten haftet die Aura des
Notwendigen an. Sie werden vom Leser als authentisch erlebt, und er
wird versucht sein, sie autobiographisch zu verstehen, weil er spurt,
daß hier der Autor, die Autorin mit einer Erfahrung ringt, mit der er
bzw. sie auch im Schreiben nicht fertig geworden ist.

Although the autobiographical basis of Pawels Briefe is not in doubt,

Mitgutsch’s analysis is productive in our assessment of Maron’s text,
especially of those sections where Maron has resorted to extrapolation
or creative reconstruction (Dichtung/Erfindung) in her quest for the
truth (Wahrheit/Erinnerung). For there is an inherent necessity to it, a
sense that Maron had to write the story of her grandparents’ life in
order to heal a deep-rooted personal ‘Verletzung’. And it is from the
very personal nature of her motivation, her quest for her sense of
identity, that the text’s credibility derives. In this way, Pawels Briefe
fits the pattern of each of the texts in the present study, which all
tackle a personal ‘Verletzung’ inflicted by totalitarianism.

Mitgutsch, p. 12.
Monika Maron 323

Paul John Eakin argues that one’s story of the ‘proximate

other’ simultaneously stimulates the story of the self: in this way
biography can also be autobiography, for there is a thin line separating
the two. Thomas Kraft for one though is unhappy about calling
Pawels Briefe an autobiography: ‘Es handelt sich vielmehr um ein
Dokument persönlicher Selbstvergewisserung in der Auseinander-
setzung mit der eigenen Herkunft und einer sich vage daraus
ableitenden Form von Identität’.39 Yet one might argue, in view of the
differentiated nature of the genre, that Kraft has in fact delivered a
useful definition of autobiographical writing which can be applied to
most, if not all, of the texts we have examined. With regard to Pawels
Briefe, which is designated a ‘Familiengeschichte’, one cannot
overlook the author’s own life story and the quest for self-affirmation
that emerge therein. It is a point she acknowledges at the end of the
opening section:
Ich mußte aufgehört haben, meine Eltern zu bekämpfen, um mich über
das Maß der eigenen Legitimation hinaus für meine Großeltern und
ihre Geschichte wirklich zu interessieren. Ich mußte bereit sein, den
Fortgang der Geschichte, die Verbindung zu mir, das Leben meiner
Mutter, einfach nur verstehen zu wollen, als wäre es mein eigenes
Leben gewesen. (PB, 13)

The success of Maron’s endeavour to understand her mother is

questionable at the end, for her ambivalence towards Hella remains.
By reconstructing the family’s past Maron merely reinforces the
fundamental difference between them in political terms, which has put
a severe strain at times on their relationship as mother and daughter,
even precipitating, albeit briefly, a period of estrangement. Thus it
seems fitting that the text should conclude with the author’s irritation
at her mother’s celebration of the PDS’s election success in 1998.
Does this not then undermine Eakin’s notion of the importance of the
relational dimension to identity formation? For, despite the strongly
Communist nature of her upbringing, Maron ultimately rebelled
against the GDR, dismayed by her mother’s loyalty to a regime that
did not adhere to its fundamental tenets. A quick glance at many
mother/daughter relationships – or indeed any parent/child
constellation – would suggest that evidence of the relational influence
on the self can often be located as much in reaction to, rather than
identification with, the ‘proximate other’. Moreover, as Pawels Briefe
reveals, in the context of her family Maron’s revolt against her

Thomas Kraft, ‘Geschichte und Photoalbum’, Rheinischer Merkur, 26 March 1999,
p. 2.
324 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

mother’s beliefs belongs to a tradition of apostasy initiated by her

grandparents. Pawel and Josefa turned their backs on their respective
upbringings, but subsequently so did each of their children: ‘Meine
Großeltern haben ertragen müssen, daß keines ihrer Kinder sich taufen
ließ; Hella hat gelernt zu ertragen, daß ich Antikommunistin wurde;
und ich muß ertragen, daß Hella Kommunistin bleibt’ (PB, 205). But
the abiding impression of Pawels Briefe is that the author’s
reconstructed relationship with her grandparents, and more
particularly with her grandfather, has to some extent assuaged a
private desire for ‘Selbstverständigung’ unleashed by her own
experiences of the totalitarian GDR and exacerbated by her mother’s
unquestioning support thereof.

In his essay tracing the influence of Cervantes’s Don Quixote on the

evolution of the European novel, Julian Evans identifies ‘the steady
abandonment, Europe-wide, of solipsistic and theory-driven
metafictions in favour of a rediscovered social realism’.1 Although his
focus is principally on trends in fiction, his perception of a move away
from more postmodern devices towards, what we might call, a more
traditional mode of writing might provide a partial explanation for the
renewed academic interest in autobiography. The prevalence of
autobiographical texts per se in the years since the Wende might be
ascribed to a desire to realign the self with its environment and create
a more organic sense of wholeness to repair the increasing
fragmentation evidenced in modern life as the technologically
obsessed twentieth century drew to a close. There seems little doubt
that those who have tried to consign autobiography to the rubbish tip
have ultimately failed in this endeavour. In truth, of course, the genre
never truly went away. It remains as rich, vibrant, diverse and relevant
as it has always been, and as the texts we have examined reveal, the
form’s inherently subjective nature ensures that each account provides
plenty of room for discussion and argument about how best to define
it. As Linda Anderson appositely remarks in this respect: ‘While
autobiography supplies few certainties or answers, its study leads us to
engage with some of the most intractable and important cultural
questions of our time’.2 There can be little doubt that for the
contemporary German-speaking world, many of those questions
continue to revolve around the legacies of Nazi Germany and East
Germany, and the autobiographical texts of the eight authors at the
core of this study have valuable contributions to make to the ongoing
exploration of those regimes.
Despite the insights each account provides into life under
totalitarianism in general, the motivation of the author in each case
was first and foremost a personal one. It is possible to identify a deep-
seated wound, the ‘Verletzung’ from which Anna Mitgutsch believes
the authenticity of a text derives.3 As befits the different experiences

Julian Evans, ‘In the Knight’s Footsteps’, The Guardian, 20 July 2002.
Anderson, p. 133.
Mitgutsch, p. 12.
326 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

of the authors, the precise nature of the wound inflicted by

totalitarianism differs from person to person. For Ludwig Harig, for
example, it stems both from the guilt he feels for his complicity with
the Nazi regime and the psychological conditioning he suffered as a
young boy. By way of contrast, Ruth Klüger’s harrowing account of
anti-Semitism charts the severe damage to her sense of identity that
her designation as ‘other’ and exclusion from the German-speaking
world resulted in. Although the GDR by no means resorted to the
same murderous excesses as its fascist counterpart, it was no less
concerned with trying to shape its citizens in its own image and punish
those who refused to conform. The accounts of de Bruyn, Saeger,
Kunert and Maron all reveal the damaging psychological ramifications
of the socialist state’s repression of individuality, which eventually
drove the latter two authors from the country. Each text is predicated,
therefore, on a therapeutic need to heal the wounds, or at the very least
to initiate a curative process, and thereby rescue a sense of self that
had been severely conflicted by totalitarianism.
The decision of the authors to adopt an autobiographical
approach to map the contours of oppression is quite deliberate; even
Hein’s fictional account of growing up in the GDR is described
significantly as a ‘fictional autobiography’ and closely mirrors in its
form more traditional examples of the genre. If one wishes to rescue
the self, what better form is there than autobiography, irrespective of
the mauling it has suffered from some quarters of the academic and
literary communities on account of its inherently subjective nature?
The form is especially pertinent to the selected authors for that very
reason; it enshrines the individual perspective. That is not to say that
they ignore some of the problems intrinsic to autobiography, however.
Each text necessarily acknowledges its provisional status as one
insight amongst many possible versions; despite the author’s best
efforts to corroborate his or her account with documentary material
where feasible, a certain doubt must remain due to the unreliability of
memory. But the primary concern is to produce as authentic a
testimony as possible, and in each case the author makes some use of
Dichtung along the way to supplement the Wahrheit. As an overt
fiction, Hein’s text is the most obvious example of this approach, but
the picture of GDR life in the mid-1950s, together with certain
similarities between the author and his protagonist, ensures that the
depiction of adolescence rings true; it is as subjective and authentic as
any credible autobiography. In Saeger’s text, the boundaries between
fact and fiction are equally fluid, despite a stronger indication that it is
Conclusion 327

essentially autobiographical in nature. But the truth is that even in the

more traditional texts explored here, the authors rely at times on their
creative imagination to supplement their chronicles, plugging the
memory gaps with ‘fictions’ as Virginia Woolf had intimated was
inevitable in any autobiographical account. By giving literary form to
their past selves and selecting facts for inclusion, the authors are
essentially relying on a form of Dichtung redolent of fiction; their
lives effectively become stories, as Eakin has suggested in his
engaging study. Yet in each case, the resultant text is ultimately
imbued with an authenticity stemming from the author’s need to
rescue a sense of self by committing to paper a record of the
repression they had endured.
Despite the differences both in the authors’ experiences and
the way in which they tackle them, it is striking how much the
accounts have in common. Aside from the existential imperative they
all share and the mutually corroborative pictures of life in Nazi
Germany or East Germany that emerge, it is particularly evident how
often the role of the family, Heimat and language are cited as
significant, if not always positive, relational forces. It might be
argued, of course, that these features have always been integral to
autobiographies; what is different in the texts under scrutiny here,
however, is the authoritarian context recounted. The totalitarian
regimes in question actively sought to mould a new consciousness and
recast the relationship between the individual and the State. In order to
facilitate the individual’s subsumption into the collective – we might
usefully borrow the Nazi term, Gleichschaltung, to describe this
process – the regimes set about changing the social environment by
means of coercion, mass organisations and the hijacking of language.
In addition, in their different ways the two regimes invaded the private
sphere, and each author sheds light on the damaging effects unleashed
by this infiltration. Taken together the texts provide a nuanced picture
of the totalitarian legacy in Germany by virtue of the contrasting
perspectives of the authors.
Although the genre has been pronounced dead, the examples
explored above underline just how premature such pronouncements
have been. Driven primarily by private concerns to map the contours
of oppression and rescue a sense of self, the authors have, however
inadvertently, also issued a vigorous defence of autobiography’s
inherent value in the modern world. As Eakin has noted, an almost
prurient interest in other people’s lives has increasingly become a
feature of the modern global village, with the explosion of
328 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

confessional chat shows on television and the curious phenomenon of

online diaries on the internet, which continue to grow and grow in
number. As a result, he ponders whether life writing has developed
into an ‘unseemly profession’ (HOL, 142). It is true indeed that
biography and autobiography seem to have acquired ever greater
commercial attraction, but it is not always possible to divine the
motives for this modern obsession with, often superficial, disclosure.
This apparent trivialisation of life writing might well have contributed
to the way in which autobiography as a form has been discredited, but
in truth it reveals how unstable and elusive the form remains and thus
how impossible to define with any authority. Nevertheless, we must
surely sort the wheat from the chaff. There are myriad examples of
autobiography which demand of us an engagement with ‘some of the
most intractable and important cultural questions of our time’, as
Anderson suggests. It is hoped that the texts explored in the present
study have demonstrated the form’s enduring capacity to provoke and
enlighten, and most importantly of all to reveal how selves are made
and able to endure even in the worst of times.

The following bibliography lists all primary and secondary materials

consulted over the course of research for this project. I would direct
any readers interested in exploring the field of autobiographical theory
in particular to Paul John Eakin’s very useful bibliography in How
Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1999), pp. 187-202. For those readers who are particularly
interested in German studies of autobiography, Barbara Kosta’s
bibliography in Recasting Autobiography: Women’s Counterfictions
in Contemporary German Literature and Film (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1994), pp. 193-212, would be a good starting-point.
The bibliography here has been subdivided into the following
sections for ease of reference:
1. Primary Literature
2. Secondary Literature - (i) Studies on Autobiography; (ii)
Literary, Historical and Cultural Studies
3. Ludwig Harig
4. Uwe Saeger
5. Ruth Klüger
6. Günter de Bruyn
7. Günter Kunert
8. Christoph Hein
9. Grete Weil
10. Monika Maron
The section relating to each author contains discrete listings of general
secondary sources and specific studies of the texts in question. Page
numbers for newspaper articles have been provided where possible.
I should like to record my thanks to staff at the Deutsches
Literaturarchiv in Marbach for their assistance in the collation of
materials for this bibliography during October 2001. I should also like
to acknowledge the British Academy and the University of Wales
Bangor for their financial support of this research trip to Germany.

1. Primary Literature
Where the edition cited is not the first, the year of first publication is provided in
square brackets.
Améry, Jean, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines
Überwältigten (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2000) [1966]
330 Mapping the Contours of Oppression

—— , Weiterleben – aber wie? (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1968)

Andersch, Alfred, Die Kirschen der Freiheit (Zurich: Diogenes, 1968) [1952]
Anouilh, Jean, Antigone, ed. by W. M. Landers ([n.p]: Nelson, 1986) [First
performed, 1944]
Apitz, Bruno, Nackt unter Wölfen (Leipzig: Reclam, 1975) [1958]
Braun, Volker, Unvollendete Geschichte (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1977)
Bruyn, Günter de, Der Hohlweg (Halle: Mitteldeutscher, 1963)
——, Preisverleihung (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1982) [1972]
——, Das Leben des Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (Halle: Mitteldeutscher, 1975)
——, Neue Herrlichkeit (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1984)
——, Lesefreuden: Über Bücher und Menschen (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1986)
——, ‘Zur Druckgenehmigungspraxis’, in Günter de Bruyn: Materialien zu Leben und
Werk, ed. by Uwe Wittstock (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1991), pp. 19-21
——, Jubelschreie, Trauergesänge: Deutsche Befindlichkeiten (Frankfurt a.M.:
Fischer, 1991)
——, Zwischenbilanz: Eine Jugend in Berlin (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1992)
——, ‘Dieses Mißtrauen gegen mich selbst. Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der
Wahrheit: Ein Beitrag zum Umgang mit den Stasi-Akten’, Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 February 1993.
——, Mein Brandenburg (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1993)
——, Das erzählte Ich: Über Wahrheit und Dichtung in der Autobiographie
(Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1995)
——, Vierzig Jahre: Ein Lebensbericht (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1996)
——, Deutsche Zustände: Über Erinnerungen und Tatsachen, Heimat und Literatur
(Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1999)
——, Die Finckensteins: Eine Familie im Dienste Preußens (Berlin: Siedler, 1999)
——, Preussens Luise: Vom Entstehen und Vergehen einer Legende (Berlin: Siedler,
——, Unter den Linden (Berlin: Siedler, 2002)
——, Abseits: Liebeserklärung an eine Landschaft (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2005)
Canetti, Elias, Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer,
1986) [1977]
Domin, Hilde, Gesammelte autobiographische Schriften: Fast ein Lebenslauf
(Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1998) [1993]
Garton Ash, Timothy, The File (London: HarperCollins, 1997)
Grass, Günter, Die Blechtrommel (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1988) [1959]
——, Katz und Maus (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1986) [1961]
Harig, Ludwig, Ordnung ist das ganze Leben: Roman meines Vaters (Frankfurt a.M.:
Fischer, 1996) [1986]
——, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1994) [1990]
——, Wer mit den Wölfen heult, wird Wolf (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1999) [1996]
Bibliography 331

Hein, Christoph, Der fremde Freund (Leipzig: Aufbau, 1997) [1982]

——, Der Tangospieler (Leipzig: Aufbau, 1999) [1989]
——, Von allem Anfang an (Leipzig: Aufbau, 1997)
Hensel, Jana, Zonenkinder (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2002)
Horvath, Ödön von, Jugend ohne Gott (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1994) [1938]
Janaczek, Helena, Lektionen des Verborgenen (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch,
1999) [Lezioni di tenebra, 1997]
Kant, Hermann, Der Abspann (Berlin: Aufbau, 1991)
Klein, Olaf Georg, Plötzlich war alles ganz anders: Deutsche Lebenswege im
Umbruch (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1994)