Die Gegenwart der Vergangenheit oder Die Grenzen des Sagbaren. Briefe, Tagebücher und fiktionale Texte von DDR-Autoren um 1970


  • Withold Bonner




GDR literature, autobiographical writing, memory of World War II


The Presence of the Past or The Limits of What Can be Told. Letters, Diaries and Fictional Texts by GDR-Authors around 1970. The article discusses the way in which certain topoi, particularly those suggesting analogies between specific phenomena in the GDR and the NS-era, were dealt with in literary texts written in the GDR between 1968 and 1970. This historical period is marked by two events that were designed to fundamentally shatter the loyalty felt for the communist leadership of the GDR by a generation of authors born around 1930 and at first impressed by the GDR antifascist founding myth due to their former affiliation with the Hitler Youth or the German Reichswehr. These events were the invasion of the ČSSR in 1968 by troops of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, reminding many authors of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by German troops in 1938; and the GDR 7th Congress of German authors in 1969 with its attacks on Reiner Kunze and Christa Wolf. Particular attention is paid to possible self-censorship, i.e. differences in the covering of specific subjects depending on the authors’ intention as to whether the respective text should be immediately published or not.

With the Children’s Eyes. At the end of the 1960s, many GDR authors representing the postwar generation mentioned above had already become parents. It was their children who were supposed to grow up in a better world, a society that would be the other to Auschwitz. It is the eyes of the authors’ own children through which everyday life in the GDR is examined. Here it is particularly the discovery of similarities between educational methods and public rituals in the GDR and the NS-era, that even in the private discourse of diaries and letters, initially not designed for publication, can be denominated only against internal resistance. Reflections on the consequences that might be drawn from these observations succumb to taboos, imposed by the author himself. That the acting out of brutal violence can be understood as psychic preformation for the functioning in a fascist or comparable system can be found in published texts too, for instance in the novella Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T., 1968) by Christa Wolf, where the first person narrator understands violence against animals as a recurrent theme, leading from the behavior of the fascist tenant in the village of the protagonist’s childhood to her pupils in the GDR during the early 1960s. But in the published text the protagonist Christa T. takes a surprising turn, arguing that her pupils are indeed still prone to violence, but that the political order prevailing in the GDR would prevent them from living out those dispositions.

Old Songs. Like a common thread, the singing of songs is connecting the oeuvre of Christa Wolf from the early Moskauer Novelle (1961) to the late Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (City of Angels, 2010). Particularly strong is the way her female protagonists feel about songs that have been sung during their BDM-years, not least because it had been the author herself who once had sung these tunes. The statement that these songs are still sung, or, in other words, that the past is not gone – it is with this quotation from William Faulkner that Christa Wolf started her autofictional novel Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood, 1976) – cannot be found exclusively in her initially unpublished letters and diaries. Instead, it makes its way quite early into her published texts. But here the explosiveness of this insight is at first mitigated by a treatment, according to which the singing of NS-songs is put in the mouths of bourgeois enemies of the new order.

Trains. Trains representing the steadily advancing victory of socialism were one of the main symbols adopted from the Soviet paradigm into GDR literature. In her novella Blickwechsel (Exchanging Glances, 1970), dealing with the end of WWII, the flight before the advancing Red Army and the sudden awakening from blindness caused by the belief in NS-ideology, Christa Wolf, too, makes use of that figure. But in her text the image is highly ambivalent. Where a train is derailing from the tracks and speeding in the middle of the most incredible reality, it should be put back on the tracks again as soon as possible, only this time on the right ones. But at the same time this alternative is turned down by challenging the positive connotations connected with ‘train’ through the annexation of the adjective “stuffy”. A surprisingly similar image can be found already two years earlier in the author’s diary entry on September 27th 1968, later published in Ein Tag im Jahr: 1960–2000 (One Day a Year, 2003). In this image the train is heading again towards an unpleasant destination, but this time – shortly after the abolition of the Prague Spring – the destination is the East-German “really existing socialism”. The insight into the endangerment of those who find themselves on the tracks and not on the trains, can be traced already in the early novel Der geteilte Himmel (They Divided the Sky, 1963). The protagonist Rita Seidel, who recovers in the novel’s background story from a breakdown or suicide attempt, experiences herself at first as object, existentially endangered by the wagons aiming at her. But due to the optimistic development of the plot, the author and her protagonist succeed in overcoming the intrusive sentiment that the wagons, and analogously the socialist order, is aiming at Rita.

Self-Censorship or Self-Imposed Taboos? In summary it can be stated that texts determined for immediate publication, as well as diary entries or letters, touch upon the same phenomena as far as the pervasive presence of the past is concerned. However one obvious difference can be detected: the transfer of an issue from a diary or letter into a text meant for immediate publication is characterized by certain “trans-lations” in the meaning of carrying across, displacement. As a result of this process these phenomena are deferred from their central position in a diary or letter to a marginal one in the published fictional texts. Among others, these translations are enacted by the projection of the phenomena in question on enemies of the GDR order.

On the one hand, and in the light of the authors’ desire to be published, the differences between published and initially unpublished texts can be ascribed to the writers’ anticipatory obedience, the scissors in his or her head. On the other hand ruptures, dashes and the repeatedly emerging obvious ellipses marked by three dots in diaries and letters hint at a shying away from violations of self-erected taboos.


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