The Legacy of the GDR
What strikes most about the reaction of German writers to the unification is its uncompromising demonstration of the vast gap between the masses' social maturity and awareness, desire to make their own historical decisions, and the intellectuals' not being ready to react to new fundamental changes. The Fall of the Berlin Wall was, essentially, people's enterprise, and the most serious evidence of the Wissentlichkeit of the overturn, of its being profoundly impressed into people's minds, is the amount of memes it gave birth to. The memes of Wende, the “turning point”, Mauer (the Wall), Mauerliteratur and Mauerfilme, Westalgie and Ostalgie as the two widespread reactions to the unification, or the negative image of the Stasi, State Security System, are precisely those cultural units of the epoch that have been selected and transmitted already for over two decades. Another example of a meme that has become a cliche which goes without saying in the re-unified Germany is the expression “Die zweite Stunde Null” (the second Zero Hour).
“Die zweite Stunde Null”, as opposed to the first, post-war “Stunde Null”, portrays another situation where Germany had to face, again, the necessity to start everything over with a tabula rasa in economics, culture and national identification. Such was the tension of this process that in 1995 Osman Durrani argued that, after the euphoria of the first post-unification year, “the two German states appeared to be moving away from one another instead of converging.” (Osmani 1995: XI). This statement is something I would object to: in the years when it was written, the German-German border may have seemed unassailable, but, in fact, as the past years showed, it was not. Back in the early nineties, though, the country obviously suffered a second crisis, especially the former Democratic Republic. In many respects, West Germany obviously occupied a more advantageous position, while East Germany had to accept the Treuhandsanstalt's privatizing the GDR people's industrial and agricultural property, provoking unemployment and a general sense of the social instability; the economic shift, where the GDR demonstrated its uncompetitiveness compared to the Western capitalist market; and, finally, the imposed domination of more liberal western cultural values over the highly ideologized and censured art of the East. The sum of these three factors – social, economic and cultural – resulted in regarding the unification as a “deliberate eradication of eastern economic structures by the west, making understandable the feeling amongst parts of the eastern population that they were being treated, in Gordon Ross's words, as “second-class Germans” within the unified state. (Paul Cooke 2005: 4 quoting Gordon Ross 2002: 55-67) This gave Paul Cooke a fertile ground for applying postcolonial theory to unified Germany, proving, very plausibly, that although colonization seems to be a concept not exactly appropriate for Germany, the relationship between West and East Germany did, in fact, remind that of the colonizer and colonized, East Germany being the “Orient” for West. (Paul Cooke 2005: 2-14).
Such was the framework of GDR post-unification literature. However, as mentioned, the intellectuals' position was, surprisingly, mostly ambiguous and passive. The older writers suddenly returned to the “safe zone” of the past instead of portraying the controversial present, as, for example, did Christa Wolf's in “Was bleibt”. “Was bleibt”, her first post-unification text, was, in fact, written a decade earlier but only got published after the Fall of the Wall, and was based on Wolf's autobiographical experience of being surveilled by the Stasi. Wolf was harshly criticized for turning away from contemporary issues and publishing an already politically irrelevant book. Christa Wolf, however, was not the only writer who was accused of sudden indifference: the same charges were carried out against multiple authors such as Volker Braun, Stefan Heym, Heiner Müller, and many others (Costabile-Heming et al. 2001: 4-5). Ian Wallace “has noted an overall tendency [...] to write “political obituaries,” [...] demonstrating how “out of step with the will of the people” the writers were. (Costabile-Heming et al. 2001: 5, quoting I. Wallace's German Intellectuals and Unification)
A highly interesting fact is that the writers' response to the Fall of the Berlin Wall mirrors precisely the earlier treatment of National Socialism past in literature and, wider, in culture. Just like the first post-war generation refused to accept the responsibility for the tragic German history, the first “post-wall” (Costabile-Heming et al 2001: 10) generation preferred to abstain from making any judgements and assessments of the events of 1989.
The authors of the younger writing generation, such as Kerstin Hensel, Monika Maron, Ingo Schulz or Jenny Erpenbeck, have equally distanced themselves from any political statements and refused communicating collective memories in favor of the individual, of narrating people's private stories. This was noticed and recorded by multiple scholars and critics such as James Reece (“The resistance [...] to examine honestly their own past is clearly reminiscent of the situation confronted by an earlier generation of German authors.”) (Reece 2001: 61), Carol Anne Costabile-Heming, Rachel J. Halverson and Kristie A. Foell (“[...] parallels between the post-war period and the post-wall period, pointing out that issues of German identity, racial and otherwise.”) (Costabile-Heming et al 2001: 10), Stuart Tabener (“The similarity between Maron's novel and these texts may suggest her desire to parallel Nazism and the GDR.”) (Tabener 2001: 49), Iris Radisch (Die dritte Nachkriegsgeneration klappt das Große Buch der Geschichte jetzt einfach zu [...] Es gibt viele Geschichten aber keine Geschichte mehr zu erzählen.” (Radisch 1994: 1), or A. Kasle (“If [...] there are common links among the writers of the third post-war generation, then it could be their focus on everyday life, their avoidance of themes that attempt to explain the country's past.”) (Kasle 2001: 134)
These oversights diagnose, essentially, a fundamental shift in German Weltanschauung: the refusal to be historical, the repudiation of collective memories, the preference of private over communal. The unification of Germany brought about not only “die zweite Stunde Null” in material plane; it also called forth the “Zero Hour” of the German worldview. Moreover, whereas the older authors, reserved and passive in depicting new Germany, still tended to demonstrate their affiliation and affection with the GDR, the new writers, in fact, even refused their roots and the very fact of their belonging to this country:“Ich bin sehr froh, daß die DDR zu Ende gegangen ist, und empfinde keine Trauer. Ich spüre eine starke literarische Generationsgrenze zu den vorherigen Generationen, die viel mehr in der DDR drinksteckten. Wir hatten das Glück, daß wir einen Anfang hatten, ohne richtig involiert zu sein.” (Schulz quoted in Neubauer 1998: 15)
Schulze's own words echo in his heroes', portrayed in a sharp, abrupt and ruthless Hemingwayean manner. Simple Storys: Ein Roman aus der ostdeutschen Provinz is a collection of stories told by different heroes living in the former GDR. None of them would ever admit being nostalgic - nostalgic mood is a weakness, mauvais ton. An adjacent noteworthy quality, uniting Schulze's heroes, is their emphasized lack of self-analysis, be it the heroes of “Zeus” who go to Italy for the first time in their life with forged passports (“plötzlich ist Man in Italien und hat einen westdeutschen Paß. Ich hieß Ursula und Ernst Bodo, Wohnort: Straubing. Unsere Nachnamen habe ich vergessen.” (Schulze 1998: 17), or the protagonist of “Neues Geld”, who starts an affair with a man she has long been in love with (“Harry”, sagte ich. “Du kannst hier nicht liegenbleiben.” Er schluckte. [...] Ich versuchte, meine Strickjacke unter ihm vorzuziehen, schaffte es nicht und lief los.” (Schulze 1998:29) Very rarely do the heroes allow themselves, in a very disguised manner, to say that they miss things from the past, like Hanni admits, half in jest, in an unexpected late-night telephone talk to Dr. Holitzschek: “Und das schlimmste ist, daß alles, was war, weg ist, die Leute, sie sind weg.” (Schulz 1998: 85) These carefully hidden signs of pain lie at the basis of another important meme of German post-unification culture, the Wendeschmerz, which Schulze regards as some kind of a “delayed shock” (in psychology: manifestations of previously suppressed stress), a feeling resulting from repressing the negative emotions caused not even by the unification itself but by the post-unification confrontation with the dominant West, and the lack of temporal extension to get used to new life and new regulations. Remarkable is that none of Schulze's heroes is happy – they all feel irrelevant in the new world. Yet, devoid of self-analysis and of the ability to ask themselves questions, they continue living what resembles life in an outwards appearance, and, is, in fact, no more than a mechanical existence in time and space that lacks any meaning.
However dehumanized most of Schulze's heroes seem, they still appear to be alive, while Jenny Erpenbeck in her works offers even more radical perspectives. Erpenbeck does not even portray people, individual characters, but rather a human-like mass of phantoms who don't bear names but are simply “Der Gärtner” “Der Großbauer und seine vier Töchter” or “Der Architekt”. At first, nothing is clear in the Heimsuchung - Erpenbeck's meditative, lulling style, so different from Schulze's and so reminiscent of Herta Müller's Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt, wraps us up in the seemingly idyllic pictures of provincial life and traditions, with absolutely no signs to help the reader define what epoch do the developments belong to. At first it seems that nothing at all is happening in the novel, apart from the change of pastoral pictures, but, gradually, we understand that several epochs are intertwining, pushing the narration back and forth - from the war years to the unification. The framing prologue and epilogue of the novel, not related directly to the plot, narrate of the melting of the glacier and the demolition of a house – notably, both chapters are the stories of destruction. Similar is the main plot of the novel. We observe, step by step, how imperceptibly and yet disturbingly the village life changes, and when the clear and sharp words “East” and “West” appear in the text, we realize fully the tragic subtext. In the end, there is no way back: the house is to be sold, the real estate agent keeps bringing the clients, and the owners of the house wander from one room to another, recalling of all the memories connected to their home. The last chapter's name speaks for itself (“Die unberechtigte Eigenbesitzerin”) and clarifies the allusion of the FRG bursting into the life of those who lived in the GDR, bringing changes they cannot conceive, and claiming what belonged to them, becoming their illegitimate owner.
Both Schulze and Erpenbeck, despite their utterly different narrative strategies, avoid any judgements or appraisals, but the very subtext of their works, what is between the lines, in essence, tells the reader more than the outer sheath of the plotlines, communicating the feeling of perplexity and loss. Their silence is more ominous than the words, and Erpenbeck's lack of materiality, the abstractness of the place, the time, and the lack of names, appears to be especially sinister since it points out precisely to the most important question: what (and where) is Germany today – leaving it without an answer.
This question has already been torturing German consciousness for several decades but now that “the always-problematic Nazi past has [...] been added the past of the GDR” (Costabile-Heming et al 2001: 10), it has acquired a different aspect. One the one hand, this shift of focus mitigated and supplanted National Socialism into the periphery of public attention. On the other, without removing and resolving the Nazi issue completely, the re-unification of West and East Germany has only exacerbated the question of German identity, creating within modern literary discourse some sort of a gap, reminding of a country that no longer exists yet is still present somewhere in the background. It seems that in some respects the state of affairs in contemporary Germany hasn't changed since 1989: generally, people seem to have re-conciled themselves with the re-unification and perceive all of Germany as a unified nation, whilst the intellectual circles still try to assess the sociocultural significance of the the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Most probably, these reflections will soon become an important, yet no longer relevant part of German intellectual history, leaving behind only the memes that already went through the selection process. The question of German identity, however, remains, and will remain, open.
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