The Quest for Christa T.
Postwar German Literature
The Literature of East Germany
Like it or not—and doubtless not many do—East Germany is arguably the most interesting and important country in Europe at present, and it doesn’t say much for the inquisitiveness of our cultural middlemen that the state of the arts there should have been so little explored. Brecht’s theater, yes, and the Berlin Komische Oper under Felsenstein; but the rest of the country’s theatrical life, its music, its painting and sculpture, most of its films: all these remain closed off. And the books? Though they are much more accessible (i.e., importable) than the products of the other arts, to a great extent they remain closed off too.
Ten years ago they were almost entirely so. In those days East Germany—nobody could call it the German Democratic Republic without showing disloyalty to Western principles—was a mystery country from which an intrepid Dutch explorer called Ad den Besten had just brought back a selection of geological specimens which he published under the title Deutsche Lyrik auf der anderen Seite, “German Poetry on the Other Side.” Apart from works by Brecht, hardly a book, not even by such excellent writers as Ludwig Renn and Anna Seghers, had appeared in West Germany, while at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair the GDR publishers’ stands were herded away into a ghetto. Even between 1953 and 1958, when the East German liberalization was at its (easily overlooked) height, this quite substantial sector of German literature seemed to be cut off by a wall.
Oddly enough, when the real wall went up across Berlin in 1961, the situation began to improve. Thanks to the enterprise of such West German publishers as Luchterhand, Hanser, and Rowohlt not only older and middle generation writers like Seghers, Lukács, Huchel, Strittmatter, and Kunert began appearing in the Federal Republic, where they were much more likely to be picked up by other Western publishers and their scouts, but the newer writers were being published too: for instance, Manfred Bieler, Wolf Biermann, and Christa Wolf. Throughout the 1960s this process developed, until today pretty well any self-respecting West German critic, publisher’s reader, or academic Germanist has to treat East German writing as part of his own increasingly open field.
One reason for this has no doubt been the very emergence of a younger generation who could no longer be ignored on the ground that their best work had been done before they had returned to the GDR (as could reasonably be said of Brecht, Seghers, and Renn, and all the older writers except Huchel). Another reason has been the role of Brecht himself, whose posthumous influence on poets on both sides of the wall created a new basis for mutual sympathy and understanding. A third has of course been the old red herring of political nonconformity, a nutritive but distractingly smelly fish whose traces became more detectable as writers concentrated more on the present-day German scene and at the same time came more closely and chafingly …