Christa Wolf
Christa Wolf; drawing by David Levine


East Berlin, October 1990: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, the grand master of cinematic kitsch, walked into the old conference room where the German Communists founded their state. He had just seen part of his film Hitler—a Film from Germany for the first time in years. “My God,” he said to a gathering of people that included Susan Sontag, the actress Edith Clever, and various East German cultural worthies who smiled a lot and drank vodka. “My god, I was really provocative! If only my enemies had realized…. I am surprised I’m still alive!” Whereupon the artist stroked his beautiful tie, smoothed his superbly coiffed head, and looked around the table like the cat who had just eaten the canary.

Two days later, we met once again in the former government building, now the Academy of Arts, to hear Syberberg, Sontag, Clever, and other members of a distinguished panel discuss his works, in particular the Hitler film and his recently published book of essays, which has caused a big fuss in German literary circles. Syberberg began the proceedings by saying that only here, in the former Communist capital, could he openly express his views, unlike in West Berlin, where the Academy was controlled by his left-wing enemies.

Syberberg’s delivery was remarkable: an almost silky tone of voice alternating with what can only be described as a theatrical tirade; a tirade against the filth, the shamelessness, the soulless greed, and vacuous idiocy of contemporary (West) German culture, corrupted by America, by rootless “Jewish leftists,” by democracy. Syberberg also believes that the pernicious legacy of Auschwitz has crippled the German identity that was rooted in the German soil, in Wagner’s music, in the poetry of Hölderlin and the literature of Kleist, in the folk songs of Thuringia and the noble history of Prussian kings—a Kultur, in short, transmitted from generation to generation, through the unbroken bloodlines of the German people, so cruelly divided for forty years as punishment for the Holocaust.

Well, said some of Syberberg’s champions on the panel, shifting uneasily in their seats, these opinions may be absurd, even offensive, but he’s still a great artist. Then an elderly man got up in the audience. He had seen the Hitler film, he said, his voice trembling with quiet rage, and he thought it was dreadful. He was left with the impression that Syberberg actually liked Hitler. And although he was a Polish Jew who had lost most of his family in the death camps, he could almost be tempted to become a Nazi himself after seeing that film: “All those speeches, all that beautiful music….”

Then followed a remark that stayed in my mind, as I tried to make sense of Syberberg, and of the literary debates raging in Germany this year, in the wake of November 1989: “Why is it,” the Polish Jew said, “that when a forest burns, German intellectuals spend all their time discussing the deeper meaning of fire, instead of helping to put the damned thing out?”

I thought of Günter Grass, who, with the lugubrious look of a wounded walrus, complained night after night on television that nobody would listen to him anymore. His constant invocation of “Auschwitz” as a kind of talisman to ward off a reunited Germany had the air of desperation, the desperation of a man who had lost his vision of Eden. His Eden was not the former GDR, to be sure, but at least the GDR carried, for Grass, the promise of a better Germany, a truly socialist Germany, a Germany without greed, Hollywood, and ever-lurking fascism.

I thought of Syberberg, who gloomily predicted that the awesome spectacle of a newly unified German Volk, his vision of Eden, would soon be replaced by the rancid democracy of party politics. And I thought of Christa Wolf, who made a speech in East Berlin exactly a year ago. The revolution, she said, had also liberated language. One of the liberated words is “dream”: “Let us dream that this is socialism, and let us stay where we are.”

Syberberg, Grass, and Wolf: they would seem to have little in common, apart from being earnest German intellectuals who loathe “Hollywood.” But they all bring to mind something the wise old utopian, Ernst Bloch, once wrote:

If an object [of political belief] appears as an ideal one, then salvation from its demanding and sometimes demandingly enchanted spell is only possible through a catastrophe, but even that does not always come true. I dolatry of love is a misfortune that continues to cast a spell on us even when the object is understood. Sometimes even illusionary political ideals continue to have an effect after an empirical catastrophe, as if they were—genuine.1


In her famous essay on Syberberg’s film Hitler—a Film from Germany, Susan Sontag makes much of the multiplicity of voices and views expressed in his work: “One can find almost anything in Syberberg’s passionately voluble film (short of a Marxist analysis or a shred of feminist awareness).”2 It is not that she ignores those aspects of Syberberg that upset many German critics—the Wagnerian intoxication with deep Germanness, for example—but she sees them as single strands in a rich combination of ideas, images, and reflections. They are not to be dismissed, she thinks, but they also should not be allowed to obscure the genius of his work, which cannot be reduced to certain vulgar opinions, to the quirks one almost expects of a great and eccentric artist.


It is a respectable view, which is, however, not shared by the artist himself. As he made clear in his essays, as well as on stage at the East Berlin Academy of Arts, Syberberg does not separate his political, social, and aesthetic opinions from his art. Indeed, they are at the core of his creative work.

His ideas, expressed in films, theater, and essays, are certainly consistent. In the collage of images and sounds that make up his Hitler film, which, as Susan Sontag rightly observes, is a kind of theater of the mind, there is never any doubt in whose mind the action takes place. It is not Hitler’s mind, even though Syberberg salutes the dictator as a demonic colleague, a man who saw his destruction of Europe as an endless, epic newsreel. Hitler, in Syberberg’s opinion, was “a genius, who acted as the medium of the Weltgeist.” But it is Syberberg’s mind, not to mention his Geist, that has shaped everything in the spectacle; and the fascinating thing is that Syberberg’s philosophy, if that is what it is, is articulated most clearly by a ventriloquist’s dummy in the shape of Hitler.

This monologue, in which Hitler, as a melancholy puppet, talks about his legacy to the world, comes at the end of the third part of the four-part film:

“Friends, let us praise. Praise the progress of the world from the other world of death. Praise from Adolf Hitler on this world after me…. No one before me has changed the West as thoroughly as we have. We have brought the Russians all the way to the Elbe and we got the Jews their state. And, after a fashion, a new colony for the USA—just ask Hollywood about its export markets. I know the tricks better than any of you, I know what to say and do for the masses. I am the school of the successful democrat. Just look around, they are in a fair way to take over our legacy….

“People like me want to change the world. And the Germany of the Third Reich was merely the Faustian prelude in the theater. You are the heirs. Worldwide.

“On November 10, 1975, the United Nations resolved by a two-thirds majority, quite openly, that Zionism is a form of racism….

“And in the United States? Nothing about gas at Auschwitz on American TV. It would damage the American oil industry and everything having to do with oil. You see, we did win, in bizarre ways. In America….

“Long live mediocrity, freedom, and equality for the international average. Among third-class people interested only in the annual profit increase or a higher salary, destroying themselves, relentlessly, ruthlessly, moving toward their end and what an end.”3

It is disturbing to hear condemnations of Zionism, let alone sneers about “third-class people,” through the mouth of Hitler, even if he is just an effigy, a dummy transmitting Syberberg’s voice. But the message is not new. The rantings about America being the heir to Hitler’s projects would hardly surprise if they came from the pen of, say, Allen Ginsberg in full flight (Christa Wolf I shall leave until later). And the offensive trick of defusing German guilt by equating Hitler with Zionism also has a familiar ring. As for blaming democracy, Hitler’s first victim, for its own demise (as Syberberg puts it in one of his essays: “Electoral democracy logically leads to Hitler”), that is a favorite ploy of antidemocrats everywhere. But Syberberg’s disgust with the third-class postwar world goes further than that; it has turned his misty mind toward a dark and exalted vision of the German Kultur, which makes many of his countrymen squirm.

Syberberg believes in Germany as a Naturgemeinschaft, an organic community whose art grows from the native soil. Art, he writes, was once “the balsam on the wounds of the ‘I,’ which was identical with the native land,” whereas now art has lost its meaning, for the postwar Germans have lost their identity as Germans, have severed their umbilical cord with the soil that nurtured them. Postwar German art is “filthy and sick.” It is “in praise of cowardice and treason, of criminals, whores, of hate, ugliness, of lies and crimes and all that is unnatural.”4 It is, in other words, rootless and degenerate. German art can only be elevated from this stinking swamp by dedicating itself once again to beauty, the beauty of nature and the Volk. Like many attempts to make a cult of beauty, Syberberg’s art often plummets from its exalted heights into kitsch: Wagner booming away on the soundtrack as a tearful Viennese aesthete reads Syberberg’s poetic vision of impending doom.


A German journalist once did the obvious thing: he showed Syberberg a tract written in the 1930s by Alfred Rosenberg on degenerate art and compared it to Syberberg’s words. Syberberg admitted there were similarities, but argued that just because Rosenberg said the same thing, this didn’t mean it was wrong. Thank God, he said, he hadn’t thought of Rosenberg, for then he might not have stated his honest opinion, for such is the terrible taboo left by the Nazi past on German aesthetic traditions.

But who has imposed this taboo? And why has German art and society “degenerated” to such a low point? In Syberberg’s new book of essays we get to the nub of the matter:

The Jewish interpretation of the world followed upon the Christian, just as the Christian one followed Roman and Greek culture. So now Jewish analyses, images, definitions of art, science, sociology, literature, politics, the information media, dominate. Marx and Freud are the pillars that mark the road from East to West. Neither are imaginable without Jewishness. Their systems are defined by it. The axis USA-Israel guarantees the parameters. That is the way people think now, the way they feel, act and disseminate information. We live in the Jewish epoch of European cultural history. And we can only wait, at the pinnacle of our technological power, for our last judgment at the edge of the apocalypse…. So that’s the way it looks, for all of us, suffocating in unprecedented technological prosperity, without spirit, without meaning.

The indictment continues in Syberberg’s strange, ungrammatical, baroque style: “Those who want to have good careers go along with Jews and leftists,” and “the race of superior men [Rasse der Herrenmenschen] has been seduced, the land of poets and thinkers has become the fat booty of corruption, of business, of lazy comfort.” Over and over, the message is banged home: the real winners of the last war are the Jews, who have regained their motherland, their ancient Heimat, the very thing the Germans have lost. And the Jews had their revenge for Auschwitz by dropping the atom bomb and atomizing the Kultur of Europe through their barren, rationalist, rootless philosophy.

The old man who stood up in the East Berlin Academy was wrong, of course: Syberberg does not like Hitler. Like Ernst Jünger, an author he often quotes, he sees Hitler as a megalomaniac, who vulgarized and distorted ideals that should have been kept pure, beautiful, in the custodianship either of rough and simple peasants, the purest representatives of the old Volk, or of aristocratic Feingeister, such as Jünger and Syberberg, the true heirs of Hölderlin, Kleist, and Wagner. Hitler’s greatest crime was not to kill six million Jews—an act of which Syberberg does not approve—but to destroy the Herrenvolk, or rather, the culture of the Herrenvolk, by tainting it with his name, by making, as Syberberg often puts it, Blood and Soil a taboo.

Syberberg is not so much a crypto- or neo-Nazi as a reactionary dandy, of the type found before the war in the Action Française, or in certain British aristocratic circles (whose spirit lives on in The Salisbury Review today). Like T.S. Eliot, Ernst Jünger, Charles Maurras, and Curzio Malaparte, he is a self-appointed savior of European Kultur from the corrupt forces of alien, often Semitic, barbarism. And culture, in his mind, is associated with an ideal community, always in the past, before the expulsion from Eden, a Gemeinschaft, where the Volk was united, rooted, organic, hierarchic. “German unity, Silesia, beauty, feeling, enthusiasm. Perhaps we should rethink Hitler. Perhaps we should rethink ourselves.”

As the examples of Malaparte and even Jünger show, this is not a matter of being left or right: it can be both. It is certainly antidemocratic, for the institutionalized conflict of interests, without which democracy cannot exist, is deeply offensive to those who dream of organic communities. In Syberberg’s case, his politics are in fact as Green as they are tinged with Brown. He worships nature in a way only a man who holds people, as opposed to the People, in contempt. His ideal view of the Naturgemeinschaft Deutschland, comprises “plants, animals, and people,” in that order.

Yet, for this most dandified of aesthetes, it is not so much nature itself as the idea of nature that appeals, the anti-urban ideal of a natural order. His work in theater and cinema is anything but natural, or organic, or raw, but, on the contrary, highly artificial. If Syberberg had a sense of humor his art would be camp. When Edith Clever ends her monologue in the recent Berlin stage production of Kleist’s The Marquise of O, (directed by Syberberg), she turns around, and in a gesture that is supposed to denote deep melancholy, stretches her arm and releases a dead oak leaf, which flutters slowly, like an arid butterfly, to the ground. She just, but only just, gets away with it because she is a great actress. In lesser hands this moment of supreme “beauty” would be more like something out of Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous.

It is not for his aesthetics, however, that Syberberg has been attacked, but for his politics. The strongest criticism of his book was published in Der Spiegel, the liberal weekly magazine.5 Syberberg’s views, wrote the critic, were precisely those that led to the book burning in 1933, and prepared the way for the Final Solution of 1942. In fact, he went on, they are worse, for “now we know that they are caked with blood…. They are not just abstruse nonsense, they are criminal.” The Spiegel critic compared Syberberg to the young Hitler, the failed art student in Vienna, who rationalized his failure by blaming it on a conspiracy of left-wing Jews. Syberberg feels he is an unappreciated genius, and he too blames it on the same forces.

Frank Schirrmacher, the young literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the scourge of woolly thinkers of all political persuasions, is equally opposed to Syberberg and draws similar parallels with the Twenties and Thirties. And like the critic in Der Spiegel, he singles out for special censure an interview with Die Zeit in which Syberberg claimed that he “could understand” the feeling of the SS man on the railway ramp of Auschwitz, who, in Himmler’s words, “made himself hard” for the sake of fulfilling his mission to the end. He did not admire this feeling, but he could understand it. Just as he could understand its opposite, the rejection of principles to act humanely.

No doubt Syberberg, who genuinely does not regard himself as a Nazi sympathizer, sees such attacks as further proof of his claim that a taboo is blocking an honest appraisal of German history. As soon as one talks about anything that smacks of mystical ties with the German soil, or anything that suggests identification with certain aspects or people of the Nazi period, out pops the Nazi bogeyman, and one is immediately called a fascist or a Nazi. There are, of course, some good reasons for this.

Nonetheless, Syberberg, despite his self-aggrandizing paranoia as a persecuted genius, has a point. It is true that it is difficult to be an admirer of German Romanticism these days without being reminded of its perversions. To talk seriously about the ties of Blood and Soil in Germany is impossible without thinking of the consequences of such ideas in the past. It is also true, however, that antifascism has become reified, to use the phrase invented by the great Jewish leftist himself, Karl Marx. It was not something you could argue about. Antifascism was the state religion and historical alibi of the ancien régime in the eastern half of Germany, and it gave the leftist intellectuals of the Federal Republic a kind of moral stick with which to beat off all challenges from the right.

One can easily understand why antifascism should have become an obsessive concern of the liberal German intelligentsia, and why the more prominent “antifa” spokesmen have cloaked themselves in the moral mantles of a higher priesthood. It has to do with collective guilt, with the fact that many collaborators with Nazism continued to occupy important positions in the West German judiciary, in business, even at the universities. It is also because until the 1960s Nazism was a guilty national secret in the Federal Republic, something one didn’t discuss in polite circles. Those that did were often precisely the people Syberberg accused of robbing the Germans of their precious identity: returned refugees from Hitler, such as Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch.

A reaction was bound to come and it emerged in the 1980s, when historical revisionism and neoconservatism became popular everywhere, from Chicago to Frankfurt to Tokyo. Some of the reaction, not only in Germany, came in the form of a neo-Romantic critique of rationalism and liberalism. Syberberg’s publisher, Matthes & Seitz, played a part in this. One of its authors, Gerd Börgfleth, launched an attack on “the cynical Englightenment.” Like Syberberg he blamed the “returned Jewish left-wing intelligentsia” for “wishing to remodel Germany according to their own cosmopolitan standards. In this they have succeeded so well that for two decades there has been no independent German spirit at all.”6

At the same time several British writers in the Salisbury Review began to celebrate a mystical reverence for the English spirit, and historians cast doubt on left-liberal interpretations of recent history. As anti-anticommunism went out of fashion, anti-antifascism gained respectability. But it was one thing for, say, Roger Scruton to celebrate the Blood and Soil of England; it was quite another for Germans and Japanese to behave in a similar way; they could not respectably get around the war. Anti-Semitism, an old tradition in European nationalism everywhere, cannot possibly be separated from German Blut und Boden. Hence the acrimonious tone of the “Historians’ Debate” in Germany, which has been discussed at length in these pages,7 hence the bitter controversy around Syberberg. And hence the strong emotions unleashed by the chauvinistic aspects of the 1989 revolt and the process of unification that followed.

Earlier this year a radical right-wing journal published a tract by Börgfleth, entitled Deutsches Manifest. Like Syberberg’s essays, it was inspired by the 1989 revolt in East Germany: “The people’s movement in the GDR was the real Germany, which the West Germans have betrayed—betrayed to a capitalist-liberal economic epidemic, which devoured the body of the Volk, betrayed to the cult of technology, which is destroying the land, and to cosmopolitan lies, which are intended to complete the destruction of the German national character.”8

This is more or less identical to Syberberg’s view, but what is more remarkable is its similarity to some of the opinions held by such “antifa” prophets of the left as Günter Grass, or the East German playwright Heiner Müller. They, too, have a horrific vision of the destruction of the Volk by D-Marks and technology. They also believe that the People have been betrayed by the West. It is indeed an old conceit of both right-wing and left-wing romantics to believe that the soul of the people was preserved in a purer and more innocent state under the old Communist regime. Which brings me to Christa Wolf.


Like Günter Grass and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Christa Wolf grew up in a part of the old Reich that is now Poland. Like them, she lost her Heimat, and has been haunted by that loss ever since. She was born in Landsberg, now Gorzow, in 1929, in time to be a member of the BDM, the girls’ equivalent of the Hitler Youth. In her most interesting book, Patterns of Childhood, she tries to deal with her sense of guilt, about having been a participant, albeit a rather passive and innocent one, in the Nazi state:

Don’t ask your contemporaries certain questions. Because it is unbearable to think the tiny word “I” in connection with the word “Auschwitz.” “I” in the past conditional: I would have. I might have. I could have. Done it. Obeyed orders.

The “I,” as in many of her novels, has a slippery identity. Patterns of Childhood is written in the form of an interior monologue inspired by a short visit to her native town. The adult narrator is referred to as “you”: “Don’t ask your contemporaries….” The narrator’s childhood self, the one that took part in rallies cheering on the Nazis, is called Nelly. It is not entirely clear when Nelly becomes “I,” but it is presumably around the time that she rejects her Nazi childhood and embraces its ostensible opposite, the Communist state.

A major component of Wolf’s ambivalent sense of guilt is the idea of being a passive observer, a reporter, a writer, while others suffer. The only way to overcome this problem is to take an active part in building a better world, to help create, however flawed in its execution, an ideal community, a political utopia. As she put it in an interview given in 1979: “For me, only writing can still offer us a chance of bringing in the utopian dimension….”9 And her idea of utopia is linked to the two most traumatic experiences of her life: her complicity in and subsequent repudiation of Nazism, and her expulsion from her Heimat:

January 29, 1945: a girl, Nelly, stuffed and stiff in double and triple layers of clothes (stuffed with history, if these words mean anything), is dragged up on the truck, in order to leave her “childhood abode,” so deeply anchored in German poetry and the German soul.

To have admitted complicity in the Nazi movement (Wolf never passes herself, or more accurately her literary persona, off as a resister; on the contrary, she was a true, if very youthful, believer) was in fact an unorthodox thing to have done as a writer in the GDR. The correct party line was that Communists had been Hitler’s main victims, and resisters to the last man, woman, and child. And since the GDR was a socialist state, run by the former victims and resisters, it was the better half of Germany, the antifascist Germany, where collective guilt could not be an issue. The Nazis lived in the West. The East German, as Peter Schneider put it in a recent essay, was “the German with the good conscience.” So for the country’s most prominent novelist to say quite openly that she had believed in Nazism, or worse, that nobody in her hometown had resisted it, was not what her comrades, who ran the show, wished to hear.

As could be expected, she was attacked by Marxist critics in her own country for being “subjective,” for breaking away from class analysis. But for the same reason she was hailed by many in the Western world as a brave dissident. She had her share of problems with the GDR censors, and her work was widely published in the West. But she was not a dissident, for however subjective and ambivalent her writing may be, she never doubted the moral superiority of the Communist state. This is made quite clear in Patterns of Childhood, where the echoes of the Nazi state are never to be heard in the GDR, or the Soviet Union, but in Chile and the USA. To quote just one aside:

No mention ever [by the Nazis] of the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, which must have been at its height at the time Nelly was kneeling at her Christian altar. (And what if the blacks in their ghettos rise up someday, you ask a white American. He says regretfully: They haven’t got a chance. Because of the very fact that they’re black. They’re sitting ducks. Every single one of them would be gunned down.)

This kind of remark was appreciated in New York and Berkeley, as well as in the Volkskammer of Berlin, capital of the GDR. Which partly explains Christa Wolf’s huge success in East and West. She played to many galleries at once. I am not suggesting she did this cynically, as a smart career move. There is no evidence that she was disingenuous about this. She honestly believed that America was rotten, and that the Nazi legacy was a Western, capitalist problem. As she said in an interview in 1975 (these dates are important): “The ‘better history’ is on our side, the others are unlucky, they have the old Nazis.” Or: “I do think it would be impossible for it to happen again here. As we can see, the world as a whole is incredibly threatened by fascist and fascistic tendencies. The reasons why it cannot happen here, though, are, I think, first and foremost historical. I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of prophet, but the necessary conditions do not exist here.”

The dates of these quotations are important, because Christa Wolf now says that she realized as early as 1968 that, as she put it in an interview given this year on British television, the government of the GDR was creating something fundamentally different from what she had hoped for. The word “fundamentally” is a surprise. She was a candidate for the Communist Party’s Central Committee from 1963 until 1967, and she only resigned from the Party in 1989. It is true, however, that she was always critical of the stupidity and stuffiness of bureaucrats and pedagogues in the GDR, and their absurd penchant for parades, flags, community singing, in short, of the general conformity demanded in the name of the socialist ideal:

The fact that authors identify with the basic principles of this society does not temper, but in fact brings out more sharply, the conflicts that have been caused by certain distortions in the GDR, and these have indeed provoked fundamental debate within our literature.

Christa T., Wolf’s most famous literary character, is an individualist who cannot cope with the pressures to conform. And Wolf’s account, in No Place on Earth, of an imaginary meeting between Heinrich von Kleist and the Romantic poet, Karoline von Günderrode, is about the difficulty of reconciling the desire for spiritual freedom with the demands of a highly structured society. Christa T. dies young, of a fatal illness. Kleist and von Günderrode both commit suicide. Naturally, this sense of things never sat well with the gray and frightened men who ruled the GDR, for they wanted upbeat heroes, who could serve as models to the People. And just as naturally, it provided great comfort to many readers in the GDR, who struggled with precisely such predicaments.

But this did not make Christa Wolf a dissident. One of her main subjects was how to compromise for the sake of a higher ideal. As a young woman put it to me recently in East Berlin: “Living here was like being a Catholic; it wasn’t a matter of staying Catholic or not, but how you managed your relations with the Church—a question, really, of personal morality.”

Christa Wolf’s struggles with her personal morality struck a tremendous chord with a people force-fed with propagandistic pap. Yet she never wavered in her political commitment. This made her the ideal writer for a Communist regime, for she made it easier for people to live in a quasi-totalitarian state. Indeed, she made the personal sacrifices, the spiritual hardship, seem virtuous. And this made those who chose to move to the capitalist West appear weak, even cowardly. Her first novel, A Divided Heaven, is about a man who decides to go west, leaving behind his fiancée, who wants to stick to the task of building a better Germany. There is no doubt which character we are supposed to admire. Wolf made the point again in many speeches, some delivered as late as November 1989.

Even state censorship, in her view, was not something to get overly upset about, for it, too, was spiritually bracing. After all, she said in 1975, “Goethe couldn’t have his Tasso performed for decades. But did he sulk?” Of course not. It is easy to give up, but “much more difficult to remain productive and just.” Not revolt, but a stiff upper lip; that was Wolf’s prescription for the long-suffering citizens of the GDR. Nietzsche is supposed to have said that “dancing in chains is the highest art.” And now that the chains have been severed? Hans Joachim Schadlich, a novelist who was forced to leave the GDR in 1977, put it this way: “They never liked the great authoritarian father, but now that he’s gone, they don’t know how to live without him.”

Christa Wolf, like all her colleagues in the GDR, had developed a fine sense for censorial sensitivities, and knew pretty much how far she could push her luck. But the East Germans had an advantage over writers in other Communist countries in that they could have their work published in West Germany. Some of Wolf’s novels, Cassandra for example, actually appeared in two versions: a censored one in the East and an unexpurgated one in the West.

The not uncommon belief that censorship fosters creativity is nonsense. But masterpieces have been produced in very difficult circumstances. Dancing in chains is not an absolute impossibility. Christa Wolf is an interesting, if humorless, writer, whose books may not merit the Nobel Prize, which she was close to getting, but then nor do those of many authors so honored. She has expressed the inner life of an idealist, who was neither a conformist nor a dissident. The quest for her own identity is her main subject. In The Quest for Christa T. and Patterns of Childhood she turned autobiography into a fictional art. And in No Place on Earth and Cassandra she deftly removes the borders between the essay and fiction. Cassandra is a feminist reinterpretation of the Greek tragedy. Wolf identifies so closely with her heroine that Cassandra often sounds more like the author than the prophet of Troy. Although all these books are stylistically inventive, her best, in my view, is Patterns of Childhood.

This has much to do with the period in which the novel is set. For it is a story of disillusion with a faith once firmly held. She catches the duplicity of the Nazi state in all its ghastly nuances, because she can recognize it exactly for what it was. And she can do this without losing a certain human sympathy for the people who shared her conviction.

Her novels set in the GDR are different. Instead of disenchantment, there is an almost perverse will to believe, to hold on to the faith, to catch that glimmer of Utopia. This matters less in an allegorical story, such as No Place on Earth. And even in her contemporary novels she never describes the GDR as a workers’ paradise. What animates all her novels is not her belief that the contemporary Communist state is wonderful, but her tenacious wish to believe that one day it will be. So whereas Patterns of Childhood is a novel of disenchantment, her subsequent books are those of a believer, who realizes at the same time that reality falls far short of her ideal.

It might be argued that just as the Roman Church gives Graham Greene’s work a piquancy it might not otherwise have had, Wolf’s art derives its strength from her faith in communism. In fact, however, I think neither writer has benefited from getting religion. There is something perverse, even willfully blind about both of them. Wolf’s oblique criticism of the Communist state is superficial and whatever piquancy it may contain, this hardly compensates for her tiresome preaching about the evils of bourgeois politics, America, capitalism, and so forth. But whereas Greene is also a cynical Englishman, aware of his own perversity, Wolf has allowed faith to cloud her vision of reality.

This may explain her latest novel, Was bleibt, written in 1979, “reworked” in 1989, and published this year. It is a slight work, little more than a novella, really, about a writer’s horror at finding out one morning that she is being watched by two young men posted outside her door. They are clearly Stasi agents, even though that notorious institution is never mentioned in the text. Considering what else the Stasi was up to—torturing people, for example—watching a famous, well-connected writer’s window may seem a minor affair. But not to Wolf (for the narrator is obviously she); it brings her usual soul-searching ambivalence to a crisis point: “I was possessed by a raging pain, which had settled itself inside me and made me a different person.” She is panic-stricken by the ghastly Kafkaesque atmosphere of her city, where everybody speaks conspiratorially or with a forked tongue, where old friends suddenly shun you in the street—why? Is it me? Is it them? Is it just in the imagination?

The crisis comes to a head:

I, myself, I could not get over those two words. Who was I? Which part of the multiple being, from which I constructed myself? That part which wished to know? Or that which wished to be spared? Or was it that third self, which still wanted to dance to the same tune as those men, outside my door?… That’s what I needed: to be able to believe that one day I could get rid of that third self; to believe that that was what I really wanted; and that, in the long run, I’d rather suffer those men outside than that third self in me.

Then the climactic scene: the writer is invited to give a lecture. She notes a distinct nervousness in the cultural worthies who have organized the evening, but she doesn’t grasp what it is, until much later, when she discovers that she has been talking, honestly, she believes, or at any rate as honestly as she could, under the circumstances, to a select audience of officially trusted people. Her other audience, the young people who found solace in her books, were not allowed in; they were beaten up by the police. Order had to be maintained in the better Germany.

As Wolf describes the incident, in her anxious inner voice, we suddenly see Nelly emerge again, the innocent girl who joined the Hitler youth organization. She knew, yet she didn’t know. She was an accomplice, yet she was innocent. She was innocent, but…well, perhaps, “I would have, I might have. I could have. Done it. Obeyed orders.”

This time, however, she couldn’t get away with it. She was not a young girl, but a middle-aged writer, blessed with many privileges. This time, she wasn’t able to duck responsibility for a state she had supported. Analyzing her private fears, in that solipsistic way that has become her inimitable style, as though those fears were more important than their actual cause, was too much like discussing the meaning of fire while the forest burned. And so the book was violently attacked as soon as it appeared last spring.

For one thing, as many critics pointed out, the book simply came too late. If she had published it ten, or five, or even two years before, it would have caused a sensation. She would have been acknowledging the reality of a system whose terrors and failures were still being glossed over by many in the West. But to have done so now that the Stasi, the Wall, and all the other tawdry tools of oppression had been broken, made her look opportunistic, self-pitying, and ridiculous. It was, as Ulrich Greiner wrote in Die Zeit, “as embarrassing as her resignation from the Party at a time when there was no more risk in doing so.” To bring out the book now, he went on, “didn’t betray a lack of courage, since there were no more dangers, but of sincerity towards herself, and her own history, a lack of sensitivity towards those, whose live have been destroyed by the communist state.”

Embarrassing, insensitive, certainly; dishonest, perhaps. But can Christa Wolf be accused of being a “collaborator,” a Mitlaufer, as they say in German? Was she simply a vulgar careerist, after all? Should she have spoken out more forcefully against the GDR regime? Does the fact that she did not discredit her as a writer? Does it detract from her work? These questions are being asked, sometimes by people who didn’t have to face the dilemmas of a Communist state. To demand courage in another person is always a tricky business when one is not exposed to the same dangers oneself. There is an element of hypocrisy involved here too, since many Western intellectuals applauded writers like Christa Wolf, as well as the leftist, anti-American causes she stood for. If she is to be crucified for her opinions, so should many much more comfortably placed people in the West. And if it’s a matter of feeling betrayed by a writer who was thought to have been a dissident, she certainly never pretended to be one.

And yet, the positions of writers in quasi-totalitarian states must be taken into account in an assessment of their work. Hermann Broch once remarked that “truthfulness is the only criterion for autonomous art.” But could art produced in a state like the GDR ever be called autonomous? The officially sanctioned writers were, in the words of Günter Kunert, a novelist who went west, supposed to be ideological mediators between the powers that be and the people. Some conformed more to this model, others less. At what point is the work of an artist fatally compromised by the political pressures he or she cannot or will not resist? Kunert was privileged, like Wolf. But “he couldn’t stand it anymore to walk around happy and free in the midst of prisoners. The privilege to be able to travel became an oppressive burden. And one was always aware that this privilege depended to a great extent on one’s good behavior.”10 Good behavior, naturally, extended to what appeared in print.

Since much of the present debate in Germany about writing in the former GDR is between those who stayed and those who left, there are echoes of the late 1940s. A similar battle took place then between the exiles, many of whom returned to the socialist half of Germany, and the writers who had made their pact with Hitler. The most famous exile was Thomas Mann. This was his assessment of the years of his absence:

In my eyes, the books that could be published at all in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless. I hardly wish to touch them. They reek of blood and shame. It was not allowed, indeed it was impossible to create “culture” in Germany, while we knew what was going on all around us. What was done instead was to gloss over decay and decorate the hideous crime. One of the agonies we suffered was to watch how the German spirit and German art were being used as the shield of something absolutely monstrous.11

The GDR was not the Third Reich, nor was everything published there until 1990 worthless. But Kultur, including the German spirit alluded to by Mann, was pressed into service by the state to further its political ends. And just as the writers who stayed in Nazi Germany sneered at the “unpatriotic” exiles, those who stuck with the Communist state, such as Stefan Heym, still express contempt for those who left. The point of finding out why writers like Heym and Wolf allowed themselves to be compromised by a corrupt and oppressive regime, all in the name of a distant ideal, is not to morally condemn them, or to suggest that their work can be reduced to a mere exercise in propaganda. Christa Wolf’s books are certainly better than that. But without questioning their politics, it is impossible to understand the nature of their art. For in the melancholy context of modern history, especially in Germany, art and politics cannot be cleanly separated without doing damage to the very thing Christa Wolf considers the central theme of her work: our memory.


It is interesting that both Syberberg and Wolf share a fascination for Kleist and the German Romantics. Could it be that in their respective quests for utopia—in Syberberg’s case a kind of kitsch, de-Nazified vision of Blood and Soil, in Wolf’s an ideal socialist state without Stalin—that they have something deeper in common than a loathing for America and messy liberal democracy? Do they miss, perhaps, the heady sense of idealism of their youth, which they have tried to recreate, in their different ways, ever since? This makes them rather anomalous in a nation that is distinctly lacking in idealistic fervor these days, but it is precisely why Wolf still admonished the masses to “dream” and why Syberberg uses every opportunity to vent his misanthropic disgust with the modern world and the people who live in it. They are intellectuals forever in search of the ideal community.

In an interview given in 1982, Wolf says something very self-revealing about the German Romantics of the nineteenth century: “They perceived with some sensitivity that they were outsiders, that they were not needed in a society which was in the process of becoming industrial society, of intensifying the division of labour, or turning people into appendages of machines.”

This is the common enemy of many intellectuals, in East and West, of left and right: the industrial society of machines, contracts, of contending political parties, where the imagination is not in power, where intellectuals and artists are outsiders, tolerated, often well paid, even lionized, but nonetheless on their own. Nazism and socialism promised solidarity, a family state, unity of the Volk. There was a role to play for idealists; they could be prophets of the new order. Wolf was a prophet in the GDR, the antifascist Heimat that was in so many ways the mirror image of her first, Nazified home: “We were living as socialists in the GDR because we wanted to be involved in that country, make our contribution there. When individuals are thrown back on literature alone, they are plunged into crisis, an existential crisis.”

It is this crisis that leads to the kind of fear displayed by Syberberg, and even Grass, the fear of being ignored, of preaching to deaf ears, of losing the prophet’s mantle. The Heimat is also a childish fantasy, a fantasy of order, security, and power, the ideal conditions of infancy. Syberberg lost his Heimat twice; he was expelled from Pomerania at the end of the war and left the GDR in 1953. And he has been pining for the Volk ever since, for the banners of solidarity, the smell of the native soil, the sacred poetry of the German bards, the ruined castles of the ancient kings, and so on. Because this ideal community is an imaginary one, he must invent it, through the kitsch of his childhood: Hitler’s speeches, Karl May’s adventure stories, and echoes from Bayreuth. Which may be why his film sets look like gigantic toy stores, with Syberberg, as a monstrous child, rummaging through the props of his imagination.

Wolf, whose fantasy was never as baroque as Syberberg’s, invented her imaginary community in the Communist state. Her communism, as is so often true, was always reactionary, the road back to something that was lost, long ago. Something she would never forget, just as Cassandra couldn’t forget Troy:

All this, the Troy of my childhood, no longer exists except inside my head. I will rebuild it there while I still have time, I will not forget a single stone, a single incidence of light. It shall be kept faithfully inside me, however short the time may be. Now I have learned to see what is not, how hard the lesson was.

This Issue

December 20, 1990