For English-speaking readers who are not proficient in German, I have assembled a list of recommended East German literary works. The ten books on this list are personal favorites of mine and excellent examples of the high-quality, politically engaged literature that was produced in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), especially in the 1960s and 1970s. All of these books are available in English translation; specific information on the translated versions is available at the end of this piece.
The first three works are novels by Stefan Heym, Christa Wolf, and Jurek Becker, masterful storytellers whose prose fiction works brought them international acclaim. The authors of the next two books—Stefan Heym and Ulrich Plenzdorf—make creative use of literary precedents to link the GDR of the early 1970s to England and Germany of the 18th century. They draw parallels to well-known prose works by Daniel Defoe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in order to give readers a critical view of the contemporary GDR at that time. Sarah Kirsch, well known in Europe as a lyric poet and short story writer, is represented with both prose texts and poetry on my list. The Panther Woman presents her in-depth, tape-recorded interviews with five working women in the GDR, who offer us a glimpse into their personal and work lives. Catlives is a collection of poems that draws upon the poet’s personal experience of the natural world and emphasizes subjective approaches to reality. In their works, Volker Braun and Reiner Kunze lay bare the harsh realities of daily life behind the Iron Curtain under the GDR’s dictatorial brand of socialism. Kunze’s minimalistic prose pieces in The Wonderful Years reveal what life was really like in the GDR for everyday people—school children, teachers, youth, writers—in common settings such as home, school, and workplace. Braun’s novella, Unfinished Story, offers a realistic portrayal of an East German state inclined to distrust, restrict, and if need be sacrifice its young people for no good reason. Together, Braun and Kunze provide a devastating critique of a political system and society that is prepared to ruthlessly grind up basically innocent people. Monika Maron’s Flight of Ashes, her first novel, was born of her experiences as a serious investigative journalist, an unconventional and somewhat risky career choice for a free-lance writer in the GDR. This novel was completed in the late 1970s and lay for two years in the desk drawer, before being published in West Germany in 1981. Her novels could not be published in East Germany, where she lived, not because she attacked socialism but because the authorities thought her depictions of life under socialism were too negative.
5 Days in June
5 Tage im Juni (1956)
Stefan Heym (1913-2001)
Stefan Heym, one of the most significant German writers of the 20th century, settled in the GDR in 1952, moving back to the part of his native Germany where he was born after spending years in exile. As a result of his increasingly critical engagement with social and political conditions in that country, he quickly came into conflict with the ruling communist authorities. The first major altercation occurred in 1956 when his novel 5 Days in June was rejected for publication in the GDR. This novel is a fictionalized account, based on firsthand or near-firsthand recollections of the workers’ mass uprising in East Berlin against communist rule in 1953. The riots began among construction workers who took to the streets to protest an increase in work schedules by the communist government of East Germany. Soviet troops, supported by tanks and armored vehicles, quickly crushed the rebellion. Heym’s novel humanizes this historical event by focusing on men and women who were caught up in the bloody demonstrations of June 16 and 17, 1953. The novel was banned in Soviet-occupied East Germany, but a German-language edition was published in West Germany in 1956. This work is the earliest and arguably the finest example of East German dissident literature during the communist era; it established Heym’s reputation as both an advocate for human rights and a rebellious, fearless critic of the GDR’s ruling SED Party. He would remain a thorn in the side of the dictatorial government until the GDR was dissolved in 1990.
The Quest for Christa T.
Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968)
Christa Wolf (1929-2011)
Christa Wolf, one of the most accomplished German writers of the post-World War II period, spent her childhood years under Hitler and in time of war. In 1949 she began studying literature, first at the University of Jena, then at the University of Leipzig, receiving her diploma in 1953. She then worked as an editor and in the early 1960s published her first prose works, a novella and a novel, for which she was awarded prizes. Her third book, The Quest for Christa T. (1968), became a bestseller in its West German editions. When this novel was first published in East Germany, it immediately created a storm. It was severely attacked at the 1968 meeting of the GDR Writers Congress, and it was condemned by government officials who eventually banned it. Even though it has nothing explicit to say about politics in the GDR, Wolf’s Christa T., its main character, and its author stirred up leaders of the ruling SED Party and made them apprehensive. On the surface it is a straightforward story of the unremarkable life of an introspective young woman growing up in Nazi Germany, then dying at age thirty-one in communist East Germany. Beneath the surface it is a firsthand, subjective account of everyday life in a repressive society that does not tolerate persons who question socialist beliefs and the way of living in a socialist state that expects all its citizens to conform. Christa T. is shown to be an unfortunate victim of this restrictive society.
Jacob the Liar
Jakob der Lügner (1969)
Jurek Becker (1937-1997)
Jurek Becker was a friend of mine. In addition to being an exceptionally talented prose writer, he was a very likeable man; he had a marvelous sense of humor, a great deal of personal warmth and charm, and was one of the best storytellers I ever met. He was also candid, outspoken, and not afraid to express his views on controversial topics, such as problems in GDR society and his country’s oppressive system of government.
International recognition came to Becker following the publication of his first book, Jacob the Liar (1969). This powerful Holocaust novel is set in an unnamed Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Poland, near the close of World War II. At the center of the story is a Jew, Jacob Heym, who accidentally overhears a German radio broadcast announcing that the Soviet Army is slowly advancing toward their town. The next day, when his comrade Mischa prepares to risk his life by stealing a few potatoes from the German commissary, Jacob tells him what he heard. He then lies to Mischa, telling him in confidence that he has a radio—in the ghetto a crime punishable by death. Word of Jacob’s secret spreads quickly, and Jacob realizes that his lies give hope to his fellow Jews who now have the prospect of liberation to live for. Jacob finds himself in the uncomforting position of having to dream up more and more optimistic lies.
In November 1976, Becker became embroiled in a human rights conflict with the GDR authorities. In the ensuing months, he resigned from the GDR Writers’ Union, was thrown out of the SED Party, and then barred from making public appearances and publishing his writing in the GDR. In December 1977, Becker moved from East to West Berlin.
The Queen against Defoe
Die Schmähschrift oder Königin gegen Defoe (1970)
Stefan Heym (1913-2001)
The Queen Against Defoe recounts English writer Daniel Defoe’s clash with nobility and clergy during the reign of Queen Anne following the anonymous publication of his pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702). By appearing to support the English Establishment in the most exaggerated terms, Defoe satirized the extremist position of many high churchmen and Tories on the question of how to deal with religious dissent. The anonymous author was denounced as an enemy of Church and State. After Defoe’s identity was discovered, he was eventually captured and made to stand trial. Defoe was persuaded to plead guilty. Subsequently, he was fined 200 marks, condemned to be pilloried three times, and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. His exposure in the pillory, however, was more a triumph than a physical punishment or public humiliation, for the common people took his side and protected him from bodily harm. Heym’s historical novella is concerned chiefly with the role of literature and the problems facing writers in states which attempt to restrict artistic freedom. Not only is Defoe portrayed as a pillar of strength in the battle against his oppressors, but he is also shown to achieve that elusive socialist goal—the solidarity of proletariat and intellectuals—through his courageous defiance of the Establishment. Like Defoe some three centuries earlier, Stefan Heym did not shy away from political conflict and controversy, and he, too, preferred to suffer the consequences rather than compromise himself as a writer. Fortunately, unlike Defoe, he was never imprisoned.
The New Sufferings of Young W.
Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (1972)
Ulrich Plenzdorf (1934-2007)
Ulrich Plenzdorf, prose writer, playwright, and film scenarist, contributed greatly to the jeans mania that swept the GDR in the 1970s. His controversial novel, The New Sufferings of Young W. (1972), made its author famous overnight and became one of the most widely-read works ever published in the GDR. The story parallels and parodies Goethe’s epistolary masterpiece, The Sufferings of Young Werther (1774).
The main character is 17-year-old Edgar Wibeau, a model all-GDR boy: disciplined, clean-cut, obedient. But all of a sudden he gets fed up with the restrictiveness of socialist society and the conformity it demands of every citizen. He drops out of school and flees to Berlin, where he lives alone in a garden house and proceeds to do all the things he always wanted to do previously but never could. In a long soliloquy, Edgar expounds on the topic of blue jeans, “the greatest pants in the world,” which symbolize his rebellion and new-found freedom.
Edgar Wibeau, one of the most intriguing characters in all of GDR literature, is a frustrated teenager who rebels against the conformity that was so prevalent in every segment of GDR society. While he is not against socialism per se, he is in favor of almost everything the SED Party officials and others in positions of power were against. He wants to live a life without rigid constraints and picky regulations, opting instead for individualism and creative self-expression, while rejecting phoniness and stodginess in favor of that which is genuine and natural.
The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder
Die Pantherfrau: Fünf Frauen in der DDR (1973)
Sarah Kirsch (1935-2013)
Sarah Kirsch gained initial prominence in the 1960s as one of a group of GDR poets who challenged the official cultural-political dictate that literature should primarily reinforce the values and reflect the achievements of socialist society. In 1960 she joined a group of other aspiring poets who collectively charted a new direction in GDR poetry. Their poems emphasized subjective approaches to reality as opposed to ideological affirmations of socialist society. From 1965 until 1977 she lived as a free-lance writer in Halle and East Berlin. In August 1977, after the government authorities prohibited her from publishing and participating in public events in the GDR, she and her son Moritz moved without fanfare to West Berlin. Her published work in the GDR includes numerous volumes of poetry, a volume of short fiction, and a book containing portraits in prose of several East German women, The Panther Woman.
Kirsch’s Panther Woman contains her in-depth, tape-recorded interviews with five contemporary East German women. These women offer us “uncombed” glimpses into their personal and work lives, and their intimate portraits enable us to enter into the experience of working and living in the GDR. The first to be interviewed is a tamer of circus panthers who speaks with surprising candor about everyday life in East Germany. The other voices are those of a bureaucrat, a historian, a businesswoman, and a factory worker. In the introduction to her translation of this work, Marion Faber writes: “Reading these five accounts, we learn much about the inner workings of circus life, the East German business world, the arduous nature of factory work. Furthermore, we gain a better idea of patterns of education in the GDR, work conditions, government controls, the demands made on personal life, and the range of individual aspirations within the socialist structure.” (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. viii) Taken as a whole, these five interviews with women give us a better, fuller, and remarkably humane view of East German society.
Unvollendete Geschichte (1975)
Volker Braun (1939- )
In 1965, after studying philosophy at the University of Leipzig, Volker Braun moved to East Berlin where he earned his living as a free-lance writer and as a dramaturg with the famous Berlin Ensemble. His published work includes several volumes of poetry, a number of plays, volumes of notes and essays, and a highly controversial novella, Unfinished Story.
The plot of Braun’s novella is not complicated. Karin, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a local official, is in love with Frank, a telecommunications worker. But Frank’s family and personal background are somewhat suspect, with vague indications of criminality. While Frank is not a real troublemaker, he is also not an exemplary member of the socialist state. He has received letters from the West, enough to make him a suspicious figure in the minds of the authorities. Karin is pressured to stop seeing him, and she does for a while. But, true love prevails and she continues to be torn between her love for Frank and the demands of parents and society. Karin gets pregnant, Frank attempts suicide and winds up in a coma.
Basically, Karin and Frank are both victims of their innocence; they cannot survive because they are unable to comprehend the system. When Karin is working as a volunteer for a newspaper, she learns the necessity of making compromises when she is told what is suitable to print and what is not; but, she neither understands nor accepts the reasoning behind these decisions which strike her as absurd. Both Karin and Frank are unable to adjust to the requirements of the system, as their parents and bosses have done. They are unable to adapt and therefore destined to succumb to a system that is cruel and corrupt.
Volker Braun’s Unfinished Story provided a powerful critique of the mentality of persons in positions of authority in the GDR. Karin and her boyfriend Frank have their lives ruined by authorities who are unwilling to trust their loyalty, preferring suspicion and control to open dialogue. The story, which is based on a true story, is unfinished because it is not resolved whether the situation can be set right or not. Here, more forcefully than elsewhere, Braun is urging the GDR’s leaders to make what he considers to be essential systemic changes that will lead to a more humane socialist society in their country. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of the GDR in 1990 revealed that his public outcry for reforms had fallen on deaf ears.
The Wonderful Years
Die wunderbaren Jahre (1976)
Reiner Kunze (1933- )
Reiner Kunze was a dissident writer who stood up to the GDR’s power elite and was harshly punished for doing so. His major confrontation with the GDR authorities was precipitated by the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, which he protested publicly and vociferously. Thereafter, his writings—with one exception—were no longer published in the GDR and he was not allowed to read from his works or speak in public. This severe form of censorial repression, imposed by the government, was just a step away from incarceration. The purpose was to discipline Kunze for his oppositional behavior, silence him, and prevent him from earning a living.
Kunze’s most famous book is The Wonderful Years, a volume of short fiction which contains critical insights into life behind the Iron Curtain. In 1976, following its unauthorized publication in West Germany, Kunze expected to be arrested. Instead, the GDR authorities impounded his passport and in April 1977 forced him into exile.
New York Times cultural critic John Leonard comments on Kunze’s unusual literary style, marveling at his ability to craft powerful stories with very few words: “This book is more than economical: it is minimalist prose, moral pointillisme.” Leonard has this to say about the content: “Love of children—their logic, passion, curiosity and impatience—is the watermark and signature of this slim book about a system, anti-Semitic even now, that would turn them into obedient zombies.” (April 21, 1977)
Those years were not wonderful, but this book certainly is!
Flight of Ashes
Monika Maron (1941- )
On the back side of this book’s dust jacket, we learn that Monika Maron is a daughter of the East German political élite. Her father, Karl Maron, was involved in founding the German Democratic Republic and served as Minister of the Interior in the infancy of the new communist state. Although she was raised in a communist household, Maron’s novel breaks decisively with the prescribed silences of her sociopolitical milieu—on censorship and self-censorship, the press, the SED Party, the position and exploitation of women, environmental problems and policies, and the real lives of workers in a Workers’ State. In doing so, she gives us a thoughtful, passionate and completely candid view of one person’s struggle to live and work honestly behind the Wall.
Completely new here is Maron’s in-depth critical treatment of one of the most pressing environmental issues in her country—pollution from brown coal and its deadly impact on East Germans’ health and quality of life, a topic GDR journalists and writers had hitherto avoided addressing directly in their writing. The main character is Josefa Nader, a 30-year-old newspaper journalist who leads a lonely life as a divorced working mother with a young son. A business trip to the filthy industrial city of B. (Bitterfeld) in the brown coal mining region of East Germany challenges her moral and political assumptions and precipitates a life-altering personal and professional crisis. Josefa tries to write a truthful feature article about an old, unsafe filth-spewing power plant in B. that should but supposedly for economic reasons cannot be shut down. A conflict with the Party leadership ensues when Josefa—unable to call attention to this problem in the press—sends the GDR’s Supreme Council a letter informing them about “omissions in the building of socialism” (135) at the power plant. Her unwanted report on a serious problem the government already knows about but prefers to continue ignoring leads to a surprising conclusion.
Katzenleben: Gedichte (1984)
Sarah Kirsch (1935-2013)
As noted in the introduction to The Panther Woman, Sarah Kirsch emigrated to West Berlin in August 1977. In 1978, thanks to a grant from the government, she was able to spend a half year as artist in residence at the German Academy in Rome at Villa Massimo. The stay at Villa Massimo enabled Sarah to devote herself to writing again, after several years of emotional and mental turmoil, and it marked the beginning of a new chapter in her personal and professional life. At the Villa she met and become romantically involved with a young German composer, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, who returned to Berlin with her. Sarah’s life then went in a different direction. She and Wolfgang decided to move away from Berlin and its many distractions that made it very difficult for Sarah to write. They relocated and embraced a different style of life in the rural township of Bothel in Lower Saxony. Sarah craved the solitude of nature which stimulated her creativity more than anything else. While living in the peaceful countryside with Wolfgang, son Moritz, her mother, and their cats, she wrote the powerful collection of 86 poems that were published under the title Catlives. In her foreword to Catlives, Carolyn Forché writes: “Kirsch begins with what is at hand, the sky coloring, snow in a field, and she follows the tenuous associative thread of her sensory intelligence, finding her concerns in things, rather than appropriating them to serve conscious intentions. Her work is whimsical and dramatic, but never degenerates into the idyllic meanderings of self-absorption.” (Translated and edited by Marina Roscher and Charles Fishman. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1991. v)
In her translator’s preface, Marina Roscher tells us the work of Sarah Kirsch is a “powerful poetic presence.” (Ibid., 1) “In the present book,” she says, “the course of four seasons experienced in a spare countryside provides the poet with opportunities for minute and intimate observations. She focuses on cats, cows, and dogs, on plants and leaves; she assigns to each grass and each weed its own place and its name. Overtly, the poems deal with nature, their environment is bucolic but, . . . they are far from idyllic. . . . The uncanny dwells beneath the surface, and existence is threatened.” (Ibid., 1-2)
Sarah Kirsch’s readers will see that her poetry is linguistically innovative, intense, and strikingly visual. There are few metaphors in her poems; mostly it is pictures, and concrete imagery conveys the message. The poet succeeds in painting with words to a remarkable degree.
East German Literary Works in English Translation
Becker, Jurek. Jacob the Liar, translated by Leila Vennewitz. New York: Plume, 1999.
Braun, Volker. Unfinished Story, translated by Richard Urmston. Madison, New Jersey: Drew University, 1979.
Heym, Stefan. Five Days in June. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.
Heym, Stefan. The Queen Against Defoe. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.
Kirsch, Sarah. The Panther Woman: Five Tales from the Cassette Recorder, translated by Marion Faber. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Kirsch, Sarah. Catlives , translated by Marina Roscher and Charles Fishman. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1991.
Kunze, Reiner. The Wonderful Years, translated by Joachim Neugroschel. New York: George Braziller, 1977.
Maron, Monika. Flight of Ashes, translated by David Marinelli. London and New York: Readers International, 1986.
Plenzdorf, Ulrich. The New Sufferings of Young W., translated by Kenneth Wilcox. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979.Wolf, Christa. The Quest for Christa T., translated by Christopher Middleton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.