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Remembering Christa Wolf | The Nation

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Remembering Christa Wolf

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Christa Wolf in Berlin in 2010. (AP Photo/Berthold Stadler)

“Anxious and unbelieving, we continuously denied ourselves, forever lying, celebrating, bowing, insulting others but we could not get enough pleasure at our own submissiveness”.

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Norman Birnbaum
Norman Birnbaum is professor emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was on the founding editorial board...

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Their recent publication tells us nothing we didn’t already know, or could easily have inferred, from his biography.

Tony Benn died at age 88 last week—and was immediately and fulsomely praised by many well able to restrain their enthusiasm for him in his lifetime.

That is what Christa Wolf, who died at the end of November in Berlin at age 82, wrote as she lived in the Communist German Democratic Republic in 1979. She did not publish it until eleven years later, after the end of a regime that hardly earned the word, post, in the term post-Stalinist. She was at the time the best known writer in the German Democratic Republic, widely read in eastern Germany, and could easily have published there. For that matter, without having to provoke the state’s masters, she could have emigrated---but did not. On her own testimony, she clung to the increasingly utopian idea of a socialist, anti-militaristic, and thoroughly anti-Nazi Germany.

Some of her stubborness rested on a considerable underestimation of large parts of the citizenry in west Germany. They did make an honest and successful attempt to come to terms with Germany’s past. Another part was a correct intuition, that she could write more productively when sharing the tribulations of those who were half her fellow citizens, half her fellow subjects in the GDR.

Her novels were linear, fantasy confined to the inner lives of her characters, struggling against the burdens of the history they had inherited. Her essays were stringently descriptive. Her narrative voice in essay and fiction was above all sober, that of a witness who could hardly have been cross examined since she had already told as much of the story as she could. When it came out that she had been an informant of the omnipresent Stasi, the State Security Service, for a brief period as a younger person, she answered her critics by pointing out that her writings were hardly panegyrics to the regime. They were, rather, accounts of the moral difficulties of everyday living under crude pedagogy of a party blind to its own mediocrity.

The very conventional and conservative President of Germany, Christian Wulff, struck the right note when he said that her work moved the citizens of Germany and reflected the “great hopes and errors, the anxieties and the longings” of entire generations. In her last full year of life, she published an account of a year spent in Los Angeles reflecting on her own past and the choices she made.(“City of the Angels, Or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud”) The book is not least notable for its singular description, rather like an old black and white film, of our own society. It is also without very much ambiguity. I do not know whether she read Sartre’s novels, suspect that she did. But there is something about her picture of life and inner life in Communist Germany reminiscent of his nineteen thirty and forty portraits of life in the doomed Third French Republic.

I met and talked with her but once---in the lakeside suburb of Munich, Starnberg. We dined with two rather vocal critics of western Germany’s society and politics. the environmentalist and campaigner for co-existence Erhard Eppler, a leader of political Protestantism, and the philosopher Juergen Habermas. It was in the eighties, before Gorbachev and the movement he half led, half followed, awakened hopes of change not only in the Soviet Union but in the satellite nations. (When it came, the leaders of Communist Germany were rigid as well as preposterously stupid in their opposition to it.) As I recollect our talk, we compared notes on resistance east and west. She conveyed the notion that even in the most immobile of periods, obduracy had the virtue of keeping alive the possibilities of submerged or distant historical alternatives. Meanwhile, she said, we intellectuals had the duty to think of those who lacked our spiritual modes of escape, and who had to struggle day by day with implacable realities. Ordinary Germans in both of the nation’s states recognized the authenticity of her testimony, and so made her writings their own.

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