“You can only fight sorrow when you look it in the eye.” The East German novelist Christa Wolf wrote that sentence in 1963, two years after the Berlin Wall went up and the same year John F. Kennedy delivered his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech before a throng of West Berliners in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg. The sentence is spoken in the 1964 film adaptation of Wolf’s Divided Heaven, a novel about a love affair between Manfred, a young chemist, and Rita, an even younger woman studying to become a teacher while working in a factory. The novel is set in the German Democratic Republic on the eve of the 1961 division of Berlin into East and West. Frustrated professionally and cynical by nature, Manfred opts to go West just as the last opening is about to close. Rita must decide whether to follow him. To look sorrow in the eye is to make a difficult, tragic choice: difficult because “whatever she decided, she would have to give up a piece of herself,” and tragic because, as Rita comes to realize, she has no choice. She must stay in East Germany; not because of the wall, or because she doesn’t see that one side is richer and the other poorer, and that most things are easier in the West. Rather, as Rita discovers while visiting Manfred, it’s that in West Berlin “everything really comes down to eating and drinking and dressing and sleeping. Why did a person eat? I asked myself. What did one do in one’s beautiful apartment? Where did one go in those cars as wide as streets? And what did a person think about in this city before going to sleep at night?” Left cold by a society with “more glass and cellophane,” one she can see through, Rita returns to the society that, however sorrowful and dark, she feels she can look in the eye.
In her autobiographical novel Patterns of Childhood (1976), Wolf wrote of her younger self, “Her object was to observe some people and envy them a little, and to see through others.” Her life’s work became to record her observations. In her last novel, City of Angels or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (2010), she wearily admitted that she had sometimes yearned for “the ultimate darkness…that would free me from the compulsion to say everything.” Her protagonists, most of them women—from the Trojan prophetess Cassandra to postwar Rita—are blessed and cursed with the ability to see more than the average person. These women don’t come upon the gift of exceptional sight by accident; they see more because they feel more deeply. Karoline von Günderrode, the early-nineteenth-century poet whom Wolf made the tragic heroine of her novella No Place on Earth (1979), discovers for herself the way “some people become seers: A deep pain or a deep concentration lights up the landscape within.”
The same was true of Wolf. Physical pain, even death, she treated as symptoms of psychological trauma. Of her late friend Christa T., whose official cause of death was cancer, and whose life she traced from World War II to the 1960s in the novella The Quest for Christa T. (1968), she wrote, “Do you really think that she died of this illness? No…. One can always speak of illness. Death-wish as illness. Neurosis as the inability to conform to particular circumstances.” For Wolf and her characters, personal pain and sickness were inseparable from the events and politics of the time. In her novel on Chernobyl, Accident: A Day’s News, from 1987, she related with grotesque exactitude the brain operation her brother underwent the day of the disaster. On November 4, 1989, a few days before the Berlin Wall came down, as Wolf was giving a speech before hundreds of thousands of East Germans gathered on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in which she exhorted them not to see the events of the day as the coming about of a sailing ship, but as a true social revolution, a rising to the top of what had been on the bottom, she felt a “familiar disturbance” in the rhythm of her heartbeat and had to be taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital.
Wolf died on December 1, 2011, leaving behind more than thirty volumes of fiction and essays and a complicated legacy. After her burial in Berlin, Dirk Knipphals, literary editor for the leftist daily Die Tageszeitung, wrote that “there will be no more authorial figures like Christa Wolf, who in their very vulnerability are heroic.” “Wounded,” wrote another journalist reporting on her death. “She was wounded inside and out; and she collapsed just like the [socialist] system in which she believed.” A distillation of her persona can be seen in the opening credits of the film Divided Heaven, as the camera pans slowly across the face of a woman looking straight ahead, unblinking, with tears in her eyes, reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
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But Wolf made an imperfect martyr, and she knew it. Born in Landsberg an der Warthe, now the Polish city of Gorzów Wielkopolski, in 1929, she had been in the girls’ branch of the Hitler Youth. Nor was her sincere loyalty to the Führer quick to dissipate after the war. As she later said, “it took a very long time before the first tiny insights, and later profound changes became possible.” Upon reading Patterns of Childhood, the German Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll praised its brutal honesty. The book showed “how eyes and ears that otherwise have nothing physiologically wrong with them can see and hear so little.” In other words, Wolf the seer was made, not born. Like many Germans who did not want to be German after the war, Wolf became a socialist, joining the ranks of anti-fascists in a country “conquered by its enlightenment.” Embracing socialism was a way for her and other Germans to confront, and attempt to compensate for, their own share of German guilt over Hitler and the Holocaust. As she explained in 1984, repeating the famous words of another East German writer, Franz Fühmann, “My generation came to socialism via Auschwitz.”
Late in life Wolf described herself at age 30 in these terms: “ideological true-believer, a good little comrade; because of my own past plagued by a profound inferiority complex vis-à-vis those who seemed, by virtue of their pasts, to have been legitimated and on the right side of history.” Among those she envied for having been “on the right side of history” were the so-called Remigranten, or “remigrants,” she got to know while working for the East German Writers’ Association in the 1950s, men and women who had experienced exile and persecution as communists or Jews, had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War and returned home after World War II to help create a new Germany. Wolf’s friend and mentor, Anna Seghers, belonged to this group. Born in Mainz in 1900, Seghers was a renowned German-Jewish writer who joined the Communist Party in 1928 and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933. She fled to Switzerland, spending the war years in France, New York City and finally Mexico, where she co-founded the Movement for a Free Germany. In 1947 she moved to Berlin, relocating to East Berlin three years later. By comparison, Wolf’s biography must have seemed mundane: her squarely middle-class parents owned a grocery in a provincial Prussian town, and though she and her family had to flee their home at the end of the war, all of her immediate family members survived.
Remarking much later on the awkward position of East Germany within the Soviet bloc, Wolf wrote: “It was us, East Germans, who had to go to the nations of the East after the war, to those who had suffered most under us.” She and other young East German communists were thrown into discussions about the future of socialism with Czechs, Poles and Russians, and the many references to the Soviet Union’s glorious anti-fascist struggle were stinging reminders of the turnabout that had taken place since the war. Wolf’s answer to the political and moral provocation that was socialism, and especially its brazen drive to engineer a “new person,” was not the bold certainty of the communist partisan—which she was not, and which were scarce in East Germany (the voice of a minor cynic in Divided Heaven gruffly declares that a “German revolution” is a contradiction in terms). Instead, she offered what was lacking among Germans during the Nazi era: profound individual self-reflection and a sober reverence for those who refuse to conform. In Christa T., the title character hears the slogans of the new socialist state mingling with those of her personal life and experience: “Change. The new words? The new house? Machines, larger fields? The new person, she heard people say and began to look inside herself.” Turning inward was also Wolf’s response to the intensifying restrictions of the East German state. In 1965, the year the Stasi began its decades-long surveillance of her, Wolf wrote in her diary, “The walls are closing in ever more tightly around us. But it turns out that in the depths there is a lot of space.”
Though Sonja Hilzinger, one of Wolf’s biographers, has noted that “none of her books has not been controversially discussed,” Hilzinger singled out Patterns of Childhood as “the most explicit example” of how Wolf was able to gainsay the GDR master narrative while maintaining a level of official respect, prestige and independence. During a reading from the novel, Wolf told her audience, “It bothers me a little that many of our books about this time end with heroes who come around quickly…who actually already during fascism arrive at rather significant and important human and political insights. I don’t wish to argue with any author regarding his experience. But my experience was different.” With that confession, Wolf undermined the two dominant interpretations of the Nazi period officially sanctioned by the GDR leadership: the narrative of German anti-fascist resistance to Nazism and the trope of rapid conversion to socialism after the war. It was Wolf’s very personal response to the question of German guilt—“But my experience was different”—that helped to secure both her renown and her survival as a prominent literary figure. She was thorn and jewel to the GDR, read as widely and enthusiastically in West Germany as in the East, courted and hosted by universities, clubs and organizations on both sides of the Iron Curtain, including the United States, and honored with numerous prizes and distinctions (she was a frequent favorite for the Nobel but never won).
Yet for all her devotion to subjectivity and nonconformity—heretical in a polity with an oversized security apparatus engaged in the intense surveillance of individuals who accidentally or intentionally stood out—she remained a dedicated socialist. Having joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the ruling communist party, in 1949, Wolf remained a member until just a few months before the wall came down, and from 1963 to 1967 was even a candidate of the party’s Central Committee, the supreme representative governing body in the GDR. Although she had several opportunities to leave the country for good, she never pursued them, even as the Stasi busily tracked and recorded her every move and conversation, resulting in a file on her that eventually consisted of forty-two volumes, including thousands of pages of archived material. However appalled Wolf may have been by the Stasi, state censorship and the trampling of individual liberties, she never became a dissident.
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Patterns of Childhood was published in 1976, which Wolf would later call “the bad year.” The trouble began when the East German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann went on tour in West Germany. During a televised concert in Cologne he sang songs with unmistakably anti-authoritarian lyrics (“take freedom for yourselves or it will never come”). Though it was not the first time Biermann had been critical of the GDR while abroad, three days later his GDR citizenship was revoked and he was barred from returning to the country. Together with a group of other East German writers, Christa Wolf and her husband Gerhard wrote an open letter protesting Biermann’s denaturalization. But the East German leadership did not yield, and several of the letter’s signatories, including Gerhard Wolf, were kicked out of the SED, while others were arrested or driven into exile. Christa Wolf was allowed to remain in the party, but was issued a “strict reprimand” and forced to step down from the executive committee of the Writers’ Association. The Stasi surveillance of the Wolfs was also intensified. In a diary entry from 1977, Christa Wolf acknowledged how much self-censorship she had begun to practice. “I ask myself what price I pay daily, a price in the currency: looking away, not listening, or at the very least, remaining silent. I often wonder whether the bill for it will be presented yet in our lifetime.” She was reliving what she called “the unearthly secret of the people of this century…how it is possible for one to have been both present and not there.” The “patterns of childhood” were beginning to repeat.
Wolf weighed the price of remaining silent in the summer of 1979, when she started recording her observations of the Stasi detail assigned to observe her. She watched the car that was constantly shadowing her turn from white to green to blue; watched as one of the young men sitting in the car got out for a drink and a snack; waved to them from her bedroom window at night and watched them flash their headlights in good-humored reply. The watcher and the watched are hopelessly, tragically, comically confused in her observations. Wolf even watched herself with the eyes of an incurable socialist: being followed “by one, two, up to six cars (how much that must have cost!)”; or preparing breakfast (“The coffee had to be strong and hot, filtered, the egg not too soft, home-made jam was preferred, brown bread. Luxury! Luxury!…a never-waning feeling of guilt”); or contemplating her good fortune at not then having to play the role of informer as her “friends” were being pushed to do: “You are and shall remain a creature of luxury.”
Although she wrote about the experience of persistent Stasi surveillance as it was happening, Wolf didn’t publish her account of it—under the title Was bleibt (What Remains)—until 1990, when there was no longer any Stasi and the GDR existed in name only. Her decision to delay the book’s publication sparked the second of two German “quarrels” of the 1980s and 1990s. The first had been the Historikerstreit (historians’ quarrel) of 1986–87, over the question of whether the horrors of Nazism should be viewed primarily as a reaction in kind to what the German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte called the “Asiatic” barbarism of the Bolsheviks. The argument that prevailed, advanced by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, among others, was that Nazism’s brutality was embedded in a longer history of German nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism, and should not be diminished by comparisons with the gulag.
The embers from this debate had hardly cooled when the publication of Wolf’s Was bleibt ignited the Literaturstreit (literature quarrel). A pair of prominent West German journalists, Frank Schirrmacher and Ulrich Greiner, mounted the attack: Why had Wolf waited until the collapse of the GDR to publish her book? Had she not fed and sustained the regime by sparing it her most honest and brutal critique? The tone was outraged and personal: “Oh, yes,” wrote Greiner, “this charming melancholy, this dainty asceticism!” Wolf’s response came in 2003, with the publication of a fictionalized diary called One Day a Year 1960–2000. The entry for September 27, 1990, is about her depression, which her friends try to allay by pointing to the small-mindedness of her critics. “Yes, yes,” Wolf tells one of them. “But there remains a scrap of truth in what they say.”
The Literaturstreit caught a second wind in 1993, when Wolf admitted that from 1959 to 1962 she had been an informer for the Stasi. The files—which she later published in full—reveal that she was initially forthcoming, but that later her Stasi contacts observed a “reticence and exaggerated caution” when she spoke of GDR cultural figures with whom she was acquainted. Even Frank Schirrmacher confirmed after reading the file that Wolf’s meetings with Stasi operatives yielded mostly “benign reports on upstanding comrades and talented colleagues.” Nonetheless, a long article in the magazine Der Spiegel drew out especially damning excerpts from the file, concluding, “Christa Wolf is deceiving herself and the public when she downplays the incriminating documents as a ‘thin bundle.’” For her own part Wolf declared: “I have nothing to ‘confess’ except for the fact that I did not see the role of the Stasi more than thirty years ago with the same severity as later.”
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Despite the sharp critical focus on Wolf during the Literaturstreit, it quickly became clear that the controversy was not just about her, but about whether it had been possible for writers and intellectuals to work in East Germany without being seriously compromised. In the words of Wolf Biermann, “It is about Christa Wolf: more precisely, it is not about Christa Wolf.” The discussion echoed a similar one that had taken place after World War II regarding the moral defensibility of innere Emigration—the turning inward of intellectuals who chose to stay in Nazi Germany rather than go into exile—and the impossibility of living and working in the Third Reich as a writer or intellectual without being somehow complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime. More than anything, the discussion has highlighted the extent to which intellectuals in West Germany have sought over the past two decades, for better or worse, to impose the West German model of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) on their counterparts from the GDR, applying the word “perpetrator” to East German border guards, state officials, and the Stasi and its network of informers, and “victim” to those who fled, tried to flee or were the objects of Stasi surveillance. Wolf falls into both categories: the records of her activities as an informer for the Stasi have been called her “perpetrator files” (Täterakten) and the files kept on her by the Stasi are her “victim files” (Opferakten).
There are those who view this West German moral imposition as ill-placed, especially in the case of Christa Wolf. Among them is the 84-year-old Nobel laureate Günter Grass, a longtime friend, whose biography is a West German mirror of Wolf’s. Both hailed from a region now in Poland, which they and their families had to flee at the end of the war; both made fantastic literary careers dealing with difficult questions related to the war and its aftermath; both were tracked closely by the Stasi; both possessed a certain degree of moral authority by virtue of their work and their politics; both opposed German reunification after the fall of the wall; and both were the focal point of scandal. Grass’s came in 2006, when the publication of his autobiographical novel Peeling the Onion established that he and Wolf shared one more essential biographical detail: an early enthusiasm for Nazism. Grass had, from the age of 16 to 17, served in the Waffen-SS during the last years of the war.
When he took the stage at the Berlin Academy of the Arts on December 13 of last year to join Wolf’s family members and prominent German cultural figures in memorializing her life and work, Grass opened by saying: “Christa Wolf belonged to a generation to which I also belong. We were molded by the period of National Socialism and the late, indeed too late acknowledgment of all the crimes committed by Germans.” He then spoke of how Wolf had “set out in good faith on wrong paths,” of her subsequent “doubt and resistance” and the insight she gained into her “own participation within a system that had leveled the socialist utopia.” Thereafter the speech shifted abruptly from eulogy to invective as Grass singled out the pair of West German journalists who had, “from a protected corner,” mounted the attack on Wolf following the publication of Was bleibt. Schirrmacher and Greiner, he proclaimed, were guilty of “Calumnies, falsified citations, repeated attempts at character assassination.” Their “malice and destructive impulse” had served “all those small-minded people…who would like to see literature and its producers locked up in a piece of real estate called the ivory tower.”
Although Grass’s speech provoked astonished reactions in the feuilletons that week, no one seized the opportunity to reopen the Literaturstreit (although as one feuilletonist noted, its “themes are in no way settled”). Nor was there a whisper of the old criticisms of Wolf. Instead, the salvos were directed at Grass, whose “harangue” was declared “over-the-top” and “unliterary.” The most conservative mainstream daily, Die Welt, featured a brief return-invective by the journalist Heimo Schwilk, otherwise known in Germany as a champion of the “new right,” who declared—from a protected corner—that Wolf would not have approved of Grass’s angry defense of her and her work. He then misquoted Grass as having said, “‘People who have never been subjected to state censorship’ should have no say in the matter of Christa W.” (Grass uttered no part of this sentence in his speech.) That Schwilk, a biographer and personal friend of the radical nationalist writer Ernst Jünger, should claim to speak for Christa Wolf is telling. Everyone, it seems, now wants to own her legacy, to claim Wolf’s voice as his or her own. To misquote W.H. Auden, in death “she became her admirers.”
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On that memorable day of November 4, 1989, Christa Wolf joined other famous figures on Alexanderplatz—writers, actors, students, a lawyer, a molecular biologist, a film director, a theologian, even a retired Stasi foreign-intelligence chief—whose speeches were broadcast live on GDR television. The word “freedom” was often spoken, echoed by the PA system and cheered by a crowd of at least half a million peaceful demonstrators: a new era was beginning. It was in this context that Wolf warned those gathered against “reversing the image of the enemy,” turning yesterday’s villains (anti-communists) into today’s heroes, and yesterday’s heroes (communists) into villains: reality was not nearly so simple. Her warning now reads like a pre-emptive strike against future detractors, albeit an unsuccessful one. The renowned critic and former theater director Ivan Nagel recently recalled how Wolf was the target of just such a reversal. Up until November 4, she and other writers who had stayed in East Germany and made their careers there were “heroes of democracy.” Soon after, they were labeled “the privileged of a totalitarian regime.”
That there exist two opposite, irreconcilable ways of seeing Wolf seems appropriate in light of her own literary fascination with words, people and events that hold two seemingly incompatible meanings or identities. In many of her books, she halts the narrative to wonder at the curious multiplicity of contradictory meanings bound up in a single word. “I love these words with two meanings,” she declared in City of Angels, rattling off the various incarnations of the word richten: sich richten (to conform), gerichtet werden (to be judged/set straight/ruined), das ist richtig (that is correct). Wolf’s characters are like these words. In No Place on Earth, the German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist tells the poetess Günderrode, “I cannot divide the world into good and evil; nor into two branches of reason, nor into healthy and sick. If I wanted to split the world in two, I would have to raise the axe over myself, to split my insides and hold them up to the appalled public so it can have cause to wrinkle its nose.” And of Christa T. we read, “She was never able to keep apart what does not belong together.”
One unfortunate side effect of Wolf’s fascination with opposites-in-one is that readers may grasp only half of what she is saying. Sometimes this was the fault of the GDR censor, but publishers in the West were not above striking passages from her work either. In Patterns of Childhood, the 1980 American translation of Kindheitsmuster, her criticisms of the war in Vietnam were edited out. But more often than not, it is her readers who blank out what they do not care to notice, or are incapable of seeing. There are those, for example, who confuse Wolf’s fascination with subjective, individual experience and her admiration for those who refuse to conform with a kind of Ayn Randian glorification of egocentrism. Speaking at her memorial service, one of Wolf’s literature students said she had learned from the writer how literature was there “to strengthen the I.” But as the German literary critic Gregor Dotzauer noted, “Christa Wolf was in her writing anything but an ego intoxicated by its own authenticity. She was…truly prepared to go up to the border at which one confronts oneself as a stranger.” In a speech she delivered in 1990 on German literature, Wolf spoke of a “unification in spirit,” which could also be misread as an argument for German reunification. In those dying days of the GDR, Wolf revisited “with sober eyes” German authors like Hölderlin, Böll, Grass, Georg Büchner and Kurt Tucholsky, not merely because they were German, but above all for their shared dedication to “radically democratic thinking.” Although Wolf had long sought and found her intellectual interlocutors in the common cache of German culture, she did not think the two Germanys should merge into one. On the contrary: as she wrote in 1991, “reunification—as the annexation of the smaller, poorer part of Germany to the larger, wealthier one—would render the self-critical treatment of our past much more difficult.” The people of the GDR, she believed, should instead try on their own terms to realize the dream of a truly “democratic socialism” in a state where “contradiction” can not only be “tolerated” but even “made productive.” If East Germany, the necessary opposite, were simply to disappear, Germany’s own “double meaning” would disappear along with it.
At the same time, Wolf’s subtle and persistent engagement with the ideals and failures of socialism is so understated that future readers may not even be able to detect it. Shortly after her death, Die Zeit featured tributes to Wolf by five young German writers. The eldest, who was just 9 when the wall came down, wrote about how she and her friends had devoured Wolf’s Cassandra (1983) as 19-year-olds during a summer vacation at the beach. “We cannot put this book down; we hang on Cassandra’s every word. We do not understand much; we can’t keep all the ancient figures straight, but we know them, and we notice: we understand everything.” Perhaps there should be another Literaturstreit about whether German literature of the last two centuries can be understood without knowledge of “all the ancient figures” that have until recently been its mainstay—for a long time out of historical piety, as with classical and Romantic authors like Schiller and Goethe, and later ironically, with the generations that experienced the devastation of the two world wars.
In 1956, following Khrushchev’s famous “Secret Speech,” in which he outlined and condemned the crimes of Stalinism while confining responsibility for them to Stalin himself, the GDR’s minister of culture, Johannes Becher, referred to Nazism as the “tragedy of the century, outstripping the ancients in tragic content,” followed by the equally tragic Stalinist purges. The comparison of these twentieth-century tragedies to those of antiquity had already been made by many “survivors” from among the German Bildungsbürgertum, whose secondary education included several years’ study of Greek and Latin. In 1950 Heinrich Böll wrote a short story titled “Traveller, if you come to Spa…”, about a young wounded soldier during World War II who is brought to an improvised hospital in a former high school. As he is carried upstairs, the dying youth is taken past a frieze of the Parthenon, a Roman statue, images from the German colony in Togo and Nazi eugenic charts, and is finally installed in a space he soon recognizes as his old classroom. The chalkboard even has his handwriting on it: a fragment from Schiller’s translation of a memorial to the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae. The poem had been taught in German schools to inspire young men to die heroic deaths in defense of the fatherland. Böll’s story detailed how the German fascination with antiquity, from its auspicious beginnings with Schiller’s humanism, was twisted over time via colonialism and racism into humanism’s opposite: Nazism.
By contrast, in her treatment of themes from ancient Greek mythology and German history, Christa Wolf was less bothered than enchanted by their encapsulation of seemingly incompatible ideas and sentiments. She did not, as Böll and other German intellectuals like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), track the corruption of eighteenth-century ideas into the depraved principles of Nazism. Instead, she turned her eye to the tensions within times that recur at various points in history. In Medea: A Modern Retelling (1996), she rewrote the legend of Jason and Medea as a story about a society in the West (Corinth) that, because it cannot come to terms with its past, chooses a scapegoat for its own crime of infanticide: Medea, a woman from the East (Colchis). “They wanted to save Corinth. We wanted to save Colchis…. On this disc we call Earth there is nothing but victors and victims.” In Christa T., Wolf borrowed themes, characters and whole phrases from Thomas Mann’s 1903 novella Tonio Kröger. The subject of both works is the internal struggle between the part of the artist that envies those who live normal, healthy lives, and the part that forever remains monstrous and out in the cold. Wolf saw these shared preoccupations across time as the very essence of what it means to be “contemporary.” Of Christa T. she wrote: “Just as she lived many lives, fostered and preserved them within herself, so, too, did she carry many times with her, in which she often, as in the ‘real’ one, lived incognito; and what is impossible in one, can be managed in the other. Yet of her various times she always said cheerfully: Our time.”
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In one of her diary entries from the early 1980s, Wolf elaborated on her frustration with historical chronology, lamenting the fact that “writing can only be done serially, or in a linear fashion. Hence it is almost impossible to create a literary ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ [integrated work of art], which the viewer can grasp in one look.” In her fiction she struggled to overcome this constraint, switching between narrative voices and times, and her prose is permeated by painter-envy. A passage from Christa T. reads: “if I could paint…I would not have to describe the cold light, and the anxiety I felt would come through directly from the picture. For the sky above us, dull and empty, would be there for all to see. One might also see that a person could easily get lost under such a sky, in this light.” In trying to capture and make visible everything at once, Wolf dismissed historical chronology and, with it, contingency; her characters, like the tragic heroines of ancient Greece, often appear predestined to meet their particular fate. For all her subjective, experiential descriptions of the rise of Nazism and the corruption of socialism, Wolf never offered a compelling explanation as to why they happened and, more important, whether they had to happen as they did. The one great “liberating” realization, bound inexorably with hindsight, is recorded in her 1974 story “Blickwechsel” (Exchanging Glances), about the end of the war: “One need not be afraid when everyone else is afraid.”
Although the divided Germany in which Wolf lived was very different from the unified one in which she died, in many respects there are still two Germanys. The former West is still richer, more educated, more employed, more confident. With the exception of Berlin, the former East German states have higher out-migration and unemployment rates, and less ethnic and religious diversity than the West. And the East has more radical leftists—and more radical right-wingers. Two and a half years ago in Jena, where Wolf began her study of German language and literature in 1949, members of the most radical right-wing party, the National Democratic Party of Germany, planned a protest “against foreign infiltration and Islamicization.” The demonstration culminated with a large group of anti-Nazis cornering twenty or so neo-Nazis in an underground parking garage. A sitting blockade of anti-Nazi demonstrators had to be forcibly cleared by police to allow the neo-Nazis to leave. All around Jena today, on the walls of shops and houses, there are anti-Nazi stickers, posters and graffiti, including one spray-painted on a fashionable storefront that reads: “Nazis töten!” (Kill Nazis!). A month before Wolf’s death, a plot was uncovered involving a neo-Nazi terror group whose three primary members were from Jena. The group had killed nine foreigners (mostly Turks) across Germany from 2000 to 2006; bombed a shopping area in a largely Turkish part of Cologne, injuring twenty-two, in 2004; and killed a policewoman in 2007. Someone passing by the “Nazis töten!” graffiti today might well read it differently than just a few months ago, for like Wolf’s beloved “words with two meanings,” it can also mean “Nazis kill!”
Wolf knew that the eyes of the world were trained on the resurgence of the extreme right in the former East Germany. While in Los Angeles as a Getty Center fellow from 1992 to ‘93, she wrote about how she came to dread the question “What about Germany?” when asked to explain the rise of the right. “But I don’t know either,” began her unsatisfying reply. “It surprises me nearly as much as it does you.” Perhaps that is why, in the last decade of her life, Wolf felt most at home in the company of other Europeans who had lived through at least some of the horrors of the twentieth century. By contrast, the Americans in her work come off as the one-dimensional inhabitants of a world apart. Sandwiched between reflections on her own decision to stay in the GDR, for example, Wolf related in City of Angels a conversation with two Americans who complained of the Republican cultural hegemony that was seeping even into universities, with one of them declaring: “If Clinton doesn’t win, I have to leave my country.” The way one American referred to the GDR with the simplified and morally confident designation “regime” also clearly rankled Wolf: “for a normal, well-meaning American, my whole life and all the attempts to explain it have run together into that single concept: regime.” Even the English language often struck her as naïve, relatively free of the multiple shades of meaning that historical events, and above all repeated reflection on them, have lent to German. When she was reminded of the English word for the German Akte, she noted how “file” (as in “perpetrator file” or “victim file”) possesses none of the “dark-foreboding” of the German word. The distortion of language by the weight of history is also one of the themes of her novel on Chernobyl, which she spoke about in an interview last year following the Fukushima disaster: “I wrote back then: What author can now naively use the word ‘cloud’?” The same was true, she pointed out, of the jubilant opening lines from one of Goethe’s love poems, set to music by Beethoven: “‘How gloriously nature’s rays shine upon me!’ But it seems it is still possible to keep saying such things, because the abominable is already forgotten.”
Wolf’s fascination with words that have multiple meanings and suffering as an ennobling experience speaks to her persistent engagement with the generation of the Remigranten, whom she envied for having suffered at the right time in the right place, for having been on the right side of history. In this she was much like another German writer she admired, Thomas Mann, whose work is a prolonged, often sorrow-tinged reflection on what it means to be forever out of place. One might justifiably say of Wolf what Tonio Kröger’s girlfriend says of him after he tells her of his secret obsession with “the blue-eyed ones” (those athletic, blonde beauties who preferred ponies and dances to poetry and literature): “You are a bourgeois gone astray, Tonio Kröger—a lost bourgeois.”
And indeed, despite being a socialist, Wolf too was more than a little bourgeois. She saw her first Bertolt Brecht play in 1950 in Jena, and the irreverent playwright was in the audience, sitting nearby. Wolf watched as he “shook with laughter” throughout the performance: “I would not have dared to laugh at all the places where Brecht had to laugh. His disrespect for the ‘bourgeois tragedy’ drove us to distraction.” She took “bourgeois subjectivity” more seriously than a good socialist was supposed to. The doomed Christa T. loves the literature of the nineteenth century, “descends, knowing full well what she’s doing, into the little world.” What she found in that “little world” was the immediacy of common human emotions. “She had but one interest: people. Perhaps she had studied the wrong subject—literature, what was the point of that? But what would have been the right subject?” Kröger’s defiant answer to his girlfriend is thus Wolf’s answer to her readers: “For some go astray of necessity, because for them there is no right path.” And no apology is forthcoming from either, for as Kröger proudly proclaims, “if anything has the power to make a poet out of a writer, it is this bourgeois passion of mine for the human, the alive and the ordinary.”
Though she often reflected on her past and her errors, Wolf always stopped short of wishing she had done things differently. Even as she wrote about isolated, childless, partnerless and, above all, doomed young women like Cassandra, Günderrode and Medea as if from her own experience, she was herself by all accounts happily married to the same man for sixty years, was eulogized by children and grandchildren for her familial warmth (even the Stasi noted that “her children are always cleanly dressed and well raised”), and lived to be 82, surviving upheavals that may well have killed her fictional heroines. In a speech delivered at Wolf’s open grave, another (formerly) East German writer, Volker Braun, related how “once when someone proposed a toast wishing everyone another life to live, the same one over again, she saw Anna Seghers—the Jew, the communist, the exile—grow frightened. Christa Wolf could say: I wanted no other life than this.”
In her last novel, Wolf wrote about a word that often came to her mind: Irrgang, an uncommon noun meaning roughly “wrong path.” (Thomas Mann used it in Tonio Kröger.) “IRRGANG,” Wolf repeated. “This would be a good title for a future project…. The title was too precise, it remained solitary. A solitary title seeking its text. I knew it was out there, that text, written in invisible ink.” But what was visible to Christa Wolf, “written in invisible ink,” will never be visible to her readers. For the curse that haunts the seer, the Cassandra, is to see not only what others cannot, but also what she herself does not wish to see. “Perhaps it is our task to gradually diminish the blind spot that apparently sits in the center of our consciousness and thus goes undetected, working our way inward from its edges. So that there is more space that is visible to us. That can be named. But…do we want that. Can we want that. Is it not too dangerous. Too painful.”