Christa Wolf: An Exemplary Life – Guardian
Christa Wolf, who died yesterday, was a German writer of rare purity and sensitivity who grew up under nazism and became an adult under communism. Her work records the impact of these ideologies on individual lives. She was as one critic put it, “a writer of scrupulous ‘touchstone’ honesty”, and it is the pursuit and uncovering of truth, under the most beleaguered circumstances, that defines her.
When in 1992, it was revealed she had been used by the Stasi from 1959-1962 as an inoffizielle Mitarbeiterin (informal collaborator) the ensuing attacks on her integrity nearly brought her writing to a halt: “I have the feeling”, she said at this time, “that a bush is growing in my throat”. That she provided no information of value to the Stasi, was soon dropped for “reticence”, and was herself the subject of surveillance for thirty years, did not mitigate the ferocity of the attacks from “the stone-throwing West Germans”, as her translator, Michael Hoffman, called them.
It was argued that the writer who had done most to articulate “the difficulty of saying I” was herself little more than a state poet, a mouthpiece for the regime. Her refusal to simply exonerate herself was read as a sign of guilt, rather than for what it was: a continuation of her life’s work of intense self-interrogation and reflection, in which one must “execute the verdict oneself” – as she wrote in her most important work, Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T., 1968) – rather than succumb to the demagogue’s version of events.
Born in 1929 in Landsberg an der Warthe in Brandenburg to a grocer and his wife, who were protestant, middle class, pro-Nazi, Christa was a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the female counterpart of the Hitler Youth. She was ten years old when she watched the SS march through her town as they advanced on Poland, and sixteen, in 1945, when her family ran from the invading Russian army.
This moment of ‘liberation’ recurs in her fiction, in Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood, 1976), in which she tries to reconnect East Germans to a past from which they believe themselves acquitted; and in ‘Blickwechsel‘, a story from 1970, (translated as ‘Exchanging Glances’ in 1992), where a family snatch their belongings and flee westward toward the Oder-Neisse border. As flames rage in the night sky, the youngest daughter laughs uncontrollably at the spectacle of her resolutely bourgeois family, sellers of sour pickle and malt coffee, literally going to hell in a handcart.
Wolf’s family didn’t make it to the border, and when the dust settled and the maps were redrawn, Landsberg, the town of her birth, became Gorzów Wielkopolski in Poland; Mecklenburg, where her family landed, was now part of a newly-minted nation, the German Democratic Republic. She was finishing high school before she began to understand the full extent of “what happened back then”. Against this, the new republic offered another faith. Marxism, she believed, was the polar opposite of what happened in fascist Germany: “At all costs I didn’t want anything that could be like the past…That was the source of [my generation’s] commitment and…why we clung to it so long” – something critics in the West have often failed to grasp.
In 1949, as the GDR came into being, Wolf joined the state communist party (SED). She studied literature at Jena and Leipzig universities, was involved in the Bitterfeld movement of worker-writers, and spent three years as a research assistant in the East German Writers’ Union. Here she met “comrades who had come out of the concentration camps, out of prison, back from exile, impressive people”. Her generation’s guilty conscience about what happened to these men and women was another reason for commitment to their cause.
Her first book, Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella, 1961), was well received in the east but never translated in the west. A novel influenced by her Bitterfeld work, Der geteilte Himmel (The Divided Heaven), followed two years later. It won the Heinrich Mann Prize, bringing her international recognition. But in 1965 she spoke at the Eleventh Plenum of the SED Central Committee and began a long process of disenchantment with actually existing socialism, which, she felt, “wasn’t moving in the right direction.” A pattern emerged: disillusion, followed by withdrawal and contemplation, from which she would surface with a vindicating work: “Each time…I’d moved a bit further along the road to myself.”
Out of the “deep depression” she suffered after the Eleventh Plenum she wrote Nachdenken über Christa T. To read it now is to encounter an indisputable feminist classic: in its assault on patriarchal authority and in its fragmented sensibility, the novel pursues the difficult “attempt to be oneself”, for which she was accused in the GDR of being “individualistic”. The book was banned, then published only in a limited edition. Rather than the image of perfectibility that socialist writers were encouraged to present, Wolf set out in Christa T. to imagine the life of an outsider, but she does this from inside socialism, reinventing the heroic mould, or questioning at least whether a life like this – marginal, hesitant, obscure – might not also be of value, full of “latent possibility”; might be, in fact, what socialists looked for in art: the exemplary.
She continued to produce innovative work, countering crude Zhdanovite prescriptions with her notion of subjective authenticity – an author should not hide behind her characters but include intertextual commentary. While her position as a “loyal dissident” was not easy, it was undeniably a source of strength. It is as a writer from inside the socialist project – however distorted the GDR version of this was – that she seems so interesting, casting new light on questions of philosophy, genre, form, delivering insights on the writer’s ‘inner censor’, and in the process making much western writing seem too easily conformist.
Her success meant that she was allowed to travel and teach abroad, and in the Seventies she made friendships with other women writers, consolidating her interest in feminism. A study trip to Greece brought an oddly late epiphany about the extent of her sex’s marginalisation: “I…had a real shock when I realised that in the past two thousand years women really have not been able to exert any public influence.” The work that resulted from her forays into Greek myth in novels such as Kassandra (1983) and Medea (1996), was instantly recognisable to friends in the west like Margaret Atwood, who wrote Medea’s Introduction, observing that “the heroes are really like devils, and the victims are the most important”.
Following a further experience of defeat over the enforced exile of the singer-poet Wolf Biermann from the GDR in 1976, she continued her work of re-evaluating literary tradition from a specifically German context. In this she found inspiration in debates between Georg Lukács and Anna Seghers about the meaning of Romanticism. In Kein Ort. Nirgends (No Place on Earth, 1979), she imagines a meeting between two writers, Heinrich von Kleist and the poet Karoline von Günderrode, both of whom killed themselves in the early 1800s, as a way of examining the German tendency to alienation, malady and self-destruction. Again, the exploration takes on greater force for being cast from inside a society whose ideology dismissed despair as a luxury.
A later work Leibhaftig (In the Flesh, 2002), draws on her experience of illness as the dream of socialism unravelled. In 1988 as Wolf finished writing Sommerstück (Summer Play), her appendix had burst, leaving her with peritonitis. The following year she resigned from the Party. Five months later she gave a speech at the Berlin Wall, then collapsed with a heart attack shortly before it came down. A few weeks later she wrote the final wording for the Für unser Land (For Our Country) petition, which argued against reunification and was signed by 1.1 million people, (“we were thinking about preserving an entirely different country”), but history’s doors were banging shut and the moment of possibility quickly passed.
In recent years, as Germany has come to feel more at ease with reunification, less bedevilled by the ghosts of history, Wolf has been recognised, alongside Günter Grass, as the nation’s most important postwar writer. She received the 2002 German Book award at the Leipzig Book Fair, and won the 2010 Thomas Mann Prize for her last novel, Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (City of Angels or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud) based on a period of research she undertook in Los Angeles at the time of the 1992 Stasi revelations. This was a work ten years in the making and critics hailed it as her final reckoning, a courageous act of remembrance and leave-taking, a proof, Die Welt argued, “of the ordering mind’s triumph over the chaos of emotion”.
Wolf ended her life in her beloved Berlin, doubly exiled in her own country and shorn of her faith, left only with Was bleibt (What Remains) – the title of her account of being under surveillance by the Stasi; written in 1979, it aroused considerable controversy when published in 1990. Like her friend, the American writer Grace Paley, she came to believe that change would never again be born from an ideology, but progress might occur through shifts and pushes made at ground level from grassroots associations. And for such projects she remained engaged, believing in the importance of activism and hope.
Her 1987 book Störfall: Nachrichten eines Tages (Accident: A Day’s News) about the Chernobyl disaster reflects some of this, with its concerns about technological advance and ecological decline, in the face of which she poses “the significance of daily structure”, the reiteration of human scale. Still, the loss of the comradeship and self-realization socialism had promised was hard to recover from; as was the possibility she refused with customary honesty to dispel entirely: that one may have done wrong in its name. And with all this was her abiding sense of “the abyss that yawns before us”, the fear of a future with no countering vision, a world with nothing but the military-industrial complex to guide our dreams.
“A post is vacant”, Wolf wrote, when her friend and sparring partner the Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch died in 1991. It’s taken from the Heine poem, ‘Enfant Perdu’, whose first line runs, “Verlorner Posten in dem Freiheitskriege ” (Vacated positions in the war of freedom). Asked later about her choice of encomium she replied, “No one talks like that any more. I think these ‘posts’ no longer exist. The times and people’s objectives have changed.” The times have indeed changed, and the terms of our struggle for freedom with them, but the need for voices like Wolf’s that remain fully human and compassionate even under the strongest pressure and provocation, is greater than ever.
Versions of this article appeared on the Guardian website as Christa Wolf Obituary on 1.12.2011 and in the newspaper on 6.12.2011.