Erika Steinbach will not stand for reelection in November for the post of President of the League of Expellees, a position she has held for the past 16 years. If, as planned, the Documentation Centre on flight and expulsion opens in Berlin next year or the year after - a Centre which would possibly never have come about without her efforts - then it will do so with a new President in place. That may pave the way towards Polish and Czech tolerance, if not acceptance of the Centre. Steinbach was not popular over the border, especially not in Poland. She was associated with strident German demands for compensation for wrongs done to Germans during the expulsions, and accused of trying to relativise German crimes against Poles. But who will follow her?
@ 2014-07-07 – 22:35:23
@ 2014-06-29 – 10:54:40
There is an interesting piece in yesterday's 'Guardian' about this, see
@ 2014-06-28 – 21:37:07
Having suffered most of my life from this affliction, and seen so many students come and go who have to endure it too, I wonder if we really know how to deal with it. Cognitive therapy and medication only help so much (though in individual cases they can work wonders). Most of the time, at least in my experience, depression is actually not the illness, so much as the wrong kind of defence mechanism: we pull down the shutters when it all gets too much. As we live our lives, we feel the impulse of will, desire, need, but we are simultaneously weighed down by a sense of our own inability to fulfil whatever our will, desire or need requires of us. This constant oscillation between positive aspiration and self-doubt is what triggers depression. We literally shut ourselves down by stifling will and, for a while, silencing the doubts that the activation of will seems to bring with it. It is not a happy state, how can it be? It is all we have, as protection, yet is the wrong protection, because it leads to frustration, anger and apathy. Cognitive therapy seems to provide a way out by enabling us to think things through, get some kind of distance to what is going on inside us. But in the end rationality cannot overcome the fundamental schism between desire and self-belief. Maybe we should go back to psychotherapy, find that moment where the damage was done. Or is it in the genes?
@ 2014-06-28 – 21:09:44
Below is a link to my new book, "Representations of Flight and Expulsion in GDR Prose", which has just been published.
I provide the introduction below. I know this won't interest everyone (!), but here it is anyway (without footnotes).
Taboo or Not Taboo?
It is a commonplace that the topic of the flight of Germans from the Red Army at the end of the Second World War, as well as the subsequent expulsion of Germans from eastern Europe, had long been subject to the influence of taboos in West Germany. It is a truism that finds expression not just in popular media, but in a number of scholarly works. Essentially, such works restate notions of taboo that have long been a feature of West German discourse on flight and expulsion. For decades, expellee organisations instrumentalised the concept of taboo; in suggesting that it was somehow forbidden or at least “politically incorrect” in the Federal Republic to address the topic of flight and expulsion, they sought to win sympathy and support for those they purported to represent. Complaints about supposed taboos were generally common in nationalist right-wing circles. Most significant in this regard, perhaps, is Heinz Nawratil’s Black Book of Expulsion 1945 to 1948 (Schwarzbuch der Vertreibung 1945 bis 1948) which appeared in 1982 in an attempt, according to the preface written by former Federal Public Prosecutor Ludwig Martin, to “break up this silence, contradict denial and to counteract the culture of apology”. Clearly, claims that the topic was “denied” could be used both to suggest that the Soviets, Czechs and Poles had something to hide, and that the Germans had an ethical and legal right to expect some kind of recompense and redress. Such claims could also be used to discredit what was perceived on the right as an undesirable culture of contrition. Undesirable, because the more West Germany committed itself to remembering, memorialising and prosecuting the crimes committed under National Socialism, the faster any remaining prospects of regaining the lost eastern territories receded. Taboo claims served to undermine the supposed moral high ground adopted by West Germany’s left. For if, as the nationalist right claimed, the process of confronting the Holocaust was being driven forward at the cost of suppressing memory of injustices committed against Germans, then that process was hardly the model of enlightened coming-to-terms it supposed itself to be.
Even a cursory glance at West German history, politics and culture reveals that flight and expulsion were never invisible or denied (although interest in the subject did ebb and flow, and approaches and understandings changed). Over the last decade, indeed, a number of important studies have begun to take issue, explicitly or implicitly, with the validity of the taboo claims. Scholars have examined, for instance, the political and cultural activities of the expellee organisations in West Germany, the representation of flight and expulsion in memorials and exhibitions small and large, the portrayal of the lost homeland in so-called “Homeland Books” (“Heimatbücher”), the iconography of loss of homeland, the representation of flight and expulsion in West German and contemporary German literature, and representations in the media. The compendious study by Eva Hahn and Hans Henning Hahn, Expulsion in German Memory (Die Vertreibung im deutschen Erinnern, 2010), represents a kind of total deconstruction of the taboo theory. The Hahns also show that the topic of flight and expulsion found a degree of expression in the GDR, and in so doing they contradict an equally widespread and tenacious commonplace, namely that a pall of silence hung over the theme in East Germany that was even thicker than that which had existed in West Germany. A representative opinion is that of Andreas Kossert, who writes in his bestseller Cold Homeland (Kalte Heimat, 2008): “the theme of flight and expulsion in the Soviet-occupied zone and the GDR was taboo”. This is not just a view that has been expressed by some scholars, and journalists, but also by the Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel herself. In a 2010 speech given at a reception held by the League of Expellees, she asserted crisply: “Flight and expulsion in the former GDR were taboo”. Only after unification, according to Merkel, did it become possible to end this silence and find ways of alleviating the suffering of the expellees in the former GDR.
Those who make such judgements would seem to be on firmer ground in the case of East Germany. After all, expellee organisations were not permitted in the GDR, and there was no equivalent to the West German Ministry for Expellees. The SED liked to claim that there was no need for such organisations in the GDR, where former refugees – or resettlers (“Umsiedler”) as they were most commonly called – had been successfully integrated into the socialist state, and where they had found a true economic and political homeland. All their needs, in other words, had been met: there was nothing for them to lobby for. In the GDR, in contrast to West Germany, there was no state support for the maintenance of expellee culture or memory. One would be hard put to find an East German memorial which commemorates flight and expulsion. In 1953, the East German sculptor Rudolf Leptien was commissioned with creating a memorial to honour the victims of the American bombing of Swinemünde in March 1945 (which cost the lives of thousands of refugees). But the finished sculpture, showing a refugee woman, was deemed “inappropriate” by the SED, and Leptien’s memorial eked out a lonely existence in his garden until 1984, when it was put up in the local cemetery. Unlike West Germany, East Germany had no Homeland Museums for the expellees, no exhibitions on flight and expulsion, and no Homeland Books. In contrast to West Germany, there were no official mass meetings of tens of thousands of expellees, no colourful parades, no public rallies calling for the right to return. All of this is undeniable. The GDR’s ordained friendship with eastern European countries, not least the Soviet Union, meant that Soviet, Polish and Czech atrocities against Germans could never be openly addressed. Historians in the GDR, to a greater degree than those in West Germany, steered away from this topic. The political climate was not conducive to recalling Red Army crime.
Yet can one really speak of a complete taboo on flight and expulsion in East Germany? Here, too, scholars in recent years have begun to chip away at such claims, though less persistently and in lesser numbers than in the case of scholars examining West German memory of flight and expulsion. One of the things that emerges from Heike Amos’s exploration of the SED’s “expellee politics” (“Vertriebenenpolitik”) between 1949 and 1990 is that the SED went to some lengths to make propagandistic capital out of its belief that West German expellee organisations and the political establishment in the FRG were hell-bent on revising Germany’s eastern boundaries. What matters here, though, is not just the propaganda, but also the belief itself, and the premises on which it rested: firstly, that the eastern border was a permanent, non-negotiable fixture of post-war agreements, and a prerequisite for peace; secondly, that the movement of Germans at the end of and after the war was the irreversible price that had to be paid for the war waged by German fascism; and thirdly, that any state-organised or even state-sanctioned political commemorative focus on flight and expulsion was unthinkable, not least because it would run the risk of being interpreted as revisionist. This was not necessarily a view all in the SED shared, at least not initially. It was certainly a view moulded as much by obeisance to the Soviets as by inner conviction. But however we assess its sincerity or value, it does represent a “position” on flight and expulsion. This position was often more implicit than explicit, but an implicit position is not the same thing as a taboo. As we will see in this study, it was a position often shared by GDR authors, but also one subjected to (nuanced) literary critique.
Moreover, while there was certainly a political prohibition on expellee organisation and expellee discourse, the SED could not easily stop individual expellees remembering flight, expulsion and the lost “Heimat”. Michael Schwartz’s magnificently detailed study of East German expellee assimilation politics between 1945 and 1961 makes clear that it was by no means the case that all expellees living in the Soviet-occupied zone (henceforth SBZ) and GDR simply put their past identities behind them. Schwartz shows, for instance, that church institutions in the GDR offered a framework within which expellees could retain a certain degree of self-expression; in fact, there existed in the GDR both a Pomeranian and Silesian regional church until their forced renaming in 1968. And expellees did succeed in the 1950s at least in organising illegal gatherings at Halle’s “Bergzoo” (until these prompted mass arrests), and at Leipzig Zoo. For a while, such meetings represented a chance for expellees to collectively commemorate flight and expulsion, and the lost “Heimat”. But of course the fact that only furtive meetings were possible, whether in a zoo or under church auspices, goes to demonstrate the rigour of the SED’s refusal to tolerate expellee organisation or the articulation of coordinated expellee opinion. In some East German cities, old, pre-GDR street names referring to places in the former eastern territories were retained well into the 1960s, but this hardly represented a conscious concession to expellee memory; reasons for retaining them, as Christian Lotz has shown for the case of Dresden, were mixed.
Only in one area of the public sphere, however, did flight, expulsion and loss of homeland really find expression: culture. Scholars have to a degree recognised this fact. Thus Johannes von Moltke has provided a sensitive and insightful analysis of Arthur Pohl’s 1949 DEFA film The Bridge (Die Brücke), which focuses on a group of refugees in post-war eastern Germany. My own conviction that flight and expulsion must have left traces in GDR film and television productions led to a journal article which focused particularly on the 1968 GDR television series Paths across the Land (Wege übers Land, now available on DVD). In the case of literature, in the 1980s literary scholars began to examine in depth the imprint of the experience of flight and expulsion on post-war German fiction, drama and poetry. While concentrating mainly on West German authors, Louis Ferdinand Helbig and Ernst-Edmund Keil point in their study and anthology respectively to a small number of GDR literary works in which legacies of flight and expulsion were addressed. In his extensive 2005 bibliography listing and summarising works of German literature and autobiography with a thematic focus on flight and expulsion, Axel Dornemann includes a slightly wider range of GDR titles, although he is often dismissive of GDR literature’s handling of the subject. Katja Hartleb’s slim 2011 volume on flight and expulsion in GDR literature is also noteworthy, but it discusses very few texts. The greatest possible credit, in my view, is due to Carola Hähnel-Mesnard for her stimulating and balanced appraisal of echoes of flight and expulsion in 1950s’ GDR literature. Her work proved an inspiration for my own study, as did the online and newspaper reviews of Jörg Bilke, whose passionate interest in the topic of flight and expulsion in literature extended to both West and East German works.
Nevertheless, despite this critical recognition by some commentators, the impression prevails that the topic was largely shunned by GDR authors. Paradoxically, perhaps, the wealth of secondary literature specifically on Christa Wolf’s novel Patterns of Childhood (Kindheitsmuster, 1976), Franz Fühmann’s story “Bohemia by the Sea” (“Böhmen am Meer”, 1962), and Heiner Müller’s drama The Resettler Woman (Die Umsiedlerin, 1961) has led to the assumption that these were somehow exceptions in addressing flight and refugees. More recently, Anna Seghers’ short story “The Resettler Woman” (“Die Umsiedlerin”, 1951) and Ursula Höntsch-Harendt’s novel We Refugee Children (Wir Flüchtlingskinder, 1985) have come to the attention even of non-literary specialists on expulsion. But again and again there is a tendency to claim that certain GDR works “broke” with a taboo, as if silence had reigned on the subject of flight before they appeared. Thus historian Philip Ther describes Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood as the “pathbreaking violation of a taboo”, while Kossert describes Höntsch-Harendt’s novel We Refugee Children as a “caesura”, claiming that she “overcame many taboos”.
Critics assume, then, that because flight and expulsion was an “undesirable topic”, from a political point of view, authors would have avoided it – and, indeed, not have been allowed to address it. When I embarked on the preparation for this book a number of years ago, it was because I was distrustful of this assumption. The SED may have prohibited expellee organisations, and certainly would have prohibited public commemoration of flight and expulsion. But literature – or at least prose works, which I examine here – is produced and consumed individually (aside from public readings). It is much less “visible”. While GDR authors were expected to conform, they did have a degree of freedom to choose their themes. Woven into a narrative, references to flight and expulsion can underpin the state position elaborated above, so might be acceptable in any case. And where they do not, they might only constitute a moment or set of moments in a much wider textual fabric. Their critical potential might be missed by the cultural authorities that managed the GDR’s prepublication procedures, and indeed publishers had an interest in marketing works that attracted readers. Literature is about perspective. The attitudes of literary characters evolve, are contrasted with others, do not stand absolute. In the main, this is a different terrain to that of the declamatory memorial or the political expellee rally (although some literary works, as I show in this book, could serve as propaganda). Moreover, the fact that the SED would not tolerate public shows of grief over the lost homeland does not mean they would automatically ban literary manifestations of “Trauer”, which might function as a legitimate aspect of characterisation. It also seemed to me that, because many GDR authors came from the former German eastern territories or German enclaves, it was inevitable they would want to address loss of homeland in some way. It was surely just a question of taking a thorough look.
Initially, my intention had been to investigate GDR literature as a whole. I began by reading novels and short stories, and some drama and poetry. Before the first year of my investigation had passed, I took the decision to focus solely on prose writing addressing flight and/or expulsion. The reason was simple. There is so much of it. Extensive hunts for possible titles in archives, guides to novels (“Romanführer”), publishing company yearbooks, newspapers, and above all on the internet – Germany’s Central List of Second-Hand Books (Zentralverzeichnis Antiquarischer Bücher) proved an absolute gold-mine – turned up novel after novel. My reading had very soon taken me far beyond the GDR titles provided in Dornemann’s bibliography, which soon began to appear rather patchy, at least as far as East German texts are concerned. Colleagues from the former GDR whom I met at conferences drew my attention to yet other titles. Gradually, it seemed to me that only an entire book could do justice to this volume of material. Even then, in the following, I have not been able to explore every text to the same degree, and have tended to concentrate on works in which flight and/or its legacies play a significant part, and which illustrate well particular trends that this study identifies and analyses. A number of relevant works I have only been able to mention in passing, or refer to briefly in footnotes. In the bibliography, I have also included titles of books that I have not discussed at all (though I tried my best to keep these to a minimum). I offer the following study, then, as a step in what I hope is a fruitful direction – but by no means does it turn all the literary stones, not least because I am sure quite a few titles escaped me, despite my best efforts.
Readers should certainly not assume from the focus here on prose works that GDR poetry, drama or, say, radio plays would not prove an equally rich resource. As Louis Ferdinand Helbig has pointed out, flight from Silesia echoes through much of the poetry of Harald Gerlach, whose works of fiction are examined in the current study. The plays of Alfred Matusche often include refugee characters: a refugee camp features in his short drama The Village Street (Die Dorfstraβe, first performed in 1955), while the loss of Silesia and parts of East Prussia to Poland is addressed in On Both Banks (An beiden Ufern, first performed in 1974). Rolf Schneider’s comedy Moving into the Castle (Einzug ins Schloβ, completed in 1971), whose central character is a refugee called Priskoleit, was not only performed on stage in the 1970s, but also broadcast as a radio play, and a 1973 production by Mecklenburg State Theatre was shown on GDR television that year. Helmut Sakowski – who was responsible for the screenplay for the TV series Paths across the Land (with Martin Eckermann) – wrote a two-character radio play, The Cry of the Wild Geese (Schrei der Wildgänse), which opens with a harrowing depiction of the trek over the frozen Frisches Haff in 1945: one of the characters, Lena, recalls the experience with the desperate words, “who can bear it, this terrible long wait for death”. The Cry of the Wild Geese was first broadcast on GDR Radio in April 1986. My study, then, will not be able to encompass the full range of literary genres in which flight and expulsion were portrayed or referenced, any more than it will portrayals and references on the (television) screen and on the radio. But perhaps it can provide a stimulus to further research – research which will surely be aided by the ever-increasing availability of excellent online databases.
One further necessary limitation to this study is the strict focus on texts which address aspects of flight, or expulsion, or both. The aim of the book is to analyse how this process and its effects were depicted and contextualised, and, within this analysis, to explore reactions to the loss of homeland. This means that I have not included texts which only depict life in the former German or German-speaking areas prior to the caesura of flight and expulsion. Thus I have not discussed the novels or stories of Johannes Bobrowski, for instance, the Tilsit-born writer whose works are a rich source of meditation on the former German East, its history, and relations in the region between Germans, Balts, Poles and Jews. Nor I have considered, say, Franz Popp’s novel Squandered Homeland (Verspielte Heimat, 1968), which focuses on the struggle between communism and Nazism in the Sudetenland prior to annexation in 1938 (in the 1971 DEFA film of Popp’s novel, an anti-FRG narrative strand was introduced depicting continuities between the Sudeten German Homeland Association and Henlein’s Sudeten German Party). Jürgen Borchert’s semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional text The Papers of My Aunt (Die Papiere meiner Tante, 1984), in which the narrator traces the roots of his family back to late 19th century East Prussia (his grandparents left the area in 1895), also finds no place in the current study. There may be drawbacks to the decision not to discuss such texts, because they were written – whatever their historical focus – in full awareness of flight, expulsion, and the post-war loss of German territory. Flight and expulsion, then, form an implicit backdrop. Some of these texts also take up ideas we will encounter in the works of prose analysed throughout this book, such as the notion that the former German East was semi-feudal and ruthlessly exploitative of the proletariat, so that escaping it was the best thing that any right-minded worker committed to upward mobility could do (this idea is encountered, for instance, in The Papers of My Aunt, and in Theo Harych’s 1951 autobiographical “story of an early twentieth-century childhood” Behind the Black Forests (Hinter den schwarzen Wäldern), set near Posen and then in Silesia). In the end, however, I opted to write a book not primarily about the depiction of the (lost) German East in GDR prose works, but about the portrayal and framing of flight and expulsion and its impact. Only when viewed directly through this lens will issues of the loss of the former “Heimat” be analysed.
Structure and Argument
My prime aim, then, is to demonstrate that flight and expulsion were a frequent enough topic in GDR prose – at no point were they “taboo”. The opening chapter sets out to provide key examples of texts which depict or at least make mention of the process in one or other, or all of its aspects. Such texts began to appear in the SBZ, i.e. before the GDR was founded, and continued to appear in the following decades; there was no hiatus. This first chapter also examines the manner of these depictions and references: how were the causes, context and dynamics of the process actually understood in GDR novels and stories? Unsurprisingly, rape by the Red Army and other acts of inhumanity by Soviets, Poles and Czechs against Germans were rarely openly confronted in GDR prose works. This important aspect of flight and expulsion, at least until the mid-1970s, circulated in GDR literature – with one or two exceptions, which will be discussed – only in the form of allusion and rumour. But there existed, as of Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, a subtle literary discourse about the lack of a true public discussion about these brutalities whose importance cannot be underestimated. It also needs to be stressed that GDR literature’s circumnavigation of rape and other forms of violence against Germans cannot automatically, in every instance, be put down to self-censorship or censorship. Nor can the greater literary focus, relatively, on flight rather than expulsion be explained simply by the fact that the latter process, because it was driven by Soviets, Poles and Czechs, cannot easily be portrayed without reference to arguably anti-German policies, whereas the former process, given that it was in essence a German reaction to the Soviet advance, can. A number of GDR writers focused on flight, and depicted it as they did, because they wanted to explore the ways in which it was symptomatic of the collapse both of the Nazis’ concept of the people’s community, and of the class-based, capitalist and exploitative system of which Nazism was deemed the supreme form.
If I use the term “flight and expulsion” when speaking in general terms throughout this book, then often for ease of reference: the literature analysed mainly addresses flight, but there are texts which address expulsion, and some which address both processes. And if I use the term “expulsion”, then this is for purposes of clarity. It is true that, in GDR prose works, expulsion was rarely termed “Vertreibung”, although in the texts I examine, there is no doubt the Germans are being “removed”. However, I was reluctant to deploy the GDR term “resettlement” (“Umsiedlung”) in reference to expulsion, because resettlement in GDR official parlance and in East German prose works can signify the whole process of flight and expulsion. This is certainly true of the term “resettler” (“Umsiedler”). There are many GDR prose texts featuring “Umsiedler” characters where it is not clear whether they have fled, been expelled, or both (sometimes, it is not even clear where they have fled or been expelled from). Even a word like “refugee” (“Flüchtling”), in the works I read, is not always clear in its frame of reference. “Umsiedler” or “Flüchtlinge” can be used as vague collective nouns embracing all Germans who lost their former homeland.
In the second chapter, I turn my attention to the literary portrayal of what might be termed “resettler figures” in a number of novels typical of GDR “reconstruction literature” (“Aufbauliteratur”), the dominant literary trend of the 1950s and one which continued into the 1960s and even 1970s. Here, I argue that the frequent representation of such characters is not simply a kind of literary tribute to demographic statistics (at the beginning of the 1950s, about 25% of the GDR’s population was made up of refugees and expellees). Much more importantly, literary resettler figures, in reconstruction novels, acted as a kind of yardstick for the true effectiveness of socialism. In many a narrative, such figures move from total isolation to integration, from the social margins to the centre, from destitution to relative prosperity, and from victimhood to dynamic commitment. Resettlement is really the issue. Yet they are not simply vehicles for the transmission of a congratulatory view of socialism. GDR literature in general evinced considerable sympathy particularly for female and child refugees, and the second chapter examines several examples of works of prose which take their suffering and its legacies seriously. Reconstruction literature can trivialise refugee experience, but it does not always do so. In some texts, the distress caused to resettler characters by the experience of flight and expulsion and resulting loss of home is never entirely dispelled.
Literature of reconstruction in the GDR was flanked in the 1950s and 1960s by what I term a “literature of retrospection”, relevant examples of which are explored in the first part of the third chapter. Most literature is in some senses retrospective (even science fiction knows the journey into the past), so that the term is of limited value unless one uses it in a specific context, as I try to do here. While GDR reconstruction literature generally begins its narrative after the end of the war, GDR literature of retrospection as understood in the context of this study ends there; while the former builds from a bleak past towards a positive future, and anticipates further progress, the latter explores the descent into and effects of Nazi-induced catastrophe, although some texts include a focus on antifascism, hinting at the better world of socialism waiting beyond the 1945 watershed. Within several novels which can be classified as literature of retrospection, flight is often depicted, and it serves to illustrate not Red Army inhumanity, but the implosion of the National Socialist order. Readers are asked to forgive a degree of overlap here with the first chapter, as some of the ideas about flight and expulsion encountered in the literature of retrospection are typical of GDR prose writing as a whole; but it is in the literature of retrospection that they are expressed most forcefully. Readers are also asked to forgive what might seem a strange ordering of chapters two and three. Should discussion of the prose works set in the period up to 1945 not come before analysis of the prose works set in the socialist era? The sequence of chapters chosen reflects the relatively greater literary significance and volume of relevant reconstruction literature. There is another reason for the ordering. The second part of the third chapter focuses on prose writing which can be classified as literature of revisiting, where (semi-autobiographical) literary characters living in East Germany return on trips to their former homelands in eastern Europe. These works, which appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, follow on not only chronologically but also thematically from the fictional works discussed earlier in the third chapter. They also represent a kind of imaginative return to the period before 1945, but one very much undertaken from the explicit vantage-point of the present, and in an attempt to understand how this present relates to the past. In this literature, the former homeland, flight and expulsion have not been gradually erased or supplanted by the new homeland, the fundamental message of reconstruction novels, but continue to exert a fascination not least on the narrators. What is explored here is a need for some kind of return – however brief – and reassessment of a past that, in William Faulkner’s famous words quoted at the start of Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, is not even past.
GDR prose works portraying a revisiting of territories from which protagonists fled (or were expelled) are usually highly critical, and self-critical, in respect of the National Socialist history of these areas, but they nevertheless suggest that the reconstructionist zeal of the 1950s could not sever psychological and emotional bonds with those territories, or simply write out the experience of flight and expulsion. The fourth chapter takes us, as we reach the late 1970s and 1980s, in an even more critical direction. As it became clear that socialism could not escape the atomising side effects of modern civilisation any more than western democracy could, and as disillusionment and disappointment with socialism itself set in, East German literature began to explore the fractured lives and subjectivities of GDR citizens. In this context, several authors, often themselves former refugees, ventured to suggest in their prose works that flight and expulsion had left psychological wounds which socialism had failed to heal; indeed, they had continued to suppurate. Some prose works also focused much more than earlier GDR literature on the discrimination experienced by refugees and expellees in the Soviet-occupied zone and GDR. Deracination, dislocation and non-acceptance appeared no longer as easily removable obstacles swept away by the integrative force of socialism, but as severe and sometimes persistent problems. This more sceptical fiction took implicit issue with the reconstruction literature, although only a few of the later prose works featuring refugees abandoned the forward-looking perspective entirely. But it is true to say that the rifts caused by flight and expulsion which were declared resolved by the SED in the early 1950s reappeared, as it were, in GDR prose works of the 1970s and 1980s: paradoxically, then, as the state grew older, the more visible did those rifts become.
The main argument of this study, then, is that GDR prose writing extensively took up the theme of flight and expulsion, and that there was a genuine and evolving literary discourse on this theme. The literary contours of the experience of flight, expulsion and loss of homeland grew sharper with the years. At no point did GDR prose works lack empathy for the impact of this experience, for all its insistence that that experience was one for which the Germans only had themselves to blame. It is therefore quite wrong to generalise that east German authors suddenly “discovered” flight and expulsion as a literary motif after the “Wende” or the collapse of the GDR. Some may have done, but others were in fact continuing to weave a focus on it into their works. The question I address in the final chapter, then, is if, and how, literary portrayals of flight and expulsion in the prose works of east German authors changed after unification. Clearly, as the example of Reinhard Jirgl demonstrates, it was now possible to publish texts that openly addressed brutality against Germans by Soviets, Poles and Czechs. But at the same time Jirgl’s prose is in many ways steeped in traditions of earlier GDR literature. The hallmark of post-unification east German literature which includes a focus on flight and expulsion is change within continuity, to slightly modify the title of one important book on post-1990 east Germany.
A final word on my approach. While the influence of politics on culture will be a topic in this book, this is not an archival study about the workings of censorship. What interests me, by and large, is not what GDR authors were not able to publish, but what they did publish; not what remained unsaid, but what was said (which, sometimes, articulated frustration at what it was not possible to say). I did, however, explore the archive of the Mitteldeutscher Verlag (MDV) in Magdeburg. Many of the texts discussed in this study were published by MDV. One reason for this may have been that the head of MDV between 1973 and 1996, Eberhard Günther, although a native of Dresden, was himself an expellee (he had moved to the Sudetenland with his family at the start of the war). Initially, my interest in the archive was prompted by curiosity: would there be evidence of authors having obstacles put in their way when they tried to depict flight and expulsion? In this respect – give or take one or two exceptions, discussed later in my book – I was soon disappointed. But as indicated earlier, we cannot just assume that cultural authorities would necessarily object to depictions of flight, or even expulsion. The “taboo” theory is often based on the premise that flight and expulsion were essentially about crimes against Germans, which of course in the GDR it was indeed hard to address openly. But it is surely quite legitimate to understand flight and even expulsion as the result of German hubris, as a boomerang effect, as the consequence of a Nazi war of annihilation. This is how they were understood in GDR prose, and even if authors had been able to speak freely about Soviet brutality, it is unlikely this understanding would have changed. In the end, I used archive material – including files held in Berlin relating to the prepublication permission-to-print process which GDR authors had to subject themselves to – to highlight particular aspects of the genesis or interpretation of individual texts.
This is not a very theoretical book. I could have approached the topic through the lens of trauma theory, for instance, which has given rise to much interesting literary-critical work recently. Generational theory might also have unlocked secrets. To a degree, generational shifts do explain some developments discussed in the book, and I make reference to such shifts (especially in the final chapter). But their explanatory power has limits. It is true that the 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of prose works depicting flight by authors who were in their teens or were young adults at the end of the war (e.g. Christa Wolf, Hildegard Maria Rauchfuβ, Werner Heiduczek), and that several authors who were infants at the war’s end began their literary exploration of the theme in the 1980s or 1990s (e.g. Jürgen Bernt-Bärtl, Christoph Hein). However, I remain uncertain of the value of these classifications: Wolf was sixteen at the war’s end, Rauchfuβ twenty-seven: two very different ages. Horst Bastian, six at the end of the war, began writing about the topic in the early 1960s already. Furthermore, while I briefly felt tempted to systematically read the emergence of particular texts at particular times against the various shifts in GDR cultural policy – in methodological deference to the argument that GDR literature necessarily reflects such shifts – I grew sceptical of too schematic an understanding of literature, even in an arguably totalitarian state. In the end, I adopted an empirical method, seeking general trends in the patterns of representation in the texts concerned, and broad, generally applicable explanations.
I have, then, written a work of literary criticism with a historian’s eye and intent, and if this has led me to neglect certain theoretical perspectives, or questions of form and aesthetics, then because it seemed to me in first instance most important to chart and interpret the basic terrain. I hope that the book will encourage others to explore aspects I have overlooked, or genres I have not discussed, for there is clearly still much work to be done. I would also encourage others not to be put off by the kind of questions sometimes voiced at conferences where I presented parts of this book as it was evolving. Was not GDR literature all about ideology? Is a literature in which you cannot write about violence against Germans not so blinkered as to be worthless? The first objection assumes that, if a work of literature assumes a “position” that is consonant with that of the SED, then this represents a kind of “ideological” knee-jerk reaction. Effectively, this is what Andreas Kossert suggests when he laments the fact that the “few” works of GDR literature that address flight and expulsion “had” to present the new German-Polish border as final. Kossert gives little thought to the possibility that authors might actually have agreed with its finality, and does not register the fact that many German politicians and intellectuals in the West also accepted the border – indeed it was accepted de facto in the course of “Ostpolitik”. Surely such a position, then, is defensible? The second objection is also one expressed by Kossert when he observes that GDR authors had no alternative but to overlook Soviet crimes. But as hinted at above, it is not self-evident that flight and expulsion are coterminous with injustice towards Germans. Kossert raises his own subjective understanding of the essential character of flight and expulsion to the level of an absolute, objective standard. In so doing, he appears to reproduce the arguments of many expellee organisations over the years, whose equation of flight with anti-German violence served the “ideological purpose” of fomenting the Cold War. This is not to justify the fact that, in the GDR, addressing Soviet crimes against refugees was – at least until the 1980s – barely possible. But it is to point out that it can be equally “ideological” to emphasise such crimes as it can be to steer away from depicting them.
Another question posed at the occasional conference was this one: is there a GDR novel that is actually about flight or expulsion, i.e. where it is the central dominant theme? But the same question might be asked of West German literature. Is it not enough that authors include a focus on it, some a greater one than others? The war and its aftermath, after all, the subjects of almost all the works I consider, encompassed experiences of which flight and expulsion constituted only one dimension. A final question I did reflect upon very much concerns the role in GDR literature of resettler figures, “Umsiedler”: was not the focus on re-settlement a denial of the upheaval which had preceded it? A way of suggesting that life proper began after flight, so that flight was somehow not relevant? This is certainly true of some 1950s’ texts, but not of all, and certainly not of later texts. My book is about the literary shadow cast by flight and expulsion in GDR prose writing, one which grew longer as the years went by.
@ 2014-06-16 – 21:34:37
Recently, voices in Germany one would not consider in any sense ‘revisionist’ have been expressing concern that the Germans are tired of being made to confront the crime of the Holocaust. None of this criticism is directed at the importance of Holocaust memory itself. It is more a question of anxiety at a potential over-exposure, and too exclusive an exposure, as if German history had nothing else to offer that should be remembered. The concern also focuses on what is seen as pedagogical heavy-handedness in dealing with the topic, and the persistence of an associated culture of blame and shame, a culture which young people in particular resist and indeed rebel against. Talking recently to representatives of German concentration camp memorial sites, I got the impression they often had to face either petulant indifference or outright defiance on the part of school groups brought to the sites to learn about Nazi atrocities. There are fears that visitor numbers may drop, especially if the legacy of remembering the Holocaust cannot be effectively passed on. Even more recently, I was in discussion with representatives of one or two British memorial sites, including one to the First and Second World War dead. Here too, there was concern at dropping visitor numbers, at not reaching out to the young, or the general public as a whole. It may seem as if the problem in this case is one of temporal distance: the two world wars are already partly shrouded in the mists of time, and “communicative memory” within families may have died out with the demise of the last grandfathers and great-grandfathers with personal experience of those wars. Yet could it also be that we, in our country, also suffer from over-exposure? Can there be a surfeit of positive memory, as there can be one of negative memory? There can be little doubt that it is not easy to live with the knowledge that one’s nation committed the greatest atrocity. Who would have thought, though, that the luxury of an untainted memory such as we cultivate in Britain could also become a burden? That a nation could become bloated on its own success? If Germany needs positive points of orientation for its memory compass, Britain could with some negative ones. And you don’t need to look long to find some. None of this need overthrow the triumphalist narrative, but it will make it a little less oppressive, and introduce cracks and tensions likely to attract the attention and interest of the otherwise indifferent mass who traipse wearily past memorials heading for the coffee shop.
@ 2014-06-06 – 22:56:22
Reading through the government's secondary national curriculum for History (the September 2013 version), I was struck by the fact that the only specific historical event which MUST be taught at key stage 3 is the Holocaust. Or am I reading this wrong? We read that pupils should be taught about the development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509; the development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745; ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901; and challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day. Each of these broad descriptors is followed by a list of suggested (i.e. non-statutory) topics. But in the case of the last rubric, this list is preceded by the stipulation "In addition to studying the Holocaust, this could include" etc. This sounds to me as if the Holocaust is an obligatory subject - in contrast, for instance, to the First World War and the Peace Settlement, or even the Second World War ("and the wartime leadership of Winston Churchill"), which are "non-statutory". Noone would doubt the importance of the Holocaust in 20th century history and 20th/21st century memory. What is peculiar is that the curriculum document makes no attempt to explain why no other topic merits such compulsory attention. In a curriculum still largely given over to British history (although much will depend on teachers' choices), it is a tragedy that happened in mainland Europe which all pupils, whichever school they are in, will have to face and analyse. A sentence or two on the rationale for this would have helped. Within the context of the document as a whole, it is not self-evident.
@ 2014-06-01 – 20:15:23
Currently reading Katja Petrowskaja's Bachmann Prize-winning collection of stories "Vielleicht Esther". If you are looking for a successor to Sebald, here she is. Unbelievably rich and associative prose. I just wanted to quote one striking passage, from the section describing the Jewish narrator's journey to Warsaw, where she tries to piece together the history of her relatives who died in the Holocaust:
"Wenn man wie in Berlin fuer jeden Menschen einen Stolperstein der Erinnerung in den Buergersteig einlassen wuerde, waeren die Gassen und Strassen von Warschau mit goldenen Steinen gepflastert." [p. 105].
@ 2014-05-31 – 18:38:22
Herewith some links to information about and reviews of the German Historical Museum's exhibition on World War One - a must if you are visiting Berlin... It was opened by Angela Merkel, who gave a little speech in which she apparently said, among other things:
"Die EU sei die entscheidende Lehre aus der leidvollen Geschichte des vergangenen Jahrhunderts. Zu diesen Schrecken gehörten auch der Zweite Weltkrieg und der Holocaust. In Europa herrsche aber heute die Stärke des Rechts und nicht das Recht des Stärkeren, sagte die Kanzlerin in ihrer Eröffnungsrede"
@ 2014-05-26 – 21:43:17
On the issue of commemorating the German Navy (see my last post), the problem is compounded by what I would call the impossibility of disaggregation. How does one, as it were, separate out those members of the German Kriegsmarine, or for that matter Wehrmacht, who simply went about their duties without committing any war crimes – a surely considerable number – from those that became implicated in such crimes? Of course, the position of several representatives of memorial sites I met in Kiel was that the Kriegsmarine and Wehrmacht were criminal organisations from the moment they began to fight Hitler’s war. Because that war was a “war of annihilation” unlike any that had gone before, because it specifically targeted civilian populations from its inception, then all those Germans who participated were the executors of a criminal enterprise. Not that anyone actually said, “all German soldiers and sailors between 1939 and 1945 were criminals”, but it was certainly the implication. During the conference, we watched a film called “Mythos Kriegsmarine”, which endeavoured to expose the involvement of the German Navy in specific violations of human rights during the Second World War. The aim of the film was to debunk the myth that the German Navy – in contrast to the army – had been “clean”, i.e. not guilty of the kind of atrocities of which the Wehrmacht stood accused during the two Wehrmacht exhibitions. It was clear to me that, for some in the room, the issue was not just these individual violations, but the fact of Navy participation in Hitler’s war per se. There can, then, be no positive or even neutral commemoration of the dead of the Kriegsmarine, for that would imply an at the very least forgiving stance towards involvement in Hitler’s racial war. Let’s put this another way: in a war conducted on behalf of evil, the human losses on the side of the aggressors are not worthy of being commemorated. You cannot die nobly for an ignoble cause. This is a vew that was considered uncharitable by those struggling to find a way of continuing commemorative tradition at Laboe. We discussed the questions of freedom of choice under Nazism, of scope for individual conscience, refusal, protest. We also discussed the issue of whether or not you can still have purely “military” engagements even in a racial war of annihilation. We discussed the issue of war crimes by the Soviets and the British. There was a wish expressed here for disaggregation, for being aware of the possibility of innocence, victimhood, even heroism among sailors and soldiers who fought in Hitler’s war. But how would the criteria for such a disaggregation be defined? Focusing solely on the value of resistance, for instance, would undermine the viability of the Kriegsmarine as an institution so fundamentally that all other forms of disaggregation would become meaningless. Eine Zwickmuehle.
@ 2014-05-18 – 09:59:12
This is the Marine-Ehrenmal in Laboe on the Baltic Sea, not far from Kiel. In the foreground is a fully intact German U-boat. The Ehrenmal is rather unusual in contemporary Germany's memorial landscape, not just because it dates back to the Weimar Republic and was completed under Nazism, but also - as this prehistory might suggest - because it is not a 'Mahnmal' ('Site of Warning') but an 'Ehrenmal', a site where those who died while serving in the German navy can be honorably remembered. I attended a conference over the last couple of days which focused on tensions between military and civil cultures of memory in Germany. The first day took place in Laboe, the second at the so-called Flanders bunker in Kiel. Built in 1943 (probably by forced labourers) to provide secure accommodation for the 5th U-boat flotilla, the bunker also served as a navy intelligence centre, and towards the end of the war it took in civilians following the heavy bombing of Kiel by the Allies. Now a memorial site, it reminds visitors of the catastrophic outcome of the Nazi war. While the Ehrenmal in Laboe is the responsibility of the German Naval Association, the Flanders bunker is the result of a private civilian initiative. The point of the conference was to start up a dialogue between the Ehrenmal and the Flanders bunker, as well as more generally between the German Naval Association and Navy on the one hand, and the representatives of memorial sites in Schleswig-Holstein which would be classified rather as 'Mahnmale' on the other (including, for instance, the former concentration camp of Neuengamme). The basic problem seems to be that the latter groups, focusing as they do on a critical memory of German history and German military traditions, cannot accept the 'Ehrenmal' in its present form. It is adjudged too heroic, and too positive in its portrayal of German naval traditions. While a new exhibition at the 'Ehrenmal' addressed some of their concerns, it did not really dispel them. How can it be, they ask, that Schleswig-Holstein still sustains a site which seeks to honour the dead of the German navy - including therefore the Nazi Kriegsmarine - while elsewhere in the region memorial sites are trying to enlighten their visitors as to the criminality of ALL Nazi institutions? How can it be that members of a navy that fought in Hitler's war of aggression are honorably remembered at Laboe, while elsewhere in the north of Germany it is the victims of that war that form the focus of remembrance? The Ehrenmal, to be fair, stresses that the emphasis at the site is on commemorating the dead, not honouring them, but this is a problematic distinction. It also points out that the site is dedicated to the naval dead of all nations, not just the Germans, and that it is committed to the promotion of peace. But its critics see this dedication as little more than a fig-leaf, and doubt the message of peace, given that one of the Ehrenmal's rooms promotes service in the Federal Navy (this particular criticism is based on very sceptical take on recent deployments of the German army and navy abroad, and did not convince me, at least). While the two sides battled it out verbally over the two days, I found myself caught in the middle, dazzled by the debate, sympathetic to both arguments, and appreciative of the very fair spirit in which quite fundamental differences were being discussed. I hope I can find some time to reflect more on this, but for now, it's time to go home.