Literature on a Turning Point in German History

By Deutschland | Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Literature on a Turning Point in German History


Deutschland, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly


On 9 November, Hans-Ulrich Treichel was at the dentist's. His schedule records a seminar on German writer Gottfried Benn the next morning at the Freie Universitt Berlin (Free University of Berlin), and he has no doubt that it did actually take place. Work to rule. Without his schedule, Treichel would not remember such minor points. When Marcel Beyer recalls that date, he thinks of the "first car he ever owned". Ulrike Draesner was in Munich doing her dissertation and only realized that the Wall had fallen when the first Trabi drove into the city. Katja Lange-Mller, who moved from East to West Berlin in 1984, was on a reading tour and spent the evening in a hotel in the West German city of Bochum unaware of events. Most German writers, at least those in the West, somehow missed the German "night of nights". The 9 November took place without them. At least that is what can be deduced from the anthology Die Nacht, in der die Mauer fiel, (The Night the Wall Fell) which brings together writers' recollections of that auspicious day.

By contrast, the young East German writers were either completing their military service with the National People's Army, like Jochen Schmidt, Uwe Tellkamp or Andre Kubiczek, and therefore could not be "wall-dancers" at that historic moment. The mood was rather ambivalent among their comrades of the same age. The fall of the Wall brought to an end a phase of revolutionary elan, during which the participants believed they were subjects of history. To their own astonishment, they realized that they could actually have an effect, but scarcely had they realized this, when it was already over. For those born later, the stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall sound like fairytales. In the course of time, a concrete historical event sinks into history and assumes increasingly mythical features. The nebulous and none too appropriate term "Fall of the Wall" has become established, and yet it shifts the events into the realm of the unreal. Did it fall, or was it pushed? Certainly the term no longer seems to envisage an actively defiant subject.

What a strange, unimaginable world: a city divided by a wall. Part of the stock in trade of mythical figures are people shot while trying to escape across the border, the dancers on the wall, the "wall-peckers" who caused the concrete to crumble, and the stammering GDR delegate who had to somehow read the news about the opening of the border from a piece of paper, as if unable to fully comprehend what was actually happening. The political scientist Herfried Mnkler, who has just been awarded the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair for his Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen (The Germans and their Myths), laments that since its foundation in 1949 the Federal Republic has had no major myth to which it might have referred and which might have shaped its identity. For the new Germany, the fall of the Wall could close that gap. And literature, that great story- teller, has an important role to play here.

For years, people in the culture sections of newspaper and magazines have been waiting impatiently for the "great novel of the transition era". Yet regardless of how often books were published under that label, the waiting continued. And quite a number of books, such as Annett Grschner"s Moskauer Eis (Moscow Ice), Christoph Hein's Landnahme (Land Seizure), Kurt Drawert's Spiegelland (Land of Mirrors) or Jens Sparschuh's Zimmerspringbrunnen (Indoor Fountain), were not even recognized as such. Now however, over the past four or five years, that sense of expectation has eased somewhat, so that literature finally has the air that it needs in order to breathe. Meanwhile a whole series of books have appeared that deal quite naturally with 1989 and its consequences, without also having to be the great novel of the transition: Julia Schoch's short work Mit der Geschwindigkeit des Sommers (With the Speed of Summer) might be mentioned first - a requiem to the GDR, focusing on a small town in Mecklenburg once dominated by the troops of the National Peoplexs Army, where the narrator's sister once loved a soldier.

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