Academic journal article German Quarterly

How the Past Writes the Future: Social Autobiography and the Dynamics of Discrimination in Christoph Hein's Landnahme and other Writings

Academic journal article German Quarterly

How the Past Writes the Future: Social Autobiography and the Dynamics of Discrimination in Christoph Hein's Landnahme and other Writings

Article excerpt

"Für die Einheimischen kamen die Vertriebenen und begingen ebenfalls Landnahme, und zwar da wo es gerade besonders knapp geworden war."

- Günter Grass, Krebsgang

Shortly after the appearance of Landnahme (2004), Christoph Hein published his essay "Vom unglücklichen Bewusstsein" to address comments by General Jörg Schönbohm about a "Kindermord" in one of the Eastern Federal States. For Schönbohm the cause of this act "sei begründet in dem DDRRegime, der Erziehung im ostdeutschen Staat, in dem den Bürgern keine Werte vermittelt wurden und sie verwahrlosten" (VuB). Hein traces "Kindermord" in Germany back to Goethe, concluding logically that it is injudicious to claim this crime as evidence for a social "Verwahrlosung" ensuing from the nature of dictatorships. The General's comments unveil an attitude relevant to the discussion of Landnahme: "Die Geschichte menschlicher Gemeinschaften ist auch eine Geschichte der Ächtung von Außenseitern" (I hß), a statement that closely reflects the locals' attitude towards the re-settlers in Landnahme. For Hein, cultural differences in "Religion und Essgewohnheiten der Nachbarn . . . galten und gelten bis zum heutigen Tag als geeignete Mittel der Diffamierung von Nachbarn" (VuB) . Just the fact that Germany lost a war is no reason to assume that a thousand years of anti-Semitism and cultivated xenophobia towards foreigners have been wiped out, even though "antisemitische Äußerungen wie auch öffentliche Hasstiraden gegen die Nachbarländer und früheren Gegner" (VuB) are now punishable by law. Essential to the thematic of Landnahme is Hein's contention that, without open anti-Semitism and other certain types of readily available "Feindbilder," people are in need of new objects of discrimination. Thus attributes which had traditionally been ascribed to Jews ("raffgierig, verschlagen, tückisch, schmutzig, minderwertig oder: dumm, faul, undankbar, verwahrlost"), or their attitudes and deeds ("gottlos, Gottesmörder, Kindermörder"), all easily rejected by rational argument, "aber durch den Gegenbeweis nicht ausgerottet" VuB), are being applied in new contexts.

The controversial history of the "Vertriebene" and "Flüchtlinge" from the German post-war period provides a central part of the setting for Hein's Landnahme. German "victimization" by the Russians and the lamenting of lost homelands has been exposed to considerable public debate and attention, culminating in major TV documentaries in 2001 and 2007. However, in Landnahme Hein portrays the intolerant and repressive attitudes exercised in the East by local Germans themselves towards post-war refugees from Silesia and by implication towards others forced out of areas east of the Oder and Neisse rivers. The novel depicts the strategies developed by the local townspeople not only to prevent their integration but to drive them out of town, along with the sometimes desperate strategies developed by the refugees to survive in the face of both severe hardship and the wish of their neighbors for them to fail. Public commemoration of these refugees in 2006 at the Zentrum gegen Vertreibung and in the Haus der Geschichte caused some displeasure in Poland and the Czech Republic towards Germans representing themselves as victims: but in the 1950s the refugees suffered from the conduct of the local Germans towards them almost as much as from the general repercussions of the war itself as they attempted to recover from the strain and trauma of the trek and start a new life.

The German refugees eventually were able to integrate, but Hein describes how they were viewed for a long time culturally and socially as foreigners, "die hier nicht geboren wurden und nicht hierher gehören" Landnahme 302). Much of the discrimination took expression in the form of comparing them to Gypsies and "Polacken" or by other derogatory racial associations. Hein's portrayal of the intolerance and resentment they encountered is harsh: it is exemplified in the words of farmer Griesel, required against his will to house the refugee Haber family, who likes to say, "die Vertriebenen soll man gleich weiter vertreiben, in die Mulde" Landnahme 240). …

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