Academic journal article German Quarterly

Contentious Memories: Looking Back at the GDR

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Contentious Memories: Looking Back at the GDR

Article excerpt

Silberman, Marc, and Jost Hermand, eds. Contentious Memories: Looking Back at the GDR. New York: Lang, 1998. 251 pp. $47.95 hardcover.

Germanists aware of the importance of the University of Wisconsin German department for GDR studies in the US will find this volume of particular interest. As a record of the 1996 Wisconsin Workshop, it brings together former and present faculty and students of that department in a post-unification reevaluation of their object of study. Although not all contributors engage in the editors' hoped-for looking back and self-reflection about "local, utopian, and political" aspects of their involvement with GDR literature, most do offer approaches that suggest that studies of this aspect of modern German culture need not be relegated to the "junk heap of history" (vii). Marc Silberman's long introductory essay explores the problem of integrating GDR literary history into a comparative study of the literary systems, East and West, of postwar Germany. He suggests, for example, that we examine them in the context of the "anti-modern turn" that extended across three decades of German literature after 1930, an approach that would entail more serious attention to the early postwar decades than has usually been the case. Whatever the approach, Silberman asserts the necessity of "distinguishing ideology from reality while at the same time recognizing how ideology is already at work in everything we experience as `reality"' (50).

A collectively authored retrospective survey of GDR studies in the US focuses on three separate aspects: William Maltarich's account of American scholarly interest in the 1950s and 1960s; Alan Ng's case study of work on poetry; and Nancy Thuleen's outline of feminist interests in GDR women writers. Their tracing of changing perspectives, from Cold War ideology to the anti-authoritarianism of the late 1960s and early 1970s to more recent "personally relevant political agendas," supports their unsurprising conclusion that GDR literary works were generally read by American critics as documents in support of their own political positions.

Closest to expectations raised by the title of the volume is Jost Hermand's moving "biographic-autobiographical" account of encounters with the person and work of Heiner Miller, beginning with his discovery of Miller's early plays during a research stint in East Berlin in the late 1950s. Only a decade later, in a seminar on "Post-Brechtian Drama," was he able to introduce Muller's work to Wisconsin graduate students. In 1975 Miller was introduced to American audiences when one of those graduate students, the late Betty Nance Weber, invited him to the University of Texas, where she staged an English-language, feminist version of Mauser, based on a translation by her fellow Wisconsin student, Helen Fehervary, together with Marc Silberman. Jack Zipes also undertook a production in Wisconsin; New German Critique subsequently published the Mauser translation, together with articles by "Wisconsinites" Weber, Fehervary, David Bathrick, and Andreas Huyssen. The remainder of Hermand's memoir traces his encounters with an increasingly cynical Miiller in the 1980s, shedding light on Miller's reaction to the reception of his own work as well at to political and cultural developments in the GDR-what Hermand terms Muller's attempt "to look the angel of history in the eye as closely and fearlessly as possible."

Two other contributors, while not explicitly remembering/questioning their own investment in the GDR, engage in productive rethinking and challenging of some comfortable past assumptions. …

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