Negritude in East German Literature: Anna Seghers, Heiner Muller, and the Haitian Revolution

By Pizer, John | The Comparatist, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Negritude in East German Literature: Anna Seghers, Heiner Muller, and the Haitian Revolution


Pizer, John, The Comparatist


Haiti has been a significant topos of German literature from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Particularly the Haitian Revolution, which led to the first successful overthrow of European colonialism and institutional slavery, as well as the establishment of the first black-led republic in the Western Hemisphere, has fired the imagination of German-language writers. Herbert Uerlings, author of the first and only book-length study of Haiti in German literature, notes that the perceived exoticism and alterity of the island nation has been the primary inspiration for this productivity. The problematic of intercultural encounter has been the dominant theme in these texts; in Uerlings view, such interculturalism has manifested itself increasingly over time as an intertextual rhetorical strategy, ever more concerned to establish a just poetic encounter with radical difference (9). While the first German literary work to deal with Haiti, Heinrich von Kleist's Die Verlobung in St. Domingo (1811; The Betrothal in Santo Domingo) equates black skin with treachery and violence and white skin with rectitude: more contemporary works such as Hans Christoph Buch's Die Hochzeit von Port-au-Prince (1984; The Wedding at Port-au-Prince) oscillate between enlightenment historicism and intertextual deconstruction (the proximity of Buch's title to that of Kleist's short story and of a later work by Anna Seghers is not accidental) in order to elucidate the ambiguity and volatility of the relationship between Europe (particularly Germany) and Haiti throughout the course of the modern age.

Aside from Kleist, the two most canonic German-language authors to have poetically engaged with the Haitian Revolution were citizens of the former German Democratic Republic throughout most of their productive years: Anna Seghers (1900-1983) and Heiner Muller (1929-1995). Both a Jew and a Marxist, Seghers was forced to flee Germany in 1933, when Hitler assumed power. She spent most of her exile years in Latin America, primarily in Mexico, but with sojourns in Santo Domingo and Martinique. She returned to Soviet-occupied Germany in 1947, and quickly became a leading literary figure in the fledgling East German state. Seghers's personal and literary experiences of the Caribbean brought about an awareness of the parallels between the oppression suffered by blacks and indigenous inhabitants of the region at the hands of European colonial powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the one hand, and the persecutions of leftists and Jews by European fascists in the twentieth on the other. This perceived intersection inspired her to draw upon history in creating alliances between leftist Jews and rebellious blacks in a number of her stories on the Caribbean: the three narratives collectively titled Karibische Geschichten (1962; Caribbean Stories) and Drei Frauen aus Haiti (1980; Three Women from Haiti). Muller had to serve in the Hitler Youth and spent almost his entire life in Germany, though a trip to Mexico and Puerto Rico was significant in inspiring his creative engagement with Haiti (Muller, Krieg ohne Schlacht 297). He reworked the third of Seghers's Caribbean stories, Das Licht auf dem Galgen (1960; Light on the Gallows) into his own postmodern theatrical vision of the Haitian Revolution, Der Auftrag (1979; The Task). While Muller retains the names of the three principal revolutionary figures that appear in Seghers's tale--Debuisson, Galloudec, and Sasportas--he transforms Sasportas from the French Jew with Spanish origins who rallied rebellious Jamaican blacks in Das Licht auf dem Galgen into a Caribbean black ex-slave in Der Auftrag. Debuisson, gradually seduced and coerced into betraying the revolution in Das Licht auf dem Galgen, becames a cipher for white betrayal tout court in Muller's drama. In this sense, Muller appears to have completely reversed the moral poles of Kleist's racial agency. For as Arlene Teraoka notes: "Sasportas's body and skin come to symbolize, if not cause, his eventual break from the white revolutionary Debuisson, just as Debuisson's white skin foretells, if not determines, his betrayal of the slave revolt and his return to his parents' slave plantation" (East, West, and Others 112). …

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