'Re-reading East Germany’: The Literature and Film of the GDR


Wolfgang Emmerich (University of Bremen, Germany)

‘GDR Literature’: An Overview

The notion of ‘GDR Literature’ is a curious one. Derived from the existence of a state and a discrete period of political history it is reminiscent of labels like ‘Literature of the Weimar Republic’, ‘Literature of the Third Reich’, ‘Literature of the Federal Republic’ and thus carries no aesthetic connotations. But, at the same time, it serves to define a territory like the ‘Literature of Austria’ , for example, or the ‘German-language Literature of Switzerland’. But there are also good reasons for preserving the idea of a discrete body of ‘GDR literature’. For during the 40 years of its existence a quite separate and authoritarian literary system with very different conditions of literary production and reception existed in East Germany with – at least in the early years – restrictive aesthetic and ideological principles. Naturally one must recognise that many authors approved of this system, believing it a corollary of the widely accepted founding myths of ‘Anti-fascism’ and ‘Socialism’. A new literary field came into being (to speak with Pierre Bourdieu), in which questions of orthodoxy and heresy, but also the accumulation of cultural capital, were answered in ways diametrically opposed to the ways in which they were answered in the Federal Republic. Gradually a relationship of ‘disculturality’ (‘Diskulturalität’ – Jürgen Link) arose between the two German states, which in turn led to the development of two distinct German literatures – quite apart from the intrusive policies of the SED. The basic model of GDR literature was the kind of text promoted by the programme of socialist realism: written for the people, and modelled on a pre-modern aesthetic, although this was also challenged from the beginning by heretics like Bertolt Brecht or Peter Huchel, and later also younger writers like Heiner Müller, Günter Kunert, Uwe Johnson, Christa Wolf or Volker Braun who looked in part to modernist models. After 1970 a truly modernist literature developed in all genres – perhaps most visibly in poetry – which sought to catch up with developments in the West and, driven by a number of younger authors, also managed to establish itself as a second normative centre of GDR literature. The situation became more complex after this on account of the large number of important authors who were expelled from the GDR or given permission for long term stays in the West (from Biermann and Kunze to Kunert or Becker), allowing as it were a ‘third German literature’ to develop, which challenged and undermined the distinctive field of GDR literature even further. A further significant development was existence of an ‘alternative’ literary and artistic ‘scene’ in East Berlin and many of the larger GDR cities.

After the Wende of 1989/90 the GDR literary system collapsed very quickly. The literary voices form the former GDR are in part at least still audible – particularly a few of the older GDR authors, or a number of younger writers who did not really establish themselves in the GDR itself (like Durs Grünbein, Ingo Schulze or Uwe Tellkamp). But GDR Literature as a phenomenon no longer exists. Since the mid-1990s this process has been increasingly overlaid by all kinds of hybrid literary phenomena, which are the result of globalisation and increased migration to Germany on the one hand, but also the influence of the new digital media on the literary field and especially the internet on the other.

This overview will (1) characterise the literary system of the GDR; (2) sketch the historical development during the 40 (45) years of its existence; (3) examine the post-Wende situation; and (4) attempt to introduce and discuss the various theories and paradigms attached to this area during the last 20 years of research (for example categories like the literary field, discourses of modernism, and generational paradigms).