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


Carol Anne Costabile-Heming (Northern Kentucky University)

Intellectuals and the Wende: Missed Opportunities and Dashed Hopes

Because the Wende was primarily a grass roots effort, the intellectuals in the GDR, who normally occupied a place of prominence in the public sphere, were to a large extent not participants in this peaceful revolutionary process. Conceived as a survey of the intellectuals’ engagement in the Wende, this chapter will focus on the years 1988-1993 and examine three distinct trends: the relative silence of the intellectuals in the months leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989; the intellectuals’ steadfast adherence to a socialist utopian ideal, manifest particularly in the months following the fall of the wall; and the evaporation of the intellectuals’ special privileges and the resultant loss of their function as alternative public sphere.

Writers such as Christoph Hein forcefully demanded reforms and an end to censorship at the X. Schriftstellerkongreß in 1988. This auspicious provocation was followed by relative silence during the tumultuous summer and fall of 1989. By the time renowned writers like Hein, Christa Wolf, Stephan Heym and Heiner Müller spoke at the Alexanderplatz demonstration in Berlin on 4 November, the demise of the GDR was imminent. Indeed, four days later, Christa Wolf appeared on television imploring her fellow citizens to stay and help to build a democratic society. Following the fall of the Wall, these same intellectuals continued to hold fast to their belief in the socialist utopia, an ideal far removed from the very real consumption driven desires of the general populace. The resolution, ‘Für unser Land’ underscores the extent to which the split between many of the writers and their public had grown. While many intellectuals remained active in the grass roots political parties that emerged immediately following the fall of the wall, it was obvious by the parliamentary elections in March 1990 that the majority of the GDR populace was no longer interested in the utopian ideals espoused by the writers.

The publication of Christa Wolf’s Was bleibt in 1990 unleashed harsh criticism in the feuilleton and made it abundantly clear that readers and critics in both East and West had little tolerance for the lamenting of the formerly highly acclaimed author. The ensuing literary debate changed the literary landscape in Germany for good, and it called into question whether it was even possible for writers to have been critical of the system while simultaneously supporting the system. By 1993, revelations that Wolf, Müller and others had also cooperated with the Stasi was the final blow.

This chapter will proceed chronologically, analyzing key speeches, political texts, and newspaper articles by the most prominent GDR writers in the period leading up to the fall of the wall and immediately thereafter. In addition to these non-fiction pieces, I will examine some key literary texts of the time, especially poems (Volker Braun, ‘Das Eigentum’), short stories and diary pieces that reflected and shaped events and debates, including Wolf’s much maligned narrative Was bleibt.