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


Karen Leeder (New College, Oxford)

Spectres of the GDR: Remembering the GDR Twenty Years On.

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a wide variety of memories, representations and re-imaginings of life in the GDR have emerged. Twenty years is the halfway point in the ‘forty years’ that Günter de Bruyn and others claimed would be needed to come to terms with the forty years of the socialist state. It also means that a generation has come to adulthood with the GDR only as an inherited memory. On 18 March 1990, the day of the parliamentary elections which put an end to hopes of a reformed socialism in but a footnote in world history’. Two decades on, however, the controversy surrounding the socialist state shows no signs of abating. This chapter will examine how the GDR has been represented in the twenty years since its demise: focussing on the boom in autobiographical reminiscence, the revelations from the Stasi archives, the key authors and texts of the 1990s and beyond (Ingo Schulze, Thomas Brussig, Durs Grünbein, Brigitte Burmeister etc.,) as well as the films that have sought to define the GDR experience (from East and West): Goodbye, Lenin!, Sonnenallee, The Lives of Others. A key concern of the chapter will be to examine the aesthetic shifts from the ‘short story sound’ identified by Schulze and others as the sound of the 1990s to the epic, though ironic, Bildungsroman, such as Uwe Tellkamp’s garlanded Der Turm (The Tower) of 2008. It will also balance the thirst for memory (witnessed in the iteration of the real (cf. the splicing of documentary material into many genres or the many GDR museums) and the dangers of ‘Ostaglie’ (the nostalgia for the East); but will also interrogate the melancholy ‘late work’ of many of the older authors (Volker Braun, Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf) alongside the new voices of the so-called ‘Zonenkinder’ (Jana Hensel et al.): that is young authors, children at the time of the fall of the wall, who identify themselves as the last generation of GDR writers after the fact. Taking up Wolfgang Emmerich’s introductory chapter, I will then conclude by addressing the question of the end of ‘GDR literature’ as a phenomenon and whether a new and influential form of GDR cultural awareness has been created après la lettre – as a kind of spectral afterlife.