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


Dennis Tate (University of Bath)

Autobiographical Writing in the GDR Era

This chapter will focus on the emergence of autobiographical writing as a central feature of East German prose in the late 1960s and on its development over the following two decades in the work of two generations of authors (roughly speaking, Christa Wolf and her contemporaries, then Christoph Hein and his). It will challenge the widespread assumption that the period before Wolf’s breakthrough with Nachdenken über Christa T. (1969) was one of slavish adherence to Socialist Realist doctrine, showing how the way was paved for her ‘subjective authenticity’ by a combination of belatedly published exile autobiographies, the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and the conversion stories of ‘Hitler’s children’. The SED regime attempted to control and instrumentalise this material for its ideological purposes, but initially compliant authors repeatedly found themselves impelled thereafter to reframe their life stories in the light of subsequent experience.

The analysis of key works by Christa Wolf, Brigitte Reimann, Franz Fühmann, Volker Braun, Helga Königsdorf, Christoph Hein, Angela Krauß, etc., will underpin this account of autobiographical writing as a lifelong process (following James Olney’s definition in his Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing). I will argue that the location of most East German autobiographical writing in the ambiguous narrative territory between first-person fiction and explicit autobiography arose from both aesthetic and political considerations and was fundamental to the international breakthrough of GDR literature in the 1970s and 1980s. This chapter will take the collapse of the GDR as its historical cut-off point, allowing scope for further discussion of autobiographical writing in the post-unification context in a later chapter.