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


Jill Twark (East Carolina University, North Carolina, USA)

Negotiating the Politics of Satire: Satirical Novels in the GDR and Beyond

Close scrutiny of prose literature and other types of texts such as films, cabaret, and political songs produced in the GDR reveals a restricted but strong tradition of satirical socio-political criticism in East Germany. The fact that many such works were written in satirical, humorous, and/or ironic modes is partly a result of the authors’ individual, creative approaches to writing, but also of specific GDR government cultural policies. From its beginnings in the Soviet Occupied Zone, East German satire, along with all other cultural artefacts, was seen by socialist leaders (as well as many authors and artists) as a tool for changing values and attitudes that would assist in developing a new socialist society. The function of literature was to contribute to this socialist ‘enlightenment’; accordingly, from the perspective of cultural officials, humour and satire in GDR literature, as well as in cabaret and in the mass media, were to serve unambiguous, pro-socialist functions. Therefore, while these officials promoted the production of humorous and satirical texts and performances, they also controlled authors, artists, and performers specializing in humour and satire tightly through censorship. Texts and performances produced in these modes were to serve multiple purposes: 1) as a state-supported and condoned means of entertainment; 2) as an educational tool to root out an ‘antiquated’ capitalist, imperialist, ideological consciousness and all behaviour not conducive to the furthering of socialism; and 3) as an outlet for readers and spectators to let off steam’, diverting frustration and discontent with the system. Despite official dictates, however, a handful of GDR authors like Erwin Strittmatter, Peter Hacks, Heiner Müller, Volker Braun, Ulrich Plenzdorf, and Irmtraud Morgner bucked the system on several occasions, composing surprisingly candid criticisms of real existing socialism cloaked in satirical masks, and consistently standing on the front line of cultural policy battles.

In this essay I will begin by summarizing the history of literary critical and political discussions of satire in the GDR, focusing on the tensions between politics, theory, and actual literary texts. Beginning in the late 1950s with Georgina Baum’s Marxist treatise Humor und Satire in der bürgerlichen Ästhetik (1959), various scholars have documented, theorized about, and analyzed GDR satire. Much has also been written about the controversies authors like Strittmatter, Braun, and Morgner provoked. Along the way, I will introduce readers to several of these authors’ seminal GDR satirical novels and the specific critiques they received from GDR editors (Verlagslektoren), literary critics, and the media. Finally, I will conclude by assessing a few substantial differences between writing satire in the GDR and after unification, taking into consideration why many Eastern German authors such as Thomas Brussig and Ingo Schulze responded to the Wende and subsequent unification with humorous and satirical novels. Examining the reasons behind the controversies and censorship debates provoked by GDR satires, both before and after publication, provides insights into the ways repressive dictatorships can assert power over the production of art.