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


Peter Thompson (University of Sheffield)

Culture, Opposition and the Honecker years

When we discuss the phenomenon of Ostalgie and the positive image that remains in many East German minds of life in the socialist state, the period at issue is inevitably that of the Honecker years from 1971-1989. In this chapter I shall analyse the fundamental structural changes which came about with Erich Honecker’s accession to power. Under discussion will be the shift in economic policy away from Ulbricht/Khruschev’s various attempts to catch up with, or even overtake, the West to the Honecker/Brezhnev policies which emphasised social stability and subsidised quietism above all else. One of the key effects of this policy was to deepen the split between workers and intellectuals in the GDR and this led to the increasing isolation of a largely cultural opposition from the wider public (something also reflected in many works of the time). I shall also discuss the change in policy on the national question, with the goal of a united socialist Germany abandoned in favour of an attempted consolidation of the GDR as a separate state with its own quasi-national identity. This shift also took place within the context of the general crisis of modernity and Zivilisationskritik in the culture and society of the GDR during the 1980s (at the height of fears about ecological destruction and nuclear threat). These changes ran alongside a consolidation of SED power but a simultaneous decline in ideological conviction. Cultural policy became central to this dynamic as the dialectic of flexibility and control constantly switched back and forward between apparent liberalism and cultural crackdown in which the Stasi were increasingly used to control and observe the cultural field. The Biermann affair of 1976 and reactions to it will thus be investigated in its full social, economic, political and intellectual context in its East-West dimension.

What draws together the various points made in this chapter, however, will be the ways in which the failure of the SED to address any of the areas under its control in a progressive direction meant that the utopian challenge of socialism was transferred from the Party to the cultural opposition and taken up in different forms by writers like Monika Maron,Wolfgang Hilbig, etc.