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


Gerrit-Jan Berendse (Cardiff University)

The Power of the Word: Poetry and Politics in the GDR

from the work of those writers who returned from emigration after 1945 up to the poetry/art of the so-called Prenzlauer Berg scene in the late 1980s. But I will also examine some of the This chapter will have a dual focus. I would like to sketch a brief history of GDR poetry – tensions and scandals which have been caused by key texts, actions and public statements of poets. One of the main events which had a lasting effect on lyrical writing in the GDR and its assessment in literary scholarship was the expatriation of Wolf Biermann in 1976. In this chapter, I will present this iconic year as a point-of-no-return, at the same time it will feature as the start of the end of GDR culture, possibly as that of the GDR as a whole.

From the grounding myth as formulated by Johannes R. Becher’s national Anthem, via the powerful articulations of utopian thought, until the collapse of the GDR, poetry played a fundamental role and had a huge impact on East Germans, or any recipient of the written word. Hence, the emphasis of this chapter is put on the power poetry had in the GDR and on the consequences for the birth, existence and the death of its cultural life. This power, however, is not simply the result of a body of poetry which features ‘dissident’ topics at a thematic level. Instead the focus will also be on aesthetic responses to the power structures. Firstly I will analyse literary ‘correspondence’ between various (dead or living) poets in contrast to a culture and cultural politics in the GDR (from the 1960s until the end of the 1970s) which favoured a monologue. The dialogue enabled the poets and their readers to challenge power structures in the GDR. In this period, it was Wolf Biermann’s poem ‘An die alten Genossen’ from Die Drahtharfe that articulated this deviance in an unambiguous way. Volker Braun’s ‘Anspruch’ from Provokation für mich had a similar impact on the power discourse. Also significant are two major poetry debates in 1966 (Forum-Debatte) and 1972 (Sinn-und-Form-Lyrikdebatte) which discuss political matters. Finally, an attitude of disengagement in the 1980s and a focus on surreal and DADA-like poetry signalled a further response. Bert Papenfuß [-Gorek] is presented as an example of a new avenue of lyric output aiming at ridiculing, hence contradicting the GDR’s power structures, for example with his poem ‘rasend schmerts weiterlachen’ from the volume SoJa.