Christa Ihlenfeld (Christa Wolf), the daughter of Otto and Herta Ihlenfeld, was born in Landsberg, Germany (now Gorzów Wielkopolski in Poland) on 18th March 1929. Her parents owned a grocery shop and were supporters of Adolf Hitler. (1)
She later argued that her family did not suffer from the Nazi government: "The curtailment of certain personal freedoms announced on March 1, 1933, would hardly affect their lives, because so far they had obviously not planned any publications (freedom of the press), or participated in mass meetings (freedom of assembly)." (2)
As a child Christa watched the Sturmabteilung (SA) organize the boycott of Jewish businesses. "A pair of SA men stood outside the door of the Jewish shops, next to the white enamel plate, and prevented anyone who could not prove that he lived in the building from entering and baring his Aryan body before non-Aryan eyes." (3)
The school that Christa attended encouraged the children to hate Jews. Hedwig Ertl claimed that "we were told all the time that first the Jews were a lower kind of human being, and the Poles are inferior, and anyone who wasn't Nordic was worthless." (4) Christa later commented on the Jewish boy in her class: "He is pale, with a pointed face, dark, wavy hair, and a few pimples... He sits at his desk like a sack of wet flour, and everyone who walks by him... will sock him one." (5)
Christa pointed out that with the media under the control of the Nazi Party, it was difficult to find out what was going on in the world. She remembers reading about the destruction of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in the newspaper: "In April 1937 the General-Anzeiger spread the news that Guernica had not been bombed but drenched in gasoline and then set afire by the Bolsheviks." (6)
Life was not too difficult for the Ihlenfeld family in Nazi Germany. "No Jewish or Communist relatives or friends, no hereditary or mental diseases in the family, no ties to any foreign country, practically no knowledge of any foreign language, absolutely no leanings toward subversive thought or, worse, toward decadent or any other form of art... We were required only to remain nobodies. And that seems to come easily to us. Ignore, overlook, neglect, deny, unlearn, obliterate, forget." (7)
Christa remembers hearing Joseph Goebbels give a speech on the radio in 1937: "Without fear we may point to the Jew as the motivator, the originator, and the beneficiary of this horrible catastrophe. Behold the enemy of the world, the annihilator of cultures, the parasite among nations, the son of chaos, the incarnation of evil, the ferment of decay, the formative demon of mankind's downfall." She grew up believing that the "Jews are different from us... Jews must be feared, even if one can't hate them." (8)
Crystal Night took place on 9th-10th November, 1938. Presented as a spontaneous reaction of the German people to the news that the German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, had been murdered by Herschel Grynszpan, a young Jewish refugee in Paris, the whole event was in fact organized by the NSDAP. That night over 7,500 Jewish shops were destroyed. Ninety-one Jews were killed and an estimated 20,000 were sent to concentration camps. (9)
Christa commented: "Between November 8 and November 9: 177 synagogues, 7,500 Jewish businesses within the confines of the Reich were destroyed. In the course of governmental action, all Jews were expropriated after this spontaneous outbreak of public indignation; their sons and daughters were expelled from schools and universities." (10)
In 1939 Christa joined the German Girls' League (Bund Deutscher Mädel), the female branch of the Hitler Youth movement. (11) Her unit used to meet every Wednesday and Saturday. She remembers the importance of singing songs at meetings. This included the following: "Onward, onward, fanfares are joyfully blaring. Onward, onward, youth must be fearless and daring. Germany, your light shines true, even if we die for you."
On one occasion, one of the girls, Gerda Link, was expelled for "stealing five marks and thirty-nine pfennings from a comrade's coat pocket in the locker room of the athletic field... Gerda Link is still waiting for the sentence to be pronounced in person by Christel. When Christel takes a step forward and begins to speak... Christel has colorless hair that curls under, and magnetic eyes. When in a state of rapture, she speaks in a high, ringing voice and dramatically draws out the vowels, but she is impeded by braces on her teeth... Her voice is muted; the personal pain that Gerda Link has inflicted on her, the disgrace she has brought upon every single member of her unit, the dishonor heaped upon all of them, but most of all upon her leader, is almost unendurable. Far be it from her to expel a Jungmädel forever from the group, no matter what she has done. But she thinks it necessary and appropriate to relieve the offender for three months of the badge of membership in the Jungmädel League: the black kerchief and the leather knot." (12)
The duties demanded of the German Girls' League included regular attendance at club premises and camps run by the Nazi Party. (13) "In the Jungmädel camp, the leader or her deputies inspect the dormitory, the chests of drawers, the washrooms, every morning. One time the hairbrush of a squad leader was publicly displayed because it was full of long hairs. That was no way for a hair-brush to look if it belonged to a Jungmädel leader, the camp leader said in the evening roll call." From that moment on Christa "hid her hair-brush in the soap compartment of her trunk, because she couldn't manage to pick every last hair from her brush... because she didn't want the camp leader, of all people, to dislike her." (14)
In September 1939 Christa watched the Schutzstaffel (SS) march through her town on the way to invading Poland. Six years later, at the end of the Second World War, the family ran from the advancing Red Army. Eventually they arrived in Mecklenburg in what became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and Christa attended high school at Gammelin, near Schwerin. (15)
In 1949 she began studying German Literature at the University of Jena and the University of Leipzig. At the time she intended to become a teacher. (16) While at university she married her fellow student, the writer Gerhard Wolf. (17) Christa joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the governing party of the GDR. Marxism, she believed, was the polar opposite of what had happened in Nazi Germany: "At all costs I didn't want anything that could be like the past… That was the source of (my generation's) commitment and… why we clung to it so long... something that critics in the west have often failed to grasp." (18)
From 1953 to 1957 she worked on the staff of the Deutscher Schriftstellerverband (German Writers' Association), then as chief of the editorial staff of the publishing house Neues Leben and, in 1958-59, as editor of the journal Neue Deutsche Literatur. (19) During this period she got to know several writers such as Anna Seghers, who had been active members of the German Communist Party during the 1930s. (20)
In 1962 the Wolfs moved to Kleinmachnow, near Berlin, where Christa began writing full-time. Christa Wolf's novel, Divided Heaven (1963), made her famous. The novel tells the love story of Rita and Manfred, a young couple who separate when the Berlin Wall goes up. Rita eventually chooses her socialist ideals, and the German Democratic Republic, over a life with Manfred in the West. Sally McGrane has pointed out that "some accuse Wolf of displaying a tendency towards kitsch... but the book, written two years after the Berlin wall went up, captured the zeitgeist, garnering fans in both Germanys". (21)
The Economist pointed out: "The book’s political agenda is clear: Rita, like the author, decides to stay and work for a better society. Yet communist hardliners still condemned the book as decadent; Wolf was accused of portraying industrial workers in a negative light. What is striking in the new restored version is the degree to which Wolf, then still only in her early 30s, was willing to describe her country, warts and all. She does not shy from portraying factory slackers and the blind zeal of party hacks, nor from drawing a convincing portrait of Manfred, whose doubts and frustrations drive him to abandon Rita and his country." (22)
Christa Wolf was active in politics and was a close associate of Erich Honecker and in 1963 became a candidate for the Party Central Committee. When the poet and songwriter Wolf Biermann was deprived of his GDR citizenship for criticising the regime, Christa Wolf was among those who initiated a public protest. She bravely stood up and objected to an artistic purge at the party conference in 1965. This made Wolf an unreliable political figure and she was not afraid of pointing out the dangers of the growing authoritarianism that was taking place in the GDR. (23)
Her second novel, The Quest for Christa (1968), was at first banned in the GDR, then published in a limited edition. According to the critic, Kate Webb: "Rather than the image of perfectibility that GDR writers were encouraged to present, Wolf set out in The Quest for Christa to imagine the life of an outsider, but she does this from inside what the GDR conceived as socialism. She was reinventing the heroic mould, or at least questioning whether this life of an outsider – marginal, hesitant, obscure – might not also be of value, full of latent possibility; might be, in fact, what orthodox GDR theorists were looking for in art... It is an assault on patriarchal authority, and in its fragmented sensibility the novel pursues the difficult 'attempt to be oneself', for which she was accused within the GDR of being individualistic." (24)
In 1976 she published Patterns of Childhood. This autobiographical novel tells the story of a young girl born in Landsberg in 1929, who ten years later joins the German Girls' League. One critic points out that the book "traced the origins of present-day German thought patterns to life in the Third Reich, showing how her own childhood had carried on along normal lines while Jews travelled on trains through her town to Chelmno and Treblinka." (25) Heinrich Böll praised its brutal honesty. The book showed "how eyes and ears that otherwise have nothing physiologically wrong with them can see and hear so little." (26)
In her next novel, No Place on Earth (1979), she imagines a meeting between two writers, Heinrich von Kleist and the poet Karoline von Gunderrode, both of whom killed themselves in the early 1800s, as a way of examining the experience of defeat. "Again, the exploration takes on greater force for being cast from inside a society whose ideology dismissed despair as a luxury." (27)
Christa Wolf clung to her socialist ideals and in 1989, when large numbers of her fellow citizens fled the country she appealed to them to stay and help build "a truly democratic society". It was, she wrote, "more difficult but also more honourable to stay in the socialist Fatherland". Her opposition to reunification brought accusations that she was a strong supporter of the communist government of German Democratic Republic. (28)
In 1993, Stasi documents were released that showed that Christa Wolf had indeed been one of the millions who were spied upon. However, other files showed that between 1959 and 1962 she had meetings with the secret police and answered their questions about some suspect writers. During this period she had been classified as an "informal collaborator”. Todd Gitlin interviewed Wolf for the New Republic: "She was disinterestedly curious about how she could possibly have informed, not doubting that she had met with the Stasi agents but claiming not to remember having composed a written report". Wolf claimed it might have been "a classic case of repression.” (29)
Günter Grass came to Christa Wolf defence: "Christa Wolf belonged to the generation in which I also count myself. We were stamped by National Socialism and the late - too late - realization of all the crimes committed by Germans in the span of just twelve years. Ever since, the act of writing has demanded interpreting the traces that remain.... False paths credulously followed, stirrings of doubt and resistance to authoritarian constraints and beyond that, the recognition of one’s own participation in a system that was crushing the utopian ideals of Socialism - those are hallmarks of the five-decades of writing that established Wolf’s reputation... But what remains, above all, are her many books. At a time when East and West, bristling with weapons, faced off in rigid ideological confrontation, she wrote books that crossed and overcame this divide, books that have lasted." (30)
In her last book, City of Angels, or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud, dealt with the revelations in her Stasi files. Sally McGrane has argued: "In this lovely last work, the narrator also looks back on her life, her childhood, adulthood, travels, her family, her husband and her daughters, her friendships, her political beliefs, the failure of German socialism. She looks around her, at the beautiful, alienating sunsets, at the aftershocks of twentieth-century German history that can be felt here, a world away from the gray streets of Berlin, in the southern California abodes of Nazi Germany’s intellectual exiles, in her friendships with the children of Holocaust survivors." (31)
Christa Wolf died on 1st December 2011.
No Jewish or Communist relatives or friends, no hereditary or mental diseases in the family, no ties to any foreign country, practically no knowledge of any foreign language, absolutely no leanings toward subversive thought or, worse, toward decadent or any other form of art... We were required only to remain nobodies. And that seems to come easily to us. Ignore, overlook, neglect, deny, unlearn, obliterate, forget.
A comrade by the name of Gerda Link had brought disgrace upon the honor of the Hitler Youth: she had stolen five marks and thirty-nine pfennings from a comrade's coat pocket in the locker room of the athletic field, and had denied the theft to Group Leader Christel when the latter had questioned her. But there was proof of her guilt...
The Jungmädel Unit Northwest is still lined up at attention in the Zanzine Woods, and Gerda Link is still waiting for the sentence to be pronounced in person by Christel. When Christel takes a step forward and begins to speak... Christel has colorless hair that curls under, and magnetic eyes. When in a state of rapture, she speaks in a high, ringing voice and dramatically draws out the vowels, but she is impeded by braces on her teeth...
Now Christel is checking her anger; she shows grief and disappointment, which are far more terrible. Her voice is muted; the personal pain that Gerda Link has inflicted on her, the disgrace she has brought upon every single member of her unit, the dishonor heaped upon all of them, but most of all upon her leader, is almost unendurable. Far be it from her to expel a Jungmädel forever from the group, no matter what she has done. But she thinks it necessary and appropriate to relieve the offender for three months of the badge of membership in the Jungmädel League: the black kerchief and the leather knot.
Gerda Link's squad leader steps forward, a short buxom girl with bowlegs. She stands before Gerda Link, who can be called beautiful in comparison: she has an elongated face, darkish skin, a narrow, finely chiseled nose, and long, dark hair. The squad leader relieves the offender of her kerchief and knot... A song follows, the song of the Hitler Youth: "Onward, onward, fanfares are joyfully blaring. Onward, onward, youth must be fearless and daring. Germany, your light shines true, even if we die for you."
Christa Wolf's identity as a writer living in the communist German Democratic Republic was informed by the traumatic experience of Nazism. Though born in 1929, and therefore a child during Hitler's rule, she was never, as she put it, "able to feel exempted from responsibility, but only horrified at how a system of delusion can seduce people into hatred for mankind".
In order to prevent a recurrence of the Nazi tyranny, Christa Wolf wanted "to hunt for alternatives to these steps towards ruin, however frail the alternatives may be, however utopian they may appear". The answer, in her view, was socialism. From the 1960s she came to be viewed (in the GDR) as a "loyal dissident" and (in West Germany) as a "socialist of independent temper", critical of the GDR regime but maintaining her belief in socialism as superior to western capitalism....
Christa Wolf was prepared to take some risks in the cause of artistic freedom. When the poet and songwriter Wolf Biermann was deprived of his GDR citizenship for criticising the regime, Christa Wolf was among those who initiated a public protest. She bravely stood up and objected to an artistic purge at the party conference in 1965. But she did not leave the GDR, even though she was allowed to travel abroad regularly. It seems that the regime found her more useful than dangerous; she had private one-to-one chats with Erich Honecker, and between 1963 and 1967 was a candidate for the Party Central Committee.
Christa Wolf clung to her socialist ideals through thick and thin. In 1989, even as her fellow citizens were fleeing the country in droves, she appealed to them to stay and help build "a truly democratic society". It was, she wrote, "more difficult but also more honourable to stay in the socialist Fatherland".
The fall of the Berlin Wall marked a dramatic change in her reputation. Her opposition to reunification brought accusations that she had played into the hands of the tyrants of East Germany, and many critics found it astonishing when, in 1990, eight months after the end of communism, she published What Remains, a thinly veiled autobiographical short story in which she described the fears and thoughts of someone who is under observation by the Stasi, the East German secret police.
Christa Wolf, who has died aged 82, was a German writer of rare purity and sensitivity who grew up under nazism and became an adult under communism. Her work records the impact of these ideologies on individual lives. She was, as one critic put it, "a writer of scrupulous 'touchstone' honesty", and it is the pursuit and uncovering of truth, under the most beleaguered circumstances, that defines her.
When, in 1992, it was revealed that she had been used by the Stasi, the East German secret police, from 1959 to 1962 as an informal collaborator – inoffizieller Mitarbeiter – the ensuing attacks on her integrity practically brought her writing to a halt. That she provided no information of value, was soon dropped for "reticence", and was herself the subject of surveillance for 30 years, did not mitigate the ferocity of the attacks from "stone-throwing West Germans", as her translator, Michael Hofmann, called them....
Born in Landsberg an der Warthe in Brandenburg, now Gorzów Wielkopolski in Poland, to a grocer and his wife who were Protestant, middle-class and pro-Nazi, Christa Ihlenfeld was a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädchen, the female counterpart of the Hitler Youth. She was 10 years old when she watched the SS march through her town on the way to invading Poland, and 16 at the end of the second world war, when her family ran from the advancing Soviet army...
When the dust settled and the maps were redrawn, the town of Wolf's birth was in Poland. Mecklenburg, where her family landed, was now part of a newly minted nation, the German Democratic Republic. She was finishing high school before she began to understand the full train of events. Against this, the GDR offered another faith. Marxism, she believed, was the polar opposite of what had happened in Nazi Germany: "At all costs I didn't want anything that could be like the past… That was the source of (my generation's) commitment and… why we clung to it so long" - something that critics in the west have often failed to grasp.
Although widely praised for her contributions to German literature, Wolf's public image was damaged for not being critical enough of the former communist regime. It took another hit in the early 1990s when it was revealed that, for a period of nearly three years during the 1950s and 1960s, she had served as an informant to East Germany's feared secret police, the Stasi.
Still, Wolf's relationship to the East German regime was far from straightforward and she was spied on by the state for a far longer period than she served it as an informant. "Wolf was an enormously significant figure, regarded until 1990 as someone who carefully and delicately expanded the boundaries of what could be said in East Germany," Georgina Paul, an expert in East German literature at Oxford University, told Reuters...
Indeed, in 1976, Wolf became on of the co-signatories of the "open letter against the expatriation" of songwriter Wolf Biermann, who was kicked out of East Germany for his dissident positions. As a reprimand, Wolf's husband Gerhard was kicked out of the SED. Despite additional run ins with the SED leadership, the author remained loyal to the country. In November 1989, only a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, she publicly stated that she hoped for a new beginning -- a socialist one.
Wolf herself had left the SED in June 1989 and became active in her desire to "create change from within the country" together with the people in the movement that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Wall that autumn. Afterwards, on Nov. 28, 1989, she advocated together with writer Stefan Heym and theologian Friedrich Schorlemmer and others for the continued existence of East Germany, saying it should not simply be taken over by West Germany. She advised people who wanted to leave East Germany to stay on in order to "create a truly democratic society." After numerous statements, speeches, open letters, readings and interviews, Wolf, who was attacked as an "advocate of socialism" and a "domesticated opponent" of the SED, retreated from daily political life.
Christa Wolf was one of the most important contemporary German authors: an East German writer whose popularity spanned both German states; a constant critic of the socialist regime, who chose not abandon the larger socialist project. "I loved this country," she said of the German Democratic Republic, to her contemporary and friend Günter Grass, after it ceased to exist. She was a member of what she called a "broken generation": one that grew up under the shadow of Nazism and experienced the foundation of the GDR as the promise of a truly humane society, but then also lived to see it fail.
Christa Ihlenfeld was born in Landsberg an der Warthe in Brandenburg (now Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland) in 1929. Her father was a grocer and he and her mother were Protestant, middle-class and pro-Nazi. Christa attended school in Landberg until 1945 when the family, fleeing the advancing Red Army, moved to rural Mecklenburg, in what would become the GDR. In 1949, as the GDR came into being, Wolf joined the governing Socialist Unity Party.
She studied German literature in Leipzig and Jena and planned to become a teacher. In 1951 she married the writer and publisher Gerhard Wolf. Her creative breakthrough came in 1963 in Berlin, with Divided Heaven, a Cold War Romeo and Juliet, set against the building of the Berlin Wall. Despite her criticism of state paranoia, the book brought immediate recognition.
Nevertheless, the increasing gulf between the reality of everyday life and the retouched image that was demanded for public consumption led inevitably to conflict with authority. Wolf's classic 1968 novel The Quest for Christa T set out to reassess the "failed" life of one of Wolf's many outsider heroines, explicitly addressing the "difficulty of saying 'I'". The autobiographical 1976 novel Patterns of Childhood was the first to deal self-critically with the taboo topic of the fascist past and became a watershed in both German states.
A turning point came that same year when the maverick songwriter Wolf Biermann was expatriated and Wolf signed an open letter in his support. Subject to reprisals and intrusive covert surveillance, she suffered a personal crisis. Although she still saw no alternative outside the GDR, she began to feel existentially and politically unhoused within it, as echoed in her 1979 No Place on Earth.
When Christa Wolf’s memorial is held tonight in Berlin, it won’t be just a farewell to a writer but a national event. Her death, at eighty-two, marks the end of an era in the divided, then reunified Germany - an era in which literature played an existential role.
As long as there was an East Germany, Wolf was an East German writer. But she wasn’t just an East German writer. In the days since her death, one hears over and over the lament that never again will a German authoress capture the attention of so many. Her impact was the result of a confluence of politics - only in an authoritarian state are writers so important - and an ear for the issues and concerns of the day, be it the building of the wall, the pain of the Nazi past, the search for a new and better society, women’s rights or environmental problems. Her readings - often held in churches, one of the few places in the GDR where dissidents could meet freely - drew hundreds, even thousands, both before and after the wall came down.
When Wolf published a book in the GDR, everyone read it. When she published one in the reunified Germany, everyone of a certain generation did. "She was looked to as a kind of prophet," said the writer Christoph Hein. "I didn’t envy her that."
Wolf’s personal history was, in many ways, the history of post-war Germany, and if her heroines cry a lot, it’s because there was very little to be happy about. Born in 1929 in what is now Poland, Wolf’s family fled the Red Army at the war’s end, and, as chance would have it, they ended up in the Russian zone.
Chance, and the power of political systems to shape the course that lives took, were two themes she explored relentlessly. The Nazi legacy was also formative: In the early post-war years, as the Nazi crimes came to light, the young Wolf suffered an existential crisis. She tried religion, but it didn’t take, and settled instead on socialism, finding in its theories a means of countering the despair of the Nazi period. At twenty, she became a member of the Socialist Party....
Throughout her life, Wolf suffered physically when she felt that society was failing. She endured a heart attack and depressions. Still, she didn’t leave East Germany. In the West, she said, there would be no reason to write. Still, by the nineteen-eighties, her realistic style and her feminism, as much as her critiques of the G.D.R., had made her an established figure in West Germany.
Germany’s reunification brought a series of crises for Wolf. In the months after the wall fell, she argued passionately for change without disbanding the G.D.R. She was harshly criticized. Deeply disappointed by the end of the socialist experiment, Wolf withdrew from the public debate.
Christa Wolf belonged to the generation in which I also count myself. We were stamped by National Socialism and the late - too late - realization of all the crimes committed by Germans in the span of just twelve years. Ever since, the act of writing has demanded interpreting the traces that remain. One of Christa Wolf’s books, Patterns of Childhood, responds to that imperative, exposing her successive immersions in brown-shirted dictatorship and the doctrines of Stalinism. False paths credulously followed, stirrings of doubt and resistance to authoritarian constraints and beyond that, the recognition of one’s own participation in a system that was crushing the utopian ideals of Socialism - those are hallmarks of the five-decades of writing that established Wolf’s reputation, a journey that leads book by book from The Divided Sky (1963) to her final work, City of Angels (2010); and the books remain.
To pick one out: What Remains is the title of a story published in June 1990 by Aufbau Verlag in the East and Luchterhand Verlag in the West. Even before it was available to East and West German readers, some West German journalists - the sort who assumed they were history’s victors and the hour of reckoning was at hand - ignored the embargo and struck. Christa Wolf, the celebrated author who had been much-praised for her resistance, the 1980 recipient of the Büchner Prize, Germany’s most prestigeous literary award, who was mobbed by enthusiastic students two years later as she delivered her Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics, Christa Wolf, whose voice had been heard in both Germanies, was now - the Wall hardly having fallen - subjected to an unending barrage of words. It was like a public execution. The weekly Die Zeit and the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung launched the attack on June 1 and June 2, 1990. Ulrich Greiner and Frank Schirrmacher set the tone that, reverberating among a large pack of journalists, grew into a howling wolves’ chorus. The few dissenting voices were drowned out.
What had caused so much malicious will to destroy? A text written in the summer of 1979 whose themes were doubt, self-doubt, and the eavesdropping and overt surveillance of Christa Wolf and her husband by the State Security Service of the GDR. From the security of their own desks and intoxicated by the sort of gratuitous courage that seems to flourish in editorial offices like a potted plant, these critics accused her of having been too cowardly to publish her story as soon as she had written it. To do so, claimed Ulrich Greiner, "would surely have been the end of Christa Wolf as a state poet and probably have resulted in exile." From his safe corner he asserted magnanimously that "she could easily have found shelter in the West." What a prodigious amount of hypocritical outrage from the pens of journalists who had never been subject to state censorship, but who officiously and opportunistically served the zeitgeist.
Wolf made an imperfect martyr, and she knew it. Born in Landsberg an der Warthe, now the Polish city of Gorzów Wielkopolski, in 1929, she had been in the girls’ branch of the Hitler Youth. Nor was her sincere loyalty to the Führer quick to dissipate after the war. As she later said, “it took a very long time before the first tiny insights, and later profound changes became possible.” Upon reading Patterns of Childhood, the German Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll praised its brutal honesty. The book showed “how eyes and ears that otherwise have nothing physiologically wrong with them can see and hear so little.” In other words, Wolf the seer was made, not born. Like many Germans who did not want to be German after the war, Wolf became a socialist, joining the ranks of anti-fascists in a country “conquered by its enlightenment.” Embracing socialism was a way for her and other Germans to confront, and attempt to compensate for, their own share of German guilt over Hitler and the Holocaust. As she explained in 1984, repeating the famous words of another East German writer, Franz Fühmann, “My generation came to socialism via Auschwitz.”
Christa Wolf, the exemplary writer and dissident from the expired dictatorship of East Germany, was living in Santa Monica in 1992-93, aged 64, working on a novel and conducting a characteristically “ruthless self-examination” about holding onto a belief in the unrealized possibilities of East Germany. She could not help thinking that somehow the country, though not the dictatorship, still deserved to exist - even if “the quest for paradise has always and everywhere led to the creation of hell on earth.” That year of self-examination became the book that has just recently been published in English: City of Angels; or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud, a memoiristic reflection on her past, the history of East Germany, and the nature of memory.
For Wolf, East Germany and its blind spots were gravely personal, as the Nazi regime had been differently personal for Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, T. W. Adorno, and the other German émigrés who had posted themselves on the west side of Los Angeles during World War II. In fact, Wolf’s biography, as she recounts it in this book, might have been staged by Brecht. Born in 1929 in what is now Poland, Wolf was old enough to be enrolled in the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth, and then, not insanely, to conclude that the way to live down the not-so-remote Nazi past was to become a Marxist-Leninist true believer. In the mid-’60s, she would become a high-flyer in East Germany’s Communist Party, until the apparatchiks launched one of many attacks on decadent culture. Then, in a decades-long cascade of disillusion and rethinking, she would grow into East Germany’s chief rebel-writer. Still, even as she “had to admit that my desires and most other people’s didn’t aim in the same direction,” she never ceased to believe there must be a higher human calling than the acquisition of consumer goods...
Explaining without accusing, City of Angels is a profound book, even a heroic one. Knowing that “every line I write … will be used against me,” she refuses to take her blind spots for granted. Perhaps she has learned, in the end, that it is blind spots that make history. In any event, blind spots are her true subject, and her struggle with them, and against them, is formidable, moving, rare, and inevitably incomplete, for blind spots do not disappear in embarrassment, on cue, once they are denounced. She knows that tone is everything, that tenderness counts, that denunciation is the harbinger of war. Wolf is that rarity in the political literature of the twentieth century: one better acquainted with charity than with malice.
Christa Wolf, an East German writer known for her perspectives on power, was for a long time a serious contender for the Nobel prize in literature. Then the East German state ceased to exist in 1990, and the reputation of its most celebrated author also imploded. In 1993 Wolf was revealed to have been an informer for the secret police, the Stasi. Worse, to West German critics, she delayed publishing her own account of being spied upon, a novella written in 1979 and entitled What Remains, until the Berlin Wall came down.
In her last years Wolf, who died in 2011, was branded an opportunist who not only failed to blow the whistle on a corrupt dictatorship, but enjoyed all the privileges doled out to a "state poet". Now a brace of new translations - of her first novel, and her last - offer English speakers a more generous reading of her literature and life.
An ardent young socialist convinced of culture’s mission to educate, Wolf wrote her first novel in 1963. Originally called Divided Heaven, it has now been reissued as They Divided the Sky. The difference goes deeper than the title. Luise von Flotow’s faithful new rendering replaces a text that had been badly twisted by a zealous editor who was determined to suppress all straying from the party line.
The novel, which catapulted Wolf to fame, tells the story of Manfred and Rita, lovers faced with the decision to stay in the GDR or to escape to the West in the tense months before the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The book’s political agenda is clear: Rita, like the author, decides to stay and work for a better society. Yet communist hardliners still condemned the book as decadent; Wolf was accused of portraying industrial workers in a negative light. What is striking in the new restored version is the degree to which Wolf, then still only in her early 30s, was willing to describe her country, warts and all. She does not shy from portraying factory slackers and the blind zeal of party hacks, nor from drawing a convincing portrait of Manfred, whose doubts and frustrations drive him to abandon Rita and his country.
The new version introduces in English for the first time the introspective, autobiographical voice that became Wolf’s signature and strength. Its fragmented points of view and flashbacks were innovative. From the start her ambition was to honour the inner voice and “bridge the contradiction between party diktat and personal truthfulness”, in the words of her biographer, Jörg Magenau. This made her a revered, almost saintly figure to her East German readers; at the same time, her consistently uncertain, questioning tone put her on a collision course with the socialist leadership.
From 1965 on, Wolf’s fiction grew increasingly critical and was frequently censored. Yet unlike other writers, who were imprisoned or fled, she was protected by her popularity. This was to prove her greatest sin after 1989, when she was judged to be a “loyal dissident” - one who criticised from within rather than risking public opposition and exile. That charge of cowardice and complicity, and the damning Stasi file, are what Wolf attempts to answer in City of Angels.
The book is a diffuse, sometimes obscure mosaic of 1993, the year she spent in Los Angeles working at the Getty Research Institute as the Stasi revelations exploded back home. She had forgotten the four documented meetings with Stasi agents more than 30 years before. The revelation plunged her into an acute psychological crisis: had she repressed the memory, or was the episode forgotten because it was “relatively harmless”, as her biographer believes? An equally pressing question is why, despite her disillusionment with the increasingly repressive state, she chose to “stand by the flag”.
As she sifts through the tainted past, Wolf is horrified by her own “incurable” gullibility. She concludes that the Stasi encounters were “short and insignificant”. But she continues to probe. To try to understand how she could blindly defer to authority, she talks to Holocaust survivors and rereads exiled writers, such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, who fled from Hitler to Santa Monica in the 1930s. Like Günter Grass, another German writer who had to confront his past, she locates the roots of her blind spot in a Nazi childhood, which bred in Wolf a longing “to be in harmony with those in charge”.
If it is easy to judge Wolf in the black-and-white grid of freedom versus dictatorship, it is more difficult to classify her as a writer. Yet her quest for personal integrity within a flawed system, and the honesty of her prose, cannot help but impress. In the end, no one judged Christa Wolf more harshly than herself.
(1) Karen J. Leeder, The Independent (6th December, 2011)
(2) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 37
(3) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 79
(4) Hedwig Ertl, interviewed by Cate Haste, for her book, Nazi Women (2001) page 102
(5) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 133
(6) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 145
(7) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 149
(8) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 160
(9) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 201
(10) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 158
(11) Kate Webb, The Guardian (1st December, 2011)
(12) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 193
(13) Richard Grunberger, A Social History of the Third Reich (1971) page 335
(14) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 193
(15) Kate Webb, The Guardian (1st December, 2011)
(16) Karen J. Leeder, The Independent (6th December, 2011)
(17) The Daily Telegraph (1st December, 2011)
(18) Kate Webb, The Guardian (1st December, 2011)
(19) The Daily Telegraph (1st December, 2011)
(20) Holly Case, The Nation (16th May, 2012)
(21) Sally McGrane, The New Yorker (13th December, 2011)
(22) The Economist (13th July, 2013)
(23) The Daily Telegraph (1st December, 2011)
(24) Kate Webb, The Guardian (1st December, 2011)
(25) The Daily Telegraph (1st December, 2011)
(26) Holly Case, The Nation (16th May, 2012)
(27) Kate Webb, The Guardian (1st December, 2011)
(28) The Daily Telegraph (1st December, 2011)
(29) Todd Gitlin, New Republic (7th March, 2013)
(30) Günter Grass, The New York Review of Books (17th January, 2012)
(31) Sally McGrane, The New Yorker (13th December, 2011)