Survivor of Stasiland
The death of Christa Wolf has left Germany bereft of a powerful bridge of literary consciousness, whose universal work could talk to a once-divided nation
I have my work cut out defending to Standpoint readers an East German author who was revealed to have been a Stasi informant in her past and thought that utopian socialism was a better bet than liberal capitalism.
In the case of Christa Wolf, who died in December, it is a risk I am happy to take.
Beliefs matter and wrong ones can do harm, as intellectuals did who tolerated an inhumane system. But so do books and Wolf is one of the finest writers post-war Germany has produced. From Divided Heaven, about the Berlin Wall (1963) to What Remains, with its revelation that the Stasi had also spied on her for decades, published in 1990 after the end of the GDR, Wolf engaged elegantly and bravely with the big questions of a thinking life. What is the “I” we become or adopt and why do we believe what we do? These aren’t just questions for the Left, but for anyone who values the idea of commitment and struggles to live with the consequences, when the real world doesn’t oblige.
Neither did she bowdlerise the East. In my favourite Wolf novel, The Quest for Christa T, the narrator mourns a friend: a teacher who chafes against the constraints of collectivism and celebrates individual freedoms and quirks in a society “where it was hard to see the people behind the banner-slogans they carried”. There is both poignancy and terrible accuracy in her simple language and awareness that the serious writer spans not only ideological divides, but centuries.
When she exhumed the literary memory of Heinrich Kleist’s forgotten contemporary, Karoline von Günderrode, in No Place on Earth, the novel expressed through her the peculiar heartache of those who do not fit their time and place. She echoed Faulkner in her belief that “the past is not dead: it is not even past”, and her references ranged from the Enlightenment poets to Lutheran pietism, with its creed of self-denial. Relentlessly ambitious for the contemporary novel, she applied Greek myths to the Cold War and feminism, in Kassandra and Medea. Personally, she was discreet and campaigned for writers like Wolf Biermann, who was exiled in 1976 and gave assistance to many other writers in trouble, which deepened the authorities’ suspicion and surveillance of her.
In Christa Wolf, divided Germany had a powerful bridge of literary consciousness, and a persistent voice for so many who lived in an impossible situation. And if that hasn’t convinced you, her books just might. (All the works cited here have appeared in English translation, though most are out of print.)