DAY NINETEEN Brave People
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Up here, in the Harz Mountains, on this beautiful spring day, you can feel the light as it streams over you. There is exhilaration in being up here - gazing out north across the great German Plain and southwards to the uplands that rise all the way to the Alps. Not surprising, then, that the Soviet Union wanted the line of the Harz for its western boundary. The 27-mile circle of West Berlin was a price worth paying for the strategic dominance the Soviets gained. So, in the Cold War, the Harz Mountains were a defensive barrier - but they were also a playground for deserving citizens.
Lizzie Gibson remembers the Harz mountains as the setting for ‘a perfect midsummer day’ in Christa Wolf’s novel They Divided the Sky:
"Written in 1963, the novel tells the story of a young girl, Rita, and her older lover Manfred and their lives in East Germany, just before the Berlin Wall was built. Rita is brought up in a small village by her widowed mother, after they are displaced from their home in Bohemia after the war, and taken in by her aunt. She falls for Manfred, a chemistry PhD student who is staying with his uncle, and who strips to wash himself at the pump in the mornings as Rita passes by on her way to work. After meeting at the village dance, the night before he is due to return to the city, he asks her ‘Do you think you could fall in love with someone like me?’ - and she answers ‘Yes’. The day in the Harz mountains comes when Rita has moved to Halle to live with Manfred and his parents, and is working in a ‘brigade’ in train carriage factory before starting teacher training. They escape from the smog of the industrial city in Manfred’s much-prized car, travelling through the ‘blue-grey Kupferschiefer hills and their hard-edged cliffs’ to the northern slopes of the mountains, where Rita rests on a mossy bank by a stream under apple trees. In a half-timbered village a procession is in progress, featuring maids of honour in medieval dress as well as salt-workers and miners, and lab technicians from the chemical works. From the tower of the old castle, the guide points out a city in West Germany that is just visible in the clear weather. ‘For some reason, for many reasons, no one said a word.’ You are aware of the many contradictions of life in the East, as well as between Manfred and Rita. The novel made Christa Wolf’s reputation and has become symbolic of divided Germany. Neil McGregor uses the alternative translation of its title Divided Heaven for the second chapter of his book Germany: Memories of a Nation and refers to it as ‘the most thoughtful, poignant account of the two Germanys as seen from the East.’ Manfred goes to West Berlin and Rita visits him there but decides she cannot stay. Like Christa Wolf, who remained loyal to socialism and opposed the reunification of Germany, she ‘feels more at ease in a society where people at least aspire to work together.’ The politics of the novel, and the parallels with Christa Wolf’s life, are fascinating. But the day in the Harz mountains, Lawrentian in tone, and capturing the beauty of the landscape and the height of the couple’s love for each other, is in the universal language of memory. ‘A perfect midsummer day. They had lived it lightly; it had seemed one of many more.’ " Thank you, Lizzie.
Writers in East Germany during the Soviet era wrote, of course, under the eye of the Stasi. The key is to pick out those authors who remained true to themselves, who spoke truth to power. Until quite recently, the literary output of the GDR was disparaged as 'boy meets tractor'. Now a number of writers are recognised as true – but, interestingly, in their truth, they - like Christa Wolf - did express support, or sympathy, with the precepts, as opposed to the practice, of socialism. Christa Wolf, born in 1929, was a girl under the Nazis and a woman under communism. Perhaps the former explains why she remained loyal to socialist principles, even to the extent of working (maybe) as a Stasi informer. Choose your evil: "At all costs I didn't want anything that could be like the past… That was the source of [my] commitment and… why we clung to it so long", she said. The ideology of East Germany was powerful: these days many people in the East, disillusioned with the promises of unification and freedom and missing the old certainties and comradeship, refer to themselves as OstDeutsche. There is a cafe I like in old East Berlin where I watch the OstDeutsche sixty somethings, who still have their flats, greet and gather in comradely companionship.
Or take a writer like Stefan Heym, an American citizen of German extraction, who had written a best-selling novel, Hostages, before the war. From 1943, Heym served in the US Army writing copy for a psychological warfare unit, and after the surrender he was editor of Die Neue Zeitung, a propaganda organ of the American army. But his editorial line was so anti-Nazi and, more importantly, anti-German elites (he saw the continuities) that he was discharged from the army for being "procommunistic". Which he was: in 1953, he crossed into the East to live his life under socialism. Heym was greeted as a hero. His writings were published in the GDR – and, as he was famous, also continued to be published in the West. This international recognition probably saved him when he started to fall out with the regime about the cultural direction of the GDR. Then in 1976 Heym, with Christa Wolf, signed, a petition against the exile of the singer-poet, Wolf Biermann – which turned Heym into a non-person in his own chosen country. He continued to write, but his books were published only in the West. From 1982, Heym became vocal in his support for the reunification of Germany – a stand picked up by the New York Times which sent a reporter (name unknown) to interview him: 'I often wonder what Marx and Engels would say if they saw this setup'' … ''Socialism does not mean censorship'' ... ''Nobody, not Marx nor Engels nor anybody, ever said socialism means a muzzle.'' Heym did not regret his return: ''The situation is hard, but it is bearable'' ... ''I am not an opponent'' of the East German system, he said, ''I am critical'' … ''I stay here because it is a fascinating place to be for a writer'' ... ''There are a lot of contradictions.'' … Another reason for staying, he said, was to provide encouragement for other cultural rebels. ''If I leave, that is one less independent thinker here.'' The subject of the petition, Wolf Biermann, had seen his father, a member of the German resistance, deported to Auschwitz. He became a committed communist, crossing to the East also in 1953. His immense creativity - poet, playwright, singer - brought with it an unwillingness to conform and his works, such as his play about the building of the Berlin Wall, were suppressed. He personally survived because, apparently, the influential Hanns Eisler (who wrote the GDR's National Anthem) was his collaborator and mentor. But when Eisler died, the way was clear for the Stasi to isolate Biermann (though apparently Joan Baez, who is from a Quaker family, went to visit him when she was performing at a festival in East Berlin). He was exiled in 1976 and, in the West, he took much the same stand as Stefan Heym – publishing work critical of the Stalinist system. Biermann had great personal courage: in 1969 he made an LP in his flat using recording equipment that had been smuggled in for him. He titled his LP Chausseestraße 131 – which was his address, just in case the Stasi couldn't work it out:
The cold women who caress me, the fake friends who flatter me, who expect from others bravery while they wet their own pants in this city which has been torn into two pieces, I am bored with them. And the teachers, youth's flayer, cut the students in their size, They provide every flag's masts, with ideal subservients, who are in thought bovine, but have extra obedience, I am bored with them.
The literary and artistic history of East Germany is fascinating, a mirror to the stages of evolution - or perhaps devolution - from anti-Nazism in the immediate post war years through to the output of the punks and multimedia artists of the Prenzlauerberg Connection in the 1980s. And since 1989, the East German writers are now just writers - the older generations and the new, like the poet Durs Grünbein, a boy under socialism, who looks back now and writes: 'In a rotten nutshell, I grew up amid the barrenness and confusion' (Vita Brevis, trans c.Michael Hofmann).
The sun is still shining as I coast downhill in the wake of the Race Marshal - en route to pay homage at the birthplace of the greatest sculptor of all. And, after the homage, perhaps a few slices of Eichsfelder Feldgieker, a pork sausage that has been air-dried and cold-smoked for twelve months. Christa Wolf’s novel They Divided the Sky was translated by Luise von Flotow. Here is an 90 second film about the novel - https://youtu.be/u3DpRlVqxdc This is Wolf Biermann performing in the Messehalle in Leipzig on the 1st December 1989. Just the first couple of minutes for the mood - https://youtu.be/BdwRQfK7WT8 In this 2019 film of Joan Baez's Farewell tour, Wolf Biermann and Joan Baez sit reunited while Nora Buschmann plays for them: https://youtu.be/gknglrtt0mk And here is Joan Baez singing Diamonds and Rust - why not - https://youtu.be/1ST9TZBb9v8