East German Writer Christa Wolf: "The Fears and Longings of Entire Generations"

Dec 2, 2011

Like recent German history itself, her biography is difficult, divided, complex. She will be remembered as a leading exponent of East German literature, which is justified since the bulk of her life and work was intertwined with the German Democratic Republic, communist East Germany, from its inception in 1949 until the sudden, unexpected demise in 1989.

Christa Wolf © picture-alliance/ ZB Enlarge image Surrounded by books: Christa Wolf in a photo from 1973. (© picture-alliance/ ZB) But Christa Wolf, who struggled with the gap between the ideals and reality of the socialist experiment throughout her life, was more than an East German writer: her novels, written in an intimate prose style, enjoyed such critical and popular success from the early 1960s, that she became the voice of a generation, or rather, of several generations. In describing the thoughts, dreams, hopes, fears of people in the GDR, her voice resonated in the West as well as the East, helping to bridge that longstanding divide.

In her best-known works, Christa Wolf dealt with her experience of life in a divided Germany and under the political conditions of the GDR. In particular, she portrayed the individual human being in this political system. Her extensive narrative and essayistic oeuvre was translated in many languages and won national and international awards.

Born in Landsberg an der Warthe in today's Poland in 1929, Christa Wolf (née Ihlenfeld) completed her Abitur – the German university-entrance examination – in 1949 and studied German literature in Jena and Leipzig. She joined the communist Socialist Unity Party (SED) in 1949, remaining a member until 1989. After completing her studies, she worked for the German Writers’ Association and, from 1956 onwards, was employed by the publishing houses Neues Leben (New Life) in Berlin and Mitteldeutscher Verlag (Central German Publishers) in Halle as well as by the journal Neue Deutsche Literatur (New German Literature).

It was during this period that she published her first prose works. Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella) appeared to great acclaim in the GDR in 1961 but was not published in the Federal Republic of Germany. The book, a critical examination of fascism, is today considered one of the most important works in the history of East German literature. From 1962 onwards, Christa Wolf worked as a freelance writer and published further books. The work that established Wolf’s literary reputation was her highly successful novel Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven), published in 1963. It deals with the relationship between a female student and a chemist – a relationship that fails as a result of Germany’s partition. The book gained wider popularity through a film adaptation and garnered her the Heinrich Mann Prize.

Wolf’s attitude towards the GDR remained ambivalent up until the fall of the East German regime. She defended the country and system in which she lived; however, she also publicly criticized it. For example, her 1968 novel Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T.), which was hotly debated in the GDR and even banned at first, deals with the conflict between the individual’s personal development and socialist society. From 1968 until 1989, the writer was under surveillance by the Stasi (State Security Service) for expressing opinions at variance with official doctrine. She later sought to come to terms with this experience in the semi-autobiographical story Was bleibt (What Remains), published in 1990.

In 1993, the revelation that Wolf had been an informant for the Stasi from 1959-1962 seemed to threaten her status as a moral voice for her generation. West German journalists then defamed her as the "state poet" of the GDR. Wolf later described this period as the "hardest weeks of my life," though she felt the barbs from the removal of Los Angeles, where she was a guest of the Getty Center. This experience became the basis for what would be her final book, also a best-seller, published in 2010: Stadt der Engel oder the The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (City of Angels or the Overcoat of Dr. Freud).

Christa Wolf © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image Christa Wolf pictured in a photo from 2008 at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where the archive of her works is held. (© picture-alliance/ dpa) In 2009, to mark her 80th birthday, Wolf received a special gift: a book with over 70 contributions by German-speaking and international writers, artists and public figures entitled Sich aussetzen. Das Wort ergreifen – Texte und Bilder zum 80. Geburtstag von Christa Wolf (Exposing Oneself. Having One’s Say – Texts and Pictures on Christa Wolf’s 80th Birthday). That her 80th birthday coincided with the large-scale public commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall may have been coincidence, but was nonetheless a fitting way to celebrate the achievements of a woman writer who embodied that history in all of its complexity.

With the news that Wolf had died in Berlin on December 1, words of praise came from friends, fellow authors, and public figures. "Her work stands for an artistic achievement of the highest level, but also for an artistic person in which the profile and upheavals of the past decades are reflected as in a kaleidoscope," said Bernd Neumann, Federal Minister of State for Culture and Media.

Said Federal President Christian Wulff: "Her literature moved and inspired the people in our country and brought them to reflection. She represented the great hopes and mistakes, the fears and longings of entire generations."

© Federal Foreign Office/Germany.info

Christa Wolf

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