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1989 – ‘Stop talking about GDR Literature’

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Extracts from Monika Maron’s acceptance speech for the German National Foundation Prize, 2009

‘The German National Foundation prize is not a literary prize as such. It is a political prize which primarily endorses the political impact of our work as perceived by the Foundation, whose aim is ‘to overcome the disaffection between East and West and to strengthen the national identity of the Germans in a unified Europe’. We are honoured that the Foundation considers that our books can make a contribution to that. However, what is an honour as recognition by a political foundation can be problematic as a criterion for literary studies and literary criticism – this award provides me with a welcome opportunity to address this. I am referring to the political-pragmatic reception of books by East German authors, and the heightened expectation that they may hold the keys to understanding, can explain that incomprehensible country and its equally incomprehensible citizens.
 
For me, the GDR was not so much a country as it was an era, and that’s the only justification for the popular adjunct ‘former’: a former era. The former GDR would be a tautology; there only ever was one GDR, just as the Weimar Republic and National Socialism only existed once. What does it involve, then, this ‘explaining an era’?
 
The author makes his characters play out their parts in the conditions of that era, regardless of whether it’s a love story or a tale of social upheaval. In writing successfully about individuals entangled in, or on a collision course with, their era, those characters may illuminate the era and the era throw light on the characters. Those of us who have written stories about life in our era, in the GDR, each according to our experiences and temperament, have done nothing more or less than that. Regarded thus, one cannot really argue with a compulsion to explain, elucidate and shed light on something. Nevertheless I am moved to contradict this desire for explanation, indeed to reject it.
 
For it creates a subconscious association with the existence of something completely foreign, something that requires explanation, like a complicated piece of technical apparatus or a natural phenomenon, more incomprehensible than the Middle Ages, with the person in search of truths bewildered and innocent. And this in spite of the fact that all of us, collectively, were liberated in 1945 from a much more terrible dictatorship, and thus the experience of life under a dictatorship is part of the history of every German family. Shattered and laden with guilt, we set out in those days along divided paths of German post-war history, forty years long; and that is assumed to have been time enough for us to become incomprehensible to each other.
 
I don’t believe that. Even if the conditions that the East Germans experienced during those decades seem absurd, their strategies for surviving, their failings or their courage, their inclination to make their peace with circumstances that they could not change, all this could not possibly have been as alien and baffling to the West Germans – who were cut from the same cloth after all and had the same historical ballast – as they later claimed. ‘I don’t know what sort of person I’d have become there’: that was, or still is, a commonplace remark in the German-German dialogue, and it contains an admission of a degree of uncertainty about one’s own strength of character.
 
There isn’t a single East German who hasn’t heard that remark, and I’d wager not one who hasn’t occasionally thought, ‘I know exactly what sort of person you’d have been, and you should know it, too’. Which brings me back to my uneasiness about the demand for enlightenment and explanation from literature. When we read Heinrich von Kleist’s story about a horse-dealer in the sixteenth century who responded to the grave injustice he had suffered with a campaign of vengeance, then, of course, we learn something about corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power under feudal rule as well, but its knowledge that could be gleaned more effectively from a history textbook. It is not the reason that this novella has stood the test of time, not the reason that Michael Kohlhaas has become a synonym for a violent and destructive passion for justice. It is because we are drawn into the character, this ‘most upright and at the same time most terrible person of his era’. It’s because we understand his obsession, recognise ourselves in him and at the same time are horrified. In ideal circumstances, this is what literature is capable of: understanding in the individual human being something which dwells within all of us.
 
This year sees the sixtieth anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany. One third of that time-span has been shared by us all. And yet one often has the impression that the real McCoy ‘German’, in literature, too, is the West German, and the East is a strange aberration. It’s high time we started assessing the literature created in the GDR, or using the GDR as its narrative base, by its literary quality, as literature, rather than by its geographical or political origins. The GDR was the result of our common German history, it belongs to German history and the literature produced within it is German literature, be it good or bad, truthful or mendacious, much of it forgotten and other works that may well be forgotten – such is the test of time. Perhaps some of it will survive, but we won’t be the ones who decide.
 
 
Translated by Brigid Purcell.
 
This speech was given at the award ceremony held in the National Theatre of Weimar on 16 June 2009. Monika Maron was speaking on behalf also of her two fellow prize-winners, authors Erich Loest and Uwe Tellkamp.
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