With my experience of China, I’ve long been curious about people’s lives under state socialism behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in the GDR (links here), and the potential for expressing alternative viewpoints under such regimes.
In China political and artistic dissent had already been severely punished in the Communist Base Area at Yan’an from the 1930s, and during the Maoist era after the 1949 “Liberation” the scope for variant stances was highly circumscribed, with only a few bold authors like Ding Ling, Wang Meng, and Liu Binyan daring to publicly query the Party line (see e.g. here); the brief Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956–57 was soon regarded as a trap to expose subversion.
As to the GDR, the new translation by Lucy Jones of Brigitte Reimann’s novel Siblings (Die Geschwister, 1963) has prompted a spate of perceptive reviews. *
New German and English editions of Die Geschwister/Siblings,
the latter with well-chosen cover artwork by Walter Womacka (1925–2010) (full mural here).
Rejecting the “boy-meets-girl-meets-tractor” tenets of socialist realism, Brigitte Reimann (1933–73; Foundation; wiki) was an idealistic yet conflicted writer. Besides her diaries (citations below from this article),
Her most famous novel, Franziska Linkerhand, which Jones describes as “German history fed through the form of a love letter”, was incomplete when she died, but became a bestseller when it was published in 1974. […]
Her books’ unusually open depictions of day-to-day life in the GDR, told through the particular viewpoint of a woman, led to them playing an important role in the country, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s as East German citizens sought to critically examine the rationale behind a land that either cosseted them or locked them in, depending on your viewpoint. In the post-communist era they have also offered an insight for younger generations keen to understand their own mothers’ attitudes towards the socialist state in which they grew up.
Here’s the publisher’s blurb to Siblings:
For Elisabeth, a young painter, the GDR is her generation’s chance to build a glorious, egalitarian socialist future. For her brother Uli, it is a place of stricture and oppression. Separating them is the ever-wider chasm of the Party line; over them loom the twin spectres of opportunity and fear, and the shadow of their defector brother Konrad. In prose as bold as a scarlet paint stroke, Brigitte Reimann battles with the clash of idealism and suppression, familial loyalty, and desire. The result is this ground-breaking classic of post-war East German literature.
As this review observes,
Charting the reality of the everyday in socialist Germany, she details her time spent as a state-sponsored artist at an industrial plant in the new town of Hoyerswerda where she ran writing classes for the workers. Her stints on the factory floor, during which she sucked in the black sooty air which likely contributed to the cancer that ended her life, also informs her gritty descriptions of industrial life and quotidian challenges of a socialist state, from supply chain issues, to the scorn she attracted for wearing lipstick at work.
Like Reimann herself, Elisabeth “strains against the artistic and political orthodoxies of old party comrades who refuse to listen to young people, especially women, with fresh ideas”.
It wasn’t blind confidence we were after. It was trust. My generation had designed new machines, cleared forests and built power plants. We’d drained swamplands and manned border posts. We’d painted pictures and written books. We had a right to be trusted. We had a right to ask questions if something seemed shady, if a verdict was disputable, or an authority questionable.
The shadows of Nazism and the war are sketched only briefly; and when Elisabeth is visited by a “nice young man” from the Stasi, she is startled but unscarred. Her brother Konrad has already defected; visiting him in the Western sector, she feels out of place:
Even though I heard German words, I felt like a stranger in a foreign country. I’d thought: When I went to Prague last year, I felt at home, and no matter where I went, I heard Czech being spoken, but never once, not for a minute, did I feel like a foreigner.
The translation comes with useful endnotes. Among the attributes of this short-lived lost civilisation, Michael Hofmann notes
the distressing ugliness of the official jargon, the Kaderwelsch, a play on the words Kader (a party cadre) and Kauderwelsch, meaning “gobbledygook’”.
Of course, such words had a life before and since the GDR (see Some German mouthfuls).
Hofmann also remarks, rather too sweepingly, that
Elisabeth’s feelings towards seniority—as I think Reimann’s were too—are informed by expectant obedience, a sort of eroticised respect. […] All the men in Siblings seem to be the same man, and the woman seems to be equally drawn to all of them.
This brief film clip sets the scene.
While soul-searching became common—almost de rigueur—in Germany after the fall of the Wall, it’s impressive that writers such as Reimann could represent such nuance amidst the high tide of state socialism.
For a compelling biography of a GDR family over three generations, do read Maxim Leo’s Red love.
One thought on “Siblings: life in the GDR”
YES! The brief film clip near her picture!
Seeing the communist military parade I felt like BR.
In her diary on 22.1.1964 she comments:
“I fled. Felt sickly. I saw my ignominious past. March step. Neckcloth. Announcements. I took a shot of spirit down the hatch.”
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