In Christa Wolf's Patterns of Childhood, what is a description of Lutz in detail?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is no single descriptive sentence, phrase or paragraph that helps the reader neatly define the character of Lutz.  One has to read Christa Wolf’s semi-autobiographical story Patterns of Childhood to ascertain a feel for the role this character plays, and that role is complicated.

In the second-person narration that Wolf employs as a literary device to both accuse and reconcile the conflict between present and past there are repeated references to a brother named Lutz.  Given the autobiographical nature of this work of fiction, one could logically conclude that “Lutz” represents the late author’s real-life younger brother, Horst Ihlenfeld.   The two siblings were born to middle-class parents in Germany on the cusp of witnessing the rise of Adolf Hitler.  Christa and Horst’s parents were ardent supporters of the Nazi Party, and, as with many who were trapped in Soviet-occupied East Germany, sublimated their prior history in order to survive the wrath of the Red Army and the Soviet and East German secret police services that were tasked with responsibility for ferreting out any individuals the loyalty to the new regime of which was suspect.  In Patterns of Childhood, the character of Lutz is an accomplice to the imperative of forgetting the Nazi past in order to assimilate into the communist present – an ironic theme given later revelations, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the former East German secret police, the Stasi’s, files.  Those files contained documentation indicating that Wolf had informed on other writers during the years 1959 to 1962, a phase of her life she either forgot or buried so deeply in her subconscious that the revelation decades later allegedly surprised her.

All of this background is important for understanding the character of Lutz and the relationship to the real-life elements that Wolf incorporates into her story.  In the story as in real-life, Christa/Nelly’s brother is three years her junior, and the two have very similar approaches to their lives in Germany during the war and afterward, in the totalitarian prison that was the German Democratic Republic.  Consequently, references to Lutz tend to be less-than-illuminating, other than to illustrate the extent to which he successfully navigated the byzantine route from Nazi to communist, as when Wolf’s narrator states, “Interestingly, your brother Lutz . . . not only understood your reluctance, but seemed to share it . . .,” and, later when Wolf describes the role of memory in their lives, “Your brother, Lutz, who is neither used nor willing to plumb the depths of his memory . . .”  Lutz has mastered the art of selective memory, a useful survival mechanism for those who survived the Nazi era only to end up in the Soviet one.  Tens of millions of Russians perished during the war as a direct result of the June 1941 German invasion, with tens of millions more dying as a direct result of Stalin’s policies.  In other words, no matter which way one looked, the prospects of dying a peaceful death from old age in one’s home were not good.  The issue of memory is a theme that runs throughout Patterns of Childhood.  In one passage, Wolf writes of her alter-ego and brother, partaking in a rather sadistic game: “Nelly and Lutz, who knows what goes on in the culprits’ minds, shake them up and call them by their real names . . . Their punishment is based on the principle that pretenders deserve to be misled.”

Interestingly, Wolf’s descriptions of Lutz as a child, which come later in the story, would not lead one to predict that he would mature into a rational human being.  Describing Nelly’s brother’s budding career as an arsonist after he sets fire to a wicker chair

“Nelly’s brother has completely forgotten the time in his life when he was considered an intractable child because of his violent fits of temper.”

That this passage occurs in the context of a discussion of the events surrounding Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Jewish businesses were ransacked and synagogues burned to the ground, suggests guilt on the part of Nelly and Lutz for their role, no matter how small, in the persecution of Germany’s Jewish population.  Towards the end of her novel, Wolf again turns to Lutz as the guardian of the family’s need to forget its Nazi past:

“Lutz also said, during your verbal exchange at the stadium, that it made no sense to take world history too personally.  It might even be a roundabout way of overestimating oneself, to pretend to be personally involved, and to find the proper word for that involvement.  You, in turn – familiar as you are with the temptation to defer to his interpretation – tell him, although less and less frequently, that he not being modest, merely uninvolved.  Sober, he says, just sober and therefore less prone to political intoxications.”

Lutz serves to constantly remind Nelly of the pitfalls of thinking politically.  This is a family that was forced to navigate the most dangerous political waters of modern history, and what Nelly’s brother drew from that experience was the need to stay out of it. 

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Patterns of Childhood

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