Franz P. Haberl (review date autumn 1985)

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SOURCE: Haberl, Franz P. Review of Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q, by Christoph Hein. World Literature Today 59, no. 4 (autumn 1985): 588.

[In the following review of Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q, Haberl offers a negative assessment of the play, calling the work “static” in regard...

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SOURCE: Haberl, Franz P. Review of Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q, by Christoph Hein. World Literature Today 59, no. 4 (autumn 1985): 588.

[In the following review of Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q, Haberl offers a negative assessment of the play, calling the work “static” in regard to Germany's social and political development.]

Two clochards vegetate in the dilapidated attic of a temple in a vaguely Chinese ambience. They complain about their pitiful condition and talk about anarchy and revolution. Once a week a nun brings them milk soup. On one of these occasions Ah Q (one of the protagonists [of Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q]) asks her to sleep with him. She refuses and flees. The policeman, acting on orders of the “gracious lord” of the village, administers twenty lashes to Ah Q. His friend Wang comforts him by invoking the impending revolution. Ah Q then leaves the city but returns some time later, well-dressed and apparently wealthy. He, Wang, the temple guard, and the policeman carouse all night. Meanwhile, revolution breaks out in the village. The next day, the “gracious lord” has become the “revolutionary lord” the policeman is a faithful servant of the new regime, and the nun's convent is now called the “Revolutionary Convent of the Immaculate Conception.” Ah Q has brought the nun a daring silk negligee and tries to persuade her to put it on. When she refuses, he struggles with her, then rapes and kills her. He hides her body in a corner of the attic. The policeman arrests Ah Q because he allegedly stole some clothes from the “lord.” Ah Q is beheaded. Wang shows the temple guard the corpse of the nun and flees.

Hein's play is based on a novella by Lu Xun (the “Chinese Gorky”), which might explain its episodic and essentially static quality; although there is a certain amount of action, there is no development in the play. On a personal level one clochard and one nun die; the other clochard shoulders his mattress and wanders on. There is no profound suffering, no purification, no insight gained. On a political level one unsatisfactory regime has been replaced by another, equally unsatisfactory one. Considering the total lack of social progress, it is surprising that the play had its premiere (in 1983) at the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin.

The volume opens with a sort of parlor play entitled Lassalle fragt Herrn Herbert nach Sonja, which deals with the human and political failures of Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–64), the founder of the social-democratic movement in Germany. In Hein's play Lassalle is portrayed as a thoroughly unpleasant, indeed despicable character. In a series of remarks appended to the play, Hein (b. 1944) explains that the characters of the play are not identical with real persons and that the play is “above all a piece of autobiography.” He then compares Lassalle's and his own historical situation in Germany. These remarks and the three essays which conclude the volume reveal the feelings and the thought processes of a major new voice in East German literature.

Wes Blomster (review date summer 1987)

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SOURCE: Blomster, Wes. Review of Schlötel, oder Was solls: Stücke und Essays, by Christoph Hein. World Literature Today 61, no. 3 (summer 1987): 441.

[In the following review of Schlötel, oder Was solls: Stücke und Essays, Blomster focuses on Hein's desire to improve society as the central theme of the collection.]

“The human being,” Christoph Hein declares, “is the animal with the thickest skin.” The two plays and four essays collected in Schlötel, oder Was solls speak urgently of the forty-three-year-old East German author's strong desire to penetrate this armor of insensitivity and move both individual and society toward that “island of blissful humanity” of which Johannes R. Becher dreamed in the heyday of expressionism.

In “Hamlet and the Party Secretary” Hein offers a brilliantly brief assessment of contemporary theatre, lamenting that drama and theatre stand today in no meaningful relationship to each other. At the same time, he insists that only progress within society—upon which valid theatrical life depends—can remedy this situation. As vastly different as the two dramas contained here are, they both reflect this same concern.

The title play, premiered at East Berlin's Volksbühne in 1974, confronts the problems of socialist society in its decade in much the same way that Heiner Müller's play Der Lohndrücker did in 1956. Here an idealistic student is driven to suicide by his inability to show factory workers the error of their selfishly opportunistic ways. Despite the hero's fate, Hein calls the play a Komödie.

In Cromwell Hein studies a revolution that ended in failure despite its initial success. The author's commentary on the play, written for the Cottbus premiere in 1980, stresses its relevance to the “revolution” that the Democratic Republic was designed to perfect.

The volume concludes with Hein's critique of Peter Sloterdijk's Kritik der zynischen Vernunft (1983). This is a major work of modern criticism, marked by a quickness of wit for which Sloterdijk himself is at best a weak match. Schlötel, oder Was solls complements the earlier collection of plays and essays Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q, published in 1984.

Alex Raksin (review date 2 April 1989)

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SOURCE: Raksin, Alex. Review of The Distant Lover, by Christoph Hein. Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 April 1989): 6.

[In the following review, Raksin discusses the emotional self-beguilement of the narrator in The Distant Lover.]

“I'm pretty well-liked,” reflects the narrator, a 40-year-old woman working as a doctor in East Germany. “I have plans. … I look younger than I am. … I'm healthy. I've made it. I'm fine.” We're inclined to disagree, for the narrator's urgent, forced tone suggests that this is less an assertion than a mantra, said repeatedly in the hope that the sum of the first five sentences will add up to the sixth, “I'm fine.”

In The Distant Lover, Christoph Hein, a prominent East German novelist, illustrates the errors in his protagonist's emotional math. Showing that she is neither stronger nor happier for the security she has attained, Hein suggests that safety has its risks, too. The narrator suppresses her feelings of vulnerability (symbolized by a dream-image of walking over the splintered, jagged edge of a ruined bridge) by condescending ruthlessly on the dependencies of others and by dating men who don't seem to need her: “I sat on the bed and told him I liked him very much, and he said I should watch out that I didn't fall in love.”

Hein deliberately keeps the extent of the narrator's self-deception a mystery until the novel's latter half, leading us to accept at face value her reasons for remaining distant. As Hein reveals the self-hatred she has long suppressed, however, we find ourselves maintaining an ironic distance from her point of view. When her chief of staff is caught fooling around with a nurse, for example, she attacks him for joining her colleagues “temple of shabby little deeds,” but we are more heartened by the way they welcome him as a brother for his human imperfection. And in turn, we come to pity the independence she cherishes: “It used to bother me when I caught myself talking out loud, but it doesn't anymore. It's even sort of comforting: There's music on the radio, and a human voice can be heard. What's the difference if it's my own?”

Ann Vliet (review date 25 June 1989)

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SOURCE: Vliet, Ann. “Love at Arm's Length.” Washington Post Book World 19, no. 26 (25 June 1989): 4.

[In the following review of The Distant Lover, Vliet examines the narrator's withdrawal from human relationships and the origination of her emotional barriers.]

As early as 1985, Christoph Hein was being called a major new voice in East German letters, a highly literate and socially conscious poet, playwright, novelist and critic. But The Distant Lover, first published in German in 1982, is Hein's first work to be translated into English. That it took so long is a bit surprising, given the readability of its prose and the universality of its insight.

Reading the book is an active experience, a tug of war between reader and narrator. After the dream-like prologue, showing a frightened woman caught on a narrow beam high over a dangerous chasm, unable to cross or retreat, the conscious narrator controls the board:

Even on the morning of the funeral I still wasn't sure whether I'd go. And since I didn't know what I would decide by noon, I took my mid-season coat out of the closet. It was a dark blue that might pass for black, with a rabbit-fur collar. It was obviously wrong for warm weather, but I didn't want to run around all day in a black suit. And in case I did decide to go, it seemed just as inappropriate to turn up at the cemetery in a summer dress.

As soon as we gather enough clues to figure out that the person being so casually buried is the narrator's year-long lover, we start trying to figure out Claudia herself: a divorced East German doctor whose orderly vacillation between safe, surface options seems chronic.

Elsewhere Hein has defined the human being as “the animal with the thickest skin.” His study of Claudia extends that definition. Claudia is a modern woman, looking out for her own feelings. Her mother tries hard to accept the fact that Claudia doesn't want to marry again, that she prefers the occasional sleep-over boyfriend to any lasting relationship. Claudia tries hard to put up with her parents, visiting them out of duty much less than they'd like, always annoyed at her mother's attempts to “have a good chat,” just as she is annoyed at her acquaintances' attempts to become chummy. She has, she tells us, “enough problems of her own.”

She also manages to keep her distance from her lover Henry. As her life with Henry unfolds in retrospect and we watch her carefully avoiding reaction to his daredevil driving (the only thing, he says, that makes him feel alive) and to every sort of surprise, even his unexpected visits on her boring vacation, we begin to wonder exactly what those problems are.

Hein projects his major character through refracted images and ironic parallels reminiscent of Flaubert: Claudia's neighbors, old women who smell of cheap powder or who raise smelly, noisy birds, hang onto her in the elevator, begging for free pills and spilling their woes. Her “promiscuous” nurse walks around the changing room in her dirty brassiere polishing her nails. A patient “blushes furiously” at Claudia's suggestion that the patient's medical problems may be caused by “a troubled relationship with the outside world.”

It takes several well-protected trips into Claudia's childhood, set in the political confusion of a re-organized Germany, for us to piece together the breaches of loyalty that early established this pattern of rejection. But these are not tortured, psychological diggings. Claudia narrates the story in straightforward, matter-of-fact sentences. As a well-educated doctor, she is conscious that her behaviour is repressive, but she prefers to leave it that way. In fact, we hear nothing at all about the man she has divorced until her married sister suddenly makes a devil-take-all decision to sleep with him herself, and then only the too calm recounting of his infidelities gives Claudia away.

It isn't until we re-live (distantly) the break-up of Claudia's one intense childhood friendship, and understand (between the lines of her defensiveness) the pain of its severance, that things begin to come clear, that we understand how people in this politically nebulous world can become more comfortable clamping down on their emotions than in giving them free reign.

This slim and deceptively simple novel operates on several plot levels at once. Not only is the reader-narrator tension sustained by our drive to ferret out what Claudia refuses to tell us, but Claudia's narrative itself is a living conflict between her need to cross an emotional bridge without faltering or looking down and the intense demands made by telling it. Hein's interest in the problems of socialism suggests a political reading as well. On any level, however, Claudia's crossing affords us a devastating look at one human being's triumphant arrival.

Wes Blomster (review date spring 1990)

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SOURCE: Blomster, Wes. Review of Der Tangospieler, by Christoph Hein. World Literature Today 64, no. 2 (spring 1990): 308.

[In the following mixed review of Der Tangospieler, Blomster compares the narrative to Franz Kafka's The Trial and evaluates certain political undertones.]

Both background and theme make Christoph Hein's brief narrative Der Tangospieler a realistic descendant of Kafka's Trial. Hein sets his story in the summer of 1968, when the attention of both East and West was focused upon attempted reform in Prague while Hein's young historian Dallow sought to reenter the society that had sent him to prison two years earlier. The dubious nature of East German justice that condemned Dallow for his participation in a parody of the aged leader Walter Ulbricht by a student cabaret recalls the omnipresent court portrayed by Kafka over half a century ago. For Hein, however, Kafkaesque existence is no longer a matter of allegory; it has become hard political reality. Indeed, the author portrays his native land as a nation in which everyone has one foot in jail—except for those already there and those who put them there.

Dallow is assured by all those currently in power that “things have changed” and that imprisonment for such a minor matter would now be out of the question; yet because of his prison record, these same people are unwilling to employ him, even as a truck driver. It is, however, Dallow's repeated confrontations with the judge who sentenced him that subject this society to evaluation from a contemporary perspective. Although the novel ends with a bit of fairy-tale justice that restores Dallow to his university position, the unheroic hero makes the return journey on an Autobahn heavy with military convoys on their way to crush Czech reform in August 1968. Parallels to the GDR's longtime commitment to Stalinism (prior to the events of late 1989 and early 1990) are, of course, obvious. Although Hein deserves praise for stretching the boundaries of the sayable in East Germany at the time of the book's composition and publication, Der Tangospieler, a decidedly minor effort, is in no way a source of major revelations.

Dennis Mueller (review date autumn 1990)

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SOURCE: Mueller, Dennis. Review of Die Ritter der Tafelrunde: Komodie, by Christoph Hein. World Literature Today 64, no. 2 (autumn 1990): 630–31.

[In the following review of Die Ritter der Tafelrunde, Mueller examines the play as a representation of the East German regime of Communist Party Secretary Erich Honecker.]

Christoph Hein is an East German author who has rapidly risen to prominence in the past few years. His novella Drachenblut (1983) was translated into all the major European languages; his 1989 novel Der Tangospieler (see WLT 64:2, p. 308) received high praise in a Zeit review by Volker Hage (“Sage niemand, daβ es in der Literatur der deutschen Sprache derzeit nichts zu lesen gebe”); and in the new edition of the Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR (1989) Wolfgang Emmerich wrote: “Kein Autor der DDR hat binnen weniger Jahre die Literatur seines Landes so schlagend und so nachhaltig verändert wie Hein.”

The author's most recent play, Die Ritter der Tafelrunde (The Knights of the Round Table), is called a Komödie or comedy in the subtitle and must necessarily be measured with a different gauge from that which is applied to the literature of socialist realism. Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of the play is its outspoken abandonment of the principles of socialist realism. It can only be classified as a work of romantic escape. The play is a not very subtle depiction of life in the late stages of a glorious reign—i.e., Arthur's—which Hein expects his audience to understand as a disguised picture of the end of the Honecker era. The old guard in the persons of the knights Kay and Orilus has long since passed its prime and no longer has a viable function in society. At the play's opening, two other knights of the old guard, Lancelot and Gawain, are still off on their search for the Holy Grail, their continuing aspiration to attain the dreams of the past. The remaining members of the Round Table are either too old to seek the Grail or are too cynical about it to consider it an aspirational goal. Briefly into the play a letter arrives from Gawain stating that he is withdrawing from the Round Table and giving up his quest for the Grail. Gawain belongs to the old-timers, and he is pulling out before his disillusionment becomes absolute.

Lancelot remains the sole hope for Arthur and all those in his circle who have not surrendered themselves entirely to the past. He has been away for two years, and there is a growing anticipation that his return will signal a new beginning for the circle. At the end of the second act he does return, not with the flourish and fanfare of a successful hero, but as a broken and despondent old man. His vain search for the Grail has aged him so much that he is barely recognizable to the others, including his former lover Guinevere. The Grail is a primary symbol for the knights of Arthur's Round Table. They have kept their faith in its existence, and their search for it has helped them retain their optimistic view of the future. It is depressing, however, to search for so long and constantly come up empty-handed, as Lancelot points out: “Wenn man jahrelang einer Idee hinterherrennt, ohne ihr auch nur ein winziges Stück nähergekommen zu sein, dann ist es etwas sehr Niederdrückendes.”

Two persons stand apart from the others in the play. Parzival is a transition figure who has moved with the times. He is now the editor of a newspaper that is critical of the old ways. For him his paper represents a new goal, a new Grail. The old guard views him as a traitor. They would like to retain the status quo. Parzival is the chief cynic in the play, and it is he who sets much of its tone. The other is Mordred, Arthur's son, who represents the youth of the era. He would like to change the social and political structures in the realm, but he is so skeptical about the old-timers that he does not know to whom to turn or how to begin.

Hein offers no path out of this dilemma. The old guard is fading and has discovered that its quest for the Grail is meaningless. The younger generation is without direction. Transition figures such as Parzival can only criticize the existing state of things but present no alternative paths for the future. In the closing lines of the play Arthur himself acknowledges his disillusion and turns to Mordred, seeking his advice. The latter's recommendation is that the old ways, symbolized by the Round Table itself with its one leg that is constantly falling off, should be placed in a museum. Arthur wonders how that will help, and Mordred merely answers that it will make room: “Luft zum Atmen, Vater.” Arthur warns that Mordred will destroy a great deal with his housecleaning, to which the son can only respond, “Ja, Vater.” Only after the discarding of the old can there be any hope for the future.

In view of the events of the past few months in East Germany it was probably not necessary for Hein to resort to such escapist literature in order to present his critique of the decaying regime of Erich Honecker and his cronies. The turn from socialist realism to a cynical romanticism has done more to lead spectators to an optimistic view of socialist life, the ultimate goal of socialist realism, than have the works of any of Hein's literary predecessors. The sterile model of the proscriptive guidelines of socialist realism is dead, as dead as the knights of the Round Table and their noble quest. Socialist realism itself continues to live on in the literature of that era, but, doubtless to the delight of creative authors in the East, it is now no longer the “Holy Grail” that they are required to seek. They are now free to tap and release their true creativity and write about the real society in which they live.

Wes Blomster (review date spring 1991)

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SOURCE: Blomster, Wes. Review of Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen: Essais und Reden, by Christoph Hein. World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (spring 1991): 297.

[In the following review, Blomster offers a positive assessment of Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen.]

During the past year almost every East German writer who could claim the dissident label has felt an obligation, it seems, to publish a volume of nonfiction pieces documenting his or her activities in the period surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Although Christoph Hein was unquestionably the leading figure of the younger generation among these authors, the unfocused collection Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen speaks uncomfortably of a hurried sifting of manuscripts, undertaken mainly to fulfill this obligation. The twenty-three items included here, nine of which appear in print for the first time, extend from 1988 to the January 1990 address given by Hein marking Kurt Tucholsky's one-hundredth birthday.

In November 1989 Hein shared the dream of a new and truly socialist nation then cherished by many East German intellectuals. The demise of that dream now leaves many of the brief offerings here destined for the dustbin of history. (Still, Hein's Alexanderplatz address of 4 November 1989 will stand as a magnificent monument to a noble sentiment.) The best of the pieces are those which are not directly political, and among that group the prize goes to Hein's tributes to others who labor with literature: the laudatio for Max Frisch upon the latter's receipt of Düsseldorf's Heinrich Heine Prize in 1989, the foreword to Gustav Just's memoirs, and the contribution to an Arbeitsbuch on Christa Wolf. Outstanding is the author's analysis of the Historikerstreit, the debate on German responsibility for the Holocaust that raged within the country's academies late in the last decade. His Leipzig lecture on poetics will remain essential in future considerations of Hein's own literary output. The title essay, by the way, is a witty contemplation of a piece of socialist-realist hack work, the cooperative painting I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child by Komar and Melamid. It constitutes one of the finer available obituaries on the communist dream.

Jim Shepard (review date 12 January 1992)

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SOURCE: Shepard, Jim. “Last Tango in Leipzig.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 January 1992): 3, 8.

[In the following review of The Tango Player, Shepard compares the work to Franz Kafka's The Trial, examining the antisocial behavior of both protagonists.]

In Franz Kafka's The Trial, a washerwoman in the court where Joseph K. is being prosecuted says to him: “It's so horrible here. … Do you think you'll manage to improve things?” He answers: “As a matter of fact, I should never have dreamed of interfering of my own free will, and shouldn't have lost an hour's sleep over the need for reforming the machinery of justice.” He goes on to announce that his arrest now forces him to intervene. But time after time in the novel, given the chance to either help someone else or pursue a more genuine course of subversiveness, he declines.

The reader wants to resist comparing a novel such as Christoph Hein's The Tango Player to The Trial—the comparison seems so expected, so banal—and yet Kafka's influence is so clear in this case that comparison helps illuminate what Hein is seeking to achieve.

Hein, author of the admirable novel The Distant Lover and one of Germany's most notable literary figures, sets The Tango Player principally in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1968, just before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The novel concerns Hans-Peter Dallow, a young history professor and pianist just released after 21 months in prison.

Dallow is as innocent and as random a victim as one can imagine: His crime was to play a song for his students' cabaret performance—a tango with mildly subversive lyrics. He was, as he futilely puts it to more than one puzzled listener, “only the tango player”; even more grotesquely, as luck would have it, only a stand-in for the real piano player. On top of that, Dallow is so apolitical that even as a historian specializing in Czech and Slovak history, he is at the moment apparently “the only one in the whole country who isn't totally preoccupied with what's happening in Prague.”

The novel follows the bumpy progress of Dallow's attempts to readjust to freedom. He looks for work and finds that for mysterious reasons no one will hire him. As dazed as a puppy cuffed on the ear, he spends his time drifting through the surreal dailiness of his reestablished life, sleeping late, vegetating in cafes, spending evenings in his apartment sewing buttons on his clothes. Like so many postwar German protagonists, he suffers from a particularly debilitating boredom and restlessness, and he's forever throwing on his overcoat and leaving the apartment in search of who knows what. But he has to confess that “his attempt to outfox himself, to force himself to view inactivity as a new enriching realm of experience had failed.”

He wants, primarily, two things: to resist society's overtures to lure him back into the fold, and to resist following, as the rest of his society seems to be doing, the unfolding events in Czechoslovakia. Both courses of action would make him more political, he feels, and that's something he's determined to avoid.

Precisely like Joseph K., Dallow is so focused on his undeniable innocence of his particular crime that he's able to overlook his complicity in a totalitarian state. His time in jail makes him even more determined to be apolitical, since politics, as he sees it, is what got him into trouble in the first place.

Through his attempts to readjust—his visits with neighbors, his run-ins with the police, various dismally loveless sexual encounters—we see the inevitability with which such a state perverts the most ordinary human interactions. (“I was thinking about something else,” Dallow says at one point to explain to a merchant his distraction. “I'm always thinking about something else,” the merchant retorts. “It helps.”)

Hein does a marvelous job of capturing the everyday petulance and weariness of those living under persistent oppression (“You got me out of bed,” Dallow says moodily to the police when they show up yet again to question him), as well as the enervation of having one's powerlessness constantly confirmed. He evokes beautifully a sense of how viscerally unsettling the fear is. Here's Dallow, three months after his release, upon receiving a letter from the judge who sentenced him:

He sat down in the apartment, placed the letter on the table without opening it, and thought. He reached for the newspaper and unfolded it, but he was too nervous to read anything. He took the letter, turned it over in his hands indecisively, and put it back down. The letter upset him greatly. He suddenly felt acid collecting in his stomach and stood up. He took the paper and went to the toilet. He spat several times, then sat down on the rim of the tub. He waited, afraid he might vomit.

The understatement and matter-of-factness of such prose is characteristic of the novel's strategies, and central to its success.

The novel is not without its faults. Much of what we're told about the ironies of Dallow's psychological position seems familiar (“His cell, as he now discovered, had been a familiar environment, a home, safe and secure and no matter how ardently he had desired and longed for it, freedom had become alien and strange”). At times, the narrative restraint that serves the novel so well is breached by thematically overt passages that do our interpreting for us: “He realized that he was now constructing another cell for himself, solitary and isolated, and that he was anxiously checking that the door stayed locked.” Characters are at times unconvincingly oracular: One pipefitter that Dallow meets announces, “I've learned that the straight way is the labyrinth,” and Dallow's lover responds to his comment that he's getting old with, “Memories are the most beautiful thing about love.”

A more pervasive problem is that the novel constantly confronts the difficulty of dramatizing stasis, and too often forces us to experience and re-experience Dallow's aimlessness “For a few minutes he lay in bed and wondered once more what kind of work he could do, where he should apply. Undecided, he finally got up and went to the bathroom.”

But finally The Tango Player is successful in bringing its historical and literary models together into a compelling and memorable aesthetic whole. We remember Dallow's East Germany. We remember Schultz and Muller, two East German policemen of uncertain rank, comic/sinister bumpkins right out of Kafka, full of amiability and good cheer, who carry out the state's wishes with such a lack of malice that they're continually wounded by their victims' puzzling irritability. They're kind, they're obliging, and they want to make clear that what's happened—or what is about to happen—is no one person's fault. They're the people who keep the machinery of oppression humming along.

Which is, finally, the critically important point. Throughout The Tango Player, what develops before us is the unexpected irony that the totalitarian state, in its assumption of the guilt or potential guilt of all of its citizens, turns out to have been more prescient than we would have first believed. There is, after all, a case to be made that all those living under such regimes and just trying to get along, and all those not working actively for change, are guilty, as guilty as their governments arbitrarily announce them to be at any moment.

At one point, Dallow's lover says to him: “You're self-righteous and inconsiderate. None of these people put you in prison. And I didn't send you there either.” But of course what Dallow senses is that in some way they did—in the same way that he effortlessly helps to send others.

Jeffrey A. Frank (review date 14 January 1992)

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SOURCE: Frank, Jeffrey A. “Under Big Brother's Eye.” Washington Post Book World (14 January 1992): E2.

[In the following review of The Tango Player, Frank discusses the work as a commentary on the transitional state of politics and emotions surrounding the decline of the German Democratic Republic.]

Hans-Peter Dallow, the protagonist of this witty, subversive novel [The Tango Player], is introduced just as he's released from the East German prison where's he's spent 21 months. His “crime” was a pathetic offense—having played the piano in a politically incorrect cabaret show. Now he's very much on guard, and uneasy: “The fear has crept into the bones of my fingers,” Dallow tells an official as he leaves his jail.

In the world described by playwright and novelist Christoph Hein (author of The Distant Lover), most of those in Dallow's circle are sympathetic, but also cautious—starting with former colleagues at the Institute, where he'd taught history. Even Dallow's mother and father are suspicious of their ex-convict son. Dallow's protestations that he was merely an innocent accompanist in a student cabaret—(“I was only the tango player”)—are often repeated.

The time is 1968, and the repulsive face of the old regime hovers in the background. The face takes its most visible form in Prague, where Soviet tanks are moving in. In Leipzig, those who feign loyalty to the regime still look over their shoulders. The currents of the time flow hesitantly; Dallow reads “two short articles about Warsaw and Prague, from which he could only gather that the newspaper's editors were following certain events in these cities with great interest and deep concern, though what these events were remained unclear.”

After 21 months locked up, Dallow makes interesting discoveries. With some amazement, he learns “how inept and ill-prepared he was for freedom.” And suddenly he cannot come to terms with the word “future”—his own seeming “like an enormous sheet of paper, white and terrifying.”

Life after prison has a certain inevitability. As Dallow encounters family, or neighbors, or ex-colleagues or even the judge who sent him away, he becomes frantic and confused—his musings are like notes from underground. The woman he'd lived with has left him, moving out days before he reclaims his apartment. He begins to frequent bars, where he meets, among others, the sensible, attractive Elke. Inevitably, she gets fed up with Dallow. In particular, she becomes fed up with his unwillingness to return to his career as a historian. Why does he profess disinterest in the events in Prague? Why does he pretend that he'll find happiness as a truck driver, or a waiter? And so on.

The Tango Player never dwells directly upon the failed systems of Eastern Europe; Hein's sense of irony is too keen for that. Yet the regime that was (and that Hein knew all too well in the former East Germany) is always there. It is present in every shop, in every pub, and—quite literally—comes through the front door, in the forms of the mysteriously banal Herr Schulze and Herr Muller, who easily use words like “parasite” and “asocial element” to describe the Dallows of their world.

Dallow may run to assume his role as outsider, but he cannot hide. He even gets stopped in the middle of the night by two policemen who examine his papers and chastise him for a deficient mud flap on his car. (Why is it that Germans in positions of authority always seem unusually sinister?)

What makes all this less-than-promising material work is, above all, Hein's terrific eye and his sense of the power of the state—even if the state is on its last, decrepit legs. He understands (as Orwell did) that one of the system's most sinister talents is its ability to leach independent thought from the individual, a phenomenon Dallow experienced in prison: “None of his musings had any practical consequence, and so they inevitably became confused, and he soon lost the ability to express them in words. His thinking was incomplete; it filled his head with a strange, impenetrable, and disconcerting jumble of fractured ideas.”

Hein (who apparently wrote The Tango Player as the East German state was crumbling) also understands the curious appeal of life under totalitarianism. When Dallow actually becomes homesick for his cell—“the strange security, the comprehensive care … the total regulation of his life,” Hein, not very subtly, is suggesting that his countrymen are coming to grips with similar emotions.

The suspicious looks, the dark streets, the empty train stations, the prying state—it was a cast of characters for much of the world for much of this century. In The Tango Player, in Philip Boehm's graceful translation, it seems no less wicked in the moment of its disappearance.

William J. Niven (review date June 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6774

SOURCE: Niven, William J. “The Vanquished Self: Christoph Hein's Drachenblut and Der Tangospieler.Journal of European Studies XXII (June 1992): 127–41.

[In the following review, Niven examines the loss of independence and identity in the protagonists of Drachenblut and Der Tangospieler.]

In her novel Flugasche (1981), Monika Maron describes how a journalist bent on exposing the inhumanity of GDR environmental politics is crushed by the resistance of authority.1 Stefan Heym in his novel Collin (1979) describes how a leading GDR writer was only able to achieve official recognition at the cost of his individual conscience.2 These perspectives are typical of oppositional GDR literature: critical voices are stifled by the state, while representatives of the state can be relied on to stifle themselves any inner impulse to criticism or rebellion, since the maintenance of their privileged position is at stake. The pattern is either one of repression or self-repression. Christoph Hein, in the novel Horns Ende (1985), also takes up the theme of systematic victimization, in this case of even the most harmless of opponents.3 In this article, however, I wish to consider Hein's novella Drachenblut (1983) and his novel Der Tangospieler (1989) as examples of GDR literature in which quite everyday, ‘normal’ individuals—i.e., neither state representatives nor opponents—are depicted as victims both of the state (repression) and of their own fear of and dependence on this authority (self-repression). The theme is a topical one: Hans-Joachim Maaz, East German psychotherapist, has recently created a stir with his book Der Gefühlsstau: Ein Psychogramm der DDR (1990).4 Here he postulates the theory that Socialist praxis in the GDR led to a nation-wide loss of individuality, people being afraid of asserting their identity in case it led to conflicts with authority. Hein frequently lamented that, in the GDR, writers had to fulfil the function of the press. Drachenblut and Der Tangospieler are evidence of the fact that literature could also fulfil the function of psychoanalysis, officially spurned in the GDR. Hein, like Maaz in his study, points the finger of blame in the above-mentioned works not just at the state, but at the individual's readiness to abandon the complications of identity in return for being ‘left in peace’ (Claudia in Drachenblut) or for being ‘looked after’ by the state (Dallow in Der Tangospieler).


Hein's first major work of prose, the novella Drachenblut, appeared in the GDR in 1982 under the name Der fremde Freund and in West Germany a year later—for copyright reasons—under the name Drachenblut.5 Hein did not consciously set out to write a novella. In an interview he gave in Graz, he explained that, when asked by his publishing company to provide a genre specification for his story, he came on reflection to the conclusion that it fulfilled all the criteria Goethe had required of the novella: namely unity of time and place, a certain distance to the subject-matter and the occurrence of an unheard-of event.6 The most interesting criterion here is the third one. The reader might be forgiven for seeing the murder of Henry as the unheard-of event. But in this interview, and elsewhere, Hein stresses that what is unheard-of is the kind of life led by Claudia, the first-person narrator and Henry's girlfriend. If we take Hein at his word, then the whole novella is one long unheard-of event. Clearly, what is meant here is not unheard-of in the Goethean sense. That Claudia lives far from her emotional centre—she is determined never to commit herself emotionally to anyone or anything—is not presented as something unusual. Henry's attitude is identical to hers in this respect, and other characters in the novella lead equally disorientated lives. Hein surely means unheard-of in the modern sense of morally shocking, although the morality he takes as his standard is not conventional social morality. Claudia's self-repression robs her of individuality and profile. She has ceased to be a living human being, and that is what is shocking. Without wishing to interpret the novella as a ‘religious’ work, it has at its base a religious indignation that there can be a society in which people not only exist without consciousness of their own souls, but where they have no wish to know their own soul and even regard it as practical and sensible to live, as Claudia puts it, on the ‘surface of life.’

Hein's wish in Drachenblut is to examine the warping effects of years of conformity on the personality. He is careful to diagnose the cause of this conformity. For the most part, the action of Drachenblut takes place at the end of the 1970s. But in chapter nine, Claudia, nearly forty, returns to the town where she spent part of her childhood in the 1950s. This wish to re-establish contact with the past is ambivalent. On the one hand it indicates a psychological regression, the desire to go back to that point where life went wrong and, as it were, start again. On the other hand it could be born of a constructive impulse, namely to confront the past and learn from the mistakes thus confronted. Claudia relates the story of her childhood in detail. What emerges is a picture of repression in the home and at school. The key experience is the pressure put on Claudia to end her friendship with the Christian Katharina: here, as elsewhere (see below), Hein discredits the theory that 1945 represented an ethical and political watershed, since GDR Socialism represses in the name of an ideology in the same way as National Socialism and even represses one of the same groups. Claudia, faced with the choice between fighting for her friendship and alienation at home and school, ends the friendship. In fact she turns against Katharina, ridiculing her for her Christian beliefs and later, Katharina having left to join her Christian brothers who have fled to West Germany, accusing her of betraying the state. The psychological mechanism is clear: to avoid being ostracized, Claudia identifies with her aggressors, rejecting her own emotional disposition and the object of her love. The result is a lasting fear and stigmatization of intimacy. Repression is internalized, the state no longer needs to regulate Claudia because she has become her own regulator. Hence her preference for relationships, such as that with Henry, which remain superficial. Her antagonism towards strong feelings in herself indicates that the antagonism she directed towards Katharina has now been turned on herself.

Claudia's childhood also deformed her personality in other ways: it permanently damaged her sexuality, her self-confidence, her intellectual curiosity and her moral self-image. When Claudia's favourite male teacher is accused of sexually abusing a female pupil, Claudia's mother lectures her daughter on the dangers of sex. The result in Claudia is a subsequent disgust of her own sexuality—it is significant that, in her depiction of her relationship with Henry, she makes no references to her sexual feelings, while frequent references are made to sexual desires on the part of Henry. This piece of damage demonstrates that sexual inhibitions were as much a part of Socialist society as they had been of Wilhelminian and National Socialist society. Another historical link is the authoritarian school system. Claudia's sports' masters use discriminatory teaching methods, favouring some girls while exposing the less able (or less attractive) to ridicule and sadism. Claudia, not being good at sports, develops in these lessons a lasting sense of inferiority. Is Hein perhaps indicating in this detail a parallel between the sport-obsessed Third Reich, with its equation of physical and moral health, and the equally sport-obsessed GDR? Certainly, when a Soviet tank enters the town on the occasion of the GDR-wide protest against Ulbricht's hardline political course, and no-one at home or in the school wants to talk about the issue, one recognizes a symptom of totalitarian systems, be they Communist, National Socialist or Fascist: elders would rather keep quiet than endanger themselves or their children by talking about events such as the 1953 uprising in the GDR which, officially, should never have happened and therefore never did. The result is again fatal: Claudia loses all interest in a spirit of inquiry. In later life her father complains about her lack of interest in politics And the senior consultant for whom she works comments on her lack of interest in the state of medical research. Her hostility towards self-analysis and psychiatry may in part also originate here.

Finally there is the childhood episode involving her uncle, who is arrested and punished when it is discovered that, although a Social Democrat, he betrayed other Social Democrats and Communists to the Nazis. Visible here is the old conflict between Social Democracy and Communism, the GDR Socialists bent on finding any means by which to discredit morally their supposed partners in the SED. In persecuting the Social Democrats in the early years of the GDR, the Socialists made themselves guilty of Stalin-style and Hitler-style purges: and the method of coming to terms with the past described in this episode of Hein's novella merely creates a new burden of historical guilt. The effect on Claudia is one of self-disgust. She had been taught to see herself as an anti-Fascist, but that her uncle, to whom she felt very close, is now accused of treachery causes in her a crisis. She begins to see herself as contaminated by Nazism and goes through a period of self-condemnation. The effect of her mother's attitude to sex was that Claudia washed herself from head to toe after her first kiss from a boy. She ‘cleansed’ herself. Her rejection of Katharina and her self-condemnation after the arrest of her uncle are also attempts at self-purification and at restoring herself in her own eyes and in the eyes of those around her. In later years, her emotional self-denial often has a masochistic quality, as if she is still punishing herself for her childhood ‘aberrations.’ No-one helps Claudia with any of her problems: faced with the silence and helplessness of parents and teachers under ideological pressure from above, her appeals and questions fall on deaf ears. She learns to withdraw into herself and stifle any desire for self-projection.

Claudia's trip into the past reveals to the reader the totalitarian dimension in GDR Socialism. But it does not help the Claudia of the 1970s, who, despite recognizing that psychological damage was done, regards this damage as irreparable. This attitude frees her of the responsibility of trying to help herself; at bottom she fears trying to liberate her stunted emotionality because it means confronting precisely those deep-seated fears of alienation, hurt and victimization which are the legacy of her childhood and which her self-repression enables her to avoid. Whenever she is able to perceive herself as having a problem, she either dismisses it as insoluble, plays it down (by telling herself that everyone has problems) or, to suppress any tendency towards critical self-analysis, launches an attack on the value of psychoanalysis by claiming that it only exacerbates problems rather than solving them. In the dream-sequence which opens the novella, Claudia dreams that, while crossing a bridge, she looks straight ahead and avoids looking down into the abyss below. The dream reflects reality, where Claudia focuses her attention on everyday events to avoid having to take a deeper look into herself. Most of the time, she succeeds in deceiving herself as to her true condition; self-repression, after all, is not in the interest of the organism and can only be withstood if the individual succeeds in self-delusion. Thus she sees her lack of emotion as pragmatism, her detachment as self-protection. By constantly condemning the impersonality of modern civilization and its dehumanizing effects—everything from postcards and newspaper advertisements to funerals, marriages and divorces—she can convince herself that her caution is both common sense and a symptom of a general malaise beyond her control. Her philosophy, whatever truth it might contain, is a psychological stratagem.

The fact that her personal and social life are modelled in the interests of her self-repression is significant. She allows herself to be taken possession of by Henry, her role in the inception of the relationship is utterly passive. As long as relationships are imposed upon her from outside (in the case of her ex-husband Hinner, she saw her pregnancies as male impositions), they are not a question of her own emotional will and even serve to repress that will. That Henry is not interested in deepening the relationship ideally suits Claudia because it enables her to keep it superficial. It is striking that, socially, Claudia is popular. Even total strangers—such as the girl who serves her in the dry cleaners—warm to her. But her popularity is the result of her total lack of self-projection and thus hardly positive: people instantly recognize in Claudia someone who will listen to their problems and exploit her as a screen for their own self-projection. She complains about this, but, again, as long as she acts as a ‘listener,’ she can avoid talking about herself and thus exposing herself to potentially critical scrutiny. Her friends are, in several cases, psychologically sicker than she is: they are so preoccupied with their own problems that there is little chance of their perceiving hers. By comparing herself with her friends (Maria, Anna), Claudia convinces herself of her own normality. By maintaining her contact to the sado-masochistic partnership between Fred and Maria, moreover, she can convince herself of the perversity of the world around her and strengthen her belief in the inadvisability of marriage and emotional closeness.

Claudia's professional life might also be interpreted as a stratagem intended to blind her to her problems. Claudia is a doctor. We see her going about her tasks with pragmatic efficiency. The professional preoccupation with other people's illnesses is a way of avoiding self-confrontation. And it concentrates her energies on the treatment of external wounds rather than internal ones. In any case, she spurns psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. Modern psychoanalysis was discouraged by the authorities in the GDR, no doubt because it could only lead patients to rebel against the source of their problems—namely against the state. But Claudia does not need discouragement, since her fear of self-analysis has already disposed her against psychoanalysis. She is an example of how an individual, after internalizing external repression, then supports the repressive system of which she or he is a victim. At one point Claudia helps to patch up the wounded after a fight between drunken youths at a discothèque. The fight has a psychosocial origin, but in treating the superficial wounds only, Claudia helps to cover up the causes by concentrating her medical skills on the symptoms.

Claudia's refusal to confront and solve her problems, her inability to release and live out her emotions, result in a disintegration of her personality. She possesses little will, has no ideals, no ambitions; she lives, as she herself claims, ‘biologically.’ Her only hobby, photography, is characterized by a preference for dead or ruined objects, reflecting thus her inner state, but symbolizing also a mechanical perception of reality, the absence of feeling as the natural mediator. Claudia is a victim of her childhood, but has she therefore no responsibility to change herself?

Hein writes the whole novella with a feeling for the discrepancy between assumed and actual (hidden) identity. Claudia, despite the comprehensive and efficacious range of self-repressive mechanisms she has developed, cannot stifle her emotionality completely—witness her indignation and hurt when she learns that Henry is married, her humiliation when she is told that Hinner wants to marry her sister, her desperate attempt to get closer to her father when she sees how well Michael gets on with his father. In these moments she turns on herself just as she turned on Katharina: she instantly conducts the sudden upsurge of emotional energy into scorn for her own feelings and thus into renewed self-repression. As a result, emotional protests remain but momentary perturbations of her policy of self-discipline. But these moments represent ‘chances’ of self-change, just as her visit to her childhood and her retrospective relation of her life with Henry represent ‘chances.’ Her best chance comes right at the end of the novella, where her real self emerges clearly for the first time, erupting to the surface and causing her to express, in violent protest, her wish for intimacy.7 Her response is to assert the impermeability of her defences. Her failure to take her last chance is Hein's way of driving a final wedge between the reader and his or her sympathies for Claudia. Many of Hein's GDR readers will have recognized themselves in Claudia. Hein, by systematically portraying Claudia both as victim and self-perpetuator of her own crisis, creates and undermines sympathies, encourages identification and then critical distance. It is his didactic hope that the reader will assume distance to those defeatist elements in himself or herself which led to the identification with Claudia. Insight results not just in criticism, but in self-criticism and rethinking. The novella is thus a piece of psychotherapy by example: moral shock as corrective.

Claudia is not the only repressed character in the novella: the portrait of human society provided is generally bleak. Perhaps this is the key to the international success of Drachenblut: that emotional impoverishment, barbarism and violence lurk beneath the surface of modern civilization, giving the lie to notions of human progress, are an experience not limited to the GDR. But Hein's experience is specifically a GDR experience, and the severity and nature of the moral decline depicted in the novella reflect this particularity. Far from liberating the individual, ‘real’ Socialism meant repression, this in turn leading to an inability to realize individuality. Inevitably, aggression resulted, which, unable to find a true outlet, was acted out amongst the victims. This explains the moral decline. Hein's novella shows that, by and large, the traditional sexual roles served as a vehicle for the release of this aggressive potential, and that males and females were united in a sado-masochistic complex questioned by neither sex precisely because it was an effective means of discharging frustrated energy. In Drachenblut, the males dominate while the females passively accept their dominance. The domination can be sexual. In the case of Anna and her husband, rape is ritualized within the context of marriage. Henry's first action when seeing Claudia is usually to apply sexual pressure. He half-molests her on one or two occasions and once rapes her. The domination can also be psychological, though it is no less brutal: the senior consultant, for instance, or the dentist Fred, treat their wives as objects. And the domination can be physical: Michael strikes his child, while Henry strikes Claudia when she attempts to prevent an accident occurring. Claudia may be different from other women in the novella in that she essentially provides her own repression: unlike Maria, she does not need a man to stimulate her self-aggression. But Henry's occasional violence towards her—despite her indignant (though passive) reaction—supports her own efforts.


Hein's most recent novel—it appeared in the GDR in 1989, in West Germany in 1990—is Der Tangospieler.8 The central character, Hans-Peter Dallow, is a teacher in the history department at the university of Leipzig. Like Claudia and Horn in Horns Ende, Dallow is a victim of the GDR. In a sense he is the most unfortunate victim. Against his will, he agrees to replace a sick pianist in a student cabaret. The following morning, along with the other cabaret participants, he is arrested; one of the cabaret numbers, a tango, was, unbeknown to Dallow, critical of Walter Ulbricht. Innocent of a crime which was in any case hardly a crime (the satire was apparently fairly harmless), Dallow is sentenced to 21 months in prison. The novel focuses on the time immediately after his release.

Initially, Dallow wants to carry on his life as he lived it prior to his imprisonment, which he wants to forget as quickly as possible: his admiration for his car, which—unused while he was in prison—runs as smoothly after his imprisonment as before, symbolizes his wish to operate just as efficiently. But he comes to realize that prison has uprooted him from his former social and professional context and driven a wedge between him and his pre-prison past: he falls prey to a brooding disorientation. Times, moreover, have changed. At first it looks as if there is little chance of Dallow being given his university job back. In his place, a former student girlfriend and protegée of his, Sylvia, is now teaching at the university. And Roessler, a former colleague of Dallow's, has been promoted in Dallow's absence to a position in which Dallow would have been interested. But Dallow is able to see the positive side of these developments: reflecting on his time as a university teacher, he scornfully recalls having to preserve a veneer of enthusiasm for ideals in which he had no faith (thus he has to restrain himself from making sarcastic remarks).9 His teaching had been a charade, a dissimulation only possible at the cost of personal integrity. It seems, too, that Dallow had developed an urbane cynicism, a pride in his ability to deceive which blinded him to or at least reconciled him with his self-prostitution. Retrospectively realizing the arrogance of this attitude, it would seem that Dallow's eyes have been opened to the ideal of freedom. His dedication to this ideal is anchored by the attempts of two Stasi officials—Schulze and Müller—to get him his old job back on the condition that Dallow act as a spy. Dallow's reaction is indignant.

Dallow's concept of freedom is one of non-participation, refusal, passivity. But since he has spent his entire life—and above all the prison years—carrying out instructions, he is psychologically ill-equipped for idleness. To say that he lives among people who are intolerant of his idleness is true; it is also true that pressure is applied on him from all sides (Schulze and Müller, Roessler, his parents and girlfriend) to return to his old job. He lives in a society where inactivity is taboo, a social evil. But Dallow himself runs away from his idleness, taking refuge in sleep, drink, sex, bar visits, restless driving around and fanatical cleaning-up of his flat. The alternative would be, of course, to act on his freedom, but this would presuppose a strong sense of personal identity and an inner directive. Dallow's attachment to the ideal of freedom is notional, abstract: it lacks emotional or spiritual roots. Certainly, it is the first step towards self-liberation, but years of near-slavery have so buried Dallow's real personality that he is apparently unable to establish contact with it. He is good evidence of the principle that external freedom does not automatically generate internal freedom but rather, in the absence of the guiding force of personality, leads to a spiritual crisis and the wish for re-enslavement. Dallow, after a period of apathy, listlessness and boredom, finds himself confronted with an inner emptiness which increases the longer he is away from state control; unable to overcome this, he falls prey to existential Angst. He even fears self-dissolution.10 Time and again he dreams of returning to his cell and of thus abandoning responsibility for his life.

His angry attack on the judge who prosecuted him, Dr Berger, has to be understood in this context. It is a subconsciously motivated attempt to destroy his freedom by provoking authority into removing it. By forcing Berger to take punitive action against his violence, he invites the reimposition of external controls and the authoritative restructuring of his disordered existence. Berger threatens legal action unless Dallow finds a job. Within three days, Dallow has found summer employment as a waiter on Hiddensee; he packs his bags with the childlike glee of a man glad to be rid of a burden, in his case the burden of freedom. His job as a waiter, receiving and automatically carrying out orders, enables him to function with the same mechanical efficiency as his car. Dallow seems happy with this. Earlier in the novel, a pipe-layer had told him that the straight path is a labyrinth, Hein's way of indicating that the path to freedom is fraught with difficulties; now, Dallow finds the pipe-layer's phrase inappropriate and prefers to contemplate trees twisted into odd shapes by the wind, which have found ‘a touching way’ of living with their humiliation.11 The symbolism is clear: the idea of ‘bowing down’ now appeals to Dallow more than any ideals of freedom.

When again offered the chance to return to university, Dallow accepts. This represents the total surrender of his freedom. It is equivalent to returning to his cell. Hein again uses symbolism to indicate this. The prison in which Dallow was held while awaiting trial and the history institute where Dallow taught and will again teach enjoy a significant physical proximity: Dallow could even see the institute from prison, offering him a hitherto unknown perspective. Both the prison and the institute have rented buildings from the local judicial authorities: both are, as it were, extensions of a repressive system.

Dallow's return could, perhaps, be predicted from the moment immediately after his release when he checked to see if his telephone was in working order and, without realizing he was doing so, telephoned the number of his institute. And the suspicion remains throughout the novel that, while Dallow's conscious wish is for freedom, his subconscious desire is to return to university. In this case, his initial refusal to return would be motivated not by a spirit of independence, but by indignation at not being offered promotion. To return to university as ‘Oberassistent’ is beneath his dignity: ‘that would be like spitting in my own face.’12 Only when offered a ‘Dozentur’ (full lectureship), which he feels to be worthy of him, does he consent. His condescending attitude to students in general and, on Hiddensee, his sexual exploitation of female students indicate deep-seated vindictive anger at the fact that he is no longer in a dominant university position and are an attempt to find alternative compensatory forms of dominance. The cynical awkwardness with which he responds to Roessler's attempts to help him indicate his resentment that Roessler has been given the position he would have liked: Dallow likes to see Roessler squirm. One wonders at Dallow's reluctance to take other forms of work (his father offers him his farm, a member of the student cabaret offers him help, Harry offers him a job as pianist). When he does bow to his girlfriend's pressure and seek work, it is as a lorry-driver, an enterprise he knows to be fruitless (while blaming Schulze and Müller for its fruitlessness). This could well be motivated, in part at least, by a spirit of spiteful non-co-operation designed to encourage authority into offering him a better university position. In this case, Dallow's ‘freedom’ would be a form of moral protest and pressure implying the wish to return to university only on condition that he be ‘promoted’ in return for the injustice of imprisonment. Certainly his return to university is a flight back to his official Socialist identity as historian: throughout the novel he has only been capable of conceiving of himself in the terms defined by the state or his role in this state, either as offending ‘tango-player,’ ‘ex-historian’ or, ultimately, ‘waiter.’ Dallow never attains an individualized perception of himself.

As in the case of Claudia, Hein portrays Dallow as the victim of social and political deformation of character. And, again as in the case of Claudia, Hein provides him with a chance of emancipation against which Dallow reacts by redoubling his self-repression (thus his position as full lecturer represents a step up the Socialist ladder and, as a result, even more self-denial). Hein builds up sympathies with Claudia and Dallow only to distance the reader from them by negatively portraying their helplessness in the face of their dilemma. Dallow and Claudia have, perversely, befriended themselves with their own deformity, and it is this against which Hein is warning. More and more, in the face of his helplessness, Dallow's energies are directed towards the negation of his freedom, namely towards killing time, fruitless brooding, self-exonerative rationalization, fatalism and pessimism. That he comes to see his opportunity of a new start in life as effectively a curse is clear from an increasing tendency to appoint blame and to indulge a cult of self-pity. On two occasions in the novel, his references to his time in prison engender the response ‘So what?,’ Hein attempting, through the mouths of other characters, to put Dallow's self-pity into perspective.13 In the interests of this self-pity, Dallow manipulates his own attitudes. Thus it suits him to see himself as someone tangentially involved in the cabaret because this stresses his innocence and his right to sympathy; but when the former cabaret members forget to invite him to a show where the old tango for which they went to prison is to be performed, he is hurt that he has been forgotten, pitying himself because no cabaret member took his involvement seriously enough. He wants to have it both ways. Dallow's constant references to his innocence, however, indicate more than mounting self-pity: they indicate, deep down, a sense of guilt, the need for a retrospective official exculpation. That this does not happen—even though the tango can now be performed—demonstrates the self-righteousness of GDR justice and its refusal to accept moral responsibility for its own faults. And it distresses Dallow. Only by returning to his old institute and becoming again an accepted member of society can he free himself of this guilt; that he can play the piano again at the end of the novel shows that he has liberated himself from the irrational bad conscience and resentful aggression towards authority which had caused his hands to cramp and freeze up.

In Der Tangospieler, there is a subtle parallelism, the novel, as it were, drawing two related graphs. When Dallow is released, the Prague Spring of 1968 is in its beginnings. Dallow's commitment to an ideal of greater personal freedom coincides with the hope of greater freedom and a more humane Socialism in Czechoslovakia. Later on in the novel, the fate of both of these personal and national aspirations hangs in the balance: Dallow finds the burden of his freedom increasingly harder to bear; in Czechoslovakia pressure mounts too, Western media accusing the Warsaw Pact of planning a military invasion. Dallow's attack on Dr Berger prompts the judge to write a stiff letter summoning him to appear in his office; Dallow receives this letter just after Soviet military representatives have completed talks with Cernik and Dubcek. Both Dallow and Czechoslovakia are being ‘threatened.’ At the end of the novel, Dallow returns to Leipzig to take up his position at the university just as the Warsaw Pact forces are entering Prague. His abandonment of commitment to his personal freedom coincides with the military suppression of the Prague Spring and the loss of hope of greater freedom in Socialism. The final scene features Dallow playing Chopin on the piano as his television transmits pictures of tanks entering Prague. It is as if he were musically accompanying the invasion, helping to support the impression conveyed by the television pictures of women and children throwing flowers that the invasion is something to celebrate, not a national and Socialist tragedy.

Dallow's fate not only runs parallel to the Prague Spring, it is also linked to it. Roessler, lecturer at Dallow's institute, makes the mistake of assuring his students that German soldiers would never again march into Prague—not knowing that the Warsaw Pact countries, including the GDR, have just invaded Czechoslovakia. He is forced to resign, and Dallow agrees to take his place. Roessler, like Dallow, is a victim of shifting attitudes in GDR politics. Dallow goes to prison for performing a satirical tango which, after his release, is passed by the authorities and can be performed again without causing offence; Roessler loses his job for expressing a standpoint which, while it might have been an official standpoint but a few hours earlier, has now, in the light of the invasion, become a political heresy. It is a bitter irony that Dallow should profit from a mistake inversely proportional to his own—he was, albeit by accident, not by design, ahead of his time, while Roessler had fallen behind. Of course it is positive that a critical tango is now acceptable, but it was a fairly innocuous tango, and that Dallow's lawyer Kiewer should interpret its acceptance as proof that the GDR has made progress is an overinterpretation to say the least. The fact that the GDR marches into Prague and the unfortunate Roessler is forced to resign ultimately reveals the absurdity of Kiewer's—and Roessler's—belief in Socialist progress: in trivial matters, such as a tango, Socialism can afford to be tolerant, but where the wish for reform takes on truly threatening proportions, as in Czechoslovakia, then there is no further room for tolerance. The novel ends with an act of moral and political regression which—because it involves the invasion of a country which suffered under Hitler—stresses the links between Stalinism and National Socialism.

Dallow, in accepting Roessler's job, acts as an opportunist, and this opportunism is not in any way mitigated by a guilty conscience: Dallow, throughout the novel, is utterly indifferent to the fate of the Czechoslovakian cause, so it is not surprising that he should be indifferent to Roessler's fate. When a girl student with whom he has been sleeping cries on hearing of the Warsaw Pact invasion, Dallow finds this not sad, but erotically stimulating. This seems not only callous, but sadistic. Dallow's indifference is rather an aggressive refusal of interest. He tends towards self-pity, and he would also like the pity of others (although he disclaims this). Events in Czechoslovakia are anathema to him because his own problems are trivial by comparison and he does not want to recognize this fact. He resents interest in the theme because it prevents people from sympathizing with him instead. Moreover, sympathizing with the will towards change in Czechoslovakia would put symbolical pressure on Dallow to take his own fate into his hands and actually try to change it. It would compel him to face up to a freedom he wishes to run away from. It is here, in this aspect of Dallow's dismissal of events in the Prague Spring, that the main reason for Hein's parallelism lies. His aim in the novel is to portray a character whose psychological dilemma exactly mirrors the schismatic but still essentially conservative condition of Socialism in the late 1960s, where the will towards greater freedom and reform is held back and ultimately crushed by traditional elements.

An obvious question is why Hein wrote a novel about the Prague Spring twenty years after the event. Der Tangospieler could be interpreted as a warning: namely, that the reform movement in the late Eighties—despite the apparent collapse of Socialism in the East—could still be overthrown by authority as it was in 1968. Der Tangospieler may also be meant as a warning against the dangers of possible freedom. That Hein was anticipating the possibility of large-scale changes is clear from his play Die Ritter der Tafelrunde (1989), which depicts in Arthurian disguise the internal collapse of GDR Socialism.14 Although Der Tangospieler is realistic, it is not unreasonable to suggest another interpretative level on which Dallow's time in prison can be seen as symbolic of life in the GDR, his time out of prison as a metaphor for anticipated attempts of liberated GDR citizens to get to grips with freedom. That freedom has turned out to be a problem is clear from the most recent publication by the GDR psychotherapist Hans-Joachim Maaz, namely Das gestürzte Volk, in which he describes the tendency of ex-GDR citizens to seek a new master—namely by subjugating themselves to capitalism—now that the old one has gone.15 Vaclav Havel, in the speech he gave to open the Salzburger Festpiele in 1990, talks of the fear of freedom in the East and compares this fear to that of a released prisoner.16 Günter de Bruyn, in a lecture given to the American-German Workshop for Journalists in 1990, makes the comment that freedom and responsibility in the former GDR, as in the case of a released prisoner, are a threat and a burden.17 Hein's novel depicts the problems encountered by an individual who has never been responsible for himself and is suddenly plunged into freedom. It warns against the temptation to seek the reimposition of controls and against the subliminal survival in the long-enslaved psyche of the dependence on authority—visible in Dallow's wish to be forgiven for a crime of which he is in reality innocent and in his resentment against authority, a resentment born not of a wish to overthrow authority, but, on the contrary, out of anger at being punished and not recompensed, reinstated, by this authority.

The similarities between Dallow and Claudia are plain to see. But there is a difference. Drachenblut is a study in mechanisms of self-repression. The point has often been made by critics that the irony of the novella consists in the fact that Hein chooses a first-person narration to demonstrate the disappearance of the self. This argument is powerful, but overstated. Claudia's real personality is still there, albeit at a very low ebb. Hein's novella shows the individual as a microcosm of the Socialist order, as providing an exact, miniaturized mirror-image. Socialism represses the individual and responds to protests by reinforcing controls: the individual takes over this pattern and imposes it on himself or herself. There could hardly be a stronger proof that Socialism is not just an ideology or political system, but a form of psychology. Dallow in Der Tangospieler is also a victim of repression and subsequent self-repression. But here Hein takes the idea a little further, so that Der Tangospieler represents a kind of psychological continuation rather than a remake of Drachenblut: the novel, on the symbolical level, posits the theory that, even when the external cause of the internal repression, namely imprisonment in Socialist praxis, is removed, the internal repression remains and seeks to generate a corresponding external repression to fill the gap. One of Hein's dominant themes is the parallelism between GDR Socialism and National Socialism, the idea namely that Socialism in the GDR, while declaring itself to be anti-Fascist, was actually corrupted by the effects of Fascism. The population had long been exposed to National Socialism. Since, after 1945, no real attempts were undertaken to uproot the psychological condition resulting from this exposure, Socialism was gradually fitted out with precisely those mechanisms of repression and self-repression which had characterized the Third Reich. Historical continuity was assured. Der Tangospieler is a warning against the danger that history could repeat itself. An end to ‘real’ Socialism must not simply lead to the generation or acceptance of a new form of oppression. Whether Hein regards Western capitalism as an alternative form of oppression to Socialism is not as yet clear—we still await his first major publication after reunification. But it seems more than likely. He has always been critical of capitalism, and was certainly against the absorption of the GDR into West Germany: like many other GDR intellectuals, he had pinned his hopes on a democratization of Socialism. ‘If we fail,’ he wrote in a 1989 letter, ‘we will be eaten up by McDonalds.’18


  1. Monika Maron, Flugasche (Frankfurt am Main, 1981).

  2. Stefan Heym, Collin (München, 1979).

  3. Christoph Hein, Horns Ende (Berlin and Weimar, 1985).

  4. Hans-Joachim Maaz, Der Gefühlsstau: Ein Psychogramm der DDR (Berlin, 1990).

  5. Christoph Hein, Der fremde Freund (Berlin and Weimar, 1982). The edition used in the article is the West German edition Drachenblut (9. Auflage) (Frankfurt am Main, 1990); all page references are to this edition.

  6. See ‘Der Stoff eines Autors ist eben auch der Autor,’ in Lothar Baier (ed.), Christoph Hein: Texte, Daten, Bilder (Frankfurt am Main, 1990), 93–94.

  7. Drachenblut, 172.

  8. Christoph Hein, Der Tangospieler (Berlin and Weimar 1989). The edition used in the article is the West German edition Der Tangospieler (3. Auflage) (Frankfurt am Main, 1990); all page references are to this edition.

  9. Der Tangospieler, 35.

  10. Ibid., 165.

  11. Ibid., 203.

  12. Ibid., 173.

  13. Ibid., 169 and 186.

  14. Christoph Hein, Die Ritter der Tafelrunde (Frankfurt am Main, 1989).

  15. Hans-Joachim Maaz, Das gestürzte Volk (Berlin, 1991).

  16. See ‘Angst vor der Freiheit’ in Vaclav Havel, Angst vor der Freiheit: Reden des Staatspräsidenten (Hamburg, 1991), 105.

  17. See ‘Deutsche Befindlichkeiten,’ in Günter de Bruyn, Jubelschreie, Trauergesänge, Deutsche Befindlichkeiten (Frankfurt am Main, 1991), 35.

  18. See ‘Brief an den Rowohlt-Verlag Reinbek,’ in Christoph Hein, Die fünfte Grundrechenart: Aufsätze und Reden (Frankfurt am Main, 1990), 210.

Keith Bullivant (review date summer 1992)

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SOURCE: Bullivant, Keith. Review of Die fünfte Grundrechenart: Aufsätze und Reden, by Christoph Hein. Germanic Review 67, no. 3 (summer 1992): 135–36.

[In the following review of Die fünfte Grundrechenart, Bullivant explores Hein's views regarding the impact of the German Democratic Republic on German literature.]

This volume, arguably more than any other individual work, brings home to us just how fast things German have moved in a little over two years. In 1990 Hein was very much center stage in German intellectual and literary life: he was one of the most outspoken writers in the events of the autumn of 1989, his novel Der Tangospieler and his play Die Ritter der Tafelrunde had just appeared and were the subjects of lively debate, and in May 1990 he received the first Erich Fried Prize. Since then little has been seen or heard of him, and his works are no longer available in the Luchterhand imprint. The return of the rights to his and other ex-GDR writers' works to the Aufbau Verlag has, in turn, precipitated a very real financial crisis for the West German publisher which specialized in the marketing of GDR literature and had such great commercial success in the early eighties with Christa Wolf's Kassandra and Hein's Drachenblut (cf. Die Zeit, 1.3.1992).

The collection of texts in this volume is somewhat eclectic and includes pieces on Benjamin and Arno Schmidt, a “laudatio” in honor of Max Frisch, a speech on the occasion of Tucholsky's 100th birthday, and a piece on Stalinism in the GDR dedicated to Gustav Just, the former Assistant Editor of Sonntag and one of the victims of the show trial against “Janka und andere.” The interesting core is represented by a series of speeches, interviews, and articles made between 1987 and the end of 1989 (one of which appeared in the New York Times' Sunday Magazine under the title “East Berlin Diary” [12.17.1989]). These are all marked by a brave and unambiguous stand against what Hein felt to be wrong in the GDR and which also are so revealing about the latter days of that state and the hopes and aspirations of intellectuals like Hein for it.

The common theme of these speeches, even before the first unrest in the summer of 1989, is Hein's belief in the reformability of the state. He had understanding for those who could no longer tolerate life there, but he counted himself as one of those determined to stay, “um diese Gesellschaft zu verändern und zu verbessern” (p. 172). He was convinced, he said in an interview with Der Spiegel in October 1989, that the general feeling in the country was that the mere removal of socialism would be “zu wenig,” that there was a consensus among reformist groups, intellectuals, and the people that socialism could be changed and democratized. This belief in the possibility of a new socialist order also set the tone of an interview with the Berliner Zeitung in early November, in which he asserted that “Veränderung der Produktionsverhältnisse, der Eigentumsverhältnisse … steht überhaupt nicht zur Debatte” (p. 190). This confidence undoubtedly gave him the courage to take a firm line against the old guard in his work in the commission investigating brutality against demonstrators in October 1989, despite the knowledge that “wenn sie die alte Macht wieder in ihre Hände bekommen, werden sie sich mit uns beschäftigen” (p. 206). Perhaps the most unambiguous indication of his commitment to the way of life in the GDR was his belief, in spite of those instances of brutality, in the desirability and the possibility of “die Organe der Staatssicherheit in ihrer gewiβ nicht einfachen Arbeit” once again being respected by the people, notwithstanding the narrow escape from “die chinesische Lösung” on the streets of Leipzig (p. 192).

In a letter to the Rowohlt-Verlag in late November 1989 Hein claimed with some modesty that “die Intellektuellen haben in den vergangenen Jahren einen kleinen Beitrag geleistet, um zu diesen Veränderungen zu gelangen” (p. 210). They were now playing their part in “ein sehr gewagtes Experiment”—the attempt to build a socialist society. This, he maintained, “könnte dann für die vom Western derzeit gewünschte Wiedervereinigung eine brauchbare und zukunftsweisende Grundlage abgeben.” The formulation does, however, betray a certain shifting of ground, in that only weeks before he had been maintaining that there was no desire in the GDR for reunification. There followed another cautionary note, the first recognition of the impact of what was happening on the streets of Berlin: “Wenn wir scheitern, friβt uns McDonald.” The gulf between the utopian hopes of Hein and other reformist intellectuals and the interests of “the people,” who had been encouraged on November 4 on the Alexanderplatz to dictate the course of change, was quickly becoming apparent. On December 4, 1989 Der Spiegel published Stefan Heym's “Aschermittwoch in der DDR,” in which he bemoaned his fellow citizens” storming of the “Grabbeltische” in the West, and itself asked in a leading article, “Bleibt die Avantgarde zurück?” arguing that, despite the demonstration on the Alexanderplatz, writers in the GDR had never taken a leading role in political debate along the Czechoslovakian model. The consensus of which Hein had spoken with such confidence but weeks before was now clearly gone, if it had ever existed at all: in his speech in honor of Max Frisch, given in Düsseldorf on December 13, he now said that while the decisive battle against the archdragon of the old state had been won, the one for the future course of the state had yet to be decided: “Aber schon lauern andere Gefahren auf uns, andere Drachen, friedlichere, buntere, die uns groβen Konsum verheiβen, und die um so verlockender sind, als sie lange Entbehrtes anzubieten haben” (p. 228). This world, represented by the old Federal Republic, he regarded as an undesirable “Ellbogengesellschaft, die auf Kosten der sogenannten zweiten und dritten Welt lebt, die auf Kosten der Nachfahren, der eigenen Kinder lebt. … (p. 228).

By March 1990 the struggle had been decisively lost, Hein was facing the inevitability not of reunification, but of the “Einverleibung der DDR” (p. 130). That defeat clearly does not have quite the impact for a writer of Hein's generation (b. 1944) that it has for, say, Christa Wolf (b. 1929) or Stefan Heym (b. 1913), for whom the loss of a socialist utopian hope means, he feels, “throwing away” his life (cf. Die Zeit, 12.6.1990). However, although there is no longer the alternative that presented itself in 1945 (socialism), the situation for writers in the East like Hein and those in the West who dislike the way unification took place is not dissimilar to that of the new generation of writers that emerged after the Second World War in West Germany. The alienation from the values of the state that marked the writing of “post-war German literature,” as Frank Schirrmacher understands it, could well be passed on to a new generation, if only as a “negative utopia.” One possible sign of that was Hein's cynical “Wir haben Angst zu verarmen” an attack on the materialism and racial intolerance of the Federal Republic that is in keeping with his viewing it as an “Ellbogengesellschaft.” Another possible consequence of German developments, but one pulling in a different direction, was also suggested by Hein in Die fünfte Grundrechenart and is, surprisingly, very much in line with polemical views expressed by Frank Schirrmacher, Ulrich Greiner, and Karl Heinz Bohrer in the last two years. He felt that literature in the GDR had been forced by the socio-political situation and censorship into becoming an informative counter discourse, whether writers liked that or not. Freedom from those shackles could, he claimed, bring about a situation in which “Kunst wieder auf ihre eigentlichen Aufgaben zurückgeführt [wird]. Langfristig wird eine Entlastung von Literatur stattfinden” (p. 193). The confusion and bitter wrangling that mark much of discussion about the immediate past of—particularly East—German literature offers little in the way of clues as to whether this possibility might come about. Heym claimed in Die fünfte Grundrechenart that it would take three generations, and all the signs are that he might well be right.

David W. Robinson (essay date winter 1993)

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SOURCE: Robinson, David W. “Abortion as Repression in Christoph Hein's The Distant Lover.New German Critique (winter 1993): 65–78.

[In the following essay, Robinson examines the oppression and sense of violation experienced by the character Claudia in The Distant Lover.]

East German playwright and novelist Christoph Hein rose to sudden prominence in the early 1980s with the publication of his somber novella, The Distant Lover (Der fremde Freund, 1982; published in the West as Drachenblut). Although the book's rather bleak depiction of life in the GDR was predictably attacked or praised by politically minded critics in the GDR and the FRG, its great popularity among readers in both Germanies attested to a shock of recognition that transcended political boundaries. The book is narrated by Claudia, a successful, intelligent, divorced, and childless East Berlin doctor who relates the events of her life during the preceding year. Near the middle of the book, she provides a detailed account of two abortions she had undergone while still married, characterizing them as acts of radical self-assertion. Yet Claudia always feels most free when she is most violated. The Distant Lover portrays an individual totally—and fatally—adapted to an inhuman society; the novella's fascination derives from Claudia's compelling, highly intelligent, but nonetheless specious rationalizations for the emotional deprivation she endures. Her feminist rhetoric of personal choice actually cloaks her own abjectness, and, indeed, her complicity in an oppressive society; and her abortions can reasonably be viewed as compelled and compulsive acts of proxy suicide. Thus the significance of abortion for the novella depends less on the social history of the abortion debate than on a grasp of Hein's critique of the autonomous individual's relation to society. If abortion is regarded as an extension of a basic right to privacy and self-determination, so be it; the novella scrutinizes the origin, possibility, and meaning of this “right” itself.1

The ambiguous history of modern German abortion law helps to explain Hein's dispassionate handling of the issue. In her essay, “The Politics of Choice: Women, Literature, and Abortion in the GDR,” Katherina von Ankum recounts how the first liberalization of the Penal Code's Paragraph 218 (the nineteenth-century Prussian statute making abortion a criminal offense) came in 1947 during the Soviet occupation. As an emergency measure in economic hard times, a woman proving “social hardship” could undergo an abortion during the first trimester of her pregnancy. This law was promptly repealed in 1950 by the newly founded GDR, and criminal penalties were reinstated. Only in 1972, during a period of rising ideological competition with the West (and in the face of growing abortion tourism to Poland, where the procedure had long been readily available), was abortion again made legal during the first trimester.2 In 1974, the Federal Republic also passed a measure allowing first trimester abortions, but it was overturned in 1975 by the Federal Constitutional Court, leaving in force criminal penalties and quasi-medical “indication rules” that would come into conflict with the more liberal East German law after 1989. A liberal all-German abortion law passed in June 1992 was struck down in May of this year, leading for the first time to the application of the existing West German statute to the territory of the former GDR. It remains to be seen what effect this withdrawal of an existing liberty will have on East German women and their attitudes toward abortion.

Describing the situation before unification, Von Ankum stresses that abortion was at no time clearly defined as a feminist issue in the GDR, and that the regime's peremptory legalization of the procedure in 1972, without public debate and even as abortion itself remained a taboo subject, was perceived as another example of “Geschenkpolitik” (benevolent despotism).3 Women in the GDR tended to view the private sphere of family life and child-rearing as more truly free of state control than the imposed freedom of reproductive choice. In particular, von Ankum criticizes several female GDR authors for their “mystification of femininity” and for not anticipating “a feminist perspective” on abortion, and contends (accurately, I would say) that in this way “women in the GDR subconsciously upheld the patriarchal system.”4 However, she also groups Hein among these ideologically confused writers, because he uses abortion to reveal Claudia's

inability to mourn over suffered losses and her unwillingness to acknowledge the pain she inflicts on herself by continuously repressing her feelings. … [A]bortion becomes a parable for the alienation and isolation experienced by the individual in GDR society.5

It is my contention here that there is nothing particularly suspect about this devalorization of reproductive choice in the historical context of the GDR. Moreover, far from being unconscious of his own ideological position, Hein shows how ideology can co-opt the discourse of feminism as well as any other discourse. For Claudia, there is no course of action and no mode of thought that does not replicate patriarchal control.

Hein's novella, like many of his works, elaborates the diverse routes by which Macht (power) shaped Geist (spirit) during the postwar years in which the GDR was founded and began the process of recovery. Yet the novella's concrete manifestations of power—such as the Soviet tank that visits Claudia's childhood town during the 1953 uprising—do little in themselves to reveal how coercive power has implanted itself and flourished in the personalities of Claudia and her contemporaries. To shed light on this social dissemination of power, Hein depicts various aspects of Claudia's life as a social being, connecting them in Freudian fashion as diverse manifestations of libido. Hence abortion provides the novella's most emotionally charged example of a sexual politics which, broadly construed, defines her relations with family and friends as much as lovers. Claudia's abortion revery begins while she is developing photographs, “[a] chemistry of budding life” which she prefers to childbearing because it lets her feel “involved”:

It was different with my children, my unborn children. I never had the feeling of being involved. Maybe it would have come later, much later. When something started to move inside me. As it was, all I had [was] the two interruptions.6

As appealing as photography may be, Claudia must immediately suppress a note of regret if she is to retain her sense of autonomy. Tersely describing the circumstances of the abortions, she lists to herself her objective reasons for not having children:

The first child would have come too soon. … The second I didn't want; I knew I wouldn't be staying with Hinner … why bring a child into all that? Hinner was upset when he got to the hospital. I hadn't told him anything beforehand. … I felt sorry for him, but that was no reason to have a child.

(DL 88)

With growing anxiety, she dismisses her exhaustion after each abortion as a physical, not emotional, symptom, and mounts an increasingly bitter attack on her ex-husband Hinner:

It wasn't guilt. I hadn't felt any bond with the thing growing inside me, nothing to make me upset about losing it. Probably the despair came from my weakened physical condition. I had nothing to do with these children, I wasn't involved. It was just something that happened to me. I hadn't wanted them, they were there against my will. … A monstrous intervention that would determine my entire life, an intervention in my freedom.

(DL 88–89)

Thus Claudia views her abortions as rebellions against a patriarchal order that exploits women by various means, among them biology. Yet her edginess, her incantatory repetitions, her insistence that she had nothing to do with her unborn children, and the description of pregnancy as “A monstrous intervention … in my freedom” bear the masks of her unusual strategies for disposing of unpleasant feelings. The plausibility of Claudia's arguments (and one wonders with whom she is arguing) must be weighed against the nervous compulsion with which she delivers them; clearly, the feminist rhetoric serves an ulterior purpose. The claim that her abortions were exercises in free choice should therefore be treated with skepticism.

To be properly understood, the abortions should be read as part of the novella's depiction of sex, love, and friendship in Claudia's life. Claudia's professed detachment from society is a fantasy, a glaring lack of self-consciousness that causes her personality to replicate rather than escape the repressive forces that have shaped it. Hein's model for this phenomenon appears to be Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with its account of compulsive repetition as a response to psychological trauma.7 Elsewhere, Claudia herself travesties Freud in her defense of psychological repression as an adaptive strategy. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud contended that social relations originated through a repression or displacement of the two fundamental human instincts of Love (Eros, Libido) and Death.8 Through repression of these instincts, libido is sublimated into useful, socially integrative activities beyond sex itself, and the instincts of aggression are redirected against the Ego itself, forming the Super-Ego, which guards against aggressive (“unethical”) behavior in its agency as “conscience.”9 This process of sublimation and the harnessing of guilt as a mechanism of social control leads to the “discontents” of the essay's title.10 Despite superficial similarities, all of this contrasts starkly with the tenor of Claudia's remarks about repression and society:

My grandparents' generation had folk sayings like: Fear will disappear if you look it in the eye. My experience has been different. The thing you fear most can do you in, so why focus on it? … What good does it do to make people aware of their [repressions]? Repression is self-defense, defense against danger. Designed to help the organism exist. A living being tries to survive by not perceiving various things that could destroy it. A healthy natural mechanism. Why exhume these corpses that no one can live with anyway? In the final analysis, all of civilization is one big repression. Human beings discovered they could live in society provided they repressed certain feelings and drives.

(DL 98)

Only the last sentence resembles anything Freud could have agreed with. Missing from Claudia's discourse on repression is a notion of economy: whereas Freud would have required that the energy of the repressed drive be redirected elsewhere, Claudia believes that the thing repressed is simply annihilated, erased, never to be heard from again. Claudia's type of “repression,” which involves a different target (memories instead of drives), also aims at a different purpose, self-defense against threats from the (social) world, or, in other words, the direct opposite of what Freud conceived of as one's integration into that world through redirected libido. In short, Claudia merely tries to dignify her argument for self-unconsciousness (so to speak) by crafting it out of Freudian clichés. This use and abuse of Freud, deftly connecting every aspect of Claudia's emotional life to her upbringing and environment reveals how power can masquerade as the possibility of self-determination, inhabiting Claudia's consciousness as a set of rationalizations that numb her to the pain of coercion while creating the illusion of freedom.

Furthermore, as Claudia reimposes on herself and others the oppression once inflicted on her, her rhetoric of personal liberation emerges as pure ideological mystification in Althusser's sense of the term: ideology is preeminently that which appears obviously true, in particular that primary obviousness that “you and I are subjects (free, ethical, primary).”11 In general, “[i]deology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” this relationship being a purely imaginary state of autonomous subjecthood, free from external determinants.12 “[I]t is the imaginary nature of this relation which underlies all the imaginary distortion we can observe (if we do not live in its truth) in all ideology.”13 Real conditions and real relations undergo distortion in the name of reconciliation with the obvious “fact” of subjecthood, from the perspective of which all experience must be organized. Ideology, though an illusion, is not empty. Like Freud's dream work, it is illusory but determinate, constituted by the subject and constitutive of her. Hein elaborates Claudia's imaginative distortions of her true (historical, material) situation on two levels: the psychological, quasi-Freudian one, where she struggles to master her traumatic memories; and the overtly “ideological” one, where she attempts to analyze her world from a specifically feminist perspective. Hein mercilessly reveals Claudia as a construction, a production, the result of Claudia's own work, operating within the determinations of an economy of violence; here is a discourse of perfect self-consciousness that gradually reveals itself to the reader as false consciousness, i.e., ideology. Recapitulating her society's power relations at a microscopic, individualized level, Claudia approximates the exemplary denizen of modern society as visualized by Foucault, for whom the individual is “fabricated by [a] specific technology of power” in a process of internalization of authority he calls “discipline.”14 Foucault rejects the common tendency to speak of power only in negative terms, claiming that “it ‘excludes,’ it ‘represses,’ it ‘censors,’ it ‘abstracts,’ it ‘masks,’ it ‘conceals.’ In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.”15 Claudia is above all else the product of the bureaucratic, normalizing, discipline-imposing state, a political entity equally familiar in the East or West. It is the reasoned, highly adapted “normality” of her reflective monologues that makes her so frightening; the novella unnerves readers by meticulously delineating and deconstructing commonplace ideologies that they, too, inhabit.

To return now to the text of the novella: Claudia's visit with Fred and Maria in chapter six and her childhood reminiscences in chapter nine illustrate concretely how the material fact of violence becomes veiled and replicated in the various ideological discourses Claudia employs, whether Freudian or feminist. The visit to Fred's house on the Baltic coast is unrelentingly awful; he subjects his wife Maria to various sorts of abuse and makes a sexual advance toward Claudia. Despite her refusal to characterize Fred and Maria as her “friends” (DL 70), Claudia unaccountably continues to visit them each year. Her cooptation by a system of violence that Fred swinishly embodies betrays itself in a certain sympathy with his cruel treatment of Maria. When Fred first insults Maria as “pretty silly” (eine dumme Gans), the text signals that Claudia doesn't even fully recognize her own complicity: “I laughed, but didn't know why” (DL 66). She subsequently recalls her cruel childhood game of judging people by their fingernails and earlobes, and suppresses an impulse to rate Maria by these criteria (DL 67). In a clear parallel to this game of childish authoritarianism, Fred (= Freud?) notices Claudia's scrutiny of Maria and launches into a tirade of psychoanalytic jargon:

He went over to her, pressed his middle finger against her right cheekbone, and with his index finger pulled down her eyelid. He smiled at me and said: See, a well-developed narcissistic hypochondria. I would almost call it classic … In addition, a tendency toward hysteria, as a result of repressed instincts and unassimilated outside stimuli. You have to understand that she's suffering. She's misunderstood, oppressed, castrated. She read somewhere that the modern, self-aware woman has to be unhappy, and she wants to be a modern, self-aware woman too. So she suffers from depression. My God, how depressive she is. And of course I'm the one who's to blame for the whole misery: the man, the monster, the patriarchal tyrant. Constantly forcing his will and his penis on her.

(DL 67–68)

Fred's “diagnosis,” a misapplication of both feminist and Freudian commonplaces, is merely nonsense organized by a desire to injure Maria. Claudia retreats from this scene only to be cornered, naked, by Fred in her room. Without achieving any insight into her own condition, Claudia correctly evaluates Fred's game of sexual humiliation, along with his Freudian jargon, as a tool of control, a manipulation of sexuality in the interest of conformity—private, social, political it makes no difference:

It was another of his parlor games. I think he calls them “applied psychoanalysis.” As he says, a human being stripped of all the compulsions and concealments that we call civilized behavior is simply a set of well functioning genitalia, which, when finally liberated, provides an orgiastic release for all other human needs, and so asserts its own force as irrefutable, all-powerful. Occasionally he gives this game a simpler label: a journey into the human interior, or a visit to the wild beast, the swine within. The game had many variations. And his horrible whims and the tears or outbursts he provoked, all the little humiliations, were merely devices to keep his boredom at bay.

(DL 69)

In this chilling description of an “irrefutable, all-powerful” force, Freud's notion of civilization as a deployment of libido against instinctual destructiveness has been twisted into its opposite: civilization in Hein's novella means the subjugation of libido to destructiveness. Like any ideology, Fred's ramblings obscure an actual distribution of power, elaborating a perverted Freudianism that sets civilization in simple opposition to sexuality, while sweetening the objective condition of powerlessness with an illusory liberation from civilized constraints.

The manner in which power has shaped the formation of Claudia's personality emerges from the succession of childhood memories arrayed in chapter nine around the novella's starkest symbol of brute force: the Soviet tank that appeared in her town in June of 1953.16 The recollection of the tank is framed by seemingly unrelated episodes that in fact manifest state power on a personal and emotional level. To borrow the terms Freud uses in Civilization and Its Discontents, these memories of teachers, family, and friends illustrate the relation of power to non-aim-inhibited and aim-inhibited libido, that is, sex and friendship, the cornerstones of social coexistence.17 Claudia recalls how Herr Gerschke, the young history teacher and object of school-girl fantasy, had disappeared amid reports that he had “laid hands on” (DL 119) one of his pupils. Claudia's ignorance of what this implied is dispelled by a classmate, yet she still “didn't understand why it was so bad that he'd had an affair with a student” (DL 119), since, after all, this was everyone's fantasy. Her mother subsequently “enlightens” her with a grim account of the facts of life:

Along with my illusions she destroyed my loveliest dream, the hope of growing up quickly. I didn't want to marry any more, or at least, I wanted to marry very late. I knew now you absolutely had to avoid getting involved with a man too soon, that it took years to be sure of his love, that every woman was allowed to love only one single man, for whom she had to save herself. Terrible diseases, wasted figures covered with scabs and pus, a life whose only desire was death—these were the stern insistent ghosts that pursued me for years.

(DL 120)

The disclosure that Herr Gerschke's “crime had been the product of that girl's imagination” (DL 120) can scarcely undo the mother's wholesale assault on Claudia's sexual identity. Its covert violence (which can readily be seen as an instrument of social control) inflicts damage—and compels conformity—more subtly than the crude sexual taunts of the gym teacher, Herr Ebert (DL 115–116). As the seemingly random sequence of narrated topics proceeds from the slander against Herr Gerschke, to Fräulein Nitschke (the teacher traumatized by her experiences in the war), to the Soviet tank, to Claudia's betrayal of her religious childhood friend Katherina, and finally to the imprisonment of her traitorous Uncle Gerhard, the text illustrates how historical circumstances (the Nazi past, the war, the Soviet occupation, Ulbricht's anti-religious campaigns) systematically undermined personal bonds and aspirations, replacing them with distrust, silence, isolation, and, often enough, active collaboration in political oppression. Against this background, the significance of Claudia's belief that she has no need of friendship becomes evident. While still visiting with Fred, she tells her current lover Henry:

I probably didn't need friends. I had acquaintances, good acquaintances; I saw them occasionally, and I enjoyed their company. But in reality they were interchangeable, and therefore not essential to me. I liked being with people; I found many of them interesting, and it gave me pleasure to talk to them. But that was about it. Sometimes I felt a vague yearning for something like a friend, a pale little school friend, but it didn't come very often; it was like crying, in spite of myself, over some sentimental movie. It wasn't real sadness. Yes, that's how it is, I said.

(DL 70–71)

The novella contains no more poignant a denial of objective reality.

As chapter nine ends, Henry slaps Claudia, completing the demonstration of how coercive state power, symbolized by the Soviet tank, disseminates among individuals. Having provoked the exceedingly reckless Henry by seizing the steering wheel, Claudia responds to his blow with seemingly unemotional reflections about the ubiquity of male aggression:

I … know that at some time, in some particularly complicated or upsetting situation, every man will hit. … At least unconsciously they feel superior to us, and their hitting, no matter how much it startles them, has a pedagogical intent, it's an act of divine pedagogy. Intellectually they're capable of recognizing women as equals, as beings of the same rank, and they're willing to do so. But in their deeper selves they're still dominated by their masculine sense of self-worth, a weird mixture of inhibitions and arrogance.

(DL 133–135)

Claudia, meanwhile, considering herself above such self-deceptions and resolved in Hobbesian fashion to accept human relations as nasty, brutish, and short, precariously maintains her equilibrium by beating down a moment of panic and despair, and by denying finally that anything objectionable had happened:

When it rains, we get wet; I'm not a young girl anymore and I should be used to it. Everything runs on its usual course, perfectly normal. No reason to scream. Don't get hysterical. I want to remain what I am, a nice, very normal woman. Nothing happened.

(DL 135–136)

In the context of the chapter and the book, what she says appears to be true. Violence is the accepted norm, and any analysis of how violence occurs is strictly a matter of intellectual curiosity, not remediation.

We are now in a position to grasp the meaning of the abortion episode, with its shaky claims to autonomy and its tone of rising panic. To return to a passage already quoted in part:

I had nothing to do with these children, I wasn't involved. It was just something that happened to me. I hadn't wanted them, they were there against my will. I felt used by him. An incubating vessel, the caretaker for his embryos. I hadn't wanted a child, yet he could make one start growing inside me. I wasn't consulted, I didn't count, I wasn't involved, I was just an object. While he whispered in my ear, moaned, repeated endearments, he was deciding for me, for my body, for my future. A monstrous intervention that would determine my entire life, an intervention in my freedom.

(DL 88–89)

This is the description of a rape, one of three in the novella (the others are the spousal rape of Claudia's acquaintance Anne [DL 10–11], and Henry's brutal intercourse with Claudia in the woods [DL 58–59]). If sex is rape, then abortion must be a radical assertion of personal freedom. But in the description of an actual abortion, the passive/active, victim/oppressor roles change places: in Claudia's memory, the abortion itself becomes confused precisely with sex and rape, inverting her reasoned categories. She remembers herself treated by the doctors as “Someone else's property. I lay on a bed, a table, my legs strapped down, my public hair shaved, shaved off completely” (DL 90). During the procedure, through a haze of anesthesia, she feels herself being raped again:

Between my legs their voices, the gentle clinking of instruments, and again his breathing, his whispering, his endearments. Behind my eyelids a huge glaring sun, coming closer. I want to be alone, just alone. Leave me alone, I don't want to, I don't want to anymore, I whisper. … Then the woods are there, a cool, overcast sky, the path that leads to a bridge, broken remains. I crawl into the grass, under the trees. I feel branches scratching me, the coolness of the earth, wet leaves.

No, the woman stretched out on the table wasn't me, isn't me. I had nothing to do with that.

(DL 90–91)

This passage alludes both to the description of sex-as-rape already quoted, and to the scene of literal rape in the woods in chapter five.18 Claudia thinks that she is exercising free will when she has her abortion, that she is resisting a man's attempt to force his will upon her. Yet the abortion is figured equally clearly as a rape, and thus becomes part of a pattern of real violence inflicted upon Claudia since her childhood, violence she compulsively helps to perpetuate. Her feminist rhetoric of self-determination and self-sufficiency stands exposed as a pernicious ideological construct.

Hein's exploitation of the abortion issue, along with his portrayal of an independent, professionally successful woman as a deluded ideologue, might raise concerns, especially among feminist literary critics.19 One could, for example, ask: Why does Hein make Claudia a woman? By way of answering this basic question, I would argue that the object of the novella is to demonstrate the reality of unfreedom within the illusion of freedom. To achieve this, Hein needs to depict a consciousness maximally defined by the false category of freedom itself. Now, it is fairly difficult today to find a politically reputable rhetoric and ideology of masculine liberation, but it is quite easy to point to the feminist rhetoric and ideology of female liberation. Thus Claudia is made female, and a feminist (in her mind, at least) in order to maximize the ironic disparity between her rhetoric and her reality. As a woman she is (in view of a feminist analysis of society which we and Hein take for granted) all the more a victim of society; but as a feminist ideologue, she is maximally deceived about her own degree of freedom.

Another potential concern may be anticipated: that Hein's novella could conceivably be interpreted as flatly anti-abortion, and that it thus plays into the hands of a particular political faction regardless of the author's intentions. Yet such an objection lacks both historical perspective and a recognition of the arbitrariness and fluidity of any sign, including “abortion.” There has never been one “abortion issue” that could account for the legal, moral, and political questions of abortion law dealt with (or avoided) in the pre-1989 German states, in America over the last 20 years, and in unified Germany leading up to the failed liberation of 1992–93. (Hence the ambivalent attitude of GDR feminists toward abortion when they were freed in 1989 from the socialist regime's Geschenkpolitik.)20 Further, one should avoid imagining a stupider public than that which Hein imagines and consequently subordinating debate about his fiction to the imperatives of a specific political strategy, a procedure authoritarian enough to gratify the hoariest Stalinist.

Although a privileged signifier within The Distant Lover, abortion is nothing more or less than an available signifier, one among many others. The false consciousness it reveals resembles that inhabited by numerous other Hein characters who have nothing to do with issues of reproductive rights: Cromwell (in Cromwell [1981]), for example, who thinks his religious ideals can guide a revolution; or Dallow (in The Tango Player [1989]), who thinks he can lead an apolitical life.21 Abortion, controversial and ideologized though it is for us, has in itself no ideological character, no inherent political significance—an observation perhaps equally offensive to partisans on any side of the issue. That Hein falls into no convenient ideological category is scarcely surprising; his consistent effort through 20 years of writing has been to avoid parroting the mendaciousness of either Stalinism or the free market. Neither utopian communism nor utopian feminism are likely to avoid corrosion by Hein's dialectically schooled skepticism.


  1. The abortions in The Distant Lover have not been much discussed by Hein's critics; most fail to mention them. Bernd Fischer includes abortion in a long list of social and personal pressure points in GDR society (Christoph Hein: Drama und Prosa im letzten Jahrzent der DDR [Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1990] 63); Bärbel Lücke sees the abortions as one of the countless reflections of Claudia's self-alienation: “The two abortions, the repeated rejection and killing of life, are also consequences of [Claudia's] unlived, alienated life …” (Christoph Hein: Drachenblut: Interpretation. [Munich: Oldenbourg, 1989] 43). Yet the abortions are far too strategically placed in the symbolic structure of the novella to warrant such cursory treatment.

  2. Katharina von Ankum, “The Politics of Choice: Women, Literature, and Abortion in the GDR,” unpublished manuscript presented at the 1991 Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco, 3–5. The legal reform was accompanied by an unprecedented political event: fourteen Christian-Democratic deputies to the Volkskammer broke with the Communist-dominated National Front and voted against the liberal measure (Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., The Two Germanies since 1945 [New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1987] 182).

  3. von Ankum 6.

  4. von Ankum 12–13.

  5. von Ankum 12.

  6. Christoph Hein, The Distant Lover, trans. Krishna Winston (New York: Pantheon, 1989) 88. Cited hereafter within the text as DL. I have occasionally differed with Winston's translation, and have marked my modifications with brackets.

  7. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey et. al., vol. 18 (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955) 12–23.

  8. Freud, vol. 21, 108–109, 141.

  9. Freud, vol. 21, 123–24.

  10. Freud, vol. 21, 134–136.

  11. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation),” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971) 171.

  12. Althusser 162.

  13. Althusser 164.

  14. Foucault actually uses the term “surveillance.”

  15. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979) 194.

  16. Hein has resisted attempts to construe the tank in The Distant Lover as the symbolic key to the novella. Nonetheless, it does occupy a prominent place in the text concerned largely with mapping the distribution of power—ultimately in the sense of brute physical force—in GDR society. An armored personnel carrier near the conclusion of The Tango Player performs a similar function by objectifying the brute force that determines, in the final instance, the actions of the protagonist Dallow.

  17. Freud, vol. 21, 102–103.

  18. Cf. “Shadows and light, brightness, darkness, foreground, background, the coolness of the earth, the tree root scraping away at my spine. No, I thought, no” (DL 59).

  19. I am indebted to the participants in the 1991 MLA convention panels on abortion and feminism in German literature for raising these issues.

  20. von Ankum 6.

  21. “Cromwell: Ein Schauspiel,” Schlötel, oder Was solls: Stücke und Essays (Darmstadt and Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1986) 87–172. The Tango Player, trans. Philip Boehm (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992).

Christian Grawe (review date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Grawe, Christian. Review of Das Napoleon-Spiel, by Christoph Hein. World Literature Today 68, no. 3 (summer 1994): 555–56.

[In the following review, Grawe offers a negative assessment of Das Napoleon-Spiel, faulting the work for having insignificant themes and lacking direction.]

Christoph Hein was already recognized as a promising playwright in both East and West Germany when he turned to prose in the early eighties. He has always been highly regarded too as a courageous and honest voice of reasonable protest in the GDR and was, not surprisingly, one of the speakers at the famous Alexanderplatz demonstration on 4 November 1989.

Between 1982 and 1989 Hein published three major narratives: Der fremde Freund (1982; entitled Drachenblut in West Germany in 1983), Horns Ende (1985), and Der Tangospieler (1989; see WLT 64:2, p. 308), which, rightly, gained him the reputation of an artistically astute and psychologically subtle, humane though pessimistic chronicler of “everyday deformations in the GDR,” as Sigrid Loffler, interviewing Hein in 1990, aptly put it. All three books have a solid story line, are well structured, and build up the tension toward the end skillfully—a virtue which Hein himself attributes to his being a playwright. The books expose the psychological vulnerability of most unassuming characters whose personal circumstances have been shaped and are affected or even shattered by the impositions and intrusions of East Germany's socialist society. Hein was confident in the above-mentioned interview that German unification would not impair his creativity and his socially aware writing: “Die alten Themen habe ich noch; jetzt kommen noch neue hinzu.”

However, Hein's latest prose work [Das Napoleon-Spiel] raises serious doubts about this assertion. A wealthy lawyer has murdered an insignificant clerk as an “acte gratuit,” as Gide called it in his novel Les Caves du Vatican (1914). The book consists of a 200-page letter to his defense counsel which he writes while in detention awaiting trial. A twelve-page coda adds a second letter, written after his acquittal and after the opening of the Berlin Wall, in which the protagonist proposes a new “game” to his former defense counsel: to destroy a famous tycoon and politician. This is what the “Napoleon game” is all about: the protagonist has only one aim in life, namely to perfect the art of playing with fellow human beings as a means of overcoming the boredom of life and, equally, to perfect the art of billiards as a symbol of the former obsession. He feels compelled to emulate “mein!en^ Vorfahr und grosse!n^ Bruder,” the ultimate gambler: Napoleon. It is with this guiding principle in mind that the protagonist turns his long letter into the narration of his life: his early sexual desire and exploits, his betrayal of family members, the abrogation of his social conscience, his move to West Germany and his law studies, his unscrupulous acquisition of wealth et cetera, his theory of gambling and calculatingly playing with life, and his contempt for morality and emotions, humanity and democracy.

It is clear that the book pinpoints elements of moral decay and of corruption in Germany since 1945 which may or may not be characteristic of a “capitalist” society or even of any modern society, but if the protagonist's story is intended to have some other significance, this escaped me. I found the book labored and farfetched and strangely uncharacteristic of Hein in its long-windedness and directness. The protagonist's constant boasting about his own evilness and his addiction to gambling, his ponderous legal jargon, and his tedious narration of insignificant events (e.g., his first spectacularly successful major court case) do not make for an important or even skillful work. Reluctantly, I have thus come to the conclusion that Hein has lost direction and gone astray. Perhaps he should take his time to assess the new political and social reality in Germany before embarking on a new literary project. He has never looked a happy man in photographs and admits to experiencing writing as “torture” and “hard labor” and to feeling unhappy when engaged in it. Perhaps a period of reorientation and adjustment could alleviate the burden.

William Niven (essay date July 1995)

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SOURCE: Niven, William. “‘Das Geld ist Nicht der Gral’: Christoph Hein and the Wende.” Modern Language Review 90, no. 3 (July 1995): 688–706.

[In the following essay, Niven discusses Hein's attitudes toward reunified Germany and capitalism in Eastern Europe.]

This article sets out to examine the issue of Christoph Hein's contribution to the process of de-Stalinization in the GDR during and after October 1989.1 There have been articles on this topic, notably by Frauke Meyer-Gosau2 and Eckhard Thiele.3 But neither of these is objective. While Meyer-Gosau is keen to present Hein's contribution in as uncompromised a light as possible, Thiele denies that Hein made any contribution in this direction at all, presenting his role more as Stalinistic than as anti-Stalinistic. There is a need for an attempt at a more balanced picture.

De-Stalinization can best be defined as the process of identifying, confronting, and overcoming the repressive mechanisms inherent in Stalinism. A corollary of this process is the evolution of democratic forms to replace these structures. It is my contention that Hein made a conscious and determined commitment to this process as I have defined it. This can best be proved by an outline of his political activity after the Wende, starting with and taking into particular account his committee work, previously neglected in assessments of his role. Following this outline, however, I argue that while calling for de-Stalinization, he showed a remarkable sympathy towards precisely those organs primarily responsible for maintaining Stalinist structures in the GDR. And his strong anti-capitalism prompts reactions which, characterized as they are by a prohibitive spirit, can themselves fairly be termed Stalinist. In the final part of the article, I argue that Hein was in another way responsible for the perpetuation of Stalinist tendencies. It was a feature of the GDR that before the Wende the SED largely refused to recognize a need for de-Stalinization. The official dogma was that the history of socialism was one of unblemished human progress, no attempt being made to admit to the Stalinist purges in either the Soviet Union or the GDR. This tendency to regard the past through rose-tinted glasses was something Hein strongly criticized in his speech ‘Die fünfte Grundrechenart’ of 14 September 1989 (KS, pp. 145–56). Yet after it had become clear in late 1989 and above all in 1990 that East Germans wanted capitalism, not reform socialism, he formulated an interpretation of socialist history which was also very tendentious. In an argument which seemed to contradict recent developments, he contended that socialism had profited from the Wende as much as capitalism, indeed perhaps more. Moreover, he denied any connection, in terms of causality or historical fate, between socialism and Stalinism, and even to an extent argued the case for a milder assessment of Stalinism.

On 7 and 8 October 1989, at the same time as the GDR was celebrating its fortieth anniversary in the presence of Gorbachev, thousands of demonstrators in Berlin protested against the status quo with calls of ‘Gorbi hilf,’ ‘Wir sind das Volk,’ and ‘Keine Gewalt.’ Although the demonstrations were largely peaceful, the security forces, composed of Volkspolizei and members of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (henceforth MfS), quelled them brutally and arrested hundreds of people.

One of Christoph Hein's first reactions to these events, in addition to calling for political and social reforms and the establishment of a truly democratic socialism, was to demand the setting up of an independent committee to investigate this brutality and establish exactly who was responsible. He was not the only writer to do this. Christa Wolf, for instance, whose daughter was arrested during the demonstrations, also insisted on the need for an inquiry. In anticipation of a future investigation, Hein invited victims to his home and informed himself about what had happened. Together with church representatives, he helped to take down statements and gather evidence of maltreatment by the security forces. He even financially supported this undertaking with the proceeds from public readings. The investigative committee was at last set up in mid-November 1989; both Hein and Wolf were invited to participate and accepted. The ‘zeitweiliger Untersuchungsausschuβ,’ as it was called, comprised members of the SED and block parties (CDU, LDPD) as well as intellectuals and representatives of the church and political opposition. It conducted hearings between 15 November 1989 and 14 March 1990.

Although officially sanctioned by the authorities, the committee had a limited effectiveness. Unlike a court, it had no means of obliging those responsible for the security forces to attend hearings, nor to compel them to answer questions or to tell the truth (although its powers were to a degree extended by the Volkskammer on 26 January 1990). Of those who did attend hearings and answer questions, few were prepared to be cooperative. The committee had to contend with deliberate obfuscation, vagueness, and convenient lapses of memory, especially as regards the chain of power. As if this were not enough, Erich Mielke, head of the MfS, fearing no doubt that the committee might discover the extent of his involvement, tried to have it dissolved. Members of the MfS who were prepared to shed light on events were ordered by their superiors to keep silent, while journalists who reported on the committee's activities were threatened and even physically assaulted by the MfS.

While the committee was ultimately able to trace back the conduct of the security forces on 7 and 8 October to orders from Mielke, the Nationaler Verteidigungsrat (henceforth VR), and even Honecker himself, much remained unclear, as a direct result of the non-cooperation and harassment. And not much could be achieved in terms of punishment of those responsible or of compensation for the victims. Hein feared that the committee was being exploited by the authorities for purposes of self-exculpation and even suggested stopping the investigation to prevent this abuse continuing (OR, p. 328).

As an instrument for uncovering the top-level operative structures of Stalinism in the GDR or for encouraging self-critical confrontation with the past on the part of its leaders, the committee was not as successful as many had hoped. The committee members were aware of the meagre results of their effort. But this in no way detracts from their commitment, and they did achieve as much as could be achieved under the circumstances. Moreover, in a series of statements made in late 1990, most emphasized that the work of the committee had none the less been a contribution to the evolution of democratic forms. Käthe Gaede, CDU member of the committee, described it as the first round table (OR, p. 299), Christa Wolf saw it as a school of democracy,4 while Hein talked of a time of democracy beyond state and party interests (HTK, p. 73).

A degree of retrospective idealization here is undeniable, an idealization triggered in some cases (including Hein's, one suspects) by dissatisfaction at the subsequent triumph of parliamentary democracy over hopes of direct democracy and at the loss of any chance of political self-determination as a result of reunification. But compared with what the situation had been, the committee was a democratic development. Never before in the GDR had the government and its security forces been made the subject of a critical inquiry; up to that point the only authority they answered to was their own. In fact it was the first time that an investigative committee of this kind had ever been set up, so that at the same time as it was conducting the first hearings the committee was busy defining its statutes and trying to have its rights recognized by the government. The composition of the committee was also a novelty in the GDR. Representatives of the ruling parties and members of the opposition, who for the first time could enjoy a modest degree of authority, learnt to work together, to communicate and share responsibility. The by-all-accounts difficult but profitable cooperation between people of different political beliefs and backgrounds was a step towards true democracy. That conservative members such as Ursula Jeske (SED) and Ernst Erdmann (LDPD) admitted to having gained an insight into the injustice practised by the state they represented and learnt tolerance and respect of others is a measure of the success of this cooperation (OR, pp. 297, 313).

Hartmut Peters, ‘unabhängiger Bürger’ on the committee, saw Hein, Wolf, and Heinrich Fink as the committee members ‘mit Ausstrahlung’ (OR, p. 303). Certainly Hein, in the face of the resistance of the authorities, did not hesitate to use the moral authority he possessed to attempt to overcome this obstruction. Three examples will illustrate this. At the end of the first hearing on 15 November 1989, he indignantly dismissed the testimony of Generalmajor Hähnel of the MfS (Hähnel had accused the demonstrators of provocation) as being but a justification for the brutality of the security forces (OR, pp. 75–76). Given that the SED and MfS were still in power (if not exactly in control), Hein's emphatic rebuke could be seen as an act of some courage. His reaction paved the way for later hearings, where members became increasingly outspoken and vehement in their anger at the non-cooperative response of those questioned. On 29 November 1989, Hein issued a statement to the press in which he complained of this non-cooperation and criticized the VR for refusing to send anyone to attend hearings (OR, p. 328). The statement was not without effect. The next hearing was attended by General Streletz, deputy minister of the VR, whose statements helped to an extent at least to reveal the degree of high-level responsibility for the brutal response to events on 7 and 8 October. After the committee had completed its work on 27 April 1990, Hein tried to have an independent ‘Bürgerbeauftragter’ appointed whose task it would be to investigate future allegations of state injustice towards its citizens (OR, p. 339). Ultimately, nothing came of the proposition: it was a last attempt to inject a small measure of direct democratic control into the parliamentary democracy that was evolving, a last vestige of ‘third way’ Hein and others had hoped for.

Hein's work for the committee was an attempt to encourage a process of self-critical reflection within the upper echelons of the SED and MfS. In public speeches and interviews held between October and December, he insisted however on the need for all individuals and groups throughout society to engage on such a reflection. He may have cited above all the police, the state security forces, and the state lawyers, but in an interview of 2–3 December with Neues Deutschland, he made it clear that he believed responsibility for Stalinism to be a collective one (KS, p. 204). He hoped that every individual would confront his or her past openly and honestly, resulting in a kind of nationwide spiritual glasnost. Only then, via feelings of regret and guilt, could a true inner revolution to accompany the outer revolution be guaranteed. Indeed, it was upon this process of inner liberation that the success of a democratic future would depend. He warned against pointing the finger at others, understanding only too well the motives for such tendencies: ‘Bekanntlich ist ja der Splitter im Auge des anderen immer ein wenig gröβer, als der Balken im eigenen’ (KS, p. 204).

In this context, Hein's support of Gustav Just was another important contribution to the process of de-Stalinization. Just, deputy editor of the GDR weekly Sonntag, had been sentenced to four years in prison in 1957. Along with others, including Walter Janka, head of the publisher Aufbau, he had been accused and found guilty of conspiring against Ulbricht. The charges and sentences were unjust; Janka and Just, for all their commitment to reforms within socialism, were not counter-revolutionaries. In the summer of 1989, having written his own account of what had been little more than a Stalinist show-trial, Just, knowing the political climate to be still inappropriate for publication, asked Hein if he would be prepared to hide a copy of the manuscript to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. Hein agreed. According to Just, Hein claimed that Just's account could help the process of democratic reform when the time was right (HTD, p. 190). The Wende made publication possible, and Just's account appeared under the title Zeuge in eigener Sache: Die Fünfziger Jahre in der DDR in 1990. On 10 December 1989, Hein gave a speech in honour of Just within the framework of a commemorative concert for the victims of Stalinism. In his speech, he expressed the hope that Just's account would help people to confront the past, accept their responsibility, and overcome the spirit of Stalinism. Hein's speech was printed as the foreword to Just's book.

Hein's only literary publication in the hectic last months of 1989, the short story “Die Vergewaltigung” which appeared on 2–3 December in Neues Deutschland, can also be seen as an encouragement to the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. He actually wrote the story in 1988,5 but its applicability to his own post-Wende convictions makes it a highly topical piece. In the story, the main character Ilona give a public speech in which, in subconscious enslavement to the official GDR dictum that the Soviet Union is beyond criticism, she covers up the fact that her grandmother was raped by the Russians in 1945; forced by her husband to recognize this dishonesty, she withdraws, hurt, angry, and tearful, to her bedroom. The end of the story shows her gradually growing calmer. The story illustrates the falsification of biographical truth, the adjustment of memory in the interests of conformism, and shows the painful but ultimately liberating effect of confronting this. Ilona's husband, while triggering the confrontation, remains sympathetic to her and refrains from being judgemental. Similarly, while Hein believed after October 1989 that it might be necessary to trigger Vergangenheitsbewältigung in those not prepared to take it upon themselves (and his own public statements and committee work were meant as a push in this direction) he warned against passing the buck and against victimization.

Clearly, Hein was afraid of the consequences of a process of superficial democratization similar to that after 1945, when, he has repeatedly stressed, National Socialist ideas were not properly eradicated from the public consciousness in either the East or the West of Germany. It may have been naive of him to hope that the East German people might subject themselves to a radical self-examination. Certainly the call for self-scrutiny was not one which the majority of East Germans was likely to heed. The changes in the GDR in October and November 1989 generated a feeling of excitement, even euphoria in the East German population. Interest was focused on daily events, each day bringing as it did the prospect of new freedoms. In such an atmosphere there was little time and little desire for introspection. Hein's frequent warnings throughout the autumn of 1989 that euphoria alone is no guarantee of future democracy proved prophetic. The reluctance of many East Germans to accept personal responsibility for the past led to an atmosphere of embittered mutual accusation throughout 1990 and subsequently, an atmosphere which certainly did not foster democracy. Hein's insistence upon the need for self-scrutiny was therefore highly relevant. However, there is evidence that he did not subject himself to this process, and that in so doing he applied two different sets of rules: one for himself and one for others.

It is with surprise that the critic Frauke Meyer-Gosau remarks that Hein, whose pro-democratic role she highlights, occasionally slips into SED-style terminology in his reaction to events in the autumn of 1989 (CB, p. 179). The main example she cites is this: at the height of the Wende on 9 October 1989, the conductor Kurt Masur, among others, had appealed for the need for peaceful dialogue between demonstrators and the authorities. The appeal helped to prevent possible clashes between police and citizens. On 4 November 1989, on the Berlin Alexanderplatz, Hein gave a speech and, in reference to these developments, spoke of renaming Leipzig ‘Heldenstadt der DDR’ (KS, p. 177). Meyer-Gosau, however, defends Hein against the charge she herself levels. Hein, she writes, wanted reforms in the GDR; that he paradoxically uses ‘die Etikettierungen des Alten’ is because he was overcome by feeling. In time, his term ‘Heldenstadt’ was to pass into GDR mythology. In the entry for Leipzig in the post-unification Baedeker, a subsection entitled ‘1989: Heldenstadt Leipzig’ informs the reader of the events of 9 October.6 If the term now might seem salonfähig, at the time it struck an odd note. Meyer-Gosau's attempt to explain away this and other questionable terms in Hein's post-Wende vocabulary, such as his references to the need for ‘Hygiene’ in East German society, also strikes an odd note: it has an apologetic ring.

If certain formulations and a tendency towards rhetorical pathos in Hein's speeches after October 1989 betray a linguistic solidarity with SED-style official jargon and oratory, there are moments where the actual content of his statements suggests that he is not so much a representative of the reform movement as an apologist of the SED and even MfS. An obvious and much-quoted example is his defence of Erich Honecker during his Alexanderplatz speech on 4 November 1989. He presented Honecker as an idealist, helpless in the face of Stalinist structures. But there are other, less well-publicized examples, such as the confidence he expressed (in a Spiegel interview of 29 October) in Egon Krenz as Honecker's successor (KS, p. 159), or his sympathetic attitude towards the MfS. It seems extraordinary that Hein, who himself was victimized by the MfS on more than one occasion and who was certainly aware of its repressiveness, should refer in an interview of 4–5 November 1989 with the Berliner Zeitung to its ‘gewiβ nicht einfache Arbeit’ and to the need for the people to regain respect for this work (KS, p. 181). The peculiar and precarious nature of Hein's stance is well demonstrated by his contradictory use of the pronoun ‘wir’ in a speech of 28 October 1989 (KS, p. 173). One moment ‘wir’ is used to mean everyone, including the SED, police, and MfS; a few lines later, ‘wir’ has become the people only, ‘sie’ being used to designate the police and MfS. The inconsistency results from his wish to overcome the gap between old and new, authorities and demonstrators, a gap which, he felt, needed to be bridged if further bloodshed were to be avoided and the reform process accelerated. But his tone (witness his suggestion that the demonstrators approach the police and MfS with open arms) seems conciliatory almost to the point of an uncritical solidarity with precisely those organs needing to be reformed. This raises the question as to the relationship between him and real existing socialism in the past.

Hein is usually considered, especially in West Germany, to have been an opponent of real existing socialism. There is much evidence for this, evidence which can be only summarized here. He was known for his repeated attacks on the cultural policies of the SED, above all for his criticism of censorship and the lack of any press freedom. In his works, it can be argued, themes such as the socialist betrayal of its own ideals, the failure of the GDR to admit to and confront its own past (both Stalinist and National Socialist), and the continual manipulation of individuals and abuse of individual rights in the name of socialism are a central feature. When one considers the facts of his biography, Hein's oppositional role was perhaps inevitable. Being the son of a parson, he was not allowed to attend an Oberschule in the GDR, and in 1958, when he was fourteen, he had to go to school in West Berlin. He grew up a victim of discrimination, and this continued when he became a writer. He was not popular with the authorities, and was encouraged on at least two occasions to leave (in 1979 and 1985). He was harried by the MfS, and most of his publications appeared only after battles with the censor. The stage history of his plays in the GDR is also a history of constant interference by the censor. Hein, though, was prepared to make changes which satisfied the authorities. There is no shame in this, but it does not redound to his credit that he recently asserted never to have allowed changes when there is clear evidence that, in the case of the novel Horns Ende at least, he did.7

Whatever his criticism of real existing socialism and the problems he faced there, Hein decided quite consciously to stay in the GDR. The reasons he gives for staying tend to vary between a kind of ‘Lokalpatriotismus’ or sense of loyalty to Brandenburg, where he lived, and the refusal to give up in the face of adversity. But, in an interview of 11–12 March 1990 in profil, he admitted to Sigrid Löffler that he would have left had he been persecuted by the authorities as much as Günter Kunert was. That he was not persecuted to the extent that, say, Kunert or Reiner Kunze were may have been because he was not perceived by the authorities, despite their distrust of him, to be quite as undesirable. Certainly, beyond all criticism, there were elements in Hein's philosophy which suggest that he had something in common with the SED: a belief in the superiority of socialist culture and society over Western society and culture, supported by an aggressive, unremitting anti-capitalism. This element of solidarity could be another though unspoken reason for his decision to stay in the GDR.

Hein's anti-capitalism is overlooked by critics keen to stress his oppositional role in the GDR. While he is often praised for his criticism of censorship in the GDR, in his 1987 speech to the Xth Writers' Congress, little reference is made to the fact that this same speech contains a passage condemning the West which relativizes and perhaps even neutralizes this criticism (KS, p. 85). He perceives in the West an economically motivated tendency towards the international monopoly of a few publishing companies and predicts a decline in Western literary culture and in Western culture as a whole. He talks of the threat of ‘Neo-Analphabetentum’ (KS, p. 80). The East, he continues, is not threatened by a comparable qualitative decline and will soon be responsible for the culture neglected in the West. Marcel Reich-Ranicki was one of the few to take Hein to task for this argumentation, in a 1987 critique in the FAZ.8 At the same time Reich-Ranicki wondered if Hein's anti-capitalist statements might have been a tactical manoeuvre designed to placate the SED authorities, whose cultural policies the speech rejects. This theory is disproven by a glance at a quite virulent essay by Hein on the West German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk from 1983. The essay attacks only the West, condemning the New Left in West Germany for its lack of political and moral ‘engagement,’ but also perceiving in Western culture and society generally an arbitrariness, superficiality, and modishness. In response to Sloterdijk's criticism of Marxism, Hein stresses the links between Fascism and capitalism and sees West Germany as dominated by the ‘Coca-Cola-Kultur’ of America.9

In his essay ‘Maelzel's Chess Player Goes to Hollywood’ (1987), Hein argues that monetary values are the sole criterion determining the production and sale of art in capitalism.10 While he condemns the East for politicizing the role of art as a result of bureaucratic centralism and censorship, the West is presented as guilty of trivializing and functionalizing art for material profit. Again and again he balances criticism of the East with a barbed criticism of the West that suggests that true cultural and moral values are in greater danger there than in the East. This is also true of his fictional works such as Horns Ende (1985), where he explodes the official GDR myth of the ‘Golden Fifties,’ but is careful to include the figure of the unscrupulous Bachofen, who leaves the GDR to make a career as Bürgermeister in West Germany, a development suggesting that the corrupt have a better chance in the West than in the East. While Hein found real existing socialism imperfect, he did see it as in some respects a truly socialist society. This is visible in references, such as those in a 1981 speech, to the absence of certain forms of capitalist exploitation and to ‘eine Gesellschaft mit sozialer Gleichheit.’11 He had little doubt that the GDR was superior to the FRG, and that its superior culture had to be protected against the ever-present threat of Western contamination. He often points to areas where the GDR was drifting in what he felt to be a capitalist direction: he warns, for example, against a concentration of publishing companies in East Germany and against a creeping tendency towards trivial entertainment in the GDR's theatres (KS, pp. 85, 94–98).

Hein's belief that capitalism is synonymous with cultural decadence is an ideological reflex that has little to do with the realities in the West. It may also be a psychological reflex. While he knew the GDR's socialist venture to be flawed, he still believed in it. In order to convince himself of its value and justification as an alternative to life in the West, he had to denigrate capitalism. Certainly his picture of capitalism is wholly negative and undifferentiated: he reduces it to the heartless mechanics of economic warfare. This portrayal of capitalism is not dissimilar to the portrayal in official SED propaganda. It even seems as if Hein, in conjuring up an apocalyptic vision of the cultural collapse of capitalism and stressing the cultural responsibility of the East, is himself trading SED propaganda and making his contribution to the Cold War. When he was offered and accepted the Lehrstuhl für Poetik at the Folkwang-Hochschule in Essen-Werden in West Germany in 1988, he used it to help the students write and stage a traditionally anti-capitalist play about war as a profit-making enterprise, specific criticism being directed at the German firm Krupp. Reading the text, which Hein did not personally write but whose conception and development he certainly influenced, one can only imagine that the GDR authorities would have been happy with this attack on the capitalist foe, and that within the enemy's own territory.12 His apparent sympathy towards the long-standing GDR authorities after October 1989 is undoubtedly in large part the result of his feeling that whatever differences might divide them, they were united by a commitment to protecting certain basic socialist principles against a common enemy. And nowhere was the enemy more threatening than during and after the turbulent events of autumn 1989.

That the anti-Stalinist tone of Hein's speeches and interviews during the Wende is flanked, from the beginning, by anti-capitalist elements is thus biographically consistent, for if Stalinism posed a threat to the third way, a truly democratic socialism, then capitalism posed an even greater one. Hein launched himself into a fight on two fronts. In his interview with Der Spiegel on 29 October 1989, when asked to state three wishes, he started by asking for an end to West German ‘Abwerbung,’ more or less implying that the steady depopulation of East Germany was due mainly to this rather than to the lack of reforms in the GDR. In the same interview he seems to see in Egon Krenz the reform potential of a Gorbachev, although he knew that Krenz had praised the Chinese government for the bloody repression of uprisings in Peking earlier in 1989 (KS, p. 159). It seems likely that when addressing the West, Hein's concern is to defend the imperfect status quo in the GDR, as this is certainly preferable to capitalism and has to be protected against what he felt to be Western imperial interests. When addressing the East, however, at least before the fall of the wall, his aim is to criticize the GDR's government, applying pressure to its leadership and calling for an acceleration in the pace and extent of internal reforms. This leads to ambivalences, even self-contradictions. In the October interview in Der Spiegel, Hein is defiantly confident in the face of Western scepticism that the new government of the GDR under Egon Krenz will support the reform movement. Yet in a podium discussion in East Berlin the next day, he expresses severe doubts as to the credibility of the GDR government's commitment to democracy, and is afraid that the reform movement might be crushed by officialdom as it was in Eastern Europe in 1956 (KS, p. 167).

Hein's varying appraisal of the situation may, of course, be the result of genuine uncertainty. While Egon Krenz's past was hardly that of a zealous reformer, he did seem more open to ideas of reform than Honecker. But that Hein's opinion should so consistently vary depending on the addressee suggests that his personal attitude might also have been a product of tactical exigencies: the socialist order can be criticized from within, but in the face of Western interests it must be defended, and so the tone becomes one of uncritical solidarity. Throughout the Wende, Hein upheld the traditional Cold War idea that capitalism and socialism are mutually antagonistic and mutually exclusive. That reform socialism might, as some models in fact did, consider integrating elements of capitalism, is something he does not contemplate. When the wall came down and thousands of East Germans flooded westwards for a taste of the capitalist life-style, Hein preferred to stay in the East passing scornful judgement, in part on his fellow-citizens. On 12 November 1989, in ‘Ein Brief an Sara,’ he praises his son for being aristocratic enough to resist the impulse to join the mass exodus to the west; most farmers, he notes, not without satisfaction, have more important things to do than visit West Berlin (KS, p. 188), and in the same letter he dismisses an old lady, confused in her euphoria, as insane. In ‘Ein Brief an Sara’ he can also describe the fall of the wall in positive terms, referring to it as the ‘Tanzboden der Deutschen’ (KS, p. 184). But these positive tones have a muted, concessionary quality; for the most part he concentrates on the negative aspects: traffic jams in the West, empty shops in the East, black-market exploitation and wage discrepancies between West and East. He began to distance himself from the GDR people at this point, and it should be stressed that his reaction was typical: many East German intellectuals were disgusted by their nation's sudden surge westwards, and it was this disgust, and not just the sudden interest of East Germans in consumerism rather than reforms, that caused the later much-lamented breach between intellectuals and Volk. Hein's reaction is not dissimilar to the erstwhile tendency of SED representatives to accuse East German refugees of ingratitude.

After 9 November 1989, it became increasingly clear to Hein that while Stalinism seemed to have been overcome, the threat of capitalism was increasing. His commitment to reform socialism, increasingly shot through with doubts as to the chances of success, took on a defiant, assertive quality. He continued to fight on two fronts, only now both fronts were anti-capitalistic. On the one hand he tried to warn his fellow-citizens against capitalism: in an interview with Junge Welt on 12 December 1989, he stressed that the defeat of reform socialism would mean that capitalism would be able to cast off some of the friendlier colours it had assumed in response to the existence of a socialist alternative (KS, p. 213). On the other hand, using the same argument, he tried to discourage West Germans from any thoughts they might have of imposing their system on the East. In a speech made in Düsseldorf on 13 December 1989 in honour of Max Frisch who had just been awarded the Heinrich Heine Prize, he appeals to their egoism, warning them of the consequences of a capitalism unfettered by the influence of socialism (KS, p. 250). The logic of his position as far as his West German audience is concerned is that a further socialist experiment must be launched because only the continuation of socialism can guarantee the FRG's living standards.

That capitalism in West Germany may have owed some of its positive features to a fear of the appeal of socialism is a defensible if controversial argument. But it is a falsification to claim that socialism was the sole source of capitalism's social conscience. Given that GDR socialism had long since lost any appeal it might have had, capitalism, if Hein's theory were right, could long have afforded to dispense with some of its ‘friendlier colours.’ To some East Germans, however, it may now seem as if Western capitalism has cast off some of these colours. At the time of reunification, Chancellor Kohl promised prosperity in the ‘neue Bundesländer.’ The present reality, however, is large-scale unemployment. It may be that Hein's warnings in respect of capitalism were meant as an antidote against the often extreme enthusiasm towards the West of many GDR citizens in 1989 and 1990. But at the same time these warnings are highly exaggerated, negative projections which, one suspects, are designed to scare people away from capitalism and win their support for reform socialism. Hein's use of negative propaganda rather than cogent positive argument indicates that he himself no longer believes in the persuasive power of a socialist reformist ideology, so he resorts to desperate measures not dissimilar to those used by the SED in their attempts over the years to undermine the appeal of capitalism.

Hein's anti-capitalism prior to the Wende was always tendentious. After the Wende, it becomes openly repressive and Stalinistic in the sense that he uses it as an instrument to try to prevent East Germans making the decision they were in the process of making. The over-inflated horror-scenario of capitalism is perhaps best symbolized by the parallel he draws between Stalinism and capitalism, describing them both as dragons (KS, p. 249). Hein's disgust at the appeal of capitalism after 9 November was such that he even seemed to consider direct preventive measures. In the interview on 12 December 1989 with Junge Welt, he talks of one of the duties of the GDR government being the ‘Schutz nach auβen’ (KS, p. 212). Earlier, in ‘Ein Brief an Sara’ on 10 November, he writes that the opened wall could lead to destabilization and economic collapse in the GDR and result in a ‘zwar notwendige, aber gewaltsame Lösung’ (KS, p. 187). It may be that Hein, who erroneously imagined that the collapse of the wall could lead to an exacerbation of the Cold War, whereas in fact it brought about its end, is only expressing fears here, but the adjective ‘notwendig’ suggests that he might at some level welcome a Stalinist-style imposition of repressive controls to stem the tide westwards.

Hein not only daemonizes capitalism, he also trivializes it. Thus in a letter of 20 November 1989 to the Rowohlt Verlag, he concludes, in reference to a possible failure of democratic socialism: ‘Wenn wir scheitern, friβt uns McDonald’ (KS, p. 199). In another letter, this time to Gustav Just on 16 December 1989, he writes of the GDR being stranded ‘auf dem groβen Riff “Dresdner Bank”’ (HTD, p. 191). Such contemptuous metonyms are, of course, a reflex of wounded pride. They are typical of GDR writers' reactions to capitalism after the Wende. ‘Der Sozialismus geht, Johnny Walker kommt,’ writes Volker Braun in a poem, parodying a television advertisement.13 And Stefan Heym created the spectacular compound ‘die Daimler-Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm-BASF-Hoechst-Deutsche-Bank-Republik.’14 This is the language of a commercial takeover, the scornful implication being that the high ideals of reform socialism are being sacrificed as the GDR is sold out to the highest bidder. Quite apart from the fact that the reduction of capitalism to one (or more) of its (often more obviously trivial) parts is a crass over-simplification of capitalist reality, the above argumentation ignores the fact that East Germans chose capitalism; the success of capitalism is presented purely from a negative perspective as the undesirable consequence of the failure of reform socialism. In the course of 1990, Hein frequently used words such as ‘verludert,’ ‘versaubeutelt,’ and ‘vertan’ to refer to the lost chance of a socialist alternative. Again, this suggests wilful rejection rather than the positive exercise of choice in favour of capitalism and reunification. The implication is always that a better life as a result of reform socialism was a realistic, tangible prospect, not, as it was for most East Germans, an unlikely dream in view of the experience of history.

But it is the daemonization of capitalism that dominates Hein's response, nowhere more so than in the equation of Stalinism and capitalism that increasingly becomes a prominent feature of his view of events after the autumn of 1989. Thus in a speech given on 6 May 1990 in Vienna on receiving the Erich Fried Prize, he refers to ‘die Wüste der Intoleranz und Gewalt’ which used to be called Stalinism and has now merely changed its name (HTD, p. 31). Capitalism is meant. In the same speech, he stresses that Stalinism is not restricted to Russia, nor even to the countries of real existing socialism. He refers to it as a general ‘Gesellschaftskonzept’ (HTD, p. 24). In an interview in February 1991 with Klaus Hammer, Hein refers to the continued existence of ‘structures’ against which he had warned in his Alexanderplatz speech on 4 November 1989 (CB, p. 48). He makes the same point in an interview with Frauke Meyer-Gosau in July 1991 (HTK, p. 91). At the time he had been warning against Stalinism, not capitalism; he is reinterpreting, in fact falsifying his original intention. He provides enough examples of the links he perceives between Stalinism and capitalism. Witness his reference in the 1991 interview with Frauke Meyer-Gosau to ‘die Zensur des Marktes’ (HTK, p. 85), a formulation which in its very language posits a parallel between censorship in the GDR and the conditions imposed upon writers by the book market in capitalism. In an interview with Sigrid Löffler of 11–12 March 1990, he perceives in the Western cultural establishment ‘Literaturwächter’ comparable in their censoriousness to the GDR's top censor Kurt Hager (HTD, p. 41). More generally, he even suggests in a speech given in Dresden on 9 February 1991 that while being unique, as the MfS also it embodied a specifically GDR form of Anpassung that had corresponding forms in the West of Germany.15

Possibly the most striking example of the purely linguistic level at which this tendency to equate could operate was Hein's essay on the subject of ‘Ausländerhaβ’ in Germany, which appeared in Der Spiegel on 9 December 1991.16 In the essay, he claims that the Western world, fearing a drop in living standards, has no wish to share its resources with foreigners and has built a ‘Mauer aus Geld’ to keep them out. His use of the word ‘Mauer,’ a wall of money being, he says, much stronger than a wall of stone, evokes, as it is supposed to, memories of the wall between East and West Germany. Just as there was a Stalinist wall, he implies, so there is a capitalist one, only of more resistant material. The novelist Hans Christoph Buch took Hein to task for the anti-capitalist sentiments of the essay, accusing him of trading SED propaganda (‘aus der Mottenkiste der SED-Propaganda ein Feindbild hervorgekramt’) and of arguing in a manner as intolerant as the intolerance he is describing.17 Certainly Hein, in presenting racism as a capitalist reflex, seems more interested in using the issue for his own anti-capitalist ends than in objectively examining the causes, which are much more complex than he would allow. In an interview on 29 January 1993 with the Sonntag successor Freitag, of which Hein is an editor, he was quick to accuse Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Henryk Broder of one-sidedness for allegedly pinning the blame for racism on the Eastern part of Germany.18 Yet in his Der Spiegel essay, Hein was guilty of an equally biased picture.

Western capitalism may, arguably, have autocratic features. But the suggestion that capitalism is but Stalinism under another name is a misrepresentation. Hein himself admitted, in a more objective moment, that capitalism was the more flexible and pluralistic system.19 But from the moment capitalism developed into as much of a threat to reform socialism as Stalinism, it seems, these two forces became as one in his mind. By imagining that reunification simply means the takeover of one form of Stalinism from another, Hein is able to continue living out a fixed psychological and artistic pattern of rejection of and opposition to the status quo. Just as he was an opponent of oppression in the GDR, so he can continue to be this in the FRG. Interestingly, he admitted in 1991, in a discussion with Berlin schoolchildren, that many other GDR writers were having problems because of the ‘Verlust des Gegners’; David, he claimed, had lost Goliath.20 Hein sidesteps these problems by attributing to capitalism the same qualities as characterized Stalinism and fabricating thereby a new Goliath. But his continued rejection of capitalism throughout the early 1990s must be seen in context. It is but the negative aspect of a continued uncritical commitment to utopian socialism on his part which causes him not just to blackball, or refuse to acknowledge, the present but also to misread the past and to lose himself in speculative visions of the future.

One might have expected that Hein's reaction to the failure of the hopes of a truly socialist GDR would have been to ask what had gone wrong, taking a clear awareness of the situation (the success of capitalism and, subsequently, reunification) as a starting-point for a kind of stock-taking. It is not possible to date precisely when he completely accepted this failure, but it was certainly some time in December 1989 (after his Frisch speech in Düsseldorf on 13 December, where he had still voiced hopes) or January 1990. In his book Das Perestrojka-Journal, Wolfgang Haug, commenting on 14 January 1990 on an unpublished speech of Hein's on GDR radio, maintained: ‘Er gehört zu den Revolutionären in der DDR, denen die Revolution abhanden zu kommen scheint.’21 While Hein certainly lost hope of the realization of true socialism within the context of the present, however, it cannot be said that he lost revolutionary hopes altogether. On the contrary, he simply reacted to the success of capitalism by transplanting hopes of the socialist victory into the future. The course of recent history is reinterpreted in the name of a projected socialist rebirth.

It was in his Erich Fried speech on 6 May 1990 that Hein, commenting on the apparent triumph of capitalism, strongly resisted the self-satisfied notion of an ‘end of history’ in favour of a dynamic, dialectical view. Before the events of autumn 1989, he had also consistently criticized official GDR propaganda for presenting the GDR as the victor of history. But the application of the same argument to capitalism does seem opportunistic. That the victors, as he puts it in his February 1991 interview with Klaus Hammer, are always corrected by history more or less annuls the capitalist success (CB, p. 47). ‘Sein Scheitern wird auch kommen,’ he says of capitalism in an interview in Freitag on 28 May 1993.22 The present is invalidated by viewing it from some projected hypothetical point in the future. Hein's reactions to events in Germany between 1990 and 1992 are characterized by a vision of a deterioration in national standards and international relations. Reunification is viewed by him as a threat to European stability, and in one interview he expresses a fear of nationalistic and expansionist urges (above all in the question of the Oder—Neisse border between Poland and Germany).23 Later, he descries in Germany a reluctance to confess the censorious reporting of the Gulf War, a persecution of individuals by the mass media, and a developing racism which he interprets as an incipient collapse of liberalism.24 These readings project an aggressive, dangerous trend, representing another aspect of Hein's daemonization of capitalism, but at the same time the impression is of loss of self-control, of a process of dilapidation against which he sets the counteractive force of a renascent socialism. More generally for the West as a whole, he believes that the integration of the Eastern bloc countries will mean an end to NATO and lead to a ‘fruitful’ destabilization and even to an end of the Western system.25

While the ‘victor of history’ can expect future defeat, Hein argues in his Fried speech, the ‘loser’ is the one who can hope for future success (HTD, pp. 29–30). This idea that loss is productive and victory counter-productive also plays a central role in Hein's most recent novel, Das Napoleon-Spiel, published in 1993. There the first-person narrator Wörle maintains that victory constitutes ‘ein Ende und ein Ende ohne Reiz.’ ‘Der Sieg,’ he maintains, ‘ist unser aller Totengräber.’ Defeat, on the other hand, he sees as having a regenerative impact: ‘Verlust schärft den Blick.’26 Wörle is not Hein, but his philosophy is in this particular point indeed close to his creator's. In his Fried speech, Hein stresses the enlivening effect of ruins, and in 1991, in the televised discussion with schoolchildren, he asserts: ‘Der Ruin ist wirklich ein Neuanfang.’27 The analogy reminds one, of course, of Johannes R. Becher's famous dictum ‘Auferstanden aus Ruinen.’ Hein himself even writes of ‘Tod und Auferstehung’ in his Fried speech (HTD, p. 26). Thus it is that the collapse of socialism in 1989 is seen not as meaning the end of socialism but, on the contrary, as a prerequisite to its rebirth in a purer form. Just as the validity of the capitalist victory is questioned from the future, so the future is called upon to relativize the impression of a socialist failure. The appropriation of the Christian topos of death and resurrection is reminiscent, mutatis mutandis but none the less uncomfortably, of nationalist attempts in the 1920s and 1930s to interpret the First World War and the Versailles Treaty as a martyrdom upon which the rebirth of Germany must necessarily follow. Whether in the interests of socialist utopia or German nationalism, the life of Christ is being metaphorically used to manufacture victory from defeat. In an interview with Frauke Meyer-Gosau in July 1991, Hein, recalling Karl Marx, talks of October 1989 as meaning a ‘Forträumen der versteinerten Verhältnisse,’ leaving a bare ground that is none the less ‘Mutterboden, auf dem etwas wachsen kann’ (HTK, p. 90). The ‘etwas’ Hein was thinking of and which he describes as a ‘Blümchen’ is the socialist utopia. Here, in highly sentimental and rather tainted language, the 1989 revolution is interpreted not as a liberation from socialism but as the liberation of socialism.

This argument is the key to Hein's attempt to interpret events in terms of death and rebirth. In his mind there is no doubt that the socialism characteristic of the Eastern bloc countries (real existing socialism) is not in any sense socialist. This contradicts the fact that he had stayed in the GDR because he certainly regarded it as at least in part socialist and had hopes of it becoming more so. Yet again and again after the Wende he stresses the idea most pointedly expressed in the axiom: ‘Was am real-existierenden Sozialismus real war, war nicht sozialistisch, was sozialistisch war, war nicht real’ (HTK, p. 91). He posits a mutual antagonism between real existing socialism and true socialism, suggesting on several occasions that the latter was severely wounded or damaged by the former. In his speech of 10 December 1989 in honour of Gustav Just, he maintains that the aim of the GDR's leaders was ‘die Zerstörung des Sozialismus’ (KS, p. 235). This argument has two functions. On the one hand, it enables the ideal of socialism to emerge uncompromised, as a victim rather than a perpetrator, from its historical implementation. Such exculpation overlooks the critical argument that the original socialist vision might well have carried within it the seeds of repression (witness the ideas of a planned economy or the dictatorship of the proletariat); political and social ideals cannot be judged independently of the historical form in which they are realized. On the other hand, the notion that ideal socialism was a victim of real existing socialism suggests that October 1989 and the overcoming of Stalinism meant the liberation of the ideal from its antagonistic misrepresentation. While the end of the real existing form of socialism actually led to reunification under capitalist conditions, Hein would prefer to interpret it as a release of, and therefore in a sense as a victory for, the ideal form.

Contrary to his interpretation, the prospects of a new socialist venture some time in the future have actually been diminished by the Wende and what followed, rather than enhanced by them. For what happened was not just that real existing socialism came to end; following this, the East German people had a chance to opt for an attempt at a reformed, improved socialism and turned this chance down. This fact is one which over the last two or three years Hein has been at pains to overlook or invalidate. He has claimed repeatedly that he had no illusions in October and November 1989 (CB, p. 42), knowing that the chances of a reformed socialism in the GDR had already ended in 1968 when the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Prague. Given his intense commitment beyond all pessimism to reform socialism in these months, this claim seems like an attempt to appear wise after the event. And it has the effect of annulling the historical relevance of the refusal of a renewed attempt at socialism on the part of the GDR population after the Wende. His argument runs: Stalinism made true socialism impossible, Stalinism is over, ergo true socialism is a viable option again.

Hein's denial of having entertained any reformist hopes not surprisingly led people to ask why he had stayed in the GDR. When asked this question by a schoolgirl in 1991, he replied with the phrase ‘man muβ die versteinerten Verhältnisse zum Tanzen bringen.’28 This is not the first time he has used this formulation, which reflects his Marxist self-understanding. But his focus after the Wende on only this aspect of his pre-1989 role, to the exclusion of his reformist commitment over the years, fulfils a function. It enables him to bypass the accusation of naivety or collaboration and emerge as someone whose only interest in the GDR was in destabilizing it, helping it to crumble away. This impression is confirmed by his post-Wende insistence, unusual for someone who has elsewhere vehemently and on countless occasions claimed that he is not a prophet, but a chronicler, that he portrayed the end of the GDR in his works, a claim which he initially applied to only one or two of these, but which subsequently underwent a degree of inflation, culminating in the assertion that he had predicted this end eleven times.29 His œuvre, it is implied, was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The end of the GDR, then, appears as Hein's aim and intention: ‘Die Geschichte ist wieder in Fahrt gekommen,’ he claims in his 1991 interview with Meyer-Gosau (HTK, p. 90). Thus he not only rescues socialism from apparent defeat, he also revaluates his own pre-1989 role. The projection of the hopes for the realization of the thus refurbished vision into the future depends, of course, on the availability of a revolutionary potential within capitalism. Hein's changing attitude to the applicability of the term ‘revolutionary’ is revealing. Initially, he did not see the events of October and November 1989 as a revolution. In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung on 4 November 1989, he rejected the term. The reason for his rejection was that he saw no indication of the ‘Produktionsverhältnisse’ or ‘Eigentumsverhältnisse’ being called into question. He preferred to use the term ‘Reformation’ (KS, p. 180). But then, on 13 December 1989, in his Frisch speech in Düsseldorf, he presents himself as a ‘nicht-beauftragter Emissär der revolutionären Reformation in meinem Land’ (KS, p. 249). Quite apart from the fact that he here claims a representative role which in fact resulted in misrepresentation (by this stage it could hardly be said that people in the GDR wanted socialism) the mixture of terms here is interesting because it indicates a moment of linguistic and conceptual transition. From now on, Hein refers to the autumn of 1989 as a revolution. His interview with Meyer-Gosau in July 1991 would seem to suggest that it was the events of November 1989 that caused him to see developments as revolutionary. Revolutions, he claims, have two phases. He would seem to be referring here to a ‘positive’ pre-mural and (for him) a ‘negative’ post-mural phase (HTK, p. 90). But the change of terminology, I think, has another cause: the desire to glorify retrospectively the events of 1989 and also to reclaim for the East Germans a special identity. He repeatedly refers, when talking of German reunification, to the East Germans as the revolutionary part of the German people.30 For him they carry hopes of the future socialist utopia.

These developments in Hein's thinking betray a manipulation of attitudes in the interests of utopianism. Probably the most questionable aspect of this manipulation is his tendency to provide an apology for Stalinism. The suggestion that the characteristics found in Stalinism are inherent in capitalism provides an apology; the uniqueness of its criminality is relativized. But Hein goes further than this. At one point in his Fried speech he asks himself where socialism went wrong; instead of investigating the possibility that socialist idealism was inherently flawed, positive and negative features co-existing, he suggests a strictly diachronic moment of transition from innocence to guilt, as it were a fall from grace. But he cannot historically locate this moment. The source of aberration, he writes, could have been Stalin, Lenin, February 1917, the nineteenth century, or even the Sermon on the Mount (HTD, p. 24). While it is certainly right to question the validity of a psychohistory which attributes the roots of all Stalinist evil to Stalin, the vast historical perspective opened up by Hein, stretching back as it does into the nebulous era of biblical times, has the effect of suggesting that Stalinism may be the result of a (now indeterminable) historical cause or chain of historical causes and thus not responsible for its own crimes. The belief in a point of aberration brings to mind the inescapability of original sin and projects a historical determinism. For Hein, it is merely a question of returning to the status quo before the aberration, which is conjured implicitly throughout the Fried speech as a Garden of Eden.

This speech is a logical continuation of ideas he expressed in his Alexanderplatz speech on 4 November 1989, in which it was the perpetrators rather than Stalinism itself he had defended (KS, pp. 175–76). He had presented Honecker as being helpless in the face of calcified Stalinist structures. The implication there was that Stalinism was a kind of tragic and ineluctable fate. No one would deny that in the GDR socialism (and that meant Stalinism) was imposed by the Soviet Union. But impersonal grammatical structures in the Alexanderplatz speech (‘es entstand eine Gesellschaft’; ‘es entstand eine Struktur’) underpin the idea of Stalinism as an entirely autonomous process beyond individual guilt and responsibility, which amounts to an exculpation of leaders such as Honecker. Hein was repeatedly criticized for this speech, and his later attempts to interpret it as a prophetic warning against capitalism cannot disguise the sympathy towards Honecker. By referring to the events of October and November 1989 as ending the ‘Schlaf der Vernunft,’ a formulation also taken up by Volker Braun,31 Hein projects responsibility for crimes in the GDR onto an abstract anthropomorphism. The absence of reason is offered as a cause, not the active engagement of negative forces such as destructiveness or hunger for power. In the Alexanderplatz speech he does refer to these negative forces, but he then lists them inversely to the order of their severity, ‘Verbrechen’ being added almost as an afterthought to other failings, starting with bureaucracy and demagogy.

One might conflate the logic of the Alexanderplatz and Fried speeches thus: Stalinism, which elsewhere Hein refers to as a ‘machine,’ is a mechanism set in motion by historical factors which can be guessed at but not clearly identified and thus represent, by virtue of being hard to pin down, an inescapable fate. Just as the machine, helpless, runs on, so those who might want to control it (in Hein's eyes, above all Honecker) are dragged along by it. The minimalization of moral guilt is generally a feature of the Fried speech, which argues that the downfall of Stalinism was the result not of a moral cancer, the existence of which Hein implicitly admits, but the lack of a performance principle or ‘Leistungsprinzip’ (HTD, p. 28). Interesting here, first of all, is the term ‘moral cancer.’ If moral degeneracy is attributed the status of organic illness, then it is, by association, a biological process and paradoxically an ethically quite neutral development. This sophistry is reflected elsewhere in other biological comparisons, where Hein talks of the state as ‘krank’ or of Stalinism as a ‘Krankheit’ (KS, pp. 155–56). His argument in the Fried speech that history is not determined by moral issues is, although overstated, not indefensible. The problem is the trivialization inherent in this view: if history is reduced to causality, ethical performance becomes at best an accompanying circumstance, at worst an irrelevance. In any case, Hein employs a self-defeating argument here. He admits that the lack of a performance principle is related to a lack of democratic forms, thus demonstrating contrary to his intentions that the denial of basic ethical rights, for which he himself fought in the autumn of 1989, was perhaps after all the reason for the collapse of real existing socialism.

Thus Hein argues not only that ideal socialism carries no responsibility for Stalinism but also that Stalinism itself cannot properly be held responsible for its own crimes. Conversely, the projection of Stalinist-style flaws into capitalism, the suggestion that capitalism is repressing liberalism and may even be heading for a renewal of fascism, shifts the weight of moral guilt onto the shoulders of capitalism. It is revealing that he should argue the irrelevance of morality as a historical determiner, and yet also be intent on acquitting socialism and even real existing socialism of moral responsibility while blaming capitalism. He may have started out, in October and November 1989, to call for an open confrontation with the past in the GDR and for an acceptance of guilt; as time went on, however, he takes an increasingly defensive stand, especially as ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ in East Germany was now being controlled by the West. He insists, reasonably enough, that the West should also confront its own moral responsibility, but at the same time he is indignant at the manner in which East Germans are being forced, through the medium of the ‘Gauck-Behörde,’ to confront their own past. With bitter irony he remarks in the Freitag interview of 29 January 1993 (‘Der Waschzwang ist da’), ‘eigentlich war so etwas erst für das Jüngste Gericht vorgesehen.’ In his short story “Matzeln,” published in 1992,32 a coal-miner in the Vogtland has been taking wooden discs (‘Matzeln’) home with him from work for years. These discs, processed from wood no longer required in the mines, have no great worth, and anyway, the coal-miner has only ever taken a few each day. But suddenly a new ‘Pförtner’ reports him to the management, and he is condemned for having stolen ‘drei Waggons Stützhölzer’ (“Matzeln,” p. 122). The management has added up the number of ‘Matzeln’ he took home with him altogether and estimated their worth not in terms of what they now are, old pieces of wood, but what they used to be, parts of wood used in the mines. Although the story is set in the GDR, it reflects Hein's interpretation of current events: essentially venial misdemeanours in a nation's past are made to look worse than they are being taken out of context and viewed together instead of individually. The story is critical of the new ‘Pförtner,’ who clearly has failed to do what was expected of him: ‘wachsam zu sein und ein Mensch zu bleiben’ (“Matzeln,” p. 120).

When Hein stood on the Alexanderplatz on 4 November 1989 and talked of the possibility of a truly humane socialism becoming reality, it may indeed have sounded to some ears, as the poet Uwe Kolbe imagined it must have done, ‘wie infantile Kakophonie.’33 And it seems as if Monika Maron is right when she claims, in reference to events in the GDR in 1989: ‘Diese Revolution war kein Aufbruch in die Utopie, sondern ein verzweifelter Sprung aus der Vergangenheit in die Gegenwart.’34 Nevertheless, Hein and others (such as Heiner Müller) are not to be condemned for continuing to believe in a utopia, socialist or otherwise. The problem, however, as I have shown in this article, is that far from critically reassessing the problematic relationship between utopianism and the darker side of socialist history, Hein tends rather to play down or relativize any responsibility for this past which the utopian vision might have had. And he imposes upon the dialectic fact of present history (the ceding of socialism to capitalism) a projected dialectic fact of the future, in which capitalism would cede to a revitalized socialism. His perspective enables socialism to emerge, to use the phrase he applied critically to the Stalinist rewriting of history, as ‘der Sieger der Geschichtsschreibung’ (KS, p. 154). In an interview with the Schweriner Volkszeitung of 22 November 1989, he asserted: ‘Wir müssen lernen, ehrlich mit unserer Geschichte umzugehen, die ganze Wahrheit zu sagen.’ His insistence on the need for an honest confrontation with the past was an important contribution to the process of de-Stalinization. His anticapitalism, however, as well as his tendentious evaluations of socialist history represent a continuation of that Stalinist spirit he was committed to overcoming.


  1. For ease of reference, the titles of the five books from which many of the quotations in this article are taken are given in the text in abbreviated form. The books and their abbreviations are: Christoph Hein, Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen: Essais und Reden (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1990), abbreviated as KS; Christoph Hein: Texte, Daten, Bilder ed. by Lothar Baier (Frankfurt a.M.: Luchterhand, 1990), abbreviated as HTD; Christoph Hein, ed. by Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Munich: text + kritik, 1991), abbreviated as HTK; Chronist ohne Botschaft: Christoph Hein, ein Arbeitsbuch, ed. by Klaus Hammer (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1992), abbreviated as CB; Und diese verdammte Ohnmacht: Report der Untersuchungskommission zu den Ereignissen vom 7. und 8. 1989 in Berlin, ed. by Daniela Dahn and Franz-Jochen Kopka (Berlin: BasisDruck, 1991), abbreviated as OR. The quotation in the title is taken from Hein's contribution to a discussion held in 1990 (‘Das Geld ist nicht der Gral: Aus einer Diskussion mit Christoph Hein und den Schöpfern des Fernsehfilms Die Ritter der Tafelrunde nach der Voraufführung in der Akademie der Künste zu Berlin am 29.9.1990,’ CB, p. 227).

  2. Frauke Meyer-Gosau, ‘Christoph Hein, Politiker,’ in CB, pp. 173–83.

  3. Eckhard Thiele, ‘Engagiert—wofür? Zu Christoph Heins öffentlichen Erklärungen nach der Wende in der DDR,’ HTK, pp. 74–80.

  4. Christa Wolf, ‘Nachtrag zu einem Herbst,’ in Christa Wolf im Dialog (Frankfurt a.M.: Luchterhand, 1990), p. 15.

  5. Hein provided me with this date in a letter of 11 August 1993.

  6. Baedekers Allianz-Reiseführer Deutschland Ost (Berlin, Leipzig, and Stuttgart: Baedeker, 1991), p. 396.

  7. In an interview recently Hein claimed: ‘Ich habe die Zensur nie an meinen Schreibtisch gelassen […]. Da muβ man einfach Rückgrat haben. Es gibt keinen Text von mir, wo ich heute etwas streichen möchte oder wo ein Satz fehlt’ (‘Warum ich in der DDR geblieben bin: Theater Heute-Gespräch mit dem Schriftsteller Christoph Hein,’ Theater Heute (April 1992), 33). The validity of this claim must be doubted. The ‘Zensur in der DDR’ exhibition held in the Literaturhaus Berlin in 1991 showed clearly that Hein, at the instigation of the authorities, had made substantial changes to Horns Ende, which was not even his original title for the novel (Zensur in der DDR: Geschichte, Praxis und Asthetik der Behinderung von Literatur, ed. by Ernst Wichner and Herbert Wiesner (Berlin: Literaturhaus Berlin, 1991), pp. 102–04).

  8. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, ‘Die Angst vor dem Schriftsteller,’ FAZ (Feuilleton), 9 December 1987.

  9. ‘Linker Kolonialismus oder der Wille zum Feuilleton,’ in Christoph Hein, Schlötel, oder Was solls: Stücke und Essays (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1986), pp. 183–200.

  10. ‘Maelzel's Chess Player Goes to Hollywood: Das Verschwinden des künstlerischen Produzenten im Zeitalter der technischen Reproduzierbarkeit,’ in Christoph Hein, Die fünfte Grundrechenart: Aufsätze und Reden (Frankfurt a.M.: Luchterhand, 1990), pp. 28–33.

  11. ‘Lorbeerwald und Kartoffelacker: Vorlesung über einen Satz Heinrich Heines,’ in Christoph Hein, Öffentlich Arbeiten (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1987), pp. 27–28.

  12. See Christoph Hein, Ulrich Schreiber, and others, Kunst als Opposition (Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1990).

  13. ‘O Chicago! O Widerspruch!,’ in Die Zickzackbrücke: Ein Abriβkalender (Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1992), p. 81.

  14. ‘Neue Hoffnung für die DDR,’ Die Zeit, 42 (13 October 1989), 5, republished in Stefan Heym, Einmischung: Gespräche, Reden, Essays (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1992), p. 224.

  15. ‘Ansichtskarte einer deutschen Kleinstadt,’ in Deutsche Ansichten: Die Republik im Übergang, ed. by Michael Müller and Wolfgang Thierse (Bonn: Dietz, 1992), p. 77.

  16. ‘Wir haben Angst zu verarmen: Christoph Hein über Ausländerfeindlichkeit und Armut in Deutschland,’ Der Spiegel, 50 (9 December 1991), 75–81.

  17. ‘Offener Brief an Christoph Hein,’ die tageszeitung, 8 January 1991 (also in Deutsche Literatur 1992, ed. by Franz Josef Görtz, Volker Hage, and Uwe Wittstock (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1993), pp. 21–22).

  18. ‘Der Waschzwang ist da, also muβ gewaschen werden: Gespräch mit Christoph Hein über Christa Wolf und die Wirkung von Stasiakten,’ Freitag, 5 (29 January 1993).

  19. ‘Christoph Hein: Gespräch vom 14. März 1990,’ in Günter Gaus, Deutsche Zwischentöne: Gesprächs-Porträts aus der DDR (Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe, 1990), p. 110.

  20. ‘Christoph Hein im Gespräch mit Schülern der Carl-von-Ossietzky-Oberschule Berlin-Pankow’ (Eine Produktion des Senders Freies Berlin, 1991).

  21. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Das Perestrojka-Journal (Berlin: Rotbuch, 1990), p. 272.

  22. ‘Ich werde als DDR-Schriftsteller in die Grube fahren,’ Freitag, 22 (28 May 1993).

  23. ‘Wird Europa auch zur Bronx: Ein Gespräch mit Christoph Hein,’ Wiener Zeitung, 150 (3 July 1990).

  24. ‘Ansichtskarte einer deutschen Kleinstadt,’ in Deutsche Ansichten: Die Republik im Ubergang, p. 81.

  25. ‘Wird Europa auch zur Bronx,’ Wiener Zeitung, 150 (3 July 1990).

  26. Das Napoleon-Spiel (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1993), pp. 40–41.

  27. ‘Christoph Hein im Gespräch,’ 1991.

  28. ‘Christoph Hein im Gespräch,’ 1991.

  29. ‘Warum ich in der DDR geblieben bin: Theater Heute-Gespräch mit dem Schriftsteller Christoph Hein,’ Theater Heute (April 1992), 32.

  30. See for instance Christoph Hein, ‘Nachdenken über Deutschland,’ Die Weltbühne, 10 (6 March 1990), 295.

  31. See Volker Braun, ‘Gegen den Schlaf der Vernunft,’ in Oktober 1989 (Berlin: Neues Leben and Elefanten Press, 1990), p. 154.

  32. Freibeuter, 53 (1992), 119–23.

  33. Uwe Kolbe, ‘Die Heimat der Dissidenten,’ in Der deutsch-deutsche Literaturstreit, ed. by Karl Deiritz and Hannes Krauss (Hamburg and Zurich: Luchterhand, 1991), p. 34.

  34. Monika Maron, ‘Das neue Elend der Intellektuellen,’ in Nach Maβgabe meiner Begreifungskraft: Artikel und Essays (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1993), p. 88.

Graham Jackman (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Jackman, Graham. “The Fear of Allegory: Benjaminian Elements in Christoph Hein's The Distant Lover.New German Critique 66, no. 66 (fall 1995): 164–92.

[In the following excerpt, Jackman explores the influence of German art theorist Walter Benjamin on the structure of allegory in Hein's The Distant Lover.]

Christoph Hein's knowledge of and interest in the work of Walter Benjamin is unmistakable. Almost all his major essays contain explicit references to Benjamin, to whom he referred in 1983 as “probably the most important and exemplary German art theorist of our century.”1 It is thus hardly surprising that critical studies of Hein's dramatic and narrative work have found evidence of Benjamin's influence.2

The Distant Lover3 receives relatively little attention in Zekert's dissertation on Hein and Benjamin, nor has Benjamin figured prominently in the critical work on The Distant Lover.4 Discussion of this text has focused mainly on psychological and social aspects, most notably in the essays by David Roberts, Slibar and Volk, and Dwars.5 The aim of this essay is to investigate links between Hein's Novelle and Benjamin's conception of allegorical art as expounded in The Origin of German Tragic Drama and developed in his later writings on Baudelaire, and thus also to shed light on some thematic and formal aspects of The Distant Lover, especially within the cultural and political context of the GDR.6

How does Benjamin's conception of allegory relate to The Distant Lover? The latter is, on the face of it, an essentially realist text, a first-person narrative set in a precisely described setting with a coherent, continuous temporal structure. Benjamin's remarks on the historical occurrences of allegory do not preclude the notion of a late twentieth-century form of allegory, even under socialism, if that age provides a similar experience of a devalued reality. My argument is, first, that the text includes echoes of and allusions to themes, motifs, and ideas from Benjamin's writings on allegory and, secondly, that Benjamin's concept of allegory, in both early and later versions, provides a useful conceptual tool for understanding important aspects of the work's form and thematic content.7 The text, I shall argue, betrays allegorical tendencies along Benjaminian lines, but its narrator Claudia either is unaware of or resists these, preferring to cling to the appearance of realism, just as she denies her melancholia and protests, against the evidence offered by her own narrative, that “I'm fine” (DL 178). That the lady doth protest too much is obvious to any reader and the causes of her condition have been extensively discussed by critics; however, the reasons for her resistance to full self-knowledge and its implications for the work's form have been less fully explored. Benjamin's conception of allegory seems to me to offer a helpful way of approaching these questions.

Most critics of The Distant Lover have seen Claudia as an example of “alienation” [Entfremdung] in modern, technological society. It would be no less appropriate, however, to use instead Benjamin's term “melancholy”; in his terms she might be thought of as a potential allegorist, for Hein's portrayal of her corresponds closely to Benjamin's analysis of post-renaissance mourning in which the allegorising disposition was rooted. Though she is scientifically educated and a member of the GDR's elite, Claudia's attitude to her profession is akin to that invoked in Dürer's Melencolia I.8 Like Dürer's figure, she is a contemplator [Grüblerin not very helpfully translated as “introvert” in DL] and a “scholar” (OGT 140), familiar with Freudian and other forms of psychoanalysis. But if she occasionally buys a book on recent research, she also states, “I usually don't have the energy to read it” (DL 140).

Her apathetic personal relationships—with Henry, her parents, and her colleagues—are well summed up in Benjamin's words: “deadening of the emotions … distance between the self and the surrounding world … depersonalization” (OGT 140). Significantly, when Benjamin refers to acedia, he relates it to just that infidelity—“unfaithfulness” (OGT 156)—which afflicts also every other marital or sexual relationship within Hein's text: those of her sister, her colleague Anne (DL 10–11), her friends Charlotte and Michael Kramer (DL Chap. 4), the dentist Fred and his wife Maria (DL Chap. 6), as well as in several other brief cameos (DL 62–63, 162).

Another of Benjamin's phrases in the same passage seems especially apposite: “alienation from the body” (more explicitly rendered in the German: “Entfremdung vom eigenen Körper”—from one's own body [OGT 140).9 Such a sensation occurs in Hein's picture of Claudia undergoing the indignities of her abortion: “I've gone under, deep below my consciousness, below my self. … I'm afraid of … having to accept this body as my own” (DL 90, italics mine—GMJ). The entire process is one form of the sexual violence which recurs in the text: “of seeing my legs forcibly spread apart, strapped down. … Between my legs their voices, the gentle clinking of instruments …” Like Cronos, “the mournful, dethroned and dishonored god” (OGT 150),10 Claudia feels herself violated by her abortions, through which the children she might have born are “devoured” and as a result of which she is left at the end, like Cronos, facing “eternal sterility” (OGT 150).11 Such a condition, which pervades the portrayal of sexual and emotional life throughout the work, is precisely that devaluation of the physical world which Benjamin sees as the precondition for allegory.

Finally, Benjamin's description of the melancholic's experience of time—“The image of the moving hand is … essential to the representation of the non-qualitative, repeatable time of the mathematical sciences” (OGT 96–99)12—is echoed in Claudia's portrayal of her alienated sense of existence: the coming of summer time is “an intrusion on time, an interruption of its regular, unwavering course. My life … runs along with the stupidity of a plumb bob, with the unchanging movement of a pendulum. … A movement that leads nowhere, holds no surprises, no deviations … and no irregularities …” (DL 167).13

In addition to these similarities between Benjamin's picture of melancholy and Hein's portrayal of Claudia, three specific features of The Distant Lover suggest a link with The Origin of German Tragic Drama and Benjamin's later theory of allegory. The first is Hein's use of the ruin-motif. For Benjamin the ruin is the representation of “natural history”—“in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay,” a vision which, he says, found expression in the “baroque cult of ruins” (OGT 178).14 In a crucial passage in the fifth chapter of The Distant Lover, Claudia photographs a ruined mill. It is set amid natural surroundings; but as with the baroque dramatists—for whom nature appeared “not … in bud and bloom, but in the over-ripeness and decay of her creations. In nature they saw eternal transience” (OGT 179)—so too here the scene is characterized by the “transience” of natural and man-made things alike:

… fragments of walls and rotting beams … pipes and pieces of iron hidden among the stinging nettles. … Odds and ends were lying around on top—an old radio, rusty garden tools. … Also earth, wisps of straw, and in the groove of an iron girder, a puddle of water with an oily violet film … the skinny birch … its twisted crown bent toward the outside, toward the open field, longing for the forest … a baby carriage without wheels … the dark willows on the riverbank that were probably already dead.

(DL 55–56)

This particular photographic expedition is no exception; Claudia's favorite subjects are “landscapes—trees, paths, rocks, tumble down houses, lifeless wood” (DL 86), an echo of Benjamin's quotation from Harsdörffer: “lifeless objects, forests, trees, stones” (OGT 186). The combination of ruin and nature occurs also in the dreamlike opening sequence; the landscape here is depicted in a way which corresponds closely to the scene in chapter five, and in the middle of it is “a bridge … a ruin” (DL 2). This one, however, is no scene of picturesque decay: “Then it ends, splintered, jagged, thrusting into the air, a severed torso” (DL 2)—the word reminds one of Benjamin's emphasis in his final section on the dismembered corpse as baroque emblem par excellence.15

Claudia's predilection, then, is for “the simple givens of nature [and this for her means a dying nature] and anything nature has reclaimed” (DL 87; italics mine—GMJ). In the world which Hein describes, history is reverting to natural history. Circularity within nature appears to triumph over progress, turning that too into what Hein calls an “an evolutionary cycle” (DL 137–38). His depictions of the environment repeatedly suggest this. Thus the natural scene at the seaside, where Claudia takes her holiday, is no better than the woodland scene of chapter five: the beach is cold, uninviting, “dirty and neglected” (DL 71). In the town, meanwhile, the proud achievements of scientific humanism are threatened by the recurrent invasion of the cockroaches (DL 145).

Hein's text reflects Benjamin's notion that “rational” modern man is threatened by such a fall, a “reversion to a bare state of creation” (OGT 81).16The Distant Lover provides ample evidence of a similar vision. As if to point to the parallel, the scene at the mill in chapter five leads into Hein's version of the Fall, the virtual rape of Claudia by Harry, complete with serpent. Disturbed sexual relations and even violence are one sign of this fall in The Distant Lover; they figure also in several other of Hein's works. Claudia's acquaintance Fred sees man as a “a set of well functioning genitalia” and talks of “a journey into the human interior, or a visit to the wild beast, the swine within” (DL 69). A passage at the end of chapter six clearly marks this sense of the rational world succumbing to primeval, natural forces; Claudia and Henry sit in the car while it rains outside: “Two survivors at the bottom of the sea. The music on the radio hardly got through to us. Last signals from a distant civilization that the flood might already have washed away” (DL 79–80).

In consequence, the world depicted in the novelle, like the one invoked by Benjamin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, is under the sign of death. Quite apart from the death of Henry, the occasion for the narrative, and that of Frau Rupprecht with her emblematic “birds of death” (DL 149), the work is dominated by the evidence of aging and the approach of death: “The bones begin to dissolve, the joints degenerate into dust” (DL 137). Claudia's profession of medicine cannot hold up, but only “cover up,” the “evolutionary cycle, back to the amphibians,” despite “cars and escalators, pacemakers and respirators, gold teeth, plastic prostheses, stainless steel plates …” (DL 137–38). Even Benjamin's allegorical symbol of the death's head is not lacking: “… ‘I think I'm losing weight. … My bones are starting to show. Doesn't this look like a skull?,’ says Maria” (DL 74).

The second feature, owing more to later than to earlier Benjamin, is the motif of Claudia's photography. We have already observed that her preferred subjects (which of course become objects!) correspond to the melancholy view of history and nature. Just before the end of the narrative Claudia describes them as: “Trees, landscapes, grasses, wagon roads, dead, decaying wood … soulless images of nature that I created” (DL 177—Hein's phrase, “soulless images of nature” is reminiscent of Benjamin's “soulless world”). She then describes them in a way which corresponds with Benjamin's notion of allegory and with his view of photography as an essentially allegorical process: “‘They're fragments that don't capture anything [die nichts begriffen haben—that have understood nothing]. They lack a horizon, they can't wilt or decay, and thus they also lack hope” (DL 178). They are, in other words, ripped out of their organic context and thus robbed of life, just as Benjamin argues. The ruins which she photographs, themselves already potentially allegorical figures, effectively become second-order allegories—allegory within allegory.

Claudia says that the sense of power and control is an essential aspect of her hobby; developing her films is “a germination that I bring about, control, that I can interrupt. Conception. A chemistry of budding life, in which I'm involved. It was different with my children” (DL 88). Her power here contrasts explicitly with her powerlessness both during her abortions and in the conception of her children: “I felt used by him. … I wasn't consulted, I didn't count. … I was just an object” (DL 88–89). However, we also note her self-delusion; photographs are dead, not living, and cannot, as she admits at the end, replace children.

It is clear that Claudia does not understand, or desire to understand, the significance of her photography: “I don't really know what the point of the whole thing is. I don't ask myself questions like that” (DL 87). Its power as allegory is sensed by her, but feared rather than understood: “Recently I've begun to fear for my photographs.” (Hein actually writes “mich vor meinen Fotos zu fürchten”—“to be afraid of my photographs.”) Dead, yet permanent, as allegories are, they fill the flat: “Soulless images of nature that I created, now threatening to drown me” (DL 177–78).17

The other clearly allegorical feature, in Benjamin's terms, relates to Claudia's narrative practice. Her account begins with a dreamlike introductory passage, which is set off from the remaining narrative, unexplained yet seeming to offer some way of understanding what follows. Claudia has thus introduced into her account precisely that inner, structural division that Benjamin saw in baroque drama between action and “interlude.” Implicitly, we are confronted with a separation between physical nature (the realist narrative) and significance (the dreamlike introduction).

The detail of the introduction confirms the allegorical effect. The description of landscape and bridge has been wrenched from its context within the narrative proper; parts at least are found in two different passages: chapter five (DL 59) and chapter seven, in which virtually the entire scene, referring explicitly back to chapter five but including the ruined bridge, occurs in Claudia's “dream” during her abortion (DL 91). I have already suggested that the incomplete bridge as ruin should be related to the ruin in chapter five and to Benjamin's reference to “the baroque cult of the ruin.” Here again we encounter what I have termed a second-order allegory.

Characteristically, Claudia is unable to interpret the vision; it is “an image which is unattainable and ultimately incomprehensible to me. Nevertheless present and reassuring amid all that is nameless and inexplicable, of which I am also a part. Finally the desires passes. It's over. Over-real reality, with its everyday, ready-made images, gaudy, loud and forgettable, obtrudes itself. It's better like that” (DL 4; my translation—GMJ). This abandoning of the allegorical effort reads like an further echo of Benjamin:

It is true that the overbearing ostentation, with which the banal object seems to arise from the depths of allegory is soon replaced by its disconsolate everyday countenance; it is true that the profound fascination of the sick man for the isolated and insignificant is succeeded by that disappointed abandonment of the exhausted emblem …

(OGT 185; my italics—GMJ)

The remainder of the text is the outcome of this “abandonment”: a sequence of “everyday, ready-made images,” in which, to use Benjamin's phrase, “feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask” (OGT 139). For Claudia's narrative has this mask-like quality. Even at first reading one is struck by its almost mechanical, linear structure; a facade of normality is maintained, yet beneath the surface we note its arbitrariness. Individual episodes are characterized by breaks of tone and mood which belie the appearance of harmonious totality.18 Repeatedly, the text is marked by abrupt changes of tone and mood and by juxtapositions of unrelated or contradictory material. Benjaminian fragmentation marks the narrator's experience of the world but is denied by the “appearance” [Schein] of the narrative order. The potentially allegorical features under discussion here therefore remain unrecognized by her. Just as the GDR's official historical optimism precludes the acknowledgement of melancholy, so too the formal imperatives of Socialist Realism internalized by Claudia permit the allegorist's vision to find expression only in this mask-like form. What Claudia offers us is well summed up by Benjamin's phrase for Baudelaire's writing: “petrified unrest.”

The action of the novelle confirms the parallel and illustrates Benjamin's comments about emplotment in the tragic drama, which arise from its conception of history as characterized at once by decay and the absence of progress. It is marked by the eternal recurrence of the natural cycle. The narrative ends where it begins and is divided into twelve chapters which precisely indicate the changing seasons and the flow of time, covering just one year, as did the relationship with Henry. The death which is the occasion for the narration of Claudia's story is mere chance, arising from a foolish quarrel about nothing and a random blow on the head. It occurs within the narrative with an arbitrariness which suggests the dominance of what Benjamin called “fate” or “fatality” (OGT 129–30).

This structure is indicative of the absence of strong psychological causation. The action begins with a chance meeting, proceeds through mere successiveness, emphasized by the careful chronology, and ends with an absurd, random death. Nothing has changed; apart from a perfunctory announcement on the notice board and a new tenant in Harry's apartment, life in the block of flats continues as before. Benjamin quotes a remark that pre-Shakespearian drama had “‘no proper end, the stream continues in its course’ … its conclusion does not mark the end of an epoch …” (OGT 135); the same is true here too—except, of course, that death is that much nearer. The closing thirteenth chapter, for all its desperate assertions that “I'm fine,” holds no prospect of an ending that would provide meaning but only “menopause … a new car, a first-class institution [die beste aller möglichen Heilanstalten]” (DL 175, 179).

Hein might also have noted Benjamin's comments on the “fatal stage property” as an alternative form of causation and as the embodiment of “fate” in the “tragedy of fate” (OGT 132). Such a role is played in The Distant Lover by Henry's hat. It first takes on emblematic status in relation to Henry's approach to life and his taste for risk-taking and fast driving, and thus acts as a “sign of the approach of death” (OGT 132). It then becomes the immediate cause of his death when youths first make fun of it and then seize it (DL 170). This corresponds to Benjamin's notion of the assumption of power by the “apparently dead objects,” at the prompting of “the passionate stirrings of creaturely life” within Henry (OGT 132).19

Other features of Claudia's account confirm her as allegorist in Benjamin's sense, albeit an involuntary one. Her narrative style betrays a tendency towards disintegration into a simple sequence of nouns or noun phrases (that is, the collapse of “harmonious totality”), especially when her sense of estrangement, tedium, or distaste is strongest; this can be seen in her account of the funeral (DL 15–16) and her wedding (DL 85). The text also reveals a tendency, noted by several critics, to treat objects allegorically; Dwars, for example, has spoken of an “allegorical compression” in chapter nine.20 In fact, Claudia refers to many objects in a way that makes them something like the “emblems” Benjamin discusses. The block of flats, the lift, the garbage chute into which the dead birds are cast (DL 148), and Henry's car as well as his hat might all be said to enjoy this emblematic status within the text. As Benjamin says, despite the “abandonment” of the initial allegorical emblem of the bridge, “the amorphous details which can only be understood allegorically keep coming up” (OGT 185)—and not only in Claudia's photography.

At times, however, Claudia's capacity for allegorization becomes overt. It is seen on the one hand in the destructive vision which breaks up the constructed reality around her, as in her account of the funeral, which strips the ceremony of its aura to reveal its facticity: “The difficult rites of death. An arrangement: he deliberated, selected … then the rustle of a needle on a record groove, a regular recurrent surge and ebb. … Prescribed songs, prescribed gestures …” (DL 14–15). The same critical function is also seen in her analysis of public language (DL 26), which relates closely to Benjamin's.21 At other moments the positive, meaning-giving aspect of allegory is seen, for example, in her reading of the noise of the lift as “the promise of a change long wished for, the sort of hope that fosters patience” (DL 6), or when she sees a woman with a butterfly in her hair and comments: “hope [Versprechen: also “promise”] glittering in her unhappiness, this laughing, laughable butterfly sparkling on her puffy face” (DL 63). The association with “promise” in both passages reflects an inner need imposed upon a single detail ripped from its context.22

Claudia's tendency to do this is particularly focused on the human body, again in keeping with Benjamin's comments on its allegorical potential. She recalls how, even at the age of sixteen, she began to categorize people by their earlobes and finger nails: “And with the self-righteousness and arrogance of that age, I made firm resolutions, irrevocable decisions, and so ordered my little world” (DL 67). This propensity is seen repeatedly: “His face was irregular, as if it were put together out of two different halves” (DL 22); the woman in the dress shop is reduced to “mouth … lips … hands … breast … neck” (DL 45). It may, of course, be a doctor's habit—it is shared by dentist Fred (DL 67). Is it mere coincidence that Hein reminds us as early as page ten of “the Hippocratic Oath”? As a doctor Claudia sees everywhere—in herself, in others, and in the natural and man-made environment—what Benjamin calls the “facies hippocratica [the face of one near to death] of history” (OGT 166), the effects of time and aging. Like Baudelaire, but in a more literal sense, Claudia sees the corpse not only from without but from within, mentally dissecting the living body to reveal the heart and discussing its allegorical potential:

A slight tear in our tender skin lets the blood gush out. At the sight of an open, beating heart, most people get sick to their stomachs. … Yet this little bundle of flesh and blood has such an important place in our consciousness that it serves as a symbol of our most beautiful feelings. Of course, that's when it's discreetly hidden beneath a more human-seeming surface, covered over with smooth layers of fat and a soft epidermis.

In Benjamin's conception, the separation of mind from body is the starting point for allegory; thus he presents Descartes's dualism as baroque (OGT 217). Towards her patients Claudia embodies this objectivizing knowledge which Benjamin's final chapter sees as central to allegory. Quick to employ modern, Freudian-style theories of repression (DL 98), she is the modern counterpart of Benjamin's “prince,” sovereign through her knowledge, or of his allegorist, “the name-giver … god-like and saintly” (OGT 224). Yet her knowledge is in vain because it is not permitted to operate in her own case; there she prefers repression. She lacks what Benjamin calls, in a reference to Hamlet, “the clear light of self-awareness,” for the lack of which the German tragic drama “remained astonishingly obscure to itself” (OGT 158).

The result is a still more complete division between the body, that is, her instinctual needs and desires, and her mental rationalizations of her situation, which is the central feature of her narrative on the psychological plane. Slibar and Volk have pointed out how her supposedly objective judgements of others in fact reflect her own problems.23 They also note the ways in which her body involuntarily betrays this repression: “Only the body sends out signals from this territory which has been destroyed by civilization. These are last traces of rebellion against a self-destructive mode of life, against the internalization of a control from without. … Man's physical nature is reduced to the status of object.”24

How, in the light of Benjamin's theory, are Claudia's allegorizing tendencies to be understood? We can best approach this question through his account of Baudelairian allegory. It is helpful here to turn to chapter nine, where Claudia returns to her home town G., implicitly in quest of the source of her problems. Her memories focus especially on her friendship with Katharina, the last occasion on which she experienced an untroubled wholeness of intellect and emotion, for which the forty-year-old Claudia still longs: “The longing for Katharina, for a child's love, for the kind of friendship that only children are capable of.” (DL 176)

What destroys this friendship is in part sexual jealousy (DL 126). Already, external forces are at work alienating the subjective self from the body in its sexual aspects. With the imaginary rape by Herr Gerschke (DL 119–20), sex comes to be associated with violence and with exploitation, which reduces the other to object, and this view obtains throughout the entire text; Claudia's view of her marriage to Hinner merely makes explicit what is equally true of Fred, Anne, Irene, and the casually overheard conversations on the subject (DL 62 and 162): “‘… he was deciding for me, for my body, for my future. A monstrous intervention that would determine my entire life, an intervention in my freedom” (DL 89). Relations between man and woman are seen by Claudia as being based ultimately on the male sense of natural domination; when Henry slaps her face for grabbing the steering wheel it is “an act of divine pedagogy” (DL 135); according to Fred, Maria sees him as “‘the monster, the patriarchal tyrant. Constantly forcing his will and his penis on her’” (DL 68). The violence is thus not merely physical; it involves the imposition of ideas, and opinions, and meanings, along the lines of Lacan's phallogocentrism.

Sexual relations are also characterized by their instability; Claudia appears to encounter only loveless marriages, ending in infidelity or divorce, and casual relations like hers with Henry. Here too and also in parent-child relationships and in friendships, it is a world of “accidental bonds” (DL 33) which she presents: “‘I had acquaintances, good acquaintances; I saw them occasionally, and I enjoyed their company. But in reality they were interchangeable …’” (DL 70)—this in contrast to the true friendship she once enjoyed with Katharina.

These two aspects, casual, interchangeable relations and the violent imposition of a subject's will on an “object,” mean that such relationships, looked at from one point of view, may themselves be read as an analogy (or even an allegory) of the allegorical process itself, whose structure they reflect. We recall Benjamin's comparison of “Bedeutung” with a “stern sultan in the harem of objects … It is indeed characteristic of the sadist that he humiliates his object …” (OGT 184), with the object “exposed to the allegorist, it is unconditionally in his power” (OGT 183–84); he also emphasizes the interchangeability of meanings “Any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else” (OGT 175).

If, however, these relations reflect the structure of allegory, this is because they are themselves the product of an allegorizing process—and the allegorizing power is not located simply in sexuality viewed in the light of Lacanian psychology (it may be part of Claudia's powerlessness against the allegorizing system whose object she becomes that she recognizes it only in male dominance). For her search in chapter nine leads back not only to her first awareness of sexuality but also to the institution school and particularly to the events of 1953. It is the prurient pleasure taken by a later gymnastics teacher in watching the most well developed girls performing on the horizontal bar (DL 135–36) which first shows her the body and sex as instruments for domination and exploitation. It is the sadistic Herr Ebert, for whom girls are “Rotten Cherries” and boys “Flabby Squirts” (DL 115), who first “names” her, leaving her “debilitated for good” (DL 116); Benjamin's comments apply fully to her: “The mournful has the feeling that it is known comprehensively by the unknowable. To be named … perhaps always brings with it a presentiment of mourning” (OGT 224–25), although she claims at the outset that she is part of “the nameless and inexplicable” (DL 4).

The school, the embodiment of state authority, functions like an allegorist, assigning meanings arbitrarily and by force. The pupils are “at the mercy of the overweening authority of our teachers” (DL 122); the school participates in the campaign against the youth group to which Katharina belongs “The teacher pointed out that joining the youth group [i.e. the FDJ] was a vote for peace … refusal to join the youth organization was tantamount to warmongering” (DL 127–28, my italics—GMJ).25 Significantly, Claudia refers to “omnipotent teachers” (DL 121—Henry's “divine pedagogy” is anticipated here) in relation to the teacher of GDR-style history, Herr Gerschke. The link between sexual repression, school and state power is symbolized by the tank which appears in G. in June 1953, representative of the Stalinist authority which later determines the “meaning” of beloved uncle Gerhard.26 As Sigrid Weigel writes, the field of allegory is a struggle of “systems of power through meaning [Macht-Wissens-Systeme].”27

The allegorizing through the imposition of arbitrary meanings illustrated in chapter nine is not a matter of random personal judgements but it a system: individuals and beliefs, events and history have meanings assigned to them by the Marxist-Stalinist GDR system. If in Baudelaire it is capitalism and advertizing which lead to a transformation [Umfunktionierung] of allegory into a new form,28 in Hein's GDR it is official ideology which performs this new transformation. Elsewhere in the text too there are discreet references to the power of that system and to the order that it imposes: “A gentleman in uniform had asked them to keep an eye out. They should report anything suspicious—unusual visitors, frequent parties, anything out of the ordinary” (DL 21–22). To become head physician Hinner has to join the SED (DL 156), someone notes the number of Claudia's car because she photographs a ruined saw mill (DL 39). Claudia's world is one in which everything has to be “in order” (DL 86) and where the “self-discipline” praised by Claudia's chief (DL 141) is the supreme value; yet it is an order imposed arbitrarily and with concealed, or at times open, force; the violence of the “order patrol” at the dance in chapter eight is its most naked manifestation. The parallel to Benjamin's theory of allegory, with its emphasis on the imposition of arbitrary meanings and its sexual imagery, is not hard to recognize. The alienation from self, or of the mind from the body and the emotions, may be seen both as a consequence and as an allegorical expression of that state.

According to Steinhagen, in Benjamin's later theory, based on Baudelaire, modern allegory is a “devaluation raised to a higher power”—attempts to transcend the devaluing results of the projection of meaning by the arbitrary subjectivity of another allegorist—capitalism.29 Allegory criticizes and attacks another allegorizing practice. Claudia's narrative, with its allegorizing tendencies which we have considered, is her response to her powerlessness in face of the devaluation experienced in GDR society and has the same critical impulse. But Claudia cannot permit herself the degree of individual subjective authority which would permit the full development of her potential as allegorist; she is not one of the “anarchists … revolutionaries” with the look of “happiness and hope” in their eyes she sees in wedding photographs: “They want to flee, destroy, reform [i.e. submit the allegorical order to a further allegorical critique] the oppressive circumstances that encircle them so arrogantly in the picture. And the only conceivable alternative entangles them helplessly [rettungslos—a Benjamian term] in the old intolerable situation … humiliations, defeat—marriage contract, signature … at home in the innocent chokehold. And all shall be as it was: in order” (DL 65–66).

Benjamin remarks in his book on tragedy, in connection with “the allegorical character,” that “children are hopes” (OGT 191). Claudia agrees: “I need the child … for my hopes” (DL 176). Her childlessness may thus be viewed as an allegorical presentation of the hopelessness felt by Claudia and thus of the denial of “eros.”30 Hillach comments: “The senses are deprived when the possibility of the sensual [erotische] fulfillment of our perceptions is excluded or so limited by surrogate meanings that no personal expectations for the future can be related to those perceptions.” Significantly, he then relates this to the GDR: “The sensual deprivation which dominated everyday life in the GDR became oppressive only when no one could believe any longer in the future of this kind of ‘socialism.’”31

For Benjamin, Baudelaire's Paris was a society which amid “petrification” continually spoke of progress: “speaking of progress to a world sinking into the rigidity of death”32—behind “the new” was hidden “the unchanging process” of mass production. Hein has indicated that he saw the same contradiction in the GDR too: “this feeling of pointlessness and of marking time, which was very strong in the GDR … an immobility which was not far from a state of complete petrification … adorned with appropriate slogans about progress and advance.”33

But what were the sources of that allegorizing practice which Claudia fears to assail openly? We noted earlier the distinction between a consciously critical form of allegory (that of Baudelaire's) and the earlier, almost involuntary form, whose roots lay in the underlying political and theological impasse of the age. In part as a reaction to its sense of time's headlong rush and the need to arrest it, the baroque period welcomed the absolute power of the ruler as a manifestation of “both history and the higher power, which checks its vicissitudes” (OGT 70). Benjamin argues, following Carl Schmitt,34 that its conception of sovereignty was based upon the notion of the “state of emergency” and its avoidance: “The function of the tyrant is the restoration of order in the state of emergency: a dictatorship” (OGT 74). His account of the baroque age links ideological (that is, religious) and political factors: “The worldly and despotic aspects of the Renaissance emancipated themselves from its rich feeling for life to unfold in all its consequences the idea of a complete stabilization, an ecclesiastical and political restoration” (OGT 65—my translation). Hence its ideal of “the acme: a golden age of peace and culture, free of any apocalyptic features, constituted and guaranteed in aeternum by the authority of the Church” (OGT 80). The frozen fixity of allegory as the expression of arbitrary power aptly reflected this ambition.

Mutatis mutandis, a parallel account can be offered of the allegorizing force of GDR ideology and society, discussed above, to which Claudia is victim. The similarity between the picture Benjamin offers of seventeenth-century society and the conditions depicted in Claudia's GDR is immediately obvious. Benjamin's phrases quoted here could have been written about the SED-state with its mechanisms for control and its overriding concern for “order in the state of emergency.” As Benjamin says, “the only consequence could be that men were denied all real means of direct expression [as Claudia's case illustrates]. For this would have led to the unambiguous manifestation of the will of the age and so to … conflict with the Christian life …” (OGT 79).35

The “restoration” of which Benjamin writes was as much religious as political—a return to “a time when the authority of Christianity was unshaken” after the secularization brought by the Renaissance (OGT 79). However, there burned within it “the ardor of a new secular will,” which looked back to the Renaissance as “an epoch of profane [i.e., lay] freedom for the life of the faith” but could find no direct expression against the renewed authority of Christianity (OGT 79). The baroque period was consequently marked by a continuing ideological struggle between Christianity and the Renaissance interest in the pagan ancient world. The resultant inner conflict led, on the one hand, to the “pious mortification of the flesh” (OGT 222) and, on the other hand, to the survival of the ancient gods, which persisted as allegorical figures, at once devalued and preserved. This conflict was the source of allegory: “If the church had36 been able quite simply to banish the gods from the memory of the faithful, allegorical language would never have come into being” (OGT 223).

These religious/ideological conflicts can also be related to GDR reality, even if the parallel is imperfect. The socialism of the GDR is like the Christianity of the baroque age: it no longer has the full conviction which once gave it full moral authority.37 It therefore continues to struggle against opponents who are supposedly dead yet refuse to lie down, like the pagan gods. In The Distant Lover, therefore, the roles are reversed: Christianity becomes the defeated yet persistent foe, while the “scientific” humanism of Marxism triumphs. Christianity survives in part in Claudia's continued longing for Katharina. It is also seen in her attitude toward photographing people; she refers to the refusal on religious grounds by some “primitive people” to be photographed and comments: “It amazed me to find that one of my own attitudes might be based on religious motives. Strangely, I had already discovered that certain religions shared other attitudes of mine. Yet questions of faith and transcendence never meant anything to me” (DL 86). The assertion is manifestly false when placed alongside her account of her friendship with Katharina (DL 123–28).

In consequence, Christianity survives in Claudia's narrative just as the pagan gods did in the Baroque—in linguistic and allegorical vestiges. This begins with the biblical echo in the very first line: “In the beginning was a landscape” (DL 1), and continues throughout the text: in the Adam and Eve scene in chapter five, complete with serpent; the “beautiful girl” in chapter six who gives Claudia an apple; Frau Rupprecht who is three days dead, evoking a resurrection which does not occur, the reminders of faith vestigially present in the celebration of Christmas; and in Claudia's remark about the futility of attempts to recover the past: “Behind us are only burning cities, and she who looks back turns to a pillar of salt” (DL 118). Another example is her phrase, “my impenetrable skin is my mighty fortress” (DL 177)—the hard shell created as protection by the “dragon's blood” imprisons as well as protects; yet the very linguistic formulation evokes the memory, as well as the loss, of a world of wholeness and meaning guaranteed by faith. The juxtaposition of Christian (the “mighty fortress” alludes to Luther's famous hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”) and pagan (“dragon's blood”) motifs in this passage is a microcosm of that unresolved struggle between Christian impulses and paganism, which, according to Benjamin, is the source of allegory.

Even the final lines of The Distant Lover may carry Christian, or rather biblical, overtones: “I've made it … The End” (DL 179) echoes the dying Christ's “It is finished” (John 19:30). On the surface, there could in Claudia's case scarcely be anything more bleak: just “the eternal return of the same” until death supervenes. However, Hein has always insisted on the necessity of hope: “In order to live as a human being at all, I must have hope.”38 Of The Distant Lover he said in the same interview: “I should have liked to give this woman a hope, but I could find none for her,”39 yet he is quoted as having said of this work: “This is my most hopeful book.”40

How is such a claim to be understood? Eastern bloc critics tended to seek the grounds for hope in Claudia herself; G. Snamenskaja claims that she has become aware of her need and will finally “come to herself,”41 while L. Richter argues that she has achieved “an autonomous self,” as claimed for women by Maxie Wander, Irmtraud Morgner, and others.42 Hein himself sees it differently; in the Bischof interview he rejects hope in the Blochian sense: “I can no longer do anything with this notion of hope that Bloch employed. I no longer have this generous attitude, it appears simply naive.” Instead, he accepts as appropriate to the work a description by Bischof of The True Story of Ah Q as “a play … that seeks to inject me with hope via despair.”43

Here once again Benjamin's theory of allegory provides an analogy for Hein's technique. Benjamin states at the end of his book on tragedy, in a rather surprising turn of his argument, that allegory cannot achieve a true redemption. He then argues that the seemingly endless play of allegorical transformations, not unlike Derrida's endless play of signifiers, does find its end; death and “transience,” having been the signified of the allegorical signifier, the baroque Golgotha, themselves become a signifier: “In it transitoriness is not signified or allegorically represented, so much as, in its own significance, displayed as allegory. As the allegory of resurrection. Ultimately … the direction of allegorical reflection is reversed; … it returns to redeem” (OGT 232). The melancholic knowledge of the world as “knowledge of evil” is revealed in its subjectivity, the product of “contemplation” (OGT 233), as mere “nonsense” [Geschwätz]. The allegorist awakens “in God's world” and “the supposed infinity of a world without hope … vanishes with this one about-turn” (OGT 232). In a dialectical reversal the extremity of despair evokes the saving miracle, just as death calls forth resurrection.

It is a reversal of this kind that Hein seeks to evoke through The Distant Lover.44 The very blackness of world portrayed calls forth, not from God but from the reader, a counter-response. Hein seeks through “unsparing portrayal of things as they are”45 to impel his readers to protest, to create their “counter-world” through “utopian thinking.”46 We might thus argue that in The Distant Lover Hein offers us a model of the extreme, ironic form of “fragmentation of language” referred to earlier: the “antithesis of sound and meaning” would occur “where both could be successfully combined in one, without their actually cohering in the sense of forming an organic linguistic structure” (OGT 209).

To read The Distant Lover in this way helps us to recognize the Hein's distinctive place in the GDR literature of the 1980s. Compared with more obviously “difficult” work, such as that of Gerd Neumann and Wolfgang Hilbig, and the “postmodernism” of Prenzlauer Berg, Hein's writing might appear cautiously traditional. I would argue rather that its rejection of, and departure from, orthodox canons of thought and literary form are buried within it, concealed from cursory gaze, in keeping with both its central figure and with most of GDR society. Hein's practice might thus be said to correspond to what Benjamin wrote about Baudelaire: “the new, in the name of which the poet seeks to counter melancholy [Trübsinn], is itself to the highest degree marked by that reality against which the poet is in revolt.”47

There may, however, be another way of seeing Hein's use of Benjaminian concepts. Most of his overt quotations of Benjamin elsewhere are taken from the later, materialist writings. But in an interview in 1985 entitled “Writing as a rebellion against mortality” [“Schreiben als Aufbegehren gegen die Sterblichkeit”],48 Hein comments as follows:

Nature has no other meaning that the succession of generations. … In this all religions have an advantage. … They can provide an answer here, by pointing to immortality, to a life after death. Philosophies without a comparable eschatology have their problems here, because they can only refer the individual back to nature, which has no other answer except that we must return to dust.

The sentiments are almost those of seventeenth century melancholy as Benjamin describes it. A careful reading of Hein suggests both a dichotomy and an alliance in his thought between historical disillusion and a utopian hopefulness based on nothing but the need to hope,49 not unlike that between the theological and the materialist Benjamin. The conjoining in The Distant Lover of Benjamin's two forms of analysis of allegory, as has been suggested here, tells us as much about the author as it does about his central character and the society which shaped them both.


  1. The most notable references can be found in the following essay: “Maelzel's Chess Player Goes to Hollywood,” “Die Zeit, die nicht vergehen kann,” and “Die fünfte Grundrechenart,” all of which can be found in Die fünfte Grundrechenart. Aufsätze und Reden (Frankfurt/Main: Luchterhand, 1990). The praise for Benjamin appeared in Hein's “Heinrich-Mann-Preis 1983,” Neue Deutsche Literatur 31.7 (July 1983): 163.

  2. See, amongst others, Bernd Fischer, Christoph Hein: Drama und Prosa im letzten Jahrzehnt der DDR (Heidelberg: Winter, 1990); and Joachim Lehmann, “Christoph Hein—Chronist und ‘historischer Materialist,’” Christoph Hein: Text + Kritik 111 (1991): 44–56. The most extensive of such studies is Ines Zekert, Poetologie und Prophetie. Christoph Heins Prosa und Dramatik im Kontext seiner Walter-Benjamin-Rezeption, diss., U. Leipzig, 1991 (Frankfurt/Main and New York: Lang, 1993).

  3. It was originally published in East Germany as Der fremde Freund in 1982. Except where indicated otherwise, quotations will be from Christoph Hein, The Distant Lover, trans. Krishna Winston (Picador: London, 1991), hereafter cited parenthetically as DL. The original East German title is given in preference to the later West German alternative Drachenblut.

  4. For critical work on Der fremde Freund, see Heinz-Peter Preusser and Klaus Hammer, “Auswahlbibliographie Christoph Hein,” Christoph Hein: Text + Kritik 111 (1991): 92–105; and Chronist ohne Botschaft: Christoph Hein. Ein Arbeitsbuch, ed. Klaus Hammer (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1992).

  5. David Roberts, “Surface and Depth: Christoph Hein's Drachenblut,German Quarterly 63.3/4 (Summer/Fall 1990): 478–54; Neva Slibar and Rosanda Volk, “‘Das Spiegelkabinett unseres Kopfes.’ Schreibverfahren und Bilderwelt bei Christoph Hein,” Christoph Hein: Text + Kritik 111 (1991): 57–68; and Jens-F. Dwars, “Hoffnung auf ein Ende. Allegorien kultureller Erfahrung in Christoph Heins Novelle Der fremde Freund,Christoph Hein: Text + Kritik 111 (1991): 6–15.

  6. Except where otherwise indicated, quotations are from Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: New Left, 1977), hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as OGT.

  7. When asked in a letter about the possibility of links between The Distant Lover and The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Hein replied that links between his work and Benjamin's [i.e., in general rather than in particular] do indeed exist but that they are “hidden, almost like filigree … in the last analysis simply a game on the author's part and for the author, with the public excluded.”

  8. The appropriateness of the use of the term “melancholy” in relation to the GDR in the 1980s is persuasively argued by, among others, Wolfgang Emmerich, “Status melancholicus. Zur Transformation der Utopie in der DDR-Literatur,” Literatur in der DDR. Rückblicke, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Munich: Text + Kritik Sonderband, 1991) 232–45, which begins with a description and analysis of Dürer's Melencolia I. For the significance of Benjamin in relation to that process in the 1980s, see Ines Zekert, “Diese besondere Art von Hoffnung. Utopie und Geschichte in der DDR,” Freitag 6 Sept. 1991.

  9. The appropriateness of the very concept of “alienation” within socialism was, of course, a contentious issue in the GDR. The Distant Lover is widely regarded as one of the most persuasive portrayals of it. For a discussion of this issue, see the entry under “Entfremdung,” DDR Handbuch, ed. Hartmut Zimmermann, vol. 1 (Cologne: Wissenschaft und Politik, 1985).

  10. Benjamin's text has here “geschändet”—“violated” or “desecrated”—which frequently refers specifically to sexual violence.

  11. One might speculate whether it was such analogies and the fact that Melencolia I depicts a women that contributed to Hein's choice of a woman for his central figure. If in Baudelaire's age it was woman as prostitute who best encapsulated the essence of commodity capitalism and who Benjamin saw as the nineteenth-century reincarnation of the figure of Melencolia, with the tools of allegory at her disposal, it seems appropriate that a woman should be the focus for the devaluation of the physical world and especially of the body, experienced, according to this text, in the GDR. The impoverishment of emotional and sexual fulfillment is a feature of Hein's portrayal of that society in almost his entire oeuvre.

  12. Benjamin develops this idea in his comments on Baudelaire's “L'Horloge”: “The consciousness of time running empty [der leer verrinnenden Zeit] and the taedium vitae are the two weights which keep the mechanism of melancholia running” (GS I: 1141).

  13. Still other details from Benjamin's picture of melancholy find their counterpart in Hein's text. Benjamin says that “all the wisdom of the melancholic is subject to the nether world. … Everything saturnine points down into the depths of the earth …” (OGT 152). The first chapter proper of The Distant Lover begins with Claudia awaiting the lift which comes from “the depths of the elevator shaft.” Then begins “a silent descent into the depths” (DL 6). Benjamin talks of “the melancholic's inclination for long journeys … hence the horizon of the sea in the background of Dürer's Melencolia” (OGT 149); Claudia spends her holiday on the beach on the Baltic coast. Benjamin quotes various writers who relate melancholy to madness and to “prophetic ability” (OGT 147); in Hein's text this capacity is ascribed not to Claudia but to her neighbor Frau Rupprecht, who suffers from an “uneasiness” the night before an air crash (DL 91–93).

  14. “When a building falls into ruins, the objectivized spirit [Geist] returns to nature. … In a ruin we see how nature again takes possession of a creation of spirit, as a result of which the human falls under the domination of nature.” (B. S. Tyrner commenting on Georg Simmel's essay, “Die Ruine.” See Tyrner, “Ruine und Fragment. Anmerkungen zum Barockstil,” Allegorie und Melancholie 205.

  15. My reading of the ruin motif thus differs from that of Brigitte Böttcher, who sees an idyllic element in its “[t]estimony to a stage in civilization which made use of nature without destroying it” in contrast to the nuclear power stations built by Henry. See Brigitte Böttcher, “Diagnose eines unheilbaren Zustands,” Neue Deutsche Literatur 31.6 (June 1983): 148. Though there is undoubtedly an element of Zivilisationskritik in The Distant Lover, Claudia's preoccupation with ruins of all kinds, including houses and bridges, cannot be accounted for by so simple a comparison. There also appears to be here some confusion between the perspective of Claudia and that of Hein.

  16. Compare with Michael Jennings, Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987) 66–70; and Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge: MIT, 1989), esp. chap. 3 and 6.

  17. Claudia's collection of photographs could be seen as an involuntary form of collecting, a notion which occupies an important place in Benjamin's thought. The keepsake [Andenken], he says, “is the key figure in later allegory” (GS I: 689). While Claudia throws away all momentos of Henry (DL 178)—a sign of the repression of true emotional fulfillment—the photographs remain.

  18. See, for example, the visit to Charlotte and Michael Kramer (DL 55–57).

  19. Brigitte Böttcher employs Benjamin's term, Requisit, here in relation to The Distant Lover, though without reference to Benjamin: “The significant stage property, the car, is matched by another, the lift” (Böttcher 148).

  20. Dwars 12. Another critic who appears to sense the resemblance to Benjamin, without mentioning him in this context, is David Roberts, who describes Claudia's photographs as “mute emblems of melancholy, images of the frozen self and of frozen time.” Roberts 485.

  21. See Opitz.

  22. One tiny detail may be interesting here in relation to Benjamin: Brecht recalls in his “Svendborger Notizen” a conversation with Benjamin in which the latter said: “I remember the Geneva production of Le Cid, in which the sight of the king's crown askew first gave me the idea for what I wrote nine years later in my book on tragedy.” Claudia relates in chapter ten a visit by the “Chief” who speaks to her of the need for discipline. She writes: “His broad bow tie with its blue pattern was askew” (DL 141). The “Chief,” powerless, melancholic, and aware of his age—“We're old people, Mother” (DL 84)—is Hein's version of the baroque sovereign; his bow-tie, slipped askew, reveals to Claudia the unnatural, imposed nature of the “order” and “self-discipline” which he embodies. See Bertolt Brecht, “Gespräche mit Brecht, Svendborger Notizen,” quoted by Witte 126.

  23. Slibar and Volk 62–63.

  24. Slibar and Volk 66.

  25. Hein's choice of words, “represented” [“dargestellt”] and “synonymous with” [“gleichbedeutend mit”] emphasizes the authoritative assigning and determining of meaning.

  26. Compare Hannes Krauss, “Mit geliehenen Worten das Schweigen brechen. Christoph Heins Novelle Drachenblut,Christoph Hein: Text + Kritik 111 (1991): 16–27.

  27. Weigel 50ff.

  28. Benjamin, GS I: 671.

  29. Steinhagen 677.

  30. “Infertility” was for Benjamin a significant feature of Baudelaire's world, and he relates it specifically to allegory: “The motif of androgyny, lesbianism, the infertile woman needs to be dealt with in connection with the destructive power of allegory” (GS I: 661).

  31. Ansgar Hillach, “Über Schwulst, Allegorie und Eigensinn. Für eine politische Lektüre von Benjamins Trauerspielbuch,” Literaturmagazin 29 (1992): 66–67. The use of sexual relationships as an allegory of Stalinism's allegorizing force and of the “sensual deprivation” which it imposed also has its precedent in Benjamin's reading of Baudelaire. He relates the growing impotence among the middle class in nineteenth-century France to what Hillach calls “a … failing of the utopian imagination among the bourgeoisie”: “The dream of having children is a poor stimulus when it is not imbued with another dream, that of a new order of things, in which these children will one day live or for which they will one day struggle” (Benjamin, Passagen-Werk, GS V: 432); See Hillach 67.

  32. Benjamin, GS I: 682.

  33. Klaus Hemver, “‘Gespräch ist das Gegenteil von Belehren’ Gespräch mit Christoph Hein,” Chronist ohne Botschaft: Christoph Hein. Ein Arbeitsbuch 22.

  34. Witte 112–13.

  35. A document in the Benjamin Archive entitled “Additions to the Tragedy-Book” [Nachträge zum Trauerspielbuch] includes a remarkable description, based on a passage by K. A. Wittvogel, of seventeenth-century German absolutism as a “police-state,” with “strong growth of organizational uniformity and administrative unity … an ever more powerful police apparatus, an institution … whose powers exercised surveillance over every expression of daily life …” Benjamin comments on “[t]he connection: spirit of the police—spirit of the executive—spirit of the baroque” (GS I: 954).

  36. The word “not” included here in the published English translation completely reverses the meaning of the original text German, in which the negation is entirely absent.

  37. That official Marxism, with its teleological view of history, bore a resemblance to theological thinking is one obvious implication of the first of Benjamin's “Theses on the Philosophy of History” with the image of the ugly dwarf theology hiding within, and actually directing, the automaton called “historical materialism.” For an interpretation of this image, see Konersmann 20–36.

  38. Hein, “‘Mut ist keine literarische Kategorie.’ Gespräch mit Alois Bischof,” Christoph Hein. Texte, Daten, Bilder, ed. Lothar Baier (Frankfurt/Main: Luchterhand, 1990) 96.

  39. Hein, “‘Mut ist keine literarische Kategorie’” 97.

  40. Quoted by Roland Vetter, “Der Tod in Christoph Heins Prosa,” Der Literat 28.4 (1986): 101.

  41. Galina Snemenskaja, “Die geistig-seelische Suche im Werk Christoph Heins,” Weimarer Beiträge 36.3 (1990): 510.

  42. Lutz Richter, “Auf neue Art zum Nachdenken zwingen,” Deutsch als Fremdsprache, Sonderheft (1987): 80.

  43. Hein, “‘Mut ist keine literarische Kategorie’” 95–96.

  44. Rolf Michaelis concludes his analysis by quoting Claudia's words about her photographs: “‘they can't wilt or decay, and thus they also lack hope.’” He then adds: “This book rests upon the hope that blossoms out of decay.” See Michaelis, “Leben ohne zu leben,” Christoph Hein. Texte, Daten, Bilder 147. The notion of hope through and beyond despair and death is in accord with Hein—and Benjamin's—thought. Yet Claudia's words hardly mean this: she would put her lifeless trees and plants back into the natural environment from which her allegorizing photography has wrenched them. But nature knows no resurrection, no eschatology, but only the round of “the ever-the-same.”

  45. Michaelis 96.

  46. Hammer, “‘Gespräch ist das Gegenteil von Belehren,” 47.

  47. Benjamin, GS I: 1152.

  48. Hein, “‘Schreiben als Aufbegehren gegen die Sterblichkeit.’ Gespräch mit Uwe Homauer und Hans Norbert Janowski,” Christoph Hein. Texte, Daten, Bilder 85.

  49. Compare to Hein's comments in “Maelzel's Chess Player Goes to Hollywood,” Die fünfte Grundrechenart. Aufsätze und Reden 33.

Phillip McKnight (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9006

SOURCE: McKnight, Phillip. “The Vulnerability of Silence: The Distant Lover.” In Understanding Christoph Hein, edited by James Hardin, pp. 20–39. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, McKnight explores the themes of emotional self-alienation and invasion in The Distant Lover.]

The key to Der fremde Freund, 1982 (The Distant Lover) is understanding Hein's use of short, staccato, matter-of-fact sentences relaying the thoughts of the first-person narrator about other people, her environment, and herself. Claudia, a physician, describes emptiness with the vocabulary of fulfillment, presents unlived life as existential happiness, and justifies a nihilistic attitude with the language of optimism. Her professed emancipation is reflected in her cynical manipulation of psychological mechanisms enabling her to repress inner moral guidance and to suppress affection or cordiality for friends, family, and acquaintances, and to facilitate the rejection of affection shown to her by them.

In the end she claims that she sleeps well, has no nightmares, but the book opens with a dream in which she experiences terror and helplessness. In the dream, Claudia finds herself—at least she thinks it is herself—together with a male friend whose face is blurred. They appear in her dream at the brink of an abyss. They try to inch their way across the broken ruins of a bridge when five runners come out of the forest and run silently and sure-footedly across the narrow beams spanning the chasm, leaving Claudia and her partner frozen in fear, unable to go back, hopelessly aware that they must go forward. The key elements of the dream consist of Claudia's desire for her frightened partner to stop clutching her—“everyone for themselves,” she thinks ([Der fremde Freund, hereafter cited as Dr] 5)—and her unwillingness to plunge into what could be construed as the depths of her own being. Finally, she equates the dream with the anxiety of remembrance. Her spontaneous reaction is to paste daily routines over whatever reality might be revealed by memory, as a schoolchild would paste new stickers over old on a notebook. This ploy is indicative of her refusal to confront earlier traumatic experiences, fearing the damage such memory could do to her well-constructed shell of safety.

Following the introductory dream sequence, the novella unfolds in thirteen tightly-knit chapters. Chapters two through twelve describe her year-long affair with Henry Sommer. Chapter one portrays her attendance at his funeral, and thirteen consists of her reflections six months later. Claudia's encounter with Henry is the point of departure for her break from her established routine to take a decisive journey into her past, culminating in a visit to the small village where she grew up. Henry's death marks her escape back into the routine and into her self-constructed fortress against the emotions of intimacy with other human beings.


Hein began writing The Distant Lover with the intention of telling the story of a man he had known who died as a result of unspecified but irresponsible or foolish actions that seemed like a trivial way to waste a life. Dissatisfied with the story's potential, Hein came upon the idea of portraying the man from the perspective of a second party, a woman. From this vague background, the woman, Claudia, quickly emerged as the central figure of the novella. Her description of Henry, the “distant [or “alienated”] lover,” was extended to other characters and events as well, so that the narrative is related exclusively from Claudia's subjective perspective. She ultimately tells us a good deal more about herself than about other people. In fact, the reader must be careful not to assume that Claudia's opinions about people and events have objective value—they are usually revelations about Claudia. Hein never tells us whether her observations have any objective validity or which of them can be taken at face value. One aspect of reception aesthetics which Hein's writing entails is the obligation of the reader to exercise care in explicating the text. Hein releases the reader's thinking into an independent and highly subjective sphere, permitting a myriad of potential viewpoints, each of which acts as a continuation of a multi-faceted dialogue established between the written words of the author and the thoughts of the reader. This technique of drawing the reader into the inner thoughts of the narrator (with no chance to exit until the end of the book) can easily put the reader in a position of questioning one's own subjective reaction to the text and (unlike most of Hein's other works) tends to break down much of the traditional objective distance between reader and text. Hein establishes the reader's position with respect to the narrator in the opening chapters in the context of Claudia's self-described reactions to people and events encountered in her daily routines.

On the day of the funeral, Claudia demonstrates her self-imposed isolation from others on several occasions. In the dilapidated, unventilated elevator with speechless riders from her high-rise apartment, for example, she participates in their collective unwillingness to know each other, disgusted at the smell of too many people in the elevator. The atmosphere of the entire high-rise building is a mirror for Claudia's feelings, including her reflections about the concierge, whose only contact with the renters besides an occasional repair of a leaky faucet, according to Claudia's perception, is his obligation to deal with the apartments of those who have died.

At work in the clinic, she is annoyed at the head physician's request for her to accompany him to the mayor's office to ask for the restoration of their recently reduced contingency of available apartments, which they needed in order to recruit additional nurses from the province. (Although East Berlin was much too large for thorough or accurate controls, the state bureaucracy nevertheless tried to link housing permits for state-owned dwellings with work stations.) At the same time, Claudia is grateful she doesn't have to listen to the doctor's condolences when she begs off due to the funeral.

She also is irritated, as usual, by the chronic tardiness of her “cow-eyed” nurse, Karla, whose excuse is always her children. She uses this excuse, according to Claudia, “presumably in order to give her [Claudia] a bad conscience” (Dr 9) for not having any children herself—the reason her husband had supposedly divorced her. Claudia refuses to admonish a regular patient, a humorous and somewhat harmlessly perverse retired old man, for touching Karla, since she is old enough to take care of herself. Why should she help Karla? Karla annoys her by discovering her dark blue coat in the office closet and asking her if she were going to a funeral. Claudia's first thoughts in chapter one consist of her indecisiveness about attending the funeral at all. She had selected the coat because it could pass for black. Karla's question, intruding in the game Claudia has been playing in her mind, now determines that she will have to go to the funeral.

The routine lunchtime in the clinic's canteen includes a colleague's lament about his stolen car, a topic which is considerably more important than whatever sympathy the others might have felt for the fact that Claudia will be attending the funeral of a deceased friend. To be sure, the man had paid double the book value of the car, and the normal waiting period for purchase of a new automobile in the GDR was seven to ten years.

Claudia continues the day's routine by having coffee later with Anne—whose husband, Claudia reports, rapes her every other week. Their sex life is normal otherwise, and Anne is the mother of four children, but her husband seems to need to humiliate her once in a while. Claudia keeps her distance. Anne seems to be waiting for age to catch up with her husband, “senility as hope” (Dr 12). Claudia can only wonder if the new dress Anne's husband bought her—as compensation—would be more appropriate for the funeral than what Claudia is wearing: “what do I have to do with her being raped. God knows, she deserves to bear her burden alone” (Dr 12).

It occurs to Claudia that she had not thought about Henry all day. As she drives to the funeral, she can only think of one thing: that she is supposed to remember him, to keep him in her memory. She's tempted to stop at home to pick up her camera and take advantage of the free afternoon to go somewhere and take pictures, her hobby. Funerals, memorial services, seem like a waste of time, a kind of “atavistic death cult” (Dr 13). At the cemetery, Claudia is uneasy to discover there are two funerals and she is unsure to which party she belongs. She doesn't like being stared at. At the ceremony she decides to join, she notices a woman with two children, evidently Henry's widow. After listening and thinking about the routine banalities of the rites, she finds herself in the absurd position of having to shake the widow's hand after tossing a handful of dirt onto the coffin. Thinking that Henry's widow hates her, Claudia is amused by the notion that she could have her face slapped at the open grave. Later, she stops in a café for a cognac and tries her best to think about Henry, the burial, the soft voice of the minister. Then she gives up.


These descriptive reflections by Claudia at the opening of the book disclose how she trivializes meaning by ritualizing what might have otherwise been appropriate behavior. Although Claudia's exact relationship to Henry is not revealed until later, shortly after she gives up trying to remember him, a funeral is an event associated with the trauma of loss and the commemoration of an individual held dear or important. Claudia's behavior would indicate that she is attending the funeral of some acquaintance or colleague whom she didn't know very well rather than the funeral of her lover and that she is reluctantly doing so as the fulfillment of an expected social obligation.

Each of the incidents of the day represents what Peter C. Pfeiffer calls a “potential for the recovery of lost meaningfulness and fulfillment,”1 a potential never realized by Claudia. She sees the funeral as an “excuse” to avoid helping to find housing for the nurses. She belittles Karla's need for personal interaction on the grounds of Karla's promiscuity. Claudia's interaction with other colleagues about the funeral is pasted over with the talk about the stolen car. Her reaction to Anne's trauma is diverted by thoughts of the dress Anne had received from her husband. Most important, as we realize later in the text, the funeral represents a potentially unavoidable trauma for Claudia should she have to shake the hand of the widow, the woman whose husband had cheated on her with Claudia. In her comparison of The Distant Lover with Camus's The Stranger, Brigitte Sändig states that the “consistent retention of the character perspective” and the psychological constitution of the figures provide meaning in the text: “Indifference and imperturbability permit both Meursault and Claudia to forego involvement with things and people. … But it becomes increasingly evident [that] this indifference is a protective mechanism against reality for both of them.”2

The culmination of Claudia's alienation appears with her astounding words towards the end of the book: “I'm ready for everything, I'm armed against everything, nothing can injure me any more. I have become invulnerable. I have bathed in dragon's blood and no linden leaf left a vulnerable place on me. I will never get out of this skin. I will croak in my impenetrable shell out of longing for Katharina” (Dr 154). The last sentence, along with several others from the last chapter, reveals her vulnerability in the same breath she denies it. The imagery of bathing in dragon's blood refers to the famous medieval saga of the Nibelungen, of how Siegfried slew a dragon and bathed in its blood to make his skin impenetrable, how a linden leaf covered a single spot in the middle of his back, the spot struck by the spear which killed him in a cowardly act of betrayal. Claudia's childhood friend Katharina represents the vulnerable spot for her, the one spot she cannot cover, even throughout her continual posture of denial. Claudia's laconic, straightforward sentence structures appear together without necessarily containing a common sign of sense or coherence. As Sändig notes, “her reports are fixed in the structural syntax itself with the existential coercion to live in an alienated world and with her decision to confront this world with indifference.”3

Claudia's meeting with Henry ultimately serves as a catalyst to her memory and the reawakening of her emotional capacity for intimacy, powerful elements which may be understood as the cause for her visit to the village where she grew up—a place which contains the remembrance of her self and the origin of her personality, molded by events and emotions she had suppressed for years. She attempts to keep a certain distance between herself and Henry and finds him very willing to collaborate. The distance provides an unyielding brittleness for the relationship and an uncomplicated familiarity for Claudia, who “had no need to open up completely to another person ever again, to be in someone else's power” (Dr 29).

Henry is sometimes mistakenly seen by readers as a Kerouac type—free, wild, and exuberant, an architect who likes fast cars and whose imaginary career would have been that of a race-car driver or a stunt man.4 Although Henry may have generated this kind of perception in the forty-year-old Claudia, he describes his work complacently as building what he calls “useless nuclear plants” designed “sometimes for the river to flow on the right and sometimes on the left” (Dr 27), and his driving, during which time he “feels alive” (Dr 28), is just plain foolish and reckless, not adventurous or racy. It's also somewhat of a contradiction in terms, inasmuch as the vintage GDR cars were unable to go much faster than the official speed limit, about 60 m.p.h., so that Henry's speeding is relatively tame, even on the narrow country roads. Not to say that he, like other East Germans, was not aware of the sleek, swift Western cars seen on television and on the autobahn connecting West Germany with West Berlin, and he too probably would have dreamed of driving over 100 m.p.h. on the West German autobahn as a participant in the psychotic German driving culture, just for thrills.

Henry is ironic and aloof. To him, life has no meaning; his outlook is pragmatically nihilistic. The love relationship is devoid of familiar admissions to each other of compassion and real intimacy. He and Claudia avoid exchanging biographical details most of the time, and when they do, it results in disaster. They first meet in the confines of the apartment elevator, and Henry shows up that evening asking to be fed, after which he climbs into bed with Claudia, to her consternation and amusement.

That weekend Claudia visits her parents, and we find that her family ties are weak, forgotten. Her mother talks about Hinner, Claudia's previous husband, and seems to want them to get back together. Her father is disillusioned by the lack of political engagement on Claudia's part and complains that she has no idea what is happening in the world, since she doesn't even read the paper—actually Claudia does read the paper, but only the personals and the classified ads. Claudia's parents' generation were the idealist socialists, strongly political and committed to building an alternate German society. Claudia's apolitical attitude is symptomatic of an important generational conflict in East Germany. The older political activists had been unequivocally committed to socialism and worked hard to build what they viewed as an alternate society after the war, while a large portion of Claudia's generation tended to withdraw into mundane private life and the generation after Claudia openly rejected socialist ideals and the hypocrisy they perceived.

In this context it is essential to understand that aside from their haunting ring of self-deception, Claudia's claims at the end of the book—that she has it made, she is a success, nothing significant remains for her to accomplish—all underscore a self-centered life, one conducted without contribution to the public or social sphere, an existence without expectations. Back home in the city, Claudia attempts to formulate some clear concepts about her parents. She is unable to do so. There is only a vague remembrance, nothing much; she soon falls asleep. The words echo her inability to remember Henry after the funeral.

The importance of history—how it is distorted, changed, and covered up by political constituencies—is one of the subjects of Horns Ende, published in 1985. In The Distant Lover the significance of personal history is also accentuated; Claudia omits details, suppresses key incidents, and endeavors to exist only in a present that she defines and that is without encumbrances from the past. The issues of social memory found in Horns Ende are preceded with issues of psychosomatic personal memory in The Distant Lover. According to Pfeiffer, these two novels and their portrayal of confrontations with the past articulate the precariousness of the national identity of the GDR, the lack of which identity helps to explain the collapse in 1989: “In the process of remembering, the sediments of the past suddenly become translucent in The Distant Lover and Horns Ende, revealing the petrified structure of the present both in the private sphere (The Distant Lover) and in the historical and social sphere (Horns Ende). The use of history and stories should provide the present with a renewed dynamic potential.”5

Hein was strongly influenced by his readings of the Jewish social theoretician Walter Benjamin and of Marcel Proust on the subjects of history and remembrance. For both of these authors, the search for the past should be relentless and is central to a critical understanding of the present. Hein seems likewise to suggest that many of Claudia's internal deformities are related to her denial of the past and to her failure to come to grips with the totality of her being.

Avoidance of close contact with other human beings enhances Claudia's ability to stay out of their personal affairs, to remain ignorant of their personal lives. Each time an opportunity is presented, she manages to remain out on the beam over the abyss, unable to retreat, stationary, not moving forward, trapped in limbo.

When Claudia promises to use her connections to try to get a copper IUD for Karla from the West, Karla's gratitude almost leads to a closeness. They could have hugged, or shaken hands, an act that Claudia fears would lead to a daily rite, a friendly intimacy that she was relieved to have avoided. Why look for an explanation of this fear of touching in the vocabulary of psychiatry, she thinks, for her life was best seen as a clinical phenomenon: “expressions, movements, feelings,—merely false behavior in the face of the all-comprehensive termini of some abstract norm” (Dr 38). Even when she hadn't heard from Henry for a week, she recalled that they were not responsible for each other, they didn't owe each other anything. She was mildly annoyed to notice that she would have liked for him to have told her when he was leaving town for a few days.

It could also be that whole urban societies have, to some extent, “bathed in dragon's blood.” A passage from Hein's “Worüber man nicht reden kann, davon kann die Kunst ein Lied singen,” 1986 (“That Which Cannot Be Spoken of Can Have a Song Sung about It by Art”) indicates that Claudia may be seen as a representation of twentieth-century tendencies to respond to stress, trauma, daily routine. There, he argues that the drive of self-preservation, the conscious and unconscious reactions which help people avoid mortal danger is enhanced by the “ability to not perceive unbearable truth, to close one's eyes in its face” ([Öffentlich arbeiten, hereafter cited as Öa] 50). The world itself has become unbearable: “If the world were constantly before our eyes, we would not be capable of reading a poem or even of relaxing when drinking a cup of coffee. The self-preservation drive guards us from really having to endure the world by covering our senses with a thick hide. A useful second skin, which protects us from the things which would make us unable to live, but a dangerous hide, because it permits us to bear the unbearable and to thereby endanger life itself” (Öa 50). The dangerous side of “invulnerability” had gained the upper hand in Claudia's life. The insensitivity that is detrimental to the development of society toward the more humane retards the individual as well. The narrow line between having too thick a skin and being too sensitive has become precarious and fragile in the twentieth century, and Claudia is not able to find an effective balance between the two, always electing to thicken her skin.

As somewhat of a (foolish) risk-taking pseudo-anarchist, spontaneous and indifferent, Claudia's friend Henry represents someone who might actually be able to rekindle in her the youthful anarchy or the energy to change her life which she still had at the beginning of her marriage to Hinner, but which has lain dormant for many years.6 Claudia's encounter with Henry is a chance to overcome her apathy and indifference. At the very least, it represents an interlude of spontaneity, ultimately interrupted and broken by Henry's death. After the painful irritation of their encounter, she is able to return to the normal, painless, lifeless condition in which she previously led her life.


A key event in the novella, perhaps even a poetic turning point, takes place immediately following Henry's reckless driving and his run-in with the farmer on the tractor whose life he has senselessly endangered for the sake of a cheap thrill. The farmer gives him a black eye for his trouble. Claudia and Henry take a walk, and she comes to life—exulting in nature, taking pictures, enjoying herself even though she has noticed that Henry is too urbanized, bored, unenthralled by nature to share her feelings. Feelings begin to awaken in her. The sequence of events which follow her climbing up to a precarious position on the wall of some ruins to get a better angle to take pictures is quite possibly the literal enactment of the dream which opens the book.7 Since she neither plunged (or fell) into the “abyss” nor made it safely across when the opportunity presented itself, her mental situation in the bad dream remained unchanged, stagnant.

The scene in the forest is the only time we actually see Claudia in the act of photographing. It is structurally linked with the opening dream sequence by the visual effects that Hein achieves with language. Like the dream sequence, events are accented as with a “camera zooming in” (Dr 5). Claudia's relationship with her photography is expounded at length in other passages of the book, revealing the distorted perspective that makes her refuse to engage in what Bernd Fischer calls “philosophical reflexions on the meaning-question.”8 A close reading of The Distant Lover compels the reader to apply Claudia's later expositions about photography to the incidents which occur in the forest.

She never takes pictures of people, only of landscapes, because—as she says—landscapes are always changing but people appear awkward and unnatural in photographs. The opening sentence of the book, the start of Claudia's description of her dream, stated almost biblically, is, “In the beginning was a landscape” (Dr 5). Photographing people is for Claudia an “indiscreet violation of alien life” (Dr 75). The idea that a person can be captured in a picture is nonsense: “Trees always remain themselves, they don't try to lie by giving a favorable image of themselves” (Dr 75). It may be what Walter Benjamin refers to as the “cult value” or “aura”9 of portraits that makes Claudia uneasy. The cult value of portrait photography is connected to memory and remembrance. One is again reminded of Claudia's dream or “distant remembering,” which she describes as a “picture, unattainable for me, in the final analysis incomprehensible” (Dr 6). Photography can also capture the aura of landscapes in a remarkable web of time and space: resting on a summer afternoon, watching a mountain top on the horizon or a tree limb whose shadow falls onto the observer, until the moment itself merges with the mountain or the limb to become part of its existence is, to paraphrase Benjamin, the experience of aura.10

On this day, climbing up the wall of the ruins, Claudia subconsciously senses the aura, and this moment triggers her anxiety, her sudden fear of falling. She breaks out in a cold sweat, afraid to look down, inching her way back to Henry, clutching him in a role-reversal of the dream sequence. Her fear is dispelled by their closeness, and the aura is preserved in Claudia as they walk through the forest—that is, until Henry's unexpected revelation that he is married, that he plans to visit his wife and children on Sunday. Claudia's humiliation and feeling of betrayal reverse what might have been her first steps toward letting down her defenses and expedites her denial: “I didn't want him anyway. I never intended to have him for myself. I had decided some time ago to never marry again, to never again concede even the smallest power over me to another person. … I was convinced that I could never allow myself to give up my distance to other people, so that I would not be deceived, so that I would not deceive myself” (Dr 50). Henry's curtly stated piece of biographical information has paralyzed her, left her frozen on the metaphorical bridge of the dream, unable to move forward or backward, unable to merge with others or to escape from her neurosis.

Later, after Henry's burial, she begins to be afraid of her photos. She had filled her drawers and closets with her prints of trees, scenery, grass, country lanes, and deadwood—“a soulless nature, which I created” (Dr 155). Perhaps her fear is that her photos possess an aura of their own to which she cannot remain interminably blind, an aura over which she has no control and which could stimulate associations in her memory in spite of their lifeless objectivity. After all, “trees don't lie.”

Hein returns to the issue of photography in the seventh chapter as Claudia develops some film and thinks about Hinner. Her thoughts reveal that she had been frigid while with him. The fact that her diversion, or hobby, is a compensation for her fear of creative spontaneity is illustrated by her fascination with photographs as they develop on paper in the darkroom, “a germination I cause, direct, that I can interrupt” (Dr 76). This she contrasts with the two abortions she had undergone while still married to Hinner because, as she says, her pregnancies were a spontaneous, creative process over which she had no control: “A monstrous violation, one that would determine my entire future, a violation of my freedom” (Dr 77). Claudia again uses the word Eingriff, or “intrusion”—which I have translated as “violation” in this case—just as she has done in her reference to portrait photography.

The disappearance of spontaneous interaction between Claudia and others enables her to remain free, unattached, and private, covering her vulnerability with everyday trivia, secure in the unvarying fixational quality of life. Her attempt to escape dependency upon other people (and them on her, even though she is a doctor) or circumstances helps her, she surmises, to determine her own needs and to follow her own interests or inclinations without external direction or guidance. However, this course of action ends on a fatally discordant note: she is not free; she is isolated.

The tight narrative perspective never permits the view of anyone besides Claudia and seldom even permits quotes from other people to be related in her reports. This technique enables Hein to create an “aura of isolation” around his character, as Sändig aptly points out.11 Claudia's dilettante artistic endeavors with photography ostensibly provide a form of therapy in her view. But “art is in this case simply a defunct ersatz, almost a neurosis,” according to Bernd Fischer, who points out additionally that Claudia's life consists of nothing but “ersatz” material and “art is one of the most harmless” substitutions for reality.12 Photography, without Claudia's disturbing dilettantism, would have functioned to re-create an aura of memory instead of isolation.


After learning that Henry is married, Claudia runs through the forest and, as he catches her, she breaks into hysterical laughter, uncontrollable. Unable to calm her down, he finally throws her angrily to the ground, himself on top of her. The description of the forced sex in the forest combines associations with the vulnerable spots left by the linden leaf on Siegfried's back and Claudia's exclusion from aura and intimacy. Throughout the sex, she feels a tree root rubbing her in the small of the back, rubbing her raw, and she fixes her gaze on an overhead limb which casts a shadow on her. Her rage and despair dissolve into “sudden carnal desire, into the dancing leaves overhead, into Henry's panting, into the feeling of terminal loneliness” (Dr 52), into a self-betrayal she refuses to acknowledge. In spite of this incident in the forest, Claudia remains with Henry. She does not protest when he shows up to join her while she is on vacation. They continue to see each other, usually in her apartment, two or three times a week. Every two or three weeks Henry visits his wife and children in Dresden, and Claudia and he simply don't pry into each other's private life.

Several of Hein's texts portray the act of a rape which leaves the participants or the victims unchanged—to the reader's shock—and which functions as a symbol of political or psychological unchangeability. When Hein's characters react emotionally to unimportant events and fail to react to events which are destructive to the integrity of human identity, the discrepancy between values and misdirected egocentrism (or helpless inertia) is made clear. The perversion of sexuality is a common denominator with which Hein degrades the standing of characters and creates antipathy. The rape of the nun in Ah Q is superseded by an alleged theft which did not take place. The two violent sexual acts in Horns Ende establish symbolically the continuity between fascism and Stalinism.

In his short story “Die Vergewaltigung” (“The Rape”)—published, significantly, in Neues Deutschland, the GDR equivalent of Pravda, on 2–3 December 1989—Hein describes a woman's speech at a ceremony to consecrate into the Communist fold youths who had come of age. Ilona R., a sincere and successful woman, describes the selfless aid provided by the Red Army at the end of the war, praising the GDR-Russian friendship. Afterwards, her husband asked her why she hadn't mentioned the rape of her sixty-four-year-old grandmother by two Russian soldiers in August of 1945. Her grandmother had hidden Ilona from the soldiers and attempted to soothe her afterwards: “What are you silly hens crying about? Did I break my leg?” Ilona doesn't think it appropriate to mention the rape on initiation day. It might leave the wrong impression, and, anyway, that was in the past. Her husband says that, if such is the case, she shouldn't have told the other side of the story either—a remark which seems almost to cause her a nervous breakdown—and she reacts by accusing him of being a fascist. Public acknowledgment or narrations of atrocities of the Red Army at the end of the war remained strictly taboo until the policies of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union resulted in disclosures from Soviet news media, disclosures that remained unwelcome in official circles in the GDR. The women (the nun in Ah Q is dead) do not report the rape; they fall silent and go on as they had before. The self-imposed silence provides the connection between life experience under Nazi and Stalinist regimes.

The first structural study of The Distant Lover, by Hannes Krauss (1991), uncovered the theme more clearly pursued in Horns Ende: Hein's contention that fascism and Stalinism were inexorably linked in the GDR, even if the impact was lessened by the absence of overt terrorism. Krauss compares Claudia's journey into the past to restore memory with Christa Wolf's description of the same in Kindheitsmuster (Childhood Patterns). Both Claudia and the narrator in Wolf's novel are traumatized by recollection of their mothers' intimidating sexual education, including warnings about sexually transmitted diseases, which had been calculated to make them feel dirty and to instill fear to encourage abstention. Sexual taboos are connected with political taboos most clearly in the learned silence which causes the loss of the ability “to ask questions and to articulate desires for change.”13 The runic symbols on the shirts of the five runners in Claudia's dream are emblems which have been reinvented in modern form by the Nazis in their “research” to trace pure Germanness back in time and which represent the sport fetishness shared by fascist and Stalinist regimes. These clues and fragments themselves, according to Krauss, were an early attempt to break the personal silence of a GDR author about the silence of the victims of Stalinism—individuals who had been conditioned to such acquiescence by the forces of intimidation which existed in Germany during the Nazi period.


The novella has been worked into a refined art-form in Germany, and Goethe defined its structural requirements as those of a story containing an unheard of, or remarkable, event. Of the many refinements of the novella, one of the most characteristic is the inclusion of a peripety or turning point, an incident which unalterably, often fatalistically, changes the course of the character's life.14 The turning point in The Distant Lover is generally considered to be the scene in the forest. It would have to be understood as an intentional and bitter-ironic “anti-turning point,” however, inasmuch as the opportunity for Claudia to change her life is wasted by her acquiescence to the non-committal relationship with Henry. Still, she has embarked on a course for change, and this turning point interrupts and diverts that course permanently.

A final chance presents itself when Claudia, against the advice of Henry, decides to make a trip to the small town where she grew up, “a journey into the past” (Dr 95). There she remembers the unheard of events which took place in her life. The actual turning point of Claudia's life occurred when she was twelve years old, not too long after the stationing of a single Soviet tank in the center of her town as a consequence of the strikes of 17 June 1953. Hein enables the reader to calculate the dates of the story by having Claudia mention the introduction of daylight savings time, which occurred in the GDR in 1981. Since she is currently forty years old, she would have been twelve years old in 1953. June 17th is a well-known date in Germany, marking the day of the violent suppression by Soviet tanks of an uprising. The working class had rebelled at demands to increase productivity without added compensation, and the farmers in the countryside were not cooperating with the effort to proceed with the collectivization of agriculture.

The most crucial source of understanding for Claudia's later behavior can be traced directly back to her experience with the public reaction to the political events associated with 17 June: at school, nobody spoke about the presence of the Soviet tank in town, and at home, her father urged her to avoid the subject. Claudia couldn't understand why the issue was suppressed, but since the adults were resolutely silent, she realized that “even a conversation could be something threatening … I learned to keep quiet” (Dr 108). The public reflex mechanism to suppress rather than to confront was internalized into Claudia's private personality.

Her life was fundamentally determined by political pressures. As Sändig has pointed out, the “emotional reactions [to political pressures]—internalization of problems, learning to remain silent, fear experienced in catastrophic situations—have become habitual for Claudia.”15 By avoiding public authority, she is able to remain immune to inclinations to become actively involved.

Because of the religious orientation of Katharina and her family, Claudia is further pressured by her own parents and her teachers and classmates to dissolve her relationship with her best friend, with whom she had sworn eternal friendship and loyalty. Claudia's parents are afraid that her association with Katharina—she was interested in Katharina's religious beliefs as well—would result in reprimands which could prevent Claudia from staying in school. The situation becomes tense after Katharina's three brothers go to the West.

In October of the next year, the administration of the school, in consultation with county officials, comes to the conclusion that Katharina will have to leave school after completing the eighth grade. It “was inappropriate that she be allowed to attain the educational goals of an accredited high school in our Republic” (Dr 110). Katharina then incurs the displeasure of the class by refusing to join the socialist youth club, the FDJ, and is criticized and badgered by the teacher. Finally, Claudia denounces Katharina, making a joke about the “Christian-superstitious views of a certain student” (Dr 112). Claudia and her classmates are irritated at being held after class because of Katharina's “stubbornness,” i.e., her refusal to compromise her values. Already in the beginning stages of avoidance and denial, they listen, bored and uninterested, to the worn-out phrases as the teacher equates Katharina's decision with warmongering. The class is not concerned about the issues at all, although the socialist tradition of enforced solidarity—the reason the others are kept after school repeatedly until the issue can be resolved—represents a key dialectic and existential problem in that society. For the students, it is not a matter of denouncing one of the brightest among them in order to subjugate her to the political collective; they simply want to go home and not have to listen to the teacher's harangues anymore.

Katharina responds to Claudia's denunciation by slapping her face. Claudia kicks her in the shin. Both girls receive a reprimand. Claudia's friendship with a girl “she had loved so unconditionally, as she would never again be able to love another human being” (Dr 113) is finished. On the psychological level, Claudia is not only under pressure from peers and authorities. The situation has been worsened by problems which are fairly universal to puberty and the fragility of friendships in the eighth grade: Katharina becomes interested in the precentor's son, a development which leaves her with less time for Claudia. Claudia feels a strange alienation when Katharina talks about her boyfriend; pangs of jealousy have disrupted her feelings for Katharina.

Claudia quickly represses the trauma of having denounced this friend she has loved so unequivocally. When she learns that Katharina and her mother have followed her brothers to the West, she proudly announces to her parents that Katharina has betrayed the country. It is evident to the reader that Katharina is a principled but vulnerable young girl and that Claudia has betrayed her, a betrayal not altogether unlike the betrayal of Horn in Horns Ende.

The psychological mechanism Claudia finds for neutralizing her trauma—her escape into daily routine—carries over into her adult life, where she masks her private feelings in a similar way. Superficiality has become a safeguard. Even on the day of Henry's funeral, she reduces the issues involved in the decision of whether or not she should attend Henry's funeral to the superficial question whether or not she would wear her dark blue coat, which could pass for black. Thus she diverts her attention away from her emotions, avoiding the risk of going out on the precipice where she could experience herself intensely and possibly have an opportunity to grow.

A second part of the turning point in Claudia's life takes place shortly after her estrangement from Katharina, when she discovers that her own uncle Gerhard, a grandfather figure for her, stands accused of having denounced his colleagues in the Social Democratic party during the war. Claudia feels that she, as the niece of a “Nazi criminal,” has lost the right to be shocked or indignant about the injustice of the Nazi regime or to feel sympathy for its victims.

From this point, the story begins a frenetic rush to the end, like water rushing down the drain. Claudia visits the head doctor at home, visits her parents, takes pictures, follows her routine, even perseveres in her routine when her elderly neighbor dies, resisting the temptation to get emotionally involved. When her sister shows up with her ex-husband during a visit with her parents, she feels no envy; thinking that they probably deserve each other, she does not share her mother's distress at the situation. She continues dating Henry. They make no demands on each other; they are always happy when they are together; they avoid complications. On 18 April, she learns that Henry has died.

He had gone into a bar for a drink. A couple of youths made fun of his felt hat. When one of them finally grabbed it, he stood up and went outside to fight. Henry had been a boxer in his youth. He danced around like a professional. The boys laughed at him. Then one of the young men punched him; maybe he had some sort of metal piece in his hand. Henry fell to the ground, dead. Claudia does not break up her daily routine when her relationship with the aloof and self-alienated Henry ends. After the brief interlude of spontaneity and hope that the liaison has given her, Claudia's attempt to come to grips with the past also ends. She returns to her normal, painless, lifeless condition of pragmatic nihilism, cleansing herself with a cathartic experience. At home after the funeral, she tries to think about what kind of a man Henry had been, but she cannot really form an opinion.

Henry had been wearing the felt hat when she met him; he always wore it. A few days after the burial, a friend brings the hat to her. Henry handed the friend the hat before the fight. As soon as the friend leaves, Claudia takes the hat into the hallway and tosses it down the garbage chute: “I can't be filling up my little apartment with old hats” (Dr 155).


Readers of the English translation of The Distant Lover should be aware that it often fails to convey the irony and cynicism of Claudia's thoughts and speech and to capture the everyday routine of GDR life. The translator's language sometimes preempts the communicative process between the text and the reader, leading the reader into secure areas when it should have left things fragmented—a practice that would have allowed the reader to develop his or her own interpretive continuity of meaning. The New York Times review, superficial in scope, to be sure, referred to Claudia as a “competent” (but without compassion) professional, as a “dutiful” (but indifferent) daughter, and as a “courteous recipient of other people's confidences and untidy concerns.”16 Claudia's professional competence, dutifulness, and courteousness are all called into question in the text—a fact indicating that the American reader can be mislead by the translation. The translation was troublesome from the beginning, the rights having been sold to a British publisher who then relinquished them to Pantheon Press. Hein had no control over the translation, and the negotiations had taken place by the time he came to New York in 1987. He was pleased with Pantheon—before the small literary press was redirected to publish books of lesser quality, which sold more copies—and enjoyed an excellent relationship with Sara Bershtel, the senior editor and the driving force behind getting The Distant Lover published in English.17 The translator, however, experienced considerable difficulty with the text, mistranslating a surprising number of words and phrases in the first draft and struggling to get the style under control. Bershtel realized that the style and use of language was absolutely essential for the success of the book and subjected the text to extensive editing. The manuscript took two years before it was ready to go to press, but it never reached the level of Hein's original and did not sell as well as could be expected when measured by its success in the languages of some forty other countries, a success which was by no means limited to academic and intellectual circles. The English translation is now out of print.

The difficulty lies in the communication of the subtext employed by Hein, who had modelled his use of subtext somewhat after Anton Chekov, of whose dramas he noted: “It is quite wonderful how the figures say something and the audience notices that they simultaneously are saying something else.”18 For his own part, Hein frequently pointed out that The Distant Lover was written with consistent use of subtext: “The figure states I feel well and every reader understands that she feels bad.”19 Chekov and Georg Büchner, for Hein, were capable of tossing out a half-sentence which would tear open a complete universe of meaning. The same is true for Picasso's paintings, “when he makes something with two or three strokes and one still has the feeling something is missing. Quite the contrary, it is absolutely finished, and one almost sees something more than he had painted. But he painted that along with it: this subtext or this un-painted portion is also painted in.”20 All of this writing technique certainly doesn't facilitate a translator's task, but the problems are not only to be found in the language of the text. Hein, who continually maintained that The Distant Lover was a GDR story for him, was initially surprised at its success abroad, in other German speaking countries as well as in Eastern and Western Europe and in South America. He attributes this success largely to what must be a reflection of the status of civilization in industrialized nations in the book, something which transcends political and cultural differences.


Both West German (Die Zeit) and American (New York Times) reviewers claimed that Claudia's self-alienation and ultimate incapacity for intimate relationships is a phenomenon of late twentieth-century urban life which occurs in cities like West Berlin or New York. Although this may be accurate, especially in terms of the structure of Claudia's personality and the description of her behavior, the details of Claudia's biography and the specific elements which lead to her state of mind are closely linked with the social and political circumstances associated with life in the GDR, especially between 1950 and 1980.

The reaction of East German reviewers, for example, centered around the disturbing question as to “whether this story is supposed to be the description of a general condition of our society.”21 This was a cultural-political question as much as anything, with implications for censorship practices as well, for Hein had not included a positive contra-figure, a hope for a social solution to the human condition embodied by Claudia. The answers, both pro and con, have generated heated discussion about the book, including charges that the story is not realistic—people can't turn out to be like Claudia in the socialist system—that the story is missing the promise of a social corrective.22 But the outpour of mail Hein received, the majority of which came from female readers, attested that the story had struck a nerve in readers. Many people seemed to detect a bit of Claudia in themselves, and Hein was made uneasy when some of these women asked him for advice about how to conduct or change their lives. A large number of letter writers and critics both questioned and lauded his ability, as a male author, to probe so deeply into a woman's subjectivity.

By the 1980s, Western readers were not likely to be conscious of any blueprint for an enlightened and humane utopian society of the future which would also serve to fulfill a political mandate, to be applied collectively and universally by and for the population of a given country. In the GDR, the non-existence of the utopia was subsumed under the term “real existing socialism,” which constituted the given current stage of development towards real socialism. This logic depends on the acceptance of utopia as a valid goal orientation. With such a postulate, whatever stage society finds itself to be in can be justified, regardless of the quality of life it happens to impose on its members.

It was difficult to get through school in East Germany without forming some commitment to the realization of ideals which measured progress towards the utopian ideal. The natural idealism of youth lends itself to an acceptance of these kinds of commitments, a fact which one should keep in mind when reading the passages in all of Hein's works that describe different, petty, and self-centered sources of motivation for action taken by his characters. Even though the population eventually came to view the socialist utopian concept with deep cynicism, it is an ideal which would have been an integral part of Claudia's education and that of Hein's readers in the GDR. Claudia's personality is influenced by a variety of occurrences in GDR everyday life. These forces negatively affect the development of her personality and alter her assumption of what her social and political responsibilities should be.

Her altered state terminates the possibility of the social corrective—a fact which GDR reviewers writing in state-controlled journals professed to have missed. In 1983 and until about 1988, the reviewers would have been required by their superiors to write some dogmatic criticism as a prerequisite to publish other, more positive and literary-critical oriented comments. Failure to accept such a commission could result in a demotion.

Many East German readers understood that controlled behavior and the restriction of creative thought can both mirror and cause social stagnation. The impoverishment of Claudia's personality and the alienation predominant in her everyday communication manifest a danger to social emancipation itself. The “Catch-22” dilemma in such a society is the circular argument that (independent) individuals are harmful to social progress and (collective) social progress is harmful to individuals.

Since the topic of alienation is familiar to readers of Sarte, Camus, Kafka, and contemporary American writers, it might be best to focus more on those aspects of The Distant Lover which anchor Claudia's experiences in the GDR and support Hein's claim that it is a “GDR story.” Whether the text represents a condemnation of the politics of the GDR at that time is not the only issue at stake for a writer of Hein's stature; evidently conditions in other, Western societies could have had a similar alienating effect on a person like Claudia. Hein probes the specific conditions he knew contributed to Claudia's state of being and the subconscious blocking of contact with other people that it causes. Those conditions were created in the GDR by the Stalinist regime of Walter Ulbricht and continued after Stalin's death in 1953 in spite of initial efforts in the Soviet Union by Nikita Kruschev to reform the political structure and to do away with terror. Accepting 1953 as the turning point in Claudia's life and in the novella itself provides an important structural connection between the theme of alienation and the historical context. As can be seen in most of Hein's works, his modus operandi usually consists of incorporating history within the aesthetic framework of his writing.


  1. Peter C. Pfeiffer, “Tote und Geschichte(n): Christoph Heins Drachenblut und Horns Ende,German Studies Review 16.1 (1993): 22.

  2. Brigitte Sändig, “Zwei oder drei fremde Helden,” Sinn und Form 45.4 (1993): 666.

  3. Sändig 668.

  4. See Bernd Schick's contribution to “Für und Wider,” Weimarer Beiträge 29.9 (1983): 1634–1655. He sees parallels between Kerouac's Dean Moriarty in On the Road and Henry.

  5. Pfeiffer 22.

  6. The wedding portrait of Claudia and Hinner at her mother's house reminds her that they were once two “helpless, shy revolutionaries” (Dr 74) radiating hope and the will to destroy the old order and improve social conditions. Hein does not explore what caused Claudia's transition from anarchy to apathy during the marriage, although her aversion to having children is linked with the failure of the marriage. The energy to change has been reduced to contempt and cynicism.

  7. See Brigitte Böttcher, “Diagnose eines unheilbaren Zustandes,” Neue Deutsche Literatur 31.6 (1983): 147f.

  8. Bernd Fischer, “Christoph Heins ‘fremde Freundin,’” Chronist ohne Botschaft. Christoph Hein. Ein Arbeitsbuch. Materialien, Auskünfte, Bibliographie, ed. Klaus Hammer (Berlin: Aufbau, 1992) 98.

  9. See Walter Benjamin, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit,” in his Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Drei Studien zur Kunstsoziologie (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1977) 21.

  10. See Walter Benjamin, “Kleine Geschichte der Photographie,” in his Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, 57.

  11. Sändig 666.

  12. Fischer, “Christoph Heins 'fremde Freundin” 103.

  13. Hannes Kraus, “Mit geliehenen Worten das Schweigen brechen. Christoph Heins Novelle Drachenblut,Text + Kritik 111, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Munich: Text + Kritik, 1991) 23.

  14. Other traditional elements associated with the novella which are evident in The Distant Lover include the objective style of reporting with no intrusion by the author and the meshing of dramatic and narrative techniques. The “unheard of event,” as spoken by Goethe to Eckermann 25 January 1827, is the existence of Claudia herself, a kind of person unheard of in the GDR socialist state.

  15. Sändig 669.

  16. Katharine Washburn, “A Confessor at the Funeral,” New York Times Book Review 7 May 1989: 33.

  17. See Hein's “Brief an Sara, New York,” Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen 184–98, written in diary form describing Hein's daily reactions to the opening of the Berlin Wall and the events thereafter from 9 November to 20 November 1989.

  18. Christoph Hein, interview, “‘Dialog ist das Gegenteil von Belehren.’ Gespräch mit Christoph Hein,” Chronist ohne Botschaft 28.

  19. Hein, interview, “Dialog ist das Gegenteil von Belehren” 28.

  20. Hein, interview, “Dialog ist das Gegenteil von Belehren” 28.

  21. Hans Kaufmann, “Christoph Hein in der Debatte,” in his Über DDR-Literatur. Beiträge aus fünfundzwanzig Jahren (Berlin: Aufbau, 1986) 235.

  22. See “Für und Wider,” Weimarer Beiträge 29.9 (1983): 1634–1655.

Phillip McKnight (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9828

SOURCE: McKnight, Phillip. “Homesickness for the Cell: Der Tangospieler.” In Understanding Christoph Hein, edited by James Hardin, pp. 88–112. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, McKnight examines the inability of Der Tangospieler's protagonist, Dallow, to function outside of prison after his release.]

The spring 1989 publication of Der Tangospieler (The Tango Player), translated into English in 1992, completes what could be designated as a trilogy of historical prose writings by Hein, each of which focuses on a time during a key historical turning point in East Germany: The Distant Lover on the revolt in East Germany of 17 June 1953, Horns Ende on the impact of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, and The Tango Player on the “Prague Spring” of 1968 that led to the fall of the Czech party chief and head of state Alexander Dubcek and the elimination of democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia.

Reading The Distant Lover in 1982 shocked people; reading The Tango Player in 1989, whose main character reminds some critics of Claudia (neither is interested in a close relationship or in politics),1 provided ironic amusement. Hein captures the mood of the changing times: the situation had become so absurdly pathetic in the minds of many people that it deserved ridicule. A few weeks after the appearance of The Tango Player, the mass exodus by GDR “vacationers” through Czechoslovakia and Hungary began the final stage before the fall of the Wall. But in 1968, the main character's behavior was not amusing. The political situation was deeply serious.

None of Hein's books actually present an intense direct interaction with these historical events on the part of any of the characters. Such happenings are kept in the narrative background, but they are undeniably important in the lives of the characters, even though the characters often tend to discount their significance. For Hein, as we saw in Horns Ende, an individual's attitude toward history is the crucial point, and these varying attitudes comprise the level of reality he explores and intensifies in his fiction.

The three books were written throughout the decade of the 1980s, and each traces not only steps in the gradual easing of censorship in the GDR during this time—measured in terms of reduced need for Sklavensprache—but also those specific earlier historical events which most caused disillusionment and loss of faith in the system, and apathetic withdrawal into private life by ordinary citizens.

The Tango Player opens with the release of Hans-Peter Dallow from prison in February of 1968 after a twenty-one-month internment. Now thirty-six years old, Dallow had been a junior faculty member in the history department of the Karl-Marx-University in Leipzig, specializing in nineteenth-century proletarian history. He had been nearing promotion to Dozent (equivalent to associate professor with tenure) when a group of students talked him into providing the piano accompaniment for their cabaret show. Their regular pianist was sick, and they had only two days before the first show. Dallow agreed and played an old tango number from the 1920s, “Adios Muchachos,” to which the students, having altered the text, performed a witty persiflage of Walter Ulbricht.

Dallow claimed to be innocent. He had not paid any attention to the text; he was only the tango player, and a fill-in at that. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to twenty-one months in prison with the others for “defamation of character of leading personalities of the state” ([The Tango Player, hereafter cited as Ta] 71). The story concludes seven months later with Dallow's return to the university with the promotion just a few days after the repression of the Czechoslovakian reform movement by Soviet tanks and Warsaw Pact troops. Dallow replaces his rival at the institute, Dr. Roessler, who is demoted for having accidently misread the situation in Prague. During the seven months, Dallow tries to put his life back in order by establishing his old routines.

He picks up women at different bars each night until this becomes boring; he visits old colleagues and acquaintances, pays a belated visit to his family, starts an affair with a single mother, and spends most of his time in disgruntled thought about the unfairness of his imprisonment. There are some encounters with his lawyer and the judge. The tango number is played again in the cabaret bar (without Dallow this time) by the same students as an ironic joke, and Dallow is followed by two Stasi agents whose purpose is to “rehabilitate” him and to entice him to return to the university and re-enter socialist society. Dallow has enough savings to avoid work during the seven months, but the judge finally orders him to obtain work. After Dallow's failed attempts to get a job as a truck driver, a bartender friend finds him a job on a resort island as a waiter. There, he occupies himself by sleeping with vacationing young girls, avoiding political involvement, and continuing his withdrawal, until the events of the Prague Spring provide him with the opportunity to return to Leipzig.

As usual, Hein does not pretend to be more clever than his readers and does not directly attempt to establish Dallow as a representative of society around 1968. His writing thus causes “reader insecurity” which leads to a “heightened tension.”2 Unlike in The Distant Lover, Hein does not employ a first-person narrative and hence creates more distance between the reader and the main character. Familiar short sentences like those seen in the The Distant Lover create a neutral zone, and then the narrative switches to long, introspective sentences when Dallow's reflections about his innocence and his future are related—a thought process which reveals his guilt for not assuming responsibility for his actions or for his life. Consistent with Hein's objective use of language, interpretive adjectives are seldom used; there is seldom a change of perspective and a “minimum of ironic fracture.”3 His dramatist touch with language and dialogue readily lent the text to a screen adaptation by Roland Gräf later in 1989, the first DEFA film produced after the opening of the Wall and one of the last major films produced in the GDR before unification.4

When Sara Bershtel moved over to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1990, she took the rights to Hein's works other than The Distant Lover along with her. Plans were in the works to translate Horns Ende, but little progress was made, possibly due to less-than-expected sales of The Distant Lover. When The Tango Player appeared, a decision was made to proceed with it first. The translation by Philip Boehm is a marked improvement, but it still fails to replicate much of the essence of Hein's precise descriptions of humdrum every day existence, or his use of dialogue to define his characters' mentality in a nutshell. The translation doesn't provide the reader with the intermittent sardonic chuckle that Hein's blend of ironic humor with banal reality produces. The severity of this short-coming may, however, depend on the reader's lack of common cultural reference points regarding life in East Germany and an unfamiliarity with the kind of creative, ironic-bitter wit which ordinary East German people added to their everyday language to buffer themselves against the world around them. Few in the United States have ever lived behind the iron curtain, and any translator is faced with difficult barriers when attempting to find common parallels in linguistic expression—especially one who has not spent time in the GDR as more than a hostile tourist. To his credit, Boehm at least tries to avoid finding common American cultural equivalents as reference points: they seldom exist.


When Dallow gets out of prison, he finds that things have changed: “Wir sind ein Stück weiter gekommen” (we have made a little progress) is a phrase used as a leitmotiv throughout the novel. Dallow hears these words several times in conjunction with the news that he would not be sent to jail for playing the tango nowadays. Under the new constitution, enacted in 1968, it would be a simple misdemeanor.

This change adds insult to injury for Dallow, causing him to act defiantly towards the system which ostensibly attempts to rehabilitate and reintegrate him. By the time of the publication of the novel in 1989, a large segment of GDR society had resigned itself to the situation, looking upon the aging members of the government with disgust and ridicule. East German readers would have reacted positively if Dallow had at least had the fortitude to stand with the other members of the student cabaret group, if he had at least bothered to pay attention to the text and therefore had been “unjustly” imprisoned for having knowingly participated in the caricature of Ulbricht. The fact that he continues to maintain his innocence (by reason of ignorance) makes his situation ludicrous and demonstrates that he has no backbone. His persistent resistance to being reintegrated does offer some hope, however.

When Dallow gets out of prison he returns to his apartment in Leipzig, cleans it up, gets resituated as quickly as possible, and establishes a routine. His previous girlfriend has left the apartment quite some time ago, and she never appears in the story. He checks out his car, fills up the battery, and hooks it up to a charger. He speaks to his car, “I missed you, you and the ladies” (Ta 12).

After cleaning up, he goes into town for a walk to see what had changed, to check out his old haunts. Even by GDR standards, Leipzig itself was not a very typical large city even though it boasted over 600,000 inhabitants. A source of constant irritation for the Leipzig inhabitants was the preferential treatment given to Berlin for scarce building and renovation funds. The fact that Leipzig was left in a state of dilapidation throughout the existence of the GDR fueled old antagonism between the Saxons (Leipzig) and the Prussians in Berlin, a city which was rebuilt as a “showcase” to the West. Leipzig's town center was shut off to traffic, a situation that generated an atmosphere more of a small town than of a big city. It was not unusual to bump into friends and acquaintances in the city center in spite of the size of the population.

In a café bar, he discovers his former defense lawyer sitting at a table with the judge who had sentenced him, Dr. Berger. That the judge, the ex-prisoner, and his lawyer all patronize the same bar underscores the provinciality of the city—a resistance to change and a small-town sense of boredom. Dallow shakes hands with the attorney and reminds the judge that he had sentenced him to twenty-one months in prison. The judge tells him that he is welcome to make an appointment if he has any questions or complaints, but Dallow says he was just saying hello to his lawyer, Kiewer.

Observing Dallow still taking his first gingerly steps after his release from prison, the reader is expecting substantive encounters and significant actions by the character. Dallow goes up to the bar and asks for his friend Harry, the head waiter, who is not scheduled to work until later that evening. Dallow has a conversation with the barmaid, who doesn't find him very pleasant. Some men next to him are discussing Dubcek and the situation in Prague. This annoys Dallow—they are speaking so loudly that it disturbs his concentration on the breasts of the barmaid. This minor glimpse into the workings of Dallow's mind defines the characteristics of his non-political personality and exposes his sense of priorities, personal self-gratification being at or near the top. Hein juxtaposes Dallow's particular chauvinistic and degrading attitude towards sex and his political disinterest from the outset of the narrative.

When Harry shows up, the conversation of the two men centers around small talk and women. They joke about the barmaid. Maybe she's the type for Dallow. Nothing of substance comes up, in spite of their not having seen each other for almost two years—not even any description of life in prison. Dallow hangs around the bar until midnight, drinking and looking over the women. He can't help but think to himself how harmless looking and suburban the judge, who is having a bit too much to drink, appears. He now makes a different impression on Dallow than he had wearing his formidable robes at the hearings. The reader begins to sense banality but, is, at the same time, willing to allow Dallow some time to get his bearings.

The next day, Dallow tries to sort things out during a walk outside of town. He finds that the only conclusion which presents itself is for him to cease thinking about what happened—a narrative construction of anti-identity, on Hein's part. He realizes that he has no desire to speak about it with anyone: “He wanted to wipe the time out of his memory in order to free himself of it” (Ta 21). It was incomprehensible to him that the imprisonment could have been a punishment; for him, it was an unjust theft of his time and a personal insult. He is happy that his car motor still runs without missing a beat, and he (ominously) resolves that the machine can be an example to him for how to continue with his life.

That night, he goes to a different bar and picks up a young woman. She has to move her small child into the hallway—she doesn't want it sleeping in the kitchen because of the gas stove—so they can use the bedroom. Although there is no description, the GDR reader would know that her apartment would have been crowded and small; she would have been assigned space which included a hallway, a narrow bathroom, a small kitchenette, and a bedroom/living room.

Dallow is noncommittal about whether he will return. She tells him there is a key on the kitchen table. If he plans to come back, he can take the key along; otherwise, he should toss it through the mail slot after locking up on his way out. From a telegram delivered to her that morning, he learns that her name is Elke Schütte. He is amused that the telegram is from a male friend. He changes his mind and leaves her a note with his name and phone number, writing that he will drop by in a few days. He keeps the key and, since he doesn't come back for a long time, for Dallow Elke is not much more than a woman in reserve, a potential piece of the routine he has begun to re-construct for himself—an “object” to fall back on in the event someone else doesn't pan out. Since Elke stands apart in the novel from the one-night-stand ladies (mentioned with no description or names), she represents both a failed opportunity for love—and meaning—and a yardstick by which Dallow's human worth can be measured.

In some respects, Dallow has emerged from an incubation period—a Rip Van Winkle theme commonly used in European literature. Poor Rip, of course, is estranged and disoriented by the changes he perceives. In Max Frisch's novel Stiller (1954),5 the main character retells the legend of Rip Van Winkle as part of his struggle to create a new identity for himself. His denial of the old identity ultimately is overpowered by the forces of society. Dallow is exactly the converse of Stiller: although presented with the opportunity to establish a new identity, he struggles to get back inside the skin of his old identity.

He decides to try out his phone and unconsciously calls up his old work number in the history institute, where his former rival, Jürgen Roessler, answers. They agree to meet, an idea which amuses Dallow, since he thinks it will make Roessler, whose career moved forward when Dallow was arrested, uncomfortable. The phone rings, and a man who identifies himself as Schulze asks him to come to the district court for a meeting at 2:00 p.m. It could be a full day for Dallow.

He encounters Sylvia at the institute, a former student who has become an assistant professor. Instead of congratulating her, he reminds her of a pajama party he was supposed to attend at her house the night of his arrest and alludes to sexual activity with her. She discounts any importance in what he says and claims, prophetically, that he just seems to want to return to the way things were. Hein leaves the impression that the content of Dallow's identity was and is to be a womanizer (he missed his car and the ladies) and that his profession as a historian has been more or less inconsequential to him. Dallow then listens for a few moments through the door to Sylvia's lecture and to the student discussion and recalls how tiresome it was to teach, underscoring his alienation from his profession, from the importance of history and passing it on to the next generation. Dallow is much different from any of the historians of Horns Ende; even Kruschkatz has at least wrestled with the importance of social historicism. For Dallow, a scant decade later, history has no intrinsic or social significance; it simply provides the means for his career. The “little progress” takes on an ironic characteristic.

Outside Sylvia's lecture hall, he recalls having suffered through listening to nonsense from the students, “nodding approvingly or rolling his eyes” (Ta 32). He remembers the “contempt he felt when he gave praise, acknowledged an achievement with goodwill or respectfully accepted a week-long effort by a student to finish a paper. And the same repeated student questions every year about all the possible riddles of the world, naive, cute little questions, each sentence a testimonial, statements of belief and hope not yet damaged, awaiting fundamental, all-encompassing explanations” (Ta 32).

He found that his answers had to be devoid of sarcastic comments, and “the corners of his mouth hurt from forming smiles which glossed over everything” (Ta 32). It was nothing more than a question of discipline for Dallow to maintain his posture over the years, to meet the necessity of such “stupidity” by pretending that their questions and his answers were meaningful. The cynical attitude expressed by Dallow's not-too-subtle choice of words regarding his pseudo-professional life as a teacher is highly reminiscent of Claudia's non-committal and routine job performance as a doctor and healer. Both occupations suggest the need for dedication due to the important role in society which they represent. If teachers (historians) and healers perform their tasks with only mechanical routine, serious problems exist within the structures of the society which they impact and from which they originate.

Dallow could not have taught at the university without having joined the party—which he clearly would have done as an act of pretension, without conviction. He would have been required to reiterate the party line. History is not important to him, but he is a professor of history. History, too, is nothing but a formality for Dallow. If we recall Horn's thoughts, humanity ceases to exist when history is wiped out. Hein's choice of profession for Dallow is integral to the “social autobiography” he constructs in The Tango Player to reflect society's widespread degeneration into apathy. “The legitimate child of dictatorship,” as Barbara Sichtermann wrote in her review of The Tango Player, “is apathy.”6

Roessler is now head of the history section, aware that this is a job to which Dallow would have been promoted before his transgression in the student cabaret. At stake is Dallow's future, now that it has been altered by the fact of his imprisonment. Roessler advises him to forget what happened: times have changed, “we have progressed a little” (Ta 36–37) since then. Nowadays he would receive a mild reprimand, nothing more. The best thing for him to do is to start over and to orient himself towards the future.

“The word future frightened him” (Ta 37). Dallow cannot conceptualize what it means for him. For him, the “future was a large, white, frightening piece of paper” (Ta 37). It would help him to think clearly if he were only capable of drawing just a couple of lines on this paper. He doesn't understand why this word future renders his brain lame. The future seems to Dallow to be a linear continuation of the past and the present. Just as Roessler sat on the chair in his office, Dallow can go on doing that day after day, and his future will be secure. Dallow's past was the prison cell, not so comfortable as the office, but nevertheless he discovers that his release from prison was actually an interruption of the linear quality of his future and his security. Dallow is trapped between future anxiety and a return to “normalcy.”

The meeting comes to an awkward and unresolved end. Dallow leaves, flirting with the secretary a bit, and then heads to the district court building to see what Schulze wants. As he approaches the building, two men appear behind him and introduce themselves as Schulze and Müller. These names have a comical ring. On stage, they would probably be shown not to be threatening evildoers from the all-powerful secret police but slightly inept, albeit dutiful, bureaucrats doggedly pursuing their quarry. Evidently they have been following him, although Dallow isn't sure from which direction they came. The word Stasi is never used in the book, but it is clear from the beginning that Schulze and Müller hail from the secret police. They have come to help with his rehabilitation, as the new constitutional laws had provided. Thematically for Dallow's important day, they will attempt to find solutions for his dilemma as Roessler has done.

Schulze and Müller also engage in “soft terror” to counterbalance the rehabilitation effort by playing mind games with Dallow. One asks the other if he locked the door to the office, and the other answers, “Of course not. What gives you such an idea?” (Ta 45). Dallow recalls that one of the men had stood at the door for a while after they entered the room, and he wonders whether the door is locked or not. He asks if he can leave, and the reply is yes, of course, any time—they just would like to chat with him.

The chat eventually gets around to Dallow's plans for the future, and he answers the same as he had with Roessler. He didn't have time to think about it in prison. They wonder how he had spent his time in prison. He invents a story, telling them he wrote a novel there. He says on the last day before his release, the authorities took his manuscript and tore it up. Schulze and Müller know that none of this is true. They wonder if Dallow isn't interested in going back to work, and they tell him they can help him. Dallow asks them why they want to help him. They reply, “Because we are convinced that your sentence was a silly mistake. Today that wouldn't happen. We have made a little progress” (Ta 50). Dallow wonders if they can give him the two years of his life back, and then he gets up and leaves. …


Eventually, Dallow receives a letter from his mother wondering, as he then does himself, why he hasn't called or visited since his release from prison. He sends her a telegram saying he would come for a visit. It appears that Dallow has been avoiding visiting his parents as part of his overall reluctance to put himself in a situation where he would have to explain his recent past: why he was put in prison and what it was like to have been there. Dallow begins to think about his situation some more and realizes how much he dislikes coping with problems, especially when these problems include the painstaking need to find appropriate words to express excuses or reasons for his actions or behavior.

In prison he never had appointments, duties, or meetings. He now realizes “that he must learn how to live outside the cell” (Ta 58). For him, this task means that he has to reshape his attitude, but it also seems to mean only that he has to find new forms for the expression of the inconsequentialities of life which make up its routine. “The cell, he concluded, had been a familiar environment, a home in which he was safe and secure, and freedom, so desired and longed for as it had been, had become alien and eery” (Ta 58). Dallow realizes that he has now been busily constructing a new cell for himself, shut off from the outside, a place where he need not receive guests, need not answer any questions about his time in prison, need not tell anybody about it. Prison will always carry a social taint, no matter how sympathetic some of his friends and acquaintances may feel about it. An interpretation which suggests itself is that his reluctance to speak about prison is not associated with the social taint, but with the feeling of child-like security he has about it, a feeling he might understandably be unwilling to disclose.

At the same time, it is easy for the reader to think that the cell is a microcosmic description of the condition of life in the GDR—which left its citizens feeling locked in. Symptomatic of this feeling could be the emergence of a need to organize one's own life in accordance with the kind of consciousness which develops in individuals who are locked up. Long-term helplessness and dependency experienced within the confines of the cell could be metamorphosed internally into the supine comfort and security found in a life of subordination. Dallow leaves the reader with the impression that he is a typical case of such psychological self-manipulation and, for the East German reader in the late 1980s, having lived since 1961 in a “cell” defined by the country's borders, this impression was unsettlingly familiar.7

During the visit to his parents, Dallow experiences an evening of depression and confusion. He can't seem to get a sense of direction. He had thought that he would resume a life very similar to that before his imprisonment, that he could return to familiar relationships and structures, to old habits, to the security of an everyday routine. On the other hand, he keeps telling himself that this is a chance for a completely new beginning, a rare quirk of luck enabling him to start over altogether, a new direction which he only needed to recognize.

From this mid-point in the narrative, Hein seems to dangle the chance of a new beginning like a carrot on a stick in front of the reader, who hopes that Dallow can overcome his lethargy and do something sensible with his life. In prison he never had to think or act for himself; his daily routine was prescribed for him by others. His essential struggle now is to assume the responsibility for his own life and future. Any renunciation of this responsibility leaves him no alternative but to live in a cell, “not the cell in prison, from which he cannot extricate himself, but the one of his old, comfortable life story.”8


At home in the small village where his parents live, Dallow is obliged to recount to his father the events which caused him to be arrested, at last providing the reader with the details. He says that the students had assured him that the texts were approved by the authorities. During the interview with Kiewer, his lawyer, he had been shown the texts, which he claimed all along to have ignored, and had commented that the texts were miserable. His lawyer advised him to say that to the judge, but then Dallow, naive about the charges being leveled against him, explained that the problem with the texts was that they “were without wit, they were missing esprit and bite” (Ta 72). Because of this remark, Dallow's lawyer changed his mind and advised him to reply with only “yes” and “no” answers.

Nevertheless, Dallow had elaborated to the judge about how he had concentrated on trying to get the students to comprehend the least notion of musicality and rhythm, of which they seemed not to have much understanding. He still seems blithely unaware that his narrow, pedantic focus on the aesthetic quality of the music and lack of attention to the satirical content was self-incriminating. His father does not respond much to Dallow's description of the events and his continued claim of innocence. But for his father, it is too late for Dallow's innocence or guilt to make any difference: the family has been disgraced. Hein seems to imply here, as in other works, that both the older generation of the GDR founders and the younger generation born into socialism felt betrayed by each other.

At the local train station, Dallow places a long-distance call (there would not have been many private telephones in a small village) to his sister, and the railroad official (doubling as telephone operator) utters a statement which can be understood as paradigmatic for life in the GDR: “In my profession you always have one foot in prison. Forget to give the right signal and you're out of here” (Ta 79).

During an evening with his sister and her husband, who seem to be the only people in the story with whom Dallow has a genuinely relaxed relationship, they drink and joke into the night about the tango. He should have used a bandoneon to play it, not a piano. That's probably what the judge objected to, the brother-in-law jokes. According to his brother-in-law, “You can read in the statistics that each one of these old, sad tangos has more suicides on its conscience than all the virgins made into whores in the entire country” (Ta 84). He goes on to tell about when he drove an ambulance, a precarious job: they would be fined if they drove too fast, and the patient would die if they drove too slowly. This left them with “one foot in prison.” Dallow says he has heard this before: “it appears that the entire country has one foot in prison. Except of course the prisoners and the guards” (Ta 84).

The ambulance (rescue) team hated the tangos. The brother-in-law figured they should just drive up and down the streets on Sunday afternoons and break down the doors wherever they heard one of these old, sad tangos being played. Maybe they could still rescue someone from a noose before the person expired. But their boss insisted they would just be interfering with some couple in the act of conceiving a new human being. Discrediting oneself (as Dallow had done) could result in depression and, as we have seen, loss of employment, imprisonment. A silly mistake and the choice was suicide or one of the above. The best choice would be the conception of a new human being. Make love, not rebellion, they conclude.

The word-plays on “tangos” can be understood as political satire on all the old, sad figures in the political leadership from mid-level on up, not just Ulbricht, whose era was nearing the end. It was a popular way of joking that was widespread in private parties with friends, but certainly not much appreciated by those who were the butt of the jokes, as Dallow well knew. More directly, “tangos” constitute a dissident activity, from which one needed to be “rescued.” Of course, if everyone “has one foot in prison,” then everyone lives with an Orwellian fear of being caught with a dissident attitude. Even if one is not a dissident (like Dallow!), the danger is not diminished. There's some hope evident in these passages that Dallow can shake himself loose from his brooding about the imprisonment, but on his way back to Leipzig the next day, he gradually feels relieved to get away from his parents, the village, and his family, happy to return to the city.

Dallow decides at last to drop in on Elke again. This time, the two get to know each other a little better. Dallow's primary interest is still to sleep with her without feeling committed. She begins to realize that he probably wishes to live his entire life with no commitments or obligations, and he confirms her suspicions by telling her about his profession. Dallow tells her that his job consists mainly of an anecdotal form of historization describing how illegal social-democratical newspapers of a hundred years ago were printed and distributed, how workers and craftsmen bravely attempted to defend and define class conflict. Dallow's failure to take history seriously in his conversation with Elke continues to call his character into question and, at the same time, exposes the shallowness of force-fed, dogmatic versions of history, to which he passively and cynically allows himself to ascribe.

Elke had gotten a divorce two years earlier, having grown tired of supporting her husband. She is uneasy about Dallow's obvious lack of interest in going back to work. Elke is perhaps typical of thousands of female single parents in the former GDR, struggling to make ends meet, living in a tiny apartment, working and taking care of a small child. The right to work for everyone, coupled with the tacit demand on the part of the state that everyone work, including women, created an economic independence for women unmatched in other modern industrial societies. In addition, the state paid for day-care centers to make it possible for women to work, provided an extra monthly subsidy for each child, and supported a liberal abortion law. Many couples actually married early in their lives order to gain access to a decent apartment. All this led to the tiny GDR's having the world's highest divorce rate for a period of time—a situation exacerbated by the resistance of the men to adapt to the principles of equality inherent in these new socio-economic structures. The man generally left most of the housework, cooking, and child care to the woman anyway, even though she worked the same hours on a job as he did. Since Elke had divorced her husband to establish her independence, the reader tends to wonder exactly why she puts up with the likes of Dallow, who never helps her with the chores; perhaps she is drawn to him only because of the extreme physical passion with which they make love. However, Hein makes no effort to explore the character of Elke in depth; the focus is more on the fact that Dallow is content to regard her merely as an object of his sexual desires.

When he gets up the next day, he reads disinterestedly in the paper that the country has passed the new constitution—the draft of which, he recalls, had led to sarcastic comments by his fellow prisoners when they first saw it. The early draft was circulated throughout the country, apparently even to prisoners. He also notices two short articles about Prague and Warsaw (Poland was also experiencing considerable unrest), but is unable to discern what it is all about. The editors seem to manifest a deep concern about the monumental events taking place in those cities. The key word is “disinterestedly.” History is poised to intrude in Dallow's life in the form of the Prague Spring, and it has already done so subtly in the form of the new constitution, but he fails to acknowledge or realize its significance. When pressed to do so, he will simply say that he is just a piano player, not an historian. He accompanies whatever song is being sung; the content is unimportant.

Dallow has gained a freedom that he is incapable of exploiting and which he can hardly bear, an experience that surprises and depresses him, for he now knows “that all the tracks for his life had been laid, by himself or by someone else, and that he could now only proceed along the prescribed path to the end, unable to change anything” (Ta 110). Prison had only been an accidental interruption of his journey along this path; it has not changed anything, it was just a trivial error by both the judge and himself. He had “taken a few punches,” according to Friedrich Dieckmann, and would now just “crawl wordlessly back into himself … into the emptiness of lost identity.”9

Present circumstances might offer Dallow the one chance to break free of the tracks, but “he now suspected that he would not understand how to take advantage of the opportunity” (Ta 110). It had all been in vain: “Like a little toy electric train he had been lifted off the uniform, monotonous tracks and now he would be capable of nothing other than making the effort required to place the wheels of this little toy train back onto the old tracks without further bumps and disturbances, fitting as best as possible, so the toy train could resume chugging imperturbably along the infinite loop” (Ta 110).

Dallow thinks about looking for work the next day, and then he thinks about sleeping with Elke. He would go back to see her and then, sometime soon, the decision about this relationship would be made for him as well. He would simply keep on seeing her because he saw her the day before, or two days before. Dallow goes to bed and pulls the covers over his shoulders and thinks to himself: “The toy train locomotive, the little model train with the name Hans-Peter Dallow, would run interminably straight ahead and yet always in a circle” (Ta 111). With a sneering, self-mocking smile, Dallow falls asleep.

The next evening is not much better for Dallow as he proceeds more rapidly into his impending crisis. He begins to be tortured by a feeling of homesickness. He is homesick for his cell. He misses the special sheltered security, the totality of provisions, the completely regulated life. He never had to make decisions in the cell. Not having to make decisions was a deliverance. “And now he missed the pre-ordained daily routine and the directions, he missed the thoughtless and decisionless mundane existence” (Ta 115). He admits to himself that he never really left the cell: “I, too, obviously still have one foot in it” (Ta 115).


Dallow really does begin a job search. He has made up his mind to work as a truck driver. But as soon as prospective employers learn that he is an intellectual, they tell him the advertized position has been filled. They don't need historians from the university working in the transport of goods. They show little concern about his prison record, but they are unwilling to facilitate the integration of intellectuals and workers—a symbolic rejection of fundamental communist principles by the proletariat itself, and a realistic reflection of unchanged and unchanging attitudes, especially the working class's traditional mistrust of intellectuals. After a month-long, fairly intensive search, Dallow becomes discouraged and gives it up. He wonders if Schulze and Müller have had anything to do with the situation, especially towards the end when the rejections come much more quickly.

Dallow pays another visit to the bar where his friend Harry works and again bumps into the judge and the lawyer. This time, the judge approaches him and mentions what an amusing evening they have just enjoyed. Dallow, who is drunk, fails to understand what the judge is talking about. The judge proceeds to point out that Dallow not only was in the wrong at the time of the original incident, but that he is still wrong to maintain his innocence. The law is a dynamic entity, according to Dr. Berger, and just because it has changed doesn't mean that a previous injustice can be rectified. Everything is in a state of flux, and the amusing evening has merely demonstrated that it's a different year now; the river keeps flowing.

It turns out that the old student group has reconvened and performed their old tango number again. To be audacious, they invited the judge and the lawyer to the performance, and both claim jovially that they enjoyed the show immensely: “It showed us that we have made a little progress” (Ta 134), says Dallow's former lawyer—who, by the way, never appears in the story except in the company of the trial judge. When Dallow protests that he didn't know anything about it, Kiewer shows him the letter of invitation. It turns out that Dallow's name is missing among the signatures, which include those of his former fellow inmates. Dallow blows up and insists that this proves his innocence: he was only the tango player. And now he had not even been invited to the show. The lawyer explains that it would be senseless at this point in time to dredge up the old trial records in order to conduct a new hearing to clear his name. Dallow is enraged and the lawyer leaves, disgusted at Dallow's drunkenness.

Dallow proceeds to look up the leader of the student group, Ulrich Klufmann, now living in one of the many old, condemned buildings in the city of Leipzig. Klufmann is in good spirits, living with a young woman and earning his living as a writer of cabaret texts. Klufmann, of course, had simply forgotten to send Dallow any tickets; since he had just been a fill-in that evening, the ticket had probably gone to the regular piano player. The two characters present a contrast, especially in Dallow's mind, as he realizes that Klufmann has adjusted to his life and will not be brooding and wrestling with the problem at all. This is a bitter pill for Dallow to swallow, inasmuch as he views this circumstance as ironic and unfair: the guilty party living free and easy, enjoying the fulfillment of his sexual fantasies (an important value in Dallow's warped sense of priorities) and unconcerned about the past, while Dallow, innocent and unjustly imprisoned, continues to suffer and cannot get his life back into order. Events quickly begin to overtake Dallow, and the course of his life is accelerated by external circumstances. Schulze and Müller wake him up again and begin to insist that he find work. They explain his difficulty at finding a job as a truck driver quite logically by reasoning that those companies didn't want any trouble. Hiring an overqualified Ph.D. in history would reek with trouble for them. The factories had experience with such types: either they dump the job after a short period of time, or they want to lead discussions instead of working. And who needs this kind of trouble, they argue.

Schulze and Müller bring considerable pressure to bear on Dallow for his unwillingness to work in a “Worker's Country.” Not only does everyone have the right to work, but each citizen has a duty to work as well. It's not really a private matter, they inform him. They have names for people like Dallow, people who violate moral codes and social standards. As Dallow himself answers, the names are arbeitsscheu (“Shirkers”) and asozial (“asocials”). The word asozial was often shorten to asi (pronounced “ah zee”) and would have included a fairly substantial number of counter-culture types, such as Klufmann, as well as people who didn't want to work or to participate in society, be they social or political dropouts.

Schulze and Müller insist that historians are needed and that Dallow could be particularly useful because of his knowledge of Czech and Slovakian history. This he denies, claiming that he is only knowledgeable in the nineteenth century. “The present has never interested me” (Ta 151), he asserts—an additional, rather incriminating bit of unwitting self-irony in this case. At the same time, his self defense as “only the tango player” and his lack of interest in participating in discussions about Prague reveal the truth of his statement. It can also be understood as a commentary on the contradiction of the life led by someone who professes to be a historian but who has no perception of relevant historical or associative connections between the past and the present. The kind of historian Schulze and Müller say the country needs.

A few days later, Dallow again encounters the judge at the café bar. This time, he follows him home late at night and accosts him in a park. Dallow seems to be out of control; he insists on knowing why the judge condemned him “in the name of the people” (Ta 154) instead of in his own name, or in the name of the law, or in the name of the state. He finds his fingers squeezing tightly around Dr. Berger's throat. Confused by the judge's rising panic and fear, he lets Berger go. Surprisingly, he is not arrested for this incident (a little progress?), but it will have a significant impact on his future.

The next few weeks find him more or less mentally paralyzed. He finds it difficult to get out of bed. He rarely gets up before noon. He can't sleep or read, and he is unable to concentrate on any subject. He thinks he should let himself fall in love with Elke; perhaps that would be a way out, a sensible way out. The excess of free time is crippling him: “He was afraid that he would just one day dissolve. Finally he was driven out of his bed by a sudden fear of death which caused him to break into a cold sweat” (Ta 157).

Soon afterwards, he goes to a party with Elke, a party buzzing with animated discussions about Prague. It was the end of May, and Soviet military leaders had met with Dubcek, an event which led to intensified speculation about military intervention although such was denied heatedly in the Soviet press. One of the men asks Dallow his opinion about Dubcek's chances for political survival. “I haven't the least idea,” responds Dallow, “and it doesn't interest me at all” (Ta 158). The people listening are dumbfounded by his answer. “If that is true, then you are the only human being in the entire country who is not pre-occupied by the events in Prague” (Ta 158–59). A girl says that he at least has to be interested as a historian. Dallow corrects her politely, stating that he is a pianist by profession, a tango player. But he has given this job up as well. Referring back to the sarcastic lie he had told earlier, he says that now he is writing a novel: “The hero is an idiot. And he gets what he deserves in the end. That's about it” (Ta 161). The self-fulfilling prophecy of these words, lost on Dallow, will become evident to the reader at the end of the story. Dallow seems to be attempting to fictionalize his life, to avoid reality, to withdraw from any accountability, to become a character in a book dependent only upon the whims of the author instead of taking some action to determine his own fate. However, Elke is not amused with Dallow's way of impetuously trivializing serious or important issues and asks him to not come by again until he has gotten over his personal problems.

The next day, Dallow meets with Roessler in the history department, and Roessler informs him that they were thinking about reinstating him. Dallow retorts that he is unwilling to forgive and forget and therefore has no interest in returning. Roessler admonishes him to forget the past “idiocies” which led to his arrest and to accept an advanced assistant professor position, one which could lead to a promotion in four or five years. Dallow isn't interested, but Roessler gives him until 15 June to answer anyway.

“Life has given me another chance and I want to take advantage of it” (Ta 165). With this statement Dallow again appears to be ready to take some concrete action, to intervene himself in his own fate, to determine his own future after all. Roessler mentions that the offer wasn't actually his idea, and Dallow surmises that the idea came from Müller and Schulze. However, Roessler says that Dr. Berger had called him with the suggestion.

Dallow discovers a letter from Dr. Berger in his mailbox, in which Berger requests his presence for a meeting in his office. Juxtaposed between the letter and the meeting is a reference to Dallow's reading the newspaper, which is dominated by reports on Prague. The newspaper reports accuse the Western press of inciting war fever by claiming that the Warsaw Pact countries were planning an invasion of Czechoslovakia. This contention was an evil invention equated with “gangster methods and the propaganda of a Josef Goebbels” (Ta 171). Dallow has a cup of coffee and listens to a program on a Western radio station which also included commentary about the crisis in Czechoslovakia and the threat of invasion. Dallow is bored with it all and changes channels until he can find some music.

The judge delivers Dallow an ultimatum: he is to call in within three days to report his place of work. He is left to believe that failure to do so will result in serious consequences. In a key moment in the novel, Dallow does not stand up to the judge. He says the incident in the park was a misunderstanding. His tone is apologetic, self-degrading, helpless. Somewhat desperate, Dallow stumbles around from place to place. His neighbor advises him to return to the university, but Dallow believes, prophetically, that this would “be tantamount to underwriting his condemnation” (Ta 177). Elke is not home, but Harry promises to see what he can do. The next day, he calls to tell Dallow he has arranged a job for him as a seasonal waiter on the resort island of Hiddensee, a popular summer vacation spot for East Germans in the Baltic Sea. Dallow is so pleased that he opens the piano cover and is barely able to suppress the urge to play. Elke, always the voice of social morality, regards this choice as a cop-out, another refuge to hide in, and repeats that she doesn't want to see him again until he clears up his problems.


Hiddensee is a narrow strip of an island, covered with bluish-hued heather, sandy beaches and a handful of houses and bungalows. Automobiles are not permitted, and the only way to get around is by bicycle or on foot. The atmosphere can have a liberating effect; time seems to stand still and, consequently, there is time for someone like Dallow to be introspective and to figure out what to do. However, Dallow's first actions consist of his taking the steps necessary to establish a comfortable and innocuous routine for himself. With the scarce housing and difficulty in obtaining quarters on the island, many day visitors try to find overnight accommodations before the last ferry returns to the mainland, about 8:00 p.m. Dallow exploits this situation to his advantage after allowing a young female student to stay in his room. Soon, he has a female in his room almost every night and, on one occasion, even two of them. Sometimes girls visiting the island look him up, having been told they could sleep there. Once again, he retreats into a cycle of daily banality and sexual gratification without love.

Dallow is still working on the resort island Hiddensee toward the end of August, when the Warsaw Pact troops invade Czechoslovakia, triggering impassioned discussions even on the island. He is together with a young, somewhat plump female student when the reports came in over the radio in the morning. She listens to the reports, stunned. A reporter reads a release from TASS, and Dallow turns off the radio. The girl asks him to turn it back on, and again she listens in horror. Dallow tries to caress her and is surprised to notice that her eyes are filled with tears. At first, Dallow is amused at the girl's crying about the radio reports, which are GDR reports, not Western radio reports. Dallow becomes aroused by observing the girl's emotional reaction to the news and picks her up and takes her to the bed. She makes no effort to resist and just lies there. On the bed, “he made love to her while the radio announcer read a second, heroic-sounding communiqué” (Ta 199). This episode creates an association between the girl and Czechoslovakia as victims of statutory rape, a familiar topos in Hein's works.

The girl asks him to say something about the reports, but he just shrugs his shoulders and asks her what she wants for breakfast. She is incredulous that such an event could leave him so cold. But Dallow says he is just a waiter. She objects: “You are a living human being, you are …” (Ta 199), but he interrupts to joke that he also used to be a tango player but that was a long time ago. Dallow accompanies her to the ferry. She is anxious to get back to friends in Berlin, and he, for his part, wistfully rues not having another opportunity to sleep with her, just when she was becoming interesting to him.

By 1968, the socialist movement in the Soviet Bloc countries had gone through a building period of over twenty years. Indeed, it had “made a little progress” over that period of time. That little progress came crashing down abruptly in August in Prague, and Dallow's stolid insensitivity to those monumental events left East German readers, good socialists and dissidents alike, recoiling incredulously at his behavior. No passage in The Tango Player could have been more disturbing to East Germans who still remembered the Prague Spring than this one about Dallow's insensitive and perverse sexual arousal during the major historical event which signaled the last hope for a socialist alternative form of society. To put this notion in perspective, imagine a story relating an American behaving as Dallow did on Hiddensee during the reports of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

The “unheard of event” in this story, however, takes place about ten days later, on 3 September, when the department secretary calls to hint about some changes and Sylvia takes the phone to ask him to find her quarters for the next day, a bed where she can sleep, not in Dallow's room. Sylvia arrives and asks him if he would be prepared to return to the department with a promotion to Dozent. It would be best if he could begin the very next day in Leipzig.

It seems that Roessler had experienced a bit of misfortune. He had a class at 7:00 a.m. on the day of the invasion of Prague. The students were stirred up and deluged him with questions about the events of the night. Unsuspecting, Roessler asked them what the source of their reports was. Since they all said that their information came from Western radio reports, Roessler stated that “the reports about an invasion of Prague were nothing more than a renewed provocation from the West, categorically rejected the notion of military intervention in allied Czechoslovakia and referred to earlier newspaper reports and commentary by government and party officials” (Ta 202). These were the reports which had accused the West of Goebbels-style propaganda. Moreover, Roessler adamantly rejected reports that GDR troops could have been involved as well—a particularly distasteful and outrageous thought, since German soldiers could never take part in an invasion of Prague for reasons of historical and political culpability. After class, a student brought him a daily newspaper which contained a TASS report verifying the opposite. Six hours later, Roessler was suspended from his duties.

Dallow learns that Roessler has been demoted to assistant (the job he had offered to Dallow) and will not be allowed to teach classes (he is not imprisoned; a little progress has been made). He tells Sylvia he wants to think it over, but he already knows what his decision will be. The next morning he quits his job and drives back to Leipzig. Home, Dallow takes a bath, turns on the TV, leaving the sound off, and sits down at the piano with a bottle of vodka. As he plays the Chopin pieces he knows, he watches the silent pictures in his TV, a GDR program showing soldiers being hailed by the people. Women with small children throw flowers to the soldiers sitting on their tanks. Other shots show Prague citizens in friendly conversation with soldiers. Dallow drinks the whole bottle and, before going to bed, sets the alarm so he will arrive punctually at the institute the next morning.

Thus ends the story of Dallow. He never was capable of any degree of self-realization. In the end, he accepts the offer, the same offer made by the Stasi and by the judge, sealing his fate forever. The ironical implication of Hein's story consists in the tacit exposure of the subtle and sophisticated educational system designed to keep citizens in a state of tutelage (unmündig) in the GDR, a system so advanced that GDR citizens like Dallow would choose this type of subjugation freely. Dallow was and is extremely uncomfortable when left to his own devises. Indeed, the tracks of his life have been pre-ordained, just as if he were a little toy train. His last chance to declare himself independent never gets off the ground. Briefly awakened from the darkness of the anesthesia which supplemented his tutelage, Dallow fights it off, and the only independent action he ever takes is to regain the security of his condition of tutelage. With that, he makes the transition from the compulsory tutelage of a model pupil to the self-imposed tutelage of an adult living in the “real-existing” socialism of the GDR. He is safe and sound back in a cell.


  1. See Karin Hirdina, “Das Normale der Provinz—Der Tangospieler,Chronist ohne Botschaft. Christoph Hein. Ein Arbeitsbuch. Materialien, Auskünfte, Bibliographie, ed. Klaus Hammer (Berlin: Aufbau, 1992) 147.

  2. Neva Slibar and Rosanda Volk, “‘Das Spiegelkabinett unseres Kopfes.’ Schreibverfahren und Bilderwelt bei Christoph Hein,” Text + Kritik 111, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Munich: Text + Kritik, 1991) 59.

  3. Hirdina 150.

  4. The film was reviewed in Der Spiegel 9 (1991): 264. It was praised for its accurate insight into GDR society and criticized for generating nostalgia.

  5. Hein was familiar with Max Frisch's works. Hein's “Achtung, Abgründe!”—presented 13 December 1989 in Düsseldorf in honor of Frisch as the recipient of the Heinrich Heine literary prize—was published in Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen.

  6. Barbara Sichtermann, “Weder Auβenseiter noch Pechvogel,” Christoph Hein. Texte, Daten, Bilder, ed. Lothar Baier (Frankfurt a.M.: Luchterhand, 1990) 165.

  7. Perhaps the inability to cope with freedom was even more disquieting after unification, inasmuch as many GDR citizens felt helpless in the face of the pressures and stress of a capitalist system in which no kindly dictator looked after them in exchange for loyalty or, at least, neutrality. Although The Tango Player was published before the Wall was opened, the impact of the “Dallow personality” is still widely felt in the eastern parts of Germany today.

  8. Friedrich Dieckmann, “Christoph Hein, Thomas Mann und der Tangospieler,” Chronist ohne Botschaft 155.

  9. Dieckmann 157.

Phillip McKnight (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10951

SOURCE: McKnight, Phillip. “The Absence of Malice: Das Napoleon-Spiel.” In Understanding Christoph Hein, edited by James Hardin, pp. 113–35. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, McKnight analyzes the character Wörle's explanations for how and why he plays games in Das Napoleon-Spiel.]

Das Napoleon-Spiel, 1993 (The Napoleon Game), Hein's most recent novel, appeared as a series in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the spring of 1993 before the book was released. While he was writing the novel, Hein's attention was diverted by the events of 1989 and especially by his own participation on the committee established to investigate police brutality in the GDR during the demonstrations of 7 and 9 October 1989. The following year, his work on Das Napoleon-Spiel was interrupted by two life-threatening brain operations and the ensuing long rehabilitation period, during which he was able to work only an hour or so each day. He had collapsed on stage during a cultural event as a result of hemorrhaging caused by a blood clot and probably owes his life to the fact that a neurosurgeon happened to be present in the audience and knew what to do while rushing him to the hospital.

In the broadest sense of the term, Das Napoleon-Spiel is an epistolary novel. It consists, however, of only two letters—each written by Friedel Wörle to his lawyer, Mr. Fiarthes. The first letter is written from his prison cell where he awaits his trial for the murder of one Bernhard Bagnall during a ride in the West Berlin subway through the East Berlin sector. The murder weapon is a billiard cue, and Wörle had carefully selected as his victim the most innocuous, neutral individual he could find. The second letter is written shortly after the trial and challenges Fiarthes to a new “game.”

Parts of Wörle's biography bear a loose relationship to Hein's. At war's end, Wörle's parents fled from the Eastern sectors of Germany which had been made a part of Poland. Due to his father's occupation, he was not permitted to study in East Germany, and he went to West Berlin in order to do so. Wörle, unlike Hein however, remains in the West, becomes a successful lawyer and politician, and indulges himself in games of power. Wörle's ultimate game, which he compares to Napoleon's decision to invade Moscow, is his cold-blooded murder of Bagnall and his successful defense of this murder as a blameless instance of manslaughter.

The rapid political changes, the radical changes in day-to-day living, the illness, and the long haggling over which publisher Hein was to work with after unification (Hein himself remained with Aufbau) all failed to take any of the specific edge off Das Napoleon-Spiel. Hein works with his main character from a greater distance than usual, albeit still employing first-person narrative. This is a somewhat perplexing book. Much more difficult to interpret than Hein's earlier prose, Das Napoleon-Spiel leaves the reader with the suspicion that he or she has read an allegorical novel or a parable or a book with undeciphered keys to real-life individuals. It is not likely that Hein had a specific individual in mind, but his experiences with the crassness, the cold, manipulative attitude, and the outright denial of moral responsibility by the once-powerful men interviewed by the committee investigating police brutality undoubtedly influenced his portrayal of Friedel Wörle. The epitome of a man without morals or compassion, Wörle is the most cynical of all characters Hein has ever created, and Hein is a master at portraying cynical characters. Most of his other figures, like Claudia or Kruschkatz, are somehow trapped by their cynicism—a bitterness that seems to have social and political causes—and they are as much the victims of the circumstances which led to their cynical behavior as they are perpetrators of inhumane deeds against the people around them and, even more, against themselves.


Wörle does not suffer from his cynicism. On the contrary, he thrives on it. It is the essence of his life, and he succeeds at everything he tries to accomplish. He is able to accomplish anything he wishes precisely because he has no moral qualms and because he defines his actions and his life as a game of billiards or pocket billiards, a hustle in which winning is vastly less important than the elements of the game itself—elements that include, above all, the cold, rational calculation of all the possible angles, variations, and reactions effected by other men's normal attitudes when they too are playing the game, men who may have almost as few scruples as Wörle himself. Napoleon would have been an equal, worthy opponent and is the game-master par excellence after which Wörle imagines himself to be molded.

Wörle is driven only by fear of boredom. Winning by itself, for the player, is a closure that can be fatal; it is the continuation of the game itself which keeps him alive, and the stakes and the difficulty of the lie and the stroke must constantly be increased. This boredom, the need to have a game without a predictable outcome, drives Wörle to kill a stranger whom he has determined to be an absolute neutral and then to defend himself by arguing that it was not murder or homicide but “compulsory homicide.” The German words are unerläβliche Tötung. Tötung is also used in the sense of “manslaughter” in German legal terminology, and the term unerläβliche Tötung (“compulsory homicide”) itself is a play on the phrases rechtmässige Tötung (“justifiable homicide”) and fahrlässige Tötung (“involuntary manslaughter”). This compulsory homicide, or obligatory manslaughter, is justified by Wörle in his exhaustive letter to his attorney, Mr. Fiarthes, which he writes in his cell while awaiting trial—a long, rambling, and numbing letter which takes up some 200 pages.


The very text itself is the most inaccessible of Hein's prose because Wörle is himself a lawyer, and the language he writes is an incredible mixture of a cynical panorama and an egocentric outlook on life, replete with legalese, bureaucratic formulations, and intentionally misleading statements, including long passages in parentheses. The language is often comparable to the euphemistic formulations which emit from official, military, and public life to circumscribe reality or to avoid the impact which more poignant and common descriptions of reality might have on ordinary people. Wörle uses language in the same way he practices billiards: the spin of each word, sentence, and phrase he uses is calculated to impact his colleague Fiarthes in a certain, predictable manner. Likewise, the spin placed on the language by Hein has an impact on the reader as well, a calculated impact which causes his or her disbelief to grow with the increasing realization of the potential for human atrocities contained in this man Wörle. He always calls his shots: he knows he is insulting Fiarthes's sense of decency and makes it apparent that this amuses him, as does his ready admission of the arrogance he takes from the knowledge that Fiarthes, as his attorney, cannot take action to expose his guilt or character on the basis of this letter but is sworn to defend him to the best of his ability and to the letter of the law.

Fiarthes becomes an inextricable part of the game and has no choice but to carom off of the edges with the spin given by Wörle. He is a passive figure in the novel. We never read a letter of his; we never see his actual reaction other than when Wörle himself refers to an expected reaction caused by the words in his letter. Wörle will run the billiard table before Fiarthes ever gets a chance, before anyone else will get a chance, and he will do it with the ball in an impossible lie.

Because of the language, the text is often tedious for the reader—even boring to the critic Volker Hage, for whom Hein's “hero speaks as if he were obligated to fill out an expense account report.”1 Fritz Rudolf Fries, on the other hand, himself a prominent writer in the former GDR and considerably better informed than Hage, finds the language to function like “flypaper, once you have touched it, you don't get loose so quickly.”2 The reader becomes part of the game, part of the parable being constructed by Hein.

Wörle opens his letter by expressing doubt that the truth will help his case. Society wants him to be convicted, but there has to be a proper defense as well, not so much a successful defense as one which satisfies both the law and the public. Wörle indicates that he had suggested that the defense be based on his legal inculpability due to his inability to recognize his deed as a criminal act or to acknowledge guilt. In his mind, the fact that this defense was rejected as absurd and cynical only served to confirm that he would “not be able to win the case with the truth” ([Das Napoleon-Spiel, hereafter cited as NS] 7).

Wörle is convinced that the behavior of the accused, including important non-verbal communication, will play the most prominent role. It had always been his experience as a lawyer that a common thief who provoked the judges with rude behavior had less of a chance of getting off with a light sentence than a charming and accommodating axe murderer: “In the bottom of his heart … the judge would rather free the courteous murderer and let the thief rot in jail” (NS 9). The accused is the main actor, and he has to take care not to be a ham. He cannot attempt to portray his situation as tragic; he must cause his audience to follow him against its will, just as Hein causes his readers, trapped on the flypaper, to reluctantly, and sometimes exasperatedly, follow Wörle's argument. Moreover, the public reaction to the case should not play a role since the judges cannot permit public opinion, itself driven by subjective feelings of revenge and pity, to influence their decisions, which must be—and appear to be—completely objective. Guilt and innocence are therefore subjugated to a legal game, to the manipulation of language according to established court procedures that themselves become more decisive than the facts. Hein calls merit into question. Image, show, and especially the mastery of timely manipulation with prudently loaded language render merit, real character, and truth into a secondary status.

Bernhard Bagnall, a clerk in a department store, lost his life on 21 June 1989 as a result of Wörle. But it is difficult to describe the motive, Wörle writes, choosing his formulation carefully: “it was neither murder nor homicide, but a killing, more precisely, a compulsory homicide” (NS 13)—something altogether different from murder. Bagnall died because Wörle had to protect himself from the experience of loathing and complacency. Implied is his right to “protect” himself and to always defend his self-interest, a principle which Western society holds sacred. Wörle is very much aware of this unspoken principle, and consequently, this really is the most correct answer he can give. He claims that he simply allowed himself to follow through with what most people probably feel like doing at one time or another anyway.


Wörle begins to mix the story of his life into his defense letter, including many details, as he explains, which may appear irrelevant on the surface but which are important in understanding why he killed Bagnall, whom he had never met. Wörle was born in August of 1932 in Stettin, and his father was the owner of a candy factory, Frieder Wörle and Co., which had eighteen employees, almost all female—a situation due in part, perhaps, to the war. His mother was a society lady, and he was raised by a nanny. Wörle soon learned that he could control his nanny by virtue of the fact that his mother did not wish to be disturbed by children's prattle. He quickly discovered that tantrums or other disturbances which found their way to his mother's attention caused the nanny, not him, to be reprimanded, and hence he was able to use this as a leverage to coerce his nanny to follow his will.

Around the age of twelve, he began to hang around his father's place of business. He imagined he would grow up and take over the business—something that would please his father—and would eventually have a comfortable life selling packages of Schoko-Wör candies wrapped in foil. Although at twelve, he was old enough to no longer be teased and called “angel hair” by the women who processed the candies. He took advantage of the situation to go and sit on their laps, pressing his head against their breasts and breathing in their smell. The important point for him was that he knew that they knew he thought he was getting away with something and that he could continue his erotic play of beginning puberty anyway, letting them tease him in the manner they would a younger child in exchange for the not-so-clandestine liberties he took by wiggling around in their laps while they worked on the assembly line. From the very beginning, the objects of the games he plays are not very admirable.

Hein establishes the familiar pattern of a deleterious relationship with women on the part of characters he wishes to implicitly degrade in the reader's mind. This is a further point lost on Volker Hage, who claims that Hein imagines Wörle to possess everything that a successful man in the West could want, one item being “every kind of success with women.”3 Wörle's later “success” with women, which might resemble the sexual adventures of Dallow, is only hinted at, never includes real love, and does not conform to Hein's concept of healthy relationships between human beings. Wörle never marries. The only woman he names in his own narrative, Katja, is a “player” of equal or superior ability, and he beats a hasty retreat, fearing that she will defeat him soundly at his own game. Wörle is threatened by a female who is an equal. This certainly precludes any notion of “success” with women in the sense of successful relationships. Perhaps Hage means “conquests” of women, which has nothing to do with success in any sincere meaning of the word.

Within a year of Wörle's play with the women in his father's chocolate factory, the family flees Stettin, giving up all their possessions except for the few items they could carry. They move in with his father's cousin in Tiefenort, a small town. Evidently the relatives have a strained relationship because his father had disappeared with the bride of his cousin for a couple of hours during the wedding celebration. In spite of his obviously not being welcome, the elder Wörle moves into two rooms upstairs in his cousin's house. The exact meaning of this symbolic exploitation by the elder Wörle remains unclear. Structurally it provides a case of authoritative domination of a morally superior individual with a weaker constitution (the cousin), weaker due to the influence of moral values on his actions (his cousin Wörle is homeless and unfortunate due to the advancing Russians). Wörle's mother, however, is distraught by the new situation and confines herself to her room. A few months later, she dies, and the cause of death, according to Wörle's cynical but accurate view is the loss of the salon and music room where she has entertained society in Stettin—even though this diagnosis would hardly be legally permissible in a coroner's examination. It is nevertheless an analogy that Wörle plants like a seed in the mind of his lawyer, a subtle linguistic distinction to create a distraction.

His father obtains employment as a procurer in a wood-cutting company the day after they arrive. After a year, his father moves in with a widow whose husband has fallen in the war, and he takes over the postage stamp mail-order business she had inherited. She has a son named Johannes, two years younger than Wörle but a head taller. Wörle constantly refers to this stepbrother as “the bastard.” Johannes attacks Wörle and then calls his mother before Wörle can retaliate. Wörle realizes that he has to develop a refined tactic in order to triumph over the “bastard.” A game.

It is the games which keep us alive, he maintains: “Hunger, the quest for fame, and our sexual drive are supposed to keep us alive” (NS 36–37). He has experienced these and found them to be weak motivators: “What was left for me, the thing which keeps me going, is the thrill of the game. It relieves boredom, you know. When the game is over we are dead” (NS 37). Fair play is not possible with his brother: he is not a player and therefore not a real opponent; his brother just wants to win. Wörle will have to lead him into a trap.

Three of Wörle's father's neckties are cut up and strewn about in the garden, an offense carried out in such a manner as to make it look like Wörle is guilty. The problem is that such a conclusion is too obvious, and therefore his father thinks that the stepbrother has done it. Wörle is aware how difficult it is for his father to punish the stepbrother in the mother's presence. His father has made an effort to form a good relationship with the “bastard” for the sake of the widow. But now the stepbrother is whipped in front of his mother by the elder Wörle—a stark contrast to the pedagogical methods of Thomas's father in Horns Ende. Johannes, the “bastard,” is caught totally by surprise, and, seeing Wörle's feigned sympathy, he begins to scream that Wörle was the guilty party, not he. This only makes the situation worse, inasmuch as it appears that Johannes is not “man enough” to take the blame for his act and is shamelessly trying to pin the blame on someone else, his half brother—only adding to his guilt. At this juncture, his own mother reaches over the table to slap him as well. For his part, Wörle shows his indignation at being falsely accused, although he holds this in check in order to demonstrate to his father and the widow some (feigned) brotherly solidarity with his punished stepbrother. Instead of being vengeful and happy that his stepbrother is being punished for denouncing him, he shows that he is aghast and appalled. The “bastard” is broken. He has been conquered. He will not be able to undertake anything without appearing vindictive. He has also lost his privilege as the widow's son, from now on Wörle's father can punish him whenever the occasion presents itself. Wörle can exploit the situation at will; he can make his brother the object or the medium of his games, whichever he chooses.

Three years later, the mail-order business is nationalized, and Wörle's father is named director of the business. His authority is restricted by the new accountant named by the state (a party official was assigned to each factory or business). Wörle continues his little business on the side, which he supports by taking “surplus” stamps out of his father's offices, selling them privately to schoolmates. He takes his stepbrother into the enterprise, a wise move to pre-empt any possibility of being exposed. They sell their stamps at a discount, and the mail-order business suffers a small loss of business. They continue after the business is de-privatized. At that time, the inventory of the firm shows too many stamps which might hamper the “antifascist and democratic education” (NS 45) of their customers and not enough progressive stamps commemorating socialist countries and the Soviet Union.

Wörle has observed that his side business tends to lose customers when they reach puberty, and as he nears the end of his own school years and applies to study law at the university, he turns over the entire “black market” enterprise to the “bastard.” He finds that his status as son of a former capitalist prevents his acceptance at the university and determines to move to Berlin and study law in West Berlin. Meanwhile, the mail-order business experiences new troubles and is not showing a profit. His stepbrother's side business is discovered. Had the juvenile court judge not been a philatelist himself, Johannes would surely have been jailed, inasmuch as the damaged business now belongs to the state and constitutes a federal offense. The “bastard” contributes to the irreparable break with his own family by claiming that Wörle had started the business in the first place. But Johannes has no credibility because of the earlier incident with the ties, and his claim angers the family further, leaving him thoroughly victimized. Again, Wörle has an appropriate analogy: it is not so much malice—indeed, Wörle always insists that a player never acts out of malice—as it is simply an example of the fact that at some point in a bullfight, the bull is pierced by the bullfighter. It is not a case of bloodthirstiness or revenge, just a part of the rules of the game.

Two years later, his father becomes the director of another state-owned concern and joins the party so that the adopted son, Johannes, is able to matriculate at the university in Leipzig, where he studies history—a subject of consequence in Hein's works. Shortly thereafter, Wörle visits his father and the widow in Tiefenort, but he is placed under house arrest for having fled the GDR earlier. His identification papers are confiscated. However, these events place his half brother in a much more difficult situation than the one in which Wörle finds himself. As was standard procedure in the GDR, Johannes is required to break off relations with home in order to avoid contact with Wörle: contact with any Westerners would result in his expulsion from the university. The widow somehow seems to have a vague idea of what had happened: “She had lost her son and instinctively she turned on me, not able to know, however, that I really was the cause of the separation between her and her son” (NS 53). The Wall still has not been built, and Wörle is able to escape back to the West and finish his studies with high honors. He turns down an offer to continue his studies and pursue an academic career. He has studied law in order to learn the rules of the game, and now he wants to play, not fiddle around with improving the rules.

He moves to Boppard, a small town in the Rheinland and obtains employment with the law firm Wieser and Wieser (one of the brothers is deceased). By this time, Wörle's father and the widow have fled the GDR and also settled in Boppard, where his father took advantage of reparations paid by the FRG to those who had lost possessions in the East—he still has documentary proof of his ownership of the candy factory—in order to start up a mail-order business for embroidery. The “bastard” is left with a no-win situation. If he goes to the West, he will be ostracized from the family. If he stays in the East, his career will be severely limited because his entire family has fled the Republic. He remains behind, eventually finding employment as a high-school history teacher. History, although Hein does not make it the object of discourse in this novel, is relegated to a degraded status in the GDR, a harmless place of little influence to which less worthy individuals are assigned. The bastard sibling of society.


Wörle remains in Boppard only a few years before it is time for him to move on to bigger and better things. One case he takes in Boppard, however, is highly instructive for him. He gets the case due to an illness of Wieser's, a case involving the owner and chief executive officer of a large producer of building materials, a third-generation owner who is highly respected in the community. Wörle is struck by his mannerisms and polished reserve; giving the impression of being tired but very alert, he behaves as a man who is unconcerned but not bored. In the smallest movement of his hand, he embodies the third generation of his firm and looks more like a high-church dignitary than a businessman and defendant. Hein's description, never quoting or naming the defendant, indicates that the latter is a man capable of very powerful non-verbal communication.

Wörle reflects that he has always been fascinated with beautiful women and rich men. They have an aura, the perfume of beauty and the aroma of money: “It is something other than what is commonly known as the odor of money, the gently penetrating smell of power and influence, which stinks slightly of greed, avarice, self-enrichment and envy” (NS 64). Beauty and wealth has another scent which attracts us: “A man of culture we can say and we mean this scent, this beauty” (NS 64) which inspires admiration and respect in us. The prosecuting attorney is also taken in by the “man of culture” and is only too happy to lose his case and to congratulate the executive. To Wörle it is clearly evident that his own extremely well-prepared presentation of the case has by no means been the deciding factor. The executive's behavior in court, his straightforward answers, the fact that he has appeared in person on behalf of his firm, all these elements have won the case for him. He is well aware of this fact and feels that he owes nothing to the firm of Wieser and Wieser other than the appropriate legal fees. The young judge is caught in a no-win situation. Whatever he decides, part of the media would have strongly critical opinions to express. A harsh judgement would only manifest that he has overreacted because of his own personal aversion to such wealth and power. Wörle takes mental notes of the judge's predicament and the player's (the defendant's) exploitation of the situation.

Wörle decides to move to Berlin and practice law on his own. He opens his office in October of 1960 with a part-time secretary. On 7 February 1967, he learns from his accountant that he has accumulated his first unencumbered million. Vanity is not the reason for him to report this fact; it has, he claims, a causal relationship to the death of Bernhard Bagnall. The precision of dates used by Hein throughout the story lends a documentary quality to the narrative, a ploy designed to create and enhance Wörle's credibility.


The player, Wörle states, “wants to place his bets and, of course, to win” (NS 73). But winning itself has only the purpose of allowing him to bet again. The task is to play; the stakes and the winnings are secondary. “Some games consist of matches that last for years, matches in which fortunes and the lives of people can be wagered. Players plan their strategies like field generals with full authority” (NS 73). Napoleon, he surmises, must have viewed the money and armies of his nation with a certain objective distance. It wasn't his own money or his own army which was at his disposal but the country's, and hence he did not need to be considerate of them as he threw them onto the game board Europe. He could play unreservedly, majestically, and successfully: “A player is one who bets. Perhaps this is the whole truth” (NS 73). He bets his money, his reputation, his reason, his life, but always without worry or fear of loss, and this distinguishes him from common gamblers, careerists, idealists, business executives, and normal people who risk something in order to attain something else, something greater, more beautiful—wealth, power, influence.

“The player just bets, nothing more. Winnings and losings are outside his field of vision” (NS 74). Unfortunately, people who behave exactly the opposite are usually referred to as the players, he states, because they attempt to enrich themselves in a banal manner. This applies to the little swindler on the street as well as to state-licensed lotteries, according to Wörle's analysis. This so-called gambling consists of nothing more than legal contracts with extremely poor business conditions covered over by marketing glamour. A player wants to wager in order to play. The winnings are already boring for him: “A game in which the player cannot intercede and act … is nothing more than an order placed for an unspecified capital return” (NS 74).

As Wörle's wealth amasses, he grows more and more bored. The thought that the game and therefore his life is at an end begins to depress him. The idea of continuing anyway makes him physically ill, and he broods long hours in his office, his firm having taken on other partners by then. He realizes that the game is much more than just a passion for him; it is the center of his life, his life itself. Without this passion, he thinks he might as well shoot himself (Russian roulette, of course). Hein seems to describe the process of addiction. As a gambler and a player, Wörle requires increasing challenges to satisfy his addiction.

Wörle relates his passion for billiards to Fiarthes. He compares it somewhat to the shabby passion of one of his last clients in Boppard, a businessman who has revealed his secret collection of women's panties in confidence to Wörle. Like the businessman, who then was too embarrassed to retain Wörle's services, Wörle thinks that everyone has some little thing to hide, and this is the reason he keeps his billiard table in his house in Kampen, on the island of Sylt. He has another house in Northern Italy as well, in the Toscana, but the house in Kampen is off limits to women guests and other friends. He goes there to be by himself and to play billiards and to solve his problems.

All of Wörle's decisions are made at the billiard table, including how, when, and who (Bagnall) will die. The rest, which Fiarthes views as the actual deed, “is nothing more than the burdensome execution of the plan, the implementation and test run of the game” (NS 94). To Wörle's way of thinking, billiards includes not only the calculation of all the endless variations, the possibilities of striking the ball directly or indirectly, all the spins and possible runs of the ball. Even if you could program a computer with this information, you would be missing the element which is not subject to scientific calculation: the execution of the stroke of the queue on the ball. It is not like chess, where the move itself is only mechanical, he reasons. Not only do you have to plot out the variables and the reaction of your opponent; you must strike the ball correctly, and you can and should do this in such a way as to mislead and deceive you opponent. Wörle asks Fiarthes if he is bored by all this. Wörle is not, as Fiarthes probably thinks, “speaking about billiards, he just wanted to say something about the scene of the crime” (NS 102). As a concept appearing in a novel about the power of language to manipulate reactions, divert attention from the truth, and gain a distinct advantage, the “stroke” on the ball consists of the words chosen carefully to maneuver those who hear them or read them (Fiarthes and Hein's readers) into a position of reluctant collusion.

Not too long after the accumulation of his first million, in March 1967, Wörle decides to change his course. He reduces his activity as a lawyer to a few cases and enters local politics: “A player has no principles and his morals are dependent only on the roll of the balls” (NS 104). These thematic words appear in parentheses to soften their impact discreetly, and they are spoken to introduce Wörle's description of his political career. The subtext carries an implication about the workings of politics in general—i.e., Wörle is a politician, and politicians are often like Wörle.

His entry into politics is characterized by his apparent (real, as defined by his self-proclaimed status as a real player) unselfishness, a character trait often regarded with suspicion in political circles, and his independence—he did not join a political party. He has succeeded in gaining a foothold in non-partisan politics after a year and, by the end of four years, has made himself indispensable in the overall political scene. Winnings and power, as always, do not interest him. He is attracted by politics because its nature requires him to react to constantly changing conditions and relationships. He will spend twenty years in politics, up to about 1988, before he begins to play the game which leads to Bagnall's death.

It is tempting at this point in the novel to begin to look for political allegories. In spite of Wörle's personal biography, the dates of the murder and the trial seem to make it expedient to think of Wörle as somehow representative of the West, as the West German reviewer Volker Hage indeed has done, rejecting at the same time that Hein has captured any truth about life and attitudes in the West.4 Although this is ironically reminiscent of East German disclaimers that Hein's earlier works are an accurate representation of life in the GDR, it nevertheless seems that Hein is trying to get at something broader here, at some element which exists in human nature that can take over when human existence is devoid of compassion, principles, morals, and ideals. If this applies to certain aspects of Western society, especially in the economic sector which ascribes to such notions as the maximization of profits for the good of the shareholders, then it applies to other aspects of society as well and in other parts of the world as well. The East German experience of unification, after all, was comprised of disillusionment and of the unfortunate realization that citizens would be exploited as much as possible by legally supported institutions. The Treuhandgesellschaften5 often returned property to Western owners' descendents after these forty-five years of separation between East and West Germany. Sometimes they delayed use of the property for years until the matter could be resolved, and in some cases they intentionally stalled promised investments to allow East German-operated concerns to go under, enabling Western companies to move in and buy or invest cheaply. Most unkindly, West Germans came to regard their compatriots in the East as second-class citizens. From the perspective of East Germany—an area in 1993 still struggling with astronomical unemployment figures and lacking the technical education to succeed as well as lacking investment capital—former GDR citizens might really feel as though they are being confronted with people like Wörle, even if he appears in an exaggerated form, almost as a caricature of the problem. Fritz Rudolf Fries conveys some of these notions in his review: “The confessions of this intellectual carpetbagger contain a bottomlessness” into which we all stumble. The case goes much deeper than the opportunism of Wörle; the depth of the abyss is temporarily held up by a story which “documents the ice cold climate of our times.”6


Feelings, according to Wörle, ruin everything: “Whoever enters a game with emotions is lost before he takes the queue in his hand” (NS 114). It is an irreparable handicap to allow emotions and feelings into the game, and whoever does so can never wipe out the damage caused by his attempting to eliminate feelings for the next shot or move. The mistake has already been made, and it will impact the rest of the game for him. It is certainly laudatory to have feelings. And the people with feelings “are quite possibly good persons,” better persons, “but they just aren't real players” (NS 115).

Wörle meets up with only two or three real players during his time in politics. The rest are “idiots, fools, scoundrels and good family men” (NS 116). They want power, money, and fame. But after a while, they must surely realize that they are simply cogs in a well-structured and smooth-functioning bureaucracy and that they are only important and needed when they accurately fulfill the tasks given them. It makes no difference whether they are a small wheel or a big wheel. They have power, to be sure, but only when they perform what is required of them. They have a little power, but only insofar as they remain dependent and not free. This dependency makes them into slaves of the bureaucratic machinery, driven by fear of failure and the need for security. Wörle uses them as training for his games. It would be annoying to simply win such matches. In fact, he loses as often as not as a result of his experimentation with moves and spinoffs. Wörle becomes known in political circles as a “maker of kings,” or, in other quarters, as a Rasputin.7

“Whoever plays is always alone” (NS 124), maintains Wörle. If this bothers you, you shouldn't play. You can never win anything with love, but with love it is easy to lose everything. Jealousy, meanness, envy, and even hate can be helpful in some circumstances, as long as you are in control or are occupied with manipulating these traits in others. After all, as Wörle points out to justify his argument, no one would claim that Napoleon was well-loved. His enemies hated him, and his soldiers feared him. To his officers he gave overblown titles. Wörle insists that he has found good years in his life. He has found a game which enables him to live on, but at the same time, he realizes that something is coming to an end and that he is approaching his Moscow. Bagnall's death was unavoidable; he would have fatally endangered himself had he not killed him. Wörle realizes in Kampen at the billiard table that his crime was a question of self-defense and that it is time for Fiarthes to accept this fact.


Wörle has to overcome his own disgust at the idea of killing someone. This is not so much because he values human life. He has a certain interest in his own life, as long as it is not boring, and the truth is he would be more upset by the loss of two small wooded areas in Berlin where he likes to go for walks than he would be at the report of the violent death of one of his neighbors. This is not a question of morality but of human nature, he maintains. Sure, he would regret the death of other people, but if he were faced with the choice between his house in the Toscana and the life of some thousand unknown people, he wouldn't have to think about it for a second. He would be sorry for the deaths of so many people, but his house cost him a lot of time and money, and its loss would be horrible, a catastrophe. Wörle is a bit sorry that this is the way he thinks, that he is not more noble and humane, but he questions whether thinking otherwise would really be normal for human beings: “It is human to not be all too unselfish” (NS 134). The monstrosity is not the self-serving person but rather the do—good deeds. Even though we admire them, they are strange and puzzling to us: “We would all get along better if we would accept ourselves as what we really are” (NS 134) is Wörle's logical and frighteningly callous maxim. One interpretation of the parable in this story presents itself as the reduction of Adam Smith's time-honored principle of self-interest—already the key to survival in the seventeenth-century philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and the fundamental idea behind capitalism—to its basic essence, devoid of all sentimentality: no one can expect Wörle to take any action which runs counter to his self-interest or to fail to take action which supports it.

The killing was unavoidable, and Wörle had to struggle with himself many months before he could bring himself to do it. What would have happened to Napoleon if he had not gone to Moscow, he argues, or even if he had triumphed at Moscow? He would have had to run the administration of the conquered lands, to spend his time keeping them under control, and this task would have bored him; it would have killed him. It was a game of kings for Wörle. He had to structure the match so that it was in balance with the finiteness of his own life.

Wörle complains that he is being given unfair treatment in jail. For his fellow inmates, he contends, being put in prison is like being moved from a hole into a dog's hole. For the homeless man, it is actually an improvement. The conditions of Wörle's own confinement, compared to the standard of living to which he is accustomed, constitute a much more drastic reduction in the quality of his life than they do for the others. The equality fanaticism of the early nineteenth century is long out of date, and he maintains that he really ought to be placed in an apartment leased out to poor families by government agencies. He would pay for it, of course, and not only would the correct proportion of punishment during the time he awaits his trial be restored, but the government would be acting in a financially prudent manner, following its own self-interests. The conditions Wörle has dealt himself to continue the game from within the cell are beginning to disturb him, he informs Fiarthes, and he's not sure if he can really stand the confinement. This comment may well be the deception Wörle uses to elicit the response he desires from Fiarthes. The reader notices an involuntary, momentary lapse into sympathy for Wörle at this point. He seems to be suffering a little bit after all.


Another digression of Wörle's is a treatise on freedom, in some respects an excellent commentary on Dallow of The Tango Player. The masses don't want freedom; they are born vassals, and to give them freedom would make them permanently unhappy. Under the yoke, they may have been thoughtlessly dissatisfied, but a little freedom makes them nervous and they hasten to find ways to use up their free time, usually by contracting someone else—the leisure time industry, for example—to fill it up for them: “The masses don't want freedom, they want only paradise” (NS 149). That paradise is the place of the lord, the place where all the other vassals are, happy vassals. Who would want to begrudge these vassals getting what they want (attaining the object of their self-interest): security, unshaken values, clear directions on how to behave, and a moral structure with the possibility for reward and punishment and the power to reward and punish. The vassal is subjugated to an external will, year in and year out. He takes directions and fulfills his duties. The task given him from the outside will becomes his happiness, whether in the machine shop or the editor's room, the office of a large company or a local agency. After death he won't have to fool around with travel agencies and the like anymore, and he will still have a heavenly paradise as a member of a society under an outside will, under a judging and commanding Lord. This digression is also an integral part of the letter, according to Wörle. It serves as a contrast to his own concept of freedom, unencumbered by sentimentality, by the need for security (that would be fatal to his personality) or by the need to win. He then proceeds to describe how he made his decision to proceed with the killing.

As Wörle describes it, he left Kampen on 12 May 1988 and set out for his Moscow, hoping to avoid Napoleon's St. Helena, for Napoleon's confinement there eventually killed him. A little over a year later, on 21 June 1989, Wörle killed Bernhard Bagnall. He argues that he is not a murderer or a homicidal maniac—these are terrible people. Napoleon sacrificed over 400,000 men in Russia, and no one ever accused him of being a murderer. It would be a mockery of logic to equate a compulsory killing with murder. People die frequently before their biological clock has run its course, sometimes in a war, sometimes because a stone falls off a building and strikes them in the head. None of these unavoidable killings activate the legal system. The destruction of an army or a city neutralizes the law by virtue of the large scope of the act. Yet in the case of smaller numbers, we are immediately inclined to look for motives and to look for criminal behavior. This is why the person Wörle chose for his killing had to be a completely neutral entity: he had to be representative of the average of the masses. It took him almost a year to find his man, and he often despaired, since everyone he investigated had some minor flaw. Bernhard Bagnall was the perfect ball waiting to be struck by Wörle's queue. The killing took place in public, but he was surprised to see “that Bagnall's sudden disappearance was noticed so quickly” (NS 170). Bagnall's status was irrefutably and absolutely neutral, which made it a “virgin game” (NS 168) unworthy of being degraded by “awkward and ridiculous” (NS 169) references to morality. It seems that in Wörle's mind, Bagnall's “disappearance” should have been more matter-of-fact.


Every player, according to Wörle, eventually is confronted with a game in which he not only stands there with queue in hand, but in which he is also the ball. He is simultaneously the ball and the player. This “makes his risk incalculable and the chances of victory virtually impossible” (NS 176). His only hope is to create conditions which seduce his opponent into a certain plan of action. When the ball lies motionless on the table, he must make the effort to “leave the contact point which would create the desired spin advantageous to himself when [the ball is] struck by his opponent” (NS 177). There is almost no chance of this strategy's being successful, but if it were to be, what an incredible game: the player as the ball which plays with his opponent. What a thrill to dare to play such a game. And now, Wörle says to his lawyer, he is himself lying on the table (helplessly in prison) and awaiting just such a stroke. Everything has been prepared as best as it could, and now it is all up to Mr. Fiarthes, in whom he places his hope and trust. In order to win, however, the opponent must be an equal, capable of recognizing the strategy and striking the ball on a different point than had been predetermined by the player. Napoleon ran into an equal player and lost. But this fact shouldn't stop either Wörle or Mr. Fiarthes—who, Wörle implies, is not the equal of Napoleon, even though Wörle is audaciously calling Fiarthes's shot for him and challenging him to play it differently.

Wörle finally recounts the killing to his defense attorney. He entered the subway where Bagnall always got on. He had made an extra trip to Kempen and selected a queue stick held together in the middle with a metal screw. The subway car entered the Eastern sector of Berlin and had to slow down for the stations there; it was not allowed to stop or take on or discharge passengers. Wörle took out his queue and seemed to be playing with it. Just as the car began to move out of the last East Berlin station, Wörle placed the half of the queue with the metal screw up on the railing and delivered a precise blow to Bagnall's temple. He died instantly, without a sound. Wörle immediately began to look after him, aware that the witnesses would also report on his fervent, circumspect, and self-sacrificing care of the dead man. He asked them to make room to lay him on the bench and to get something to bind the wound. He also had to prevent one of the passengers from pulling the emergency brake cord in order to avoid being arrested by East German police, which could have ruined his game. When the subway arrived in the first West Berlin station, Kochstraβe (the old location of Checkpoint Charlie), he took Bagnall in his arms and asked everyone to get out with him and to wait for the police as witnesses at the station. Seven of the approximately twenty passengers got out with him, although three of these went ahead and left the station.

Wörle ends his letter to his lawyer here and wishes him good luck with his next shot, which, as the reader sees, is to be played immediately after Wörle's detailed confession, his last preparation of the lay of the ball. It was self-defense, for if he had not been able to play this game, he would not have been able to resolve the excusable and understandable crisis threatening his own life: the irrepressible need to escape boredom, to play a more challenging game. As his lawyer is sworn to confidentiality, Fiarthes, of course, cannot make the contents of the letter known.


The novel has a surprise ending. The killer has, incredibly, gone free, and his own lawyer, as Wörle surmises, is anguishing over the success of his defense of Wörle. In his second, and last, letter to Fiarthes, Wörle tells the defense attorney that the man who has just delivered the missive is waiting for it to be returned. He has been instructed to take it by force, if necessary, although Wörle does not think such will be the case. The prior evening, he had retrieved from his lawyer his first—long and self-incriminating—letter to prevent Fiarthes from copying it after reading this new letter. Moreover, in the second letter, he informs Fiarthes that he will not destroy the long letter, that he intends to publish it. Of course, he will remove incriminating evidence about himself as well as anything that might harm Fiarthes. This will simply be another ball played in the game. He plans to give the manuscript to an author who will publish it in his own name and receive the royalties. He suspects it will not be difficult to find a willing author among the starving writers—and one who can keep quiet, as well. Besides, this writer will not have anything “except a story in which neither your [Fiarthes's] name nor mine occurs and in which one can decipher the story of my case only with a great deal of fantasy” (NS 197). This statement could be an intentionally misleading device on Hein's part, or it could hint at the many former GDR officials who quickly put together a book—usually ghost-written—in order to capitalize on the political atmosphere after the Wall came down and make a quick profit. It is not Hein's normal practice to write a roman à clef, however, even though Wörle states to Fiarthes that precisely this will be done. His characters possess universality and a quality of representativeness of real types. The statement functions to “prepare” the lie of the ball for the reader's response.

The man in the waiting room is none other than Wörle's stepbrother, the “bastard.” The previous November, after the fall of the Wall, his brother had come to West Berlin and looked him up, visiting Wörle in the jail cell. After he explained who he was and that his first journey through the opened Wall had led him to Wörle, the latter welcomed him with opened arms: “Welcome to freedom” (NS 199). These words are spoken to deceive his brother, who naively believes that the West means freedom when, in fact, freedom is the illusion of the masses described earlier by Wörle. Wörle recognizes that his brother, looking for paradise, also needs to subjugate himself to the will of a “lord,” or boss. His stepbrother, of course, is willing to do everything he asks. He had been able to work as a teacher at the university for a while, but when the Warsaw forces marched into Prague, he had expressed his disapproval in front of students. He was dismissed, had to remain unemployed two years, then worked in a chemical factory, and finally was allowed to teach history in a high school, but only on the condition that he take over an undesirable party function in the local union.

The brother has been prepared for his encounter with Fiarthes and is not going to believe anything Fiarthes has to say which might contradict what Wörle has told him. Moreover, he doesn't know anything about the match between Wörle and Fiarthes. Wörle had chosen Fiarthes as his lawyer because he knew of an indiscretion committed by the latter some ten years earlier, a leverage he was able to use to ensure that Fiarthes did not drop the case and thus endanger his game. Of course that's all forgotten now, and Wörle is enjoying continued success in his law offices; numerous clients are seeking him out to represent them after reading the reports of his spectacular trial.

Wörle has a new game for Fiarthes, or perhaps it is the continuation of the previous one. This time no one will be killed, at least not in the literal sense of the word. He is planning to ruin a well-respected citizen, one with impeccable integrity, an educated and enlightened man, very likeable and honored publicly. It will be extremely difficult to ruin him, especially since there is no sign that even the smallest, most insignificant impropriety has ever been committed by the man. This is the very reason Wörle has chosen him to be his next game ball. In order to up the stakes to the maximum difficulty, Wörle now wants Fiarthes to enter the game as the protector of the man to be ruined. His stepbrother has a note which contains the man's name and will read this name to Fiarthes in exchange for the letter Fiarthes is reading at the very moment. Wörle hopes that Fiarthes is convinced to enter the new game as his opponent by warning the man chosen as the victim and doing what he can to prevent Wörle from ruining him. Thus ends the novel.


Immediately after the opening of the Berlin Wall, Hein had agreed not only to participate in the hearings of the investigating committee which attempted to identify the guilty parties during the police brutality on 7 and 8 October 1989, during the fortieth-year celebration of the GDR, but he additionally agreed to help compile and edit the protocol for publication. This all took place during the writing of Das Napoleon-Spiel. The hearings themselves were characterized by denials on the part of the highest officials in charge at the time—including Egon Krenz, who had replaced Honecker for a short period of time; Günter Schabowski, a member of the Central Committee and the party chief in Berlin; the hated chief of the State Security Police (Stasi), Erich Mielke; and a number of other high-ranking officials such as the attorney general of Berlin, the interior minister, generals, police chiefs, military attorneys, and Stasi officials. The hearings dragged on for many months as the committee attempted to get to the bottom of things, continuing into the spring of 1990, when the first free elections in East Germany and the impending decision to reunite with West Germany rendered the committee's work largely moot. Follow-up work continued on into the fall of 1990, and the proceedings were published in 1991 with the title Und diese verdammte Ohnmacht (And This Damned Helplessness).

Hein wrote in his introduction to the proceedings of the hearings that the public interest had been captured by the elections, the approaching end of the existence of the country, the creation of the new Federal States in the East, reunification, the implementation of the capitalist system, and above all, the introduction of West German marks on the basis of a two-for-one exchange. In November of 1989, the work of the committee had been a mind-boggling provocation and its members were aware that they could easily have spent many years in prison afterwards, but by the spring of 1990, time had rolled over it and obscured its importance. Hein's frustration with the failure of the committee to accomplish its goals is evident in an example he cites: “In the spring of 1990 the commission again recommended the indictment of a high officer of the State Security Police. A few weeks afterwards they learned that the officer indeed was in court, however not as a defendant but as the plaintiff, who requested the release of a confiscated sport motorboat of the Stasi, which he claimed as personal property” (Ohnmacht 11–12).

Members of the committee were never able to determine who gave the orders. If they were to believe the statements made at the hearings, the most powerful men of the country and its security forces, including those in the Politburo, had all secretly been resistance fighters, were not guilty, and were horrified at the events. The deployed Stasi officers could not be identified and located; no one knew who had ordered whom to do what, or even what had happened to the clubs used in the beatings. The state attorneys, sitting in the room next to where prisoners from the demonstrations were held, were unaware of the violence employed against those arrested, didn't hear their screams or see their injuries. The committee was left with the feeling of “damned helplessness,” the precise situation in which Fiarthes finds himself. Further research may some day turn up connections between Wörle and one or more of the politicians or lawyers Hein encountered during his work on the committee. More important is the connection between the feelings of helplessness expressed in Das Napoleon-Spiel and in Hein's report. In such a context, the novel is a commentary on unscrupulous and arrogant behavior by men in power, presented as symptomatic of the time in which we live. Hein had always written about victims in the past and had usually done so with humor. This time, he turned his attention to a perpetrator, and his portrayal is totally devoid of humor.

It is not too difficult to understand the “bastard” as a fairly decent but clearly victimized individual representative of East Germany. Likewise, Fiarthes can be understood as a decent and responsible representative of West Germany, if the reader wishes. But who is the unscrupulous Wörle, a man capable of moving between East and West, a man of wealth and political influence who ruins everyone he chooses to ruin regardless of their place on the spectrum? He is an amoral force, living for the game, and the reader is left to wonder where he will strike next and whether something can be done about it. There is no redeeming social victimization in his biography: nothing happened in his life which caused him to become like he is; he seems more to be an abstract principle which can infiltrate the lives of individuals in society in an insidious manner.

Symbols of disconcerting abstractions appear throughout the text in fragmented form, presenting a temptation to risk badly misinterpreting the story. Hein complained about how distasteful it was for him to be so intricately involved in the political events after the fall of the Wall and how he longed to return to being a writer. It is almost possible to see him as Fiarthes, as someone who has been duped into defending a monster and who now cannot extricate himself. But Hein claims that he “never presents alien monsters”8 and thus claims the right to be identified with Wörle as much as with Fiarthes.

Perhaps there is something to this, but a more helpful approach might be to consider Hein's intellectual activity during the writing of Das Napoleon-Spiel and his reaction to the neo-Nazi activity on both sides of the Elbe, his concerns that the outgrowth of the long-lasting Historikerstreit would overturn national guilt and awareness about the past.

Wörle, who always let the “bastard” take the blame, might symbolize the specter of fascism (always linked with capitalism in socialist ideology) raising its head again in Germany during and after unification, a ghost of the Nazi past who succeeds in duping the Germans (Fiarthes) into defending him and who is found not guilty (on legal technicalities) by the judges (historians), setting the monster free once again.

Hein had read numerous Stasi files and was appalled that cold-blooded murder was part of its repertoire as well as that of the secret police in other countries. Secret police are in a position to be self-justified, self-righteous—and should the self-righteous, wherever they are, be willing to “assert their justice, the ruin of all of us and the end of the already so endangered world will be advanced.”9 If history is rewritten, as the writer to whom Wörle gives his manuscript will do, to eliminate incriminating references, as Hein believes the Historikerstreit to promote, the stage will be set. In his essay “Die Zeit, die nicht vergehen kann” (“Time Which Cannot Pass Away”), he expressed his concern: “Certainly the interests of both the accused and the plaintiffs are in play during contemplation and evaluation of the past. One side points as vehemently to errors and crimes as does the other endeavor to push the uncontested accomplishments into the foreground, to banalize the unpardonable and to manipulate the unexplainable into an explainable context” (Als Kind 112). The consequences of a successful manipulation of history and people's knowledge of and attitudes towards history are embodied in the disturbing figure of Wörle and his justification of murder as a pardonable killing.

The affinity between this book and Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liasons Dangereuses (1782) can hardly be overlooked. Whereas the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are vain, professional intriguers—making sexual exploitation the business of their ruthless game and being fully aware that any manifestations of feelings will ruin the play—Wörle is a dangerous 1990s version of the odious immorality of Merteuil and Valmont, equally intelligent, urbane and amusing, and equally disposed to reduce the logic of the heart to cold, cruel, and calculating reason, the unequivocal rationality of power unhampered by moral scruples. Attitudes embodied by Wörle expose human morality at the end of the twentieth century as a silly travesty, a mundane spectacle not worthy of great players' time.

Das Napoleon-Spiel was the first major work published by any of the important former GDR writers still living in the East after Germany was united. A general fear seemed to exist that these writers would have great difficulty succeeding under the new conditions, and critics seemed to expect continuing recriminations against the old GDR in works of fiction. This book certainly inspires fear that people like Wörle may walk among us, and it makes us hope that our society is not degenerating into nothing but a vicious game with high or low stakes, depending on one's point of view and capabilities. It does not fulfill the expectations of the German critics who, after bashing Christa Wolf and others, called for the “elevation” of literature to a purely aesthetic art form without any moral message or socially critical function.10 If the broader interpretation of Wörle is considered, Hein has done his part to not relativize the Nazi past in such a way as to omit incriminating evidence. At the same time, he touches a nerve about how threatening unscrupulous power which exists beyond good and evil can be to us. Wörle is the principle of barbarianism before which the principle of hope gives ground. He now requests that we bear him no malice. But he will continue, even if we do.


  1. Volker Hage, “Glückliche Knechte,” Der Spiegel 12 April 1993, 239.

  2. Fritz Rudolf Fries, “Das Feldherren-Syndrom, Neue Deutsche Literatur 41 (May 1993): 139.

  3. Hage 239.

  4. Hage 239.

  5. Part of the unification agreement between East and West included the establishment of so-called Treuhandgesellschaften, trust unions created to mediate property issues. All the complaints mentioned here continue to be a common thread of what former GDR citizens regard as their ongoing disenfranchisement as citizens of the new Federal Republic of Germany, including their opportunities for financial success.

  6. Fries 139.

  7. Grigori Efimovich Rasputin (1871–1916), Russian mystic and advisor to Czarina Alexandria, was assassinated. Rasputin was noted for his cunning and duplicity.

  8. Christoph Hein, letter to the author, 13 September 1993.

  9. Hein, “Ansichtskarte einer deutschen Kleinstadt, leicht retuschiert,” Neue Deutsche Literatur 40.4 (1992): 27.

  10. See Der deutsch-deutsche Literaturstreit oder “Freunde, es spricht sich schlecht mit gebundener Zunge,” ed. Karl Deiritz and Hannes Krauss (Hamburg: Luchterhand, 1991).

Graham Jackman (essay date winter 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9164

SOURCE: Jackman, Graham. “‘Nur wo er spielt, ganz Mensch?’ Christoph Hein's Das Napoleon-Spiel.German Quarterly (winter 1999): 17–32.

[In the following essay, Jackman examines the character Wörle in Das Napoleon-Spiel, and the psychological reasons behind his obsessions.]

On its appearance in 1993 Christoph Hein's novel Das Napoleon-Spiel was on the whole not well received. In part, the critics' lack of enthusiasm was the result of disappointed expectations: Hein had not produced the awaited Wende-Roman. However, this did not prevent many reviewers from reading the novel in terms of immediate post-Wende concerns: “Das Napoleon-Spiel ist eine literarische Umsetzung der deutschen Vereinigung,” wrote Helmut Böttiger.1 A similar view was heard two years later in an essay by Ulrike Böhmel Fichera, who claims that “Der Bezug der gesamten Erzählung auf die Gegenwart ist eindeutig, programmatisch …”2 She argues, as many had done before her, that the locating of the killing of Bernhard Bagnall (the central event in the novel) in the Berlin U-Bahn between East and West Berlin in June 1989 “verweist zeichenhaft auf die Problematik der deutschen Wiedervereinigung, auf deutsche Geschichte …”3

Certainly, the date and place of this incident can hardly have been chosen at random, an impression which is confirmed near the end of the novel when its central character Wörle is visited while in custody by his step-brother “im vergangenen November, wenige Tage nach dem Fall der Mauer” (199).4 We need not be deterred from suspecting such associations by Wörle's disingenuous claim: “Es gab für mich keine Möglichkeit, es [mein Spiel] in eine nationale oder doch politische Dimension zu transportieren” (166). Nevertheless, Böhmel Fichera is probably right when, instead of looking for such connections with specific historical events, she stresses Wörle's mentality and relates this to particular intellectual attitudes, even though her interpretation is perhaps over-restrictive: “[Hein] beschäftigt sich mit einem ihm und seinen Landsleuten bisher wenig vertrauten Typ des westdeutschen oder weitergefaβt westlichen Intellektuellen und dessen überzeugt amoralischer Weltsicht.”5 As the Wende recedes into history, readings which emphasize what Martin Krumbholz calls “das geistige Klima, der ideengeschichtliche Kontext”6 appear a good deal more appropriate than dubious attempts at immediate “relevance” and are, moreover, buttressed by Hein's assertion that he first conceived the work in 1982, though it was written much later, in the period immediately before and after the Wende.7 We shall return to the relationship between the work and its historical context later. First, though, we need to examine Hein's portrayal of his protagonist Wörle.

The reviewers' difficulties with Das Napoleon-Spiel derive only in part from questions about its immediate relevance. The work was also widely criticized on more technical grounds: its central character and action were held to be unconvincing (“abstruse Konstruktion, Motive aus der Luft gegriffen …”8), and the unbroken monologue by Wörle was found boring (the novel comprises two letters from Wörle to his defense counsel Fiarthes, one long one written while in custody and accused of the murder of Bagnall, and a much shorter one written after his admittedly very surprising acquittal). Jamal Tuschik described this monologue as “[die] zwischen Delirium und Meditation schwankenden Einlassungen zum Wesen des Spiels und dem Charakter bedeutender Spieler.”9 Above all, it was argued, Wörle's talk of his brilliant exploits is not substantiated by accounts of specific events. “Dann wird das Spielerische … nur noch behauptet. Des Ich-Erzählers Beteuerungen … bleiben leer,” Hannes Krauss wrote in Freitag.10 Such reactions led in numerous cases to the assertion that with the demise of the GDR Hein had lost his subject-matter: “Christoph Hein ist mit der DDR auch sein Thema abhanden gekommen.”11

It would seem that some critics have difficulty with the work's central narrative device, the use of Rollenprosa. Though virtually all critics note the use of this technique, some making specific comparison with Claudia's unbroken monologue in Der fremde Freund, its implications are not always followed through. Some critics confuse Hein with his character, accusing him, for example, of moralizing,12 while others simply find Wörle unworthy of interest and attention.13 Generally, Western reviewers' objections curiously mirror some of the early published responses of GDR critics to Der fremde Freund: either the author is accused of not making explicit his own critical view of his protagonist, or the character is dismissed as eccentrically non-representative and therefore of no interest.14 In the earlier case Western critics generally were well able to supply the “fortlaufenden Untertext, der sich dem aufmerksamen Leser erschlieβt;”15 with Das Napoleon-Spiel they appear to have been less able, or willing, to do so.

The key to understanding this work lies in the way in which the reader approaches Wörle's triumphalist, self-justificatory monologue. No less than with Der fremde Freund, we need to grasp the logic of Hein's use of Rollenprosa, realizing the manipulative, yet ultimately revealing nature of Wörle's account.16 In his Spiel with Fiarthes, which is finally revealed only in the second letter, language is his essential tool, determining the latter's actions and responses as skillfully and as calculatedly as his cue does the billiard balls—and as Hein's own use of language, narrative structure and technique do the reader: “Ein falsches Wort, eine ungenaue Bezeichnung, und der Ball kann unmöglich die gewünschte Karambolage machen oder die angesagte Tasche erreichen” (122).17 Hein himself hints in an interview that it is Wörle's rhetorical performance which should be the focus of our attention rather than the story:

Ich habe eine bestimmte Erzählweise vorgehabt, die zum Beispiel dem Leser die Story in weiten Strecken versagt. Der hat aber, wie ich weiβ, die Story ganz gern. Es gibt so ein erstes Drittel, da bekommt er sehr viel davon. Dann gibt es zum Schluβ noch einmal so ein Drittel. Und in dem groβen Mittelblock, da “steht” die Geschichte gleichsam. Man sollte nicht übersehen, daβ der Autor das nicht völlig unbewuβt gemacht hat. Ästhetisch hat mich gerade dieser Mittelteil interessiert.18

Within Wörle's account the reader finds sufficient grounds for wariness. For example, Wörle appears to contradict himself. At one point he claims that billiards is superior to chess because it includes the physical dimension—the actual execution of the planned shot—which involves the player's emotional state and his experience: “… der Moment des Stoβes aber wird von einem Gefühl bestimmt. Dieses Gefühl ist geprägt von Erfahrungen und meinem körperlichen und seelischen Zustand im Augenblick des Spiels …” (101). A few pages further on he appears to deny both: “Gefühle jedoch verderben alles. Wer mit Gefühlen an den Spieltisch tritt, ist verloren” (114); “Erfahrungen, verehrter Fiarthes, sind etwas für Handwerker, sie prahlen sogar damit. … Für den Spieler jedoch sind Erfahrungen das Ende” (115).19

Similar suspicions are aroused by Wörle's account of his choice of Bernhard Bagnall as his victim. He is, Wörle insists, “das einwandfreie, mustergültige Nichts” (189), or “diese perfekte Null, diese[r] unübertreffliche […] Niemand” (190). He is chosen, Wörle claims, for his lack of any individual characteristics, emphasizing the absence of any other motivation for his killing than pure Spiel.20 Yet Wörle's first description of him emphasizes not him but the eight women in whose company he is first espied: “Die Frauen waren undefinierbar. Eine Komposition in Grau. Kein störendes Hervorstechen eines individuellen Zugs. … Er war eine Art Chef der acht Damen, aber keinesfalls ihr Wortführer …” (188–89). Is it mere coincidence that there are eight women? The opening section of Wörle's narrative focuses on his encounters with the eight women in his father's chocolate factory, whose significance for his later life Wörle repeatedly emphasizes: “Die wenigen Bemerkungen zu meiner Kindheit haben hier ihren Platz. Denn was Sie zu erfahren haben oder zu begreifen wünschen, ist damit verwoben.” (25). Two pages later he comments:

Adieu, Sophia und Therese und Maria und Gerti und Brigitte und Hilde und Josephine und Johanna. Ich gestehe, es bereitet mir noch heute Vergnügen, ihre Namen aufzusagen. Mit ihren Namen erscheint dieses versunkene Paradies vor meinen Augen. … Adieu, süβe Gespenster meiner Kindheit. Eure Schatten werden meine dunkler werdenden Tage begleiten


Our wariness must, of course, extend to Wörle's own suggestions for a correct understanding of his life and attitudes. Yet the omission of any reference to this coincidence in number, and the highly emphasized contrast between the uniformity of Bagnall's eight women and the differing types among Wörle's own, lead us to suspect that the choice of Bagnall is not so devoid of personal motivation, possibly jealousy—the symbolism of the cue points in this direction—or a sense of failure to realize the prospect held out by the childhood experience. For an awareness of unfulfilled possibilities dominates the memory of childhood:

Ich bin nie hineingegangen. Die Frauen haben mich nie dazu aufgefordert. Heute bin ich sicher, daβ sie darauf warteten. Sie hatten erwartet, daβ ich ihnen nachkommen, daβ ich irgendwann mich durch die dicke gelbliche Tür, den Schlitz meiner Sehnsüchte, schieben … würde.


The heute is significant. How much of the account is the fictive work of creative memory? Our necessarily unproven suspicions are reinforced by the fact that Wörle's discovery of his victim follows immediately upon his discomfiture in his affair with Katja, which, according to his own account, is his only “defeat” in his various short-lived affaires.21 His report reveals his failure of control in this episode:

… ich verstand nicht … meine verwunderten Blicke … Etwas beunruhigte mich … unklar … verwirrt … im unklaren … Ich wuβte nicht … Unsicherheit … nicht einmal gewiβ … ich war nicht fähig … das erklärt mir nicht … verunsicherte … diese verschwommene und mir völlig unklare Beziehung.


Wounded pride, from which a sexual component may not be absent, requires easing, and one who appears to enjoy what he was unable ever to take advantage of presents himself as the pre-ordained victim.

At stake here is the question of motivation. What causes does the text suggest for Wörle's obsession with Spiel? It is noteworthy that, though billiards is Wörle's own chosen metaphor for his calculating, manipulative activities, the idea of Spiel as a game of hazard, involving the placing of a stake and possible gain or loss, i.e., something closer to gaming or gambling, also runs throughout the text. We note that in the two passages in which Wörle first explains his addition to “Spiel” (pp. 36–41 and 72–79), he speaks in these terms: “Doch groβen Gewinn gibt es nur bei groβem Einsatz” (40); “Ein Spieler ist der, der setzt” (73). It is true that he is not out for financial gain—as a millionaire he has no need of it. Moreover, he is interested only in a game in which he can be actively involved to control its course—hence his disdain for lotteries of every kind:

Kein wahrer Spieler wird an einen Spieltisch gehen oder ein Los einer Lotterie kaufen. Ein Spieler will setzen, um zu spielen, der Gewinn langweilt ihn bereits. Und ein Spiel, in dem er nicht eingreifen kann, wo allein der Einsatz gefragt ist, aber nicht das Setzen, ist nur eine Gelegenheit, Bestellungen mit ungewissem Anschaffungswert zu notieren.


In his study of the links between gaming and narcissism Franz Schütte comments that by contrast with the distinction in English between “gamble” and “play,” the German Spiel covers both meanings (and others) and that this allows German makers of Spielautomaten to use slogans very like Wörle's, such as “Spielen ist menschlich.”22 Conversely, it also enables Wörle (and Hein) to conflate the two ideas of billiards and a game of hazard, thus permitting Wörle, as we shall see, to enjoy all the glamour and literary prestige which has accrued to the figure of the gambler as well as the more intellectual prestige which derives from a successful billiards stratagem, with its combination of calculation and skillful execution.

In fact, if we follow Wörle's promptings, it is easy enough to interpret his Spielernatur in sociological and psychological terms, along lines suggested by Schütte. At times the latter might almost be describing Wörle: gambling, he says, offers “Befreiung von den Schwierigkeiten des Alltags”: “In dieser Freiheit wird eine surreale Phantasiekonfiguration von Geist, Selbst und Gesellschaft erzeugt, die dem Selbst hohe Achtung erweist.”23 Schütte's account of the sociological, family roots of gambling could obviously apply to Wörle: gamblers' fathers are often authority figures who are “streng, dominierend, moralisch, selbstbezogen, geizig und emotionslos,” admired by women but hated and feared by children, while their mothers either overcompensate or are hard and unfeeling, so that the child has no emotional relation to the mother.24 We need not believe Wörle's assertion: “ich hatte eine glückliche Kindheit …” (14).

The psychoanalytical reading of the gambler's mentality is, however, perhaps more important for Das Napoleon-Spiel.25 Schütte follows Simmel, Freud and others in seeing compulsive gambling as the result of a disorder in a child's development, either as a reversion to the anal-sadistic phase,26 or as an oedipal disorder, of the kind Freud identified in Dostoevsky's The Gambler, or as a disorder in the oral phase.27 The latter in particular leads to the “Allmachtsfiktion des Spielers”28 in which narcissistic gratification is sought in defeating Schicksal, identified with the father and mother, the representatives of the Realitätsprinzip. Spiel permits, Schütte claims, the construction of a “Gröβen-Selbst” in defiance of the normal recognition of the limits of the self, which permits the “ozeanisches Gefühl” never experienced as a child. Schütte's description of such a mentality closely resembles Wörle:

Die zwischenmenschlichen Beziehungen narzissistischer Persönlichkeiten haben im allgemeinen einen ausbeuterischen und zuweilen sogar parasitären Charakter. Sie nehmen gewissermaβen für sich das Recht in Anspruch, über andere Menschen ohne jegliche Schuldgefühle zu verfügen, sie zu beherrschen und auszubeuten. … Der Spieler ist überzeugt … das Schicksal bestimmen zu können.29

A possible source for Hein's portrayal of Wörle in this way is Walter Benjamin's Passagen-Werk (Hein's admiration for Benjamin is well known30). Here Benjamin quotes the very sources referred to by Schütte: Simmel, Freud and Edmund Bergler, including references to narcissism, the rejection of the Realitätsprinzip and aggression against the parents.31 One quotation from Bergler concludes: “Zutiefst ist jedes Hasardspiel ein Erzwingenwollen der Liebe mit einem unbewuβten masochistischen Hintergedanken. Deshalb verliert der Hasardeur à la longue immer”32—a notion developed in Wörle's musings on the unending desire of the Spieler for new hazards, leading finally to his “Moscow” (132–40)—or his Waterloo.

What grounds have we for seeing Benjamin as Hein's source? Section O of the Passagen-Werk, where these quotations occur, is headed “Prostitution, Spiel,” and the same association of ideas is suggested in Das Napoleon-Spiel. The young Wörle's association with the eight factory women is modeled on relations with prostitutes, with each women being introduced as a specific type: “Brigitte, stark parfümiert, ein schlanker Oberkörper auf einem breiten Becken, groβporige Oberarme” (24), reminding us of Benjamin's comment: “Die Prostitution zieht einen Markt der weiblichen Typen auf.”33 Hein also locates the eight women at a production line, in keeping with the link between prostitution, as a commercialized, repetitive form of love, with mechanized production methods: “Die Liebe zur Prostituierten ist die Apotheose der Einfühlung in die Ware.”34 Hein is also following Benjamin when he links gaming with capitalism:

Denn in dem Maβe, wie die mechanische Produktion sich entwickelt, wird das Eigentum entpersönlicht und in die kollektive unpersönliche Form der Aktiengesellschaft gekleidet, deren Geschäftsanteile im Strudel der Börse herumwirbeln … Die ganze moderne ökonomische Entwicklung hat die Tendenz, die kapitalistische Gesellschaft mehr und mehr in ein riesiges internationales Spielhaus umzuwandeln.35

The common element in prostitution and gaming is, according to Benjamin, the desire to defeat the relentless necessity (Schicksal) inherent in time's progression, transforming, in Benjamin's terms as elaborated in his Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire,36Erfahrung into Erlebnis by means of the Choc-Erlebnis: “Denn in Bordell und Spielsaal ist es die gleiche, sündigste Wonne: In der Lust das Schicksal zu stellen.”37 “La notion du jeu … consiste en ceci … que la partie suivante ne dépend pas de la précédente …” (quotation from Alain); “Die Folgenlosigkeit, die den Character des Erlebnisses ausmacht, hat einen drastischen Ausdruck im Spiel gefunden.”38Schicksal similarly becomes an important word in Wörle's vocabulary, especially in the second half of the text, where Schicksal or Geschichte is portrayed as Wörle's (and Napoleon's) only true opponent.39

With his opening account of his childhood Wörle thus offers us the key to a psychological or socio-psychological understanding of his subsequent behavior. Indeed, he prompts the reader to see his career as Spieler in relation to his early adventures with the factory-women. Yet the connection is never explained—he simply presents the impulse to Spiel as an alternative to, or replacement for, his fascination with women (36–37). He claims that the memory of them alone gives “ungeteiltes Vergnügen” (27), but now he has put behind him such childish things; precisely because of the ever-present opportunity to begin afresh (e.g., 108–16), Spielen offers more lasting satisfaction (36–37) than do his various affaires, “angelegt auf Willkommen und Abschied” (84) and offering only “einen sich wiederholenden und weitgehend überraschungslosen Ablauf” (160). Wörle thus first suggests an explanation for his way of life in terms of psychological causation—but then blandly ignores it; the Folgenlosigkeit of Spiel is asserted as a form of freedom from such mundane processes of cause and effect.

Wörle's rejection of a psychological motivation to which he has himself pointed is reminiscent once again of Der fremde Freund. There Claudia offers insight into her psychological state through the opening dreamlike sequence but then strenuously denies that there is anything which requires explaining. Whereas, however, Claudia is herself the victim of her own propaganda, here the problem is not a subsequent lack of self-analysis and -explanation, but a surfeit of it. Wörle is altogether more knowing—he appears to know how his actions can (should?) be interpreted but puts up an elaborate smokescreen of alternative accounts. These center on what Lothar Baier calls the “schillernde […] Bedeutungen”40 of the term Spiel. We shall look briefly at the various interpretations or motivations of Wörle's behavior which it implies.

Wörle's preferred interpretation denies any idea of psychological compulsiveness. For him the Spieler is an heroic figure, as he was for Baudelaire.41 His own talk of the impulse for Spiel invites us rather to see it as an existential necessity, as an antidote to boredom. This note first occurs early on: “Was mir blieb, was mich am Leben hält, ist der Kitzel des Spiels” (37). Later on, the claim is repeated in ever-more extravagant terms, in which Hein allows us to recognize familiar philosophical notions: Spiel with its uncertainty mirrors the openness of life itself (146), countering the fear of a Kierkegaardian Wiederholung: “… um einer sich andeutenden Wiederholung zu entgehen” (154–55). It is a modern, atheistic version of Pascal's pari; other men may prefer the contemporary versions of what Pascal called divertissement: “Diese jämmerlichen Surrogate von Leben und Wirklichkeit, Lotto und Sport, Polizeiberichte und Spielautomaten, sie können nur für Minuten oder Stunden die in sie gesetzten Erwartungen erfüllen” (146),42 but Wörle faces bravely “die Schönheiten und die Schrecken der Freiheit” (150).

Other Existentialist ideas are also evoked by Wörle's monologue: his life is the epitome of a Sartrean freedom (149–51), and thus the expression of a courageous, aristocratic, Nietzschean approach to human existence, with an accompanying disdain for the Knechte (147–51); the killing of Bagnall is the motiveless acte gratuit by which that freedom will be expressed and, in its elegance and perfection, the true Jahrhundertwende aesthete's answer to nihilism—like Ibsen's Ejlert Lövborg, Wörle aims to “do it beautifully.”

It is indeed impossible to overhear in the text the literary echoes too—of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov (another would-be-Napoleon) or Gide's Lafcadio performing their motiveless crimes; Camus' Meursault in his cell awaiting his case and longing for women (95, 138) or his juge-pénitent in La Chute, commenting cynically on the collective evil of mankind (e.g., on pages 94–95, where his calculations are likened to those that led to the making of the atomic bomb, or on pages 133–34, where he argues that self-interest is normal and that it is selflessness which merits the description monströs) and drawing the recipient of his confidences into guilty complicity;43 Sartre's Roquentin overcoming his Lebensekel through the perfection of Spiel (100). Even Wörle's business-man client, the Casanova with his collection of “Damenhöschen” (84–89) reminds us of Camus' Don Juan in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, while Wörle's comment: “Aber halten wir nicht alle etwas versteckt? So eine winzige, rosafarbene Damenhose? Ein hübsches kleines Geheimnis, das uns zu entlarven vermag?” (89) is like an echo of Max Frisch's metaphor in Stiller of the “fleischfarbener Stoff” that cannot be got rid of.

However, the links explored by Benjamin and traceable in Hein's text, despite Wörle's bland denials, enable the reader to construct a very different “subtext,” much as in Der fremde Freund. For example, despite his claims to superiority, it is precisely “Langeweile,” Pascal's “ennui,” that Wörle fears, and Pascal's account of ‘divertissements’ describes Wörle exactly:

De là vient que le jeu et la conversation des femmes … les grand emplois sont si recherchés. Ce n'est pas … qu'on s'imagine que la vraie béatitude soit d'avoir l'argent qu'on peut gagner au jeu … mais e'est le tracas qui nous détourne d'y penser et nous divertit … Ainsi s'écoule toute la vie; on cherche le repos en combattant quelques obstacles, et, si on les a surmontés, le repos devient insupportable, par l'ennui qu'il engendre.44

Pascal refers specifically to Wörle's chosen game of billiards: “[l'homme] est si vain qu'étant plein de mille causes essentielles d'ennui, la moindre chose, comme un billard et une balle qu'il pousse, suffisent pour le divertir …”45

Despite the prominence of the notion of Spiel as gaming, confirmed by the range of associations evoked, Wörle prefers, as we have already noted, to emphasize another meaning: Spiel as a game of calculation and skill. At times his language, with its emphasis on Varianten and the need to outwit an opponent (e.g., 35, 37, 55, 80), implies Spiel as chess: “Ich spielte … die Partie des Stiefbruders mehrfach durch und fand keine Variante für ihn …” (55). However, his chosen game is billiards, which combines the cerebral dimension of chess with physical elegance in the performance of the stroke which his aestheticism calls for and which enable him to pose as a kind of Schillerian schöne Seele (101) as against the Aufklärung-style rigid rationalism of chess, which he sees as “ein starres Spiel, welches sich in der reichen Logik seiner Regeln und Möglichkeiten erschöpft” (102).

For all Wörle's disregard for history, except as backdrop for his own existence—“Geschichte existiert für den Erzähler nicht,” writes Ulrike Böhmel Fichera—both chess and billiards evoke ideas associated with historical causation and its manipulation. Chess reminds one of Benjamin's famous image of the chess-playing automaton in Über den Begriff der Geschichte;46 here, however, there is no hidden dwarf, theology, to enable the automaton always to win. Instead, Wörle aspires to a similar godlike control through the perfection of his calculation: “Was uns zu alledem anspornt, ist der Wunsch, ein Schöpfer zu sein, ein Gott … Was uns reizt und antreibt und endlich zufriedenstellt, ist die Vollendung.” (36).

The cultural associations of billiards are more obvious. It is David Hume's chosen image to explain human notions of causation in his “Abstract” of his Treatise of Human Nature.47 Later, it was used, negatively, by Musil in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften as a figure for causation in history: “Der Weg der Geschichte ist also nicht der eines Billardballs, der, einmal abgestoβen, eine bestimmte Bahn durchläuft, sondern er ähnelt dem Weg der Wolken … Es liegt im Verlauf der Weltgeschichte ein gewisses Sich-Verlaufen.”48

However, if chess suggests the player as subject manipulating the pieces (other people) as objects, billiards as image is capable of development to suggest not only the mechanistic subject-object interactions implied by Hume's use of it but also the altogether more risky enterprise of oneself becoming the ball, exposed to forces exerted by others as subjects. Such, Wörle, claims, is politics: “Alle und alles sind Bälle, man bewegt und wird bewegt und muβ versuchen, das ganze Spiel im Auge zu behalten” (108), and sooner or later every true Spieler comes to the point “in dem er Spieler und Ball zugleich ist” (176). The image evokes the idea of genuine subject-subject relationships, or at least of a dialectical subject-object relationship such as Hegel's “master-slave” relationship.

In historical terms it implies entrusting oneself to history or Schicksal, which is Wörle's, and Napoleon's, only truly worthy opponent—and at whose hands the latter at least is finally defeated: “Die Dame Geschichte ist eine groβe Spielerin, die Göttin der Spieler. (Auch Napoleon wurde von ihr geschlagen, nur von ihr …)” (201). Hein suggests here a view of history akin to that suggested by a phrase which recurs in his speeches and essays, “die stattfindende Geschichte,” and to his acknowledgment of history as playful ironist: “Die Geschichte liebt Ironie … Die Geschichte, sagte ich, kennt keine Moral und liebt die unerwartete Wendung.”49

The continuing parallel to Napoleon invoked by Wörle is reminiscent of Hegel's view of him as incarnation of the Weltgeist (“den Kaiser—diese Weltseele—sah ich durch die Stadt … reiten”50) but also as one who, like all the welthistorische Individuen, for a time inadvertently furthers the progress of the Spirit while actually pursuing private aims but in due time, when his part is done, becomes expendable: “Ist ihr Zweck erreicht, so fallen sie, die leeren Hülsen des Kernes, ab. Sie sterben früh wie Alexander, sie werden wie Cäsar ermordet, wie Napoleon nach St. Helena transportirt.”51

Yet, for all his talk of Moscow and of the inevitable defeat which is death, Wörle has no intention of losing or of surrendering to “die Dame Geschichte.” Nor does he show any taste for being ball rather than Spieler. Only once in the text does he find himself in this uncomfortable position, during his brief affair with Katja which appears to be a three-way relationship:52 “[ich erfaβte] in dem Moment …, daβ die Geschwister mit mir spielten. Und ich, der groβe Spieler, ein kleiner Ball” (186). Upon realizing this, he extricates himself as soon as possible and returns to Berlin. As already pointed out, the killing of Bagnall follows closely upon this incident: Wörle, acting as it were “on the rebound,” reclaims his preferred position as Spieler, with himself as subject and Bagnall in the most literal sense his object or Spielball. In all other three-way relationships, as during childhood with his half-brother, he insists on seizing control. In his trial, following the killing of Bagnall, he again portrays himself as object: “Auch ich liege auf dem grünen Tuch und erwarte den Stoβ.” Yet even here he remains in control: “Der Spieler als Ball, der mit dem Gegenspieler spielt” (177).

The outcome of the trial and Wörle's ruthless exploitation of his knowledge of Fiarthes' “kleine dumme Geschichte” (203) to exert pressure on him reveal his talk of Napoleon to be as much a part of his rhetorical disguise as his claims to existential heroism. Wörle's talk of Geschichte and ‘Schicksal’ is part of the rhetorical game: though he uses the term Geschichte it is ultimately no more than a necessary part of his self-aggrandizing Napoleon-myth—he believes in no Weltgeist governing the affairs of men and therefore working out its enlightening, ultimately moral purpose. His preferred concept is Schicksal, viewed essentially as not much more than “the run of the balls” in billiards. His elaborate calculation of others' reactions to his various stratagems rests upon a rationalistic assessment of the cause-and-effect mechanism in human affairs, but cause and effect in any wider sense, and especially any notion of moral responsibility, is foreign to him.53

A further meaning which attaches to the notion of Spiel is that of Schauspiel, play-acting. At one end of his “career” his Wednesday-afternoon encounters with the women on his father's production line provide him with early practice in role-play, deceiving both himself and others; at the other end, the legal proceedings at his approaching trial are portrayed by Wörle as a play, with barristers as actors and the accused in the Hauptrolle (9). As a good Aristotelian he consequently insists that what matters in a trial is not Wahrheit but Wahrscheinlichkeit (91). It is apparent, however, that this attitude pervades the whole of Wörle's life as portrayed to us, and it too may be seen as a part of his narcissism: through role-play he creates an alternative, better reality, with himself in the leading role. According to Eugen Fink, such play constitutes “… a pinnacle of human sovereignty … The player experiences himself as the lord of the products of his imagination.”54

Close to the notion of acting but more important for this text is the idea of Spiel as game, i.e., a rule-governed activity. This notion has an honored place in Western culture and its significance was explored in Huizinga's famous Homo Ludens, in which play or the game is seen as a vital source of culture of all kinds and as the framework in which social values are learned and practiced. Wörle's arguments profit from the prestige surrounding this notion, but his variant of it is more like its modern version, what John Fowles in The Magus has called the “godgame” and which R. Rawdon Wilson defines as: “… a gamelike situation in which a magister ludi knows the rules (because he has invented them) and the character-player does not.”55 The concept of the “godgame,” based on the creation of illusion and the exercise of power by one person over another, describes closely Wörle's treatment of various other figures in the novel, pre-eminently his half-brother but later also Fiarthes. As Wilson writes of Semele in her dealings with Zeus: “She uncomprehendingly … falls into a trap without knowing that she has done so, fails to see the correct implications, makes the wrong decisions …”56 How well Wörle fits into this pattern is underlined by another of Wilson's comments: “The world of the gamewright, the god … is always essentially monological.”57

The final sentence of Das Napoleon-Spiel echoes the most famous lines in German about the notion of Spiel: “Schlieβlich ist der Mensch, wie schon unsere Vorväter wuβten, nur wo er spielt, ganz Mensch” (208). In Schiller's conception, Spiel is the epitome of human freedom both from the sway of passions or material necessity, and from a one-sided mechanistic rationalism; it is expressive of both an inner harmony and a harmony with one's fellows and the physical world, which permit a creative, spontaneously “playful” and aesthetically pleasing form of self-realization. The degree to which Wörle's relations with himself and the world are a travesty of such a conception needs no elucidation. “Ein solcher Staat des schönen Scheins,” Schiller writes in the closing lines of his Über die Ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen, is found

… in einigen auserlesenen Zirkeln … wo der Mensch durch die verwickeltsten Verhältnisse mit kühner Einfalt und ruhiger Unschuld geht und weder nötig hat, fremde Freiheit zu kränken, um sie seinige zu behaupten, noch seine Würde wegzuwerfen, um Anmut zu zeigen.58

We may also point out the fundamental contradiction that Wörle calls on this concept in justification of a killing performed out of Notwehr (i.e., the very circumstances in which, according to Schiller, the schöne Seele must abandon Spiel in favor of the morally sublime, even at the cost of his own existence).59

The significance of these final lines lies rather in their betrayal of Wörle's technique. Like an over-confident criminal, he goes too far and reveals his guilty secret. For in his blatant misuse of the Schiller quotation we recognize a perversion of an idea of free yet morally noble, spontaneous yet purposeful human activity into a mere “plaything.”60 This is symptomatic of Wörle's technique throughout. The range of echo and allusion, surely intended by Hein to be recognized by the reader—his narrative technique is as calculated in its unmasking of Wörle as the latter's is in concealment—suggests the reverse of what Wörle intends: they speak of inauthenticity, of a man metaphorically posing in other men's clothes. His life is what Hans Mayer described, in relation to Stiller, as a Leben im Zitat,61 with the whole of Western literature and thought at his disposal to choose from.

This brings us back to the question of interpretation and to the work's relation to its historical context. Two of Hein's essays from the early 1980s, the period when, as we have seen, he first conceived this work, deal with this notion of a Leben im Zitat. His essay of 1981 on the relationship between literature and its time, “Waldbruder Lenz,” includes reflections on Mode which would also describe Wörle's technique:

Mode ist das aktuelle Zitat … Die Geschichte ist der Fundus der Mode, die die Vergangenheit als Klamottenkiste ihres Repertoires benutzt. Das Zitat ist keine Zutat der Mode, sondern macht Substanz und Effekt aus.62

Even more significant is the parallel with Hein's scathing critique in 1983 of Peter Sloterdijk's Kritik der zynischen Vernunft of the same year. His protagonist Wörle embodies the essence of “cynicism” as defined by Sloterdijk: “‘aufgeklärt falsches Bewuβtsein,’ eine morallose Herrenhaltung der Ideologie und Maskerade.”63 For Wörle both suggests the sources of his behavior and cynically denies them. His technique is that with which Hein charges Sloterdijk too, a wilful (i.e., “cynical”) Spiel with texts and ideas: “Da spielt man mit Nietzsche … Wie Sloterdijk mit Philosophen und Texten umgeht … ist geprägt von dem unbekümmert fröhlichen Atem des Feuilletons … Fälschungen und Verdrehungen, jedoch ein Schelm, wer Arges dabei denkt” (emphasis added). He quoted Sloterdijk's own admission “… daβ man es mit dem Überlieferten nicht zu genau nehmen darf. Darin liegt natürlich auch eine groβe hermeneutische Chance, und von der machen wir hier hemmungslos Gebrauch.”64 This is surely precisely Wörle's strategy. The whole arsenal of Western culture provides the raw material from which Wörle has woven his elaborate self-justification. This, I would argue, is the significance of the plethora of literary and philosophical allusions and echoes which Hein's text reveals. Wörle exploits this stock to develop the elaborate “spiel” (in its English sense) which will enable him to continue his Spiel at the expense of others.65

Hein's essay on Sloterdijk offers us a further key term in identifying the ideengeschichtlicher Kontext referred to earlier: “Sloterdijk bündelte die Surrogate von Leben und Zynismen der Hilflosigkeit, um sie als Monument einer neuen Ethik erscheinen zu lassen, postmodern …”66 In Wörle we do indeed recognize three of the features associated with the “postmodern”67: firstly, role-play and quotation, with the past treated as a museum of styles and roles68 whose entire stock of cultural and philosophical forms and ideas is available on a “pick-and-mix” basis to create one's personal “style” or “costume”; secondly, an aestheticization of experience in which art and reality merge, with an accompanying emphasis on performance rather than content;69 thirdly, play no longer as conceived by Schiller, Huizinga, and others but rather as the notion developed by Derrida and others of jeu libre, an endless movement without goals or ends and a consequent “Gleichberechtigung der Spiele” and “deren Unverbindlichkeit und Folgenlosigkeit.”70

Whereas Western critics such as Scherpe's and Schnell's accounts of postmodernism see it above all as a cultural phenomenon, a product of modern (“postmodern”?) society (Scherpe speaks of an “ästhetische Entsorgung der Modernisie-rungs-schäden”71), left-wing critics such as Gudrun Klatt view it more harshly, as a despairing response on the part of the 1960s generation to the failure of their utopian ambition, a reading similar to Sloterdijk's view of the cynicism of the 1970s and 1980s in his Kritik der zynischen Vernunft. Klatt sees postmodernism as a “Bestätigung des So-Seins” and as a “Tendenz zur Ästhetisierung des Krisenbewuβtseins.”72 Hein's critique of Sloterdijk pursues the same line of argument: he brackets together “postmodern” and “cynicism” as “das … neue Gefühl der westdeutschen Linken, eines Teils von ihr,”73 specifically “nach vielen Enttäuschungen und verlorenen Hoffnungen.”74 Their engagement for such causes, Hein claims, was never really serious and was therefore doomed to failure. “Und das geschulte Bewuβtsein kann den Verfall nur verarbeiten, indem es seine Katastrophe als neue Tugend ausstellt: Man ist nicht einfach zynisch, das wäre ja bourgeois; man unterscheidet sich und präsentiert den Zynismus zynisch.”75

Christoph Hein, by contrast, who has repeatedly asserted the need to hope despite all disappointments, cannot so readily abandon his ideals: “Diese Beliebigkeit langweilt mich. Meine Kämpfe hier habe ich nicht so billig … Wir haben keine Wahl, denn es ist unsere Wirklichkeit, unsere eigene, unaufgebbare Wirklichkeit.”76Das Napoleon-Spiel reflects this critical stance: it reveals that, despite all Wörle's talking and posing, his Spiel is not folgenlos—not only does it leave Bagnall dead but the underlying “theory” is then pressed into service as mask for Wörle's real motives and as justification for a killing. As Fritz-Jochen Kopka says at the close of his review: “Ein reicher Irrer findet immer eine Ideologie, wenn er töten will.”77

These links to the essays of the early 1980s confirm that the germ of Das Napoleon-Spiel lies in Hein's critique of some Western—and doubtless Eastern too—intellectual attitudes as he saw them at that time. Later, in the late 1980s, Hein became an outspoken critic of attempts in East and West alike to falsify or blandly disregard history and the moral responsibility which it imposes, attempts which illustrated the cynicism that he had attacked in the earlier essays.78 Then, as McKnight has persuasively argued,79 his close-up experience of some of the leading figures in the GDR apparatus while working on the committee which investigated police brutality on 7 and 8 October 1989 in East Berlin80—and probably also further exposure to the less attractive aspects of the West in the immediate post-Unification period—gave a further impetus and a new, more immediate relevance to Hein's portrait of Wörle.

Despite the thematic similarities there is a world of difference in approach between Hein's essays and Das Napoleon-Spiel. The figure of Wörle is not conceived as a realistic portrait; Hein's aim is not verisimilitude—he regards a direct connection between events and their literary representation as “eine Gefahr für die Literatur, auf jeden Fall für die meine.”81 Instead he gives us a satirical version of the cynical disregard both for the integrity of the sources and for morality which is inherent in such contemporary intellectual poses. Moreover, the discursive analysis of the essays is replaced in the novel by an aesthetically more satisfying view from within which offers to the reader a game-like challenge to “see through” its protagonist's mask as well as they did in the case of Der fremde Freund—and for Western critics this involved a degree of detachment from their own cultural environment which not all were able to achieve. In opting for Rollenprosa he has placed Wörle in the position of narrator and thus enabled him to make the reader, as well as Fiarthes, the potential victim in his “godgame.”

In fact, Hein's text as a whole leaves the reader with little solid ground under the feet. The final section of the text, Wörle's second letter to his lawyer Fiarthes, opens up the dizzying perspectives of a structure en abîme. If Wörle is planning to have his first letter published by “einem Schriftsteller, der das Ganze unter seinem Namen herausbringen soll … ich werde unter diesen ausgehungerten Burschen leicht einen geeigneten Strohmann finden …” (197), what is the status of the text before us? Does the same apply to the second letter? What will be the outcome of the second Spiel announced in the entirely open-ended second letter? The final pages consist in large measure of instructions to Fiarthes, by which Wörle seeks to direct his and our reactions. As Fritz Rudolf Fries comments in his NDL review: “Doch dann ist in den Bekenntnissen dieses geistigen Hochstaplers eine Bodenlosigkeit, die der Autor uns planvoll bereitet hat. Wir alle, ob Masse oder Spieler, taumeln ins Nichts.”82

Instead of the text as collaborative game between reader and author, it thus becomes what R. Rawdon Wilson describes as the text as labyrinth, with “corridors of doubt, passageways of perplexity, forking paths of decision” or even as “a challenge flung in the reader's face,”83 requiring the reader to challenge its monological nature and elaborate its suppressed subtext. It exhibits, with its overt lack of historicality, its intertextuality and its wilful way with its sources, just those features against which its implicit critique is directed.

This is not to claim for Das Napoleon-Spiel that it is the fashionable “postmodern text,” only that it engages with such tendencies, revealing within a specific historical context their potentially destructive consequences for moral values, whether in the personal, national or international spheres. From Hein's own point of view, it represents a considerable departure from his previous work, as the rather baffled initial reactions of commentators indicate. Indeed, one might go so far as to suggest that, in as far as every work of art is a kind of Spiel and every artist something of a Spieler—a notion repeatedly suggested in the text84Das Napoleon-Spiel may well be seen as a risky enterprise, his Moscow, though not, one suspects, his Waterloo.


  1. Helmut Böttiger, “Das Amoralische hat Hochkonjunktur,” Frankfurter Rundschau 3 April 1993: 4.

  2. Ulrike Böhmel Fichera: “Der Sieger. Christoph Heins Das Napoleon-Spiel, (1993),” Literatur für Leser 3 (1995): 134.

  3. Böhmel Fichera 130. Her suggestion of ‘Eindeutigkeit’ is hardly borne out by the variety of attempts to spell out what the connection is. Jürgen Kanold saw it as an ‘ostalgic’ portrayal of “die Banalität des Bösen in Gestalt eines Macht-Wessis” (Jürgen Kanold, “Memoiren eines Bürokraten,” Schwäbisches Tageblatt [Tübingen] 22 June 1993). By contrast, Helmut Böttiger saw in the work “ein Modell des DDR-Problems: die Durchdringung der Gesellschaft mit dem Stasi-Geflecht” (Böttiger 4). Other, and more subtle, attempts to relate the novel directly to contemporary concerns include Werner Rossade's linking of the central character's taste for difficult, self-imposed problems to “… machtpolitischen Verfahren … die Krisen erst selbst erzeugen, um sie dann mit viel Aufwand—und nicht ohne eigenes Risiko—zu ‘meistern,’ mit mörderischen Folgen für die unwillentlich Betroffenen,” of which Russia's adventures in Georgia are cited as one example (Werner Rossade, “Der absolute Spieler,” Deutschland-Archiv 11 (1994): 1216).

  4. All page references are to Christoph Hein, Das Napoleon-Spiel (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau, 1993).

  5. Böhmel Fichera 134.

  6. Martin Krumbholz, “Unendliche Balläufe,” die tageszeitung [Berlin] 3 June 1993.

  7. For information on the circumstances of the writing of Das Napoleon-Spiel see Phillip McKnight, Understanding Christoph Hein (Columbia, South Carolina: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1995) 113.

  8. Thomas Rietzschel, “Doch die Verhältnisse, sie sind nicht so,” Literatur Spectrum 10 July 1993:7.

  9. Jamal Tuschik, “Manipulation an der Reizschraube,” Rheinischer Merkur 9 April 1993: 22.

  10. Hannes Krauss, “Steigender Einsatz,” Freitag 9 April 1993.

  11. Anon, “Tödliche Spiele gegen tödliche Langeweile,” Der Bund [Bern] 24 June 1993:31. These literary judgements must be distinguished from the disgraceful suggestions by Die Welt's reviewer, Chaim Noll, that the work is a “Versuch der Selbstanklage”: “Der Autor hat etwas zu verbergen, vielleicht etwas sehr Schäbiges, aber macht das allein schon interessant?” Noll adds that whereas other former GDR writers “sich öffentlich zu ihrem Mittun bekennen und daraus noch Kapital schlagen … [zu] diesem Spiel fehlt Autor Hein der Mut.” (Chaim Noll, “Lieber ein Verbrecher sein als ein Versager,” Die Welt [Hamburg] 25 March 1993).

  12. For example by Jamal Tuschik (see note 9).

  13. As Irmtraud Gutschke rightly pointed out in Neues Deutschland, the reader “kann sich auch abwenden; Was gehen mich die Obsessionen dieses Wörle an? Solchen Unterton hatten mehrere Rezensionen zu ‘Das Napoleon-Spiel’” (Irmtraud Gutschke, “Spielen oder gespielt werden,” Neues Deutschland [Berlin] 3–6 May 1993, Literaturbeilage: 1).

  14. E.g., the contributions by Gabriele Lindner, Bernd Schick, and Ursula Wilke to the “Für und Wider” debate in Weimarer Beiträge 29 (1983): 1635–55.

  15. Böhmel Fichera 134.

  16. Some critics, while sensing this, appear to draw the wrong conclusions, e.g. Jamal Tuschik, who describes Wörle as “ein in Ideen vernarrter Marottenkopf mit der Spezialität, zu behaupten, von allem, was er unternimmt, es gelänge ihm auβerordentlich gut” (see note 9). By contrast, Fritz-Jochen Kopka rightly comments, in one of the most perceptive reviews, “Weiβ der Teufel, ob Wörle wirklich ein Spieler ist. Ein Schwätzer ist er auf jeden Fall. Und ein Schwätzer lügt.” Fritz-Jochen Kopka, “Reicher Irrer,” Wochenpost 29 April 1993:26.

  17. “Wörle uses language in the same way he practices [sic] billiards: the spin of each word, sentence, and phrase he uses is calculated to impact on his colleague Fiarthes in a certain, predictable way. Likewise the spin placed on the language by Hein has an impact on the reader as well, a calculated impact which causes his or her disbelief to grow with the increasing realization of the potential for human atrocities contained in this man Wörle” (McKnight 115).

  18. Christoph Hein, “Ich werde als DDR-Schriftsteller in die Grube fahren,” Freitag 28 May 1993:9.

  19. While some reconciliation of the apparent contradiction might be possible, it indicates that Wörle's statements at any particular point are governed by the rhetorical needs of the moment rather than by a strict concern for either truthfulness or internal consistency.

  20. An assertion which all the critics appear to accept without demur.

  21. Strangely, the early encounters with the factory women and the Katja episode are virtually ignored in the reviews of Das Napoleon-Spiel.

  22. Franz Schütte, Glücksspiel und Narziβmus. Der pathologische Spieler aus soziologischer und tiefenpsychologischer Sicht (Bochum: Studienverlag Brockmeyer, 1985) 11.

  23. Schütte 59.

  24. Schütte 60.

  25. Though these may well be historically or sociologically rooted—see Böhmel Fichera's analysis of his psychological deficiencies (note 2).

  26. Heinz-Peter Preuβer suggests that Hein alludes to Freudian theories about the “anal character” in his portrayal of Racine in “Einladung zum Lever bourgeois”; see Heinz-Peter Preuβer, Zivilisationskritik und literarische Öffentlichkeit. Strukturale und wertungs-theoretische Untersuchungen zu erzählenden Texten Christoph Heins (Frankfurt/Bern: Peter Lang, 1991) 18, note 21.

  27. Schütte 71ff.

  28. Schütte 86.

  29. Schütte 116, 119.

  30. See, for example, Ines Zekert's Poetologie und Prophetie. Christoph Heins Prosa und Dramatik im Kontext seiner Walter-Benjamin-Rezeption (Frankfurt/Berlin: Peter Lang, 1993), and my article “The Fear of Allegory. Benjaminian Elements in Christoph Hein's The Distant Lover,New German Critique 66 (1995): 164–92.

  31. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, 8 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974) 5:635–37. Much of the material in this section of the Passagen-Werk was used in the writing of Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire which could also be Hein's source.

  32. Benjamin 636.

  33. Benjamin 641.

  34. Benjamin 637.

  35. Benjamin 621, quoted by Benjamin from Paul Laforgue, Die Ursachen des Gottesglaubens. These associations emphasize the socio-economic and historical sources of Wörle's psychological deformation. Bourgeois politics too are seen as a form of Spiel: “Für die Bourgeoisie insbesondere nehmen die politischen Ereignisse leicht die Form von Vorgängen am Spieltisch an” (Benjamin 640). Benjamin thus brings together the three fields—financial gain, politics, and sexual adventures—in which Wörle the Spieler is active.

  36. Benjamin 609–18 and 629–53. Wörle's short-termism, relative indifference to financial gain, and rejection of Erfahrung echo Benjamin's account of Baudelaire's portrayal of le jeu (Benjamin 632–37): “Das Immer-wieder-von-vorn-anfangen ist die regulative Idee des Spiels (wie der Lohnarbeit)” (Benjamin 636).

  37. Benjamin 612.

  38. Benjamin 638.

  39. Other links between Das Napoleon-Spiel and the Passagen-Werk might be seen in the common portrayal of gambling in the one case and billiards in the other as an unending succession of Konstellationen, each requiring a new reaction from the Spieler (Benjamin 639), and in Benjamin's reference to Schwellenerfahrungen (Benjamin 617–18). Hein leaves Wörle poised on the threshold of the women's shower-room, into which he is never allowed to enter (27). The Realitätsprinzip, in the form of war and flight, frustrates the satisfaction of the Lustprinzip—a source, according to psycho-analysis, of the narcissism seen in Wörle. One wonders also whether it is only coincidence that Gracian's maxim “in allen Dingen die Zeit auf seine Seite zu bringen wissen,” quoted in the “Prostitution. Spiel” section of the Passagen-Werk (Benjamin 640), also occurs in Hein's Horns Ende, which was written in 1982–83, the time from which the idea for Das Napoleon-Spiel dates. Hein says in his Freitag interview (see note 18) that “die ersten Notizen für diesen Roman gibt es vom November 1982.”

  40. Lothar Baier, “Jenseits von Gewinn und Verlust,” Süddeutsche Zeitung [Munich] 31 March 1993, Feuilleton 1.

  41. Benjamin 634.

  42. Evidence for Hein's reception of Pascal is to be found in Preuβer 18–20.

  43. The echoes of Camus have been noted by many critics. The references to death from a falling rooftile (165) or from a collapsing bridge (169) also have a familiar ring, recalling the manner of death of Ödön von Horvath and Cyrano de Bergerac, but I have not been able to trace any specific reference.

  44. Blaise Pascal, Les Pensées, ed. Z. Tourneur and D. Anzieu, 2 vols. (Paris: Armand Colin, 1960) 1: 93, 97 (= Brunschwig edition, no. 377).

  45. Pascal 1:97.

  46. Benjamin 693.

  47. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Abstract), ed. I. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd ed. by P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978) 649ff.

  48. Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1970) 361.

  49. “Unbelehrbar—Erich Fried. Rede zur Verleihung des Erich-Fried-Preises am 6. Mai 1990 in Wien,” Christoph Hein. Texte, Daten, Bilder, ed. Lothar Baier (Frankfurt: Luchterhand Literatur-Verlag, 1990) 29–30. The idea also occurs in Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q of 1983: “Eine unerwartete Wendung der Geschichte … Die Geschichte liebt Sprünge, Dialektik. Vom Niederen aufsteigend zum Höheren und abfallend ins Triviale.” Christoph Hein, Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q. Stücke und Essays (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Sammlung Luchterhand, 1984) 125.

  50. G. W. Fr. Hegel, Briefe von und an Hegel, ed. J. Hoffmeister, 4 vols. (Hamburg: Meiner, 1969) 1:120.

  51. G. W. Fr. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschicht. Sämtliche Werke, Jubiläumsausgabe, ed. H. Glockner (Stuttgart: Fr. Frommann Verlag, 1961) 11:61.

  52. Ulrike Böhmel Fichera points out the prevalence of the number three in the novel and ascribes this to Wörle's being a member of the “dritte Generation” (Böhmel Fichera 133). It seems more likely that it is related to the three balls used in billiards and to the ever-changing “constellations” of three thus created.

  53. For a discussion of the “moral” dimension within what Hein calls “die stattfindende Geschichte” see my article “‘Unverhofftes Wiedersehen’: Narrative Paradigms in Christoph Hein's ‘Nachtfahrt und früher Morgen’ and ‘Exekution eines Kalbes,’” German Life and Letters 51 (1998): 398–414.

  54. Eugen Fink, “The Oasis of Happiness: Towards an Ontology of Play,” Yale French Studies 41 (1968): 24–25.

  55. R. Rawdon Wilson, In Palamedes' Shadow. Explorations in Play, Game and Narrative Theory (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1990) 123–24. In literature the “godgame” has a long history, sometimes with evil intent, as in Othello, but more often with an honorable, educative purpose, as in Die Zauberflöte, Wilhelm Meister, and Der Steppenwolf.

  56. Wilson 124.

  57. Wilson 124.

  58. Friedrich Schiller, Sämtliche Werke, ed. G. Fricke and H. G. Göpfert, 5 vols. (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1980) 5:669. Hein's knowledge of Schiller is emphasized by a comment in his speech to the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung in October 1992: “… seit meinem zwölften Lebensjahr, seit der Lektüre von Schillers Gesamtwerk in einem Band, war mein Beruf entschieden.” Christoph Hein, “Über mich selbst,” Die Mauern von Jerichow. Essais und Reden (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau Taschenbuchverlag, 1996) 241.

  59. “Die schöne Seele muβ sich also in Affekt in eine erhabene wandeln … die schöne Seele geht ins Heroische über und erhebt sich zur reinen Intelligenz,” writes Schiller in “Über Anmut und Würde” (Schiller 5:474–5).

  60. Wörle indicates his real view of any such idealism when he describes “die Aufklärung des Menschengeschlechts” (Lessing?) as “eine Fantasterei von Burschen, die die Welt nicht kennen” (76).

  61. Hans Mayer, “Anmerkungen zu ‘Stiller,’” Dürrenmatt und Frisch (Pfullingen: Neske, 1963) 38–54.

  62. Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q 156–57. Another passage in the same essay also seems to describe Wörle's attitude to history: “Macht erlaubt sich keine Historie, läβt den Sinn für Geschichte verkümmern, da sie allein besorgt ist, Anspruch und Erhalt ihrer Herrschaft zu sichern” (Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q 142).

  63. Christoph Hein, “Linker Kolonialismus oder Der Wille zum Feuilleton,” Schlötel, oder Was solls, Stücke und Essays (Darmstadt/Neuwied: Sammlung Luchterhand, 1986) 184. This connection is pointed out by Fritz-Jochen Kopka (see note 16).

  64. Schlötel, oder Was solls 184–85.

  65. Schlötel, oder Was solls 192.

  66. Schlötel, oder Was solls 192.

  67. I rely here on definitions advanced in the following: Klaus Scherpe, “Von der Moderne zur Postmoderne,” Weimarer Beiträge 37.3 (1991); RalfSchnell, “Zwischen Geschichtsphilosophie und ‘posthistoire,’” Weimarer Beiträge 37.3 (1991); Gudrun Klatt, “Moderne und Postmoderne im Streit zwischen Jean-François Lyotard und Jürgen Habermas,” Weimarer Beiträge 35.3 (1989).

  68. Scherpe 358, 363–67. Scherpe identifies one feature of the postmodern particularly relevant to Wörle: the only form in which authentic experience is available is one's own death, hence the “Lust am Untergang” and the tendency “mit der Selbstzerstörung zu kokettieren” (Scherpe 361–63). This last phrase aptly describes Wörle's “gambling” with his own existence.

  69. Schnelle 343.

  70. Klatt 274.

  71. Scherpe 361.

  72. Klatt 277, 275.

  73. Schlötel, oder Was solls 192.

  74. Schlötel, oder Was solls 184.

  75. Schlötel, oder Was solls 199. Significantly, Hein echoes Sloterdijk's words quoted earlier (see note 64) when discussing “die Postmoderne” with Frauke Meyer-Gosau during the time when he was writing Das Napoleon-Spiel: “Postmoderne ist die Chance, in eine selbstver-schuldete Unmündigkeit zu gelangen, von der man auch hemmungslos Gebrauch macht.” Christoph Hein, “‘Ich bin der Leser, für den ich schreibe.’ Ein Gespräch mit Frauke Meyer-Gosau,” Christoph Hein. Text + Kritik 111 (1991): 87.

  76. Schlötel, oder Was solls 199.

  77. Kopka (see note 16).

  78. For Hein's critique of the Western Historikerstreit, see his essay of 1989, “Die Zeit, die nicht vergehen kann,” Christoph Hein, Die fünfte Grundrechenart (Frankfurt: Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 1990) 129–54. For his criticism of GDR historiography, see “Die fünfte Grundrechenart,” also of 1989, in the same volume, 163–72. His experience with the Untersuchungskommission in particular could lie behind his quotation in 1992, in his “Über mich selbst” of Nietzsche's famous dictum about the clash between memory and pride—and its cynical outcome (Die Mauern von Jerichow 240).

  79. McKnight 131–35.

  80. Und diese verdammte Ohnmacht. Report der unabhängigen Untersuchungskommission zu den Ereignissen vom 7./8. Oktober 1989 in Berlin (Berlin: BasisDruck, 1991). Hein comments in his introduction: “Wenn man den vor der Kommission erfolgten Aussagen Glauben schenken will, so waren die mächtigsten Männer des Staates und seiner Sicherheitskräfte alle heimliche Widerstandskämpfer. (Auch die aus dem Politbüro zur Anhörung vorgeladenen Personen legten Wert darauf, entsetzt und unschuldig und mit Widerstand beschäftigt gewesen zu sein).” (Und diese verdammte Ohnmacht 12). This experience is possibly reflected in Wörle's ability to escape penalty for the killing of Bagnall.

  81. “Ich bin der Leser, für den ich schreibe.” 88.

  82. Fritz Rudolf Fries, “Das Feldherren-Syndrom,” Neue deutsche Literatur 41, 5 (1993): 139.

  83. Wilson, 155, 242.

  84. Wörle might be thought to speak for Hein when he writes “Ich will den Erfolg, aber wenn ich ihn erreicht habe, werde ich den nächsten und schwierigeren anstreben. Und nur das Miβlingen eines Spiels kann mich bewegen, einen Ballstoβ zu wiederholen” (203)—a remark entirely in line with Hein's repeated rejection of repetitive, unadventurous art as “Makkulatur.”

David W. Robinson (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24335

SOURCE: Robinson, David W. “Hein's Historians: Fictions of Social Memory.” In Deconstructing East Germany: Christoph Hein's Literature of Dissent, edited by James Hardin, pp. 125–80. Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1999.

[In the following essay, Robinson analyzes Hein's theory that historical chronicle is a subjective record influenced by personal experience.]


While all of Christoph Hein's work reveals a fascination with the impact of history on individual experience, several of his most ambitious texts deal explicitly with history as an intellectual discipline and space for social engagement. The early story “Einladung zum Lever Bourgeois” (1980)1 and the novels Horns Ende (1985) and Der Tangospieler (1989; translated into English as The Tango Player, 1992) explore the significance of history as material fact and social memory through fictive portrayals of historians: Racine is court historian to Louis XIV, Horn (along with Bürgermeister Kruschkatz and, in a different sense, Dr. Spodeck) is a professional historian whose career has been diverted by political circumstance, and Hans-Peter Dallow is a once and future professor of history at Karl Marx University in Leipzig. The narratives themselves and Hein's published essays and interviews leave little doubt that the professional activity (or inactivity) of these writers of history may be understood in relation to Hein's own sense of responsibility as a writer of fiction, of histoire or Geschichte in all senses. As Hein frequently stresses, history is anything but the dusting-off of neglected tomes:

History interests us for the sake of the present. Historical contemplation is always a naming [Benennen] of the immediate time and place. The judgments of history are never free from current interests and they exert an influence on contemporary society.

(“Die fünfte Grundrechenart” 61)2

Accordingly, the approaches taken by Hein's professional historians to their subject matter provide a scale of values and methods suited for judging the engagement of ordinary people with the social realities confronting them. Though historians bear a special social responsibility, their pursuit of truth amid rampant falsehood epitomizes a practical and moral necessity shared by every member of society.

In keeping with the non-partisan stance Hein advocates, a chronicle consists not of ready-made generalizations but of hard, individual facts and experiences, the traces of the real that make possible the construction as well as the deconstruction of ideological fiction. Yet this implies that objectivity with respect to the facts must coexist with intense subjectivity, since all chronicles of any value amount to personal reports, eyewitness accounts of events experienced by a real human observer. The writing of history therefore has a dual character: it is both social chronicle and autobiography. Hein regards all art, including his own, as “social autobiography”:

My subject matter is located in my eyes and ears, it sits under my skin, because it very much gets under my skin. As always it is the beam in my own eye, the stake in my own flesh. Literature in the future will also speak of what concerns individuals, of what affects them. It will be autobiography, not private, yet nonetheless personal, not representative, yet nonetheless social autobiography. Reports by individuals about these individuals in the world, a world which I assimilate according to my understanding, abilities, and attitudes—the world which I am.

(“Öffentlich arbeiten” 34)

While history is the ultimate subject matter of art (a point on which Hein and his Party-line critics would have agreed), history itself is to be understood as personal experience, as social autobiography rather than the unfolding of impersonal laws. Hein's books on history address simultaneously questions of historical reality, ideological distortion, personal/political responsibility, and the nature of art, but Hein sees himself principally as a chronicler (or historian) of the real, the mundane, the ordinary. Art and history describe relations of individuals to these social and political conditions. Thus in Horns Ende, a succession of “historians” (amateur or professional, it makes no difference) chronicle a relatively insignificant moment in the history of a relatively insignificant town, each from his or her idiosyncratic point of view. To attempt a more general history, Hein seems to suggest, would involve falsifications of reality more insidious than anything these individuals can be accused of. The novel is constructed according to principles already worked out in the early collection of short stories, combining the representative banality of the “Berliner Stadtansichten” with the self-conscious reflection (and first-person viewpoint) of “Einladung zum Lever Bourgeois.” Yet these limitations of ordinariness do not prevent the narrated facts from having political meaning. Speculating as to how much we can really know about history, Hein remarked in 1982 that “Every event manifests itself to us merely as the tip of an iceberg: a self-concealing network of causes and interests hides behind the face of the obvious facts” (“Gespräch” 128). The chronicler, unlike the ideologue, presents facts, opinions, and even falsifications of fact to the reader without overtly or covertly dictating the appropriate conclusions to be drawn from them.

The question arises as to what may be the ultimate purpose of these exercises in “social autobiography.” Hein has above all characterized his art as Lebenshilfe, an aid to living, meaning that it helps people to assimilate confusing or painful experiences and respond to them productively. Hein's subversion of East German cultural orthodoxy consists in the production of texts that portray individuals in the toils of historical, social, and political events much larger than they—subversion, because to respond to political events productively is to respond politically. Taking seriously the Marxist goal of building political consciousness among the masses, Hein relies on the notion of chronicling as a way of counteracting the government's pervasive Bevormündung (tutelage, patronage) of its citizens. The reader is required, perhaps for the first time, to bring an independent evaluation to bear on the facts of recent, even contemporary history, without any obvious ideological meddling on the part of the author or the state. (Clearly, the didactic import of this procedure discloses Hein's kinship with his Socialist Realist colleagues—he, too, has an ax to grind after all. Yet a genuine difference can be seen in the kind of effect desired: Hein enjoys watching the Rorschach-like effect of his shrewd narrative strategies on readers, remarking blandly that criticism tends to reveal more about critics than authors [“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 53–54].) Hein believes adamantly that political change can only come about when individuals take responsibility for their actions, or better, when they conceive of themselves as capable of acting. In bringing about this kind of political self-awareness, “Literatur ist machtlos, aber sie ist nicht ohnmächtig” [Literature lacks power, but it isn't powerless: “Worüber man nicht reden kann” 49]; that is, literature cannot claim to exert direct political power—Creon need not listen—but it can alter the way people think about historical facts and the facts of their lives. Thus the real efficacy of chronicling lies not so much in the unearthing of new facts, but in naming things known but never articulated, in dragging formerly inert realities onto the field of political action. Not the facts chronicled, but the chronicle itself achieves this:

It hasn't been the reported event, the specified state of affairs, but the report itself, the chronicle, the description that caused a sensation, created excitement, and led to action being taken. Not the condition of our beautiful and terrible world, but the report about that condition constitutes a happening. Still more: The condition, the state of affairs, the incident may be generally known and seemingly tolerated, while the naming of it, the simple literary or non-literary description, in which nothing is said that wasn't already known, leads to an uproar of joy or horror and to effective action.

(“Worüber man nicht reden kann” 47–48)

The power of historical writing seems to derive from its capacity to inspire personal recognition and acknowledgment of a reported state of affairs, not from its proximity to timeless, abstract truth. The concrete experience of socialist countries over seventy years was that abstract, “scientific” accounts of history amounted to what Hein calls “die fünfte Grundrechenart”—the fifth basic arithmetical operation—a calculation whose desired outcome is preordained, with the data selected or manipulated so as to yield it (“Die fünfte Grundrechenart” 60). For Hein, history cannot be described by formulas, but is particular and subjective, in other words, literary.

The key concept in Hein's view of the social functions of literature and historical chronicling is Öffentlichtkeit, “publicness,” or, to borrow Gorbachev's related and contemporary concept of glasnost, “openness.” Hein repeatedly cites the GDR's lack of Öffentlichkeit as the most glaring and dangerous failure of East German culture, and hints at an even broader, political significance:

Openness [Öffentlichkeit] is not a means by which culture is propagated, rather it is culture's precondition. This does not mean “limited openness” (a self-contradictory notion), nor does it mean “openness for an elite.”

Selected culture is the opposite of culture. When disagreements are lacking, or take place only behind closed doors, when conclusions are reached in isolation from society, then not only this aspect of culture but culture as a whole withers, and becomes impoverished.

Culture is more comprehensive than that which appears useful, or comfortable, or agreeable, and it dies with each restriction. For culture is not just the admired and successful work of the individual, but the total spiritual work of the whole people, including the work of specialists, of artists. Only insofar as this total work is carried out openly do we have culture.

(“Öffentlich arbeiten” 36)

When applied to the writing of history, Hein's conception of Öffentlichkeit underscores the importance of allowing disparate voices and viewpoints to flourish and compete, this being the only way to compensate for the essential fragmentation, distortion, and outright lying that all discourse exhibits. Though no friend of what capitalist ideologues call the “free market,” Hein fiercely champions a free market of ideas, whether in history or art; not surprisingly, this position culminates in Hein's denunciation of the GDR's practice of literary censorship in his essay “Die Zensur.” Yet Hein's artistic practice itself provides the strongest protest against intellectual conformity, nowhere more so than in these meditations on history. The monologic narratives Der fremde Freund, “Einladung zum Lever Bourgeois,” and Der Tangospieler ultimately prove to be depictions of intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy, while the polyphony of Horns Ende enacts a genuinely dialectical discourse, pitting contradictory worldviews against one another without hiding the extremity of the contradictions. Nothing less can save historical discourse from dogmatic Marxism's shockingly undialectical special pleading and self-justification.3


Hein's characterization of the French playwright and courtier Racine, the focus of the short story “Einladung zum Lever Bourgeois,” assembles many of the traits of other characters inhabiting the later, more ambitious narratives. The story, which describes Racine's morning routine on an ordinary day, is set in early 1699, shortly before the 59-year-old writer's death due to a liver ailment, possibly cancer. Sitting in agony atop a chamber pot, unable to void his excrement, Racine thinks about his roles as court historiographer, reigning playwright, husband, lover, and superannuated Versailles functionary, dwelling unhappily on the conflicts between official duty and private desire, on the need to suppress historical truth out of political expediency, and on the personal price he has paid for his enviable status at the court of Louis XIV. In his willing repression of his past experiences, his renunciation of personal desire, and his capacity to rationalize his self-destructive actions, Hein's Racine anticipates Claudia in Der fremde Freund; in his remarks about the nature of history and its writing, he points the way toward Horn, Kruschkatz, and Spodeck in Horns Ende. The story's straight-forward linkage of public expediency to personal devastation marks it as an early effort to capture in narrative form the conflicts Hein had expressed dramatically in Schlötel and especially in Cromwell. Its discovery of history per se as a central theme had momentous importance for Hein's subsequent work.

The contradictory and tendentious record of Racine's life provided Hein with a great deal of freedom in constructing a complex character and inferring motivations for his sometimes enigmatic actions.4 Among the most puzzling of these was Racine's sudden renunciation of stage writing in 1677—soon after the production of Phèdre, and at the height of his 13-year dramatic career. After a life of mild libertinage (two of his leading actresses became mistresses), he reconciled himself with his Jansenist upbringing and married a wealthy, respectable wife, and soon after, with Boileau, was appointed royal historiographer, which, according to Saintsbury, in practice amounted to being named the king's “chief flatterer”: “Very little came of this historiography. The joint incumbents of the office made some campaigns with the king, sketched plans of histories, and left a certain number of materials and memoirs; but they executed no substantive work” (Saintsbury 207). In contrast to Racine's biographer Mary Duclaux, for instance, Hein has no interest in explaining away the royal historian's inactivity (Duclaux 144), nor does he follow the tradition, founded by son Louis Racine and copied by subsequent hagiographers (for instance, Duclaux 129), of ascribing the playwright's transformation primarily to religious motives. Instead, Hein's story proposes that the common root of these perplexing facts lay in the failure of Racine's relationship with his second mistress, the actress Marie de Champmeslé, whom Hein elevates on rather thin biographical warrant to the central passion of Racine's life. (Brereton, by contrast, dismisses her as “an episode, though a long and important one, in his life … [which] left him somewhat bitterly inclined towards her” [154].) Hein explains Racine's behavior as play-wright and historian as a complex response to the contradictions between those public and private roles.

Hein's Racine is trapped between the pressure of state power and his altogether stifled desire for a fulfilling private existence, which here amounts to a desire for love and free expression. At the time of the story, he has been a successful courtier for twenty years, yet he remains preoccupied with the personal price paid for this position of prestige and power.5 His reminiscences, like Claudia's, circle around their main point before revealing it; thus the first memory to surface while Racine sits on his chamber pot is of the campaign in Holland 20 years earlier, when the newly appointed court historian had accompanied Louis XIV into the field as a chronicler of the war. He remembers his experiences in the village of Neerwinden as the last time he was fully in possession of his health, and the implication is clear that the atrocities he witnessed there—and helped to hush up—had something to do with his physical deterioration. Racine's physician has informed him that “Letzte Gewiβheit über Ihren Zustand, Verehrter, … werden auβer Gott wir alle erst nach der letzten Eröffnung unseres geschätzten Hofhistoriographen haben” [Final certainty as to your condition, Excellency, will be granted to any apart from God only after the esteemed court historian's final disclosure: (Nachtfahrt und früher Morgen, hereafter cited as NUFM) 121]—a macabre pun on the senses of Eröffnung as “disclosure” or “revelation” (such as a court historian might be expected to deliver) and “autopsy” (Leichenöffnung). Hein transforms the illness into a metaphor: Racine's internal disorder is a physical analog to his undisclosed knowledge of a specific historical fact, the brutality at Neerwinden. Hein portrays the younger Racine as an innocent, exposed for the first time to the realities of warfare and, more broadly, to absolutist power. As an old man, he still vividly recalls the savagery of the crime and its handling by the military authorities:

Das Verfahren gegen die drei Offiziere. Eine holländische Bäuerin war vergewaltigt worden, man fand sie dann zusammen mit ihrem Kind in der Stallung tot auf. Die Untersuchung wurde eingestellt, um höhere Interessen nicht zu inkommodieren. Alltag der Armee. Der Bauer, der die drei Offiziere angezeigt hatte, ein Nachbar jener Frau, verübte später—wie der französische Kommandant im Dorf bekanntgeben lieβ—Selbstmord. Schuldig des Diebstahls von Militäreigentum. Bemerkenswert daran, daβ er sich in seiner Scheune mehr als zwanzigmal eine Forke in den Körper gestoβen haben muβte, so daβ sein Leib in zwei Teile zerriβ.

(NUFM 122)

[The proceeding against the three officers. A Dutch peasant woman had been raped; she and her child were found in the stable dead. The investigation was arranged so as to avoid inconveniencing higher interests. Standard operating procedure in the army. According to a statement issued by the French commandant of the village, the farmer who implicated the three officers, a neighbor of the woman, later committed suicide. Guilty of stealing military property. The remarkable thing was that he must have stabbed himself more than twenty times with a pitchfork, so that his body lay torn in two in his barn.]

Confronted with this compound atrocity, Racine did nothing and remained silent, not, he says, because of any lack of courage, but because of “Lebenserfahrung” [life experience: NUFM 123]. He claims to have no feelings of guilt mixed with his prudence, “weder damals noch heute” [neither then nor now: 123], yet his account of Neerwinden, filled with windy rationalizations, is a document in guilt. Racine casts himself as “ein kleiner Geschichtsschreiber, gegen die allmächtige, allgegenwärtige Armee” [a puny historian, against the omnipotent, omnipresent army: 123], before admitting that as one close to the king, he might have exerted influence. Then he tries vainly to play the cynic:

Aber wozu. Was dann. Sollte er in die Scheune gehen, um dann Mord, Mord zu schreien? Die reinen Helden in der Literatur. Auf der Bühne ist es angebracht. Helden. Tat und Tod. Er ist kein Schauspieler.

(NUFM 123)

[But for what. What then. Should he have gone into the barn and screamed Murder, Murder? Perfect literary heroism. Suited for the stage. Heroes. Deeds and death. He is not an actor.]

Such words from the former playwright have a desperately false ring (lying to himself here, he is surely an actor in spite of himself), and they point to the nature of what he has truly done in renouncing the stage: as later becomes clear, he has set aside any hope of a life undistorted by fealty to the state. That his post as historian supposedly obliges him to report the truth before bending to the interests of the state appears to him nothing but a cruel joke, since to tell the truth in this case would constitute “Staatsverleumdung” [defamation of the state: 123]—one of several instances in this story of crimes and state institutions as typical of the GDR as of France under Louis XIV.

The climax of Racine's guilty remembrance is a succinct statement of political pragmatism in the face of absolute power—a cynical position that Racine himself cannot espouse with any conviction. The resulting muddle of self-exculpation and Realpolitik clearly anticipates the confused half-truths Claudia will use in Der fremde Freund to numb herself to her misery:

Nur Idioten und Kinder verwundern sich über die Welt. Die Bestialität der Polizei, der Armee ist abscheulich, ekelhaft, aber untauglich für Meditation. Allenfalls für ein Gespräch mit gleichermaβen Enttäuschten: eine Andeutung, eine ironische Bermerkung, ein verzweifeltes Lachen, Charakter en passant, man weiβ. Vielleicht ist die Fähigkeit, ein Verbrechen verschweigen zu können, die Bedingung der menschlichen Rasse, in Gesellschaft zu leben. Das “höhere Interesse” eines Staates anzuerkennen, ist bestialisch, möglicherweise aber die Voraussetzung seiner weiteren Existenz. Der des Staates, des Individuums ohnehin. Und der verdiente Staatsbürger ist zu ehren um seiner schweigenden Mitwisserschaft willen. Da ist es süβ, für das Vaterland zu sterben, um ihm nicht anderweitig dienen zu müssen.

Die Scheunentor zu öffnen, um nie wieder schlafen zu können, um sich vor sich selbst zu ekeln, auszuspeien? Nein, es widerspricht der Vernunft, Kenntnisse zu erlangen, zu erzwingen, die uns unerträglich sind.

(NUFM 123–4)

[Only idiots and children are astonished by the world. The brutality of the police, of the army is abominable, sickening, but unsuited for meditation. Perhaps at most discussion with people equally disillusioned: an insinuation, an ironic remark, a despairing laugh, moral character en passant—one knows. The ability to say nothing about a crime may be a condition for the survival of the human race, for life in society. To acknowledge the “higher interest” of the state is brutal, yet perhaps the precondition for continued existence. Of the state, certainly of the individual. And the loyal citizen is to be honored for his connivance. How sweet it is to die for the Fatherland, and thus escape serving it further.

To open the barn door, and then never again to sleep, to be sickened by oneself, to vomit? No, it goes against reason to obtain, to extort knowledge that would be unbearable.]

This passage is a mother lode of ideas and themes that dominate Hein's later work. There is the thinly-veiled criticism of the GDR's organs of repression, the police and army (the security police are mentioned elsewhere in this story and also in the first story of the collection, “Die russischen Briefe des Jägers Johann Seifert”); the clear allusion to that infamous silence of average German citizens who claimed afterward to know nothing of atrocities committed under their noses by the Nazi regime (the best example will be the story of the Gohl family in Horns Ende); the ironic espousal of a theory of adaptive repression in the face of political and personal unpleasantness (Claudia being the prime, but not sole, example—Kruschkatz, too, finds himself unable to sleep once he forgets to forget); the depiction of a deadly nihilism that relegates political idealism to “idiots and children” (Marlene Gohl and Thomas of Horns Ende inevitably come to mind, and also the hapless idealists of Passage, while the best portrait of a nihilist is Dallow in Der Tangospieler, who perfects the attitude that had been a mere pose for the protagonists of Die wahre Geschichte des Ah Q). In general, Racine is an early version of the recurring character who, under pressure from a crushing social reality, unwittingly loses control of his or her private life; the more vehemently these characters claim to evade or subvert their totalitarian milieus, the more inevitable their transformation into simulacra of the power structures that dominate them.6 Hein's frequent use of history as a theme provides one way of manifesting the general phenomenon of individuals' social determination; as Hein has said, history (that abstraction of the social universe) is always personal: “One wishes to know one's fathers in order to know oneself” (“Anmerkungen zu Cromwell” 173).

Although Racine derides those who would lose sleep and make themselves ill by opening the “barn door” to the horrors around them, he is himself a victim of such a self-induced illness. The horrors from which he has averted his eyes are no less real to him for all his claims to the contrary. Hein leaves little doubt that Racine's terminal illness is an inward consequence of his outward actions, the effect, as it were, of a poison he has secretly consumed:

Racine is presented as the type of the political conformist who frantically shuts his eyes to the cruelty and morbidity of the Sun King's absolutist regime. Yet the repressed awareness of the real situation finds an outlet in horrible physical torments. Illness is a synonym here for the rape of one's own spirit. Hein wishes to say that uncompromising conformity of intellectuals to the prevailing power means absolute destruction of the personality.

(Krumrey 143)

Racine, perched on his chamber pot, recalls the Neerwinden episode while pondering how long it was since he was last healthy. The recollection ends with another evocation of physical illness caused by repressed feelings:

Die Übelkeit kam erst, als sein Blick auf eine Mistforke fiel, die an die Stallung seiner Gastgeber gelehnt war. Drei schmutzbedeckte eiserne Zinken, fuβlang, vierkantig, spitz auslaufend. Wieviel ist zwanzig mal drei. Er erbrach grünlichen Magensaft.

(NUFM 124)

[The nausea first came over him when his gaze fell on the dungfork leaning against his host's stable wall. Three foot-long iron prongs, filth-incrusted, square-angled, tapering to points. How much is twenty times three. He vomited green bile.]

Now, twenty years after the thought of the farmer's death made him vomit, Racine describes himself as “ein Kloβ von Erinnerungen und Schmerzen” [A clump of memories and pain: NUFM 124]. He likens his stomach to a battlefield, like the Dutch ones he remembers: “Der Schauplatz der Schlacht. Schlachtplatz. Letztes Heldentum im Rückzug auf den Wanst. Verinnerlichter Lebenskampf” [The scene of battle. Battlefield. Retreat to the belly the supreme sacrifice. Internalized struggle for life: 126], a battlefield, moreover, without possibility of escape: “Flucht ist hier nicht einmal eine Denkmöglichkeit. Die Feindlichen sind miteinander verwachsen” [Escape is out of the question. The enemies have become one another: 128]. The internal and external, public and private have been entirely conflated. Racine has become the product of his society and of his accommodations with it, from which he is now dying.7

However, the root of Racine's illness consists of more than complicity in the cover-up of a specific war crime; there is also the whole complex of values and possibilities that was rejected when he decided to remain silent, to give up his artistic career, and to renounce a mistress. In his imagery and language, Hein conflates these values as aspects of an ambiguous hope whose loss is fatal. As Hein notes elsewhere, “There are hopes … to which there is no human alternative” (“Maelzel's Chess Player” 193). As the story draws to a close, the outline of this central tragedy emerges:

Trotz der Krankheit fühlt er sich kräftig. So kräftig und unbeugsam wie in jenem Jahr, als er Catherine heiratete, die er nicht liebte, und Marie verlieβ, deren Atem er noch heute zu verspüren meint. Er verlieβ sie an dem Tag, an dem er beschlossen hatte, eine Arbeit zu beenden, weil er nicht weiter imstande war, länger zu warten. Zu hoffen. Er schloβ sie ab wie einen Brief, an dem man lange geschrieben und so viele neue Blätter hinzugefügt und so oft die einzelnen Worte und Buchstaben verbessert, ausgewechselt und nachgezogen hatte, bis man unversehens, aber nicht unerwartet erfuhr, daβ es keinen Adressaten mehr gibt, keinen. Nicht für seinen Brief. Damals meinte er, mit Masken zu sprechen, mit freundlichen Masken, hinter deren Augenhöhlen der Wind des Vergessens längst seine gründliche Säuberung vollzogen hatte. Die Tränen, die er über die Masken laufen sah und die überdeutlich Spuren in der Schminke hinterlieβen, gaben ihm keine Antwort. Sie waren die Hinterlassenschaft eines versickerten Lebens, nur für wenige Momente noch sichtbar.

Er flieht blindlings. Was hat er schon einzutauschen! Am gleichen Tag, an dem er die für ihn lange unerklärliche Herkunft der Tränen begriff und er seine Zwiesprache mit den ausgestorbenen Augenhöhlen abbrach, verabschiedete er sich von Marie de Champmeslé und heiratet wenige Monate später Catherine, die er kaum kennt und nie geliebt hat.

(NUFM 128–9)

[Despite his illness he feels strong. As strong and unbending as in the year when he married Catherine, whom he did not love, and left Marie, whose breath it seemed he could sense even today. He left her on the day he decided to finish an undertaking, because he was no longer capable of waiting. Of hoping. He closed it like a letter which one had long been writing, adding so many new pages and so often improving, rearranging, and revising words and spellings, before noticing unexpectedly, but without surprise, that there was no longer anyone to send it to, nobody. Not for his letter. He thought at the time that he was speaking to masks, friendly masks, behind the eyeholes of which a wind of forgetting had long since completed a thorough cleansing. The tears (which he saw run down the masks and leave exaggerated trails in the makeup) gave him no answer. They were the remnant of a life which had trickled away, still visible for a few moments.

He flees blindly. What does he have to lose! On the same day that he understood the cause of the tears, which had so long perplexed him, and broke off his dialogue with the extinguished eyeholes, he took his leave of Marie de Champmeslé, and marries Catherine a few months later, whom he hardly knows and has never loved.]

The characterization of his relationship with Marie de Champmeslé as a letter, along with the statement that his rupture with her coincided with a decision “to finish an undertaking,” allude to a relationship which, according to some of Racine's biographers, was terminated by de Champmeslé, not by Racine (Duclaux 124; Brereton takes an opposing view [154]). Hein disregards this item of indeed dubious information and integrates the break-up with the turning point in Racine's career. Hein's Racine despairs, it would seem, of holding de Champmeslé's love, of ever finding a real woman beneath the actress's personas, the “friendly masks” to which he has been addressing himself. When he decides that the woman he had loved is no longer behind the mask, that he has been erased from her affections “thoroughly” by the “wind of forgetting,” he gives up not only hope of de Champmeslé's love, but hope of any kind. In place of hope, he accepts security, respectability, and incidentally the death of his artistic and (as has become evident) moral imagination. Racine's disillusionment at Neerwinden was merely an epilogue to the deliberate self-disillusioning he had already imposed on himself out of impatience, timidity, and despair:

Marie hat er verlassen, um sich loszureiβen von dem, was er, er wuβte es damals bereits, bald schmerzlich vermissen würde. So war er rücksichtslos gegen sich und andere geworden, nur, um nicht zu zögern. Um nicht an seiner für ihn ungeheuren und entsetzlichen Entscheidung zu zweifeln.

(NUFM 129)

[He left Marie in order to tear himself away from what he already knew he would soon painfully miss. He had been ruthless with himself and with others only to keep from hesitating. To keep from wavering in a decision that was monstrous and catastrophic for him.]

Racine's fatal decision will be the same one arrived at by Claudia, who is willing to sacrifice everything hopeful and hence unpredictable in her life to an unsuccessful attempt to avoid pain, and by Dr. Spodeck, who exaggerates his youthful experience of paternal despotism into a sterile destiny of lovelessness; its precise opposite would be worked out in the leap of faith taken by Hirschburg and the other refugees at the conclusion of Passage. Racine is an early example of an individual who surrenders unconditionally to state power; as a lapsed playwright and failed historiographer, he points toward Hein's subsequent meditations on the social functions of history and art.8


Hein's most ambitious prose work, the novel Horns Ende, centers on two deaths in a small Fast German resort town, Bad Guldenberg. One, the murder of Gudrun Gohl, takes place in 1943, when she substitutes herself for her mentally retarded daughter Marlene, whom Nazi officials have assigned to a “special home” ([Horns Ende, hereafter cited as HE] 156) as part of their eugenics program to eliminate inferior individuals. News of her murder (officially, she died of pneumonia) soon follows. The other death is the suicide of Herr Horn in the summer of 1957. Horn, a historian and a Communist, had been unjustly purged from the Party years before; his refusal to forget the wrong done to him exposes him to further political attacks. Accused finally of being a Western spy, he hangs himself. No connection between these two deaths is ever explicitly drawn; instead, the narrators provide mostly factual accounts of the town's history since before the Nazi period, and of their own experiences up to 1957 (and beyond, in the case of Kruschkatz, the Bürgermeister of Bad Guldenberg at the time of Horn's death, who provides a postscript to the major events from his vantage point in a retirement home in the early 1980s). Structured as a cycle of subjective reports by various narrators, the novel is punctuated by surreal passages in which the voice or ghost of Horn interrogates Thomas, the youngest narrator (now a man in middle-age), enjoining him to overcome his reluctance to remember the circumstances of Horn's death. Thus Thomas, and by extension all of the narrators, are engaged in a struggle with their own memories, fervently wishing to forget the past but prevented from doing so by a moral imperative, the repetitions of Horn's (and Hein's) exhortation “Erinnere Dich” [Remember!: HE 5], a command aimed at people like Claudia in Der fremde Freund who have learned to keep their mouths shut and their memories short. Under this compulsion, the narrators detach themselves from the general amnesia of Bad Guldenberg, whose tranquillity comes to look less benign, more a “repression of the collective historical memory” (Schachtsiek-Freitag 540).

In the 1986 interview with Krzysztof Jachimczak (the February 1988 publication of which in Sinn und Form was one of the few and meager examples of East German Öffentlichkeit enjoyed by Hein's novel), Hein identifies the major themes of Horns Ende as history, conceptions of history, and the writing of history (“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 62). As an East German writer confronting these themes, Hein feels he must compensate for the years of official distortion about recent German history. The notion of a “Year Zero” from the ashes of which a new, uncontaminated East Germany arose has to be debunked:

There was caesura and continuity. The accusation that I put too little emphasis on the caesura and see nothing but continuities can only stem from the fact that until now the caesura has been overemphasized, this Year Zero. Germany's treatment of history entered a very strange phase after 1945. In West Germany, the Nazi Period began to be repressed immediately, even as early as the Nuremberg war crime trials; the decisive factor here was the onset of the Cold War between the two Blocs. In the GDR, it was opposition: the antifascist tradition was celebrated, which was understandable and morally quite correct; but the GDR couldn't just proclaim opposition, either. Because the GDR wasn't born out of the antifascist resistance alone—it was born out of the collapse of the Third Reich, out of the Red Army's victory over Hitler, out of a war that the Germans lost. It is simply a falsification and distortion of history to lay claim to the oppositional stance, as though Hitler had been a usurper and not a legitimate head of state elected by the German people, or as though the whole populace, or the part of it now living in the GDR, had all been active in the resistance.

(“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 60–61)

Hein's remedy to the unbalanced and all-too-convenient view of history promulgated by the Party is to restore fictively the corrective influence of dialogue—between, for example, Thomas and dead Herr Horn, or of the author or narrator with himself, or between the different historical periods represented in the novel (“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 59).

Hein's starting point in the novel is therefore this simple moral imperative, that individuals face up to the reality of their past deeds rather than covering them up and, so to speak, re-writing history:

I can't show the GDR springing out of a Year Zero simply because the foregoing history is unpleasant. It's unpleasant to me, even me, but I have to acknowledge it, I have to endure it. And the GDR will have to endure it, too. …

(“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 62)

In 1957 or 1980, in Bad Guldenberg or any other German town, East or West, this primarily means acknowledging complicity in the crimes of the Hitler era and admitting that no radical discontinuity insulates the totalitarian past from the putatively democratic, anti-fascist present. What remains to be carried out in the novel is the detailed exploration of how to remember, which is the problem also of how to represent history. The historian-narrators of Horns Ende—what Phillip McKnight calls the “triptych” of “philosophers of history” (“Ein Mosaik” 415, 418), Dr. Spodeck the physician, Bürgermeister Kruschkatz, and Herr Horn, to which I would add a fourth, the apothecary's son Thomas—tell their stories and the story of the town for different reasons and with different emphases. While weaving these fragmentary narratives together so as to maintain suspense and uncertainty, Hein also allows them to comment on one another, to come into conflict, and to illustrate opposing ways of coping with past and present life in Bad Guldenberg. In this way, the novel's diverse viewpoints and voices substitute for an Öffentlichkeit that never otherwise existed in the GDR, sustained by Hein's unswerving protest against socialist piety and complacency. Believing that reality is full of contradictions, not just tidy scientific laws, Hein allows the contradictions within his novel free play. Accordingly, none of the narrators speaks unequivocally as the author's mouthpiece: “Beliefs [Sätze] of my own occur in each of the characters” (“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 62). Hein's personal views are distributed across a variety of characters whom the reader may judge very differently. This deliberate dispersal of authority within the novel further illustrates Hein's anti-authoritarian model of historical truth: no one person, dogma, party, nation, or bloc has a monopoly on truth. In fact, all “truths” contain distortions, falsehoods, and it is only the differential relations among these competing untruths that allow us to approach the real.9


Unequaled in Hein's writing for his self-corroding cynicism, Dr. Spodeck gets the first and last word in the novel, setting the tone even if not representing a privileged moral position or historiographic methodology. Yet he is also the only practicing historian in the novel, apart from Horn himself. His approach to writing history is akin to his practice of maintaining a private collection of patient case histories dealing with psychological disorders (a youthful interest thwarted by his tyrannical father and by Spodeck's own weakness of will). His history of Bad Guldenberg is a compilation of the human folly he has witnessed there:

Es ist keine Historie der Stadt, die ich schreibe, ich führe keine pathetische Heimatchronik, die den Eitelkeiten obskurer Stadtgröβen schmeicheln will. Was ich auf diesen Blättern notiere, sind lediglich die niederträchtigen Affären und bösartigen Handlungen, durch die sich meine ehrenwerten Mitbürger auszeichneten. Es sind die widerlichen Geschäfte der Einwohner meiner Stadt, die es nie versäumten, ihre eigennützige Boshaftigkeit mit salbungsvollen Reden und achtbaren Motiven zu maskieren. Es ist eine Geschichte der menschlichen Gemeinheit. Ich kann nicht darin lesen, ohne von heftigem Lachen geschüttelt zu werden, von einem Lachen der Menschenverachtung und des Mitleids über einen solchen Aufwand von Energie um ein paar schäbiger Vorteile willen.


[It is not a history of the town that I am writing, no pompous local chronicle designed to flatter the vanity of obscure local eminences. Rather, I am setting down on these pages merely the wretched affairs and vicious deeds in which my worthy fellow citizens distinguished themselves. These are the repellent transactions of the residents of my town, who never fail to mask their self-serving viciousness with unctuous speeches and noble motives. It is a history of human baseness. I cannot read from it without being shaken by fierce laughter, laughter born of contempt for the human race and sympathy at its squandering of such energy in the pursuit of a few shabby advantages.]

The “pompous local chronicle” that Spodeck disdains to write is exactly the kind of sanitized history that Hein sees in the official East German accounts of the Nazi period and Aufbau (the period of the “building of socialism” in the late forties and fifties). Though Spodeck, like Hein, wishes to redress an imbalance in the official history, their reasons for doing so are quite different. The “history of baseness” is really a justification for Spodeck's failed life, a complicated effort (similar to Claudia's in Der fremde Freund) to prove that however degraded he may be, he really had no choice in the matter. At the same time that Spodeck admits to his own failures, he attempts to justify them by pointing out the background against which they occurred. This paradoxical stance (he thinks himself both better and worse than his fellow Guldenbergers) yields the complexity of viewpoint that makes Spodeck such an interesting character, one whose judgments may be narrow or incomplete, but never altogether wrong. Yet his account of GDR history, in its cynical as in its passionate moments, never approaches the merciless detachment Hein so admires. For this very reason he is a useful device for establishing a bleak, pessimistic mood which the novel will ultimately try to temper.

The most striking aspect of Spodeck's account is its alternation of self-loathing with righteous indignation. His cynicism might be expected to nourish resignation, but his actual response to the things he witnesses is outrage. Early in the book, Spodeck explains his decision to stay in his hated Bad Guldenberg and to carry out his hated father's wishes: he refuses to forget the wrongs and humiliations he has witnessed and suffered. His self-accusation and resentment merge imperceptibly with a strain of prophetic indignation, complete with biblical allusions:

Den Auftrag, den mir mein Vater erteilt hat, werde ich ausführen. Ich werde ihn zu Ende bringen, um meiner selbst willen. Um der Demütigungen willen, die mir mein Vater bereitet hat, er soll nicht in Frieden ruhen, und um der Kränkungen willen, die ich von dieser Stadt erfuhr, der Freitische und Mildtätigkeiten, die ich genötigt war, dankend anzunehmen. Damals. Und wenn ich auch dieses verzeihen und vergeben könnte, ich kann es nicht vergessen. Ich kann die Feigheit nicht vergessen, mit der diese Stadt fortwährend neues Unrecht geschehen läβt. Der Tod eines Mannes wie Horn sollte ausreichen, um diese Stadt wie ein biblisches Gomorrha auszutilgen.10


[I will carry out the task assigned to me by my father. I will see it through to the end, for my own sake. For the sake of the humiliations prepared for me by my father, whom I will not allow to rest in peace, and for the insults that I endured at the hands of this town, the favors and acts of charity I had to gratefully accept. Back then. And while I might be able to forgive all of this, I can never forget it. I cannot forget the cravenness with which this town incessantly lets new injustices happen. The death of a man like Horn should be sufficient cause to annihilate this town like Gomorrah in the Bible.]

Similarly, Spodeck recounts his impressions of Guldenberg's complicity and opportunism as the Nazis rose and fell:

Ich habe in dieser Stadt gelebt, als die Braunhemden in ihr Hof hielten und umjubelt wurden. Ich habe gesehen, wie sich diese Stadt dem alltäglichen Verbrechen öffnete, bereit und willig, und der Heiβhunger auf Verrat und Bestialität offenbarte den lange brach gelegenen Blutdurst. Die Denunzianten und Mörder kamen nicht von irgendwo, um dieser Stadt das Gesetz ihres Todes und der Verachtung aufzuzwingen, sie hatten mit uns gelebt, waren Bürger dieses verträumten, sanften Provinzfleckens gewesen, sie sind aus unseren Wohnungen hervorgekrochen, unter unserer Haut. … Die herzzerreiβende Komik dieser Tage, die für mich vorauszuahnen war, wollte ich mir nicht entgehen lassen, die vielfältigen Wandlungen, die erwarteten wie die unvorhersehbaren. Es war beklemmend und schaurig, und es war schön. Und die Seiten meiner Geschichte der Gemeinheit füllten sich wie von selbst. Ich hatte in diesen Tagen das deutliche Empfinden, mit feurigen Lettern zu schreiben, wie ein alttestamentarischer Prophet seine Verwünschungen.


[I was living in this town when the Brown Shirts held court and were enthusiastically cheered. I saw how ready and willing this town was to open itself to daily criminality, and how the craving for betrayal and brutality reawakened a long dormant thirst for blood. The denouncers and murderers didn't come from somewhere else, aiming to impose their law of death and contempt on this town; they had lived among us, they were the citizens of this sleepy, peaceful rural village, they had crept out of our own houses, out from under our own skins. … I had no desire to miss the heartrending comedy of those days, of which I already had an inkling—the multifaceted transformations, the expected as well as the unforeseeable. It was uncanny and horrifying, and it was beautiful. And the pages of my history of baseness filled up as though by themselves. I had in those days the distinct sensation of writing with fiery letters, like an Old Testament prophet setting down his curses.]

Yet Spodeck comes to identify himself with Guldenberg's grandest exemplar of commonplace evil: Dr. Konrad Böger, the “Wohltäter von Guldenberg” [benefactor of Guldenberg: HE 80] and developer of its medicinal spas, and in addition the abuser of various women and father of various illegitimate sons, among them Spodeck. After standing by while his mother is humiliated, renouncing his passion for psychology, and accepting his father's “gift” of the practice in Bad Guldenberg for the mandatory twenty-five years, all the while recording the moral degradation of Bad Guldenberg's other inhabitants, he realizes at last that he is in fact his father's son:

Im Grunde bin ich wohl der gleiche eigensüchtige, herablassende Heuchler wie er.

Ich hatte mich an alle Kränkungen gewöhnt, an mein Elend und mein Gejammer wie auch an die mich demütigenden Geschenke, und ich war nicht fähig, ohne sie auszukommen. Und was immer ich mir einredete, ich gehorchte meinem Vater nicht meiner Mutter zuliebe, sondern weil ich sein Sohn war, weil ich Fleisch von seinem Fleisch war.


[At bottom I am in fact as much a self-seeking, arrogant hypocrite as he.

I became inured to all insults, to my misery and my sniveling, as well as to the humiliating gifts, and I was incapable of getting by without them. And whatever I may have insisted to myself, I obeyed my father not for my mother's sake, but because I was his son, because I was flesh of his flesh.]

Spodeck's belated identification with the corruption of his city (brought to perfection, in his view, by his affair with his ward Christine and his loveless marriage) may or may not be justified, but it certainly does not reduce the bite of his observations about the city's hypocrisy. It is Spodeck, after all, who observes and names the city's bigotry when confronted with the Gypsies (8–9), a matter of central importance for the novel since it connects the genocidal fascist past with the socialist present—then as now, the respectable citizens of Bad Guldenberg are eager to be rid of a nuisance. Such observations as this one remain valid, if one-sided, though in the context of the novel (as in all historiography) even a one-sided view is valuable, so long as it can be answered and disputed. Furthermore, Spodeck's indignant tone is not unfamiliar to readers of Hein's essays, in which Hein often allows himself a polemical and passionate stance that he never allows into his fictional works without elaborate distancing or irony.

There is certainly irony to be had in Spodeck's characterization, as well. Hein uses him startlingly as the spokesman for his personal credo of authorial detachment and social responsibility:

Bis zum Tage meines Todes aber will ich die Geschichte der Gemeinheit mit dem klaren, unbestechlichen Blick der alten Chronisten ohne Haβ und Eifer weiterführen, damit, was ich nicht abwehren konnte, nicht durch mein Schweigen bestärkt wird und ich mitschuldig werde an unser aller Niedertracht.


[Until the day of my death I will nonetheless persevere in my history of baseness with the clear, incorruptible gaze of the old chroniclers, without passion or prejudice, refusing to strengthen through my silence what I cannot avert, lest I become an accomplice in our general vileness.]

It is patently absurd for Spodeck to say any such thing; he is the novel's most passionate and most prejudiced character. Hein himself acknowledges that he has put his ideas in the mouth of a character who exemplifies their opposite:

These are certainly my ideas [Sätze] that Dr. Spodeck is describing. But what he actually does is another matter entirely. Everything he says about the past has one function: to justify his wasted life, which even he knows to be a failure. For this he needs a chronicle that would be the opposite of what I have in mind. He is not in fact reporting sine ira et studio, but full of passion and full of prejudice [voll Haβ und voll Eifer]. … Spodeck only wants a history of human baseness, a baseness which certainly has existed, but to see nothing else is also a distortion of history [Geschichtsklitterung].

(“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 62–63)

Yet while Spodeck represents a perversion of what a true historian ought to be, he also exemplifies the norm of what real historians actually are—partisan, prejudiced, driven by obsessions that have nothing to do with their discipline. In the context of Hein's novel, Spodeck's cynicism serves the useful purpose of puncturing the dominant dogmas of the GDR, but he arrives at no definitive insights, whatever his pretensions. As evidenced by his paralyzed love affair and his plans to distribute copies of his history to the Bürgermeister, the museum director, and the priest, all of whom can reasonably be expected to burn theirs, his personality is virtually self-negating, a condition he shares with Claudia in Der fremde Freund.


The importance that Hein places on ideological or conceptual balance can be clearly seen in his handling of Kruschkatz, the Bürgermeister of Bad Guldenberg and, at first glance, a stereotypical Communist Party apparatchik. Early in the novel we see him spouting socialist platitudes and using his political weight to intimidate Spodeck (HE 35–36); using the language of Stalinist opprobrium, he dismisses Horn as an individualist (59) and humanist (86); he upholds the claims of historical necessity even when innocents must be sacrificed to it (63); and he displays throughout the novel the astute political skills of the successful Party functionary. Yet Hein has other plans for him:

Kruschkatz was for me, during the writing, the most fascinating of the characters. He is a functionary, and before he even opens his mouth, he is already condemned by almost all of the other characters: the reader has a picture of a repulsive, corpulent, sweating, unpleasant, opportunistic functionary. And then I devote all my power and love to this figure, working against the prejudice, to make a human being out of him.

(“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 63)

So Kruschkatz is given a beautiful and beloved wife whom he tragically loses, and a foil in the hateful figure of Bachofen, his deputy; he shows compassion for an old comrade ruined by intrigues; he attempts in good faith to appease Horn, though in vain; and he turns out to be fated to spend the remainder of his active life in a town he detests. Most significantly, he displays the most sensitive, intelligent, and reasonable mind of any of the other narrators. Though not without his obsessions, he apparently provides a trustworthy account of the events in Bad Guldenberg, emerging eventually as “the one man in this novel who acts with any self-awareness” (McKnight, “Ein Mosaik” 422). As a historian both in training and, reluctantly, in fact, his methodological convictions bear close scrutiny. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be utterly paradoxical. Just as Spodeck, the ultimate partisan, can voice Hein's opinions while demonstrating wholly opposite behavior, so Kruschkatz, the Party hack, exhibits an ambivalent relation to the Party dogma he occasionally mouths. His interest as a character ultimately rests on the contradiction between dogma and disillusionment that Horn's death brings into sharp focus.11

Kruschkatz's ideas about history emerge in a seemingly haphazard way; as with Dallow in Der Tangospieler, the fact that he is a trained historian emerges only after the narrative is well under way. Kruschkatz must have the fact pried out of him by Spodeck:

“Sie sind, wie ich hörte, auch Historiker?”

“Ich wars, Doktor. Ich habe nicht den Kopf für die trockenen Wissenschaften. Ich bin ein praktischer Mensch.”

(HE 168)

[“I understand that you, too, are a historian.”

“I used to be, Doctor. I lack the temperament for dry scholarship. I am a practical man.”]

History as an abstract, scholarly, theoretical concern versus practical politics: the distinction is false from the outset, and Kruschkatz's reliance on it stems from his unswerving commitment to a program of action that no longer commands his unquestioning faith. (This contradiction results in part from the novel's dual chronology, as the bitter, haunted 73-year-old narrator, confined to a retirement home circa 1980, remembers his actions in the 1950s and sees them to have been futile.) Kruschkatz begins narrating under an undisclosed compulsion that eventually appears to be a constitutional inability to forget—the opposite case to Claudia's refined amnesia in Der fremde Freund, where repression of memories is hailed as a prerequisite for survival—and indeed Kruschkatz wishes for death to come and relieve him of this burden (223–4). His narrative opens rather strangely for a Marxist-materialist-atheist:

Es ist unsinnig und unwürdig, nach so vielen Jahren ausgerechnet über diesen Mann Horn zu sprechen. Es ist gotteslästerlich. Ich kann es nicht besser bezeichnen als mit diesem altväterlichen Wort.

(HE 20)

[It is absurd and disgraceful to speak after so many years of this man Horn, of all people. It is blasphemous. I cannot find a better description for it than this archaic word.]

Kruschkatz's frequent use of religious expressions and imagery hints at his loss of a different kind of faith—in history as the manifestation of rational laws, and by extension in the Party's mastery of historical change. Kruschkatz says he is confident every detail of Horn's life and death could be reconstructed, “Möglicherweise so vollständig, daβ die dazugehörenden nichtssagenden Einzelheiten wie abgelegte Büroordner, verstaubt und vergilbt, unsere Träume aufblähen und unser Gedächtnis quälen” [Probably with such precision that the associated insignificant details (like discarded office files, dusty and yellowed) would bloat our dreams and torment our memory: 20], but he fears that such an exercise would open an abyss of historical meaninglessness:

Ich bezweifle also nicht den äuβeren Erfolg, das nahezu vollständige Verzeichnis der Fakten. Vielmehr stelle ich das ganze Unternehmen in Frage. Die Entdeckung, daβ es mehrere, zum Teil einander widersprechende Wahrheiten gibt, als endliches Ergebnis solcher Mühe wäre ein niederschmetternder Witz. Noch mehr aber beunruhigt mich der Gedanke, daβ die so gefundene Wahrheit beziehungsweise die verschiedenen, schlüssig, vollständig und widerspruchsfrei hergestellten Bilder keinen Adressaten haben. Das ist vorbei.

(HE 20)

[I also have no doubt of outward success, the nearly complete cataloging of facts. Rather, it is the whole project that I am calling into question. The discovery that several mutually contradictory truths would be the final result of such exertions would be a devastating joke. Even more unsettling is the thought that the truth thus uncovered, or rather the variously, conclusively, comprehensively, and self-consistently manufactured pictures, would find no audience. That time is past.]

If alternative versions of historical reality are equally valid, Kruschkatz reasons, then they are equally meaningless and equally incommunicable. Something about Horn's story has evidently deprived Kruschkatz of any confidence in his grasp of history, with the result that he abandons the notion altogether:

Ich bin heute dreiundsiebzig Jahre alt, und wenn ich die Erfahrungen meines Lebens für eine daran uninteressierte Nachwelt in einem Satz formulieren müβte, würde ich sagen: Es gibt keine Geschichte. Geschichte ist hilfreiche Metaphysik, um mit der eigenen Sterblichkeit auszukommen, der schöne Schleier um den leeren Schädel des Todes. Es gibt keine Geschichte, denn soviel wir auch an Bausteinchen um eine vergangene Zeit ansammeln, wir ordnen und beleben diese kleinen Tonscherben und schwärzlichen Fotos allein mit unserem Atem, verfälschen sie durch die Unvernunft unserer dünnen Köpfe und miβverstehen daher gründlich. Der Mensch schuf sich die Götter, um mit der Unerträglichkeit des Todes leben zu können, und er schuf sich die Fiktion der Geschichte, um dem Verlust der Zeit einen Sinn zu geben, der ihm das Sinnlose verstehbar und erträglich macht. Hinter uns die Geschichte und vor uns Gott, das ist das Korsett, das uns den aufrechten Gang erlaubt. Und ich glaube, das Röcheln der Sterbenden ist die aufdämmernde Erkenntnis der Wirklichkeit. Die Toten brauchen kein Korsett.

Ich will mich mit diesen Bemerkungen meinen Erinnerungen nicht entziehen. Ich schicke sie voraus, weil ich meinen Erinnerungen miβtraue, weil ich allen Erinnerungen miβtraue.

(HE 20–21)

[Today I turn 73, and if I had to formulate my life experience into one sentence for the benefit of a completely uninterested world, I would say: History does not exist. History is a kind of useful metaphysics good for helping one to cope with mortality, a beautiful veil wrapped around the empty skull of death. History does not exist, because whenever we collect the minute building blocks of a past age, we arrange and animate these little fragments and dim photographs solely with our own breath, falsifying them through our dim-witted irrationality, and thereby totally failing to understand them. Man created the gods in order to live with the unbearable fact of death, and he created the fiction of history to give vanished time a meaning, making it possible to bear and comprehend meaninglessness. Behind us history and before us God: that is the corset that enables us to walk erect. And I believe that the rattle of the dying is the dawning awareness of reality. The dead need no corsets.

I am not trying to evade my memories by making these remarks; I offer them as a preface because, distrusting all memories, I distrust my own.]

Kruschkatz turns out to be a disappointed metaphysician: without the comfort of Marxist historical teleology, history ceases to have any meaning for him, reverting to a random assemblage of facts organized by externally imposed, falsifying illusions. His predicament is that of the pious atheist, who must consciously reject what he subconsciously cannot live without. Thus it is important to note that disappointment over this falsification of dogmatic, teleological Marxism is only one of many possible reactions: it is specific to Kruschkatz, and certainly cannot to be generalized as a view shared by Hein, who disagrees with Kruschkatz's distaste for the present-day influence on what passes for history. (History is always a matter of present concerns, not past ones.) Despite his self-proclaimed practicality, Kruschkatz remains a metaphysician and an ideologue; Hein is the practical one, interested in bringing about changes in the here and now through the exercise of social autobiography. History as Hegel envisioned it may be an illusion, but history may still be understood as an active force in contemporary human affairs. Thus Kruschkatz is an unhappy nihilist, not a relativist. His detestation of a history that consists largely of distortions and fantasies by present-day, living people actually mirrors Horn's view, as expressed to Spodeck near the end of the novel; the two historians simply apply different value judgments to the same, commonly acknowledged situation. Horn accepts the inevitable fictionality of history and remains a historian, while Kruschkatz confuses fiction with reality and becomes a functionary (McKnight, “Ein Mosaik” 420–421).12

Kruschkatz's subsequent account of his second meeting with Horn betrays a more confused, and (as yet) less disillusioned attitude toward history, since most of the disillusionment emerges from thirty years of hindsight. In light of Hein's interview remarks, the earlier viewpoint is, like the later one, most likely neither wholly right nor wholly wrong. Kruschkatz's feelings toward Horn are complex and contradictory, as were Spodeck's. Like Spodeck, the Bürgermeister regards Horn as a coward, and for a similar reason: Horn's inability or unwillingness to adjust to reality in order to survive. Kruschkatz and Spodeck, experts at bending with prevailing winds, admire in Horn the same character traits that they disdain. The Bürgermeister elaborates:

Horn war für diesen Tod bestimmt wie ein Ochse für den Schlachthof. Er war nicht lebenstüchtig. Er war für ein Leben unter Menschen nicht geeignet. Ich sage dies ohne jede Wertung oder Verachtung, ich habe ihn immer geschätzt. Und ich meine, es ist kein allzu hoher menschlicher Wert, auf dieser Erde lebenstüchtig zu sein. Es gab prächtige Menschen, die es nie waren. Aber da wir nun einmal genötigt sind, in menschlicher Gemeinschaft zu leben, ist ein gewisses Maβ an Bereitschaft für dieses Leben, ob zu loben oder nicht, erforderlich und somit eine Tugend.

(HE 61)

[Horn was predestined for this death like an ox for the slaughter-house. He was not competent at living. He was unsuited for a life among human beings. I say this without judgment or contempt, I always had a high opinion of him. And I think that competence at living on this earth is no very high human value. There have been splendid people who were never so gifted. But since we are, after all, required to live in human communities, a certain measure of readiness for this life is mandatory and to that extent a virtue, like it or not.]

Kruschkatz reveals the beginnings of his distrust of memory and rigid preference for ideological formulas when he criticizes Horn as one who never forgets: “Und nun stand er wieder vor mir, und ich erkannte an seinen kalten und reglosen Augen, daβ er nichts vergessen hatte. Nichts vergessen und nichts hinzugelernt” [And now he stood again before me, and I knew from his cold and motionless eyes that he had forgotten nothing. Forgotten nothing and learned nothing: 26]. Learning, it would seem, involves more amnesia than anamnesis; what Horn actually has not learned to accept is his proper social role according to the Party's collectivist ethic.

Er wollte Leipzig nicht vergessen, und verstehen konnte er es nicht.

Ihm war dort Unrecht geschehen, gewiβ, und an diesem Unrecht hatte ich meinen Anteil, ich habe es nie bestritten. Aber es gibt eine höhere Moral, vor der sich Recht und Unrecht die Waage halten oder gemeinsam zu fragwürdigen Werten schrumpfen. Es war ihm ein geschichtlich notwendiges Unrecht angetan worden im Namen eines höheren Rechts, im Namen der Geschichte. Ich war nur das ausführende Organ, die kleine Stimme dieses ehernen Gesetzes. Ich hoffte, ihm dies begreiflich machen zu können. Ich hoffte es, nicht weil ich mich entschuldigen, sondern weil ich ihm helfen wollte. Aber Horn fühlte sich noch immer ungerecht behandelt. Er sah nur, daβ ich ihm seine wissenschaftliche Karriere ruiniert hatte, und war nicht fähig oder willens, aus dem Winkel seiner gekränkten Ehre hervorzukommen. Er hatte sich in seinem Selbstmitleid eingerichtet und zog es vor, einsam zu bleiben, wenn er nur im Recht war.

(HE 59)

[He would not forget Leipzig; he was incapable of understanding it.

He had indeed been the victim of an injustice there, and I had played my part in this injustice, I have never denied it. But there is a higher morality, in respect to which justice and injustice balance one another, or dwindle equally into questionable values. A historically necessary injustice was done to him in the name of a higher law, in the name of history. I was only the executive organ, the tiny voice of this iron law. I hoped that I could make this clear to him, not in order to excuse myself, but because I wanted to help him. But Horn still felt himself unjustly used. He only saw that I had ruined his scholarly career, and wasn't able or willing to look beyond his wounded honor. He had settled into self-pity and preferred to remain alone as long as he was in the right.]

In all of this defensive self-justification reappears the familiar effort of a Hein character to rationalize his way out of responsibility. The effect is intensified by comparing this passage, together with the later one insisting (with the Nazis, as McKnight points out [“Ein Mosaik” 423]) that historical progress demands a “Blutzoll” [payment in blood: HE 63] from the innocent, with the Bürgermeister's earlier declaration that history, in the sense of rational laws unfolding through time, does not exist. The wording of the Bürgermeister's defense carries an insidious subtext—“I was only the executive organ” sounds suspiciously like “I was only following orders,” the excuse preferred by war criminals everywhere, and similar to the one that will recur in Der Tangospieler as a rationale, once again, for irresponsibility. More directly related to theoretical questions about history is the observation that Horn would rather isolate himself and cling to the truth than acknowledge the “historical necessity” of the injustice done to him. From this it is possible to begin appreciating why so many of the novel's characters brand Horn a coward. The overriding theme of Der fremde Freund, namely, the possibility and necessity of political engagement in modern, urban, alienating society, might also be applied to Horn: to the extent that he sacrifices social ties on the altar of an absolute, he emulates not just Claudia (who has different reasons for isolating herself) but also Kruschkatz, his fellow ideologist. In spite of his disquisition on the fictions of history with Spodeck, Horn is as willing as Kruschkatz to subordinate the personal to the ideological, even if his ideology now is different (so will be Kruschkatz's in the end). On the other hand, when Kruschkatz pictures Horn as the bearer “mit nervös zitternden Händen die wehleidige Flagge eines fruchtlosen, erschöpften Humanismus” [with nervously trembling hands, of the melancholy banner of a fruitless, exhausted humanism: HE 86], his doctrinaire condemnation also happens to identify what Hein sees as the essence of historical writing or chronicling. Horn is criticized for indulging in a personal viewpoint, for keeping his observations on a human scale rather than appealing to theory, and this is precisely what Hein has recommended as an antidote to ideological conformism. Of course, such an orientation with respect to history also allows for distortions of an idiosyncratic but no less partisan kind—witness Dr. Spodeck—so Kruschkatz's objection may not be wholly off the mark in Horn's case.


For a central figure, Horn's appearances and statements in Horns Ende are remarkably sparse. The definitive ones are in the chapter prefaces, where Horn's ghostly voice browbeats the fully-grown Thomas into remembering the events of summer 1957. Thus the defining word for Horn is “Remember!” He stands for an uncompromising acknowledgment of historical fact: on this depends everything that may accurately be called history, and not ideology or polemic, written with “passion and prejudice.” (In fact, the motif “Remember!” comes close to being an unequivocal moral imperative valid for all of Hein's writing.) Yet the forces of forgetting with which Horn struggles go deeper than mere partisanship—they are the rooted in the instinct of self-preservation that causes Claudia, for example, to censor her memories in order not to go mad. Horn's significance for the narrators, as for all the citizens of Bad Guldenberg, is that he disturbs the convenient, comfortable, falsified view of history that normal, sane individuals like to paint for themselves. Claudia likewise describes herself as “eine nette, sehr normale Frau” [a nice, very normal woman: [Der fremde Freund, hereafter cited as DFF] 162; [The Distant Lover, hereafter cited as TDL] 136] immediately after she has been physically abused. The veiling of real history, barbaric and shabby, enables its endless repetition. Horn insists that, in a strict sense, historic events lack a real existence apart from living people's memory, which means that reflecting on society is a social act, a social memory, not limited exclusively to personal recollections, but an integral part of communal self-awareness: “Ich lebe nur in deinem Gedächtnis, Junge. Streng dich an. Bitte” [I live only in your memory, boy. Try. Please: HE 51].

As the representative of uncompromising memory, even Horn's physical appearance is suggestive of his burden and duty. Gertrude Fischlinger recalls his appearance when he first inquired with her about a room: “Er hatte eine merkwürdige graue Haut und breite, fast schwarze Augenringe. Ich dachte damals, daβ er wohl lange krank gewesen sein müβte. Gelbsucht oder Tbc, vermutete ich” [He had weirdly gray skin and large, almost black circles around his eyes. I thought back then that he must have been ill for a long time. Jaundice or TB, I supposed: 17]. Horn's only disease, of course, has been his inability or unwillingness to forget what happened to him in Leipzig. Yet this is sufficiently fatal, and the black rings under his eyes may be understood as a telling symptom of sleeplessness, for as Kruschkatz explains, “es sind zwei sich ausschlieβende Dinge: gut zu schlafen und sich gut zu erinnern” [those are two mutually exclusive things: to sleep well and to remember well: 20]. No wonder Kruschkatz ends his own narrative wishing for death, the “sanftere[r] süβe[r] Bruder” [gentle sweet brother: 224] of sleep, since his sleep is disturbed by “die Erinnerungen …, die sich Nacht für Nacht auf meine Brust hocken” [memories … that weigh down on my breast night after night: 223].

Horn is thus largely a symbolic figure, representative of a truly materialist, yet radically individual perception of history. This is the stuff of chronicling, Hein's avowed mode of narrative writing, so Horn's theoretical statements deserve special scrutiny when they do occur. Horn is also interesting, as noted above, for the condemnation that the other characters heap upon him. To one degree or another, and for varying reasons, all of the other narrators defend the utility of forgetting, or at least of distrusting memory, of subordinating it to some higher good, whether an ideology of social progress (Kruschkatz), the instinct of self-preservation (Spodeck), or the claims of the living as opposed to the claims of the dead (Thomas). Horn may also be viewed as an example of another recurring character type in Hein's writing: he is like Schlötel, the fanatical proponent of truth whose existence in a corrupt world drives him to madness and suicide, or Hubert K. in “Der neuere (glücklichere) Kohlhaas,” whose adherence to a legal principle ruins his life, or Frankfurther, in Passage, who escapes capture by the Nazis by poisoning himself, and whose only concern in extremis is that his scientific treatise be preserved and published. In each of these cases, Hein raises the question of public versus private prerogatives, of abstract ideology versus concrete relations among people, of the fate of the intellectual amid the vicissitudes of history, and of the possibility of meaningful action in a historical context.

Like Kruschkatz, Horn speaks somewhat inconsistently about the nature of history, and should not be taken over-simply as a mouthpiece for Hein, although he certainly is this to a degree. As Kruschkatz understands him, he is simply someone who refuses to forget or forsake his personal viewpoint respecting history, who refuses to accept the ideological view that even the Bürgermeister loses faith in. At first, then, Horn's view of history seems to be almost naively positivistic, distinguishing simplistically between truth and falsehood. He explains the responsibilities of a historian to Thomas when the boy visits the museum:

“Es ist nur ein kleines Museum, das wir haben, und doch schreiben auch wir die Geschichte. Wir sind es, die dafür einzustehen haben, ob die Wahrheit oder die Lüge berichtet wird. Verstehst du das, Thomas?”


“Nein, das verstehst du nicht. Die Wahrheit oder die Lüge, das ist eine entsetzliche Verantwortung. Wer das wirklich begriffen hätte, würde keinen Schlaf mehr finden.”

(HE 58)

[“It's only a little museum that we have here, and yet we, too, are writing history. We are the ones responsible for telling truth or lies. Do you understand that, Thomas?”

“Of course.”

“No, you don't understand. Truth or lies, that's a terrible responsibility. Anyone who really comprehended that would never be able to sleep again.”]

What is this “terrible responsibility” to which Horn alludes? That sleep and historical awareness cannot coexist implies that sleep here may be taken as a metaphorical description of the common state of unconsciousness cultivated by the citizens of Bad Guldenberg, among others. The reason emerges now for the sleeplessness caused by memory—it is a consequence of an awakened conscience, or rather, of a consciousness confronted with its responsibility for creating and preserving historical meaning. If history exists only as an extension of contemporary needs and conditions, with living persons absolutely accountable for both the past and for the present, history ceases to be a discrete academic discipline and becomes instead the constitutive basis of society (as opposed to barbarity or anarchy).

The novel's culminating statement concerning the activity of history-making occurs in Horn's lengthy conversation with Spodeck about a new technique for the reconstitution of cinematic images. Spodeck believes that this has undermined a hitherto unimpeachable source of historical accuracy, the photograph:

Da haben ein paar Filmtechniker ein Verfahren ausgeklügelt, das es ihnen ermöglicht, dem Film jeden Wert eines Dokuments zu nehmen. Das ursprüngliche Bild wird auf einen in der Mitte gebrochenen Spiegel geworfen und erneut aufgenommen. Und je nachdem, in welchem Winkel die Spiegel zueinander stehen, kann man nun Teile des Bildes verschwinden lassen oder neue, nicht dazugehörige Bilder einspiegeln. Man kann somit nach Gutdünken Filmdokumente verändern und Miβliebiges gegen Beliebiges austauschen. Dem Betrachter bietet sich stets ein unverletzt scheinendes, originales Bild. Ihre Wissenschaft, Herr Horn, die Geschichtsschreibung, hat wieder einen Kronzeugen verloren. Ihnen stehen neue Fälschungen ins Haus.

(HE 197)

[It seems that a couple of film technicians have figured out a process that robs film of any documentary value. The original image is projected onto a broken mirror, and then photographed again. According to where the image falls, on which adjacent sections of the mirror, parts of it can now be made to disappear or new, unrelated images can be combined with it. The film maker can now alter film documents as he likes, replacing disagreeable things with agreeable ones. All the viewer ever sees is a seamless, apparently original picture. Your discipline of history, Herr Horn, has a lost another of its chief witnesses. You face new falsifications.]

Horn, on the other hand, has trouble understanding Spodeck's point, because for him, history is not a matter of simply collecting accurate facts or documents, but of reconstructing truth from a welter of inaccuracies and half-truths, of interpreting the distortions of truth in light of the present day:

Sie sehen zu schwarz, Dr. Spodeck. Was Sie als Fälschung bezeichnen, ist unser täglich Brot. Was ist denn Geschichte anderes als ein Teig von Überliefertem, von willkürlich oder absichtsvoll Erhaltenem, aus dem sich nachfolgende Generationen ein Bild nach ihrem Bilde kneten. Die Fälschungen und unsere Irrtümer sind der Kitt dieser Bilder, sie machen sie haltbar und griffig. Sie sind es, die unsere Weisheiten so einleuchtend machen.

(HE 197)

[Your view is too bleak, Dr. Spodeck. What you call falsification is our daily bread. What else is history but a dough of hand-me-downs, of accidentally or deliberately preserved odds and ends, which succeeding generations will knead into an image of themselves. The falsifications and our errors are the binding material in these images, they make them durable and fit for use. This is why our sagacities appear so self-evident.]

Spodeck finds this Althusser-like position cynical, but it is merely realistic, Horn insists, the product of professional experience. As it turns out, Spodeck is merely trying to justify his own cynicism: he explains that he is actually pleased by the new technical advance in filmmaking, because it abolishes a false model for the operation of human memory, an ideal of verisimilitude, making it easier now to distrust or dismiss memories that are painful or unpleasant. Memories, Spodeck insists, record not the events, but the consciousness of the events, reflected and distorted by the biological equivalent of the filmmaker's broken mirrors. The lesson to be learned from this, he says, is that we should distrust our memories when they make life impossible, as has happened, he implies, in Horn's case. Horn refuses to be drawn over the brink of cynical but pragmatic skepticism:

“Bedeutet das, Doktor, Sie raten mir, ohne Gedächtnis zu leben?”

“Nein, das wäre unsinnig, weil es uns nicht möglich ist. Ich rate Ihnen nur, Ihren Erinnerungen zu miβtrauen. Wenn Ihr Gedächtnis Sie zum Leben unfähig macht, ist es vernünftiger, Sie bezweifeln einige gespeicherte Bilder in Ihrem Kopf und nicht das Leben. Es ist vernünftiger, denn, wie ich hoffe bewiesen zu haben, wir haben keine Gewiβheit darüber, daβ diese Erinnerungen uns nicht gründlich täuschen.”

“Vielleicht haben Sie recht, aber wir werden mit unserem Gedächtnis leben müssen. Welch ein entsetzlicher Gedanke, ohne Gedächtnis leben zu wollen. Wir würden ohne Erfahrungen leben müssen, ohne Wissen und ohne Werte. Löschen Sie das Gedächtnis eines Menschen, und Sie löschen die Menschheit.”13

(HE 198–9)

[“Does this mean, Doctor, that you are advising me to live without memory?”

“No, that would be absurd, because it isn't possible. I am just advising you not to trust your memory. If your memory renders life impossible, it is more reasonable to doubt a few stored images in your head than to doubt life. It is more reasonable because, as I hope I have shown, we have no guarantee that our memory isn't fundamentally misleading us.”

“Maybe you are right, but we must live with our memory. What a dreadful thought, to want to live without memory. We would have to live without prior experience, without knowledge, and without values. Take away memory from a human being and you take away his humanity.”]

Spodeck's advice may have practical validity, but as Claudia's case proves, forgetting is not necessarily the most desirable condition of life, and as a strategy for survival it can backfire. Horn seems to be saying that the accuracy of one's memory may be flawed, but in order to remain human, one must operate under the assumption that, by and large, it is accurate. This is similar to his view about historical writing: one does not simply give up in the face of unverifiability, but makes instead the best case possible for what the facts may have been. We are caught in a paradox of not having access to the truth, yet always needing to assert something as truth, lest we become total cynics like Spodeck and, lacking any firm conviction, fall absolutely under the sway of historical forces.14

Hein's meditation on film as a flawed analog of history-writing recalls his subsequent essay “Maelzel's Chess Player Goes to Hollywood,” a reply to Walter Benjamin's famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In his essay, Hein elaborates a view of art and history that echoes aspects of both Spodeck's and Horn's historical views. Benjamin had argued that mass reproducibility of art works would abolish their mystified “cultic value” and reveal their articulation with politics:

But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.


Having lost the “semblance of its autonomy” (228), art will call forth a new and critical attitude on the part of the public. In the case of film, the technically determined art par excellence, the viewer will become attentive to the technique rather than the presence of the actor, which remains so central to a stage production. “The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing” (230–31). Benjamin sees in this new attentiveness to technical distortions of reality a revolution in perception similar to the discovery of the unconscious mind (239), so that art works now are viewed politically, as “evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance” (228).

Hein, on the other hand, argues that Benjamin's political optimism caused him to overlook the effect of the marketplace on art: in capitalism, mass-produced art is always mass-marketed art, whose primary virtue is a calculable, guaranteed return on investment. This explains the formulaic, even algorithmic construction of most of what appears in movie houses and on television (“Maelzel's Chess Player” 179–80). The public, in its turn, learns to enjoy the predictability of such art:

The mechanism has become visible to the audience. And this in no way impedes the consumption of these products, but has become a factor of their appeal. The audience is safe in the knowledge that nothing will frighten, confuse, or disturb it. Situations and plot developments, along with the construction of the characters, create in the audience a continual déjà vu experience.


Instead of building historical consciousness, as Benjamin had hoped, mass-produced art tends to enmesh consciousness in a cycle of repetitive illusion. Hein argues that the “cultic value,” Benjamin's “aura,” returns in a new form: as the cult of celebrity and glamour surrounding entertainment figures. Insidiously, the emphasis on personality obscures the fact that the art industry is a machine driven not by individual human beings, but by market forces:

The function of the human being is to provide the products of the machine with what the public traditionally regards as the sine qua non of art, namely, the aura of creativity and genius. He is there to give the machine product a human stamp, without which even the most one dimensional piece of artistic trash remains unacceptable to consumers. And the more plainly the machine dominates and its products betray an automatic, mass-produced quality, the more urgent the role played by the designated human. He must turn his person into a Potemkin village. …


Art finally becomes nothing but an extension of the omnipresent market, or, in bureaucratic socialism, the omnipresent state. And yet, at the end of his essay, Hein endorses Benjamin's optimistic vision of the future:

I nonetheless share Benjamin's hopes. These are hopes that run counter to experience, hopes for history that run counter to history. Because these are hopes to which there is no human alternative.


Hein's argument here is characteristic: in the face of all historical entrapment and governmental oppression, people remain obligated to act as though they were autonomous. The Marxist critique of humanism, of which Hein largely approves, does not for him imply a lessening of individual human responsibility for imagining freedom, consciousness, and truth; indeed, these illusory and paradoxical values remain the very conditions of the “human.”

Hein's essay clarifies certain issues that occupy the narrators of Horns Ende. Horn, responding to Spodeck's pragmatic advice to forget memories that make it impossible to live, offers a definition of “human” quite similar to the one implied in the essay. Horn replies that to live without knowledge or values means to cease to be human, an argument whose gravity is increased by Horn's impending death as a casualty of the contradiction between memory and present political reality. Benjamin's and Hein's shared “hopes” reappear as the insistence on “knowledge” and “values” that Horn upholds. Whereas Spodeck's “history of baseness” selectively depicts a Bad Guldenberg motivated solely by greed, hypocrisy, and love of power (reproducing on a grand scale the private experience of its author), Horn acknowledges the inevitability of factual distortion without using it to justify the skepticism or, ultimately, nihilism represented by Spodeck. Uncertain though the ultimate truth of fragmentary, historical “facts” may be, “people would always repeat the same mistakes if the potsherds were ignored. For this reason he tries to turn up and preserve as many sherds as possible” (McKnight, “Ein Mosaik” 421). Historical facts are always already distorted, selected, edited by a self-serving hand, but this merely means that history is a matter of interpretive rather than positive knowledge. By designing Horns Ende as a collection of subjective accounts, Hein points the way toward such an understanding of history, and no reader at this point in the book can escape noticing how well Spodeck's own writings bear out Horn's statements: it is precisely the distortions and exaggerations in the “history of baseness” that lead a careful reader to understand both Spodeck himself and the town he partially represents.15 We never see, however, the other, different history that Horn might have written: it is up to posterity—Thomas—to reconstruct it, and to find the meaning of Horn's death.


Thomas, the son of the respectable, stereotypically bourgeois pharmacist of Bad Guldenberg, acts as a counterbalance to the gloom of the Spodeck and Kruschkatz narratives. Thomas certainly takes himself as seriously as either of the other two narrators, but since his tragedies are mostly the standard ones for a child his age, he provokes as much amusement as sympathy. He manages almost incidentally to provide all of the key information about Horn's death, narrating it in Hein's flat, chronicling style, with little commentary. He qualifies as a theorist of history as well, partly by example (he wishes to forget everything about Bad Guldenberg as quickly as possible) and partly from his statements concerning Horn. Although Thomas seems to be the spokesman for a viewpoint opposite Hein's—he feels oppressed by history and tells his story only under extreme duress, confronted as a grown man by Horn's ghost—he exemplifies the least corrupted mode of narration in the novel (except perhaps for Gertrude Fischlinger, whom McKnight identifies as the novel's closest approximation to Hein's ideal historiographer, recounting the facts “without passion or prejudice”). For all his antipathy toward the town and its past, and his own past, Thomas displays a redeeming vigor that challenges the conformity and amnesia which, paradoxically, even he shares. Although no ideal figure of historical and political enlightenment, Thomas points toward a future somewhat brighter than that of mid-twentieth-century Bad Guldenberg, once, that is, he is prodded into remembering by the ghostly exhortations of Horn, which ensure that Hein's stubborn hope for human betterment will at least have a hearing in this somber novel.

Haunted by the ghost of memory, Thomas at one point tries to revolt:

—Sie langweilen mich. Mich langweilen die Toten. Sie wollen nur Ihre Wahrheit sehen. Sie haben wenig begriffen. Sie sind ungerecht zu den Lebenden. Es ist alles schwer genug, und Sie können nur klagen.

—Vielleicht, Junge, vielleicht hast du recht. Aber ich bin tot. Vergiβ das nicht.

—Auch ein Toter wiegt nicht mehr als die Wahrheit.

—Ich bin tot.

—Der Tod ist kein Beweis.

—Ach, was du verstehst! Denk nicht nach. Erinnere dich.


—You bore me. The dead bore me. All they care about is their reality. They haven't understood much. They do an injustice to the living. Everything is hard enough, and all you can do is complain.

—Maybe so, boy, maybe you're right. But I am dead. Don't forget that.

—Not even a dead person counts more than the truth

—I am dead.

—Being dead doesn't prove anything.

—Oh, what do you know! Don't try to think. Just remember.

Horn's ghost comes close to acknowledging that the living, too, have their claims, so the conflict between the two voices ends ambiguously. Thomas, who echoes Kruschkatz's remark that Horn “hatte … nichts hinzugelernt” [never learned: 59] from his experiences, expresses a similar revulsion for what Horn represents when he recounts his first impressions of the museum, which looms over Bad Guldenberg like some ruined temple to Mnemosyne. The trip to the museum with his father comes to symbolize the whole experience of life in Bad Guldenberg, which to Thomas seems less like a place of forgetting than a place of suffocating remembrance, of traditions, conventions, and taboos that crowd out any possibility of freedom or pleasure. The museum, full of dead, stuffed animals and lifeless scenes, reflects the lifelessness of the town below. Thomas is especially perturbed by the stuffed animals with their insistent gaze:

Ich erinnere mich an die gelblichen Glasaugen. In einer nachgebildeten Heidelandschaft standen ausgestopfte Füchse und Dachse. Sie liefen, sprangen oder saβen in der immer gleichen Haltung, in einer angestrengten Bewegung, zu der sie für alle Ewigkeit verurteilt waren. Die eingesetzten Glasaugen waren alle von gleicher Farbe und Gröβe, der Iris war bernsteinhell. Die Glasaugen quollen hinter den Lidern hervor. Wohin ich auch ging, sie verfolgten mich, starrten mich nach. Diese von jedem Leben entleerten Augen zwangen mich, sie unablässig anzusehen.

(HE 54)

[I remember the yellow glass eyes. In a reproduction of a heath there were stuffed foxes and badgers. They ran or jumped or crouched in one unvarying position, in the middle of a strained movement to which they were condemned for all eternity. The inserted glass eyes were all of one color and size, the iris bright like amber. The glass eyes bulged forward under their lids. They pursued me wherever I went, staring at me. I was forced to look incessantly at these eyes that were drained of all life.]

The dead animals demand Thomas's attention the same way that dead Herr Horn demands to be remembered. In both cases, Thomas senses that something hideous is being forced on him: death, or in the case of the chapter prologues, a past better left forgotten lest it overwhelm the present. Thomas later makes explicit the connections between Horn and his taxidermic kingdom (the eyes again), not to mention the oppressiveness of Guldenberg and the respectable life he is forced to lead. And like the other narrators, he diagnoses Horn's moral failure:

Herr Horn war mir unangenehm. Seine kühlen grauen Augen ängstigten mich. Er war wohl so alt wie mein Vater, dreiundvierzig Jahre, aber er wirkte viel älter, zerbrechlicher. Heute würde ich sagen, daβ er verzagt und mutlos war, daβ er seinem Leben nie die Kränkungen verzieh, die es ihm bereitete. Aber damals spürte ich nur die abwehrende Einsamkeit eines vergrämten Mannes. Schon als ich ihn das erstemal sah, an jenem Sonntag, an dem ich mit Vater und Bruder ins Heimatmuseum ging, empfand ich die alles zurückweisende Verschlossenheit dieses Mannes.

(HE 190)

[I found Herr Horn unpleasant. His cool gray eyes frightened me. He was the same age as my father, 43, but he seemed much older, more fragile. Today I would say that he was utterly demoralized, that he never forgave his life for the injuries it had done him. But at the time I sensed only the defensive loneliness of a careworn man. From the very first time I saw him, on that Sunday when I went with my father and brother to the regional museum, I could feel how withdrawn and bitter he was.]

This critical assessment of Horn is more suggestive than Spodeck's or Kruschkatz's, and it suggests links to concerns that appear frequently in Hein's work. The embittered historian has erred in withdrawing from society so completely, by remaining inflexibly willful at the expense of all else. Thus he resembles characters like Hubert K. or Schlötel, who sacrifice everything, including their connection with society and even their humanity, for an ideal. Though admirable to a degree, such uncompromising behavior is also anarchistically anti-social.16 Thomas, himself naively prejudiced in favor of life and freedom regardless of the cost to memory, accurately perceives that Horn's motivations are principally negative: resentment, hatred, pride; they coincide in part with the passion for truth that Horn so eloquently describes, but he is also self-serving.17 Both aspects of Horn's character must be kept in view before the nature of his tragedy can be understood.

In the flesh as in the ghost prologues, Horn acknowledges the taint of death that Thomas notices in the museum and wonders why he would willingly come there: “Warum willst du dich in einem Museum verkriechen, Junge? Was hast du mit den Toten zu schaffen?” [Why do you want bury yourself in a museum, boy? What business do you have with the dead?: 57]; and presumably the curator includes himself among these dead. In short, viewed from Thomas's standpoint, Horn belongs in the signifier chain Museum—History—Memory—Death—Truth—Enclosure. Thomas himself, longing to escape from Bad Guldenberg and forget about it, alternatively represents Forgetting—Life—Escape. Hein grants a partial validity to each viewpoint, and to the mutual distaste that Horn and Thomas must feel toward each other. The paradoxes in their characterizations and the contradictory symbolic matrices they inhabit forestall easy judgment by the reader, forcing instead an acceptance of the incommensurability of truths and viewpoints that so scandalizes Kruschkatz. McKnight notes as well the agreement between the boy and the Bürgermeister, both of whom wish to forget the past in order to live in the present. Kruschkatz was surely right, for example, to try to transcend the past enmity between Guldenberg and the Gypsies:

Whose enemies are the gypsies, really? What have the Guldenbergers actually learned? Yet Kruschkatz is morally salvageable precisely by virtue of his desire to let go of the old stories that Horn and Gohl refuse to forget. What good is an antagonism carved in stone, eternal bitterness, eternal wallowing in the past? It is necessary to free oneself from the past and move forward. Such paradoxes remained unresolved, an open question, almost a vicious circle. …

(“Ein Mosaik” 423–424)

Thomas emerges as the most contradictory figure of all, drawn unknowingly into the world of the historical museum which is Bad Guldenberg, and which contains not just recent acquisitions like Horn, but also older specimens like Herr Gohl, whose ghastly tragedy during the Nazi years makes him into a living monument to the past barbarity of his fellow citizens (one of whom had denounced him in writing to the Nazis, leading to his wife's murder in the stead of her retarded daughter [HE 156]). Even before Thomas is put to work helping Gohl paint the trompe l'oeil backdrops to the museum's exhibits, he has acquainted himself with Gohl's peculiar friends and fellow sufferers under the Nazis: the Gypsies, whom the Guldenbergers feel freer to abhor openly than they do Gohl. The pharmacist, for example, comments on the mysterious relationship between Gohl and the Gypsy king with smug condescension and unconscious irony: “Warum er ausgerechnet zu Gohl ging, wuβte keiner. Vater sagt nur, da hätten sich die Richtigen gefunden” [Why he visited Gohl of all people nobody knew. Father merely said that they made a proper pair: 10]. Such attitudes support McKnight's view that the solidarity between the Gohl family and the Gypsies functions as the novel's “measure of humanity,” which is destroyed (not for the first time) by the rape of Marlene. In spite of his avowed objectivity, Hein does provide certain “evaluative criteria” for his readers, as McKnight notes: “Bachofen's treason. Irene's death and unhappiness. Gertrude Fischlinger's sorrow. And, above all, the tragic fate of the Gohl family” (“Ein Mosaik” 418). Thomas, working for the Gypsies, working for Gohl, and listening to doomed Herr Horn describe the heavy responsibility for discovering truth, is one Guldenberger whose aversion to the past does not altogether blind him to its legacy and his own responsibility. He perhaps approximates the best that can be hoped for from Germany's first guiltless, postwar generation. Like Kruschkatz, Thomas gains in humanity by his contact with the Gypsies (McKnight, “Ein Mosaik” 425); it remains to be seen whether he can surpass the Bürgermeister in facing the responsibility bequeathed by Horn.


Hein's books preceding Der Tangospieler examine history in its social, individual, and professional aspects; Der Tangospieler, while continuing in this vein, also satirizes conditions of life in the pre-Wende GDR by casting a special type of historian as Everyman. (The book, published in early 1989, was also the first—and last—critical treatment of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to appear inside the GDR.)18 In his other fiction, Hein generally refrains from the sort of direct, biting social commentary so evident in his plays, but in Der Tangospieler the social criticism is scathing. The book is less a meditation on history or a study of a historically defined character than a travesty of the old Socialist Realist convention of the New Man, that hoped-for product of life in a society where “the fulfillment of the individual is the precondition for the fulfillment of all” (Marx 53). If a society reveals something of its essence through the sorts of people who prosper in it, then the GDR of this book is a land of opportunism, cynicism, intellectual stagnation, and Orwellian historical revisionism. Yet Dallow, much like Claudia, in Der fremde Freund, is a normal person reacting in a reasonable way to the pressures and expectations of his society. His unselfconscious accommodation to his world points to the true delineations of power within it, giving the lie to public propaganda and private rationalization. Unlike Claudia, whose “I'm fine” becomes ever harder to believe, Dallow's ultimate apotheosis can hardly be denied, and therein lies the shock of the book: the perfect fit between his society's unstated rules and his self-serving disinterest in all things political or historical (a type of disinterest not limited to the East, of course). The most dreadful thing about Dallow is that he is not a monster—he is quite ordinary in ways that would have been apparent to any citizen of the GDR. This ordinariness, painstakingly detailed, is what enables Hein to maintain his vaunted stance of objective chronicling; the satiric sting at the end, despite its exaggerated neatness, relies on a long string of plausibilities.

The narrative itself may be briefly summarized as follows. After serving nineteen months for unintentionally ridiculing Party chief Walter Ulbricht (by playing the piano accompaniment to a student cabaret's satirical tango), Dallow is released from prison. He tries without success to reintegrate himself into society—his old academic institute turns him down, and he finds that no one will hire a politically compromised former university professor for menial jobs. Plagued by memories he wishes to forget (or, later, by resentments he will not let go of) and plagued by a pair of Stasi agents who try to enlist his services, he dissipates himself with drink and women before deciding to seek a job as waiter. A friend finds him a job on the Baltic coast at a summer resort, and he happily adjusts to a life without ambition and with plenty of young, nubile women. With the August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, circumstances at his institute change after his successor Roessler commits a political error: he tells a full classroom that the reports of Warsaw Pact tanks in Prague are Western propaganda, the proof being that the GDR's sense of historical responsibility would prevent it from ever again invading a neighbor country. As a result, Dallow is invited to return to his old job. The book foregrounds two related metaphors: the paralysis Dallow suffers in his right hand in moments of stress, and the act of playing the piano. At the end, once Dallow has been reinstated, his paralysis departs, apparently for good, and he resumes playing. And in a scene reminiscent of the tank episode Claudia remembered in Der fremde Freund, Dallow is vouch-safed a vision of brutal political power and his relation to it.

One essential premise of the book may seem implausible—that Dallow, a Leipzig history professor, could have absolutely no interest in the historical events taking place in 1968 in the East Bloc. Yet Dallow is a not-unfamiliar type of academic. His scholarly work concerns an area of research approved by the Party and of no real importance to anyone else, nor of interest even to Dallow. He describes it to his girlfriend Elke:

Sehr beeindruckend ist meine Wissenschaft nicht. Ich hatte mich mit Neuerer Geschichte zu befassen und unentwegt danach zu forschen, wie die illegalen sozialdemokratischen Zeitungen vor einhundert Jahren konspirativ gedruckt und über den Bodensee gerudert wurden. Und wie die tapferen Arbeiter und Handwerker der Prager Neustadt sich mit Besenstielen und Sandeimern des Bombardements von Windischgrätz erwehrten. Wenn von einer Wissenschaft nur noch Anekdoten übrigbleiben, wird es ermüdend.

([Der Tangospieler, hereafter cited as DT] 99)

[My scientific accomplishments are not very impressive. I was supposed to work in modern history, to burn the midnight oil discovering how illegal social-democratic parties managed secretly to print newspapers and row them across Lake Constance a hundred years ago. And how the brave workers and artisans of Prague defended themselves against Windischgrätz's cannons with broomsticks and buckets of sand. But it's tiresome when science has nothing more to do than unearth anecdotes.]

([The Tango Player, hereafter cited as TTP] 104)

Sarcasm is evident in this parody of public discourse in the GDR: the workers are always “brave” and the research that glorifies them continues endlessly. Dallow more than anyone is aware that his scholarly work is nothing but rote Soβe (the red sauce that went with everything)—it was doubtless settled upon as a field promising sure advancement through the academic ranks. If Dallow's specialty has any relevance to the contemporary world (as it may well), Dallow has not troubled himself to discover it; all that matters is political correctness. Since he lacks any interest in the political events pressing around him, the term “Neuere Geschichte” seems ludicrously inappropriate as a description of what Dallow does, namely, accumulating dead facts and keeping them that way. As in the case of Kruschkatz in Horns Ende, and for similar reasons, Hein delays as long as possible the revelation that we are dealing with a professional historian, but as a comparison to any of the narrators in the earlier novel shows, Dallow is really the precise opposite of a historian, and equally a perfect servant of the state and his own interests. If to seek out historical truth inevitably means to deconstruct whatever partisan version of history the state may have decided to project, then the political meaning of “disinterest” in history becomes readily apparent.

Dallow's anti-historical attitude emerges first from his initial determination to forget his own most dramatic experience with state power: the nineteen months in jail for a trivial and unintentional political offense. He insists to his friend Harry that the time in jail was meaningless, wasted, and best forgotten:

“Und wie war es?” fragte der Kellner zögernd. Es schien, als suche er dabei nach Worten.

“Das ist alles schon vergessen,” sagte Dallow und lächelte den Kellner an, “verlorene Zeit, nicht der Mühe wert, sich daran zu erinnern.”

(DT 16)

[“And how was it?” asked the waiter after a moment's hesitation, during which he seemed to be searching for the right words.

“I've already put it out of my mind,” said Dallow and smiled at the waiter. “Lost time, not worth the trouble trying to remember.”]

(TTP 15)

He tells his parents the same thing: “Vergeβt einfach alles … ich selbst kann mich an diese Zeit kaum noch erinnern” [Just forget the whole thing … I barely remember it myself: 75; 78] and finds that he has been avoiding friends and family because

Man würde ihm Mitgefühl bekunden wollen, und eben das zwänge ihn, jene Zeit, die er gründlich und rasch vergessen wollte, sich immer wieder ins Gedächtnis zu rufen, sich vor Augen zu führen, um sie zu beschreiben und schlieβlich auszumalen, wilder, farbiger und fürchterlicher, als sie tatsächlich gewesen war.

(DT 58)

[People wanted to show their sympathy, and yet that was precisely what kept sending him back to prison, back to the time he wanted to forget quickly and completely. But they kept forcing him to recollect it, to behold it, in order to describe and ultimately color events so that his life in prison seemed wilder, more picturesque and more frightening than it had really been.]

(TTP 61)

His desire to forget the past is connected with a sense that the time in prison was meaningless, irrelevant to the rest of his life, and therefore irredeemably wasted. He accurately perceives that his friends expect from him not merely an account of the jail time, but an evaluation of it, and consequently an indication of his own future plans. Finding no meaning in it, he can form no plans. To now spend additional time thinking about something as pointless as his lost nineteen months looks like a further waste of time, an extension of his punishment; therefore, forgetting looks to him like freedom:

Er wollte die Zeit aus seinem Gedächtnis löschen, um sich von ihr zu befreien. Die Inhaftierung hatte er nie als Strafe empfinden können, sondern allein als eine Kränkung und einen nicht wiedergutzumachenden Verlust von Zeit. Aber er hatte die beiden Jahre hinter sich gebracht, ohne verrückt zu werden, und er wollte künftig keine Minute mit einem nutzlosen Grübeln über die Haft und die unwürdigen Umstände, unter denen er im Gefängnis zu leben gezwungen war, verlieren.

(DT 21)

[He wanted to erase this time from his memory so he could free himself from it. He had never been able to view his imprisonment as a punishment, only as an annoyance, an irreplaceable loss of time. But he had managed to get through the two years without losing his mind, and from now on he refused to waste a single minute on senseless brooding over his imprisonment and the degrading conditions he had had to endure.]

(TTP 20)

With the memory of Horns Ende freshly in mind, the reader of Der Tangospieler may be tempted to read Dallow's desire to forget as self-evidently misguided, as a rejection of historical reality and of responsibility similar to Thomas's complaints against the relentless voice of memory. Yet Thomas did have a valid point when he argued for the claims of the living, and he was not altogether wrong in trying to rid himself once and for all of ideological abstractions like “history.” Dallow's case is even more enigmatic, because nothing intrinsic to the narrative directly contradicts his view, while the denouement even vindicates forgetting the past as quickly and as thoroughly as possible really was the best strategy for survival in the GDR in 1968. Adding to the difficulty of assessing Dallow is his abrupt decision to begin remembering after all. Specifically, he nurses a grudge against the prosecutor, judge, and defense lawyer who collaborated in jailing him. As might be expected, the desire to remember involves a new understanding and evaluation of the events.

The alleged meaninglessness of Dallow's time in jail turns out to be a starting point, not a conclusion. His belief that he had been imprisoned entirely by mistake succinctly expresses an ahistorical sensibility—events simply follow one another, or happen side by side without implying relations or patterns. This is the significance of Dallow's pseudo-philosophical description of existence as “ein Lichtspiel, ein Phänomen der Optik wie das Kino. Und was sind Lichtspiele und Wasserspiele, ein Zeitvertreib aus Nichts” [a light show, an optical phenomenon like the cinema. Or water dancing in a fountain. And what are light shows and electric fountains? Sheer follies, time-killers, made of nothing: 90; 95]; his jail term, likewise, as he tells his father, “ist auch nur eine Gelegenheit, um die Zeit totzuschlagen” [just another place to kill time: 67; 70]. His imprisonment, because it lacks necessary logical connections with anything else in his life, can only be regarded as absurd, a joke:

Er war nicht ins Gefängnis gekommen, weil er kriminell, aufsässig oder mutig gewesen war; einer Dummheit wegen hatte man ihn verurteilt und in eine Zelle gesperrt, auch wenn das Urteil etwas anderes sagte und der Richter von etwas anderem überzeugt war. Das Gefängnis blieb ein Unfall innerhalb einer gleichmäβig dahinrinnenden Existenz. Nichts als ein Irrtum. Ein Versehen beider Seiten. Keine Veränderungen. Es gab nur eine Unterbrechung, von der er, nachdem sie nun einmal passiert war, gehofft hatte, sie würde noch eine letzte, wichtige Weichenstellung erlauben. Aber, und das ahnte er jetzt, er verstand nicht, die Chance zu nutzen, es war umsonst, es blieb ein bedauernswerter, nichtssagender Unfall.19

(DT 110)

[He hadn't landed in prison for being criminal, rebellious, or courageous; he had been convicted and jailed on account of a stupid trifle, even if the sentence said otherwise and the judge was convinced he was right. Prison remained an accident in the steady trickle of his existence. Just an error, nothing more. A mistake on both sides. Nothing new. It had only been an interruption, and now that it had happened he hoped it would lead to one more final, important change of course. But he realized he didn't know how to take advantage of this opportunity, all attempts were useless, the event remained a regrettable and insignificant accident.]

(TTP 115)

Dallow denies the reality of his crime as it was understood by the judge—as a political act in violation of specific laws—but his claim of innocence (that he had never read the text accompanying the tango, etc.), though technically true, fails to satisfy either the judge (73–4; 76–77) or the reader. If nothing else, Dallow is surely guilty of a sort of criminal negligence with respect to politics. His remarkable stupidity recalls the deluded explanation Hauptmann Hirschburg, in Passage, gives for his persecution by the Nazi authorities: not that he has Jewish ancestry, but merely because of an “unglückselige[s] Miβverständnis” [unfortunate misunderstanding: Passage 29]. Before the play ends, however, Hirschburg sees his error and shoulders his historical burden by leading the fifteen elderly Jews through the Pyrenees. Dallow comes more gradually to an understanding that his conviction was more than an accident or error, as he looks at the aimlessness and isolation of his life as an ex-convict:

Das Gefängnis, sagte er sich, war wohl doch mehr als nur ein Unfall in meinem Leben.

… Ihm war bewuβt, daβ ihn, tief versteckt und uneingestanden, Heimweh quälte, ein Heimweh nach der Zelle. Er vermiβte jene sonderbare Geborgenheit, die vollständige, alles umfassende Vorsorge, das ausnahmslos geregelte Leben. In der Zelle hatte er nichts entscheiden müssen.

(DT 114)

[Prison must have been more than an accident in my life, he told himself.

… He realized he was homesick, deeply homesick in a way he would not admit, homesick for his cell. He missed that strange security, the comprehensive care, he missed the total regulation of his life. In his cell he never had to make a single decision.]

(TTP 119–120)

This homesickness suggests even more than Dallow recognizes. His longing for confinement amounts to nostalgia for the lost security of his prior, conformist life. However inadvertent, his political infraction had been the act of a free man, and the state exacted its price for such freedom by treating him as a dissident. Dallow's plan of action once he realizes his homesickness for the cell is to look for work, that is, to rejoin the society from which he had been excluded; it is by no means a repudiation of his more profound longing for unfreedom.

Thus the meaning that Dallow extracts from his jail term is only partly valid. He thinks, correctly, that the smooth progress of his life has been disrupted and that he has lost sight of the future, but he never becomes conscious of the deeper relation between the conditions of life inside and outside of the cell. Having discovered significance in his past, he has a reason to remember, though in a limited way: he becomes like Horn, clinging to a conviction of personal injury at the hands of unscrupulous individuals—in Horn's case, his comrades, while in Dallow's, the judge, prosecutor, and lawyer. Both men suffered expulsion from a community, and both refuse to accept the ideological rationale for their suffering, insisting instead on complete exoneration. The difference between the two men, and the two books, is that Der Tangospieler is a satire: Dallow seeks to establish that he was truly, perfectly innocent of political motives, that he was a good, obedient, disengaged citizen despite appearances, and that he should never have been punished for the crime of independent thought. This is how his determination to remember the wrongs done to him should be read—in light of Horn's relatively (though not absolutely) selfless pursuit of truth in the face of ideological fantasy. Hein puts into Dallow's mouth a virtual parody of Horn's refusal, according to Kruschkatz, to forget or to learn anything from his fall:

“Kannst du nicht vergessen?” fragte Elke unvermittelt.

Dallow brauchte einen Moment, um zu begreifen, wovon sie sprach. “Ich will es nicht. … Ich will nichts vergessen, und ich will nichts verzeihen.”

(DT 181–2)

[“Can't you forget? asked Elke abruptly.

Dallow needed a moment to understand what she was getting at. “I don't want to. … I don't want to forget anything, and I don't want to forgive anything, either.”]

(TTP 191–192)

Dallow's primary argument for his innocence resonates with various associations he doesn't intend. Beginning with the prison official who processes his release, Dallow tells anyone who asks that he is a piano player by trade (6; 4). Close to a dozen times, he recites the same explanation for his misfortune and guiltlessness: “Ich war nur der Pianist” [I was only the piano player: 136, 142; 144, 150], “Ich war nur der Tangospieler” [I was only the tango player: three times 136–143; 144–151]), “Ich bin nur ein Kellner. … Und früher war ich ein Tangospieler” [I'm just a waiter … and once I was a tango player: 199; 213]. As he tries to explain at his trial, Dallow means by this that he had nothing to do with the words his piano playing accompanied, and that his role in the affair was incidental as well as accidental. Yet with so many repetitions, it is hard not to begin hearing “I was just the piano player” as “I was only following orders,” in others words as a disingenuous profession of non-involvement and guiltlessness. This standard defense of concentration camp guards and other war criminals cannot be taken at face value; the implication seems to be that in some sense, he is indeed guilty of something, though Hein does not explicitly state what.

To grasp the nature of Dallow's actions, it is necessary to look at how piano-playing and paralysis operate in the book as metaphors. Dallow suffers from recurring paralysis in his right hand; meanwhile, he refuses to play the piano (or is incapable of it) until the final pages of the book. The paralysis strikes him whenever he is confronted directly by state power, as at the beginning while being discharged from prison, or during his dealings with the Stasi-men Müller and Schulze, or at the conclusion when he imagines being crushed by an armored vehicle. Twice he attempts to play the piano: unsuccessfully, after deciding that he must find a job and stop his aimless drifting, and successfully, at the conclusion, once he has his old job back. Paralysis is a clear enough symbol of helplessness in the face of superior power, but its significance for Dallow's politically-colored musicianship is subtler. He is quite right to regard his playing at the student cabaret as a minor, subordinate aspect of the whole production, and indeed the role of musical accompanist may be equated with Dallow's former (and future) role in his society: as a minor collaborator in his government's comprehensive program of ideological indoctrination, as a fully subservient “intellectual” committed to nothing except following the rules set by the state (whatever they may be—why bother reading the words before playing along?), in return for which he is guaranteed a comfortable life as an academic. In Hein's fictive universe, moreover, Dallow represents the worst possible subspecies of compromised intellectual: a compromised hack historian, someone who perverts the essential cultural work of history-writing into partisan drivel, while obscuring other, real historical truths.

When Dallow sits down to the piano in the final scene, after Warsaw Pact troops have invaded Czechoslovakia and Dallow has been restored to his former position at the university, he again plays an accompaniment:

Dallow … schaltete den Fernseher an und ging ins Bad, um sich lange zu duschen. Dann setzte er sich mit einer Flasche Vodka an das Klavier. Er hatte den Ton des Fernsehers abgedreht und sah auf die sich bewegenden Bilder. Er spielte laut und wild die kleinen, ihm geläufigen Klavierstücke von Chopin und sah dem stummen Film seines Fernsehgerätes zu, der Soldaten zeigte, die von der Bevölkerung begrüβt und offenbar von Armeegenerälen besucht wurden. Frauen mit kleinen Kindern auf dem Arm warfen Blumen zu den auf ihren Panzern sitzenden Soldaten, andere Bilder zeigten Prager Bürger in freundschaftlichen Gespräch mit den Soldaten. Dallow trank in kurzer Zeit die Flasche aus, stellte den Fernseher ab und ging ins Schlaffzimmer. Bevor er sich auszog, prüfte er die Klingel des Weckers und stellte ihn dann. Er wollte am nächsten Morgen pünktlich im Institut sein.

(DT 205–206)

[Dallow … turned on the television, and went to the bathroom to take a long shower. Then he opened a bottle of vodka and sat down at the piano. He had turned down the volume on the television and was watching the pictures. He played the little Chopin he knew by heart, loudly and uncontrolled, as the silent film played on. It showed soldiers being greeted by the local population and reviewed by high-ranking generals. Women with small children were tossing flowers to the troops sitting on their tanks; in another scene citizens of Prague were making friendly conversation with the soldiers. Dallow soon finished the bottle, turned off the television, and went into the bedroom. Before he undressed he checked to make sure his alarm clock was working and then set it. He wanted to be at the Institute on time the next morning.]

(TTP 219–220)

The fabricated history spewing out of the television finds in Dallow an able accompanist. Dutifully playing along, he prepares to go to work the next morning as a historian of forgetting. As in his performance with the student cabaret, Dallow ignores what is actually being said: the television sound is turned off, and Dallow is free to claim complete indifference to the contents of the broadcast, which Hein describes in a deadpan socialist-optimistic manner. In this parody of political disinterest, the uninvolved individual is really an active supporter of the prevailing powers, playing along, avoiding trouble, just following orders. Herr Dozent Dr. Dallow's utter disinterest in his chosen field of modern history presents a somewhat extreme example of how separated theory and practice can become in a repressive state, but the portrayal is not totally incredible. As someone who has learned to ignore, for personal advantage, even the most glaring contradictions in his life and society, Dallow is a travesty of the “really existing” Socialist New Man.

Hein thus leaves no doubt that Dallow should be understood as the opposite of a true historian. Though living in 1968 in the GDR, he lacks any interest in the social upheavals taking place in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Hein's flat, impersonal, yet highly concrete, almost Kleist-like narrative style allows him to draw his protagonist against a background of incidental news reports, overheard conversations, and other references to the political events that barely graze Dallow's consciousness. Thus newspapers, for example, play a large role in the book as a gauge of Dallow's interest in the world around him and a demonstration of his aversion to thinking about it. After his release, when he finds a number of old newspapers in his mailbox, he merely reflects that the news stories they contain must have been much less important than they pretended to be at the time (10; 9). Later he tries with little success (having paid no attention to such matters before) to decipher a newspaper's evasive reports about the socialist reform movements:

Er las zwei kurze Artikel über Warschau und Prag, denen er nicht mehr entnehmen konnte, als daβ die Zeitungsredaktion mit groβer Anteilnahme und tiefer Sorge nicht näher benannte Vorgänge in diesen Städten beobachtete.

(DT 106)

[He read two short articles about Warsaw and Prague, from which he could only gather that the newspaper's editors were following certain events in these cities with great interest and deep concern, though what these events were remained unclear.]

(TTP 111)

At this point he makes plans to subscribe to a newspaper, not in order to follow the news more closely, but to help kill time:

In der Zelle waren es seine angenehmsten Stunden gewesen, die er mit dem Lesen der Zeitung verbracht hatte. Er hoffte, daβ ihm die Tageszeitung auch jetzt, auβerhalb der Gefängnismauern eine vergleichbare, interresselose Beschäftigung verschaffen könnte. Er hoffte, mit ihr die viele freie Zeit totzuschlagen.

(DT 106)

[In his cell he had spent his most pleasant hours that way. Now, on the outside, he hoped the newspaper would provide him with a similarly mindless activity. He hoped it would help him kill some of his abundant free time.]

(TTP 111–112)

The notion that newspapers could serve the same purpose in or out of jail underscores the lack of any real difference between these two conditions for Dallow. Read psychologically, Dallow's desire to resume “killing time” is a sign of his latent yearning for the security of the prison cell; read as political allegory, it is a sign of his imprisonment within a totalitarian society whose most successful citizens are those who acquiesce fully in their own subjugation. The manner in which Dallow reads, with “teilnahmloser Aufmerksamkeit” [indifferent, detached attention: 105; 111], can be understood equally well as a description of his relation to society. As in Horn's single-minded commitment to the reality of the wrong done him, “indifferent, detached attention” is another botched approximation of what Hein sees as the ideal historiographic attitude, writing without “passion and prejudice.” His distance from the ideal, however, is instructive: the chronicler remains dispassionate in order to make facts available for the construction of truth, whereas Dallow has no more complex motivations than self-interest and boredom. His attentiveness to events is wholly sterile, leading to no synthesis in his life or professional work, and his claim to political neutrality looks plausible only until his de facto involvement in history restores him unexpectedly to his university job. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a moment he has been waiting for, and in fact he is being rewarded for waiting rather than acting, for letting events control him rather than actively participating, which would mean overcoming his social alienation.

Dallow's bizarre detachment from the convulsions within the socialist world emerges most clearly from his encounters with people who exhibit a degree of political engagement. While he simply ignores the barrage of political commentary over Western radio (172; 181, and elsewhere) he displays condescension or puzzlement when confronted with other people's interest. Waiting for Harry at the bar on the first night after his release, Dallow sneers at the “junge, unreife Gesichter” [young, immature faces: 15; 14] of the students he hears discussing politics. (Evidently, a more mature attitude toward politics—such as Dallow's—would preclude having actual convictions, let alone loud public discussion of them.) Dallow's dismissal of student enthusiasm is redressed later, when the news of the invasion of Czechoslovakia brings Dallow's current bed partner to tears. She is horrified by Dallow's lack of concern:

“Ich kann nicht verstehen, daβ dich so etwas kalt läβt,” sagte das Mädchen entsetzt.

“Ich bin nur ein Kellner,” gab Dallow zu bedenken.

Das Mädchen protestierte. “Du bist ein lebendiger Mensch, du bist …”

Dallow unterbrach sie und wandte freundlich ein: “Und früher war ich ein Tangospieler. Aber das ist lange her.”

(DT 199)

[“I can't understand how you can be so indifferent,” she said, somewhat horrified.

“I'm just a waiter,” Dallow answered her.

The girl protested. “You're a living human being, you're a …”

Dallow interrupted, objecting in a friendly voice, “Yes, and once I was a tango player. But that was a long time ago.”]

(TTP 213)

Dallow's standard demurral, “I was just the tango player,” looks the more cynical for its juxtaposition with the student's unaffected grief over the crushing of the Prague Spring. Not even Müller and Schulze, the Stasi-men, can fathom Dallow's disengagement, especially in view of his profession and specialty. They are disappointed when they try to enlist Dallow as an ally in the current difficult political situation:

[Schulze speaking.] “Sie sind Historiker. Sie kennen die tschechische und slowakische Geschichte. Sie sind für uns von Interesse, gerade in dieser Zeit.”

Dallow unterbrach ihn: “Ich beschäftigte mich mit dem 19. Jahrhundert. Die Gegenwart hat mich nie interessiert. Und Politiker fanden meine Aufmerksamkeit erst, wenn sie vermodert waren. Sie sind dann wesentlich aufrichtiger.”

Schulze lächelte.

“Geben Sie sich keine Mühe,” sagte Dallow grob, “was da in Prag passiert, kümmert mich so viel.” Er schnipste mit den Fingern. “Und auβerdem arbeite ich nicht mehr als Historiker. Schon lange nicht mehr. Zuletzt war ich Tangospieler. …”

(DT 151)

[“You're a historian, with a specialty in Czech and Slovak history. We're very interested in that, especially right now.”

Dallow interrupted him. “My specialty is the nineteenth century. Current events have never interested me. And politicians only attract my attention once they've started to moulder in the grave. They're a lot more honest then.”

Schulze smiled.

“Don't trouble yourselves,” said Dallow curtly. “What's going on in Prague concerns me this much.” He snapped his fingers. “And anyway, I'm not a historian anymore. I haven't been for a long time. My last job was as a tango player. …]

(TTP 159–160)

The secret policemen leave immediately and promise not to return after Dallow assures them that he cares nothing for politics. This suggests that although the regime may genuinely have hoped to win Dallow over as an active co-worker, an equally acceptable outcome is for him to withdraw completely from political life. Hein virtually acknowledges the exaggeration of his protagonist's withdrawal by placing him among a group of more realistically drawn characters at a birthday party, some of whom try to involve him in a conversation about Czech politics. As so often in the book, Dallow responds with a seemingly ingenuous disinterest that bespeaks more satire than plausibility:

Einer der Männer erkundigte sich nach Dallows Ansichten und fragte, ob er Dubcek Chancen einräume, politisch zu überleben.

“Ich habe keine Ahnung,” antwortete ihm Dallow, “und es interessiert mich auch nicht.”

Er sagte es freundlich und betont liebenswürdig, aber das Gespräch verstummte, und alle sahen zu ihm.

“Das kann nicht Ihr Ernst sein,” sagte der Mann, der ihn angesprochen hatte. “In diesem Fall wären Sie der einzige Mensch in diesem Land, den die Ereignisse in Prag nicht beschäftigen. So oder so ist doch da jeder engagiert.”

Dallow zuckte bedauernd mit den Schultern und erwiderte nichts.

“Aber Sie sind doch Historiker,” sagte ein Mädchen, “das hat Elke mir erzählt. Ich dachte, gerade Sie müβte das dort interessieren.”

Dallow lächelte sie freundlich an und korrigierte höflich: “Ich bin Pianist.” Und erläuternd fügte er hinzu: “Tangospieler.”

(DT 158–9)

[One of the men wanted to know what Dallow thought and asked whether he thought Dubcek had any chances of surviving politically.

“I have no idea,” Dallow answered. “I'm really not interested.”

He said it in a friendly manner, but it stopped the conversation and everyone looked his way.

“You can't really mean that,” said the man who had put the question to him. “In that case you must be the only one in the whole country who isn't totally preoccupied with what's happening in Prague. One way or another we're all involved.”

Dallow shrugged his shoulders to indicate his regret but did not respond.

“But you're a historian,” said one woman, “Elke told me. I would think you'd be more interested than anybody.”

Dallow gave her a friendly smile and corrected her politely: “I'm a piano player.” And then he added, by way of explanation, “A tango player.”]

(TTP 167–168)

As justification for his uncommunicativeness, Dallow finally announces that he spent two years in prison. The man questioning him replies “Ja, und?” [Well, so what?: 160; 170], a laconic critique of the martyrstance Dallow shares with Horn. In spite of their personal suffering, they face the same choices and responsibilities as all their fellow citizens; history has not halted for them or granted them a special dispensation.

As grim and absurd as his past experience may be, Dallow still must find a way to survive in society, either submitting uncritically to political power or finding some more or less critical relation to it (escape being virtually impossible, except perhaps in death). His choice is mirrored in the seaside Windflüchter, the deformed trees that survive by bowing and twisting before the wind. His admiration for the stubborn persistence of these trees, which have found a way “mit ihrer Bedrückung zu leben” [to live with their oppression: 192; 205], mirrors his desire to accommodate himself unquestioningly to the powers that be. Dallow even accepts this flight from history consciously: the Windflüchter symbolize for him the simple route out of his personal “Labyrinth” (192; 205–206). During his drive back to Leipzig and to his old job, he encounters a concrete manifestation of his historical circumstances and the choices open to him: a column of military vehicles returning from Czechoslovakia. In a scene reminiscent of the tank episode in Der fremde Freund, Dallow has a waking dream of being crushed by an armored vehicle:

Ein Schützenpanzerfahrzeug blieb zehn Meter vor ihm stehen, er sah das blasse, übernächtigte Gesicht des jungen Soldaten. Halbe Kinder, dachte Dallow. Er starrte den Soldaten an, der offenbar Mühe hatte, die Augen offenzuhalten. Er stellte sich vor, der Junge würde die Gewalt über den Panzerwagen verlieren. Er sah, wie der Eisenkoloβ plötzlich aus der Reihe brach und sich mit schlingernden Bewegungen auf ihn zu bewegte. Die riesigen Reifen rollten langsam heran und drückten die Fensterscheiben des kleinen Autos ein. Das Panzerfahrzeug schob Dallow in seinem Wagen vor sich her, stieβ ihn in den Straβengraben und überrollte ihn schlieβlich. Er sah sich selbst zu, wie er in seinem sich überschlagenden Wagen ruhig sitzen blieb, die verkrampfte, schmerzende Hand um den Lenker gekrallt, bis er, noch immer lächelnd, in dem Auto zerquetscht wurde. Dallow träumte mit offenen Augen, während die Armeefahrzeuge bereits wieder weiterfuhren. Er stellte sich die Szene so lebhaft vor, daβ er schwitzte. Er bemerkte das Zittern seiner rechten Hand und nahm sie vom Steuer, aber schon nach einigen Sekunden lieβ das Zittern nach, der befürchtete Krampf blieb aus.

“Das hätte es sein können,” sagte Dallow laut zu sich und massierte die Hand, “vielleicht wars meine letzte Chance.”

(DT 204–5)

[A light attack tank stopped thirty feet away from him; he could see the young soldier's face, made pale by lack of sleep. They're practically children, thought Dallow. He stared at the soldier, who seemed to have trouble keeping his eyes open. He imagined the boy losing control of the tank, he pictured the iron colossus suddenly breaking away and swerving right in his direction. The giant treads slowly rolled onto his little car, shattering the windows. The tank shoved the car forward, plowing it into a ditch, and then rolled on over. He saw his car caving in while he quietly sat inside, his hand cramped with pain, clawing the steering wheel until he was finally crushed, still smiling.

Dallow sat dreaming with open eyes as the army vehicles continued on their way. He had imagined the scene so vividly that he broke out in a sweat. He noticed that his right hand was shaking and he took it off the steering wheel, but it only took a few seconds before the shaking subsided; the cramp he so feared never came.

“That could have been it,” Dallow said to himself aloud and rubbed his hand, “maybe it was my last chance.”]

(TTP 218–219)

Like Claudia's remembered tank, this errant “light attack tank” stands unambiguously for socialism's “final argument”—brute force. It has just returned from Prague, where individuals had dared exercise autonomy, and having put a stop to that, it now threatens Dallow, confronting him with a clear illustration of the absolute state power he has been rather foolishly toying with. Dallow may debate with himself whether or not to seek work, whether or not to forget the wrong done him, but his body knows the truth: the paralyzed right hand is the physical counterpart to his loss of autonomy, which, as always in Hein, is both state- and self-imposed. The “last chance” that Dallow almost passes up is the chance to bend in the appropriate direction before the prevailing political wind. Such an accommodation to power is no guarantee of personal security (after all, a tank rolls over whatever is in its path, arbitrarily), but it is nonetheless safer than rebellion (as Horn's fate proved). Such a precarious pragmatism proves far more reliable than the rigid, ideologically guided rationalism of Roessler, Dallow's successor and rival at the institute. Thinking himself safe from a fall because of his faithfulness to the Party line, Roessler misunderstands the essence of his society: it is founded on force, which is irrational, not on ideology, which serves only to rationalize brutality. Roessler may be a better historian than Dallow (he remembers the socialist regime's public statements and points to Germany's experience as an aggressor in the Second World War as evidence that the GDR would never invade its neighbor), but he fails miserably as an opportunist. Greed, fear, and the hunger for power, not ideology, are the operative historical forces in Hein's GDR; with belief in the officially promulgated ideology in fact a pitfall to which intellectuals are prone, the truly prudent intellectual learns to emulate rationality without either believing in it or acting upon it.

When Dallow overcomes his paralysis and sits down to play the piano once again, his autonomy, his physical freedom to act, is really a mockery of freedom. He is once again, and now for the first time consciously, “just the tango player,” accommodating himself to history and its political vicissitudes. Physically he escaped being crushed by the tank, but spiritually he dreamed the plain truth. With his reinstatement and his new attitude, he can count on living happily ever after, a good citizen of the GDR. Of course, good citizenship means complete, agile obeisance to authority, and the utter renunciation of a personal viewpoint. Dallow, always detached, always apolitical, has had the potential all along, like Claudia, to be an ideal citizen. But where Claudia is almost purely reactive to her society, virtually its logical consequence, Dallow is the more ominous representative of perverted intellect in the active service of power. He is a historian of forgetting, the faithful lackey of power, whatever power. Even Dallow's resentful memory of the wrong done him reveals an attitude surprisingly close to the desires of the government: if he gets his job back, everything is forgiven and forgotten; no broader social questions need be raised. Thus the regime functions on a wholly corrupt basis, ruling by bribes and terror, and so requiring individuals to accept willingly the bribes and endure the terror as the price of possible success. The individual who plays along best with this game of self-interest prospers; one who resists it on principle gets nowhere, or ends up like Horn.

Hein's narratives about history, historians, and historiography portray individuals forced to act against a historical background they would, in most cases, prefer not to acknowledge, and it is precisely this yearning to disengage from society, politics, and history that guarantees the recurrence of history as a nightmare of repression and war. To assist the powers that be in tailoring history for political ends is the greatest and most nearly suicidal crime that intellectuals can commit. Hein's writings, along with those of such diverse authors as Christa Wolf, Heiner Müller, and Günter de Bruyn, played an inestimable role during the waning years of the GDR in creating the Öffentlichkeit, the atmosphere of dialogue and multiple viewpoints, that would have fateful political consequences in the fall of 1989. As the messy, confusing, and disillusioning job of rebuilding Eastern Europe proceeds, and the political exigencies (and score-settling) of unified Germany generate new distortions of that country's catastrophic recent history, it should not be forgotten that the artists and intellectuals of East Germany were among those who sparked and led the revolution that ended Communism in Europe. Hein's parables of corrupt socialist intellectuals surely deserve credit for keeping alive the possibility of an alternative. His determination to chronicle rather than spin ideological fantasies remains instructive for intellectuals of the post-socialist world, the chronicle of which must also one day be written.


  1. In the epigraph to his story, Hein notes: “Zum Lever, der Zeremonie des königlichen Aufstehens, geladen zu sein, galt als besondere Gunst am französischen Hof” [To be invited to the Rising, the ceremony of the royal getting-out-of-bed, was a mark of special favor at the French Court: NUFM 118]. The “Lever Bourgeois” to which the reader is invited is presumably another matter.

  2. See also “Anmerkungen zu Cromwell,” 173–74.

  3. “In schools and universities, and in our daily newspapers, history has been and still is conveyed to us in just one way: Everything that happened in the past was a necessary, purposeful expression of the historical world-spirit, leading ultimately to this state [that is, the GDR], to this society, to us. We are the victors of history, we heard through long years of schooling. The associated thrill of victory and joy was counteracted not solely by a number of unpleasant everyday realities; what truly astonishes is the lack of dialectical thinking in this account of history that claims to invoke dialectic” (Hein, “Die fünfte Grundrechenart” 62).

  4. A principle source of biographical information on Racine is his son, Louis, who was a young boy at the time of his father's death, and “whose laudable aim” in his Mémoires “was to whitewash his father” (Brereton 154) by emphasizing his virtues.

  5. Hein even exaggerates the gulf between the two phases in Racine's life by avoiding mention of the two late plays, Esther and Athalie, which were commissioned in the late 1680s by the king's morganatic wife, Madame de Maintenon, for her girls' school. Saintsbury notes that this late productivity was the result of a “conjunction of the two reigning passions of the latter part of [Racine's] life—devoutness and obsequiousness to the court” (208).

  6. Meanwhile, doctrinaire Marxist criticism of “Einladung zum Lever Bourgeois” accused Hein of identifying with Racine by himself relying on “an insinuation, an ironic remark, a despairing laugh” to make his points. Krumrey scolds him disingenuously for employing this “exceedingly deformed type of communication” (145) instead of expressing himself directly (and thereby precluding publication in the GDR altogether, one imagines).

  7. Fischer even sees the anti-government pamphlet Racine allegedly wrote toward the end of his life (and which Hein includes in his story) as a symptom of the courtier's spiritual illness: “Racine's revolutionary act is that of a sick and bitter old man who at the end of his life is seeking to find some value in it after the many political and personal sacrifices he has made …” (“Einladung” 128).

  8. Hein acknowledges similarities between Racine's situation and his own: Racine “is dependent on patrons, and in order to do the work that is really important to him, he has to accept some unbearable things. Restrictions that conflict with his planned life and work. This surely applies to us in our time as well. If I am to accomplish certain important things—important to me, but larger than me as well—then I have to accept certain things that are unbearable, or let's say, not accept, but endure them” (“Wir werden es lernen müssen” 58). This succinct description of the position of the artist in an oppressive state applies even better to Hein than to his version of Racine, whose work actually seems to dry up as a consequence of his accommodations with power. Hein, however, successfully took on the task of the chronicler once circumstances temporarily forced him to abandon the stage.

  9. Cf. Sevin, who ties the narrative complexity and ambiguity of Horns Ende directly to the level of historical consciousness possessed (or lacked) by East Germans in the 1980s. The task of the reader, when confronted with the fragmentary picture of Guldenberger crimes such as the murder of Frau Gohl, the denunciation of Herr Horn, and the persecution of the Gypsies, is to investigate in him- or herself continuities with the German past (203). However, I would resist Sevin's near-dismissal of Kruschkatz's historical relativism, which, though entangled with the Bürgermeister's destructive opportunism, I think is not wholly discredited by events in the novel. As will become clear from the explication below of Horn's and Spodeck's views about history, Hein does not oppose relativism to absolute truth. Though no relativist in a moral sense, Hein seems to propose an understanding of history that emphatically renounces any appeal to absolute reality. “History” is always something more relevant to the present than the past; consequently its “truth” is a political construct, a space for the working of Öffentlichkeit.

  10. Yet Spodeck's admiration for Horn exists side by side with the conviction that he died a coward, in disgrace (HE 193). Kruschkatz and Thomas also label Horn a coward, a fact discussed below.

  11. Perhaps deadline pressures account for the far simpler view of the reviewer at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who describes Kruschkatz as one who “always represents as political necessity that which furthers his career” (Wittstock).

  12. McKnight similarly describes Kruschkatz as a would-be materialist who cannot escape some taint of idealism, as opposed to Spodeck, a pure idealist who thinks (falsely) that he can detach himself from society, that is, the material world (“Ein Mosaik” 421).

  13. Hein fully endorses this declaration by Horn (“‘Wir werden es lernen müssen’” 65–6).

  14. Claas notes that the mirror metaphor in Spodeck's remarks recalls Thomas's attempts to see past his own gazing eye into the infinite series of images produced by a pair of mirrors: “‘It didn't work. I always ended up looking myself in the eye.’ Only the perspective of the viewer, leading back to the viewer, can be seen on the direct path of the reflection.” Analogously, Spodeck believes that the partial view afforded us of history always will be taken falsely as the whole truth, the holes filled in according to individual predilection. “The perspective puzzle occupying the half-grown Thomas turns up again in this conversation as a problem of historical truth” (17).

  15. This view of history as an interpretive activity may indicate how Hein understands the assumption by Benjamin that the photographs occupy a special status as “pieces of evidence about the historical process”: Benjamin is not naively assuming that photography objectively records historic fact, rather he senses the importance of the illusion of objectivity it offers, and perceives in the habits of moviegoers a critical consciousness capable of resolving that illusion into technique, and thence into historical process, that is, class struggle. For Benjamin, photography is merely the most shameless attempt to date to present a historically conditioned worldview as “objective” and “natural.” The question remains, as Hein shows in his essay, of whether or not a new critical consciousness necessarily accompanies the new technical medium.

  16. Münz harshly condemns Schlötel for this anarchistic stance (300–301), but in that play as well as in Horns Ende, Hein seems to take a more complex view of his idealist-anarchists. Their status as victims is real, regardless of the degree to which it is self-victimization. Indeed, as the discussion of Der fremde Freund showed, characters' motivations are sometimes inseparable from the historical and social realities that shape them.

  17. Löffler warns his East German readers (and more importantly, his ideologically-minded colleagues) against misunderstanding Horn as a model for Thomas or anyone else:

    The task of remembering Horn, used as a way into the process of remembering generally, inclines the reader to directly and constantly infer a connection between Horn and the biography of the narrator. The danger lies in mistaking Horn, who is seen only through the eyes of others, for a moral and political standard by which these others can be judged. He is no such standard. His retreat into truth as an abstraction not only renders him incapable of resisting the political intrigues against him, it also renders him incapable of forming human bonds. As if the character who disappoints both Thomas and Gertrude could be taken for a role model. Of course, the radical consequences of his life do compel the others to look more sharply at themselves—but not to measure themselves against him!


    Horn is, of course, a more complex and contradictory character than Löffler indicates; he is indeed partly a model. Löffler, however, probably wants to mollify the hostile authorities who had largely succeeded in keeping mention of Horns Ende out of the East German press.

  18. Darnton gives an interesting description of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the book's publication (213).

  19. It is interesting to note how Milan Kundera handles such a confrontation with the meaninglessness of imprisonment. In The Joke, the protagonist suffers through a similar incident and similar imprisonment, except that for Kundera, the joke really is meaningless, really is a joke, and the attempt to get revenge boomerangs into a joke on the perpetrator. In Hein, the joke is that there is no rationality to this society (including at the end, when a rational man loses and Dallow wins). Only the reader becomes aware of the joke, which is what makes this book a satire while Kundera's is a farce. Yet both writers are talking about the same thing—the impossibility of being rational, of making sense, of living in a meaningful way in a society based on arbitrary power. Even a joke needs a reference point of rationality to be effective.

David W. Robinson (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15969

SOURCE: Robinson, David W. “Chronicling the Cold War's Losers and Winners.” In Deconstructing East Germany: Christoph Hein's Literature of Dissent, edited by James Hardin, pp. 181–219. Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Robinson explores Hein's post-unification literature and how it indirectly attacks capitalism and Western culture.]

In early 1989, two major events in Hein's career took on larger significance as the political ground began to shift. The first was the publication of Der Tangospieler, a book that would have stood out as a remarkable event even had it not been Hein's last novel of the GDR era. The novel's most obvious message was its condemnation of a now-familiar Hein figure, the Aussteiger, the social outcast or drop-out—the sort of person, usually an intellectual, who becomes the perfect servant of the state precisely because he thinks himself “free” from political entanglements. But Der Tangospieler was also problematic for other, more pressing reasons: it shows a pair of Stasi agents going about their unsavory business, and it contains an account of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, making it the first—and last—novel published in the GDR dealing with that event. The book had survived stiff resistance in the Culture Ministry. In his remarkable account of the inside workings of East German censorship, historian Robert Darnton describes how mid-level East German literary officials managed to get Der Tangospieler into print only by issuing an authorization on their own initiative, creating a fait accompli while preserving their sympathetic boss's “deniability” in dealings with his superiors in the ministry and the Party Central Committee (213). The story of the book's publication indicates how far Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms had tempted even the guardians of the East German social order to stretch the existing political limits. It could never have been published if the author had been less prominent or the narrative style less couched in satirical indirectness, which Hein disguised as objective description of a bygone era. Hein plainly had conceived of Der Tangospieler as a perestroika piece and had designed it to straddle the precise limit of what could be openly said. The events of the novel are a veiled commentary on the arbitrariness of the SED regime, coupled with a searing portrayal of the complicity of GDR intellectuals in their country's crimes. In choosing the end of the Dubček regime as the historical background for the novel, Hein was also returning to the formative event in his own political life, the moment at which he claims to have lost faith in the promise of a just socialism (Hein, “Kennen”). Thus the book recapitulates and interprets Hein's twenty years as a politically engaged writer, while diagnosing the ills that would lead to the GDR's collapse sooner than anybody, including Hein, imagined.1

The other, equally portentous event was the production of Die Ritter der Tafelrunde in Dresden. The play revisits the legends of the Arthurian knights and their search for the Holy Grail, focusing this time on the aftermath of the grand early exploits, once the heroes and heroines have grown old and quarrelsome. The play is a farce at the expense of the old warriors whose view of reality has become fossilized, hence a commentary on the fate of ideologues and their ideologies. The action takes place in the room housing the Round Table, which is now in disrepair and nearly deserted. The knights bicker among themselves about how to carry on, and some have given up the quest completely. The women bemoan the stupidity of the men and the loss of their own beauty. The younger generation, represented by Arthur's son Mordred, appears destined to overturn all of Arthur's achievements once it assumes power, yet Mordred has no idea what changes he might institute. And we learn that meanwhile, outside Camelot, Arthur and his knights have become objects of contempt instead of awe. Not even the threat of impending ecological disaster can rouse the embittered old men from their paralysis in the face of outcomes they never anticipated. The play ends with Arthur resignedly acknowledging that Mordred's day has come, and that, like it or not, it will be his responsibility to find a path into the future. The central philosophical burden of the play is the nature and meaning of the Grail, which appears to signify any ideal or utopia toward which human beings must strive in order to remain human, even when they know they can never attain it. The failure of Arthur and his knights to locate the Grail thus appears less tragic than merely inevitable, but so too is it inevitable that the whole process of pursuing the ideal, whether understood as social justice or personal fulfillment, will continue. The desperation of the knights, their fear that everything they have lived for is slipping away, turns out to be a parochial, if understandable, illusion based on limited perspective. Thus the play is at once an allegory for the moribund state of the GDR in the late 1980s, and an exploration of the role of utopian thinking in human experience, regardless of time or place. As such, it might be understood to speak to the fortunes of political idealism and social justice in the West as well as the East, and to the cyclic struggles that result when one generation must hand over power to a new one with wholly different experiences and views.2

Hein himself, meanwhile, found himself lionized in the waning months of 1989 as a public spokesman for reform. Following the Politburo shake-up on October 18, demonstrations across the GDR had grown ever larger, culminating in the November 4 demonstration on Alexanderplatz that by some estimates drew more than a million people. Hein was one among a decidedly mixed crowd of orators (ranging from reform leaders to Christa Wolf to Politburo spokesman Günter Schabowski to former espionage chief Marcus Wolf). He staked out a position in support of democratic socialism:

Dear no-longer-voiceless fellow citizens!

We all have a lot of work to do, and little time for it. The structures of this society must be changed if it is to become democratic and socialist. There are no alternatives.

We must also speak of dirty hands, of dirty histories. Here, too, is work for the society and the media. Featherbedding, corruption, misuse of office, theft of public property—all this must be investigated, and the investigation must extend to the leadership of the state. That is where it must begin.

Let us be careful not to confuse the euphoria of these days with the changes that we still have to make. The enthusiasm, the demonstrations were and are helpful and necessary, but they are not substitutes for the work at hand. Let us not be fooled by our own enthusiasm: we haven't yet succeeded. The cow still isn't off the ice. And there are sufficient forces that oppose change, that fear a new society and have reason to fear it.

I wish for us to think now of an old man, an old and probably very lonely man. I am speaking of Erich Honecker. This man had a dream that he was ready to go to prison for.3 Then he was given the chance to make his dream a reality. It was not a very good chance, because its midwives were defeated fascism and victorious Stalinism. A society took shape that had little to do with socialism. Instead, it was—and remains—distinguished by bureaucracy, demagoguery, spying, abuse of power, passivity, and crime. A system took shape before which many good, intelligent, honest people had to abase themselves if they wished to continue living here. And no one knew any longer how to proceed against this system, how to dismantle it.

And I believe that even for this old man, our society is scarcely the fulfillment of a dream. Even he, standing at the helm of the state, responsible above all others for its successes but also for its mistakes, its sins of omission, and its crimes—even he was virtually powerless when confronting its encrusted structures.

I call this man to mind for one reason: as a warning, lest we now also create structures before which we will someday find ourselves powerless. Let us create a democratic society founded on the rule of law and subject to the review of law. A socialism which doesn't make the word into a caricature. A society tailored to human beings, not one where human beings are subordinated to the system. This will mean a lot of work for all of us, much of it tedious detail work, worse than knitting.

One word more. Success, as the saying goes, has many fathers. Obviously, there are many who believe that the changes in the GDR are already successful, because many are now revealing themselves as the fathers of this success. Peculiar fathers, reaching high into the leadership of the state. I think, however, that our memory is not so bad that we have forgotten who really did begin dismantling the all-powerful system. Who ended the sleep of reason. It was the reason of the streets, the demonstrations by ordinary people.

(Hein, Als Kind 175–177)

Hein's independent leftist position, which called for the people of the GDR to confront and solve their own problems and to preserve the positive features of their society, and which combined rage at the SED leadership with strong suspicion of the West, was typical of the intellectual and artistic class that founded the Neues Forum. As the GDR's first officially recognized independent political organization, Neues Forum participated in the rump SED government in the “round tables” that briefly governed the country, and made up the constituency of the vaguely socialist coalition “Bündnis 90” that was soundly thrashed in the 1990 elections that installed a pro-unification GDR government. Hein's political views amid the whirlwind of the Wende were entirely consistent with his essayistic remarks over the previous ten years, in which he had been calling for a more democratic socialism instead of a rapprochement with what he saw as a rapacious and militaristic West. The realization during November and December 1989 that a majority of the citizens of the GDR no longer wanted socialism in any form, and wished to join economically and politically with the Federal Republic as quickly as possible, came as a huge disappointment, though it can hardly have been a surprise to the playwright who had imagined the disaffected post-socialist youth Mordred in Die Ritter der Tafelrunde.4 Hein persisted gamely in his assertion of his right, as a citizen of the GDR, to participate in the writing of his own history and in arraigning the crimes mentioned in his speech; most notably, he served on the Ausschuβ zur Ermittlung der polizeilichen Übergriffe vom 7. Oktober 1989, the citizens' committee investigating the violence of police authorities against peaceful demonstrators.5 But clearly, Hein's own dream of a free, self-determining GDR—politically tempered by the experience of forty years of Stalinism, and free of the overwhelming force of West German materialism and its supporting capitalist ideology—would never be realized. With unification, the social position and role of the artist (like every other aspect of East German society) would be radically revised, from that of uniquely positioned social critic and public intellectual, to, on the face of it, a supplier of products utterly beholden to market forces. Changed, too, for an East German critic of ideology in the new whole-German state, was his primary subject matter: Stalinism was replaced by capitalism, a much more complicated target, and one with which he was less intimately familiar. Like his fellow citizens, Hein had no choice but to reinvent himself and his social function.


Clearly, with capitalism triumphant, it was hazardous for writers (or critics) to show sympathy with the losers of history, as shown by the journalistic campaign against Christa Wolf (which was exacerbated by proof that she had herself written reports on fellow writers for the secret police in the early 1960s). This was merely the first of many similar attacks on the reputations of prominent figures of the GDR.6 Although Hein's integrity remained untouched by any such allegations, his out-spoken anti-Western sentiments, his uncompromising calls for social justice (which he was not afraid to label “socialism”), and the long-term anti-ideological project of his writing were poorly suited to resonate with the newly-dominant orthodoxies. (However, this dissonance was nothing new—it was, after all, as an opposition figure, as a challenger of political limits, that Hein made his mark in the GDR.) Certainly the prevailing German political mood had a distorting effect on the way Hein's most recent work, Die Ritter der Tafelrunde, was received in late 1989 and early 1990. Even before the Wende, and despite the general applicability of the themes of idealism, delusion, and disillusion evident in the play, Die Ritter was understood too frequently as a straightforwardly hostile allegory of the GDR's leadership. Governmental permission to produce the play had come only at the last minute after a delay of many months; Hein defended himself against suspicions that the knights were modeled on Communist Party Secretary Erich Honecker and his cronies by denying that he would have stooped to the flattery suggested by such an analogy (“Das Geld,” 226). Nevertheless, the timing of the play's premiere did nothing to discourage the view that Arthur was Honecker, and the Round Table was socialism. The desire of some of the knights to solve their problems by killing off the younger generation was horribly paralleled in Tienanmen Square in May 1989, just a month after the play opened, and the impotence of an aging, doctrinaire leadership would be copied by the reality of the GDR in October and November. Hein soon acquired the status not just of political dissident but of prophet—a mixed blessing, since the immediate result was a great deal of public interest in the play, but at the cost of it being understood in rather crude terms. Karla Kochta, a dramaturge at the Dresden State Theater where the play was first produced, relates how a group of West Berlin literature and theater students came in early 1990 to what they expected to be the GDR's “perestroika play,” hence an already musty bit of history, only to be puzzled that the East German audience was responding to the issue of utopia as though it were still a living concern. The Western students were also surprised that Mordred didn't smash the table to pieces at the end of the play, thereby announcing the end of a failed ideology. Kochta's answer, like Hein's, is that the failure of an ideology does not mean the end of hope for a better world (Kochta, 225).

The aspects of Die Ritter that have relevance to the post-Cold-War era are precisely those which early critics of the play ignored or failed to grasp. The reviewer for the West Berlin tageszeitung was typical in judging the play a political allegory pure and simple, and then criticizing it for datedness and inadequacy to the torrent of real political events sweeping Germany in the fall of 1989 (Mehr). Theater heute complained that the allegory was too heavy-handed, but that, puzzlingly, the Dresden audiences seemed to respond to it (Krug). The problem in each case may be traceable to inattention to Hein's other plays and novels, in all of which the place of action, often enough the GDR, is partly incidental: the popularity of Der fremde Freund, for example, resulted not from any West German taste for GDR-exotica, but from shocked recognition of the book's depiction of alienated life in a modern urban-industrial society. Similarly, Hein's novel Horns Ende explored the German, not just the East German, willingness to forget history, and Hein's most successful play to date, Ah Q, has been produced throughout Europe because of its insights about the fate of individuals in all revolutions, not just German or even socialist ones. Die Ritter der Tafelrunde is likewise a play about a society without a future, where old values have ceased to be relevant, the ruling class lacks the flexibility or creativeness to change, and the younger generation is plagued by hopelessness. It doesn't take a sociologist to point out that these are also characteristics, to varying degrees, of West German and American society, not just endemic maladies of the defunct East Bloc. Thus West German critic Antje Janssen-Zimmermann has argued cogently that the play should be seen as a meditation on the fact that material prosperity does not necessarily result in happiness; alienation is always with us, and Hein expects members of his audiences to apply the questions raised in the play to themselves now. The readiness of West Germans to ignore the contemporary relevance of Hein's concern with idealism and personal moral choices speaks volumes about the reactionary political climate of unified Germany in the early 1990s. The notion that the end of the Cold War somehow meant the end of ideological struggle merely reflects the Western point of view: ideology no longer exists, because what we do isn't ideology, it's just the plain, practical truth, like, for example, the practical need to seal our borders against the immigration of poor people.7

Hein's first post-Wende work was a collection of Wende-era speeches and essays, Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen (another and partly overlapping collection, Die Mauern von Jerichow, followed in 1996). Meanwhile, readers and critics waited expectantly to see what his post-GDR fiction and plays would look like. To many, the first indications were a bitter disappointment. It had been imagined that Hein would dust off all his formerly unpublishable manuscripts and treat the reading public to some serious postmortem muckraking about the evils of the GDR. However, as one eastern German weekly noted, “Hein settled his accounts with the GDR during its lifetime” (Kopka). True to form, Hein's new efforts concerned the West and the present-day East. And these treatments of new material proved as annoying to the establishment critics of the West as the earlier works had to the establishment critics of the East, even eliciting similar charges: that Hein doesn't really know what he is talking about when he describes the West so unflatteringly; that he is dreaming up wayward fantasies; that his characters are unrealistic, implausible, atypical.8 Where Hein once risked being accused of anti-socialist provocation when he depicted alienated, unhappy citizens of the GDR, he now risked being accused of anti-Western stereotyping for depicting successful western Germans as arrogant, greedy, and ruthless.

The first piece of fiction Hein wrote after the Wende originally bore an English title, “Bridge Freezes before Roadway” (1990), a phrase Hein doubtless noted during his visit to Kentucky in 1987. Amid political change such as the GDR was experiencing, it is tempting to read the title as a metaphor of a hazardous transition between the neo-Stalinist past and an uncertain future. The content of the story, however, makes it difficult to apply such a convenient political interpretation. In the story, a young female academic interviews a middle-aged former economist about his memories of a recently deceased mutual colleague. The men had been friends and rivals during their student days, and ultimately we learn that Rieder, the subject of the interview, had authored an anonymous letter of denunciation against his friend in order to secure for himself the post of institute director. This piece of workaday GDR office politics backfired, with the rival getting the institute job and pursuing a brilliant career, and Rieder leaving academia. After emigrating to the West, Rieder becomes a successful businessman, and a thoroughly unpleasant person: bitter, vulgar, self-important, misogynistic, manipulative, and unscrupulous in evading his interviewer's questions while he tries to seduce her. The story ends with the tables turned: Rieder learns from the interviewer that his and his rival's shared mentor had privately determined that Rieder should be rejected for the institute job because of unspecified weaknesses in his character. Rieder is left trying vainly to convince the woman (and himself) that his luxurious lifestyle is sufficient recompense for his ruined scholarly career and distorted personal relationships.

Rieder is like a number of earlier Hein characters who struggled to deny or justify a failed life by pointing to their successful adjustment to society or their material comfort. He lives in splendid near-isolation, cut off from his past, from friends and family, and from society—a condition that Hein regards as pathological and even dangerous. He is also the first of a series of evil-capitalist-caricatures that would dominate each of Hein's next two post-Wende works, the novel Das Napoleon-Spiel (1993) and the play Randow (1994). The conjunction in “Bridge Freezes before Roadway” between old and new emphases may illuminate the meaning of the seeming caricatures in subsequent works. The socially isolated characters of Hein's GDR-era writing translate easily into criminal freebooters in a West dedicated to the maximization of profit. As the title of the story suggests, all transitions are hazardous, and therefore the transition from socialism to capitalism can be expected to produce monsters. Rieder's own life serves as a bleak emblem of the Wende: the most corrupt and antisocial socialists have the best qualifications for success in the West, where greed and self-interest have the status of civic virtues. The capitalist takeover of the East will make good use both of those who emigrated and of the weak who stayed behind.

Hein's 1993 novel Das Napoleon-Spiel presents an even more scandalous picture of capitalism and one of its indigenous characters—this time a genuine monster.9 Hein's protagonist, Manfred Wörle, also was initially an East German, his family having settled in Thuringia as refugees after the war, but Wörle eventually moves to West Berlin in order to study law. He builds a successful practice and later becomes a legal advisor to the West Berlin city government. Though Wörle is intensely involved in civic affairs, he always functions at a psychological remove from other people, who never suspect that the devoted public servant is actually a self-consciously nihilistic adventurer. Wörle describes himself as a “player” or gambler. Oppressed by the meaninglessness of his life, an emptiness that cannot be filled by women, money, or success, Wörle finds satisfaction only in the excitement of “games.” Wörle's games start small but become more elaborate. He is a small-time black marketeer in the GDR, he experiments with the gamesmanship inherent in trial law, and he advances to the playing field of politics. Finally, he decides to kill a man for sport. Wörle is evidently mad: he fancies himself a modern-day Napoleon, playing dispassionately with peoples' lives, hence the murder he plans is to be deliberately random, its victim analogous to an impersonal casualty of war. The narrative itself is Wörle's explanation of his actions to his lawyer while he awaits trial. As in Hein's earlier first-person narratives, much of the narrator's energy is devoted to specious rationalization of his outlook and behavior; one valid criticism of the book may be that the reasoning is less seductive here than in some of the other examples, so that Wörle strikes one merely as a monster, not as an object of ambivalent sympathy like Claudia or Kruschkatz.

Hein himself objects to any such dismissal of Wörle, returning to the notion of chronicling (that is, of objective, dispassionate description sine ira et studio) to argue that Wörle is due something more complex than simple moralizing:

When I have a choice between precise chronicling and moralizing, I will always choose precision. Even when there may be immorality involved. There is great value in being asocial. The readers can moralize if they wish. I present the matter, and I entrust any judgments to the reader. Including the judgment of this character [Wörle]. I just find it boring to invent a character simply to condemn him. It seems stupid.

(Hein, “Kennen”)

Hein puts himself in the same category with Wörle when he equates chronicling with being “asocial,” rather as a wartime photojournalist is asocial when he stands and photographs a dying person rather than helping him. Such immorality is not without its uses, he points out. The detached chronicler Hein sympathizes, then, with Wörle's detachment (as with Claudia's, etc.), and as this quotation further suggests, he even sympathizes with Wörle's fear of boredom, and the “games” he plays as ways of fending it off. Being a moralist is “boring” to Hein; having a moral, conventional life is “boring” to Wörle. As always, though, the claim of moral indifference is slightly disingenuous. An essential difference between Hein and Wörle is surely that Hein has a social and moral conscience lurking behind his actions and his work, whereas Wörle is totally empty. But more importantly, Hein refuses to exempt himself from whatever pathology plagues Wörle and, by extension, Germany as a whole:

The man acts out of boredom. This is increasingly a problem in these wealthy societies and can only be explained by looking at the deformed state of civilization. The more basic needs are met, the more boredom. I am not interested in the moral aspect, but in how he got into this, and what interests him about it. How can it come to this. For a person out of the lower orders, as they say, this wouldn't have been a problem.

(Hein, “Kennen”)

Accordingly, the novel culminates in a brilliant scene where Wörle's individual act abruptly takes on socio-political significance. Wörle commits his murder while on a West Berlin subway train passing through one of the “ghost stations” lying below the streets of East Berlin. These stations were sealed at the time the Berlin Wall was built, in August 1961, and their ground-level entrances sprouted again through the pavement of East Berlin only after the Wende. The setting is particularly arresting for any of the millions of passengers who experienced that same train ride past those empty platforms: it was the experience of being in two worlds at once, but also in neither. The rationally planned irreality of this twilight no-man's land that thousands briefly inhabited every day is a more telling symbol of Germany than the more obvious Berlin Wall: what better place for an act of mad arrogance? It is tempting, furthermore, to interpret this scene as an allegory of the fascist past underlying both Germanies, the site of atrocities that have been pushed out of the consciousness of the divided, speciously rational daylight world.

Hein's use of Wörle as an exemplar of Western values and ugly German history was clearly meant as a provocation to a western German public burdened with invincible confidence in its economic and cultural superiority. It provoked howls of displeasure from critics who dismissed Wörle as an aberrant figure who, though possible, was in no way representative of Western society.10 (The argument perfectly mirrors complaints by advocates of Socialist Realism that Hein's unhappy East Germans were atypical of the New Socialist Man.)11 A minor perversity introduced at the end of the novel—after the Wende, Wörle hires his abused, disinherited, and professionally failed brother, who had stayed in the East, as an all-purpose goon—points to the next step in Hein's critique of Western Man: the post-Wende, colonialist phase. Having established the nature of the West, he sets about describing its conquest of the East. McKnight suspects an allegorical aspect to the novel (Understanding Christoph Hein 114), which would make it something of a departure from Hein's earlier work, and sees a connection between the book and the political activities in which Hein was involved during its writing, particularly the investigation of police attacks on peaceful demonstrators in October 1989:

In such a context, the novel is a commentary on unscrupulous and arrogant behavior by men in power, presented as symptomatic of the time in which we live. Hein had always written about victims in the past and had usually done so with humor. This time, he turned his attention to a perpetrator, and his portrayal is totally devoid of humor.12


Hein's first play written and produced after the Wende, a dramatization of a shady East German property transaction entitled Randow, also provoked loud charges of stereotyping, anti-Western bias, and crude tendentiousness. Eastern reviews were sympathetic to the play if sometimes critical of the production, while Western reviews were flatly hostile on both counts. The play juxtaposes two initially unrelated settings: first, the Randow Valley border region with Poland, where the local authorities are pressuring an artist, Anna Andress, to sell her choice piece of land, and where two illegally entering asylum-seekers turn up murdered; and second, Cologne and Berlin, where we see a lawyer, Fred P. Paul, guiding his right-hand-man in the East (Peter Stadel, a former Stasi officer) in the acquisition of potentially lucrative Eastern property. After an inconsequential attempt by a Western-born officer of the Federal Border Patrol to acquire Andress's property for himself, as well as other forms of harassment against her, such as the poisoning of her dog, Andress sells out, and the plot culminates, predictably enough, in the takeover of the Randow property by Paul and his shadowy backers, who have promised to use the land to create new jobs.

The critical response to the play was mixed. Some reviewers dismissed it as simplistic stereotyping and saw it as proof of the ongoing decay of talent from the former GDR. The tageszeitung described the play as preachy and boring, declaring it “not a comedy, but a blunder” (Walther), while Die Zeit panned it as a Dallas-style soap opera suffering from bad dialog and built around commonplaces such as “When two fight, the third wins” and “It's a thankless world” (Engler). The Tagesspiegel summed up the matter revealingly:

The catastrophe of this play, an attempt to come to grips with hard reality that ends up merely serving the Eastern Anti-Wessi-Complex, has its parallels in the aesthetic debacle signified by the end of the GDR: namely, the disappearance of the drive toward innovative devices of encryption, an ugly and beautiful system of signs that existed between the author and public. All that remains now is an excessive obviousness that serves as compensation. As in this play: the Ossis are wounded seekers, dubious victims even when perpetrators as well. They are represented by the exploded and dispersed family that ultimately is robbed of its house, or by pawns of the West like Voβ [the Bürgermeister] or Stasi-Stadel. The Wessis themselves are either greedy scoundrels or barely-disguised Nazis—ideally, both at once.


The most striking feature of this particular critique is its longing for the Cold War game of interpretive hide-and-go-seek, an old favorite of Western critics which, by the way, Hein has repeatedly denounced. (Whatever one thinks about Hein's politics or art, nobody can accuse him of being nostalgic for the Cold War and it cultural arrangements!) The best rejoinder to this late echo of the Literaturstreit appeared in the Deutsches Allgemeines Sonntagsblatt, which characterized Randow as an irritating and uncomfortable play, but interpreted this merely as being Hein's procedure: refusing to approve the status quo, describing it dispassionately as a chronicler, and offering no solutions. The play represents a new phase in Hein's work only insofar as the end of the Cold War facilitates more nuanced reading than was formerly possible:

This would be a good time to reconsider Christoph Hein's complex fictions, particularly his theatrical work, since Hein as a writer was never a mere GDR-phenomenon. They reveal surprising insights and new connections, precisely because they always used to be read one-dimensionally in light of circumstances in the GDR. The alienation effects have in fact sharpened.13


The complaints about stereotyping are, again, new versions of the earlier, GDR-era complaint that Hein peopled his works with unrepresentative (hence meaningless, insignificant) figures. After all, if one admits that monsters like Das Napoleon-Spiel's Wörle are possible, it is hard to maintain that the characters in Randow are either impossible or particularly unusual. The two stock GDR figures, Bürgermeister Voβ and Andress's estranged husband Rudi Krappmann, are scarcely implausible, the one being a small time politician with a talent for bending before every political wind, the other a drunken ne'er-do-well baffled by the post- (as by the pre-) Wende world. The Western villain, Paul, likes to minimize German historical guilt, uses the word “patriotism” as though it meant Führerprinzip, and denies that anything as mundane as love of money motivates his Eastern undertakings—again, none of these characteristics is very remarkable. And even if we grant that Paul is one-dimensional, a definite bad guy, how much do we really care about his inner life? Externally he is a cynical, pompous opportunist, and for the Eastern citizens touched by his financial machinations, the external is what matters. Hein is perfectly capable of rounding-out characters like Paul or Voβ, as his earlier works prove, but here he has decided not to. In an interview, when asked about the harshness of the play and its lack of hope, he replied:

That obviously means a gain in realism, then. Hope has something to do with utopia, of course, and when that's all over, lost, irrecoverable, then we draw closer to a hopeless, utopia-free reality. Which is also an advantage, a genuine advance. I think that the play corresponds to the present situation—as I see it.

(“Mit etwas Rückgrat”)

Hein's claim of increased realism might well be taken with a grain of salt, for it can be argued that the apparent realism of his prose was never realistic at all. “Realism” is founded on an assumption that reality is directly accessible through surface detail, and that this detail is ultimately the only truth. Hein, on the other hand, provides a painstaking depiction of reality in order to show that the truth is hidden, elsewhere, obscured by ideological illusion and the universal desire to forget unpleasant memories, either in individuals or by whole societies. The GDR, for example, could not be depicted realistically, because it never “really” existed: it was an ideological construct through and through, and its truth was not to be found in surface details. Hein's prose attempted to capture and reveal the ideological fantasies inscribed in those surface manifestations. And as it turns out, this method can also be fruitfully applied to less obviously ideological societies. If all social experience is mediated by ideology, the realistic depiction of a western German character is no less ideologically interesting than that of an eastern one.

Reactions to Das Napoleon-Spiel and Randow suggest that Hein's writerly project has collided with the Western project of erasing all things Eastern, a process that often resembles the consolidation of a colonial hegemony. Events in Germany are showing how culture enables, enacts, and reflects the structures or mechanisms of power at a moment of revolutionary change. As the process of colonization proceeds, ideology must deflect real though arbitrary differences of power by allegorizing and rationalizing them in a manner that favors stable colonial rule. Through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, Eastern dissident or quasi-dissident intellectuals were understood in the West as members of a common humanity, or at least a common Germanness, which was embodied in Western democracy and suppressed by Soviet Communism. The Western political and economic triumph following 1989 necessitated a redistribution of symbolic categories: the difference which had been denied during the Cold War (when all differences were subsumed by the controlling one of Democracy vs. Communism, with Germany as a special and tragic case) suddenly became useful, once reified as a stereotype, as a tool for exploitation. Just when one could have reasonably expected the East-West difference to become irrelevant, it was in fact rediscovered and exaggerated for new political profit. The East quickly and bizarrely became a site of absolute difference (figured, indeed, in all the ways that the West has traditionally figured the East, whether the Muslim world, or the Far East, or even Russia—as passive, effeminate, sentimental, irresponsible, irrational, feckless, evil.) In this figural world, the failed culture of the East had to be completely discredited and annihilated from memory, clearing space for the superior, successful culture of the West that had so long battled the decadent Russian influence on its eastern flank, and effecting a symbolic implementation of simultaneous economic and political shifts. At the same time that Christa Wolf was being portrayed as a Communist stooge and a literary hack, East German agricultural production was left rotting in the fields and East German industrial capacity was being liquidated by the Treuhandanstalt (the federal agency commissioned to privatize publicly-owned East German property), making room in both cases for the expansion of Western production into the new Eastern market.


Hein's Wende-stamped writing (notably Das Napoleon-Spiel and Randow) has been succeeded by fiction that appears to seek a new equilibrium after the tumultuous events immediately following the collapse of the East Bloc and the sharp literary response to them. If Hein can be accused (perhaps with some justice) of vilifying the West mit Haβ und Eifer through the creation of characters like Manfred Wörle or Fred P. Paul, the same cannot be said of the most recent books, Exekution eines Kalbes (1994) and Von allem Anfang an (1997), which take stock of Hein's pre-existing repertoire of chronicling techniques, and begin to apply them to the cultural scene of post-Cold War Germany. Beyond this, Hein has begun experimenting with surrealist allegory in his short fiction, while returning even more recently to the autobiographical material that informed the picture of 1950s GDR life in Horns Ende. This simultaneous exploration of past material and future forms has met with considerably more positive critical response than the more obviously topical work from the early nineties, solidifying Hein's reputation as the dominant literary voice of Germany's new federal states.

Hein's collection of short fiction Exekution eines Kalbes provides an interesting comparison to his earlier short-story volume, Einladung zum Lever Bourgeois. The collection is composed of stories written between 1977 and 1990, arranged in roughly chronological order, and thus providing an extraordinary literary-historical document across two decades of turbulent political change. The early stories look, indeed, as if they could have appeared in Einladung, while the later ones explore new possibilities opened by the collapse of the GDR and its system of censorship. The unusual diversity of the pieces set a difficult task for reviewers struggling to find a contemporary cultural framework in which to place (or entomb?) such a historically tortured book.

After the extreme annoyance provoked by Das Napoleon-Spiel a year earlier, Exekution appeared to slightly warmer reviews, a fact which can profitably be viewed in light of Hein's dictum that criticism is primarily self-disclosure. What the West German critics hated (insolent criticisms of the West by an Easterner) was less in evidence, and what they loved (confirmations of the miserable state of GDR society) was again a major theme. Yet despite a consensus that the stories were technically masterful, for most reviewers the book was either too political or not political enough, with little agreement as to specifics. What unfolded was a series of attempts to map Hein across some available historical/political grid, and when this failed, to blame the author. The Süddeutsche Zeitung tried to fit Hein within a literary version of convergence theory (the view that the two Germanies had become less different through time) by characterizing Hein as a Protestant counterpart to the Catholic West German novelist Heinrich Böll, both of them “old-fashioned social critics” (Krumbholz). Betraying an extreme insistence on the difference of the GDR and the interpretive centrality of the Wende, Der Spiegel complained that the dating of the stories was too coyly imprecise, “As if today, in 1994, it were already a matter of complete indifference whether an East Berlin writer wrote down his stories in 1977 or 1991” (“Ein Leben”). The Neue Zürcher Zeitung argued the opposite view, that the before-and-after question is no longer of much interest, the East German milieu of the stories is a mildly exotic but non-essential background, and that literature of “artistic quality” displayed classical technical virtues free from place and time (von Matt). This view led to special praise for the collection's most surreal stories, “Ein älterer Herr, federleicht” and “Moses Tod,” yet these same stories came in for sharp criticism from the Frankfurter Rundschau as excessively symbolic, even though the reviewer also plays down the importance of the stories' East Germanness or lack of it (Hüfner). The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung dismisses Hein as an unoriginal imitator of Boccaccio, Kleist, Hebel, and Brecht, whose only real stylistic innovation is boredom; moreover, the reason that Hein is so boring and humorless is that he learned to write in an “unfree situation” (Seibt). Die Zeit renders a similar verdict, calling the stories “lifeless,” and complaining that Hein is too much the (again) Protestant moralist. The reviewer sums up with this muddled assessment:

He tells too little of politics and history to make us interested in lingering there, and too little of the abjectness of his heroes to make us care about them. One cannot help suspecting that we are dealing with an author who is more interested in the existential state of depression than the depravity of politics. … He should give it a rest. … He should worry less about his convictions and more about aesthetics.


The one clear conclusion to draw from all this is that the critics know not what they want. In the uncertain post-Cold War cultural landscape, first there was reaction (the Kritikerstreit), and later, as that venom faded in strength, puzzlement as to what happens next. Someone who writes like Hein is an embarrassment: he carries over too much from the GDR to be politically trustworthy, and too much from the nineteenth century to be aesthetically trustworthy. The critics seem unable to find the point of most of the stories—what, then, should a point look like? Baffled by a loss of old ideological and literary categories, conservative critics in particular demand an aesthetically pure, apolitical literature (as if such a thing were possible or desirable), while continuing to read Eastern authors exclusively as political allegorists, and blaming them for it.

The stories of Exekution fall into several categories. The title story is a lengthy Novelle and perhaps the GDR's last piece of production-prose. There is also a Hebel-like stylistic set-piece titled “Ein sächsischer Tartuffe,” which seems akin to the stylistic experiment of “Der neuere (glücklichere) Kohlhaas”; a set of ten brief stories that could be justly described as additions to the album of “Berliner Stadtansichten”; “Die Krücke,” a monologue by a mentally deficient boy, somewhat reminiscent of Marlene Gohl's passages in Horns Ende; one Wende-piece, the previously-published story “Auf den Brücken friert es zuerst” (“Bridge Freezes before Roadway”), discussed above; and two stories unlike anything in Hein's oeuvre to date: “Moses Tod,” a satiric allegory about the promised land of communism, and the concluding piece, “Ein älterer Herr, federleicht,” a surreal fantasy set in gritty East Berlin.

The title story, its composition presumably dating to 1977, takes up once more the Schlötel syndrome, in which the ambition and talent of an individual worker (this time a cattle producer in an LPG, a Soviet-style cooperative farm) leads to his ruin. Other issues familiar from Hein's writing in the seventies and eighties include jail, emigration/exile, damaged family relations, and the poisonous bureaucratism of the East German system. The story is set up as a Novelle, with its “unerhörtes Ereignis” (the bizarre public “execution” of a calf) announced after an opening in medias res, in which the protagonist, Gotthold Sawetzki, is expelled into West Germany. The Novelle describes Sawetzki's struggle to raise LPG cattle amid unrealistic production requirements from the Party bureaucracy, incompetent management, and catastrophic reductions in fodder allotments. His heroic efforts to perform his job increasingly tax his family life, which collapses in adultery and divorce. When his protests and complaints to the administration of the LPG fail to achieve any effect, he slaughters, then buries, a healthy calf in front of the cooperative office to dramatize the mismanagement of the cattle operation. Hein encourages a reading of Sawetzki's protest that recalls animal sacrifice in the ancient sense. The whole affair is surrounded with suggestions of the supernatural, beginning with the rather unprovoked descriptions of Sawetzki's act as “widernatürlich” [unnatural: (Exekution eines Kalbes, hereafter cited as EEK) 12] and “verwunderlich” [astonishing, odd: 65], very much in the Kleistian manner. Similarly, the commentary of the local shopkeeper, who is reputed to be a witch, adds to the mystical atmosphere by whipping up superstitious dread. Hence in a story centering on cattle and shortages, even the simplest material truths are hidden in a fog of mystery that cloaks the incompetence and self-interest of the management, and their accomplices among the workers and the community. The dilemma formulated in Schlötel (How does one live realistically without becoming a collaborator in corruption? How does the virtuous man act within an evil system?) receives the usual official answer, the voice of cynical common sense that recommends conformity. The prison official who informs Sawetzki he is to be expelled from the GDR tells him that “er hoffe, Sawetzki werde es in Zukunft besser verstehen, sein Leben nach den Gegebenheiten einzurichten” [he hoped that in the future Sawetzki would better understand how to arrange his life according to the prevailing circumstances: 11]—good advice East or West, though certainly open to divergent interpretations.

The brief stories that follow are prefaced by “Ein sächsischer Tartuffe” [“A Saxon Tartuffe”], an odd, ribald, mock-moralistic, Hebel-like sketch combining several narrative registers, obviously ironically, that range from fairytale formulations to patriotic jargon: the story centers on “ein böses Weib” [a wicked woman/wife: 75–76] and takes place in “unseres beliebten Vaterland” [our beloved fatherland: 73], and so on. Ten of the next twelve pieces are recognizably of the same class as the “Berliner Stadtansichten,” although Hein doesn't label them as such. Like their counterparts in Einladung, they turn on various large and small ironies of life in the East and West, in war and peace, and under changing legal and political circumstances. These stories may be summarized as follows.

“Der eine hauet Silber, der andere rotes Gold” [“One Man Works Silver, Another Works Red Gold”] juxtaposes the shabby cover-up mentality of many postwar Germans with the moral clarity possessed by the victims of the Nazi atrocities. A roomful of jewels and precious metals smeared with blood and hair is found in the cellar of the Finance Ministry. The officials responsible for dealing with it decide to quietly nationalize it instead of seeking the heirs of the murdered owners. Later, a German-born American identifies his family's property in a jeweler's window. When the jeweler claims to have a respectable pedigree for the items, the man declares, “Es sind nicht nur Mörder … es sind auch Räuber und Lügner” [They aren't just murderers … they are thieves and liars as well: 83]. With its frank assertion of East German complicity in Nazi crimes, the story would obviously have been unpublishable in the GDR.

“Der Name” [“The Name”] is a semi-amusing story about the craziness of the Nazi regulations concerning Jews. An old, half-senile woman refuses an official's order that she accept (like all the other Jewish women) the new middle name “Sara.” Meeting official irrationality with her own, she insists that if she is to have a new name, it will be Miriam, a name she has always liked. Later, after informing an uncomprehending and then furious police officer that her papers have the wrong name on them, she dies contentedly the very same night.

In “Der Krüppel” [“The Cripple”], a return-from-Soviet-imprisonment story, a man missing an arm comes home from Siberia in 1952, and finds that his family doesn't need or want him. After three months they throw him out.14

“Zur Frage der Gesetze” [“A Question of Law”] portrays a virtuous abortion doctor. First in Weimar Germany, then under the Nazis, and finally in the GDR, he performs illegal abortions as a public service and political protest, free of charge. In each instance he is eventually caught and punished, the final time because of his refusal to perform what he regards as an “unnecessary” abortion, which leads to him being denounced and to the revocation of his license. He dies working as a doorman, having refused to clear his name even after the GDR legalized abortion in 1972. His motives are unclear, but the suggestion from his left-wing/independent political background seems to be that in a society too favorable to abortion, he again feels obliged to resist. He remains his own man, choosing the GDR regime to live in, but keeping it at arm's length from his own political center of belief.

“Jelängerjelieber Vergiβnichtmein” [“The Longer, The Better, Forget-Me-Not”], a love story ending in old age and self-denial, takes up the familiar topic of loveless marriage and extra-marital affairs.

“Unverhofftes Wiedersehen” [“Unhoped for Reunion”] narrates the tale of a man who re-encounters his Eastern nemesis in the West, after both have fled the GDR. The old enemy has not changed, however, and again tries (though unsuccessfully) to block the man's career. Thus the story depicts an ideological fanatic who is ultimately indistinguishable from a simple opportunist, always adopting the necessary beliefs and always landing on his feet—on the side of authority.

“Matzeln” [“Wood Scraps”] is another Hebel-like, tongue-in-cheek anecdote. An inexperienced gatekeeper at a coal mine halts a miner's departure with a sack of wood scraps, accusing him of “fortgesetzten und widerrechtlichen Aneignung von Volkseigentum” [long-term illegal appropriation of the people's property: 129], even though private use of the scraps is common practice. Hein is satirizing the Prussian love of rules and the letter of the law, as opposed to such qualities as mercy or human sympathy; there probably also is a comment on the cumulative effect of the quiet accommodations that made socialism function. At the conclusion, the Matzeln are symbolically equated with sins—let's all hope there isn't a Prussian Advokat who will total up our accumulated venalities.

“Die Vergewaltigung” [“The Rape”] has the earmarks of a “Berliner Stadtansicht,” but with an unusual passage that gives a synopsis of East German history during the Aufbau and fifties almost in the manner of a fairy tale, as in this summation about the rebuilding of central Berlin:

So entstanden die [Karl-Marx-] Allee und die Stadt neu aus Trümmern, und das Leben ging seinen Gang in dieser schönen und grimmigen Welt, und die Zeitungen des Landes berichteten von der schönen Welt und schwiegen über die grimmige.


And so the [Karl-Marx-]Allee and the rest of the city rose out of the ruins, and life went on in this beautiful and savage world, and the newspapers of the land reported the beauty and said nothing of the savagery.

This, along with such passages as the one explaining historical details like the Arbeiter und Bauern Fakultäten of the Aufbau-period (the Worker and Peasant Faculties established to bring class diversity into higher education—a sort of socialist G.I. Bill) imply an expected audience broader than just East Germany. Hein's role as chronicler, strongly visible in the story, assumes in retrospect an almost elegiac character, as the peculiarities of the GDR are summed up for posterity. This historical background prepares for the main theme of the incompatibility between socialist propaganda (e.g., the lionizing of the Soviet “liberation” troops) and the fact of Soviet wartime atrocities. The contradiction occurs here in the rape of a woman's grandmother by Soviet soldiers in 1945, an event the woman seemingly forgets as she pursues a successful career, benefiting from the most admirably progressive policies of the socialist system. In 1983, the woman gives a speech at a Jugendweihe (the secular equivalent of a church confirmation) portraying the Soviet occupiers as kind benefactors and generally piling on the official East German clichés concerning relations with the Soviet Union. Her husband criticizes her afterward for having told one side of the truth and not the other, whereupon she breaks down and screams that he is a fascist. The official ideology that requires such a radical compartmentalization in the woman's mind (as in the whole society) has left her with no other category than “fascist” to accommodate unpleasant or contradictory facts. As a portrait of the intellectual trauma suffered by a whole generation of East Germans, the story is unsurpassed in Hein's writing.

“Ein Exil” [“Exile”] looks at the plight of an expatriated Paraguayan artist who finds that his politically-engaged work has gone out of style. He feels cut off from history, as from his homeland, a silent victim of his country's regime. Recognizing that neither his art nor his engagement has meaning anymore, he hangs himself.

In “Eine Frage der Macht” [“A Question of Power”] a regime-oriented hack writer throws his weight around and gets some drunken detractors hassled by the police. A visiting foreign colleague remarks that one doesn't do such things, and the writer replies that here (in the GDR), “we” have the power, and “we” intend to hold onto it. This “we” is worth reflecting on. Does the writer deceive himself, or is he in fact part of the despotic regime? In any event, the point seems to be to show an outsider's view of the despotism and ideological arrogance of “intellectual workers” in the GDR.

The remaining stories, “Die Krücke” [“The Retard”], “Moses Tod” [“Moses' Death”], “Auf den Brücken friert es zuerst” (discussed above), and “Ein älterer Herr, federleicht” [“An Old Man, Light as a Feather”] depart from the familiar ground of the “Berliner Stadtansichten”-like sketches. In “Die Krücke,” a feeble-minded boy plots the murder of his teacher, who also is his mother's lover and ostensibly the impoverished family's benefactor. He is actually a physically and morally repellent extortionist who takes advantage of the mother's financial vulnerability and threatens the boy, whom she loves, with institutionalization. Like the unreliable narrators in Horns Ende, Der fremde Freund, and Das Napoleon-Spiel, the boy is not altogether wrong in his judgments about the world, and one is both horrified by the boy's crude (but not inaccurate) assessment of power relations, and somewhat gratified to anticipate his murder of the evil old man.

“Moses Tod,” a satiric parable about socialist utopia, resembles nothing else Hein has published. As in the Biblical story, spies are sent to inspect the Promised Land, and the Israelites are afraid to enter it. In Hein's version, however, it is not the giants and other hostile inhabitants that inspire fear, but the report that the Promised Land has no heaven over it. Caleb, the only spy who remains faithful to the Lord, explains that this is not a problem: “Kaleb verspottete die Ängstlichen und sagte ihnen, daβ im guten Land der Himmel auf Erden sei. Und Jahwe fand Gefallen an ihm” [Caleb mocked the fearful ones and said, in the Promised Land, Heaven is on Earth. And Caleb found favor with the Lord: 122]. The doubters (including Moses) are mercilessly punished (Moses is left unburied, to be eaten by animals), and after the whole generation (save Caleb) has died out, the Israelites happily occupy their promised homeland, unconcerned that “sich kein Himmel über ihrem Land wölbt. Denn keiner vermiβt ihn, wo der Himmel auf Erden ist” [that no Heaven stretched above them. For no one misses it, where Heaven is on Earth: 123]. One reading of this might be that Socialist idealism (with heaven over the earth—the normal situation, one would think) is traded (unwisely) for Realsozialismus (heaven on earth, lost transcendence). Is fun being made of utopia or the fear of utopia? Or both? In the end, the Israelites get their heaven-on-earth—what does this mean? The parable also foregrounds the figure of the chronicler once more: we learn of this heterodox account only by way of certain lost, forgotten writings of a discredited chronicler. They were publicly burned after the establishment of the Israelite state, which has, like all states, no love for revisionist accounts of its origins.

The last story in the collection, “Ein älterer Herr, federleicht,” is even more peculiar and much more difficult to classify, though Kafka comes to mind as a model. Squatters breaking into a run-down Berlin apartment building discover an old man living there; one of them, a young woman, returns later and begins taking care of the man, who calls himself Noah and claims to be 940 years old. She eventually finds him dead, and moves into the apartment herself. At the end of the story, a social worker comes to the apartment and has a conversation through the door with someone who appears to be the old man, and on the way out passes the women, who is just coming home. This surreal conclusion adds to the strangeness of Noah's stories about his past and his equally strange chronology (why is he aged 940, similar to Methuselah, and not 3000-plus?) to yield an unsettling but pleasant ambiguity. The concrete setting of the story and the stretch of history it purports to reveal might cause one to seek a historical or political interpretation, reading the story as an allegory, but Hein provides no secure interpretive foothold for such a procedure. The story appears to be rather an anti-history, a fulfillment of Spodeck's advice to distrust one's memories.


In his most recent book, Von allem Anfang an [Right from the Start, 1997], Hein stunned the critics with his stylistic polish, his warmth, and his apparent renunciation of contemporary political commentary. The book describes the life of a 13-year-old boy living in the GDR in 1956, recounting his home life as a minister's son in a large family, his parents' marital discord and reconciliation, his school experiences, his vacation visits to the LPG managed by his grandfather (who is later sacked for refusing to join the Party), his sexual awakening, his dreams of escaping the small town where he lives (by running away with the circus, no less), and his first visit to West Berlin, where he is destined to attend high school in a few years. Much that occurs in the book will be familiar to Hein's longtime readers: the narrator Daniel resembles Thomas of Horns Ende, and the town where he lives is indistinguishable from Bad Guldenberg. Further, the parallels between Daniel's life and Hein's are overwhelming and precise, lending credibility to the assumption that with its first-person narration, the book is in fact a thinly-disguised autobiography. Hein, however, has rejected any such literal equation of himself with Daniel, asserting instead that the work is a “fictive autobiography,” a work of fiction employing the genre of autobiography (Krusche; also personal interview, 18 July 1998). The ambiguity of the author's relation to the protagonist here is reminiscent of the subtle stance taken by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which uses extensive parallels to Joyce's own life in the construction of the protagonist Stephen Dedalus. In both books, the reader must be unusually cautious when ascribing authorial intent; despite the intimacy of the portrayal, an abyss of irony yawns beneath the central character, with the narration shuttling erratically between contemporaneous immediacy and implied post facto judgments by an adult Daniel. And like Joyce's Portrait, Von allem Anfang an attempts to capture the formative experiences that lead the protagonist to become the writer he is. In Hein's case, this means discovering the detached, dispassionate chronicler's stance, which evolves as a means of mastering the vicissitudes of adolescent life. When viewed thus as an account of the author's emerging aesthetic and moral position—emerging moreover from a specific historical context—Von allem Anfang an evinces as much political heft as any of the earlier books.15

Initial critical reaction focused on the fact that the political per se is conspicuously downplayed in this book, which foregrounds instead the universal discoveries and experiences of an adolescent boy who could be living anywhere. For most of the reviewers, this was a welcome escape from topicality into the purely aesthetic. “This book deliberately escapes every politically-oriented reading, for instance as an autobiographical reminiscence of the early GDR, in which Hein grew up. ‘Right from the start,’ historical thinking is an illusion” (Langner). Strong words about the author of Horns Ende!16 Baier, writing for die tageszeitung, contends that the important thing about Daniel is that he is a youth, not that he is a youth in the GDR, and further argues that the book is not so much about the GDR as about the disappearance of an “agrarian petty-bourgeois way of life” (Baier, “Nackte Brüste”). Peter von Matt's especially glowing review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung praises Hein for his “Gerechtigkeit” [fairness] in dealing with his characters, congratulates him for having thrown away his “pocket guillotine” (presumably employed on Westerners in a book like Das Napoleon-Spiel), and describes at length the advent of a new style that transforms banalities into art. The most straightforwardly political readings, not bothering to hide behind notions of transcendently apolitical art, simply praise Hein for showing, once again, how bad the GDR really was (“Leuchtschrift am Kudamm”; Raddatz). Largely missing from these readings is an awareness of Hein's rigor in representing the political through the personal, with the personal thus becoming a key to the society at large. The infrequent intrusions of politics into the events of the book (such as the Grandfather's trouble with the Party, or Daniel's trip to West Berlin) do not exhaust the political implications of the book. These, rather, are best sought in the motif of detached observation that unifies the seemingly random selection of scenes from Daniel's life.

Applying his narrative method of chronicling without passion or prejudice to Daniel, Hein perfectly captures the naive crassness of childhood that his narrator often embodies. Here is Daniel describing the fashion shows that occasionally relieve the boredom in his small town:

Die Modevorführungen waren langweilig, aber ich ging dennoch jedesmal hin, weil es etwas Besonderes war und weil Mutter mitkam und den Eintritt spendierte. In der Schule hatte einer erzählt, dass es in Leipzig Modenschauen gebe, wo Damenunterwäsche vorgeführt werde. Die Frauen marschieren über die Bühne mit fast nichts an und wenn man einen guten Feldstecher dabei habe, könne man alles sehen.

([Von allem Anfang an, hereafter cited as VAAA] 39)

[The fashion shows were boring, but I always went because they were something different and because mother came along and paid the admission. At school someone had reported that there were fashion shows in Leipzig for ladies' underwear. The women would march across the stage with almost nothing on, and with a good pair of binoculars you could see everything.]

The objective presentation of Daniel's 13-year-old sensibility amuses without provoking any sort of judgment; this is simply how a child thinks and talks, even if the child is an alter ego for the author. Similarly, Hein's dialogues often approach the high comic standard set by plays like Ah Q, while managing to remain entirely convincing as documents of childhood. One of the best examples of this successful blending of the documentary function of fiction with the humor seen in his plays is the conversation following Daniel's ejection from a lecture/demonstration on liquid air. His companion Bernd blames the lecturer and enlightens Daniel as to the man's sexuality:

“Und alles wegen dieser schwulen Sau,” sagte er. …

“Wieso schwule Sau?”

“Hast du das nicht gemerkt? Der ist doch stockschwul, der Kerl.”

“Dieser Doktor?”

“Natürlich. Das ist eine Tunte.”

“Woher willst du das wissen?”

“Das sieht man doch. Schon wie der angezogen ist! Und wie der läuft! Du kennst doch den alten Barmer?”

“Den vom Friedhof?”

“Ja, von eurem Friedhof. Das ist auch eine Tunte. Der läuft so schwul, als ob bei ihm die Beine verkehrtrum eingeschraubt sind. Mein Vater hat den sogar schon mal in Frauenkleidern gesehen.”

“Ist das wahr?”

“Meinst du, mein Vater lügt? In Frauenkleidern, mitten in der Stadt!”

“Aber warum denn in Frauenkleidern?”

“Das machen die Schwulen so. Haben wohl Spaβ daran, die Leute zu erschrecken, oder so.”

“Mit Frauenkleidern könnte mich keiner erschrecken. Da ist doch eine Maske besser, so eine richtig gruselige Maske. Ein Mann, der in Frauenkleidern rumläuft, das ist doch eher zum Totlachen.”

“Vielleicht wollen die das. Die sind doch nicht ganz richtig im Kopf.”

“Und der in der Aula, das ist so einer? Du meinst, der läuft in Frauenkleidern herum?”

“Nicht immerfort. Aber das ist ein Schwuler, das kannst du mir glauben.”

“Woher willst du das wissen? Er hat doch einen ganz normalen Anzug an.”

“Die trägt er natürlich nicht am Tage. Aber wenns dunkel wird.”

(VAAA 47–48)

[“And it's all because of that damn queer,” he said. …

“What damn queer?”

“Didn't you notice? He's totally queer, that guy.”

“That doctor?”

“Of course. He's a faggot.”

“How do you know that?”

“You can see it. Just look at the way he's dressed! And the way he walks! You know old Barmer, don't you?”

“From the cemetery?”

“From your cemetery. He's a faggot, too. He walks so queer you'd think he had his legs screwed on backwards. My father even saw him dressed up in women's clothes once.”

“Is that true?”

“Are you calling my father a liar? In women's clothes, in the middle of town.”

“But why in women's clothes?”

“That's just what queers do. Maybe they like to scare people or something.”

“Nobody can scare me with women's clothes. A mask would be better for that, a really creepy mask. A man running around in women's clothes would make me die laughing.”

“Maybe that's what they want. They aren't quite right in the head.”

“And the guy in the auditorium, is he like that? You think he runs around in women's clothes?”

“Not all the time. But he's queer, you can be sure of that.”

“So how do you know, then? He was dressed in a regular suit.”

“He doesn't do it in the daytime. But when it gets dark. …”]

Despite the absurdity of Bernd's adduced evidence for the professor's homosexual behavior, the attitudes expressed are realistic enough and lead in the book to a further exploration of sexual attitudes in the GDR of the 1950s, with Daniel consulting his more charitable father on the subject and being advised even by him not to shake hands with “sick” Herr Barmer (VAAA 54). Even in the most absurd moments of Daniel's non-academic education, the humor and seriousness are perfectly balanced, providing opportunities for contemplation of the irony rather than pursuing any specific moral or political program. The finest example of this distanced yet fair stance comes when Daniel tries to reconcile his luminous vision of the older girl Pille with her clothes off and the news that she plans to join the Party, which, in Daniel's family, represents nothing but worldly corruption. But how bad can the Party be if this beautiful girl (without clothes) is in it? “Ich hatte ihre Brüste gesehen, die groβen roten Brustwarzen, das feuchte Schamhaar, von dem die Wassertropfen herabrollten. Diese Bilder mischten sich in meinem Kopf mit der Partei, und ich war verwirrt” [I had seen her breasts, her large red nipples, the wet pubic hair with water dripping off of it. These images got mixed up in my head with the Party, and I was confused: 99]. Hein's detachment allows him to capture such ambiguous states of consciousness without giving up the potential for showing how politics impinges on individual lives, whether absurdly or tragically.

Versions of this same Olympian detachment are also found in many of the book's characters and even its symbols. Their common domain is Daniel's consciousness, which, like his creator's, relentlessly seeks out examples of composure and objectivity in the face of suffering, fleeing the self-deluding delights of partisanship and creating the possibility of real mastery over events. This search for models of detachment begins with the allegedly homosexual professor already mentioned. His deportment, which Daniel finds extremely peculiar even before it is explained to him by Bernd, suggests a kind of freedom from the banal struggles of schoolboy life, the petty tyranny of teachers over students that reflects the oppressive conformity of East German society. Even though he scarcely hides his condescension, the demeanor of the “little man” who give the physics lecture recalls Hein's many descriptions of the chronicler's stance: his movements have an “eigentümlichen Ruhe” [extraordinary composure: 41], “Manchmal streifte sein Blick über uns, ohne uns wirklich wahrzunehmen” [His gaze would sometimes sweep the room without really seeing us: 41], “Sein ganzes Benehmen war etwas grotesk, verwies jedoch auf Distanz zu uns” [His whole manner was slightly grotesque, yet it attested to his distance from us: 42]. Daniel and the other students are spellbound, oddly, by the utter disinterest or even contempt the professor seems to have for their world:

Jede Geste verdeutlichte seinen herablassenden Stolz, seine Scherze und ironischen Bemerkungen waren nicht eigentlich heiter und führten bei uns nicht zu einem ausgelassenen oder zumindest befreienden Lachen. Auch sein Humor hatte etwas Übellauniges und seine heitere Stimmung war eigentlich verdrossen. … Sein Benehmen hatte zur Folge, dass eine eigentümlich fiebernde Erwartung entstand

(VAAA 42)

Every gesture revealed his haughty pride, his jokes and ironic asides were not really amusing and they gave no occasion even for tension-breaking laughter. His humor had something mean-spirited about it and his high spirits were a cover for sullenness. … The effect of his manner was that a peculiar, feverish expectation arose.

The professor's detachment fascinates because it promises something outside the constricted range of possible thought and action familiar to Daniel and his fellow students. The most effective subversion of totalitarian Stalinist society (or of conformism in bourgeois society) comes from the violation of its taboos, the speaking of what cannot and must not be imagined from within it; hence the homosexuality of the lecturer has a subversive effect—it is an eruption of the unspeakable within a closed discourse, a disclosure of distance and difference, and consequently a portent of a more general liberation.

Two less peripheral characters, Tante Magdalena and Daniel's grandmother, model for Daniel more positive versions of the professor's Gelassenheit, or composure, when they describe for him their ways of dealing with painful events in their lives. Tante Magdalena is a more lovingly developed version of Gertrude Fischlinger of Horns Ende, sharing her clear-eyed stoicism in overcoming vast personal loss. Tante Magdalena's fiancé was lost at sea during the First World War, and she has led a life of quasi-widowhood ever since. Daniel, at the age of 13, may see every new experience as unique and catastrophic, but Tante Magdalena knows that catastrophes are anything but unique, and she exhibits Hein's favorite virtue—stoic endurance of tragedy—by surviving the most dreadful experiences and laughing where once she cried. Daniel finds in Tante Magdalena both a refuge from the turbulence of his own life and an education in how to master it. It is she who delivers the advice that provides the title of book. When Daniel's sister Dorle complains that her mother and grandmother (who has recently moved in with the family) are always fighting, Tante Magdalena says:

Dem Leben muss man von allem Anfang an ins Gesicht sehen. Ihr seid jetzt alle zusammen, das ganze Jahr über. Ihr müsst euch nicht mehr trennen, ihr könnt euch jeden Tag sehen. Das ist einfach so schön, dass man sich manchmal streiten muss.

(VAAA 140)

[You have to look life in the face right from the start. Now you are all together all year long. You don't have to say goodbye, you can see each other every day. That is simply so wonderful that you need to have a fight once in a while.]

As in Hein's essays, Tante Magdalena's stoic embrace of the truth, no matter how painful, includes the rejection of ideological cant, an unsentimental self-discipline she learned from her almost-mother-in-law after her fiancé's death:

“Ich weinte immerzu. Sie kochte uns schweigend einen Kaffee und wir setzten uns ins Wohnzimmer. ‘Hör auf zu heulen,’ sagte sie zu mir. Und dann: ‘Ich verfluche den Krieg, der mir meinen einzigen Sohn genommen hat. Und dieser Dummkopf hat sich freiwillig gemeldet. Wer soll nun den Hof übernehmen?’ Sie verzog keine Miene, ihr Gesicht war wie erstarrt. Ich sagte ihr, was Bernhard mir aufgetragen hatte, dass sie stolz sein solle und dass ihr Sohn verboten habe, um ihn zu klagen, weil er für das Vaterland gestorben sei. Sie erwiderte nichts, sie weinte keine Träne. Nur ich heulte. Sie sah mich mit ihrem starren, harten Gesicht an, dann stand sie auf, kam auf mich zu und haute mir eine runter. Mann, hat die zugehauen. Ich heulte gleich noch mal so laut. Aber sie sagte nur: ‘So, Anna Magdalena, soviel dazu. Und wenn Bernhard noch leben würde, bekäme er die doppelte Portion’”

(VAAA 195–196)

[“I cried and cried. She made coffee without saying a word and we sat down in the living room. ‘Stop crying,’ she told me. And then: ‘I curse the war that took my only son. And that blockhead enlisted voluntarily. Now who will take over the farm?’ Her face had no expression, it was like stone. I told her what Bernhard had instructed me to say, that she should be proud and that her son forbade her to mourn, because he had died for the Fatherland. She didn't answer, and didn't shed a tear. I was the only one crying. She looked at me with her frozen, hard face, then she stood up, walked over to me and slapped my face. Man, did she hit hard. Now I was crying twice as loud as before. But she just said, ‘There, Anna Magdalena, that's what you get. And if Bernhard were still alive, he'd get a double portion.’”]

“Magdalena,” a fallen woman, an every-woman, a universal figure with a modest but real fund of wisdom, connects the chapters to one another through commentaries like these. In the closing lines of the book, Daniel states that when she died (he was in West Berlin at the time and unable to attend the funeral), he inherited nothing from her, not even a photo. Of course, he did inherit something extremely precious: a narrative stance. Similarly, Daniel learns from his grandmother that the passage of time brings distance from suffering, and hence allows one to look back at it with a cooler and more comprehending gaze. Her son, Daniel's uncle, had been killed in the Second World War:

Weil sie nie weinte, wenn sie von ihm berichtete, fragte ich Groβmutter einmal, ob sie nicht traurig wäre, dass ihr einziger Sohn im Krieg umgekommen war. Groβmutter sah mich überrascht an und dachte nach. Und dann sagte sie: “Natürlich bin ich traurig, Junge, aber es ist lange her. Aber wenn ich an ihn denke, sehe ich nur den kleinen Jungen vor mir, der er einmal war. Und dann bin ich nicht mehr traurig. Es ist merkwürdig, nicht wahr, aber das machen die vielen Jahre, die seither vergangen sind. Jetzt tut es nicht mehr weh.”

(VAAA 138)

[Because she never cried when she talked about him, I once asked Grandmother whether she was sad that her only son had been killed in the war. Grandmother looked at me with surprise and thought for a while. Then she said: “Of course I'm sad, boy, but it was a long time ago. But when I think about him, I only see the little boy that he used to be. And then I'm not sad any more. It's strange, isn't it, but that's what happens over the years. Now it doesn't hurt anymore.]

The book's most striking example of the dispassionate chronicler's stance emerges from Daniel's interpretation of the altar painting in his church, which depicts the Four Evangelists flanking Jesus on the cross. Daniel is fascinated by how unmoved they appear as they witness the crucifixion:

Jeder von ihnen hielt ein aufgeschlagenes Buch in der Hand, das wohl die Bibel sein sollte, und zeigte mit einem langen und eigenartig gebogenen Finger auf den Text, während er teilnahmslos und ohne Erregung oder erkennbares Mitleid auf den Gekreuzigten blickte oder zu dem Betrachter des Bildes. … Und Lukas hatte mich besonders beeindruckt. Mir gefiel sein Evangelium besser als das der anderen, ich fand es einleuchtender, und seine Worte waren einprägsamer. Viele seiner Sätze kannte ich sogar auswendig, obwohl ich sie nie gelernt hatte und nur gelegentlich zu hören bekam. Ich glaube aber, seine grünen Augen waren es vor allem, die mich für ihn und seine Schrift einnahmen. Durch seine Augen war er vor allen anderen hervorgehoben und durch seinen besonders gelassenen, gleichgültigen Blick, den er auf den blutüberströmten, mit Nägeln durchbohrten Jesus warf. Jedesmal während des Gottesdienstes hatte ich genügend Muβe, ihn zu betrachten und meinen Gedanken und Vermutungen freien Lauf zu lassen. Mir gefiel, dass er bei der entsetzlichen Szene so lässig dabei stand, die Hinrichtung scheinbar unbeeindruckt zur Kenntnis nahm, nicht gewillt, einzugreifen und zu helfen.

(VAAA 109–110)

[Each of them holds an open book in his hand, the Bible no doubt, and points with a long and strangely bent finger at the text, while looking impassively, unmoved and without any noticeable sympathy, at either the crucified Christ or the viewer of the painting. … And I was especially impressed by Luke. I liked his gospel better than the others, it made more sense to me, and its words were more memorable. I even knew many passages by heart, although I had never tried to learn them and only occasionally heard them read. I think, though, that it was most of all his green eyes that drew me to him and to his writing. He stood out from all the others because of his eyes, and because of the calm, indifferent gaze he cast at the figure of Jesus dripping with blood and pierced with nails. During every service I had lots of time to study him and let my thoughts and conjectures run free. I liked the way he stood next to the horrible scene so casually, unimpressed by the execution he was witnessing, unwilling to intervene or give assistance.]

Though the Evangelists are indeed chroniclers in a sense, they can hardly be accused of being non-partisan and indifferent; this is Daniel's adumbration, or rather Hein's. Daniel's interpretation enables him both to deconstruct the religious cant that he endures as the son of a minister, and to reapply its moral imperatives to his own contradiction-filled life. His situation parallels the position of various Hein characters as they struggle to escape, conform to, or improve society, and like Claudia or Herr Horn, he runs the risk of withdrawing altogether at the very moment he achieves the distance necessary for effective intervention. Hein's elucidation of this paradox is his most important contribution to the Brechtian tradition of privileging political-moral-aesthetic intellect over emotional self-indulgence in response to tragedy.

The culminating moment of Daniel's evolution as a future chronicler of himself and his society occurs during his visit to West Berlin. The double-edged nature of impassive detachment sine ira et studio is fully in evidence as Daniel notes the indifference of West Berliners toward the events of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, yet integrates this response into his developing ideal of calm, composed conduct:

Verwundert beobachtete ich die anderen Gäste des Cafés. Sie warfen nur gelegentlich einen Blick auf die Leuchtschrift und beobachteten offensichtlich weder die Nachrichten noch die Werbung. Sie plauderten miteinander, schauten sich aufmerksam die vorbeiflanierenden Passanten an oder starrten in die Luft. Auch die Passanten blickten nur selten zu den Meldungen hoch. Sie sahen sich die Auslagen der Geschäfte an, musterten eindringlich die hinter den Glasscheiben sitzenden Gäste des Cafés und schauten sich unbefangen an, was serviert worden war. Diese Gelassenheit beeindruckte mich. Neugierig geworden, teilte ich meine Aufmerksamkeit zwischen der flimmernden Schrift und den Passanten, ihren Gesichtern und der Art ihres Reagierens. Da ich mir nicht vorstellen konnte, dass diese Nachrichten für sie ohne Bedeutung waren, erschien mir ihr Verhalten ein Ausdruck der Groβstadt zu sein. Nur wenn man vom Leben einer Weltstadt geprägt war, konnte man sich selbst bei den schlimmsten Schreckensmeldungen so lässig und ungerührt geben. Wie die vier Evangelisten bei der Kreuzigung auf dem Bild in unserer Marienkirche.

(VAAA 185)

[I watched the other cafe guests in amazement. They glanced only occasionally at the illuminated letters and evidently paid no attention to either the news or the advertisements. They chatted with each other, watched the passers-by, or stared off into space. The passers-by, too, seldom looked up at the messages. They looked at displays in the shop windows, or studied the seated cafe guests through the glass, showing no embarrassment as they ascertained what was being served. This composure impressed me. Growing curious, I divided my attention between the flickering letters and the passers-by, their faces, and their way of reacting. Since I couldn't imagine that the news was of no importance to them, their behavior appeared to me an expression of big-city life. Only people shaped by life in a world city could appear so indifferent and unmoved by reports of the most terrible events. Like the Four Evangelists in the crucifixion scene in our Marienkirche.]

The critics who imagine that Hein has left pro-Eastern political positions behind, and who read Von allem Anfang an as a denunciation of the GDR, are applying only the most superficial analysis to scenes such as Daniel's visit to West Berlin. It would be obtuse to agree with Daniel's own assessment of evident Western indifference, taking it to be a sign of an achieved state of sober and worldly composure in the face of terrible events: “Since I couldn't imagine that the news was of no importance to them, their behavior appeared to me an expression of big-city life.” As the detailed description of the strollers and window shoppers makes abundantly clear, the West Berliners are not just pretending to be indifferent—they really are indifferent, and not out of some moral imperative, but out of pure consumer intoxication. Daniel is simply not materialistic enough to suspect that wealth could blind people to any sense of social or political solidarity. The oblivious passers-by and cafe guests represent the exact opposite of what Daniel is here inferring from their behavior, just as Claudia's rationale for her isolation completely misses its real causes and real meaning. West Berlin is not a paradise; it is nothing more or less than a background for Daniel's invention of himself. The West per se is treated with the same distance and neutrality as the East. Hence both in theme and in narrative strategy, Hein's latest book is of a piece with its predecessors both before and after the Wende, not the departure or change of direction some have hailed it as.


Hein's decade of work since the opening of the Berlin Wall can now be viewed with a requisite degree of distance and perspective. Its general outline becomes clear. In the months leading up to the Wende, Hein was turning to political allegory on the stage (Die Ritter der Tafelrunde) and minimalist/realist satire in his fiction (Der Tangospieler) to directly challenge the GDR's cultural and political establishments. These efforts showed a serene and sovereign command of materials and a profound intimacy with both the GDR's ideological contortions and its everyday realities. Next, in the immediately post-Wende works—consisting of socio-political fables of a somewhat shrill and utterly humorless cast, represented by “Bridge Freezes before Roadway,” Das Napoleon-Spiel, and Randow—Hein appears to briefly abandon the stance of Gelassenheit so carefully cultivated in his earlier work, perhaps (judging from these works' subject matter) out of anger or despair at the grotesque lies and injustices that must be counted among the dislocations of the unification process. Such a shift was probably inevitable given the ideological confusions of the early nineties, including the end of the East/West dualism, and, for artists, the loss of a clear (though not particularly pleasant) niche in GDR society as the main promoters of Öffentlichkeit. The imbalance of the early-nineties work surely derives from the ambiguity and even absence of a stable social context. Finally, the recent appearance of Von allem Anfang an announces a return to Hein's earlier proven strategy of resolutely dispassionate social chronicling, adapted now to a much more ambiguous political situation than that of the GDR. In other words, a narrative stance developed as a weapon in the ideological struggles internal to the GDR has now been transplanted into a fully post-Communist context, with future consequences yet to be assessed. Critics glad to see Hein abandon his direct criticisms of the West overlook the critical potential of exploring transhistorical issues of personal loss, official stupidity, and moral hypocrisy. In other words, the real subversiveness of Hein's recent writing lies in his treatment of the GDR as a typical case of humanity in general, a provocative enough notion, if reflected upon, for the complacent denizens of consumer capitalism: it may not be welcome news that East Germans, too, led fully human lives. Hein appears intent on naturalizing East Germany into the contemporary world, and retroactively into its own Cold War landscape, revising our attitude away from the ideological demonizing of the past toward a more normal, even banal recognition of it as a particular, but not particularly extraordinary, time and place. The process is similar to what must ultimately take place in the Federal Republic of Germany if it is to become a nation rather than a territory divided into antagonistic eastern and western sections. For that to happen, the human reality of the GDR will have to be assimilated—not repressed, not refuted as ideologically unsound, but made part of the totality of twentieth-century German consciousness.

The great question for observers of East German literature has been: How will former GDR writers represent their political sea change and their subsumption under Western ideology? A latent strength or potential of the old, ideologically constrained literary strategies of the East Bloc may be emerging: the invisible critique of a highly visible ideology (neo-Stalinism) has been turned inside-out, yielding a highly visible critique of an invisible, because perfectly internalized ideology (consumer capitalism). The appeal of such a strategy is that it strikes at the heart of a social arrangement that offers itself as utterly natural, inevitable, and hence non-ideological. The Western response to East German ideological critiques since 1989 has been to complain of stereotyping, over-simplification, prejudice, ignorance—anything, in short, that challenges the naturalness of capitalism, and with it, the rightness of capitalism. Hein continues to violate expectations whenever and wherever he writes. When Socialist Realist dogma demanded stereotyped, historically situated heroes that could function as role models, Hein created tortured, repellent individuals shut off from society. Now that Western ideology posits individual uniqueness and free will as basic human truths in our millennial post-history, Hein is creating stereotypes utterly trapped within themselves by historical circumstance. Hein's deconstruction of East Germany can therefore be understood as part of a larger anti-ideological project that continues unabated.

Hein's emergence as a German writer—rather than an East German one—comes as no surprise after his decades-long critique of German society and its characteristic accommodations with power. In politics as in art, each historical moment sees the proscription of certain thoughts as unthinkable. The integrity of Hein's writing has been proved by the fact that both East German and West German ideologues have decried it as wrongheaded. In literary terms, Hein is treading a path comprehended by neither of the historically competing literary canons, based in the East on a partisan, idealized, social subjectivity, and in the West on an ahistorical, reified subjectivity. His characters are always simultaneously victims and agents of history, trapped in society and trapped in themselves; the undialectical categories of West and East (we now call them winners and losers) are discarded in the effort to discover materially real historical facts—beginning with fascism, but extending also to the authoritarian roots of fascism, and ultimately taking in the conditions of modern industrial society. Hein's literature of dissent from ideological univocality promises to find ample raw material as Germany struggles toward self-definition.


  1. An interesting footnote to Hein's novel came after the collapse of the GDR, when the soon-to-be-defunct DEFA movie studios produced a feature film of Der Tangospieler. By the time Roland Gräf's rigorously faithful adaptation premiered at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival, the events of 1989 seemed no less like ancient history than those of 1968. Critics of the film seemed unable to look at it as anything other than a historical document of a lost world, or worse, a nostalgic monument to that world. The alternative Berlin daily die tageszeitung, for example, accused Gräf of turning an absurdist parable into a sentimental look at eternal inner crises, and ridiculed the film for trotting out the usual East German clichés: “crumbled buildings, wretched apartments, dingy shades of gray” (quoted in “Letzter Tango”). The film seems to have fallen to the wrong audience at the wrong time.

  2. See Robinson, “Christoph Hein between Ideologies, or, Where Do the Knights of the Round Table Go after Camelot Falls?”

  3. Honecker was arrested by the Nazi authorities in 1935 for his activities in the Communist underground and spent ten years in prison (Turner 175).

  4. As early as mid-December 1989 Hein remarked despairingly, “I am spending little or no time at my desk, but it is all for nothing: probably within a year … Germany will once again be Greater Germany. But there will be no reunification, just an annexation. McDonald's wins” (Letter to the author, 16 Dec. 1989).

  5. For a more extensive treatment of Hein's political activities in 1989 and 1990, see Andress, “Christoph Heins Weg durch den Herbst 1989” and Meyer-Gosau, “Christoph Hein, Politiker.” See also the illustrated chronology of Hein's life in Baier (ed.), Christoph Hein: Texte, Daten, Bilder 101–118.

  6. For further reading on the Kritiker- or Literaturstreit, see chapter 1, note 1.

  7. On this subject see Hein's essay, “Eure Freiheit ist unser Auftrag: ein Brief an (fast alle) Ausländer—wider das Gerede vom Fremdenhaβ der Deutschen” [“Your Freedom is our Mission: A Letter to (Almost All) Foreigners—Challenging the Prattle About German Hatred of Foreigners”]. In this “letter,” Hein assures the world that Germans have nothing against foreigners per se; rather, it is poor foreigners that they can't abide.

  8. In response to such accusations, Hein maintains he is simply reporting what he has seen, even in the case of the monstrous West Berlin lawyer Wörle in Das Napoleon-Spiel: “I situated him in the West because that is where I saw this ‘player.’ I saw him many times. The essentials were comparable to what I have described. The rest is borrowed from my own vita” (Hein, “Kennen”).

  9. See McKnight, Understanding Christoph Hein, for a detailed English summary and discussion of the novel (113–135).

  10. The irritated reviewer for Der Spiegel announces that Hein had “squandered” [verspielt] his status of being the “hope” of East German literature (Hage 235), and dismisses Wörle as a “mere assertion, a prattling cardboard figure invented solely to lecture us about what Hein thinks freedom can lead to” (239). Literary pundit Marcel Reich-Ranicki, writing for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, employs words like Blödsinn [idiocy] and Albernheit [silliness] in the course of judging the book a failure, meanwhile reading it so sloppily that he confuses Wörle with another minor character. By contrast, the Frankfurter Rundschau (Böttiger) and Süddeutsche Zeitung (Baier) reviewed the book largely positively, the latter noting that “To the one-time ‘GDR-bonus’ there now corresponds a ‘GDR-malus’” among the critics.

  11. See for instance the review collection “Der fremde Freund von Christoph Hein: Für und Wider” for several examples such as the one contributed by Rüdiger Bernhardt, who diagnosed “the author's deficient ability to keep in view the development possibilities of society while describing the individually possible experiences of his characters” (1638). In other words, Hein was waywardly ignoring the obvious truth of the matter, that the society of the GDR was a good society.

  12. McKnight also recommends considering “Hein's intellectual activity during the writing of Das Napoleon-Spiel and his reaction to the neo-Nazi activity on both sides of the Elbe, especially his concern that the outgrowth of the long-lasting Historikerstreit would overturn national guilt and awareness about the past,” and offers the following political allegory:

    Wörle, who always let the “bastard” [that is, Wörle's East German brother] take the blame, might symbolize the specter of fascism (always linked with capitalism in socialist ideology) raising its head again in Germany during and after unification, a ghost of the Nazi past who succeeds in duping the Germans (Fiarthes) into defending him and who is found not guilty (on legal technicalities) by the judges (historians), setting the monster free once again. … The consequences of a successful manipulation of history and people's knowledge of and attitudes towards history are embodied in the disturbing figure of Wörle and his justification of

  13. Other relatively positive assessments of the play similarly emphasized the continuities with his earlier work. Neues Deutschland, while judging the Dresden production itself to be rather weak, places Anna Andress in the same class as Hein's alienated Claudia. Anna's attempt at withdrawal from the world (after the exhilaration of the Bürgerbewegung), her “Nein!” to the various people importuning her, is akin to Claudia's “I'm fine.” She is living in a kind of fool's paradise and must be driven out of it by outside forces (Pfützner). The Neue Zürcher Zeitung similarly noted that the play addresses Hein's oldest theme, “how state power and individual fate were interrelated in the GDR,” only now the power involved is now that of the dog-eat-dog West where the right of the wealthier prevails. The characters themselves, as in Hein's earlier work, “are ordinary and monstrous at the same time” (Zimmermann).

  14. John Bornemann's interviews for his anthropological study Belonging in the Two Berlins: Kin, State, and Nation reveal how archetypal this sort of story is for the self-definition of East Germans who lived through the war and its aftermath (124–54).

  15. Because of the circular chronology of the chapters (the first chapter must be reread after finishing the last in order to be fully understood), we know from the outset that Daniel, like Hein, is destined to escape the stultification of rural life in the GDR by moving to West Berlin. Given that the book is to some extent a memoir, it is remarkable for its refusal to foreshadow Hein's ultimate return to the GDR in 1961. Daniel's trajectory offers no hint of such a return being likely. Similarly, the adult political convictions held by Hein himself are scarcely anticipated. Thus the book is a highly disciplined exercise in the chronicling of one personal and historic moment, undistorted by teleologies of foreknowledge and retrospection. Hein avoids constructing (however covertly) a basis for the overall development of a life, with its rounded narrative contours and evident significance waiting at the end. (The blatancy of Wörle's life, his long career of self-promotion, stands in stark contrast.)

  16. Langner adds that Hein's style benefits from the changed circumstances for East German writers, who need no longer fulfill a “compensatory function as critical moralists.” Hein himself seems to agree, saying that he is relieved now that he can just be a writer, not a political seer (Personal interview with author, 18 July 1998). However, even being a mere writer involves a historical and moral context, as all of Hein's writing shows.

David Clarke (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9784

SOURCE: Clarke, David “‘Himmel auf Erden’? Christoph Hein, Capitalism, and the ‘Wende.’” In Christoph Hein in Perspective, edited by Graham Jackman, pp. 21–44. Atlanta, Georgia: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Clarke examines Hein's rejection of Western capitalism and his desire to establish a social system based upon shared personal and political values.]

Christoph Hein is well known as a GDR author whose fiction portrays some of the most negative aspects of East German society and its effects on the individual. However, during the ‘Wende’ of 1989, Hein called upon his fellow East Germans to reject the lure of Western consumerism and attempt to build a new society based on shared ideals. In this article, Hein's statements about Western society are examined in the context of his analysis of the problems of the GDR, thus revealing a basic thematic continuity between the author's rejection of ‘real existing socialism’ and his critique of capitalism.

In the years following the ‘Wende’ of autumn 1989, journalists, academics and politicians instrumentalised the collapse of state socialism as evidence for the unsustainability of all alternatives to liberal, capitalist democracy as it exists in the West today. Whilst Francis Fukuyama proposed his Hegelian thesis of ‘The End of History,’1 those who, as the Iron Curtain fell, had still clung to the idea of an improved form of socialism were accused of having failed to recognise in time the superiority of the capitalist system. In the case of the GDR, this charge was levelled not only at writers like Christoph Hein, as I will show in this article, but also at the dissident intellectuals who had played such a significant role in the bloodless revolution of 1989.2 Yet, as Rolf Jucker has convincingly shown, such arguments themselves paradoxically raise the capitalist system to the level of a ‘real existing utopia’ by praising the status quo as the best of all possible worlds.3 The thesis of the ‘End of History’ must, therefore, bracket out all those instances in which a society dominated by the market proves to be incapable of delivering on the promises of its champions.

One significant example is provided here by the East German writers Daniela Dahn and Klaus Schlesinger, who both point to the inability of liberal democracy as we know it to guarantee consistently the human rights of citizens, and to the readiness of the state even in the West to resort to violent means in order to preserve order and protect the interests of money and power. Schlesinger, for example, illustrates this state of affairs with reference to his experiences amongst squatters in West Berlin in the 1980s.4 From another perspective, Wolf Biermann and Volker Braun both point to the burden which the capitalist system places on the environment, thus endangering the very survival of the human race. This, they claim, is cause enough to question the notion that human society cannot be better organised.5

In his acceptance speech for the Erich Fried Prize of 1990, Christoph Hein also clearly rejects the thesis of the ‘End of History,’ insisting that the ‘Zug der Geschichte’ is still very much in motion and far from having reached any imagined destination.6 Here Hein describes capitalist society as being not merely in need of change but also fundamentally destined to change, on the grounds that it is incapable of catering for a basic human need. This need, however, is not simply material:

Eine menschliche Einrichtung, sei es eine Familie oder sei es ein Staat, die nur noch—und sei es bestens—funktioniert, aber die nichts darüber hinaus verbindet, die von keiner gemeinsamen Idee getragen und verbunden ist, ist tot und wird verfallen. Es ist eine Besonderheit des Menschen, die ihn groβ macht und ihn gefährdet, daβ er diese merkwürdige Kleinigkeit einer Vision benötigt, um existieren zu können.

(MJ, 61)

In the following I will demonstrate the central role which the notion of a society founded on common beliefs and goals plays in Hein's literary texts before and after the ‘Wende.’ His critique of ‘real existing socialism’ can be read in this context as the analysis of a society in which an authoritarian government attempts, often by coercive means, to create the appearance of social consensus, whilst at the same time calling into question the possibility of a more genuine solidarity. Hein's critique of the GDR regime equally shows the extent to which the SED abandoned the hope of creating a socialist utopia at some point in the future, and how the party instead tried to make good this loss of vision by seeking to satisfy the immediate material needs and desires of the population. However, according to Hein, capitalism also consistently undermines the possibility of the shared ‘vision’ which he sees as essential for any society.

The short story “Moses Tod,” first published in 1994, can be interpreted as an illustration of this position. Here, the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land is retold as an allegory of betrayed revolution: Kaleb, the successor of Moses as leader of the Israelites, promises his people a ‘Himmel auf Erden’ which should make superfluous any desire for a ‘Himmel über ihrem Land,’ in other words for any kind of religious or otherwise transcendental belief (EK, 123; my emphasis). Kaleb thus wishes to persuade the Israelites that they have reached a place in which it is no longer necessary to hope for anything more than that which has already been achieved. The naive Israelites seem to have accepted Kaleb's description of their new home as the best of all possible worlds, although the ‘unwürdige Chronist’ who reports on these events refrains from confirming Kaleb's claim. The fact that Kaleb appears to have liquidated the other Israelite leaders, who are accused of treachery for having doubted the possibility of arriving in the Promised Land, suggests perhaps a reference to Stalinism in the Soviet Union here. On the other hand, the fact that Kaleb himself abandons the journey towards utopia by simply declaring the status quo to be an already achieved ‘Himmel auf Erden’ is reminiscent of the behaviour of the SED and of other communist parties in Eastern Europe. In the GDR specifically, the SED under Honecker became increasingly orientated towards the attempt to gain approval by meeting the consumer needs and desires of the population, thereby seeking to compensate for the lost promise of communism. The fact that this consumer-oriented attempt to legitimise the SED regime remained unsuccessful is closely linked to the failings of the GDR economy,7 yet it equally demonstrates the extent to which the SED had in reality abandoned its efforts to instill a faith in the common utopian project of communism into the GDR population.

The parable of “Moses Tod” can, however, be understood in a very different way. Just as the Israelites spent forty years in the desert, so the inhabitants of the GDR were compelled to spend forty years under SED rule. On arrival in the Promised Land of capitalism, they discover a ‘Himmel auf Erden,’ a consumer paradise in which, if not all, then certainly the majority of their material desires are satisfied. As the discourse of the ‘End of History’ shows, however, this is also a society which has lost hope in the possibility of change for the better. In this second reading of Hein's story, Kaleb can be seen as a politician in the capitalist system (does Kaleb equal Kohl?8) who denies the necessity of any utopian project on the grounds that all that could be achieved has already been achieved. What is clear in both of these interpretations of Hein's story is the author's concern to underline the abandonment of any collective hope for a better future, i.e. of that ‘gemeinsame […] Idee’ of which he speaks in May 1990 and which, he claims, is the necessary foundation of human society.

As Dennis Tate's study from the early nineteen-eighties shows,9 the search for community is a central theme of early GDR prose fiction. A number of novels of the late fifties and early sixties, such as Wolf's Der geteilte Himmel (1963), Reimann's Ankunft im Alltag (1961) and Fühmann's Kabelkran und blauer Peter (1961), tell of young intellectuals entering the world of industry in search of a common ‘Wir’ which is primarily to be established through solidarity with those working-class figures alongside whom they work for a time ‘in der Produktion,’ and through identification with the party which claims to express the will of this class. This identification is thus closely connected with the common project of building socialism in the GDR. According to Tate's description of this development, identification with the SED ends at the latest with the Biermann affair of 1976. The party no longer appears to show an interest in the contribution of writers to socialism, and a dialogue between intellectuals and the party leadership no longer seems possible. On the other hand, the working-class equally fails to exhibit any collective revolutionary or utopian impulses, a situation which, for example, Erich Loest's suppressed 1978 novel Es geht seinen Gang oder Mühen in unserer Ebene clearly documents.

Christoph Hein does not belong to that generation of disillusioned writers described by Tate. In the first instance, his biography as the son of a Protestant pastor excluded him from any youthful identification with the GDR state and the SED. The difficulties that Hein experienced at school, later when attempting to study in the GDR, and then during his time as an in-house playwright (‘Dramaturg’) at the Berlin ‘Volksbühne’ in the 1970s, doubtless contributed to the author's continuing sense of distance from the socialist state.10 As Hein himself observes:

noch bevor ich in der Lage war, mir ernsthaft die Frage zu stellen, ob und wie ich mich in die Gesellschaft einbringen sollte, teilte der Staat mir mit, daβ er auf meine Mitarbeit keinen Wert legte.11

Nevertheless, Hein's earliest works for the stage bear witness to an interest on the author's part in the possibilities of collective action in the name of the common goal of socialism.

For example, in Hein's ‘Kinderspiel’ Vom hungrigen Hennecke, which received its first performance in 1974, the party activists Willi and Paul spur the starving Hennecke on to ever greater feats in the name of the coming new society. Unfortunately, Hennecke remains the prisoner of his own material interests: he works in order to fill his belly or to afford a bottle of schnapps, and not primarily in order to help build socialism, as a resigned Willi and Paul are eventually forced to recognize:

Allein wir meinen—wir sagen es vorerst nur leise—Es ist noch immer nicht der neue Mensch, der jetzt zu seiner eigenen Feier läuft.

Zwar arbeitete er auf äuβerst neue Weise Jedoch auf äuβerst alte Weise er nun säuft.12

After this retrospective on the early post-war years, the comedy Schlötel, oder Was solls, which was premiered on the same evening as Hennecke, examines the relationship between the workers and the party at the beginning of the nineteen-seventies. Whilst Willi and Paul in Hein's play for children still see their role in terms of the transmission of revolutionary ideals to the masses, the representatives of the SED in Schlötel are cynical enough to recognise that their planning targets are best achieved by means of a barely disguised bribery of the workers. In this respect, the party no longer appears to consider the creation of a shared faith in the project of socialism to be a prerequisite for success, as the attitude of a representative party official, the ‘Parteisekretär’ Netzker, only too clearly demonstrates: ‘Ich will Sekretär sein, kein Pfaffe,’ he insists (Sch, 170). For Netzker, ‘[gehört] das sozialistische Bewuβtsein … zum Überbau, das Sparkonto ist Basis’ (Sch, 177). Starting from this position, any attempt on the part of the SED and its officials to persuade the workers or to inspire in them commitment to a common set of goals, as attempted by Willi and Paul in Hennecke, becomes unnecessary. The promise of short-term material benefits for the individual is seen as being just as effective, if not more effective, than reliance on the political beliefs of the workers. As Netzker observes, ‘für eine Prämie baut der Teufel auch eine Kirche’ (Sch, 177).

Hein's critique of party functionaries in this play does not exclude a critical assessment of the eponymous protagonist, the intellectual idealist Schlötel, who will not accept the validity of any private interest which does not contribute to the common project of building socialism. Yet Hein's portrayal of the workers, who appear to be bereft of any sense of cohesion or common cause, is generally negative: they tend towards violence, are sex-obsessed and often drunk. Not even Archipenko, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, is able to hold on to his old ideals, dedicating his time instead to his sexual adventures.

In the novella Der fremde Freund (1982), Hein formulates his critique of the party and its failure to establish a ‘gemeinsame Idee’ in GDR society in still harsher terms. In Schlötel, the SED is portrayed primarily as promoting materialistic self-interest as a means of making good its utopian deficit and of motivating the workforce. However, in Claudia's narration of her adolescent experiences, the reader is shown the extent to which the party is prepared to secure its authority by coercive or violent means, a strategy which simultaneously precludes the development of any alternative set of common ideals outside the regime's own ideology. The SED's claim to a monopoly in the interpreting of social phenomena and of the whole course of history, which remained a basic tenet of the party's self-legitimation,13 was fundamentally called into question by the June 17 uprising of 1953 and, as a consequence, was brutally defended by the party. Katharina and Claudia, however, seek to arrive at a common world-view independently of the SED state. Or, more precisely, they attempt to make a choice between two opposing world-views, namely those of Christianity and of Marxism. Interestingly, the truth value of these two competing ideologies is of relatively little interest to the girls. Instead, their concern is to achieve a common set of beliefs which will bind them closer together:

In dem Sommer, der unserem 14. Geburtstag folgte, würden wir uns, so war verabredet, zusammen zu einer Antwort entschlieβen, um dann, an Gott glaubend oder ihn leugnend, durch eine weitere Gemeinsamkeit verbunden zu sein.

(DfF, 147)

Yet Claudia soon learns how fragile such solidarity can be, especially when it is formed in opposition to the ideology of those in power.

Although the state by no means carries the sole responsibility for the failure of Claudia and Katharina's friendship, it nevertheless exerts a distinct pressure on the two girls in order to separate them and withdraw from them the possibility of experiencing solidarity in the name of a world-view of their own choosing. With her denunciation of her former friend, however, Claudia does appear to achieve identification with the ‘Wir’ of her conforming classmates, amongst whom the Christian Katharina has become an outcast. This new sense of belonging increases for Claudia when she is permitted to continue her education in a nearby ‘Oberschule,’ where she appears on her first day with a symbolically red briefcase, signalling her new identification with the party and the state. The officially proclaimed mission of the GDR, as stated in the constitution of 1949, ‘den Nationalsozialismus und Militarismus zu überwinden und das von ihnen verschuldete Unrecht wieder gutzumachen,’14 provides Claudia with access to a further communal ‘Wir’ which, like her attachment to Katharina, is of a highly emotional character. The figure of Anne Frank, whose diaries move Claudia to tears, serves partly as a replacement for Katharina, but Claudia also identifies herself with the victims of Nazism as a whole.

Central to Claudia's development, however, is the discovery that her favourite uncle betrayed his social-democrat colleagues to the National Socialist regime during the Second World War. Uncle Gerhard's crime serves not only as an example of the fragility of relationships of solidarity based on shared beliefs or political principles, but also makes clear to Claudia the significance of her own actions in having betrayed her comparable solidarity with Katharina in the service of another authoritarian state. Thus Claudia's shock at her uncle's actions is formulated in terms of self-recrimination, as she belatedly assumes her own guilt for having betrayed her friend to the coercive SED regime. Claudia's subsequent refusal to enter into any relationship of solidarity with other human beings, summed up in her motto ‘Jeder für sich’ from the book's introductory dream sequence (DfF, 5), is therefore perhaps best understood not as a mistrust of others, but as a mistrust of herself and her own proven capacity to betray those with whom she is allied when she is placed under pressure by the GDR authorities. Thus, in this text, the socialist regime is portrayed as creating a society in which the establishment of solidarity in the name of common ideas or goals is undermined by the state's determination to preserve its ideological hegemony. The absence of this experience of solidarity in Claudia's life, represented by the loss of Katharina, results, however, in a sense of meaninglessness, in which human existence is reduced to senseless routine and the passing of time cannot be invested with any sense of purpose or direction: ‘[Die Zeit] verläuft mit der Stupidität eines Perpendikelschlags … Eine Bewegung, die zu nichts führt … und deren einzige Sensation der irgendwann eintretende Stillstand ist’ (DfF, 197–8).

In Hein's Der Tangospieler (1989), the reader encounters the academic bureaucrat Hans-Peter Dallow, a man who cannot come to terms with life outside the state apparatus. The routine of his former position as an assistant in a university history department offered him, he believed, a completely predictable future, a ‘gedankenlose[s] Dahinleben’ (T, 115) from which he is suddenly expelled into a structureless freedom. Compared to the sense of disorientation which Dallow feels after his release from jail, even his old cell is a preferable environment, since at least it had the virtue of offering an ‘ausnahmslos geregelte[s] Leben’ (T, 114) not dissimilar to that which he once enjoyed as an academic.

Initially, then, Hein's text seems to echo Hannah Arendt's description of a ‘totalitarianism’ in which only the institutions of the state can provide ‘atomized, isolated individuals’15 with a sense of having a stable place in the world. However, Hein does point to an alternative, whilst simultaneously demonstrating how it is stifled by the SED. This alternative is represented by that vaguely defined group which expresses its support for a ‘Sozialismus mit menschlichem Antlitz’ and demonstrates its solidarity with the Prague reformers of 1968. The young woman in Dallow's room who listens, weeping, to the news of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia serves as a symbol for this form of solidarity in the name of a common cause. She shows herself to be capable of empathy with complete strangers merely on the basis of their commonly held beliefs, whilst Dallow, on the other hand, is unable to establish any kind of close human relationship, not even with his family or the women he sleeps with. Furthermore, the woman's sense of solidarity with those who share her views also makes her capable of action, as in her plan to join friends in Berlin in order to protest against the invasion, whereas Dallow is unable to act and make decisions about his own future (‘ein groβes weiβes, erschreckendes Blatt’ (T, 37), as he terms it) until that future is clearly mapped out for him by the authority of the state.

As Dallow's concern over the consequences of the woman's apparent determination to protest in support of the Prague reformers shows,16 he is only too aware of the coercion which the state is liable to employ in order to suppress the development of such alternative loyalties. He is nevertheless drawn to the young woman and all that she represents, but can only find an expression for these emotions by making love to her, an act which takes on overtones of rape and thereby mirrors the violence which the Warsaw Pact states, including the GDR, mete out to the Czechoslovak reformers. Finally, the tanks which Dallow witnesses moving in convoy towards Prague leave him in no doubt as to the consequences of the attempt to establish a ‘gemeinsame Idee’ in opposition to the authority of the party. Yet, as in the case of Claudia, Dallow's rejection of commitment to such an endangered solidarity is accompanied by an awareness of leading a senseless existence. In this case, the ordered life provided by the state fails to offer an adequate substitute for the shared goals and ideals which could give meaning to the life of the individual. Thus, the secure routine and predictable life-plan which the GDR state offers Dallow is compared to the circular track upon which a toy train (i.e. Dallow himself) ceaselessly turns. Here the experience of movement belies the lack of direction in the protagonist's life (T, 110).

Hein's portrayal of the GDR state at the end of the 1980s, and thus on the eve of the ‘Wende’ is therefore anything but hopeful. There is no indication in Hein's prose fiction that the project of socialism might be reinvigorated in East Germany, nor that the population of the GDR, with the exception of the small minority who cling to the ideals of the Prague Spring in Der Tangospieler, might be prepared to support such an enterprise. It is, after all, the Claudias and the Dallows, that is to say, the alienated and the conforming, whom Hein makes the central figures of his fiction, not those who are drawn to a new socialist solidarity, and who, in Der Tangospieler, remain marginal representatives of a dwindling hope. It is perhaps surprising, then, that in the first months of the ‘Wende’ Hein so forcefully defended the continued existence of the GDR as a socialist alternative to the Federal Republic. Furthermore, the way in which Hein expressed his support for this option has drawn harsh criticism.

The case against Hein is put most strongly by Eckhardt Thiele, who accuses the author of having, along with other GDR intellectuals, failed to recognise that the existence of the GDR was, it is alleged, inseparable from the power of the ‘Stalinist’ SED (‘Ohne Stalinismus keine DDR’).17 Thiele regards Hein's concern for the continued existence of the GDR as evidence of his basic loyalty to the SED, whereas the people were, he claims, capable of freeing themselves from the party's power and acknowledging the only genuine alternative to the SED regime, i.e. unification and the acceptance of liberal capitalist democracy.18 Thiele is not alone in establishing the link between Hein's ‘törichten Hoffnungen’19 and the author's supposed internalised Stalinism. Reinhard Andress is less scathing, but makes the point that Hein's language in public statements during the ‘Wende,’ particularly his suggestion that Leipzig should be awarded the title ‘Heldenstadt der DDR,’ recalls official SED formulations.20 William J. Niven asserts that, in his apparent sympathy for the institutions of state socialism, preferred to a vision of capitalism which has little to do with its realities, Hein occasionally becomes an apologist for the regime and thus ‘Stalinist’ not merely in tone.21

I would argue, however, that Hein's comments on the ‘Wende’ can be much better understood when these accusations of (unconscious) Stalinism are abandoned in order to understand the author's interventions in the debate over the future of East Germany in the context of the critique of GDR society as described above. What appears to interest Hein most about the demonstrations of 1989 is the possibility that they might represent the re-emergence of a popular enthusiasm for a democratic form of socialism and thus a return of the kind of solidarity, encompassing both ordinary people and intellectuals, which the SED regime appeared to have stifled long ago in its determination to secure its exclusive hold on power. The re-emergence of this sense of common purpose, as Hein understands it, must be preserved against a possible take-over by a Western model of capitalist democracy. Thus, for Hein, the early phase of the East German revolution is not only an ‘Überwindung des Stalinismus’ (AK, 167), but equally the emergence of an alternative to the ‘Ellbogengesellschaft’ of the West (AK, 250), in which, according to Hein, the possibilities of solidarity remain limited to a great extent.

In the 1980s, Hein's critique of the West focused largely on an examination of the situation of intellectuals in the Federal Republic, especially in comparison with their counterparts in the East. For Hein, the subjugation of all values to the interests of profit, which he sees as characteristic of the capitalist system, necessarily leads to a ‘Ruin der Kultur,’ in which particularly literature becomes the victim of a ‘Bestseller-Mentalität’ (AK, 84–5). More seriously, however, the West German intellectual increasingly loses his ability to experience a genuine sense of solidarity with others. Hein accuses the disappointed ranks of the 1968 generation of having abandoned their collective belief in the possibility of a better world. They seek to make good this loss, Hein claims, by means of a localised engagement for a variety of disconnected causes which can be adopted or abandoned at will. As Hein writes in his 1983 review of Peter Sloterdijk's Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, the various issues which interest Western intellectuals of the Left are basically interchangeable, more a matter of fashion than of lasting and meaningful commitment:

Da war oder ist man für die Frauen und für die Sintis, für die Homosexuellen und gegen den Numerus clausus, für die französische Küche und die Abtreibung und gegen Gewalt, für den Wald und gegen ‘BILD,’ für den New York-Urlaub und gegen die Hundescheiβe.

(Öa, 147)

A similar attitude is evident in the behaviour of the West German academic Horst who appears briefly in Der fremde Freund. He seems capable of talking about any topic without ever giving any indication of being concerned personally with the issues at stake, which are reduced here to elements of the general party chatter:

Der Professor aus Bochum sprach über die Immanenzkritik der ‘Ökofreaks’ … Übergangslos sprach er dann von Sprachverschluderung und Amerikanismen. Er konnte offenbar über alles reden. Auf mich wirkte er wie eine Comicfigur, die beständig kleine runde Blasen vollspricht und sie dann irgendwohin segeln läβt.

(DfF, 90)

Hein understands his position as an intellectual in a socialist country very differently. He believes that he, in contrast with his Western colleagues, is still in a position to be able to experience and to demonstrate a genuine solidarity with those around the world who are struggling towards the goal of socialism. As Hein states in the essay quoted above: ‘Alle Probleme und Schwierigkeiten dieser Länder und meines Landes werden auch meine Probleme bleiben’ (Öa, 152). The subtext of this claim is clear: in the socialist state of the GDR, and in spite of the many deformations of the ideals of socialism which this regime represents, it still remains possible to partake in the hope for a more humane society, a hope which is shared by others, not just in the GDR but also in socialist countries around the world. In Hein's speeches and interviews around the time of the ‘Wende,’ the author consistently regards this potential for solidarity, which he projects onto the demonstrators of autumn 1989, as being under threat from the lure of Western consumer society.

Hein was far from alone among GDR intellectuals in regarding the ‘Wende,’ or perhaps more precisely that phase of the ‘Wende’ until the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the rebirth of a common faith in the possibility of creating a socialist society. Christa Wolf, for example, speaks in retrospect, of the ‘zum Ersticken dicht[en] Konsistenz unseres gemeinsamen Erwartungshorizonts’ during autumn 1989,22 but comes eventually to the conclusion that she and other intellectuals were mistaken in seeing the mass demonstrations against the SED regime as an expression of the collective desire to build a democratic form of socialism.23 Nor was it only the writers who placed a distinct emphasis on the need to preserve a sense of solidarity and common goals in the GDR after the revolution. The first programme of ‘Neues Forum,’ for example, speaks of the need for a new ‘Spielraum für wirtschaftliche Initiative, aber keine Entartung in die Ellbogengesellschaft. … Wir wollen freie Menschen, die doch gemeinschaftlich handeln.’ Similarly, groups such as ‘Demokratie Jetzt’ and ‘Demokratischer Aufbruch’ at this time still placed a distinct emphasis on defending the ‘Gemeinschaftswerte’ of socialism.24

Like so many aspects of the activities of GDR authors and intellectuals both before and during the ‘Wende,’ this faith on the part of some, including Hein, in the solidarity of the GDR population and their basic consensus for the building of a new socialism has inevitably attracted retrospective criticism. Bernd Hüppauf asserts, for example, that this belief rested on the misapprehension that a ‘verkappter sozialistischer Kern’ was concealed in the demonstrators' cries of ‘Wir sind das Volk!’25 Monika Maron, on the other hand, accuses her colleagues of having idealised the GDR as a site of mass solidarity, even though they themselves, she claims, often failed to support the victims of the SED regime.26 Nevertheless, and whatever the truth of the views which these writers and intellectuals held about the population of the GDR during these months, it is only possible to understand some of Hein's (in retrospect) more questionable statements when they are placed in the context of the assumptions described above.

For example, Hein's belief in the GDR as a bastion of solidarity and consensus leads him to denigrate those who choose to leave for the West, ascribing to them the egotism he regards as characteristic of a profit-driven capitalist society, whilst at the same time attributing to the East German security forces the desire for solidarity with the mass of the GDR population. Thus, in an interview at the beginning of November 1989, Hein claims that ‘die Leute, die jetzt noch gehen, nicht Reformen vermissen, sondern ein gröβeres Auto’ (AK, 128). Only shortly before this, on 28 October, Hein had called upon his audience in the ‘Erlöser-Kirche’ to see in the police and in the ‘Stasi’ possible allies who were suffering as a result of their alienation from the people:

Ich kann mir nicht vorstellen, daβ die Männer in den Sicherheitskräften über dieses Miβverhältnis wirklich glücklich sind, daβ sie vom Volk eben nicht geachtet werden und daβ das Volk durchaus nicht das Gefühl hat, es seien seine Schutzkräfte.

(AK, 173)

Whilst this statement may be understood as an attempt to calm a tense situation and thus to avoid any further violence on either side, it remains a strikingly positive view of the security forces, given that Hein's speech begins with explicit criticism of police brutality against protestors in Berlin on 7–8 October 1989. Indeed, less than a week later, the author became part of an independent commission investigating this violence.27 Hein may well be correct in suggesting that the ordinary policeman may be closer in sympathy to the demonstrators he is ordered to attack than to the ‘Befehlsgeber’ whom Hein sees as primarily responsible (AK, 172). Nonetheless, this assertion seems unusually generous when contrasted with his willingness to assume that those leaving the GDR for the West have only materialistic motives.

The leader of the SED and of the GDR regime, Erich Honecker, also gains Hein's sympathy when the latter interprets the elderly Head of State's actions in terms of affiliation to that same common socialist project which he also attributes to the protestors of the ‘Wende.’ In his speech at the now famous Alexanderplatz demonstration of 4 November, Hein reminded the crowd of the fate of Honecker, describing him as a former idealist whose dream of a true socialist society has become distorted by the circumstances of its realisation:

Und ich glaube, auch für diesen alten Mann ist unsere Gesellschaft keinesfalls die Erfüllung seines Traums. Selbst er, an der Spitze des Staates stehend und für ihn, für seine Erfolge, aber auch für seine Fehler, Versäumnisse und Verbrechen besonders verantwortlich, selbst er war den verkrusteten Strukturen gegenüber fast ohnmächtig.

(AK, 176)

Whilst Hein does not seek to exculpate Honecker, he does encourage his audience to sympathise with the old man as someone who shares a similar dream to their own. This perspective on Honecker is echoed in the short allegorical story “Kein Seeweg nach Indien,” originally published in English in Time in June 1990. Here the figure of ‘der groβe Kapitän’ who leads the search for utopia is ultimately shown as a tragic figure who, having lost touch with his ‘Vision,’ ‘ohne es zu bemerken oder sich einzugestehen,’ becomes a ‘hilflos[er], verängstigt[er] Greis’ when he finally realises what he has done.28 Hein's stance towards Honecker as the leader of the SED and of the GDR regime, whilst critical, is thus fundamentally positive in that he sees in the leader of the party a man who basically shares the ideals of those demonstrating against him, even if his attempts to put those ideals into practice have proved disastrous.

For Hein, the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig represented not only the positive expression of a new consensus amongst the population, but also a ‘fürchterliche Destabilisierung des Staates’ (AK, 176). The way out of this dangerous situation, as he sees it in one interview from 29 October 1989, is a political reform which would make the protests ‘überflüssig’ (AK, 176), presumably by taking measures to which the protestors can assent and thus re-establishing a consensus between the people and the state. However, it is not merely the GDR state itself which is in peril due to the gulf which has opened up between the policies of its rulers and the ideals of its citizens, but also that ‘Konsens für eine sozialistische Gesellschaft’ (AK, 205) which Hein interprets as being central to the demonstrations of the ‘Wende.’ If this consensus cannot be extended to encompass the politicians who run the state as well as the people on the streets, then it will, Hein fears, be broken down by the temptations of the capitalist West: ‘Der grelle Unterschied in der Wirtschaft, dem Konsumangebot und in der Währung wird wieder eine bedrohliche Gefahr für das Land und den Staat’ (AK, 187).

It is clear that Hein's ideal is the reformulation of the common ‘Vision’ of socialism, not its abandonment in favour of the extreme individualism and materialism he sees in the capitalist system. Hein's play Die Ritter der Tafelrunde (originally written circa 1986,29 but widely produced during 1989 and 1990) can be read as an allegory of the process of renewal which Hein hopes to see become a reality during the ‘Wende.’ Artus, as leader of the Knights in their utopian quest for the Grail, has reached a point where he must admit that their methods are no longer appropriate to the world they now find themselves in. However, this does not mean that the quest for the Grail is per se a failed enterprise. As Artus states, ‘wenn der Gral für uns unerreichbar wurde, müssen wir nach anderen, nie gesehenen Wegen suchen, um zu ihm zu gelangen’ (RT, 191). Indeed, the search for the Grail is an essential aspect of the human condition: ‘Solange Menschen leben, werden sie auf der Suche nach dem Gral sein’ (RT, 181). This continued quest must, therefore, now be handed over to a new generation in the shape of Artus's son, Mordret. However, the son's destruction of his father's ideals does not automatically imply that this new generation will live without common goals: instead, they will find ‘ein[en] neu[en], ein[en] ander[en] Weg’ (RT, 193) which, by implication, will have the same power to bind together those involved in this common project as did the old means of seeking the Grail for Artus's knights.30 It is for this reason that Artus can accept his son's destruction of all he has held dear, despite the fear that this process inspires in him.

As Niven observes, Die Ritter der Tafelrunde is thus prescriptive rather than prophetic, portraying the transfer of power from the ideals of one generation to those of another, as Hein hoped it would come about in the GDR.31 The necessity of these new ideals, or new ways to search for the Grail of a better society, is made clear in the experiences of those figures in the play who have lost their faith in the old order. Mordret becomes the victim of a debilitating sense of meaninglessness,32 and even Jeschute, who remains distant from the ideology of her husband Orilus, is disturbed to think that the Knights too are beginning to have their doubts: ‘Es war so angenehm zu wissen, daβ wenigstens ihr sicher seid. … Plötzlich tut sich ein Loch auf, riesig and bodenlos, and wir werden fallen and fallen and fallen’ (RT, 178–9). Interestingly, it is in taking up his father's challenge to assume power and find a new way to the Grail that Mordret becomes able to act decisively, recalling the determination of the young woman in Der Tangospieler whom I have already compared with the immobilised Dallow. Thus it can be said that, on the evidence of texts such as Der fremde Freund, Der Tangospieler and Die Ritter der Tafelrunde, Christoph Hein sees it as essential for the existential well-being of individuals that they be able to identify with shared values or goals, which, in turn, allow them to experience their lives as meaningful and purposeful, rather than as a directionless and undifferentiated passing of time.

Hein's assessment of the actual historical result of the process of revision and renewal, which he describes in ideal terms in Die Ritter der Tafelrunde, is to be found in his one-act sequel to the play, In Acht and Bann. This text was commissioned by the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar as part of an evening on the theme ‘Deutschland zehn Jahre nach dem Mauerfall,’ and was premiered in April 1999. Here the hardliners of Die Ritter der Tafelrunde are still trapped in their illusion of being the rightful leaders of the people, even though they now languish in jail, and hold daily cabinet meetings for a shadow government. Artus, however, is disappointed to find that the new path to the Grail, which he believed would necessarily be produced by Mordret and his generation, has failed to materialise. Mordret has become a follower of the old enemy Klingsor, who can be easily interpreted as being representative of the Western capitalist system, and the only alternative which the youth of the nation has to offer is represented by the ‘Junge Ritter,’ a group who want to free Artus and place him back on the throne. As Artus's repeated complaint that his son no longer talks to him indicates, the old king still harbours hopes that a dialogue might be possible between the representatives of the old way of seeking the Grail and Mordret's generation (AB, 120–4). Artus still clearly represents the point of view that his means of striving for the Grail have failed, but he is disturbed to see that the utopian project has not been reformulated.

If the demise of the Round Table and the end of the SED dictatorship represent the opportunity for establishing a new meaning-giving consensus, then capitalism, as Hein portrays it, is not capable of meeting this challenge. The consequences of this state of affairs are described, for example, in Hein's first major prose work of the 1990s, Das Napoleon-Spiel (1993), in which the cynical West German narrator distinguishes between those he considers to be ‘Knechte’ and ‘Spieler’ like himself. The former are characterised, he claims, by their need for ‘unerschütterliche Werte, eindeutige Handlungsanweisungen and eine Moral’ which help to create what Wörle describes as a ‘durchaus angenehmes Paradies’ (NS, 50). He regards himself as being disillusioned enough to recognize the fragility of the values which the ‘Knechte’ believe to be unshakable, and consequently avoids identifying himself with any of the meaning-giving projects or world views which society places on offer. Wörle's wariness in this respect can be traced back to his childhood, in which he saw the collapse of the ordered world of his home town at the end of the Second World War, losing, like Dallow in Der Tangospieler, those certainties which he assumed would dominate his future life.33 The death of his mother, who is unable to bear the loss of her role as a lady of Stettin society, provides a further example of the pitfalls of identifying oneself with the roles placed on offer by a particular society, roles whose stability is merely an illusion.

Wörle extricates himself from what he sees as the dangers of such identification by moving without commitment from game to game, using other human beings like billiard balls to achieve the game-playing objectives he sets for himself. However, it soon becomes clear to the reader that these games nevertheless function as a ‘Mittelpunkt’ in Wörle's life (NS, 82), offering him ‘eiserne Regeln’ (NS, 175) which belie his claim to act in complete freedom. Wörle thus does in fact seem to need some kind of project or goal to which he can dedicate himself, yet believes himself to live in a world in which the permanent adoption of any such means of giving structure and purpose to one's existence is inherently dangerous. However, without his game he becomes the victim of a ‘Gefühl der Leere’ and of a ‘Sinnlosigkeit’ (NS, 97), reminiscent of that identifiable in Hein's GDR protagonists. This experience of meaninglessness may be understood, I would suggest, as the result of a Western capitalist society in which the projects placed on offer to the individual in order to help make sense of his or her life are recognised as being essentially temporary and unstable, a vision which is echoed in Hein's opening speech to the 1994 Frankfurt Book Fair. The modern market economy, Hein asserts, demands from the individual, that s/he show him or herself to be endlessly adaptable in order to meet the demands of the market and to abandon old positions and world-views on demand. In such a society, no-one can afford to become too attached to ‘eine einzige Identität’ (MJ, 57).

Whilst Das Napoleon-Spiel does not offer a solution to Wörle's condition, it might be suggested, in the context of Hein's comments on capitalism and the ‘Wende,’ that the author would propose a set of durable common ideals, possibly framed in terms of a belief in progress towards socialism, as a means of escaping that ‘Lebensleere’ which Wörle experiences. As Hein's interview with Günter Gaus in March 1990 shows, the author regards socialism, defined broadly as ‘die Hoffnung auf eine menschliche Gesellschaft,’34 as a transhistorical ideal which survives the catastrophes associated with it (for example, the end of the Prague Spring): ‘Ich werde meine Meinung nicht ändern, weil irgend etwas verlorengegangen ist oder irgend etwas gesiegt hat. Da will ich bei mir bleiben.’35 Similarly, in his acceptance speech for the Erich Fried Prize, Hein speaks of the rebirth of the ideal of a socialist society after the demise of one of its failed manifestations, thereby insisting again on the survival of this principle in spite of historical events.36

The continued relevance of this ideal is given further expression in the story “Ein älterer Herr, federleicht,” written, according to Andrea Hilbk, in 1990.37 As in “Moses Tod,” Hein takes up a biblical theme, in this case the story of Noah, yet anachronistically places the legendary figure in contemporary Berlin: whereas the Noah of the Bible dies in the pre-Christian world at the age of 950, his counterpart in Hein's text dies (or appears to die) at the same age in a recognisably modern, and implicitly post-Unification setting. Hein's Noah, who is discovered alone in his run-down flat by a group of young squatters (one of whom takes it upon herself to look after him), differs from the biblical model in that he is disillusioned with God's attempt to create a just order on the earth for Noah's descendants. The flood is compared to an ‘Erziehungsmaβnahme’ or a deadly punishment by means of which God sought, foolishly according to Noah, ‘die Menschen … zu bessern’ (EK, 187), thus perhaps hinting at a parallel between the deity's attempts to force people into following his laws and the efforts of socialist regimes, such as that of the GDR, to improve society through an authoritarian form of education.

Noah's cynicism at the possibility of improving human society brings him close to the figure of Wörle, whose disparaging comments on the Enlightenment Noah echoes in describing God as a ‘Wahnsinnigen, der die Welt nicht kennt’ (EK, 187; compare NS, 76). Noah's unexplained first appearance holding a billiard cue, Wörle's chosen murder weapon in Das Napoleon-Spiel, is perhaps a further playful intertextual reference. Yet, in spite of his own disillusionment, Noah still functions as a symbol for an ideal of harmony and justice on earth which will not die, even when the chances of its realisation in history seem at their most remote. As in Die Ritter der Tafelrunde, a younger generation appears to move in to occupy the space once dominated by the utopian idea: Noah's young friend Barbara clears out Noah's flat after his death and makes it her own, just as Mordret plans to put the Round Table in a museum in order to make room for ‘Luft zum Atmen’ (RT, 193). However, despite his apparent disappearance, Noah's ghost remains in the flat, as a visiting social security official discovers, even though Barbara does not seem to be aware of his continued presence. In this way, Hein shows the extinction of one failed manifestation of the belief in human progress towards a more just society, and a contemporary world which remains indifferent to this project, whilst at the same time hinting that this same ideal will nevertheless survive in some form and return to play a role in the lives of a new generation. Thus, whilst in Das Napoleon-Spiel history teaches Wörle to recognize the fragility and transience of human ideas about the world, Hein appears to hold fast to a hope for the future which attempts to make sense of human history, offers the possibility of commitment in the name of a shared cause, and which remains resilient in the face of historical change.

Since Das Napoleon-Spiel, which suffered perhaps the harshest critical reception of any of Hein's works, there has been some indication that Hein has, if not revised his view of the West, then at least suspended some of those judgements which are evident in his first post-‘Wende’ novel. In his recent Von allem Anfang an (1997), Hein returns to a familiar GDR setting (reminiscent of the Bad Guldenberg of Horns Ende), and examines the position of Daniel, a young boy who, not unlike Claudia and Katharina, is caught between the competing ideologies of Christianity and Marxism in the East Germany of the 1950s. Here, however, the central figure displays none of Claudia's desire to find solidarity with others through the acceptance of one of the world-views placed on offer to her; indeed, Daniel's only goal is to escape to West Berlin, a city onto which he projects the fantasy of a detached individuality, and where he believes that citizens live their lives indifferent to the fates of their fellow human beings. Daniel's aim is not ‘Gemeinsamkeit,’ as is the case for the young Claudia, but rather a detached ‘Gelassenheit,’ a quality which he discovers in the inhabitants of West Berlin, in his hero, the trapeze artist Kade, and in the image of St. Luke in his father's church.

In one scene in Von allem Anfang an, in which Daniel and his family, whilst visiting West Berlin, witness news of the 1956 invasion of Hungary by Soviet forces, Daniel's attitude is contrasted with that of his father. Daniel is most impressed by the technical device, a ‘Leuchtschrift’ which delivers the information, and by the seeming indifference of the West Berliners to these far-away events:

Verwundert beobachtete ich die anderen Gäste des Cafés. Sie warfen nur gelegentlich einen Blick auf die Leuchtschrift and beobachteten offensichtlich weder die Nachrichten noch die Werbung. … Diese Gelassenheit beeindruckte mich.

(VA, 185)

Here the reader may recognize parallels with that portrait of the Westerner which emerges from Hein's essay on Sloterdijk: neither the news of far-off struggles for freedom, nor the advertisements with which capitalism bombards them seem to affect the West Berliners, whereas Daniel's father, as an East German citizen, although by no means an uncritical one, can still talk about the importance of the Hungarian uprising for his own life and for the future of his country. Nevertheless, in this case the contrast between East and West is relativised. Daniel's limited, childish, often ill-informed perspective, from which the adult narrator derives a good deal of comic effect, implicitly calls into question this view of capitalist society. Yet equally, Hein's novel stops short of telling the reader about Daniel's experiences once he finally leaves for West Berlin. Thus, Daniel's youthful perceptions are neither confirmed nor contradicted within the text, allowing the reader the freedom to decide to what extent Daniel's anticipations about life under capitalism will be fulfilled.

The open-ended nature of this text in comparison with Das Napoleon-Spiel is also clear in relation to the issue of ideology. Daniel wants to escape from a society in which he is encouraged to choose between two world-views, neither of which he finds particularly appealing. Once he has made his way to West Berlin, however, the reader is given no indication as to how Daniel copes with the absence of any such shared values, or if, indeed, his interpretation of the capitalist West proves to be accurate in this respect. What is interesting, however, is that Daniel's position in limbo between these two ideologies, and his inability to find any group whose values he can identify with, is not portrayed as leading to a sense of meaninglessness. In fact, the clear purpose which Daniel is able to formulate and act upon is that of maintaining this detachment from such groups by leaving the GDR for his idealised West Berlin. This represents a distinct shift in Hein's assessment of the importance of common goals and ideals, in which their existential necessity for the individual is called into question, although not yet necessarily denied.

This reassessment is taken a step further in the one-act play Himmel auf Erden (1999), which deals with the situation of former East German citizens in the contemporary Federal Republic. The title obviously recalls “Moses Tod,” but here the ‘heaven on earth’ offered to the Israelites materialises in the form of an over-priced bar with ‘exotic’ dancers. If there is a sense of purpose to the lives of Horst and Heinz, the central figures of this play, it is formulated only in terms of the quest for physical gratification through alcohol or sex at the end of the working day. Capitalism is portrayed as providing many opportunities in this respect, yet every individual is, of course, limited to finding his or her own ‘Himmel auf Erden’ to suit his or her limited financial means. Thus Heinz leaves the expensive bar to hire a cheaper pornographic video, creating a cut-price ‘heaven on earth’ in his own home. Hein's complaint from “Moses Tod” against societies (socialist or capitalist) which reduce human life to the satisfaction of immediate material desires rather than allowing their members to participate in common goals and values is still in evidence here, yet it is significant that this state of affairs is not seen as producing a sense of meaninglessness amongst the individuals affected. Heinz is disgruntled at the overpriced entertainment on offer in the bar ‘Himmel auf Erden,’ yet quite content with the less costly idyll he chooses for himself at home. Whilst the audience is left in little doubt that this ‘heaven on earth’ is merely a tawdry substitute which fails to point forward to a more genuine utopia, the individuals portrayed here find in capitalist society the means to live a subjectively satisfying and meaningful life in the absence of any such collective project. Thus, in this text, Hein seems to recognize the efficacy of those material compensations which capitalism employs in order to make good the absence of that ‘gemeinsame Idee’ which he has so often seen as essential for the well-being of the individual.


  1. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

  2. See, for example, Christian Joppke, East German Dissidents and the Revolution of 1989. Social Movements in a Leninist Regime (Houndsmill: Macmillan, 1995).

  3. Rolf Jucker, ‘Zur Kritik der real existierenden Utopie des Status quo,’ in Zeitgenössische Utopieentwürfe in Literatur und Gesellschaft. Zur Kontroverse seit den achtziger Jahren, ed. Rolf Jucker (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997), pp. 13–78.

  4. Klaus Schlesinger, Fliegender Wechsel. Eine persönliche Chronik (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1990). See also Daniela Dahn, Westwärts und nicht vergessen. Vom Unbehagen in der Einheit (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 1997).

  5. Wolf Biermann, Über das Geld und andere Herzensdinge. Prosaische Versuche über Deutschland (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1991), p. 42. Volker Braun, Wir befinden uns soweit wohl. Wir sind erst einmal am Ende. Äuβerungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), p. 26.

  6. Christoph Hein, Die Mauern von Jerichow Essais und Reden (Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch, 1996) p. 57. See also Heinz Klunker, ‘“Mut zur eigenen Verantwortung”: Ein Gespräch mit Christoph Hein,’ Deutschland Archiv 7 (1990), 1144–7 (1147): ‘daβ Veränderungen sich auch weiter selber verändern werden, das ist völlig klar, wir sind an gar keinem Schluβpunkt.’ In the rest of this article, works by Christoph Hein will be referred to in the text using the following abbreviations and the relevant page number(s) in parentheses: AB = ‘In Acht und Bann. Komödie in einem Akt,’ in Bruch, In Acht und Bann, Zaungäste, Himmel auf Erden. Stücke (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1999), pp. 85–127; AK = Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen. Essais und Reden (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1992); EK = Exekution eines Kalbes und andere Erzählungen (Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch, 1996); DfF = Der fremde Freund. Novelle (Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch, 1996); MJ = Die Mauern von Jerichow (see above); NS = Das Napoleon-Spiel. Ein Roman (Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch, 1995); Öa = Öffentlich arbeiten. Essais und Gespräche (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1987); RT = Die Ritter der Tafelrunde, in Die Ritter der Tafelrunde und andere Stücke (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1990), pp. 131–93; Sch = Schlötel, oder Was solls. Eine Komödie, in Cromwell und andere Stücke (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1981), pp. 161–224; T = Der Tangospieler. Eine Erzählung (Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch, 1995); VA = Von allem Anfang an (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1998).

  7. On this point, see Rolf Reiβig, ‘Das Scheitern der DDR und des realsozialistischen Systems—Einige Ursachen und Folgen,’ in Der Zusammenbruch der DDR. Soziologische Analysen, ed. Hans Joas and Martin Kohli (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1993), pp. 49–69 (pp. 51–4).

  8. Mathias Wedel also compares Kohl to Moses, especially in relation to a slogan reportedly addressed by a crowd of East Germans to the then Federal Chancellor in the run-up to unification: ‘Helmut, nimm uns an der Hand, und führ uns in das Wirtschaftswunderland.’ See Mathias Wedel, Einheitsfrust (Berlin: Rowohlt, 1994), p. 51.

  9. Dennis Tate, The East German Novel (Bath: Bath University Press, 1984).

  10. For further information on Hein's biography, see Phillip McKnight, Understanding Christoph Hein (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995) and Chronist ohne Botschaft. Christoph Hein. Ein Arbeitsbuch. Materialien, Auskünfte, Bibliographie, ed. Klaus Hammer (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1992), pp. 263–7.

  11. Christoph Hein, ‘“Ich hielte gern Friede und Ruhe, aber der Narr will nicht.” Über Politik und Intellektuelle,’ Freitag, 8 March 1996, pp. 9–10 (p. 9).

  12. Christoph Hein, Vom hungrigen Hennecke. Ein Kinderspiel (unpublished typescript produced by Henschel Verlag, Berlin, 1974), pp. 17–8.

  13. On this point, see, for example, Thomas Neumann, Die Maβnahme. Eine Herrschaftsgeschichte der DDR (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 1991), pp. 8 and 79.

  14. Die Verfassung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Berlin: VEB Deutscher Zentralverlag, 1953), p. 46.

  15. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, new edn. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), pp. 323–4.

  16. ‘Er befürchtete, die Kleine könnte in Berlin irgend etwas anstellen, das gefährlich für sie wäre’ (T, 199).

  17. Eckhardt Thiele, ‘Engagiert—wofür? Zu Christoph Heins öffentlichen Erklärungen nach der “Wende” in der DDR,’ Text + Kritik. Christoph Hein (Munich: edition text + kritik, 1991), pp. 74–80 (p. 79).

  18. ‘Engagiert—wofür?’ p. 75.

  19. ‘Engagiert—wofür?’ p. 74.

  20. Reinhard Andress, ‘Christoph Heins Weg durch den Herbst 1989,’ in Chronist ohne Botschaft, pp. 158–71 (p. 166). On this point, see also Frauke Meyer-Gosau, ‘Christoph Hein, Politiker,’ in Chronist ohne Botschaft, pp. 173–83 (p. 179) and William J. Niven, ‘“Das Geld ist nicht der Gral”: Christoph Hein and the Wende,’ Modern Language Review 90.3 (1995), 688–706 (692–3).

  21. Niven, ‘“Das Geld ist nicht der Gral”,’ 693–5.

  22. Christa Wolf, ‘Woserin, Freitag, den 27. September 1991,’ in Auf dem Weg nach Tabou. Texte 1990–1994 (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1994), pp. 93–114 (p. 108).

  23. Christa Wolf, ‘Zwischenrede,’ in Auf dem Weg nach Tabou, pp. 17–22 (pp. 18–9).

  24. All quoted from Ehrhardt Neubert, Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR 1949–1989, 2nd edn (Berlin: Links, 1998), pp. 836–40.

  25. Bernd Hüppauf, ‘Moral der Sprache: DDR-Literatur vor der Moderne,’ in Literatur in der DDR. Rückblicke, ed. Frauke Meyer-Gosau (Munich: edition text + kritik, 1991), pp. 220–31 (p. 226).

  26. Monika Maron, ‘Das neue Elend der Intellektuellen,’ in Nach Maβgabe meiner Begreifungskraft. Artikel und Essays (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1993), pp. 80–90 (pp. 86–7).

  27. The commission's investigation is documented in Und diese verdammte Ohnmacht. Report der Untersuchungskommission zu den Ereignissen vom 7./8. Oktober 1989 in Berlin, ed. Daniela Dahn and Fritz-Jochen Kopka (Berlin: Basisdruck, 1991).

  28. Christoph Hein, ‘Kein Seeweg nach Indien,’ in Christoph Hein. Texte, Daten, Bilder, ed. Lothar Baier (Frankfurt am Main: Luchterhand, 1990), pp. 13–19 (pp. 15–16).

  29. See Günther Gaus, ‘Christoph Hein: Gespräch vom 14. März 1990,’ in Gaus, Deutsche Zwischentöne. Gesprächsporträts aus der DDR (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1990), pp. 95–114 (p. 114).

  30. Thus, for Anthony Meech, the play represents a sympathetic approach to doctrine on Hein's part. Meech, ‘Christoph Hein: “Engagement” in the German Democratic Republic,’ Contemporary Theatre Review 4.2 (1995), 71–7 (77).

  31. Bill Niven, ‘A play about socialism? The reception of Christoph Hein's Die Ritter der Tafelrunde,’ in Whose Story?—Continuities in Contemporary German-language Literature, ed. Arthur Williams and Stuart Parkes (Bern: Lang, 1998), pp. 197–218 (p. 215).

  32. ‘Ich bin wie gelähmt,’ Mordret complains at one point, ‘Ich verabscheue euch. Aber weit noch mehr verabscheue ich mich, weil ich meine Jahre, das biβchen Zeit, das ich habe, hier vergeude’ (RT, 178–9).

  33. These certainties include his inheritance of the family firm, his marriage to a local girl and even his sexual initiation by the female workers at his father's factory (NS, 15–6 and 25–6).

  34. Günter Gaus, ‘Christoph Hein,’ p. 111.

  35. Günter Gaus, ‘Christoph Hein,’ p. 101.

  36. ‘Erst mit dem Tod eines todeswürdigen Systems können seine Vorstellungen von einer menschlicheren Gesellschaft aufblühen and wiedergeboren werden’ (MJ, 53).

  37. Hilbk cites a letter from Hein as the source of this date. Andrea Hilbk, Von Zirkularbewegungen and kreisenden Utopien. Zur Geschichtsdarstellung in der Epik Christoph Heins (Augsburg: Wiβner, 1998), p. 114.

Owen Evans (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3025

SOURCE: Evans, Owen. “Hope for the Future? Günter de Bruyn's Neue Herrlichkeit and Christoph Hein's Der Tangospieler.” In Christoph Hein in Perspective, edited by Graham Jackman, pp. 77–94. Atlanta, Georgia: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Evans examines the character Dallow in Der Tangospieler as a victim of his own apathy, who has remained unchanged despite his imprisonment.]

Christoph Hein's Der Tangospieler1 provides further insight into social stagnation in the GDR and in the process reveals certain parallels with Neue Herrlichkeit. Published in 1989, the text focuses on Hans-Peter Dallow, like Viktor very much an anti-hero; but whereas Kösling's family background is privileged, Dallow comes from farming stock. At the novel's outset, Dallow has just been released from prison, having served a twenty-one-month sentence. He played the piano at a student cabaret, and the text of the tango that was performed had poked fun at Ulbricht. On his release, Dallow cuts a sad figure; his fingers are stiff, symbolising his inner stasis, and it appears as if prison has drained him physically and mentally. But the initial impression is misleading, as gradually becomes clear. Dallow remains detached and aloof throughout the novel, seldom becomes agitated and is indifferent to almost everything around him. We learn that as a child he entertained dreams and desires ‘die ihn auf den Flügeln seiner Tagträumerein, angeregt von den aus der Gemeindebibliothek entliehenen Büchern, immer wieder aus dem kleinen Nest trugen in versunkene Zeiten und reiche glückliche Welten’ (DT, 64), but as soon as he had left home he adopted a more pragmatic approach to his life. He was content to carry out his work mechanically. As a university lecturer in history he had discharged his seminars with ‘müde Herablassung’ and ‘Verachtung’ and endured ‘die sich jedes Jahr wiederholenden Fragen der Studenten’ (DT, 32). When he recalls the students' ‘gläubige Bekundungen einer noch ungekränkten Hoffnung’ (DT, 32), it is evident that Dallow had been suffering from cynicism long before his arrest. Indeed, it is on account of his complete indifference that he had ended up in prison: he could have read the controversial text of the tango but opted not to. In this way he is as much a victim of his own attitude as of the State, a fact which militates against our extending him much sympathy.

Dallow's release could offer him the opportunity to take stock of his situation and to make a new beginning. In reality though, Dallow has changed little, if at all, in much the same way that Leipzig seems not to have altered during his imprisonment:

[Dallow] suchte nach Veränderungen, er wollte nach der langen Zeit seiner Abwesenheit das Bild der ihm vertrauten Wohngegend korrigieren, wo es notwendig war. Es fiel ihm jedoch nichts Ungewöhnliches auf, alles schien unverändert.

(DT, 9)

The lethargy which characterised his life before prison continues. Seemingly, he has only missed his car and women. On his return to Leipzig, therefore, he lovingly tends to his car and regularly spends evenings in bars and sleeps with women he meets there. His refusal to cooperate with the Stasi men, wonderfully named Müller and Schulze, might be deemed exemplary, were it not for his total lack of interest in cooperating with anyone—he opts instead to wallow in self-pity. Although Sebastian in Neue Herrlichkeit ought not to be seen as a model nonconformist, his decision was the product of much consideration and he does indeed offer a degree of resistance. Dallow's attitude, by contrast, is essentially negative and unproductive. Initially, he refuses even to entertain the thought of working at all, then tries to get himself hired as a lorry driver. The idea of assuming responsibility for his parents' farm is rejected outright, as is a return to his former university position. When he finally takes a job as a waiter on Hiddensee, it is only in response to threats from the State. Generally, Dallow seems happy to endure a boring life despite a growing sense of unease—a harsh assessment, perhaps, of a victim of the system, yet Dallow's lack of direction and refusal to assume responsibility for his life are presented to us as inexcusable. Juxtaposed with the dynamic events in Prague, which constitute a true rebellion, Dallow's behaviour suffers by comparison and cannot be interpreted as meaningful resistance.

Just as in Neue Herrlichkeit, the readers encounter a bleak portrayal of human relationships in Hein's novel. Dallow treats everyone with the same mixture of cynicism and disinterest with which he appraises his own position. He professes to favour ‘flüchtige Frauenbekanntschaften’ free of any talk of further rendezvous:

Es ist einfach wegzugehen … wenn man nur auf Worte verzichtet. Worte komplizieren den einfachsten Sachverhalt und erklären letztlich auch nichts. Und [Dallow] war zufrieden, auf eine ihm so angenehme und angemessene Weise die Probleme lösen zu können oder vielmehr, nicht auf sie eingehen zu müssen.

(DT, 57)

It is precisely this attitude that renders Dallow so unsympathetic. He wishes to remain aloof and is unwilling to expend time and effort on developing meaningful relationships:

Dallow haβte Komplikationen. Ein Verhältnis zu einem Mädchen sollte ohne lange Erklärungen und ständige, sich wiederholende Beteuerungen auskommen, doch eben auf diese endlos rotierenden Gespräche wollte nach Dallows Erfahrungen keine Frau verzichten.

… Dallow empfand seine Haltung Frauen gegenüber von einer ihn selbst erschreckenden Vernunft geprägt.

(DT, 156)

He may be disturbed by his detachment on occasion, but it does not alter his behaviour. On Hiddensee he is amused to be considered as a ‘möbliertes Zimmer mit Herrn,’ as numerous girls seeking accommodation on the small island find a bed with Dallow. Apart from such hollow arrangements, Dallow avoids making friends. Indeed, he has no close friends to speak of in the novel. Harry, the waiter who helps him land the job on Hiddensee, is merely someone he chats to in the bar. His dealings with Roessler, a former colleague at the university, are underpinned by mutual antipathy, and the evening spent with his acquaintances, the Stämmlers, is excruciating for all concerned. His relationship with his parents, especially his father, is equally strained. It does not even occur to him to inform his parents of his release, and the indications are that the relationship has always been rather awkward, hence his proclivity as a child to daydream and the desire to escape his rural background. Once more, the evidence corroborates the suggestion that his imprisonment has effected no change of heart in Dallow, despite having given him ample opportunity to re-evaluate his lot.

The most closely scrutinised relationship in the text is that between Dallow and Elke, the single mother, and the examination intimates the extent to which it was hard for people in the GDR to establish trust. Elke, like Dallow, is careful to avoid complications, and even though she is a little less cynical in general than her lover, she remains cautious of him throughout. In this regard, their liaison is much more tense than that between Viktor and Thilde. In Der Tangospieler, the lovers meet in a pub, where both had gone in search of a sexual partner. When Elke and Dallow sleep together, the description is brutal, and the sexual act is chiefly a matter of self-gratification:

Er drehte ihren Körper, griff nach ihren Brüsten und Füβen, preβte seine Brust zwischen ihre Schenkel und seinem Kopf an ihren Hintern, drückte mit seinen Beinen ihren Kopf und Oberkörper fest gegen die Matratze, um ihre Bewegungen deutlicher und kräftiger zu spüren. Er warf sie, ohne es wahrzunehmen, gegen die Wand und den Schrank, und er hörte weder das dumpfe und nachhallende Geräusch noch ihr leises Aufstöhnen. … Als sie von ihm ablieβ, warf er sich auf den Rücken. Sie atmete heftig und mit geschlossenen Augen. Dann öffnete sie die Augen, stützte sich auf, sah ihn an und sagte: ‘Jessesmaria, ich glaube, du hast mir eine Rippe gebrochen.’ Dallow rieb sich die schnell verfärbende Biβstelle an seiner Hand und erwiderte: ‘Ich hoffe es, mein Mädchen, denn zu dir ins Bett kann man nur mit einem Beiβring kommen.’

(DT, 103)

It becomes clear subsequently that Elke would be prepared to establish a more stable relationship if the circumstances were right, but she values her independence and has long been used to supporting herself and her daughter. When Dallow finally suggests cohabitation, she turns him down on the grounds that she has already experienced ‘wie schwer es ist, miteinander zu leben’ (DT, 147). On this occasion, then, it is Elke who wishes to keep her distance from Dallow, where previously in the novel it is he who has remained aloof. She never tells Dallow about Rudolf, the man who sends her the telegram which Dallow steams open and reads; the attitude of both here typifies the lack of trust which exists between them. Although a degree of stability is attained in the relationship, intimacy and trust are conspicuous by their absence. That Elke should gradually become irritated with Dallow's refusal to rebuild his career is only to be expected when one considers her social situation and the self-sufficiency she values. The nadir is reached at a party when Elke finds Dallow's denial of any interest in news from Prague ‘unverschämt’:

‘Du bist rücksichtslos und selbstgerecht … Keiner von denen hier hat dich ins Gefängnis gebracht. Auch ich nicht.’

[Elke] sprach so leise, daβ Dallow den Eindruck hatte, sie spreche mit sich selbst.

‘Das habe ich nie gesagt,’ widersprach ihr Dallow heftig.

‘Aber du benimmst dich so. Und nicht nur heute abend.’

(DT, 161)

Dallow's relocation to Hiddensee results in the eventual collapse of their relationship. Elke pointedly rejects invitations to visit him, and at the conclusion of the novel, once Dallow's life has resumed its former course, it seems unlikely that Elke will play any further role in it.

Whereas de Bruyn was concerned in Neue Herrlichkeit with historical parallels between the GDR of the 1980s and Prussia, Hein adopts an equally telling contrastive perspective by choosing the events of the ‘Prague Spring’ as his background to Der Tangospieler. While Viktor, the supposed Prussian expert, is constantly surrounded by things Prussian, Dallow, a specialist in the origins of the workers' movement in the nineteenth century, with especial interest in developments in Prague at that time, cannot escape news reports of Dubãek's efforts to introduce reforms, or discussions about the events unfolding in Prague. He avers that he has no opinion on the matter, to the surprise of some and the scepticism of others:

Einer der Männer erkundigte sich nach Dallows Ansichten und fragte, ob er Dubãek Chancen einräume, politisch zu überleben. ‘Ich habe keine Ahnung,’ antwortete ihm Dallow, ‘und es interessiert mich nicht.’

Er sagte es freundlich und betont liebenswürdig, aber das Gespräch verstummte, und alle sahen zu ihm.

‘Das kann nicht Ihr Ernst sein,’ sagte der Mann, der ihn angesprochen hatte. ‘In diesem Fall wären Sie der einzige Mensch in diesem Land, den die Ereignisse in Prag nicht beschäftigen. So oder so ist doch da jeder engagiert.’

(DT, 158–9)

Although both texts in the present survey exploit contrasting historical material to expose the social weaknesses of the contemporary GDR, Hein's more direct allusion to an awkward, and not too far-removed, historical phenomenon is without doubt the more effective; one can scarcely dispute that the ‘Prague Spring’ occurred, nor that the GDR regime supported the resultant military suppression in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Moreover, Der Tangospieler gained additional resonance following its publication in 1989, when Leipzig became the ‘Heldenstadt’ of the GDR, according to Hein, in the autumn of that same year and was the scene of demonstrations in support of democratic reform strongly reminiscent of Prague.2 With hindsight, Der Tangospieler appears especially prescient.

An assertion frequently advanced in the novel is that the GDR is ‘ein Stück weitergekommen’ (DT, 36–7) since Dallow's arrest. The once contentious tango is now acceptable, but this would appear to be the only evidence of a more liberal social climate. That Dallow should return to his old job, without apparently having learnt anything meaningful from his experiences, indicates that business will continue as usual in GDR. After a brief derailment ‘[würde] die Spielzeuglokomotive, die kleine Modelleisenbahn mit dem Namen Hans-Peter Dallow unaufhörlich ihr geradliniges und dennoch kreisförmiges Gleis abfahren’ (DT, 111). Moreover, that the GDR played a role in the suppression of a more humane socialism in Prague undermines the validity of any claim to social progress made by the likes of Roessler or Müller and Schulze. On the contrary, the State is prepared to maintain its reactionary course. With his gaze focused firmly on the GDR present, Hein asks rhetorically in Der Tangospieler whether the GDR has actually made any progress in the interim, since 1968 that is, and whether the lessons from history have been truly digested.

Günter de Bruyn readily concedes in the second volume of his autobiography, Vierzig Jahre, that he had abandoned all hope of reform in the GDR by the 1980s. The ban imposed on Neue Herrlichkeit merely offered further confirmation of the GDR's parlous condition and did not upset the author unduly:

Kompromisse wollte ich mir fortan nichr mehr gestatten. Als mir ein DDR-Leser wenig später vorwurfsvoll sagte, er habe die Neue Herrlichkeit wie das Buch eines Autors gelesen, der der DDR schon Ade gesagt habe und ihr keine Chancen mehr gebe, stimmte ich ihm erfreut zu.3

It is little wonder, therefore, that the search for hopeful signs in the novel proves fruitless. The narrator intrudes continually and exerts an inescapably strong influence on the readers to view the GDR from his pessimistic vantage point. The sole figure to defend the cause of hope is the minor character, Frau Bahr, who advises Thilde, ‘man dürfe die Hoffnung nicht aufgeben, man müsse sie immer bewahren; denn sei es mit der Hoffnung erst aus, sei alles schon aus’ (NH, 214). Unfortunately the lonely old woman in no way serves as a reliable or convincing champion of optimism, nor should she be seen as a porte-parole of the author; she waves at every aeroplane that flies over her house, hoping desperately that it might be piloted by her husband, a Luftwaffe officer who went missing during the Second World War. The irony is unmissable, and there is no trace of hope for a happy resolution to this particular story.4

The narrator in Der Tangospieler, by contrast, is rather reserved and manipulates his material like a dramatist without direct mediation or disruptive rhetorical devices. He does not pass judgement on his characters, least of all Dallow. Everyday life in the GDR is presented more directly in Der Tangospieler.

With its concrete temporal and geographical setting, Der Tangospieler cannot be dismissed as easily as de Bruyn's novel, and it lends the novel a much more incisive critical perspective than Neue Herrlichkeit. And yet, significantly, there is hope to be gleaned from within the text. On 4 November 1989, full of hopes of a new beginning, Hein gave a speech which called above all for activity in order to rupture the ‘verkrusteten Strukturen’ in the GDR. He stressed that it had been the ‘Vernunft der Straβe’ which ‘stets wach blieb’ and had finally ended the ‘Schlaf der Vernunft’ in 1989.5 This psychological condition of ‘the sleep of reason’ pervades Der Tangospieler and characterises the behaviour of citizens in a society of niches. On closer inspection, however, there is evidence of some who are not always so reserved or tame: the children on the tram, for example, who attack Dallow without provocation. If only such disgruntlement with the cowed existence in this subdued country could be channelled more positively, Hein seems to be saying. Yet the female student who is so disturbed by the radio reports from Prague arguably embodies true hope for the future amidst the bleakness:

Das Mädchen wollte umgehend nach Berlin fahren, um sich dort mit Freunden zu treffen. Dallow versuchte, sie davon abzubringen. Für einen Tag sollte sie noch auf der Insel bleiben, ihr Tränenausbruch hatte ihn gerührt, und er wollte eine weitere Nacht mit ihr schlafen, aber sie wiederholte nur immer, daβ man irgend etwas unternehmen müsse.

(DT, 199)

If only there were more young people like her! At least there were a few, who constantly remained vigilant, to borrow Hein's neat formulation. Whereas Neue Herrlichkeit offers a bleak ending, Hein's novel contains this significant, albeit small, grain of optimism. It may only be a grain, but at least it is there. It is easy to imagine that many who were as perturbed as this student by events in Prague in 1968, congregated on the streets in 1989. These people gradually came together and found their voice. In spite of everything, Der Tangospieler suggests that Hein refused to abandon hope, and his optimism was duly rewarded, even if the ‘Wende’ ultimately did not bring about the developments he had wished for in his speech on Alexanderplatz.


  1. Christoph Hein, Der Tangospieler (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1999). All page references to this work in the text will be in the form (DT, 24).

  2. Christoph Hein, ‘Der alte Mann und die Straβe. Ansprache zur Demonstration der Berliner Kulturschaffenden,’ in Als Kind habe ich Stalin gesehen (Berlin/Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1992), pp. 175–77 (p. 177).

  3. Vierzig Jahre, p. 250. For a recent and most informative account of the ban imposed on Neue Herrlichkeit, see Detlev Gwosc, ‘Das raunende Unperfekt der Gesellschaft zur Sprache bringen: Günter de Bruyns Roman Neue Herrlichkeit,’ in Günter de Bruyn in Perspective (German Monitor 44), ed. Dennis Tate (Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999), pp. 101–17.

  4. It is striking that the conclusions to de Bruyn's later works are more bleak than in his earlier ones. Although Buridans Esel and Preisverleihung do not have happy endings in any conventional sense, neither denouement can be called tragic. The opposite is the case in Märkische Forschungen, where Pötsch is driven to the edge of madness, and in Neue Herrlichkeit, as we have seen, the lovers appear to be irrevocably parted.

  5. ‘Der alte Mann und die Straβe,’ p. 177.

Graham Jackman (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9763

SOURCE: Jackman, Graham. “Von allem Anfang an ‘A Portrait of a Young Man?’” In Christoph Hein in Perspective, edited by Graham Jackman, pp. 187–210. Atlanta, Georgia: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Jackman explores the classification of Von allem Anfang an as fictional autobiography.]

The title of Christoph Hein's most recent major prose work Von allem Anfang an provides the starting point for an examination of a number of aspects of the text. Its obvious autobiographical dimension may provide insights into the beginnings of Hein's aspirations as a writer who rejects all forms of conformism in favour of the dispassionate ‘Gelassenheit’ of the chronicler. Formal comparisons with Hein's earlier Horns Ende and with Walter Benjamin's Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert also suggest a wider, ‘chronicler's’ ambition to recall the early years of the GDR, which, though now rapidly receding into history, may not be without relevance for the ‘beginnings’ of the new, united Germany.

The title of Christoph Hein's latest long prose work, published in 1997, is deceptively simple. It appears to be explained by the text itself: ‘Dem Leben,’ says Tante Magdalena to Daniel, the first-person narrator of Von allem Anfang an,1 ‘muss man von allem Anfang an ins Gesicht sehen.’ It appears, then, to be associated with a motto for life, the prescription for a particular approach to human experience.

In fact, however, this title provokes a whole series of questions. To which ‘beginning’ does it refer? Is it Hein's intention to depict his own personal origins in an autobiographical sense? Or does he wish to portray the GDR in its early years—is the phrase even a direct reference to the well-known observation of Botho Strauβ in 1990 about the GDR: ‘Alles falsch von Anbeginn’? Or does the author wish to describe to his readers his beginnings as a writer and his particular approach to the world and ‘the writer's task’? And what, in any case, is a ‘beginning’—how are events and experiences linked in time and space? And what implications does this have for the form of the text and the way in which we read it?

We will look first at the autobiographical dimension of the text. When asked in his interview with Krzysztof Jachimczak about the ‘realer Hintergrund’ of his novel Horns Ende of 1984, Hein replied:

Der reale Hintergrund ist, daβ ich selber, ähnlich wie der Thomas, aber nur ähnlich, in einer vergleichbaren Kleinstadt aufwuchs und versucht habe, die Erinnerung an diese Zeit in dem Roman zu beschreiben. Meine Stadt ist nicht identisch mit der Stadt Bad Guldenberg, aber sie liefert gewissermaβen den Hintergrund dafür.2

In Von allem Anfang an we find ourselves unmistakably in the world of Horns Ende: the small towns which provide the setting for each work both have a Marienkirche, a ‘Bleicherwiese,’ and an estate for German refugees from the East. Daniel's family is in some respects similar to that of Thomas in Horns Ende, and both works are set in the same historical period, the middle 1950s. As we shall see, such resemblances do not constitute the only similarity to Horns Ende. It is also possible to detect similarities to Der fremde Freund, in which the protagonist recalls her childhood in a small German town; can it, for example, be merely coincidence that Claudia's history teacher is Herr Gerschke and Daniel's Herr Greschke?

However, the resemblances between the young Daniel and what we know of Hein's own life are considerably more obvious than in any previous work, despite the change of name. Daniel too is born in Silesia, the son of a Lutheran pastor, and is approximately the same age as Hein, though Hein himself was the third and not the second child, like Daniel. And although the dates may not correspond exactly, both are forced to leave their home at the end of the war and join the trek to the west; Daniel's family ends up in a small town in Sachsen-Anhalt which is clearly similar to Bad Düben, where Hein spent his childhood. Both boys are refused admission to the Gymnasium, which would have enabled them to take the Abitur and proceed to university, and are therefore sent, like their elder brothers, to a Gymnasium in West Berlin. This crucial event, and the anticipation of it, constitute both the opening and the ending of the text.

The reader may therefore gain the impression that in this work Hein is writing autobiographically about himself, and this impression is reinforced by the narrative technique. His use of first-person narration in Von allem Anfang an does not, as it does in other works, immediately make the reader feel obliged to question the truthfulness of what is being reported. One does not immediately have the sense that the narrative voice is that of a fictional character, as is so obviously the case in Der fremde Freund or Das Napoleon-Spiel. On the contrary, here one is inclined to believe that the author is speaking directly with his readers, especially since he appears to step out of his narrator's role in chapter 1 to speak about his intentions and his method in writing this book:

Von ihr und von meiner Familie habe ich schon immer erzählen wollen, doch jedesmal, wenn ich versuchte, darüber zu sprechen, musste ich feststellen, dass die Geschichten in meiner Erinnerung merkwürdige Lücken hatten … Doch wenn ich noch länger warte, stirbt noch der eine oder andere, der mir dies und das berichten oder berichtigen kann. Deshalb habe ich einfach begonnen und werde versuchen, die Lücken zu füllen mit dem, was ich erlebt, und mit dem, was ich gesehen, aber nicht verstanden habe. Mit dem was ich gehört habe, aber was mir nicht erzählt wurde. Und mit dem, was vor meinen Augen geschah und was ich dennoch nicht sah. Damals.


For all that, some caution is necessary. It is not merely that history can easily be manipulated in one's own interests, as Hein has repeatedly warned—this is, of course, the subject of the conversation between Horn and Spodek in Horns Ende and is discussed at length in Hein's essays and speeches on the subject of historiography in Die fünfte Grundrechenart.3 It is rather a question of deliberate literary method; Hein has described the text as a ‘fiktive Autobiographie’4—which did not prevent Neues Deutschland's reviewer, Irmtraud Gutschke, or a sub-editor, from giving her review a caption which reads: ‘Christoph Hein legt alle Masken beiseite und spricht über sich selbst, seine Kindheit.’5

In fact, Hein employs in Von allem Anfang an a number of formal strategies similar to those of Horns Ende—it is as if the Thomas of the latter work is now voluntarily recalling his childhood without the urgings of the dead Horn. First, the change of name indicates that here too Hein presents to us what he described, in relation to the earlier novel, as ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit.’ This is no mere coquetry or false modesty in dealing with autobiographical fact: Hein is again using a blend of historical accuracy and invention, a technique which we first encounter in Cromwell, as a means on the one hand of provoking in his readers the recall of a past that might otherwise be forgotten or indeed deliberately falsified: ‘In allen meinen Arbeiten lasse ich—wie jeder Schriftsteller—eine neue Wirklichkeit, eine Kunstwirklichkeit entstehen, um dadurch, möglicherweise, hoffentlich, die andere Wirklichkeit viel genauer erfassen zu können.’6 On the other hand, the technique makes possible a less historically determined truth, in which the reader is more easily able to recognise the past as ‘Jetztzeit,’ directly relevant to their own time.

Secondly, as the passage quoted above indicates, the narrator of Von allem Anfang an claims to have filled the gaps in his memory with things heard or seen but not understood, in other words by reconstructing the past in the present on the basis of his adult interpretation. Moreover, he admits in the next sentence that his account includes details which, though remembered, may or may not be part of the particular episode which is being described:

Ich versuche, die Geschichten zu vervollständigen, sie mit den Bruchstücken der Erinnerung anzufüllen, mit Bildern, die sich mir einprägten, mit Sätzen, die aus dem dunkel schimmernden Meer des Vergessenseins dann und wann aufsteigen und ins Bewusstsein dringen.


This partly imaginative process may be compared with Horn's injunction to Thomas in Horns Ende: ‘Dann erinnere dich an das Ungesehene.’7 It may also be seen as the guiding principle behind not only all autobiographical writing but also all historical reconstruction, especially that of the kind practised by Benjamin in his Passagen-Werk, a method summed up in the latter's motto, borrowed from Hofmannsthal: ‘Was nie geschrieben wurde, lesen.’8

In a number of structural respects too, Von allem Anfang an differs from conventional autobiography. Take first the narrative perspective: in an autobiography we expect to meet the narrator in two different personas—as ‘das Kind, das ich war,’ to quote Uwe Johnson, but also as the remembering adult who recalls and interprets his or her own development. However, if we leave aside the already quoted passage in chapter 1, where the narrator reflects on his narrative method, and the final paragraph, where the death of Tante Magdalena is reported, the narrator refrains from all evaluations or interpretations from an adult perspective. Hein limits himself consistently to the perspective of the adolescent boy: he reports only things that a twelve- or thirteen-year-old could know or that directly concern him—and always from the point of view and with the degree of understanding of a child of that age. On the other hand, everything that Daniel would regard as obvious and therefore would not bother to mention, or that would not interest him, is omitted. Thus he does not tell us the name of the town and mentions no dates or political events. Nor does he, for example, give the name of the play in which he plays the role of Johnny or the ballad which he has to learn by heart (I think it must be Fontane's ‘John Maynard’). In this sense, it is perhaps correct after all to regard Daniel too as a fictional narrator: here too, though in a different way from that employed in Der fremde Freund and Das Napoleon-Spiel, the author Hein is concealed behind an invented ‘I’ and his perspective.

The fact that such details, of the kind that one would expect to find in a conventional autobiography, are omitted means that Von allem Anfang an, to which Hein has, incidentally, attached no genre label, reads more like a novel than an autobiography. The narrative may well be based on events from Hein's own childhood, but it is no less valuable as a study of childhood in general, and specifically of the stage of puberty. So much of what is described is immediately recognisable for every reader: Daniel's fears in chapter 2 that his parents are perhaps going to be divorced following his mother's months-long refusal to speak to her husband and that he will be turned into one of the poor ‘divorcees’ children' who ‘nie was erleben’ (22–3) and whom he has always pitied; his curiosity about the adult world, and above all the past life of his parents and grandparents; the frustration of a keen-eyed, intelligent, child with the restrictiveness of the family home, the stultifying routine of school with its unending round of ‘tests’; and, of course, the first stirrings of sexuality, about which he can speak to no one.

We come now to the structure of the narrative itself. The work consists of nine quite short episodes, loosely connected and without any claim to completeness. One critic, Beatrix Lang, has gone so far as to see the work as an ‘Erzählungsband’ made up of ‘neun Geschichten.’9 Leaving aside the first chapter, they cover something like two years of Daniel's life, from December 1955 to September 1957, from the ages of eleven to thirteen. Moreover, the chapters are not in chronological order: the penultimate chapter, I calculate, is set in September 1957, while the last chapter is clearly located in October 1956. Similarly, the meeting with Kade in chapter 6 takes place a week after the events of chapter 9. The first chapter lies outside any chronological sequence: it tells of Daniel's impending departure for West Berlin in 1958. Notwithstanding the apparent simplicity of the language and the narrative method, these structural features and the precise use of words indicate that this too, like all Christoph Hein's texts, is a carefully structured work of art in which nothing is left to chance.

But why, we may ask, did Hein opt for this fragmentary, episodic form? Here too we may detect the influence of Walter Benjamin and of his preference for remnants and fragments, which contain, he maintained, more truth than a carefully constructed totality—this was part of the reason why Benjamin gave preference to ‘Erzählung’ and ‘Chronik’ rather than to the novel.10

We may also ask why Hein focuses on episodes from this particular period of Daniel's life. There are several possible reasons for this. First—and we shall return to this later—it was a particularly significant period in the history of the GDR. Secondly, it was at this age that Hein himself decided that he wanted to be a writer: ‘Seit meinem zwölften Lebensjahr, seit der Lektü