East German Poetry Analysis

Definition and General Considerations

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Any study of the literature of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) must tackle the problem of definition. What, exactly, is East German poetry? The question may appear trivial and the answer self-evident: This term is intended to apply to the verse literature produced in the German Democratic Republic, the socialist state that came into being on October 7, 1949, and that ceased to exist on October 3, 1990, when its member states joined the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Such a facile definition, however, is inadequate. To begin with, it fails to comprehend the literature produced between 1945 and 1949 in what was then the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany. Another problem relates to residency and publishing conditions. Does the definition include writers who were expelled from the country, such as Wolf Biermann; who voluntarily left it permanently, such as Peter Huchel, Reiner Kunze, and Sarah Kirsch; who were granted long-term visas enabling them to take up residency in the West, such as Günter Kunert; or who had written their works in East Germany but could get them into print only in the FRG, as was the case with Biermann?

For the purpose of this essay, then, East German poetry will be defined very broadly as the poetry written (although not necessarily published) from April, 1945, to September, 1990, in the territory that once constituted the German Democratic Republic. This definition excludes works by writers such as Bertolt Brecht and Johannes R. Becher, which were produced before the authors settled in East Germany and those written by poets such as Kunze and Thomas Brasch after their departure from the GDR.

Another important preliminary question to be addressed is whether the literatures of East and West Germany did indeed represent two separate and essentially dissimilar literatures or whether they formed...

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The socialist state

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Marxist position that all literature ought to be viewed in its economic, social, and political context may be debatable, but it is impossible to assess the work of the poets of a socialist society such as the GDR without regard to the environment in which they live. The SED and its cultural policies had an immediate impact on all creative writing, and the East German poets’ attitude toward their audience often differed from that of their Western counterparts. While German literature has always had a strong didactic bent, East German novelists and dramatists, and also lyrical poets, have followed Brecht’s example in defining their function as that of educators of the nation to a much greater extent than have writers in the West.

East German poetry, then, should be seen in direct relation to the evolution of a socialist ideology in the GDR. Several successive phases of this evolution can be distinguished. The years from 1945 to 1949 represent the period of building, of laying the foundation for a “socialist national literature.” It was important to understand what had happened during the period when Adolf Hitler was chancellor and what had paved the way for the National Socialist movement. A new ideology had to be firmly anchored in the minds of the people. Thus, “anti-Fascist and democratic renewal” was the political as well as the cultural goal. With the formal establishment of the GDR, this first—and largely preparatory—phase was completed.

From 1949 to the early 1960’s, the concept of a “socialist national literature” within an autonomous socialist state crystallized. In part, literature served to rally the people behind the effort to build a strong economy, although poetry played a less important role in this effort than did the other genres. In the light of this declared goal of literature, the 1959 writers’ conference in the industrial town of Bitterfeld was an important attempt to forge a strong alliance between authors and workers. The Bitterfeld movement encouraged industrial and agricultural workers to become writers and urged writers to gain direct experience in factories and collective farms. Socialist Realism was seen as the most appropriate stylistic approach, and Soviet literature provided models.

Although the overall goals to be attained were fairly clear, this period was by no means one of consistent and planned cultural development. Like all the countries in the communist bloc, East Germany was affected by...

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The first generation

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

One problem with generalizations about trends in East German poetry—apart from the implied disregard for the writers’ individuality—was the coexistence of several different generations of poets, with each age-group representing different experiences and conceptions.

When the Nazi regime collapsed at the end of World War II, a number of outstanding writers returned to Germany from their wartime exile in the United States, in Mexico, in the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. Many of them had been supporters of communist ideology before Hitler came to power, and they saw a chance to help create a new society that would reflect their political philosophy. The role of these writers in the development of a “socialist national literature” is important. In West Germany, the year 1945 was considered “point zero,” a new beginning after the near-total destruction of the country and much of its culture. East German writers and ideological leaders, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of the inheritance of progressive trends in bourgeois literature since the turn of the century and, even more significant, of a socialist tradition in German culture. Wolfgang Joho stated that position most clearly when he titled his 1965 article in the journal Neue Deutsche Literatur (new German literature), “We Did Not Begin in the Year Zero.”

Thus, Brecht, Anna Seghers, Arnold Zweig, and a number of other writers provided an important link between positive aspects of the past and the hoped-for better future. Best known among these poets of the “first generation” were Erich Weinert (1890-1953), Johannes R. Becher (1891-1958), Brecht (1898-1956), Huchel (1903-1981), Erich Arendt (1903-1984), René Schwachhofer (1904-1970), Georg Maurer (1907-1971), Louis Fürnberg (1909-1957), and Max Zimmering (1909-1973).

The second generation

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

For most of the writers of the second generation, the Nazi period and World War II had been a traumatic experience. Some had left Germany at an early age, others had fought in the war, and several had spent time as prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, where they had been exposed to a new ideology. Das Judenauto (1962; The Car with the Yellow Star: Fourteen Days out of Two Decades, 1968), and autobiographical novel by Franz Fühmann (1922-1984) is perhaps the best document of the inner changes that these authors experienced. Characteristic of this group is the attempt to look both to the past and into the future. In prose narratives and dramas, but also in poetry, they attempted to come to terms with what had happened in the period of the Third Reich. At the same time, those who had lived through such dark years believed that the future held great promise, and many of their poems reflect this faith. In addition to Fühmann, prominent among these writers were Kuba (Kurt Barthel, 1914-1967), who had gone into exile when he was nineteen; Stephan Hermlin (1915-1997), who had left Germany in 1936; Johannes Bobrowski (1917-1965); Hanns Cibulka (1920-2004); Paul Wiens (1922-1982), who had emigrated with his parents in 1933; Günther Deicke (1922-2006); Walter Werner (1922-1995); and Helmut Preissler (born 1925).

The third generation

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The third generation is made up of East German poets who were between ten and twenty years old when Hitler’s Reich ended. These writers came to maturity in a socialist society, and the war, which played a large role in the thinking of those only a few years older, was not as much of a decisive experience for most of them. They were diligent students, though by no means mere imitators, of the poets who had already established a reputation. Their works frequently praised the society in which they lived, combining personal expression with an affirmation of the socialist system. A significant number of writers from this group eventually chose to live in the West.

Well-known representatives of this generation are Christa Reinig (1926-2008), Werner Lindemann (1926-1993), Uwe Berger (born 1928), Günter Kunert (born 1929), Eva Strittmatter (born 1930), Heinz Kahlau (born 1931), Kunze (born 1933), Uwe Gressmann (1933-1969), Wulf Kirsten (born 1934), Rainer Kirsch (born 1934), Sarah Kirsch (born 1935, for several years Rainer Kirsch’s wife), Karl Mickel (1935-2000), Helga M. Novak (born 1935), and Heinz Czechowski (1935-2009). Reinig, Kunert, Kunze, Sarah Kirsch, and Novak all eventually moved to the West before the end of the GDR. Adolf Endler (1930-2009) belongs to the same age-group, although his background is different; he moved from West Germany to the GDR in 1955.

The fourth generation

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Often the authors of the fourth generation, those who were not yet ten years old at the end of the war or who were born after it, are not considered a separate group because much of their work is similar in character to that of the writers who are slightly older. However, these writers, unlike their near-contemporaries, never knew a society other than the socialist German state, and that fact alone sets them apart. Furthermore, many of them were instrumental in bringing about what critics like to call the “new wave of lyrical poetry” of the early 1960’s, a period marked by experimentation and an increased emphasis on personal modes of expression. A landmark poetry reading in December, 1962, at the Academy of Arts, organized by Stephan Hermlin and featuring among other young poets Sarah Kirsch, Volker Braun, and Biermann, focused attention on these attempts. Some politicians strongly objected to the “fear of life, nihilism, and skepticism” of these poets and condemned the “excessive individualism, ambiguity, and symbolism” exhibited in their works as essentially non-Marxist. With the 1966 discussion on the meaning and purpose of poetry in the journal Forum, in which party leaders and established critics eventually specified these objections, the new wave had come to an end.

Well known or very important among this last generation of GDR poets—although certainly not in every case representative of the new wave—are Biermann (born 1936), Joochen Laabs (born 1937), Peter Gosse (born 1938), Kito Lorenc (born 1938), Braun (born 1939), Harald Gerlach (1940-2001), Andreas Reimann (born 1946), Kristian Pech (born 1946), and Gabriele Eckart (born 1954). Biermann, as mentioned above, lived in West Germany after 1976, although he continued to consider the GDR his real home. Eckart belongs to those poets who were allowed to leave for the West in the 1980’s. Lorenc holds a unique position within this group; he writes poetry both in German and in Sorbian (or Wendish), the West Slavic language of a small ethnic minority in the GDR that received special attention and encouragement from the government after 1945.

The poetic underground

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

From the mid-1980’s to the end of the socialist regime, a group of young, urban poets, many of whom lived in the hip, working-class district Prenzlauer Berg of East Berlin, established a poetic “underground.” Using a loophole in state censorship, which required publication permits only if one hundred or more copies were printed, the poets published their verses in magazines and folders of just five to ninety-nine copies. These mini-collections, which were often widely shared among readers, quickly became known by their Soviet name, samizdat (meaning self-publication). Among these young, oppositional poets, Elke Erb (born 1938), an accomplished poet herself, guided the work of writers like Uwe Kolbe (born 1957), who left the GDR in 1987, shortly before its demise. Among the exiles was another underground poet, Sascha Anderson (born 1953), who later was revealed to have worked as an informer for the Stasi (East Germany’s secret police). While the government barely tolerated and, as Anderson’s case proves, tried to infiltrate the community of underground poets, their impact and influence grew as that of the regime faltered. When Andreas Hegewald wrote of “frozen mummies” in his poetry, his readers caught the reference to the GDR’s superannuated leadership. Soon, the “mummies” were gone, and the samizdat magazines, which bore titles such as Anschlag (assault), Ariadnefaden (Ariadne’s thread), or Grenzfall (border case), became prized collectors’ items.

Politics and patriotism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Any comparison between East German poetry and that produced by authors in the FRG tends to be an oversimplification. All works of literature are statements by individuals, reflecting their personal temperaments, insights, and experiences. However, all the writers under discussion lived and created poetry within a socialist society. Some broad generalizations may be warranted in view of that fact. Certain trends in East Germany did not appear to have parallels in the West.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between East German and West German poetry was the choice of explicitly political themes by some East German writers. Poems praising the party and glorifying great leaders of the socialist movement, both dead and...

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Places, people, and nature

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

At first glance, much of the nonpolitical poetry by East German writers appears somewhat more provincial than the work of their Western counterparts. Many poems clearly reflect very specific and often narrowly defined geographical and cultural settings. Frequently an attempt is made, however, to relate the specific to the general. Georg Maurer, whom many younger poets consider their teacher, demonstrated this relationship when he referred to a definite area near Leipzig where he lived: “I am sitting in the universe/ on a bench in the Rosental.”

There are many references to recent history and present social and economic conditions and, even with writers outside the Bitterfeld movement, frequent attempts to re-create...

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Formalist poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Much of East German poetry in the early years after World War II was marked by an attempt to adapt traditional forms to new ideological content. Classical patterns and the structures once developed as vehicles for religious expression served to give dignity to socialism and the new world it appeared to open up. Numerous cantatas, oratorios, and hymns were created by Becher, Fürnberg, Kuba, Hermlin, Zimmering, and others. Their texts are virtually interchangeable and lack any mark of artistic individuality. Some authors also attempted to create modern folk songs in order to popularize political ideas. While those works found their way into the songbooks of the youth organizations of the GDR, few have enriched the literature of the...

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Poetry as communication

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Whereas lyric poetry is generally a much more private vehicle of expression than the other literary genres and thus tends to be monologic, East German lyric poets showed a definite inclination toward dialogue. With remarkable frequency, their works aim for a partnership with the reader and attempt to engage him or her directly. This popular view of the poem as a means of two-way communication was emphasized through the many public readings and discussions of poetry held throughout the country. More important, however, is its impact on the literary works themselves in terms of their language and structure.

Lorenc started his poem “Versuch über uns” (“Attempt About Us”) with the—not completely...

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Historical parallels

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Most of the specific features of East German poetry discussed above were directly related to the role of the writer in a socialist society, yet many of these phenomena also have a long-standing tradition in German literature. Political poetry has been written in Germany since the Middle Ages. Many authors were opposing prevailing conditions, to be sure, but from Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170-c. 1230) through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) to some of the minor bards of the Third Reich, poets have sung the praise of the mighty.

The poetry of the Biedermeier period as well as that of German Realism emphasized the writers’ immediate environment, but even before...

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Final phase

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

By the 1980’s, many of the old masters—Brecht, Bobrowski, and Huchel the most important among them—were gone. Some poets, such as Hermlin and Fühmann, had turned to other forms of literature. In reaction to government repression and swelling popular unrest and dissatisfaction with the socialist government, an increasing number of poets was leaving the country right up to the fall of the Wall in Berlin. However, among the younger generation, talents emerged that were well worth watching. The number of books of verse that were published in the GDR would amaze most Western observers, and even more so the fact that this poetry found readers. Politics played a heavy role in the literary life of the country, and the massive...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Deicke, Günter, ed. Time for Dreams: Poetry from the German Democratic Republic. Translated by Jack Mitchell. Berlin: Seven Seas Press, 1976. A good collection of East German poetry up to the mid-1970’s.

Flores, John. Poetry in East Germany: Adjustments, Visions, and Provocations, 1945-1970. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971. Older and staunchly anticommunist, still a valuable discussion of the role of poetry in East Germany during the height and the eventual waning of the Cold War. Shows how in the West, East German poetry was often considered either propaganda or secret opposition to the socialist regime.


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