East German Poetry

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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 one body of writing, exhibiting only superficial differences as the result of external conditions. No agreement exists on this matter. The official East German position, formulated in 1956 by Walter Ulbricht, then first secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), was that there are two German states with two different cultures. That had not always been the East German view. When the first all-German convention of writers gathered in Berlin in 1947, the lyric poet Johannes R. Becher, who was to serve as the country’s minister of culture from 1954 to his death in 1958, condemned attempts to bring about confrontations between the East and the West and to play off the Germans in the different occupation zones against one another. Becher declared emphatically: Thus, there is no West German or East German literature in this sense, neither a South German nor a North German one, but only a single one, a German one which does not allow itself to be hemmed in by the boundaries of occupation zones.

From a different vantage point, the East German novelist and dramatist Rolf Schneider, who was granted a long-term visa in 1979 and thereafter resided in the West, gave a similar assessment, although he phrased it much more polemically: “There is only one German literature, that of West Germany. Some of its authors are living in the GDR.”

On the other hand, Fritz J. Raddatz, who had also chosen to move to the Federal Republic, started his 1972 book on East German literature with the flat statement: “There are two German literatures.” As he explained, the political division of the country had so strongly affected what used to be the common language of the two German states that it was no longer possible to consider the literatures based on those differing modes of communication as one and the same. This essay, while not completely agreeing with Raddatz’s premise, is also based on the conviction that the literature of East Germany, largely as the result of political and social factors, constituted an entity that developed separately and was relatively...

(The entire section is 7,249 words.)