The dramatic events leading to the sudden collapse of the socialist regime of East Germany in 1989 came almost as a complete surprise to many German poets in West Germany. By the late 1980’s, most poets in the West had come to accept the separation of Germany into two separate states. In spite of an increasing stream of East German poets who were either forced, like Wolf Biermann (born 1936) in 1976, or allowed, like Uwe Kolbe (born 1957) in 1987, to leave East Germany, the socialist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East was considered durable. Western poets were locked in their own debate about the sudden rise of traditional form in poetry and took scant notice of the massive changes in the East.
A year after the reunification of Germany in 1990, the West’s Hans Magnus Enzensberger (born 1929) revisited the effects of this surprise in his collection Zukunftsmusik (1991; future music) when he wrote:
Future MusicThat what we can’t anticipateWill teach itself.It shines, is uncertain, distant.
Here, the poem acknowledges that great changes may actually catch the human poet unawares. Similarly, the negative ending of the poem that the music of the future “isn’t there for us,/ never was there,/ is never there,/ is never,” articulates the mood of the post-reunification hangover, with rising Western resentment at the cost of the bailout of the East, and Eastern nostalgia for a time when the state guaranteed employment for all, for example. Enzensberger’s conclusion that in spite of all the changes, the future is not “for us,” the common people, and echoes popular misgivings surfacing in Germany in the early 1990’s.
In the years before reunification, many Western poets looked at their East German counterparts who had stayed in the GDR with a mixture of disdain and indifference, often regarding East German poetry as backward in form and provincial in theme. However, relatively unbeknownst to the West, East German poets often found themselves at the vanguard of rising popular unrest. After reunification, the “underground” poets of the big cities like East Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden found themselves in a certain vacuum.
Elke Erb (born 1938) had been an influential, nurturing presence for the initially only loosely associated group of young poets residing in the hip Prenzlauer Berg district of East Berlin. In 1991, she published her collection Winkelzüge: Oder, Nicht vermutete, aufschlussreiche Verhältnisse (shady tricks). These poems, which were actually written just before the fall of the Berlin wall, already foreshadow the poet’s uncertainty about the future. “The heroine, led by her historyso uncertainly/ that she can identify herself neither in the present/ nor the future” stands at a new path. The old (socialist) directives have vanished, “swallowed up by the Earth,” and she has to carve her own way without any external spiritual guidance. Erb’s Poet’s Corner 3 (1991) hammers home this point of disillusion with the past coupled with apprehension for the future. Here, her poem “Thema verfehlt” (off the topic) calls upon the ghosts of past communist leaders, who appear “like someone without a home/ someone who holds a sail, not his own,/ into the wind, which is not his own.” There is a gathering of restless spirits, whose borrowed ideals have failed them in a world not of their own making, and yet the direction for the future is indeterminable.
For the poets of the East, reunification thus brought a moment of pause after the heady days which had seen the toppling of the repressive regime. Erb’s friend and protégé Kolbe expressed a common nostalgia for the days of struggle and togetherness in his volume Vineta (1998). The title poem “Vineta” alludes to a mythical Nordic Atlantis, whose greedy inhabitants caused it to sink forever to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Ironically, Vineta Street is also the terminus of the subway line running through Prenzlauer Berg, where Kolbe lived and worked before leaving for West Germany in 1987. In his poem, Kolbe reflects:
Do you still remember, back then, when we knew the name, when weknew every name, when the chestnuts were talking to us, burst openwith their horny shoots
The poet laments the passing of the vitality of the poets’ gatherings in the backyards of residential apartment buildings graced by old chestnut trees. In reunified Berlin, modernization increasingly gets rid of these old trees, just as the subversive political journals of the East (samizdat literature) died out for lack of state oppression, which had forced them to be self-published in editions of less than one hundred copies. Some of the famous literary journals to which Kolbe and his associates had contributed poetry survived past 1993, but their character had become more mainstream since the flair of the forbidden had vanished with the advent of freedom of speech after reunification.
Ironically, the opening of the archives of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, revealed that one of the Prenzlauer Berg poets, Sascha Anderson (born 1953), who later emigrated to West Germany, was one of the Stasi spies himself....
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