Volker Braun was born on the eve of World War II, on May 7, 1939, in Dresden, Germany. His father was killed in the last weeks of the war, leaving his mother to rear him and four brothers alone. In 1948, the nine-year-old Braun spent a brief period of time in the care of the International Red Cross in Switzerland, where he was treated for acute malnutrition; he soon returned to his family in the Soviet Occupation Zone, which officially became the German Democratic Republic in October of 1949. In spite of the traumatic conditions under which he grew up, Braun does not generally deal with the war and its immediate aftermath in his writing. In contrast to his older colleagues, who experienced the war as adolescents or adults and whose work often returns to this experience, Braun’s work, like that of many writers of his generation, has tended to focus on the postwar efforts to build a new socialist state in the void left by the defeat of fascism.
Braun finished his basic schooling in 1957 with the successful completion of the university qualifying exam, the Abitur; he was initially unsuccessful, however, in gaining admission to the university. Over the next four years, he worked variously as a printer in his native Dresden, then as a mine construction worker at the coal and steel cooperative Schwarze Pumpe, and finally, after completing a technical apprenticeship, as a machine mechanic at the open-pit coal mine Burghammer. His work experiences during these four years were to leave a profound mark on his early writing and are especially apparent in the subject matter and the setting of his first several plays.
It was during this period that Braun wrote his first poetry, and in 1959 he completed the first of the four prose reports that would together make up Das ungezwungene Leben Kasts. More directly than in any of his other writing, the Kast stories illustrate Braun’s strong...
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