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In Germany the years of the First World War saw an overwhelming outpouring of verse, fired for the most part by intense patriotic enthusiasm around 1914. The lyric form provided both an immediate outlet for ordinary Germans to record their experiences and feelings, but also ready-made traditional models to shape those experiences. Alongside chauvinistic hymns by poets who remain, to all intents and purposes, ‘lost voices’, were soldier-poets, writing from the front – some of them prolific and enormously popular at the time, yet now almost completely forgotten, others still read today. But there were also worker poets, other critical voices, expressly anti-war poets and women poets who focused often on the victims left behind. Later too came the satirical or epic voices. German poetry of the period is inevitably mixed up also with Expressionism, which made for a more radical formal experimentation than in many other national literatures at the time.
This volume is the first to address the culture of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a historical entity, but also to trace the afterlife of East Germany in the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall. An international team of outstanding scholars offers essential and thought-provoking essays, combining a chronological and genre-based overview from the beginning of the GDR in 1949 to the unification in 1990 and beyond, with in-depth analysis of individual works. A final chapter traces the resonance of the GDR in the years since its demise and analyses the fascination it engenders. The volume provides a 'rereading' of East Germany and its legacy as a cultural phenomenon free from the prejudices that prevailed while it existed, offering English translations throughout, a guide to further reading and a chronology.
This Chapter Examines what might be termed the last literature of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It is not so much concerned with the Ostalgie that has governed many films and texts that remember the socialist state or provide a “requiem for Communism,” to cite Charity Scribner’s influential work. Nor does it consider the texts of the “Zonenkinder” boom that set out, more or less successfully, to re-imagine the GDR in retrospect. Instead it gestures toward a body of post-Wende literature that performs the last rites of the GDR more literally.
I have argued elsewhere that contemporary German culture has seen a fundamental paradigm shift from looking forward to looking backward. Certainly this has to do with the loss of certainties after 1989 and the need to come to terms with the legacy of the GDR. But we are also witnessing a much more significant renegotiation of history, and especially modernity, that writers such as Peter Fritzsche, in Stranded in the Present (2004), and Anne Fuchs, in Phantoms of War (2008), have examined in different contexts. This has manifested itself in a concern with a nexus of lateness, belatedness, mortality, death, and apocalypse that has been seen especially but not exclusively among older writers. But it has also engendered a fascination for the way in which what has been left behind or suppressed by history manifests itself in the present.
This might be termed “spectrality” in its broadest sense. Ghosts or revenants are often literally at the center of such works, with significant implications for psychoanalytic readings more broadly or the particular role of (inter-)textual recall. It also has a political aspect and chimes with Derrida’s notion of “hauntology,” the exploration of resolutely liminal modes of being between different times and spaces, in his Specters of Marx (1994). The fascination with spectrality has been noted in contemporary writers and filmmakers from both East and West and has been interpreted broadly as a symptom of a post-Holocaust awareness. However, two things are worth pointing out. First: its roots are certainly deeper than this. As a phenomenon it draws on a rich and powerful tradition in German culture reaching back to the Middle Ages, but also embracing the Gothic.
The Work Written by Brecht in the last decade of his life has often been classified in the secondary literature as “late” work or the work of the “late Brecht.” Walter Hinck’s volume of 1959 Die Dramaturgie des späten Brecht (The Dramaturgy of the Late Brecht) set the tone; many standard critical works then followed in pinpointing the end of the Second World War as the caesura marking the beginning of a discrete period in Brecht’s aesthetic thinking and practice, a period that they label “late.” This understanding has come to dominate the reception of Brecht’s work in the GDR — especially of the Buckower Elegien (Buckow Elegies, 1953) and the poems written in the last years before his death — for reasons that are partly to do with the prejudices surrounding the lyric genre as one of inwardness, but also hinge on the contested reception of the Buckower Elegien in particular. However, the question of what “late” work might be has scarcely been addressed. When does late work begin and how is it defined? And what does the label mean for understanding the work in question? Studies have varied in when they define the precise beginning of Brecht’s late phase: favoring the beginning of his period of exile in 1938, at one extreme, or Brecht’s move to the newly founded GDR in 1949 at the other. But the approach has been remarkably consistent. The notion of late work (Spätwerk) has been uncritically merged with the notion of the work of old age (Alterswerk). Any form of theoretical understanding of what these might entail is absent. Instead, both have been caught up within a longstanding critical debate about whether Brecht’s poetry of the GDR years became more inward-looking or remained politically oriented.
In 1966, Alexander Hildebrand confidently claimed Brecht’s post-1948 poetry as “Alterslyrik” and adumbrated what he called a “late style” focused on the compression of the poetry and what he saw as the classicism of the form. Twenty years later, Jan Knopf’s pioneering complete edition of the Buckower Elegien (1986) also took as its starting point “die Klassizität des Texts” (the classicicity of the text).