Forgetting One's Stasi Past: German Writer Christa Wolf's Revealing Works Didn't Divulge Everything

Wolf's life reflects her generation's desperate attempt to detach itself from the country's Nazi past and the East German dictatorship. Her final book has just appeared in Hebrew translation.

"In the city of angels my skin is being peeled back. They want to know what lies beneath, and they find, as in every normal human being, muscles tendons bones veins blood heart stomach liver spleen. They are disappointed, they were hoping for the entrails of a monster.”

− Christa Wolf, “City of Angels: or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud” (translated by Damion Searls)

At Christa Wolf’s interment on December 13, 2011, in Berlin, a dozen days after her death at the age of 82, a poem by the 17th-century German lyric poet Paul Fleming was read out. “Accept your fate, regret nothing,” declares the poem, which the German novelist was fond of and served as something of a motto for her life. “Be undismayed in spite of everything; do not give up, despite everything.”

Parts of the poem are also quoted several times in “City of Angels: or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud,” Wolf’s final book, which was published in German about a year before she died and has just been published in Hebrew. (An English-language translation appeared this year in the United States.) As her life draws to a close, Wolf offers a deeply perceptive, highly expressive work of autobiographical fiction about what she considers to have been her fate: her many years of life in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), under the communist dictatorship, in part as a member of the cultural establishment, and partly in an oppositionist stance. Heeding Fleming’s advice, she does not disavow her past but confronts it with a directness and an honesty that arouse esteem and prompt reflection in the reader.

In the book, Wolf evokes the nine months or so which she spent in Los Angeles, from the autumn of 1992 until the following spring, thanks to a writing grant. However, her journey to the iconic American city did not sever her from her country. It was in that period, about three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years after the unification of Germany, that files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, were opened for public scrutiny. They revealed that Wolf was not only a longtime victim of the Stasi’s surveillance, but that she also briefly collaborated with the organization when she was a young woman.

That revelation stirred a furor in the German media and tarnished Wolf’s public reputation. She was among the most influential intellectuals of East Germany and was considered a moral, humanistic voice in the heart of the tyrannical state, a voice which was heard clearly, and won acclaim and prizes on the western side of the Iron Curtain as well.

“Wolf was the East German counterpart of Gunter Grass. She became a salient symbol of the confrontation with the Nazi past and was a writer who was actively involved in the public space,” says Dr. Michal Ben-Horin, a lecturer in German literature at Tel Aviv University. “Many of her works present East Germany as a kind of response, repair or healing for the crimes of the Nazi dictatorship. Possibly that's why it was difficult for Wolf to give up the social model which the East German state represented, even when she grasped that the distance between that model and the manner of its actualization was very great − too great, in fact.

“Her poetic materials are inextricably bound up with historical events,” Ben-Horin continues. “Her literary works are located on the seam line between fiction and reality. They set out to offer a poetic accounting, at times with the integration of autobiographical elements of the time and place in which she lives, but by entering a different place. In ‘City of Angels,’ too, she seeks to expose the workings of her consciousness, her thought and her writing, mainly around the traumatic revelation that she had been part of the repressive Stasi apparatus.”

Like Grass, Wolf too belonged to the generation of Germans who came to maturity during the period of the Third Reich; and like him, late in life she too was swept up in a scandal connected with an embarrassing secret from her past. Tellingly, like Grass’ controversial memoir, “Peeling the Onion,” Wolf too copes with a sense of guilt in “City of Angels.” The difference is that she does so in a location that is seemingly external to the German experience, using it as a prism through which to tell the story of her life and to yoke it to the history of her
country. This is Los Angeles, a city that is not only a backdrop for memories and introspection but also plays a central role in the book.

Wolf views Los Angeles as a prototypical distillation of the American dream. Beyond the abundance and the wealth, beyond the capitalist shopping temples, which the writer with the orthodox communist past cannot bring herself to admire, she sees the homeless people who are present at every corner yet are hidden from the eye, and focuses on social and racial polarization. As such, Ben-Horin observes, Wolf to some extent continues the discussion in the ideological contexts of the Cold War and the East-West confrontation. She assails American policy across various periods: from the atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race, through the consumer society, McCarthyism and the persecution of communists, down to the discrimination against minorities and racism aimed at blacks.

Along with this, Ben-Horin adds, “Wolf uses Los Angeles to achieve a distance that makes it possible for her to speak − a literary tactic she also employed in earlier works. Here she strikes a posture, at times critical and laced with irony, in relation to the tradition of German writers and intellectuals who went into exile in the United States during the Nazi period, among them the writer Thomas Mann, the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the sociologist Theodor Adorno. She traces the path they carved in Los Angeles, along the way raising questions about their life in exile and the complex attitude of those creative artists and thinkers toward the events in contempoarary Europe. In doing so, she connects with their cultural-
political dialogue.”

The outstanding figure among that group was Thomas Mann, who wrote “Doctor Faustus” during his exile in America. In that great novel he passes judgment on German culture in the light of Nazism and the catastrophe of World War II. “Wolf reads Mann’s diaries, follows ‘the paths he trod,’ both literally and metaphorically, and also discusses what was perceived as a revelation about his sexual identity. By this method she tries to define herself and cope with her own dilemma in the wake of the revelation about her ties with the Stasi,” Ben-Horin notes.

She adds, “Wolf’s evocation of Mann’s novel is intriguing. It’s as though she is hinting that ‘City of Angels’ is her ‘Doctor Faustus.’ In one of the conversations she conducts in the book, she comes out against a reading of ‘Doctor Faustus’ as an allegory of Nazi Germany. Mann’s work, she argues, is ‘an analysis that went much deeper, of the German character through history and the way German intellectuals and artists became entangled in the catastrophe that this history had led to.’ She seems to be talking about her own entanglement as well, and about what she is trying to do in her book.”

Second generation

“How am I supposed to explain to them that no other patch of ground anywhere on earth interests me as much as this little country, which I thought was up to the task of this great experiment? It failed, it had to fail, and with knowledge came suffering. How am I supposed to explain to them that this suffering is a sign and measure of the hope I had still been harboring in a little hiding place somewhere, hidden even from myself?”

− Wolf, “City of Angels”

On November 4, 1989, five days before the Berlin Wall fell, a huge demonstration was held at Alexanderplatz, in which half-a-million East Germans demanded a change of regime. Wolf was one of the speakers at the event, which was a defining moment of the popular uprising that autumn. However, in contrast to many others, she declared her opposition to unification with West Germany. East Germany should not be dismantled, she said. Instead, an attempt to rebuild it should be made, with its transformation into a “genuine mass democracy.” She writes, in “City of Angels,” that the fact that she had “lived through and taken part in one of the few revolutions in German history, removed every doubt I had about whether staying in that country, which so many people had left with such good reason, was the right thing to do.”

The course of Wolf’s life reflects key chapters in the history of the “workers’ and peasants’ state,” as East Germany was termed. She was born on March 18, 1929, as Christa Ihlenfeld, in Landsberg an der Warthe (then in Germany, now in Poland). Toward the end of the war, she fled with her family and they settled in the city of Mecklenburg, which was captured by the Red Army and became part of the GDR when it was founded in 1949. Wolf studied literature at the universities of Jena and Leipzig, then worked for the German Writers’ Association, afterward as a literary editor, and she also began to write. She lived in East Berlin with her husband, the writer and publisher Gerhard Wolf, and their two daughters.

Wolf’s breakthrough into the public consciousness came in 1963, with the publication of her second book, “The Divided Heaven.” Set in Berlin after the building of the wall, it recounts the love story of two young East Germans, which comes to a tragic end when the young man escapes to the West. The woman decides to remain in the East, but the descriptions of her doubts and soul-searching made the book a complex work, which was well received in West Germany but criticized at home.

Two of Wolf’s key subsequent novels, “The Quest for Christa T” (1968) and “Patterns of Childhood” (1976), tried to examine the imprint left on the present by the Nazi past through a description of the adolescence of young women who grew up in the Third Reich. Wolf thus deviated from the official policy of the regime at the time, which held that literature must cease to deal with the fascist past and instead focus on the building of the new socialist society. Wolf  firmly ojected  to this approach,
maintaining that for those who grew up in the period of fascism, there could not be a specific date following which it could be said to have been vanquished. In her lovely autobiographical story “Exchanging Glances,” Wolf relates her personal memories of the war’s final days. She describes her feelings at the sight of the air raids carried out by the Allies, recalls what went through her mind when she learned about Hitler’s death, and evokes her first encounter with inmates of concentration camps who survived.

“The concept of ‘generation’ is central to understanding Wolf’s work,” says Ofer Waldman, a researcher of German history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The discovery and recognition of the deeds committed by the wartime generation in Germany thrust their children, the members of the ‘second generation,’ into conflict with and alienation from the parents’ generation. In West Germany, this was embodied in the students’ movement of the late 1960s. However, for Wolf and many others of her generation in East Germany this recognition led to an ideological identification with communism, which they perceived as a counter-response to the moral bankruptcy of Nazi Germany. Some of Wolf’s critics argued that she and her peers transferred their identification from their biological parents, who bore the stigma of Nazism, to the fathers of the Communist Party, who returned from
exile untainted.”

Indeed, Wolf was an ardent believer in Marxism and was a member of the ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party, from the founding of the state until almost the very end. (In “City of Angels,” she recalls a nightmare she had at the beginning of the 1950s, in which she is put on trial for losing her party membership card.) However, she was critical of many events in her country, decried the state censorship and supported political dissidents. The late British historian Eric Hobsbawm numbered her among leading artists in Eastern Europe who opposed the communist regimes in their countries, artists who “were disillusioned but did not forget their dreams.”

Waldman says “the point of departure for Wolf’s disillusionment and alienation in regard to East Germany came in 1976, when the government stripped the poet and singer Wolf Biermann of his citizenship. Wolf and other creative artists protested the move. That, she says, was a milestone in her life, after which she felt doubts about her country for the first time and began to ask herself why she should go on living there. Those doubts also appeared in her work.

“In 1979, she wrote the story ‘What Remains,’ in which she describes a period in which she and her family were under close surveillance by the Stasi. However, fearing the censors, Wolf delayed the story’s publication until 1990, after the fall of the wall. Critics in the West assailed her, claiming that she was trying to rewrite her personal history and show that she had been an engaged, nonconformist writer all along.”

In 1983, Wolf published one of her most important novels, “Cassandra,” in which she reimagined the figure of the mythological Greek figure who was blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed because no one believed her prophecies. The novel was variously interpreted. Some viewed it as a humanist critique of the tremendous destruction wrought by modern wars, and in particular the folly of the nuclear arms race being pursued by the Soviet and Western blocs. Others saw it as an allegory about the suppressive nature of the East German regime. And there were those who gave it a feminist interpretation. (Many of Wolf’s novels center on female figures, among them “Medea: Voices,” which revolves around another figure from Greek mythology.)

Memory’s tricks

“In certain senses,” Waldman notes, “‘Cassandra’ was also a portrayal of Wolf herself, as a kind of contemporary version of the mythological seer. Like Cassandra, Wolf hints that her prophecies will not be believed by those who hear them, and she too gradually comes to understand the contradiction between her being part of the establishment and her desire to serve the people.”

Indications of a gradual undermining of Wolf’s ideological solidarity with the communist regime can also be found in the words she has Cassandra speak about belief in the gods: “But faith ebbed away from me gradually, the way illnesses sometimes ebb away, and one day you tell yourself that you are well. The illness no longer finds any foothold in you. That is how it was with my faith. What foothold could it still have found in me?” (Translation by Jan Van Heurck)

 “... we were still, even then, a little naive. Still a little too innocent, measured by today’s standards. ‘Innocent’: an unjustifiable word at the end of a century of extremes, of violence, rivers of blood, waves of betrayal, denunciations, every possible kind of mean and dirty trick, which no one in that century escaped.”

− Wolf, “City of Angels”

The German media exposed Wolf’s past as an “informal collaborator” of the Stasi (as the hundreds of thousands of “informants” who informed on others for the organization were called) while she was in Los Angeles. She herself had learned of the existence of files on her two years earlier and, like many former citizens of East Germany, was allowed to peruse those containing reports about her after Germany’s unification. In her case, there were no fewer than 42 volumes, containing detailed information reported by others about events in her life and her day-to-day comings and goings − pages, she said, which rendered her life banal. But there was also one volume containing the few reports that Wolf herself conveyed to the secret organization on the eve of her literary career, between 1959 and 1961.

The revelation came as a complete surprise to her, Wolf states in “City of Angels.” She had totally forgotten that collaboration, which consisted, all told, of a few meetings with Stasi agents and another written document she provided, until the Stasi lost interest, because most of the information she gave them was positive and the organization thought she was filtering the reports. Afterward, she and her family were placed under surveillance.

A central theme of the book is Wolf’s attempt to probe the roots of her collaboration with the Stasi, which became the symbol of the East German dictatorship. “I want to figure out who I was back then. Why I talked to them at all. Why I didn’t send them away right at the start,” Wolf writes. At that time, she says, the concept of “them” did not yet exist for her. “So, I said, back when those men approached me and I didn’t send them packing right away, I probably still believed that maybe they are necessary, maybe we need them. Just two or three years later I would not have let ‘them’ into the room.”

As Wolf’s biographer, Joerg Magenau, notes, she assisted the Stasi which “had yet to become the Stasi.”

But what disturbs Wolf no less than her ties with the Stasi is the fact that she had forgotten about them. “Wolf’s work copes constantly with Germany’s Nazi past, which demands a response and an explanation, and raises questions about knowing and suffering, guilt and shame,” Dr. Ben-Horin says.

“In ‘City of Angels,’ she juxtaposes the issue of her collaboration with the Stasi and her forgetting with questions about the repression and denial of the fate of the Jews in the Third Reich. She raises a discussion about silence and silencing, and about the victims of the two violent regimes.

“Freud’s overcoat, which appears in the book’s title, is a metaphor for her attempt to discover the depth of the unconscious, and to expose to her readers the psychological defense mechanisms and censorship which caused her to forget her collaboration. The novel, like the overcoat, covers and bares, disguises and at the same time attests to Wolf’s challenge: to understand her response, as a writer and an intellectual, to an authoritarian model that demanded obedience.”

“City of Angels” opens with the stamping of Wolf’s passport at Los Angeles International Airport, when she is asked by the immigration officer whether her East German passport belongs to a country that still exists (and answers, mistakenly, yes); it ends with Wolf’s flight from America back to the unified Germany, which is for her now an unknown country. Between the two flights, the book offers a variegated portrait of Wolf’s complex personality, of Los Angeles as she perceives the city, and the grim − though sometimes glowing − meagerness of her own beloved, lost country.

“From the destruction of your walls every small stone / I shall collect and safeguard as a keepsake,” the Israeli poet Lea Goldberg wrote. Her lamentation might also befit Wolf’s ambivalent attitude toward East Germany, with its dreams and its walls alike. We might also be able to read in a similar fashion what Wolf wrote in “Cassandra,” when the prophetess recalls Troy as she perceived it in her youth: “All this ... no longer exists except inside my head. I will rebuild it there while I still have time. I will not forget a single stone, a single incidence of light, a single laugh, a single cry. It shall be kept faithfully inside me, however short the time might be. Now I have learned how to see what is not, how hard the lesson was.”