GDR/BRD – East/West Germany — a divided history with divided interpretations and how I blundered into the middle of the divide

After World War 2, “Germany” was divided into 2 different countries — the German Democratic Republic (die Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and the Federal Republic of Germany (Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland). The former was dubbed “East Germany” and the latter “West Germany.” The GDR was an officially communist country under the close scrutiny of and in close proximity to the Soviet Union. The Federal Republic was a democratic nation, and a close ally of the US. The history of these two nations and the history of the dissolution of the Soviet Union are stories that are being fiercely debated right now. The fall of the Berlin Wall directly precedes the birth of most of the people in our class, and so most students never knew this two-state Germany, and know only the triumphalist narrative that celebrates the destruction of communism and the triumph of democracy in the region.

As a baby-boomer who was the child of Republicans, I grew up thinking “East Germany” was a scary place — a kind of German-speaking Soviet Union, where everyone hated Americans. But I was interested in German language and literature.  My college boyfriend convinced me to study German, because that’s what real intellectuals did. So I started. My boyfriend went to Hamburg for a junior year abroad and I visited him there. We went to Berlin in the January of 1974. We visited East Berlin during that trip, because my boyfriend had become a Marxist and was very excited to show me the GDR.

I have written about that first experience, which was extremely negative. Years went by. I married a different man. But my interest in German remained, and as it happened, the GDR offered summer school courses for teachers of German for very low prices, and a senior colleague suggested I go to one to improve my German. For a grand total of $250 I was able to attend a seminar for 3 weeks.  That sum of money covered room and board as well as classes and excursions in Weimar, where my favorite German authors once lived. I was very nervous about going. I stocked up on pharmaceuticals, and tampons, took a train over the border, and held my breath. This was the summer of 1985. My teacher was also my roommate in a house owned by an architect and his wife. Everyone was incredibly nice — except for the Yugoslavian poet who wanted to know why the stores were open 24 hours a day in the US, and why everyone insisted on eating steak. I had a tough time explaining President Reagan to my Polish friends who were attending the seminar. “But isn’t he just a really bad actor?” one of them asked.  “And wasn’t he in a space movie with a monkey?” someone else said. It was a strange experience trying to represent American politics in a foreign language, and the interactions that I had with my Polish friends, my teacher, and the many artists I met during my stay in Weimar got me wondering if East Germany was really as “bad” as I’d been hearing.

Perhaps my most startling memory was when I left Weimar by train and arrived in Frankfurt, which was in “West” Germany. Frankfurt was and is a big commercial metropolis. I walked into the train station and encountered an absolute barrage of ads, people trying to sell me things, and stores selling rolex watches, expensive suitcases, and diamonds. I think I realized for the first time, how much we live in a society that is all about buying and selling things. I have never forgotten that shock — that feeling of being absolutely buried in commodities. I think that was my first awareness of living under capitalism.

The second time I went to the German Democratic Republic, I went to Berlin. There though a chance research connection, I met and spent significant amounts of time with a man who was an SF/Fantasy editor. He introduced me to a number of amazing writers. I got to experience that once again the place for political discussion and critique was happening in the world of that kind of writing. It was great. These writers were using sf and fantasy tropes to imagine utopian worlds as well as nightmarish scenarios. As usual, SF/Fantasy had an active fan community who met frequently and communicated via magazines and comics and newsletters.

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Then the Wall came down, and all the publishing houses that published those wonderful writers closed down because the government that subsidized them no longer existed, and none of those writers could get published.

My last visit to Berlin was right after the Wall fell, and there was a McDonalds’ going up on every corner. 165844_10150895207024720_2023285528_n

I worry that the more complex history of the GDR is being buried under a kind of rhetoric that does not do justice to the people who lived there, who actually believed in socialist ideals (like my teacher did), and who hoped for something better after the Wall fell. “They” had propaganda but “we” have propaganda too.

As a writer, I feel that it is important to share what I saw of the GDR from my own small perspective.

The unwillingness of many Berliners to part with the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall testifies, in my humble opinion, not only to a wish to celebrate freedom, but also a concern with preserving the complicatedness of the past. The nostalgia for the Wall and for the GDR (sometimes called Ostalgie) is a symptom of a deeper awareness that the truth of the past is somehow eluding these overly simplistic accounts.

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Berlin Wall timeline

A pretty objective timeline:

8 May 1945 Second world war ends and the Red Army captures Berlin. The city is divided in half; the Soviet Union in the east, and the British, Americans and French in the west.

24 June 1948 The Soviets begin the Berlin blockade.

25 June 1948 The United States begin the Berlin air lift delivering food and fuel supplies to the city.

12 May 1949 The Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany is founded.

24 May 1949 The German Democratic Republic, East Germany is founded.

30 September 1949 Berlin airlift ends.

17 June 1953 The Red Army steps in to suppress riots by East Berlin workers over work conditions.

13 August 1961 The border between East and West Berlin is closed. Soldiers start to build the wall, at first with barbed wire and light fencing which in the coming years develops into a heavily complex series of wall, fortified fences, gun positions and watchtowers that are heavily guarded. The wall ended up being 96 miles long and the average height of the concrete divide was 11.8ft.

14 August 1961 Brandenburg Gate is closed.

26 June 1963 US President John F Kennedy visits the wall vowing to protect East Berlin, famously declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner).

May 1973 East and West Germany establish formal diplomatic ties.

12 June 1987 President Ronald Reagan visits Berlin calling for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall.

10 September 1989 Hungary opens its border with Austria. More than 13,000 refugees flee into Austria.

4 November 1989 More than a million people attend a pro-democracy rally in East Berlin’s central square. The East German government resigns within days.

9 November 1989 The wall is pulled down as thousands of East Germans celebrate entering West Berlin.

Source:  The Guardian UK:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/12/50th-anniversary-berlin-wall-timeline

Writing exercise –

Now, on your laptop or tablet (otherwise use a piece of paper which you’ll then transcribe from), start writing a page that is title:

Death is a Master from   ——- (you fill in the blank)

Your first sentence is:

My name is ———- (You fill in the blank)

Use the autobiographical material you generated earlier.

Use each of your found poetry lines as well.

As you begin to write your found poetry line, please call it out so others can hear it. It’s ok of more than one person speaks.

As you hear other people speaking, choose a word or two from what they have said, and use that in whatever sentence you are writing. Use it immediately. It’s ok, if it doesn’t entirely make sense. If you aren’t sure what they said, guess and write that word or phrase down. It’s ok if people choose the same lines and phrases.

From time to time I will also call out a line or phrase from one of the poems or from another poem I have selected.

Please use a piece of that too.


Keep writing until you have written a full page (about 750 words) and have used all your lines. If you can write more, then keep writing.  You want to go until you literally can’t go any more. Then try to push a few more sentences out.

If you are finished, please come to the front for another set of instructions.

Slow Write

Take out a separate piece of paper and put your pen/pencil in your non-dominant hand (if you’re right-handed use your left hand; if you’re left-handed use your right hand).

This step is crucial.

Fill in the following with a few words: (you will not share this exercise, but will use it)

1. My earliest memory is:

2. What I remember about the first room I slept in as a child is:

3. I really loved:

4. I was really afraid of:

5. My earliest happy memory is:

6. The most frightening thing I saw on tv or in a movie when I was little is:

7. My favorite bedtime story was:

8. Remembering these things makes my body feel:

9. Death is a Master from:

Week 9 — May 28th and 30th — pick your project/focus of interest from suggestions the class made

Signups for week 9 will be posted on ilearn under the discussion rubric and will be available May 10th.

Choose the option you like, and post on that board.  The class decided that the following options were attractive:

1. workshop of student writing with a discussion of Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE or THE METAMORPHOSIS

2. Discussion and writing around the novel PERFUME

3. Film viewing and writing (see list on ilearn)

4. Museum exhibition visitation and writing (see locations on ilearn)

Who’s German? work for May 21st and May 23rd

Germany is at this point a multi-cultural country, although its demographics are very solidly European and German (see this Princeton site for an overview). Yet, there is also a considerable Turkish minority in Germany. Poet Zafer Senocak is part of this group. Yoko Tawada represents yet a different sort of immigrant. She is a Japanese National who has moved to Germany permanently.

Together these and many other artists who live in Germnany (including the Jewish American XXX rock star Peaches) raise the question “who’s German” — provoking a similarly complex question for us here in Southern California. “Who’s  American?”  What does that mean to us here in the western part of the nation?  Our cultural heritage is not British but Spanish, and our relationship to the Pacific Rim is also rich and extremely complicated (when you walk into Dodger Stadium you are entering the place where Japanese-Americans were called to report and then interred in camps). Then there’s the matter of Native American tribes in SoCal. Also a very complex history.

Who are ‘we’? and can we speak of an “us”? If we can’t, then what do we write about? If we can speak about we or we’s, what do we write about and how?

senocak01  senocak2   tawada1  tawada2   tawada3

poetry as witness — the exile and the survivor — for Tuesday May 14th

The theorist Theodor Adorno once observed that “there can be no poetry after Aufschwitz,” but actually, there’s ALOT of poetry after the Shoah and WW2. Here are 3 incredible poets. (Kolmar did not survive the Shoah, but is too good to leave out).

Interesting fact: poetry seems to be the first form that people turn to in the wake of disaster/trauma.

Question: Why might that be?

Paul Celan and Else Lasker-Schüler are incredibly interesting writers. Celan is considered THE great Holocaust poet. He lived in various places, as your handout shows, and died in Paris. Lasker-Schüler also lived in various places, and ended up in Jerusalem, where she most definitely did NOT fit in. Her play I and I is one of the most fascinating plays ever written.  Enjoy!

Lasker-Schueler  Celan  kolmar

Berthold Brecht, 1898-1956

A maddening, complicated, and often nasty man (particularly to the women in his life), Berthold Brecht is one of the important playwrights of the 20th Century. HIs theories and practice changed how theater looks and — consequently — how movies look, how actors conceive of their art, and he has had no small influence on the development of performance art, the happening, and other kinds of performative interventions that take place outside of the theater.  This link gives a pretty good overview, but really no realm of performance in the postmodern world has been untouched by his work.

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was written while the author was in exile in Denmark in 1938. It consists of a series of tiny plays — almost skits — that range from the simple to the more complex. One of the things I like about Brecht as an artist is his ability to create a sense of danger, instability, and chance to the most banal seeming encounters. That ability is really at work here, in these little plays about average people in fearsome circumstances.

The Third Reich, WW2 and The Holocaust: 2 different timelines and why this all matters

Attached are 2 different timelines outlining the events of the Third Reich, WW2, and the Holocaust, or the “Shoah” (“Shoah” means “calamity” in Hebrew).

A CHRONOLOGY OF THE THIRD REICH   THE HOLOCAUST AND WORLD WAR II

What is not so evident in either of these timelines is the considerable resistance to Hitler mustered by leftists  — many of whom were themselves Jewish. The most comprehensive and reliable history of the Shoah thus far is the book Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry by Leni Yahil.

The importance of the Shoah for World History is an interesting issue to ponder. Why does it “matter” to Non-Jews, and particularly to people of color in the US and elsewhere, involved with their own deep struggles? The genocide of Native Americans was surely more extensive than the Shoah, and the African Diaspora — otherwise known as the Middle Passage — has been estimated to have enslaved between 12 million and 60 million persons of African descent — many of whom died in transit. That is a terrifying number. Professor Emeritus Irwin Wall once speculated that the Nazis actually studied the American plantation system, and that they may well have modelled the concentration camp on that arrangement. When we read the opening of Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, we certainly can feel a shiver of recognition as well as horror at the practice and events taking place on US soil.

Perhaps two people give us some insight as to why the study of this part of history is important.  One of them is the philosopher Jacques Derrida who observed “we must make links to Auschwitz” — implying that we must seek connections between the Shoah and what has happened and is happening in other parts of the world.

The other — my personal favorite writer on the Shoah — was not Jewish, but was sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner. Tadeusz Borowski’s short story “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” and his short novella “Auschwitz, Our Home” make observations about how money, power, othering of certain people, and terror are used to oppress people everywhere, and that therefore the Shoah is a crucial moment in history to understand, analyze, and  — by understanding — resist in all its present and future incarnations.

This observation seems relevant to me (it’s from “Auschwitz, Our Home”):

“You know how much I used to like Plato. Today i realize he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labour. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden ploughs, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made wars over boundaries and democracies. We were filthy and died real deaths. They were ‘aesthetic’ and carried on subtle debates.

There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice in silence, nor moral virtue that condones it.”