Helmut Peitsch. Nachkriegsliteratur 1945–1989. Göttingen: V&R unipress, 2009. 404 S. $79.00 (gebunden), ISBN 978-3-89971-730-3.
Reviewed by Stephen Brockmann
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (June, 2010)
H. Peitsch: Nachkriegsliteratur 1945–1989
This fascinating book is part of an ongoing scholarly reevaluation of postwar German literature that began after German reunification in 1990. Helmut Peitsch separates himself from the general thrust of that reevaluation in two ways. First, whereas many other scholars, such as Carsten Gansel, have tended to focus on the unity of German literature even during the period of German division, Peitsch insists on the validity of the concept of two German literatures. Second, whereas critical and scholarly discussions since 1990 have often criticized both the literature and the literary sphere of the German Democratic Republic as second-rate, politically suspect, or morally problematic – a critique that began with the attacks on Christa Wolf’s novella “Was bleibt” in 1990, but that, as Peitsch points out, was already incipient in the 1980s – Peitsch consistently treats both the literature and the literary sphere of the GDR as worthwhile objects of study and tends to avoid moral and political value judgments as well as generalizations, such as Heinz Schlaffer’s negative characterization of postwar literature in both German states, which Peitsch quotes: “Aus gelehrigen Zöglingen [der Siegermächte, SB] wurden gewiß bessere Menschen, jedoch keine guten Dichter” (p. 11).
Peitsch’s study is characterized by an intense recognition of the interrelationship between literature and politics. The book is divided into four major time periods – 1945-1949, 1949-1961, 1961-1976, and 1976-1989 – and in each period Peitsch is careful to show the way that literature responded to major political issues of the day. This was true not just in the GDR, where conventional post-Wall evaluations of German literary history might anticipate it, but also in the Federal Republic of Germany. Moreover, Peitsch insists that the interrelationship between literature and politics in both parts of Germany is not necessarily a mark of poor literary quality – often quite to the contrary: the political embeddedness of German literature in this period is part of what makes it so fascinating and worthy of study. Hence the study of literary debates and of literature itself becomes part of the ideological history of a divided postwar Germany.
In spite of Peitsch’s insistence on the continuing validity of the concept of two German literatures, his book nevertheless demonstrates that in each period of postwar German history authors responded to remarkably similar, often parallel problems. This was true in the immediate postwar period, when authors in both parts of Germany addressed the problem of German guilt; in the 1950s, when antifascism in the east corresponded to antitotalitarianism in the west in an almost mirror-like fashion; in the 1960s and 1970s, when documentary literature and feminism became prominent in both German states; and in the late 1970s and 1980s when, as Peitsch convincingly demonstrates, the problem of national identity became a central interest for literature and literary intellectuals in both east and west. In the latter period, moreover, partly because of the departure of so many former GDR writers for the west and partly because of GDR writers’ tendency to use the West German media as part of their own communications system, even the structure of the literary sphere tended to be pan-German – a pan-Germanness, however, that Peitsch sees as promoting primarily or even exclusively a West German-inflected conception of national identity.
The majority of the book deals with the literary sphere – writers’ organizations, political institutions, journals, debates, etc. – rather than with literature itself, and this predominance of the literary sphere over literature is programmatic: Peitsch wants to demonstrate that literature, far from being a separate sphere, is rooted in and emerges from political debates. In spite of this relative neglect of literature – characterized, for instance, by the (doubtless intentional) absence of key works of postwar literature in both Germanies, such as Günter Grass’s “Die Blechtrommel”, the works of Uwe Johnson, or Christa Wolf’s “Nachdenken über Christa T.” – the brief segments of the book that do focus in on paradigmatic, carefully selected examples of literature are remarkably successful at summarizing and analyzing the texts and establishing a relationship between them and the larger political discourses of which they are a part. The few pages that Peitsch devotes to Anna Seghers’s novella “Der Mann und sein Name” (1952), for instance, succinctly summarize its significance within the antifascist literary-political discourse of the GDR, while also establishing revealing connections to another key conversion narrative from the same year, Alfred Andersch’s “Die Kirschen der Freiheit”. These thumbnail analyses of postwar literature are so interesting that I would have liked to see more of them in the book.
There is an inherent tension between Peitsch’s upholding of the concept of two German literatures and his simultaneous demonstration of numerous discursive and even stylistic parallels between East and West German literature. It is also surprising that Peitsch, who worked in the United Kingdom for many years, engages in a discourse primarily with German-based scholars, and tends to ignore the somewhat differing approaches of scholars working elsewhere; an engagement with these scholars might have placed the concept of a German nation in a slightly different perspective. Another tension comes into play in the final chapter of the book, which focuses critically on the concept of national identity that became so important in German literary culture on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. Peitsch sees this concept as primarily a West German construct that ultimately culminated in uncritical acceptance of German reunification; but at the same time he is at pains to point out that throughout much of the history of the GDR the official literary-critical standpoint was to insist on the cultural and literary unity of the German nation: “gemäß der offiziellen Position Mitte der sechziger Jahre gab es noch keine DDR-Literatur” (p. 15). East German critics even went so far as to condemn the “Abspaltung des Bonner Separatstaates aus dem deutschen Nationalverbund” (p. 15). Such sentences clearly demonstrate that while the concept “identity” may have been relatively new in the late 1970s and 1980s, the concept of the nation or even of the “Kulturnation” certainly was not.
To my mind Peitsch also overestimates the extent to which discussions of national identity in the 1980s were determined by or in conformity with representatives of the West German state. It is true that German reunification was the official goal of the West German state, and that representatives of the state sometimes talked about that goal. But what politicians talk about and what they really mean or want are often two very different things. In fact one can argue that neither Helmut Kohl nor most other representatives of the FRG really pined for national reunification in the 1980s, in spite of what they may sometimes have declared in public speeches, and that the collapse of the GDR and German reunification caught them more or less completely by surprise. Peitsch criticizes Edgar Wolfrum’s conception of “ein ambivalenter Nationaldikurs” that became, according to Wolfrum, one of the “vorherrschenden Kennzeichen der achtziger Jahre” (p. 315); instead he sees the 1980s as characterized by a relatively straightforward development of conceptions of national and ethnic identity that ultimately culminated in German reunification. In my view this gives too much credit to the West German leadership of the 1980s and too little credit to the long-term stability of conceptions like “nation” or “Kulturnation”.
Even for scholars who, like myself, may wish to dispute with Helmut Peitsch on this point, his study is nevertheless an eloquent, well-researched demonstration of the interconnectedness between politics and the literary sphere in both postwar German states. It contains a wealth of useful information that will be of help to researchers for years to come.
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Stephen Brockmann. Review of Peitsch, Helmut, Nachkriegsliteratur 1945–1989.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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