At the Center an Absence: East German Foundationalist Narratives and the Discourse of Antifascism (1992)

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This article proposes a critical re-reading of a set of East German historical novels which write the GDR's pre-history as proletarian family narratives: Willi Bredel's Verwandte und Bekannte (1941-1953), Hans Marchwitza's Die Kumiaks
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  At the Center an Absence: Foundationalist Narratives of the GDR and the LegitimatoryDiscourse of AntifascismAuthor(s): Julia HellSource: Monatshefte, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), pp. 23-45Published by: University of Wisconsin Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 10/09/2014 12:20 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  .  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact  . University of Wisconsin Press  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to  Monatshefte. This content downloaded from on Wed, 10 Sep 2014 12:20:28 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  At the Center an Absence: Foundationalist arratives f the GDR and the Legitimatory Discourse of Antifascism JULIA HELL Duke University Es st gut, eine Frau u sein... und kein Sieger. -Heiner Miller, Quartett To speak of the historical truth of a literary text is now looked upon, at best, as some mild form of aberration. And to work on Socialist Realism still is equivalent to having a "leprous nose," an experience vividly de- scribed by Katerina Clark n her book The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual: When, n some chance ncounter t a professional athering, am politely asked what "do," find myself n the unhappy osition f having o admit that I work on the Soviet novel. Usually my interlocutor ries o help me out at first by suggesting .. that I am working n one of the more re- spectable writers, uch as Platonov, Bulgakov, asternak, r Solzhenitsyn. "No?... Well, suppose ven someone ike Fedin ... Not really?... Oh?" Then ollows hat dreadful ause when t all comes out: my work s ... on those hundreds of unreadable exts that serve as examples of Socialist Re- alism.' But enough defensive posturing. This article will not focus on Western criticism's canonical GDR authors, such as Christa Wolf, Volker Braun, Heiner Miller, Christoph Hein and others, nor will it deal with the bor- derline case of respectability, Anna Seghers.2 nstead I will analyze the "unreadable" novels of Willi Bredel, Hans Marchwitza, and Otto Gotsche. And I will propose that an analysis nformed by poststructuralist reading strategies allows access to the historical experience that these texts so desperately ry to repress. This will involve problematizing he socialist realist project: until now, socialist realist novels have been read as conscious texts, that is texts which both consciously advocate a specific political program and work within the limits ofa rigidly codified aesthetic Monatshefte, Vol. 84, No. 1, 1992 23 0026-9271/92/0001/0023 $01.50/0 a 1992 by The Board of Regents of The University of Wisconsin System This content downloaded from on Wed, 10 Sep 2014 12:20:28 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  24 Hell system. However, any close reading of the actual texts reveals major formal inconsistencies which, I will argue, point towards repressed contradictions and conflicts within the political project itself. What I will advocate is thus a form of "symptomatic reading" in the (post)althusserian radition which conceives of the literary text as an imaginary solution to a specific historical problematic. Ultimately, this involves the concept of a political unconscious, a concept which, in the case of these socialist realist novels, takes on a particular gendered di- mension.3 The novels-Hans Marchwitza's rilogy Die Kumiaks, Die Heimkehr der Kumiaks, and Die Kumiaks und ihre Kinder,4 Willi Bredel's trilogy Verwandte und Bekannte, or Die Viter, Die Srhne, and Die Enkel;s and, finally, Otto Gotsche's novel Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog6-were written between the early 1930s and late 1950s. In these historical novels, Bredel, Marchwitza, and Gotsche, members of what Wolfgang Emmerich refers to as East Germany's "group of proletarian evolutionary authors,"' write the pre-history of the newly founded socialist state, and they write it in a very specific way: as family narratives and as a progression rom defeat to victory. Thus, Bredel's trilogy traces the history of what is construed as a representative German working class family from 1871 to 1948, i.e. from the defeat of the "first workers' state," the Paris Commune, to the beginnings of the German Arbeiter- und Bauernstaat. Die Kumiaks tells the story of a miners' family in the Ruhr area. Like Bredel, Marchwitza articulates his family narrative with a specific historical text, namely, the progression rom the working class defeat during the 1918-1922 period- the years of the November revolution and the Ruhrkimpfe-to the Red Army's victory in 1945. Finally, Gotsche's Fahne von Kriwoj Rog presents the life of a supposedly typical family in the mining area of Mansfeld, whose story is similarly located between the tumultuous early years of the Weimar Republic and the arrival of the Red Army in the fictional town of Gerbstedt n 1945, a time frame which again gradually acquires the connotations of defeat and victory. Although these texts never tire of emphasizing he role of the Soviet Union in the establishment of the GDR, they nevertheless are primarily concerned with the construction of a specifically German socialist tra- dition. Die Kumiaks, Verwandte nd Bekannte, and Die Fahne thus insist on the fact that the GDR's legitimacy does not merely rest on the Red Army, but can be traced to a strong indigenous tradition of socialism. Moreover, the novels further egitimate the present by linking it with the supposedly antifascist history of the communists. The novels thus par- ticipate in the production of a particular ideological construct which found its most condensed expression in the slogan "Sieger der Ge- schichte": he SED, its state, and, ultimately, the citizens of its state are This content downloaded from on Wed, 10 Sep 2014 12:20:28 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Foundationalist Narratives of the GDR 25 heirs to those who fought or socialism and against fascism and won the battle of history. Thus far, these foundationalist narratives seem to be mere illustra- tions of the SED's legitimatory historical discourse. What makes them intriguing s the fact that all three of them reveal a major chronological break in the narrative: Bredel leaves out the years from 1930 to 1933, Marchwitza the period between 1933 and 1942, and Gotsche the time from 1935 to 1937. This means that they leave out parts of the period which the official discourse of antifascism marks as decisive, the period upon which the identity and legitimacy of the new state was to rest. It is this absence, this structural gap in the fabric of the socialist realist family narrative, which I will focus on. However, before proceeding with the actual reading of these his- torical novels, a short digression seems appropriate, a move from the founding moment of the new antifascist-democratic tate to the moment of its demise in 1989. In various essays by writers such as Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym, Christoph Hein, Monika Maron, Konrad Weiss and others, the concept of antifascism has emerged once more as a central category of public discourse. This concept has been discussed n two different ways. First, a critique of the GDR's political culture has been linked to official antifascism. Both Wolf and Hein attribute the "Entmiindigung" of the East German population and the weakness of the opposition to the purely legitimatory use of antifascism. In her article "Das haben wir nicht gel- ernt," Wolf attacks what she calls the "Dogma von den 'Siegern der Geschichte' ": Eine kleine Gruppe von Antifaschisten .. hat ihr SiegesbewuBtsein u irgendeinem nicht genau zu bestimmenden Zeitpunkt aus pragmatischen Grtinden auf die ganze Bev61kerung ubertragen. ie "Sieger der Geschich- te" horten auf, sich mit ihrer wirklichen Vergangenheit, der der Mitliiufer, der Verftihrten, der Gliiubigen n der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus aus- einanderzusetzen.s The second critique does not touch upon this explosive nexus of supposed antifascism and guilt, but focuses instead upon the similarities between the once really existing socialism and National Socialism. In February 1990, Monika Maron attacked the authors of the petition "For unser Land" for their attempt to resurrect antifascist ideals as the main char- acteristic of defining a separate GDR identity. After all, Maron argued, dictatorship reigned in East, not in West Germany.' In another article, Maron took her argument a step further by describing he East German state as neurotically reproducing what it so fervently declared to have overcome: "Auf unbegreifliche Weise ahmten sie ihre Peiniger nach, bis in die Fackelziige und Uniformen."'o A few months after the collapse of This content downloaded from on Wed, 10 Sep 2014 12:20:28 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  26 Hell the East German state, a West German journalist, Tilman Fichter, rein- forced this image of the GDR as something resembling a reactive for- mation: Die "moderne Grenze" ... war eine nach innen gekehrte Distanzanlage, die in geradezu ataler Weise an Drahtverhau, Wachtirme und Griinstreifen rund um die Konzentrationslager er Nazis erinnerte. Hier hatten trau- matisierte ehemalige KZ-Haiftlinge hre eigene Bevl61kerung ingemauert. Fichter's summary: "Welch eine bittere Bilanz. Denn letztlich iiberlebte die SS-Lagerlogik die NS-Zeit."" Thus, although the party's official dis- course of antifascism was organized around a defeat to victory plot in which National Socialism was just a temporary postponement of revo- lutionary change, the East German political unconscious was overdeter- mined by an overwhelming experience of death and destruction. In an interview with Die Zeit, the former East German author Stefan Schiutz pointed to this shadowy, yet persistent memory of defeat: Fiir einen DDR-Biirger war es ganz normal, mit den Toten zu wachsen. Immer wurde uns ein Toter als leuchtendes Vorbild hingestellt, an dem sich die Lebenden ein Beispiel nehmen sollten. Die SED betrieb ja einen ganz massiven Totenkult. Wir waren doch jahrelang mit den groBen Toten der Arbeiterbewegung usammen eingemauert, und irgendwann waren wir eben alle Gespenster.'2 I would not dispute what Christa Wolf says about the connection between the destructive effects of the official antifascist discourse on the GDR's political culture, and I take certain structural similarities between Na- tional Socialism and Stalinism for granted. Nor would I deny that there was a genuine dimension to the SED's antifascism. However, I am most interested in the issue raised by Maron, Fichter, and Schiitz are pointing to, the repression of a traumatic historical defeat and its re-surfacing in authoritarian structures. And that brings me back to the early historical novels. My thesis with respect to Verwandte und Bekannte, Die Kumiaks, and Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog is the following: I read these novels as texts which work through a traumatic historical experience by construct- ing a very specific symbolic system of gender, one which is both extremely polarized and hierarchical. Joan Scott's writings on the category of gender provide a point of entry into this problem. Scott defines gender as "a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes," and as "a primary way of signifying relationships of power.""' It is this second aspect, gender as "a primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated," which is of crucial importance in the present context. With respect to the "signification of power," Scott argues, these socially constructed systems of gender have a "legitimizing This content downloaded from on Wed, 10 Sep 2014 12:20:28 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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