East German Scars: The Bloody Scalp of Literature

By Jody K. Biehl

Two literary crusaders have set out to rewrite their vanished nation's literary past by promoting the suppressed writings of persecuted authors. So far, they have found over 40,000 pages of manuscripts -- and a publisher willing to help.

East Germany often gloated over its strong literary tradition. But what about the untold stories of those oppressed by the regime? Two authors have set out to track them down and give them their rightful place in the canon.
DPA

East Germany often gloated over its strong literary tradition. But what about the untold stories of those oppressed by the regime? Two authors have set out to track them down and give them their rightful place in the canon.

Just the name "subversive literature" has a provocative, candle-under-the-bedcovers feel. In communist East Germany -- perhaps the most spied-on nation in history -- however, almost everything fell under that dicey rubric. Poetry about freedom? Anti-utopian sci-fi? Political satire? All blacklisted. Now, 16 years after the Soviet puppet state crumbled, two former citizens have unearthed the vanished nation's hidden literature and -- adamant that it no longer be submerged in anonymity -- are pushing to get it published.

Ines Geipel, one of the two crusaders, calls the collection of more than 40,000 pages by over 100 authors "the bloody scalp of literature." She means it literally. One of the most talented young East German authors she and partner Joachim Walther came across in their four years of scouring underground sources was poet Edeltraud Eckert. If she had lived, Eckert would be 75 today. Unfortunately, she barely made it to 25. When she was 20, she went to prison for carrying fliers critical of the East German government. Five years later she was dead, succumbing to gruesome wounds she got when her hair got stuck in the belts of a machine she was assigned to work on in prison, and her scalp got yanked off. Yet, the poetry she couldn't stop herself from writing -- despite government orders that she desist -- soared.

Edeltraud Eckert: one of East Germany's forgotten literary lights.

Edeltraud Eckert: one of East Germany's forgotten literary lights.

Finally, this year, her words have seen print, published in a volume by Buechergilde, a small Frankfurt publishing house with a soft spot for works by political exiles. After looking at Geipel and Walther's "Silent Library," Mario Frueh, head of Buechergilde, agreed to publish 20 authors over the next five years. He said he would like to publish more, but due to financial constraints opted for a representative selection. "The time is ripe for these authors to be heard," he said. "It took Germany well into the 1960s to even begin talking about Hitler's legacy. The same is true with East Germany. Such processes need time and these works show a side of East Germany many would like to forget existed."

As more authors and former authors hear about the project, many are coming forward and presenting their works, he said. "It's very exciting. We're adding a chapter to history." Depending on the submissions -- and, of course, on finances -- Frueh may even up the number of authors he publishes.

Rewriting the literary canon with forgotten stories

Joachim Walther says writers in his library were both critical of the GDR and of communism.
DPA

Joachim Walther says writers in his library were both critical of the GDR and of communism.

Like Eckert, many of the newly turned-up authors went to prison for their words. In most cases, their texts were used as evidence against them. Indeed, Geipel and Walther found more than 20 of the lost manuscripts tucked into dusty, but meticulously ordered secret police files and court records.

"The Stasi" -- the East German secret police -- "were very organized and kept careful records of everything," Walther said. "For once, their thoroughness had a positive effect."

Searching for unknown authors was arduous work. How, actually do you find records of people whose very existence was, in some cases, officially erased? Some budding authors were so broken by long prison terms that they never wrote again. Or at least never well. And still others fled to the West, where their works and worlds had no meaning and where they literally got lost in translation.

"It was not easy," Walther said quietly. "But we believed in the work. We still do." And even though their funding has run out, he said they intend to continue searching -- albeit on a reduced level -- for lost works.

By getting Eckert and other unknown and suppressed authors published, Walther and Geipel hope to quietly revolutionize the East German (GDR) literary canon. "In the GDR, there was an official canon, but there was also another canon that operated underground," says Walther, himself an East German writer, who only saw 50 percent of his work published in the GDR. He was lucky enough to get much of the rest published in the West. Most of his colleagues, however, were not so charmed. "People were oppressed. They weren't allowed to write what they wanted. In many cases, their lives were ruined. The official canon needs to be reformed to reflect this part of the history," he says.

The goal is not unlike that of crusading feminists, African-Americans and other minority groups, who in America have managed to get most school anthologies changed to include a more representative assortment of writers. The East Germans' efforts, however, are much more grass roots. At least for now. In essence, they are a two-person band -- three if you count Frueh.

Ines Geipel believes the GDR literary history needs a tune up.
DDP

Ines Geipel believes the GDR literary history needs a tune up.

Still, what they have already achieved is remarkable. Geipel calls it "the opening of a closed camera." In the fall, the "Hushed Up Library" will be put on display in Berlin for the public to see and peruse as part of the permanent collection of the government-funded Stiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur, a foundation dedicated to coming to terms with the GDR dictatorship.

In making their "library" selections, Walther and Geipel, also a writer and a women's advocate, insist they chose on literary merit, not political weight. For instance, even if they considered an author's writings important as a historical document, they didn't include the work in the library unless the prose met their rigorous standards.

Still, where there is innovation, critics abound and some charge that GDR literature -- including the works of well-known, oft-translated authors such as Christa Wolf, Anna Seghers, Christoph Hein, and Stephen Heym -- is already terrifically rich and multi-faceted. The fact that many authors did manage to have their works published is proof for some that truly talented people could find ways of overcoming the system without self-destructing.

Not so, says Walther. In many cases, "our authors were arrested (at a young age), when they had written their first works. They didn't have a chance to develop their talent." Most successful GDR authors, he says, were "critical loyalists," meaning they were critical of the regime, but remained loyal to communist ideals. "Our authors," he said, "were critical and disloyal. They looked deeper into the question of what dictatorship meant than any of the published authors." They began, he said, "where Christa Wolf ends."

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