By Volker Hage
An appealing figure. An unconventional codger who devoted himself to writing and horse-breeding on a remote farm in Brandenburg. A successful author and one of the best known writers in East Germany.
His novels, "Tinko," "Ole Bienkopp," "Der Wundertäter" and "Der Laden," were best-sellers in socialist East Germany, and one was even used in schools. Hundreds of thousands of copies were printed, and his readings attracted large crowds.
When it came to popularity, Erwin Strittmatter could hold his own with fellow East German writer Christa Wolf. He was also inundated with letters from enthusiastic readers seeking consolation.
He received the National Prize of the German Democratic Republic several times, and he was the first secretary of the Association of German Writers for a short while. At the same time, he surrounded himself with the aura of a misfit. And there were indeed confrontations with the leadership the East German communist party, the SED, which sometimes led to printing delays and publishers' artificially restricting the size of the print runs. This made his books all the more appealing to readers, who read between the lines and felt as if they were reading underground literature.
His success continued after German reunification. In 1996, a respected high school was named after him in Spremberg, a town in the eastern state of Brandenburg. The 1998 TV adaptation of the trilogy of novels "Der Laden" (The Shop) received both the Adolf Grimme Prize and the German Television Award.
But Strittmatter was no longer alive to receive those awards, or to experience the 1996 revelations about his collaboration with the East German secret police, the Stasi, and the doubts voiced in 2008 about his own account of his participation in World War II. Strittmatter was buried in 1994 near his farm.
A Trustworthy Storyteller?
Now, to commemorate Strittmatter's 100th birthday in August, several books are being published that address these questions and present a critical view of the author. They also include previously unknown private notes. Strittmatter's readers and loyal followers won't be pleased. Even the town of Spremberg has decided to dispense with official appreciations of its honorary citizen.
Was he an appealing figure? A colorful eccentric? A trustworthy storyteller? The new books paint a different picture, one of a man who, after the war, portrayed his own days as a soldier in such a way that it would fit neatly into the image of the anti-fascist East German citizen; a man who, as a member of the Communist Party, did his best not to rub the new rulers the wrong way; who fled from women when his passions led to consequences; and who used illness as an excuse to extricate himself from his position as first secretary of the East German writers' association when the work became too much for him.
It's the picture of a man who wanted his peace and quiet so that he could write and devote himself to his animals, and who sought to escape the noise of the city and his own children. Ultimately, he also wanted to be left alone by SED officials and his memories of World War II.
The richest portrayal of the life of Erwin Strittmatter is the substantial biography by historian Annette Leo. Her interest in the writer was aroused in 2008 by an article in the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper. In the story, author Werner Liersch showed that Strittmatter, instead of being an ordinary soldier in the German army during World War II, was in fact a member of a combined SS, police and mountain trooper regiment that was sent to Slovenia and Greece to fight partisans. Strittmatter, however, had always suggested that he had served as battalion clerk during the period in question.
Strittmatter apparently kept his third wife, Eva, with whom he lived on a rural horse farm for four decades, as well as his own sons in the dark -- even though he must have known by 1971 that there was evidence about his wartime past, as the biographer discovered.
'Lost and Destroyed'
The author received a package from a former girlfriend in May 1971. It contained letters and diary entries from the war years, documents that he had once given her for safekeeping and believed had been "lost and destroyed" long ago.
On the day the package arrived, Strittmatter wrote in his journal that it contained "discarded skins of my soul, which I view with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety." It isn't clear, however, how the discovery of the documents affected him, and whether he even delved into the package contents. His journal also contains no mention of his having told his family any of the details, nor did he reveal anything before his death in 1994. After that, it was up to his widow to decide what to do with the papers.
Eva Strittmatter, a prominent and successful East German author in her own right, didn't make things easy for the biographer. Until her death in early 2011, she couldn't bring herself to allow anyone to examine her husband's papers.
Strittmatter's sons Erwin and Jakob, born in 1953 and 1963, respectively, also hesitated for a long time before finally giving Annette Leo access to the documents, which also included letters that their father had written to his parents and siblings during the war, as well as the letters they had written back to him.
The sons continued providing documents until right before the book went to print, papers they had felt the need to review themselves before releasing them. A biography couldn't be more current, and it's a small miracle that it was actually published in time for the author's 100th birthday.
When it comes to divulging the elements of the Strittmatter story, it's a stroke of luck that the book is written by a historian, even though the treatment of the literary works suffers as a result. Leo carefully arranges the known historical details, without zeal or anger, but also without whitewashing anything.
Leo is convinced that Strittmatter was never a member of the SS. But, she writes, there is every indication that he tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to join the Waffen-SS in 1940, at the age of 27. The fact that the letters "SS" were appended to the name of the Police and Mountain Trooper Regiment 18 in early 1943 did not mean that the regiment's members had joined the SS. Nevertheless, Strittmatter, as a staff sergeant, was involved in the effort to fight partisans, which included inflicting terror on the civilian population and burning people to death. There is no mention of any of this in Strittmatter's letters to his family, which Leo quotes in the biography, but there are indications.
Setting Villages on Fire
In October 1941, he wrote a harmless-sounding account of an old man who had overlooked the curfew while visiting a neighbor. "He looked at me beseechingly. (Thirteen men were shot to death yesterday.) I couldn't help myself. I just had to slap him on the back and say: 'Don't be afraid, grandfather, it won't be so bad!' Then they took him away. I hope he'll be able to show some identification tomorrow."
Again writing from Slovenia, Strittmatter penned the following words in a letter to Germany: "Prisoners would rather be shot than reveal any information. The villagers support these so-called freedom fighters. As punishment, the police have set entire farming villages on fire."
After the war, Strittmatter created something of an idealized biography for himself. He authorized the following portrayal for the Association of German Writers: "Then he had to become a soldier. Convinced of the senselessness of the war, he deserted in 1945." Short and sweet.
A good complement to Leo's biography is a recently published collection of works of history and literary theory titled "It's About Erwin Strittmatter, or The Dispute Over Memories." It includes a 2008 article by Werner Liersch, which launched the debate over Strittmatter.
In a conversation with one of the editors of the collection, Liersch adds that now even he questioned Strittmatter's account of his desertion. "Almost none of what Strittmatter claimed about that time period is true," he concludes.
According to Liersch, Strittmatter -- unlike Günter Grass, who acknowledged his membership in the Waffen-SS -- never diverged from his account until his death. He also points out that Himmler knew what he was talking about when he appended the letters "SS" to the regiment's name, "in recognition of their especially brave and successful mission."
German studies expert Carsten Gansel believes it is possible that, for Strittmatter, his self-created legend eventually became an alternate truth because traumatic events were generally difficult to integrate into one's own biography. Gansel speculates that the author may have found a way "to process his own horror story and gain an identity suitable for reconstruction."
'Don't Suppress Insights'
Strittmatter's fluctuating stance on the SED's policies, and the decisions and demands of the authorities, pervade his journal, which he wrote continuously starting in 1954. The first volume, which relates to the years between 1954 and 1973, has now been published under the title "News from My Life."
The journals reveal that, in early 1956, Strittmatter was full of hope as he described the events at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow, which initiated the phase of de-Stalinization. He also resolved to no longer be timid in his dealings with party officials and the truth. "So, from now on: Don't suppress insights anymore."
But only one-and-a-half years later, he unconditionally believed the official story that Walter Janka, head of the Aufbau publishing house, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and still a devoted communist, had planned a coup, and that the long prison term he had been sentenced to was justified. He even expressed the hope that Janka be sent "back to manual labor, to be paid the wages of ordinary workers on government farms," based on the Chinese model.
With growing recognition and popular success, he reconciled with his country and his own status. At the beginning of 1958, he wrote that he was satisfied with himself and the world: "It's a good profession, to be a writer in our time and in this socialist country!"
Strittmatter had no objections to having ties to the Stasi, which had contacted him at the time. But the author did not appear to have written any reports himself or signed anything for the Stasi. After a few years, Stasi agents concluded that their conversations with their informant, whose codename was "Dollgow," were unproductive, according to Stasi records SPIEGEL obtained in 1996.
Strittmatter began to distance himself from SED officials over the years. He referred to them as "party stiffs" in his journal, describing them as an "anti-intellectual, anti-human clique." He even considered leaving the party. In 1972, when he wasn't even 60, he noted that he would like to spend the last years of his life "outside a sect." But then Strittmatter imagined the consequences for his writing and concluded: "My nerves wouldn't be up to it."
In her biography, Annette Leo also presents many previously unknown details about the writer's personal life -- the result of research and conversations with three of Strittmatter's eight sons, including a boy the author had adopted.
Sent to a Boarding School
Each of Strittmatter's first two marriages, one in 1937 and another in 1946, yielded two children. But Strittmatter, who was obsessed with writing early on, showed no interest whatsoever in the children. For a while, his second wife, Anna, cared for all four sons. When he separated from Anna, the boys were sent to a boarding school and a home in 1953.
Leo, 64, who also grew up in East Germany, notes soberly: "Parents who behaved like that were not considered to be bad parents, but were seen as progressive instead." Commenting on Eva, the young woman who would later become his third wife, the biographer writes: "Clearly she was unable to appreciate what she was getting herself into."
But Eva, a woman 18 years his junior, whom he met in 1952 and married four years later, found the right approach from the very beginning, when she told him: "Your work will always be the focus of our days and the source of our love."
It was the sort of thing Strittmatter liked to hear. What he found less pleasing, and in fact sent him into a state of shock, was the news that his young wife was pregnant. "What am I supposed to do with another child, with whom I won't have more of a relationship than with children in general?" he asked himself. He noted that it was "the shared work" that could lend "permanence and maturity, and justification (most of all)" to a great love, and that now "the mothering instinct" had gotten in the way.
Their son Erwin, whom Strittmatter later liked to call Little Erwin, was soon sent to live with his grandmother. There, he joined Ilja, Eva's son from her first marriage, who had fallen ill at a childcare center.
Eva Strittmatter, who had moved to the farm in Schulzenhof with her husband in 1954, suffered greatly from the forced separation from her sons. Whenever she felt distraught, her husband said that she was having another one of her "instability attacks."
Staging a Happy Family
He wrote coldly in his journal: "She suffers and suffers because her boys can't be with us here. But she also loves me, and so she is torn back and forth to the point of despair and wants to escape." He was pleased when "my little Eva, in a quiet streak of regret," gave him a nice present for his birthday.
Still, she remained steadfastly at his side. She even sent two other sons the couple had, Matthes and Jakob, to her mother for extended periods so that the grandmother had four grandchildren to take care of.
When one of the boys was disobedient at Schulzenhof, Strittmatter became violent. "Rage takes hold of me. I hit the boy and almost hit Eva when she gets between us," he wrote in his journal. He threw himself onto the bed, horrified by his behavior, and she sent the son to the grandmother again -- and proceeded to comfort her husband, whom, as he later noted happily, she "showers and heals with her great love."
Biographer Leo, quotes from a conversation with Knut Strittmatter, a son from the writer's first marriage, who said that, even years later, his father had "no tolerance for daughters-in-law and grandchildren."
One of these grandchildren, journalist Judka Strittmatter, born in 1966, has now distanced herself from her grandfather in her debut novel, "The Sisters." In the book, he appears as a famous, scantily dressed and absent relative, Uncle Kurt, whose celebrity status is sometimes helpful to the family, but is often merely a burden. Sure enough, the character doesn't play a very significant role in the book, which is otherwise not particularly exciting.
In the end, the most surprising moments in Strittmatter's journal are those in which he is critical of his own behavior. In her early 60s, he asks himself: "What will happen to me? Will I go crazy? Dementia?" He tells himself several times: "Must pull myself together."
Indeed, he did become more affectionate with the children and tolerated their presence at the farm, even though their activities repeatedly stood in the way of the "peace and quiet that my work requires."
In August 1987, on his 75th birthday, all of the sons from his various marriages came together in East Berlin, all except one, who had moved to the West. But when Erwin Strittmatter wanted them to pose for a group photo, some refused, saying that they couldn't be part of his "staging of a happy family."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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