The Nobel Prize in literature has now been awarded 114 times, with 16 of those honors going to women. Of those 16, six of them are still alive and two live in Berlin.
Herta Müller is one. She was born in 1953 in a German-speaking village located in the Romanian region of Banat. For years, the Securitate, as the Soviet-era Romanian secret service was known, harassed her, before she ultimately moved to Germany in 1987. She received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2009, the year in which one of her most important works was published, "The Hunger Angel." The book is an examination of the deportation to a Soviet labor camp of a close friend of hers, Oskar Pastior, who has since passed away.
The other is Svetlana Alexievich. She was born in 1948 in Ukraine and grew up in Belarus. She was part of the Belarusian revolution that formed in 2020 prior to the presidential election that year and continued afterward. Belarus is considered to be the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. Many of those who took to the streets with her have been incarcerated, but she was able to escape into exile in Berlin in September 2020.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015. In her works, she combines witness testimonials into literary collages. Her work "Boys in Zinc" includes the voices of soldiers, their mothers and nurses as they talk about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979 to 1989), the horrors of war and the final years of the Soviet period. In "Secondhand Time," she describes how the Soviet Union continues to have an effect on younger generations in Russia.
Müller and Alexievich write about similar issues. They both relate the stories of people who have been destroyed by dictatorships or the socialist era. Müller is a master of producing poetically precise images, while Alexievich’s narrative collections are like complex symphonies with a melancholic background melody. The German-language books from these two authors are published by the publishing houses Hanser and Hanser Berlin.
Herta Müller brings along a bouquet of spring flowers for Svetlana Alexievich and Königsberg marzipan balls. The two friends hug in greeting. The long table in the dining room is covered with manuscripts which are to be part of the book Alexievich is currently working on about the Belarusian opposition. She disappears into the kitchen to make some fennel tea. Herta Müller says: "I would so like to just meet Svetlana for no real reason, and I really don’t want to give an interview right now. But there’s no choice. Putin is forcing us to do so."
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Alexievich, Ms. Müller, do you believe that Russia is going to invade Ukraine?
Alexievich: I am not a politician, of course, but I am half Ukrainian on my mother’s side. Some of my relatives live in Belarus, others in Ukraine. And all of them are talking only about this single issue. For whatever reason, though, most of them have the feeling that there won’t be a war, though some have already begun hoarding flour and matches. I think there will be another meeting between the American and Russian presidents, and that’s actually what Vladimir Putin is after. He wants to be at the center of attention.
Müller: Do you really believe, Svetlana, that he would deploy his troops just to achieve something like that? He already tried it out in Crimea in 2014 and it worked. He annexed Crimea in violation of international law. He de facto occupied parts of the Donbas; without Putin there would be no separatists. He has cut Ukraine into pieces. Everyone is talking about the crisis at the moment. What crisis? Ukraine has long since become home to war. For the last eight years!
DER SPIEGEL: Putin has denied that he intends to invade Ukraine with the troops he has amassed on the border, but Western governments are alarmed. Ukraine borders Romania to the south and Belarus to the north, the two countries where you are from. What are your emotions when you think about a possible invasion?
Müller: Fear, desperation and helplessness. Ukrainians are in a particularly difficult situation, but Putin has ensured for several years that all Eastern Europeans need to be afraid. Why did Romania and Poland want to join NATO? Certainly not to attack Russia, but to protect themselves.
2009 Nobel Prize in literature recipient Herta MüllerFoto: Julia Steinigeweg / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: Putin is extremely popular in Russia, with 70 percent of the population identifying with him according to a recent survey. It seems that fears of war aren’t particularly widespread in the country.
Müller: Yeah, all surveys show that people living in dictatorships love their dictator. Even though he rules counter to their interests. What does he do with all the money from the sale of oil and gas? It doesn’t benefit the people. What is he doing for infrastructure or for medicine or for culture?
Alexievich: He just invests the money in the military.
Müller: We buy his gas and oil and he uses our money to produce his weapons and try them out in Syria. And now, he needs them for Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: Perestroika – restructuring – began in the middle of the 1980s, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In your works, you both describe just how powerfully the socialist period continues to reverberate. Why do you hold that view?
Alexievich: It is undeniable that neither the red man nor the dictatorships have died.
Müller: Putin is unable to free himself from old patterns of thought. His roots are in the Soviet secret service. He randomly accuses people in his own country of being foreign agents. He was socialized as a criminal and knows nothing other than lying, fabrication and extortion. And then there are the murders, including of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, neither of which were really cleared up. What is he able to offer aside from a dictatorship? That is the problem facing dictators. They commit so many crimes that they know: If they stop being dictators, they would have to face the judiciary.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it correct to refer to Putin as a dictator?
Müller: What else might he be? He sends opposition activists to prison or to camps. Stalin’s camp system continues to be functional in today’s Russia. Just recently, the human rights organization Memorial was dissolved because memories of the crimes committed in the Gulags have become taboo. Young people in Russia only have two possibilities: emigrate or keep quiet.
Alexievich: Not everything can be explained with Putin. It’s also the people. If you’ve been locked in for as long as we Eastern Europeans were, you no longer know what it means to be free. What remains after a dictatorship? Not just a broken economy, but also the duped populace.
DER SPIEGEL: You were in Ukraine in 2004 with Oskar Pastior, Ms. Müller, to conduct research for "The Hunger Angel." He had been imprisoned there in a labor camp 60 years earlier. In the novel, the protagonist is even nostalgic about his prison camp after returning home.
Müller: Yes, if you have been oppressed for a long period of time and then receive your freedom, it’s empty. It hurts. You’ve gotten used to oppression because you must live with it to avoid giving up. Pastior and I were in Donbas, that’s where the camps were. The villages were full of old people with no teeth and no shoes. But their military decorations were still pinned to their jackets. In their poverty, they displayed the only dignity that remained to them. All the years since were unable to provide them with any other form of dignity.
Alexievich: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people didn’t know how to breathe life into democracy. We demonstrated resolutely for it, but we had no idea how to do it, how to be free. We had no political culture. The oligarchs forced their way into this vacuum, enriching themselves, and suddenly we were living in a world that we really hadn’t wanted, in a predatory capitalist system where just a very few were rich, and the vast majority were poor. In Moscow, a man from Tajikistan told me that he was unable to receive an education because he didn’t have enough money, and now his wife has to clean bathrooms. But his grandparents were able to complete university in Moscow. Of course such people find themselves wondering if maybe things used to be better.
DER SPIEGEL: How much responsibility falls on the West’s shoulders? Eastern Germans say that Western Germans were full of arrogance following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Alexievich: I sometimes think about what would have happened if we in Belarus had received the kind of help that the Eastern Germans received. It would have changed a lot. But we haven’t been able to make it on our own. We were left in Russia’s sphere of influence, where the same post-Soviet problems have cropped up as in Belarus.
An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin full of bullet holes at a frontline position in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine. "What is it that German politicians want to send to Ukraine? Helmets? That is a disgrace before the entire world! Do they maybe want to send fennel tea next?"Foto: Vadim Ghirda / AP
Müller: There is too little talk in Germany about the freedom following the fall of the Wall. The focus is almost exclusively on the disruption experienced by Eastern Germans. It is a stroke of luck that this disruption occurred, it led from dictatorship to democracy. And to financial support. The things that Eastern Germans complain about are often the source of envy in other Eastern European countries.
DER SPIEGEL: Things turned out better in Germany following the collapse of the Soviet Union than many people want to admit?
Müller: Let’s go back to the times of East Germany. How were things? As in all dictatorships, a large part of the populace was neither at the top nor at the bottom, but in the middle, and obedient. They didn’t attract much attention and simply said they weren’t political – so nothing bad happened to them. These people didn’t even see the many others to whom bad things happened, those who were oppressed because they expressed themselves politically. That’s why they don’t remember a dictatorship, but a life that was quite satisfactory for them. But it is pathetic to now live in renovated cities yet defend Putin. It is political illiteracy, nostalgia. The Left Party has done its part to service this nostalgia for East Germany. And now the (far-right party) AfD is doing the same.
DER SPIEGEL: West Germans also express sympathy for Putin’s concerns of being threatened by NATO.
Müller: Oh yes, we have a former chancellor who has become Putin’s court acolyte. Gerhard Schröder is Europe’s biggest lobbyist. And it seems to me that his party has no opinion about it.
Alexievich: There is a saying: When the house of a great man collapses, it will bring down many smaller ones along with it. The people who are now poor aren’t terribly interested in the crimes committed during Soviet times, they simply indifferently ignore the mountain of books on the subject. I experienced that when I spoke about the Gulag during a reading in Russia. A man stood up and asked me: All that is in the past, but how can I feed my children today? That is why people turned away from democracy in the 1990s. Because we were unable to offer realistic blueprints for life, just words, words, words ...
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Alexievich, do you believe the West made mistakes following the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Alexievich: We were simply waiting around for the West to help us, but that was naïve. How can the West help such a vast region? It simply can’t be done. But I do see one mistake: the fact that the West since the czarist era has always been afraid of Russia. The West never wanted a strong Russia, until people in the West realized that it is necessary for Russia to become democratic, because otherwise it is bad for everybody. We wasted 10 years before arriving at that conclusion, years that would have been important for the development of democracy. During that time, the oligarchs put all of Russia into their pockets and thought they would be welcomed in the West with open arms because they were now wealthy. But the West treated them like the criminals they are. And the oligarchs were frustrated. Listen closely to what Putin is constantly saying: "The people of the West don’t respect us, they don’t like us and don’t appreciate us."
DER SPIEGEL: Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov now want guarantees that NATO will not station soldiers in countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union and that Ukraine will never become a member. Is Russia justified in feeling surrounded?
Müller: NATO isn’t even capable of surrounding Russia. And no NATO member state has ever threatened Russia. It’s actually the other way around. The security demands turn the facts upside down; it’s geopolitical megalomania.
DER SPIEGEL: Nazi Germany visited horrific suffering on the countries of Eastern Europe. Can you understand why the German government is insisting on diplomacy and is unwilling to send weapons to Ukraine?
Müller: That is just an excuse that really has no place at the moment. What did we do in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia, with good reason? We provided military assistance. The Germans with their history have a special responsibility to help Ukraine. What is it that German politicians want to send to Ukraine? Helmets ? That is a disgrace before the entire world! Do they maybe want to send fennel tea next? (Müller points to the package on the table.) Or maybe coffins for the fallen Ukrainian soldiers?
DER SPIEGEL: German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock says: "Those who talk, don’t shoot ."
Müller: What a stupid, hackneyed thing to say. People are always talking, even when they are shooting. It is awful how our politicians are talking. Lars Klingbeil of the SPD even sounds courageous when he identifies Russia as the initiator of the escalation. How can you be so cowardly? And what else did he say? "We now have to organize the peace." As if it is possible to "organize" something like that. I think it’s terrible that these people have lost sight of the consequences of what they are saying. That’s why everyone is looking at Germany with such concern at the moment. The Ukrainians have to be able to defend themselves.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Alexievich, how do you see things? Should Germany provide defensive weapons to Ukraine?
Alexievich: Of course. Ukraine must emerge victorious from this conflict; that is vital for democracy in Ukraine and Belarus. I was once in Ukraine at a time when refrigerator trucks were driving the roads of this country full of the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers who had fought in Donbas. It is a time-worn tradition that people come out of their homes and kneel at the edge of the road. It was a harrowing sight. These boys were just shot down by the Russian mercenaries. I think that German politicians who didn’t arm them with weapons then should know about such scenes so they understand what they should do now.
2015 Nobel Prize in literature recipient Svetlana AlexievichFoto: Julia Steinigeweg / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: Your homeland of Romania, Ms. Müller, is a member of NATO and of the European Union. Do you still see remnants of socialism in the country?
Müller: I see a lot of unrest, corruption, anti-Semitism, right-wing radicalism – of the kind that is in a lot of Eastern European countries, like Poland and Hungary.
DER SPIEGEL: Art is born through conflict, and rarely out of affirmation. Would you have become an author without the political conflicts that have accompanied your life?
Müller: I would have preferred to grow up in a democracy, even if I never ended up writing a single book. But every society has its own conflicts. Literature, of course, doesn’t just arise out of political oppression.
Alexievich: Once I was finished with my five books about the Soviet Union, I started writing a book about love. And I was appalled at how merciless this war is between man and woman, or man and man ...
Müller: Yes, love hurts the most, which is why secret services infiltrate the most intimate and private relationships, love and family relationships and close friendships. I always read literature to understand how to withstand life. That’s also why I started writing. In dictatorships, literature is polarized from reality. If you observe and describe things precisely, you create a distance to them, and that can help, and can even save you. It has been my experience that people who think politically can withstand more than people who do not.
DER SPIEGEL: Does receiving a Nobel Prize change one’s life?
Müller: I hardly think about it myself, but people do definitely see you through that lens.
Alexievich: Even after the Nobel Prize, you are still afraid each time of the empty, white sheet of paper.
DER SPIEGEL: It is said that you had to immediately leave your apartment in 2020 because you received a warning that the men who had been watching your home for several days were preparing to arrest you. A friend of yours is afraid that you will never again be able to return. Do you think you will be spending the rest of your life in exile?
Alexievich: No, I want to live at home and I will live at home. We will all be able to return.
Müller: Without Putin and Lukashenko, you wouldn’t have to be here in this apartment. It is a curse to be a neighbor of Russia’s. Lukashenko will remain in power for as long as Putin wants him there.
Alexievich: We can’t win without help from the West, and we hope that Europe acts this time with unified political will. Because this isn’t happening somewhere far away, but here in Europe. Who needs a war here in Europe? Who needs such a source of terror?
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Müller, you have been here in Germany since 1987. Has this country become your home? Have you, as it is said, arrived?
Müller: I arrived here in 1987. Period. I felt as though I had been saved, and I had been. It was very close to being too late, for psychological reasons. I was completely broken. And, of course, I feel at home in this country. What do I have in Romania? I can go to the apartment complex where I once lived. Or to the graves of my friends. If such things are supposed to part of home ...
Svetlana Alexievich, DER SPIEGEL journalist Susanne Bayer and Herta Müller during the interview: "It is easy for both of us to understand the other. I like how Herta writes and how she talks. I like everything about her."Foto: Julia Steinigeweg / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: It is clear that you like each other. You write about similar things, even if you approach them from completely different literary directions. How would you describe your relationship?
Alexievich: Dostoevsky once said: "We are two people suffering from the same delusion." It is easy for both of us to understand the other. I like how Herta writes and how she talks. I like everything about her. Someone asked me recently what I am most thankful to God for. And I said: "For the friends he has given me."
Müller: I liked her a lot at first sight. I had already read all of her books, fantastic documentary poetry. But we have contrasting ways of being, as you can see. I admire the way Svetlana can be at ease with herself. I am quick to get annoyed and am extremely emotional. Svetlana is respectful and reserved, I and like her tranquility. It hurts me so bad that she was forced to leave her country. It hurts me for her and for the people of her country. She is so badly needed there.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Alexievich, Ms. Müller, we thank you very much for this interview.