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City Journal: "for Wolf, not even living most of her life in a highly repressive communist society could extinguish her longing for an ideal, egalitarian, non-commercial society."

Date: Jun 25 2007

Iron Curtain Lady

For Christa Wolf, the socialist dream still flickers.

In 1960, the Soviet newspaper Izvestia extended an invitation “to writers of the world” to “describe as exactly as possible one day of that year, specifically the 27th of September.” The request was the revival of a similar idea by Maxim Gorky in 1935. Christa Wolf, a prominent German (formerly East German) writer and critic, doesn’t explain what Gorky or the editors of Izvestia had in mind issuing the invitation, but the project appealed to her. She continued with this exercise for 43 years, “and cannot stop doing it.”

The result is this huge volume, a combination of unmitigated trivia (what she ate for various meals, domestic details, chronicles of shopping expeditions, the weather, minutiae of personal and family health reports, social engagements, and more), social history, and a portrait of life for an elite intellectual and her family in one of the most repressive communist states—East Germany, which Wolf continues to refer to by its old name, the German Democratic Republic. East Germany had the highest ratio of political informers among all such states. Wolf provides revealing snapshots of life in this society, for example, that as of 1988, “30 percent to 40 percent of the patients who seek out their family physicians indicate emotional causes for their illness.”

Politics was the passion of Wolf and her fellow writers and intellectuals, always figuring the shifting political winds, watching for signs of greater or lesser freedom of expression, and seeking to grasp connections between domestic and foreign political events as well as between Soviet and East German policies. Notwithstanding her growing reservations, she could never bring herself to reject the regime completely. As an American commentator, Jeffrey Herf, put it some years ago, she was “a leading member of the loyal opposition.” While Wolf and her husband were under surveillance for decades, Stasi files also revealed that between 1959 and 1962 she was “an informal collaborator,” that is an, informant. Wolf makes ambiguous references to her informant status, reflecting both a measure of remorse as well as indignation over what she feels was excessive criticism.

In 1961, ruminating on why she stayed in East Germany when so many others had left, she writes: “Here in our country the prerequisites for becoming human are increasing. Theoretically quite clear. Practically: are they really increasing?” She notes that she and her husband declined to move to West Germany because of its insufficient de-Nazification, whereas in East Germany every major institution wound up “rigorously cleansed of Nazis.” In 1989, she responds with “dejection and perplexity” to the exodus of East German tourists from Hungary to Austria, after Hungarian authorities unexpectedly acquiesced. That same year, she observed that “. . . our state . . . had remained a state of the common people; villa districts like those we had seen [in West Germany] . . . do not exist here. . . . the children of workers were given preference for entrance into the educational institutions. . . . And there was—which we considered the most important thing—no private property . . . [of] the means of production . . . we had always focused our eyes on that when despair with respect to this state [East Germany] was about to overpower us.”

Wolf shared the same delusional fixation as many Western intellectuals: that capitalism is the most fundamental evil in history and any social system that did away with it deserved moral credit. Many other Eastern European intellectuals were not beholden to this belief; they learned that there were greater evils in the world.

But Wolf’s politically correct beliefs did not spare her from some official criticism. In 1962, a party newspaper accused her of “‘a subjective distortion of the 22nd Party Congress’ and of deviationist tendencies” because of her support for Alexander Tvardovsky, a Soviet writer advocating greater freedom of expression for writers. In 1965, she was one of the speakers at the Plenum of the Central Committee of the East German ruling party. Another speaker mistakenly accused her of demanding “absolute freedom for art,” but as she makes clear, her demands were far more modest: “It was primarily a matter of warding off suspicion that the [German] Writers’ Union had become a Petofi Club, that is, a counter-revolutionary center.” The Petofi Club was a forum of intellectuals critical of the communist regime in Hungary before the revolution of 1956. We do not know if Wolf had distanced herself from the union on prudential grounds (to retain her political credentials and the goodwill of the authorities) or because she genuinely rejected the union’s positions.

The trajectory of Wolf’s political evolution has many parallels with that of leftist Western intellectuals, whom historical events compel to abandon their support for communist regimes, but who prove unwilling or unable fully to renounce their earlier convictions. Wolf continued to nurture utopian longings and lingering reverence for Marxist ideals even after the East German regime’s collapse. She responded to the reunification of Germany with a reaffirmation of moral equivalence: if communist systems had turned out to be bad, so were the Western capitalist ones, and there was little to choose from between them. Wolf’s complaints about consumerism expressed these attitudes, as when she writes of a time “when we are supposed to be buried in material objects and become material things ourselves”—a complaint that gives comfort to intellectuals, whose sense of identity is rooted in the role of social critic.

Wolf did not seize the opportunity One Day a Year presented for a thorough, systematic probing of the evolution of her worldview, nor for an understanding of the errors and illusions to which she was susceptible. She seems annoyed by those who “demanded my confession of guilt as an entry into the Western media landscape”—even though she managed to enter it without making such confessions. The sources of her qualified disillusionment with the East German regime remain unclear, as does the extent of her dissatisfaction. What is clear is that for Wolf, not even living most of her life in a highly repressive communist society could extinguish her longing for an ideal, egalitarian, non-commercial society.

Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His most recent book, The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries, and Political Morality in the Twentieth Century, was published in 2006.