The death of Christa Wolf
- December 03, 2011
The German writer Christa Wolf died this week, aged 82. For much of her career she was known as an East German writer of course. During the Cold War she wasn’t pro-Western enough to be considered a dissident, but she was too individual and idiosyncratic to fit within the ideological straight-jacket of ‘already existing socialism’ either.
I first came across her work in the 1980s, at the height of the ‘new’ Cold War, which ultimately turned out to be its last rancid blast. I found her books thoughtful, humane and inspirational, taking on big issues of German history, militarism. feminism, ecology and nuclear war with a quiet urgency and seriousness that distinguished her from ideological tub-thumpers and British purveyors of middlebrow fiction alike.
Cassandra was a feminist re-working of the battle of Troy, written in 1984, which brilliantly reinvented classical mythology in the context of the new arms race, nuclear sabre-rattling & escalated global violence. A Model Childhood was a magnificent evocation of childhood under Nazism, clearly based on her own experiences, which set to examine Germany’s collective descent into fascism, war and genocide.
After the Cold War I was disappointed to hear that she had briefly been recruited by the Stasi (who wasn’t?), but she was also under Stasi surveillance (equally – who wasn’t?). I could never really imagine her being much of an informer and I was always suspicious of the self-righteous vitriol of some West German intellectuals, who accused her of bad faith and failing to condemn the East German regime.
These criticisms seemed to me to be imbued with an unpleasant streak of triumphalism and ideological vengeance, based on the binary calculation: East Germany/socialism = Evil, therefore West Germany/capitalism = Good.
For me she was a writer’s writer, quietly but urgently using her voice to bring some sanity and humanity into a century of unparalleled barbarism and violence, in accordance with the injunction of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that writers should
Speak, this brief hour is long enough/Before the death of body and tongue/Speak, “cause the truth is not dead yet/Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.