“Siblings” by German Democratic Republic writer Brigitte Reiman has just been published in English translation by Penguin, in its series of classic international literature. It comes sixty years after the original German novella appeared. Why is a text like this of interest to the modern Western reading public? Its primary interest lies in the fact that here we have an authentic female voice communicating to us from the early 1960s about what it felt like to live in the German Democratic Republic just before the border between the two German states, the Berlin Wall, was finally sealed in 1961. What kind of society and what kind of people were developing in the twelve years since the foundation of the two German states in in 1949?
The Cold War had begun even before the defeat of fascism in Germany in 1945. It had escalated to such an extent that the Western allies introduced a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, in the Western zones in 1948, establishing an exclusive economic area, followed in consequence by the establishment of the West German state (The Federal Republic of Germany) in May 1949. A few months later, in October 1949, the Soviet authorities had no choice but to follow suit, with the founding of the East German state, the German Democratic Republic. Soviet plans right up to 1952 to form a united demilitarised Germany in central Europe as a neutral buffer between the Cold War powers (four Stalin Notes) were rejected by the West and such a stabilising solution became improbable.
From 1949 to 1961, hopes to reunite Germany remained in the East. The GDR national anthem illustrates this, as it contained the lines “Deutschland, einig Vaterland” (Germany, our united Fatherland). The West German anthem continued to be that used under the Nazis, “Deutschland über alles in der Welt”, Germany above all in the World, the anthem which continues in use today.
However, as the Cold War accelerated, the Marshall Plan boosted the West German economy, while East Germany alone paid reparations to the USSR. A devastating brain drain took place and the sabotage of East German production sites, with tens of thousands of people working in the West while shopping and living in the subsidised East. Military espionage contributed to making the open border increasingly unsustainable. This led to the gradual closing of the inner-German border to stem the defection of the GDR-trained workforce. For a few short years, people could leave illegally via West Berlin – until 13 August 1961, when all borders were sealed and any transit of German nationals between the two German states was stopped.
Famous Western Cold War espionage novels are set at this time. Western history books spin their own version of events as historical fact. Other than speaking to witnesses, the art of an epoch can give a sense of what it felt like to be alive at a particular time. “Siblings” does this for the fifties and early sixties in the GDR.
The author of this novella is Brigitte Reimann, a well-known writer in the GDR, who died of cancer at the young age of 41 in 1973. Born in 1933, she knew the times she wrote about intimately. “Siblings” had been preceded by other texts, which had alerted the GDR reading public to her – “Frau am Pranger” (1956, Woman in the Pillory) and “Das Geständnis” (1960, The Confession). These trace recent German history from the Nazi dictatorship; the full acceptance of the guilt of the past; and finally, members of an East German family deciding in which of the two German states they would live (1963, “Siblings”).
In each one of these novellas, a young woman needs to make hard decisions. All of them are working women, protagonists that became Reimann’s signal subject. The theme appears again in “Ankunft im Alltag” (1961, Arrival in Everyday Normality) and finally in her unfinished novel Franziska Linkerhand (1974, which became known to English-speaking film buffs through the subtitled GDR drama based on the book, “Our Short Life”, 1981). An entire GDR literary movement was named after “Ankunft im Alltag”, the arrival of society and its people in a new normality, the building of socialism and the world of work.
In 1959 a significant cultural political conference took place in Bitterfeld. The ruling party’s (SED) recent congress had directed that the working class should be enabled to conquer the heights of art, that any divisions between social strata be overcome, and there be no gulf between art and life. Based on this, an event organised by the Writers’ Union in the petrochemical plant of Bitterfeld had determined the policy that GDR artists should spend time in production, run creative workshops in factories for aspiring working-class writers, from which some well-known authors later emanated.
Also, the artists themselves were encouraged to write about the lives of ordinary working-class people. Brigitte Reimann wholeheartedly supported this movement. She set her texts in working people’s contexts and also ran a writers’ workshop in a lignite plant in Hoyerswerder. Incidentally, the GDR had very few natural resources and large-scale lignite production often involved the removal of village communities from the lignite areas, creating a serious social problem that was not Reimann’s theme, but which continues to this day across Germany.
Aspects of Reimann’s own biography are frequently reflected in her work. In “Siblings”, Elisabeth is a painter who is deeply involved with life in a lignite plant, as are other characters around her. The novella revolves around this industrial core; it is what forges the lives of the characters. There, she runs a workshop for worker painters, some of whom show real talent. And it is in this setting that a variety of conflicts arise.
In addition and importantly, Reimann’s favourite brother Lutz defected with his wife and child to the West in 1960. She notes in her diary: “Lutz went to the West with Gretchen and Krümel (he is now – perhaps only two or three kilometres away and yet unreachable – in the refugee camp at Marienfelde). For the first time I have a painful sense – not simply a rational one – of the tragedy of our two Germanies. Torn families, opposition of brother and sister – what a literary subject! Why is nobody taking this up, why is no-one writing a definitive book?” And so Reimann herself writes “Siblings”.
Christa Wolf, Reimann’s contemporary, addressed the same subject of a young working woman having to decide between her fulfilling working life in the GDR or following her lover to the West, in her novella “Der geteilte Himmel” (1963, first translation into English by Joan Becker  as “Divided Heaven”, and more recently by Luise von Flotow  as “They Divided the Sky”, and film based on it was released in 1964, available with English subtitles).
Both novellas evoke a sense of the complexities of social reality in the early sixties in the GDR, shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected. The authors write in very different voices, both identify with the GDR as do their protagonists, and both continued to grapple with life in the GDR in their work to follow. Reimann in particular made the world of work the core sphere of her texts, into which her characters and their conflicts are fully integrated. The most famous of these is arguably Franziska Linkerhand, where Reimann explores the difficulties presented by unimaginative bureaucrats to the young architect who strives to create homely accommodation and towns where people will live happily and in cultural fulfilment. Much later this same theme appears in Peter Kahane’s film “The Architects” (1990), which was the last film to be made in the GDR.
Epic stories arising from women at work, their growing social equality stemming from economic independence and early, far-reaching pro-women legislation, including abortion rights, became a hallmark of GDR literature and give a more profound insight into what this society had to offer than any Western commentary will ever do. This is not to say that GDR art was uncritical of society – indeed, frequently, this was the sphere where the most open criticism was voiced, and therefore the arts became critically important for GDR citizens.
“Siblings” too contains criticism of party apparatchiks with tunnel vision. However, the family which loses one son to the West, and almost another one, has a father who confronts his sons with the money their education cost society and what their defection means financially to the state. Daughter Elisabeth fully identifies with the aspirations of the socialist state and fights for her rights and her dignity within this new society, when the situation arises. Reimann draws rounded, authentic characters who give complex expression to a spectrum of at times conflicting and contradictory political views both in the workplace and in the family. A sense of recent history is added through flashbacks to characters’ pasts.
The novella is of interest to the modern reader for a variety of reasons. For one, its sense of a dramatic change in the times, experienced again in 1989/90, captures some of the current political mood, where we are forced to face realities in a new way, to take a stand and act.
Secondly, this novella, like most of GDR literature expresses women’s confidence in their social equality to an extent that is unparalleled in Western literature and society at that time. Closely linked to this is Reimann’s search for and tracing of a new humanity emerging with the development of socialism. She asks in her work, and attempts to answer, how people change when living in a society that puts their interests before profits. She examines the extent to which they identify with this state. She looks at how this affects their daily lives, their relationships with one another. And in the case of Reimann’s characters, there is the added consideration of how they overcome the conditioning of the Nazi past. Central to Reimann’s attempts to imaginatively address these questions is the role work plays in the development of a new type of person. Readers are not presented with a uniformly grey image of the socialist German state; there is colour, initiative and energy.
Finally, and perhaps most relevant, is the parallel to the situation in so many countries today, that suffer a brain and skills drain of young people trained by them to the wealthier countries who pay nothing for fully qualified workers. This is true not only within the EU, but worldwide.
Reimann does not shut her eyes to the difficulties posed by bureaucrats, nor does she paint a black-and-white picture. But on the whole she is hopeful that socialism has a future in Germany. GDR literature and art has been widely suppressed as part of the blanket re-writing of its history by the West. Nothing of the country’s culture in the broadest sense – as minutely reflected in its arts – was deemed tolerable, and needed to be all but eliminated. Even today, there are few who defy this imposition and turn to GDR art to remember what had once been possible in Germany.