Processes of Memory: Christa Wolf’s “Eulogy for the Living: Taking Flight”

By Fiona BrysonJune 10, 2018

Processes of Memory: Christa Wolf’s “Eulogy for the Living: Taking Flight”

Eulogy for the Living by Christa Wolf

CHRISTA WOLF IS KNOWN for her body of work on the East German experience as much as she is remembered for her speech in the last days of the German Democratic Republic on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in front of half a million of her compatriots: “Wir sind das Volk. Eine schlichte Feststellung und die wollen wir nicht vergessen. [We are the people. A simple observation, and one which we will not forget.]” As the most prominent East German female literary figure, critical of both East and Western systems, and a supporter of socialism who called for rebellion in 1989, she had another story to tell that was not to be forgotten either — of the conflict brought to the life of a child growing up under National Socialism in the 1940s, and how this was interwoven into the German Democratic Republic and German history.

In the posthumously discovered short book published in Germany in 2014, Eulogy for the Living: Taking Flight — newly translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Seagull Books — Wolf writes about her 15-year-old self in the winter of 1945, on the last day her family spends in her hometown before evacuating. The setting for the novel is Landsberg on the Warthe, in the Province of Brandenburg and formerly Prussia, renamed Gorzów Wielkopolski as part of Poland after World War II. Even though the names of her family members are fictionalized, it is the story of the Ihlenfelds (Wolf’s maiden name) on this life-altering day.

January 30, 1945 marked the retreat of the Wehrmacht and the arrival of the Soviet Red Army, which was invading the German provinces from the Eastern front. Although German troops had already vacated most of the city, its center was destroyed almost entirely when the Russians took over as they moved westward. These historical facts are of importance when understanding Wolf’s own position as a future citizen of the GDR and member of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) until leaving shortly before reunification in 1989. A Stasi informant for a period in the 1950s and ’60s, she was also a spokesperson in the protest movement of the late 1980s. She wrote about all of these perspectives in They Divided the Sky (1963), City of Angels or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud (2010), and most extensively about the discord stemming from her early life in Patterns of Childhood (1976).

It is recommended that Patterns and Eulogy be read together. The latter was never published in Wolf’s lifetime but written over a four-week period in 1971 as a precursor to Patterns of Childhood, which was released six years later in East Germany. Both novels deal with Vergangenheitsbewältigung: “coming to terms with Germany’s past,” specifically the Third Reich. Eulogy is more of a posthumously found ephemera taken from her papers at the Academy of Arts in Berlin, brought to the attention of her husband, Gerhard Wolf, by the director of the literature archive. With Wolf’s introspective tone, it documents flight and the defeat of Nazi Germany from a child’s point of view, illustrating that the family believed in the Nazi cause and were followers of the führer: “I remembered that a German girl knows no fear, but what should I have written? Perhaps a German girl knows no bad feelings at all.”

Eulogy was written before Patterns but not published until recently, which is important to note when understanding how this part of the puzzle fits into her timeline and career. Wolf examined life under socialism in almost all of her writing, and began this exploration in the 1960s, perhaps most notably in the praised They Divided the Sky — a novel on the relationship between a chemist and a teacher/factory worker that goes awry due to their disparate political beliefs. The Quest for Christa T. followed, describing the postwar years in the East. In the 1970s, Wolf sought to delve further into the German psyche by making the important comparison between National Socialism and the transition to the GDR, with Patterns of Childhood. Eulogy was written prior, thus introducing the subsequent novel.

In Eulogy, the young Wolf is disappointed that the regime has failed, as it spells imminent danger for her family’s safety, symbolized by the empty mark on the wall where the führer’s portrait used to hang. In Patterns, the adult woman travels to her now-Polish hometown from East Berlin a quarter century later, and she looks back at a young girl who didn’t experience her 16th year having been forced to grow up so fast. In the former, we are told how she felt until the moment she left the house on Sonnenplatz and her family’s grocer business, the familiar streets and squares, and her schoolteacher from Hermann Göring School. She adored Fräulein Dr. Strauch, who later died after being “arrested as a high-ranking Nazi functionary” on a transport headed east. If this book lacks depth in political and emotional subject matter, then Patterns attempted to go deeper. Reading much like a well-written diary (Eulogy was not edited except for grammar and punctuation), the relationship with her mother Charlotte — and the fact that she abandoned her family on the day of evacuation — is the main occurrence driving the plot.

I don’t know now who pulled me into the lorry, all I know is that my mother pushed me from behind, and that I then held out my hand in turn to pull her up, that she grabbed my hand and put one foot on the edge of the trailer, gave herself the impetus to climb up and then suddenly collapsed back, letting go of my hand. No, said my mother. I can’t. I can’t go with you. I have to stay here. Another feeling, Fräulein Dr. Strauch, another one I could have added to the list: incredulous horror.

City of Angels is about Wolf’s time in Los Angeles in the early ’90s as a Getty Center scholar. While she worked on letters from a woman fleeing the Nazi state for the United States, her Stasi file revealing a stint as an informant was uncovered. The book dealt with forgetting and remembering, tracing the ghosts of Brecht, Thomas Mann, and the exiles on the West Coast. Patterns equally addresses time, as well as the duality of National Socialism and socialism; Eulogy is part of this concern with history and memory. Wolf’s contemporary, the Brechtian dramaturg Heiner Müller, also addressed the historical connection of both eras, but more directly: “German history was another obsession and I tried to destroy this obsession, this whole complex. I think the main impulse is to strip things to their skeleton, to rid them of their flesh and surface. Then you are finished with them.” Müller needed to rid himself of a certain horror of being. Whether Wolf was trying to destroy her history is not clear: she seems a far more distanced chronicler of this part of her life, and one sometimes wonders if she was shunning direct confrontation, mirroring her political position.

In fact it is only feelings that anchor our experiences in memory, and only if the worst of all maladies, emotional coldness, has befallen a person do life’s minor and major experiences slip through them as through nothingness, and the only torment that remains is the torment that they no longer torment themselves about anything, not even that.

A conflicted view of Christa Wolf presents itself to the reader through Eulogy — an innocent child’s life groomed as a National Socialist in a petit bourgeois household, which clearly was an environment that did not encourage thinking outside the box. Wolf was a critic of the West and reunification, as well as a believer in the East’s underlying causes and a party member. She was often criticized for not exposing the regime more, given her privileged status. Not for the first time do we learn about an aspect of the writer’s past — as with Patterns, What Remains, and City of Angels before it, Eulogy turns a new page onto Wolf’s background. She has given us a little more of it with each personal piece. Once again, the reader is not clear on where the line between historical account and biography lies. This is also due to the difficult subject matter, an attempt to represent historical events by a fiction writer, who draws on her own life but is still writing fiction. This raises the question: how does one represent these events in the socio-political context attached to them?

It was the time when we almost saw the Führer in real life, the only opportunity ever offered to us, and it went without saying that we, my mother and I, walked down the three hundred meters to the road where other people had been standing, most of them women, for hours as they said, since dawn, since the news of the Führer’s intention to visit our by no means significant town had gone around like wildfire — that was what they said, wildfire, and I saw the fire running wild. It was the first time I stood amongst excited people, regretting not clutching a bouquet like some other children, amazed at the courage of two girls wearing white dresses and garlands in their hair, who stretched a white ribbon across the road to bring the Führer’s car to a stop, and tell the Führer right there on the edge of our town, how happy he was making us all with his visit.

Reflecting on her five- or six-year-old self, Wolf grapples with the enthusiasm of simple Germans toward Hitler, questioning her own curiosity of seeing him on the roadside.

I was ashamed because I had witnessed a transformation of everyday people. It was the same shame that took hold of me when Hansel and Gretel’s parents, who were thought of as good and caring, cruelly took them into the forest to starve. I never wanted to hear that part […]. I wanted to know nothing of the wilderness that grew inside all people every night …

This “wilderness” and “a jungle inside every person” is a phenomenon she terms closer to rage than joy. At this point in Eulogy, Wolf is first critical of the changes in people in her small town. One may recall Wilhelm Reich and The Mass Psychology of Fascism, in which he describes the failure of the workers’ movement related to socialism and Marxism after World War I, to define this shift in consciousness. Though Wolf does not go as far as Reich, as he linked his theory to repressed sexual drives, this rumination on her own middle-class family and other desires in the nation’s mentality calls for deeper consideration.

She says: Now your father’s a member a too. Her relief carried over to me, but not until much later could I explain the incident to myself. My father, incapable of making a decision of his own accord, had been forcibly incorporated along with the entire rowing crew into the Marinesturm, a sub-organization of the SA. He couldn't refuse, he believed, and he didn't have to fill out an application form. The relief I remember so well was the relief of the little people who had been granted a brief respite before the millstones ground them up between them.

One cannot help but wish that someone in Wolf’s story had been concerned with the fatally wrong direction the entire country was headed in. Not even on the final day of evacuation does anyone seem to question the regime; instead they hope that perhaps the German troops will save them. Of course, this paints a brutally honest picture, one that Wolf was no doubt trying to convey openly through Eulogy, aware that she was not casting the best light — a notion she sought to explicate, if somewhat unsuccessfully, in Patterns. In this context, it is saddening to know that the siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl of the White Rose movement, who gave their lives for the resistance, stand in stark contrast to those who believed and obeyed. Wolf mentions them briefly in Patterns, and 11 years later while accepting the Scholl Literary Prize, she stated: “This past has not passed.”

Also interesting to note is that DEFA, the state-owned film studio in East Germany that produced They Divided the Sky as Divided Heaven (1964), made films with themes on the Jewish-Nazi relationship as early as 1948. Marriage in the Shadows (1948) was the first German film to address the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, and Stars (1959) depicts an ambivalent German sergeant and a Greek Jewish woman in a Bulgarian concentration camp. GDR politics had their own propaganda model against the West in mind when using Wolf’s book and the anti-fascist films, but they allowed for an important radical artistic and political angle during the postwar period.

Wolf identifies a common insight among the evacuees on the lorry that day:

As though the great responsible party for everything that happened to us and others — the war — had at last decided in all its indifference not to beat about the bush any longer and to let us see in all openness, for it felt like that at this moment, what we really were in its eyes: nothing but dirt.

She recalls Das Schwarze Korps — the SS newsletter — hidden in her parents’ room along with a copy of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti. Lessing adapted the Roman myth of Verginia, instrumented so the men of Rome would rise up against their oppressors, as a bourgeois tragedy in the Enlightenment tradition, emphasizing class consciousness. The mention of the two publications marks an ironic comment on the Ihlenfelds’ and the German people’s situation. Instead of the middle classes going against the dominant aristocratic forces as in Lessing, the petit bourgeoisie of the 1920s–’40s had been duped by the führer and were about to meet their own fate — as with Charlotte Ihlenfeld staying behind on the last day, in a final attempt at clinging onto an already collapsed existence.

In A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, the Austrian writer Peter Handke also wrote about his mother, following her suicide. He recounts: “When I write, I necessarily write about the past, about something which, at least while I am writing, is behind me. As usual when I am engaged in literary work, I am alienated from myself and transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine. I am writing the story of my mother.” Both writers give accounts of their mother’s lives during the Third Reich by drawing on memory. Handke’s language is raw, openly describing his mother’s enthusiasm for Hitler, and her hardships as an oppressed woman. In Eulogy, we are made aware of Charlotte’s unhappiness in her role as mother, wife, caretaker, and shopkeeper, as she lets the family know the sacrifices she has made. Handke’s mother never expressed a loss or gendered injustice, and suffered from years of depression until taking her own life.

Along with Wolf’s depiction of her mother as a matriarch dissatisfied within the family dynamic, the demise of the middle and lower classes who thought they would profit from the Nazis may in fact be the overt premise of the text. Despite no resistant thoughts against the oppressive system in Eulogy, this is emblematic of the German condition between 1933 and ’45. As Wolf writes in Patterns, “The present intrudes upon remembrance, today becomes the last day of the past. Yet we would suffer continuous estrangement from ourselves if it weren’t for our memory of the things we have done, of the things that have happened to us. If it weren’t for the memory of ourselves.” It is clear from analyses of Patterns and her own accounts in City of Angels that Wolf had difficulty remembering traumatic events: her NS childhood and her time as an informant. It would have been interesting to understand how her membership in the League of German Girls or BDM, which she was never able to divulge fully, influenced her adult self under socialism.

Wolf stated that her “generation came to socialism via Auschwitz.” East Germans who lived through the Third Reich were conditioned to believe in socialism this as a response to their guilt, just as West Germans embraced capitalism and wealth to forget. The term Vergangenheitsbewältigung was criticized by Adorno for what he thought was a denial rather than an acceptance of the atrocities. Missing in Wolf’s entire narration — not uncommon in accounts of this period — is that there is never any mention of Jewish friends or neighbors who must have noticeably disappeared. This would be a vital exploration, perhaps too painful for Wolf to describe in Eulogy, a mere 26 years after the war, and is again only touched upon in Patterns. Ultimately, however much she seems to circle around her adult stance, it becomes apparent toward the end of Eulogy that she is not hiding her involvement as a child:

It had emerged that I could write poems. One day I dared, instead of an essay on the ninth of November, the date of the November betrayal and the stab in the back, to hand in a poem. It began with the lines:

Surrounded by enemies on all sides
Our land was in great danger.
But German soldiers brave and true
Let in not a single stranger.

Vile betrayal by the Jews
Made Germany plea defeat.
But Germany moved on swiftly,
Despite war damage most replete.

As part of a comprehensive guide to Christa Wolf’s often controversial literary history, Eulogy provides a perfect starting point, an important introduction to her oeuvre, unraveling her complicated political and human positions from the beginning stages of her life. One can assume that Gerhard Wolf’s opening quote in his afterword to Eulogy sums up what must have been a lifelong dilemma, and is similar to Handke’s objectification of himself in order to chronicle memory: “Not wanting to know the truth about oneself is the contemporary state of sin; one redeems oneself these days through self-awareness […] with the self as the object of study. — Kazimierz Brandys.”


Fiona Bryson is a writer based between Los Angeles and Berlin.

LARB Contributor

Fiona Bryson is a writer based between Los Angeles and Berlin. She holds an MA from The Department of Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research, and edited the Poetic Series with Keren Cytter, Sternberg Press (2014). Further, her research interests are in 20th and 21st-century female literature, feminism and gender studies, postwar German literature, and modern and contemporary art.


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