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Half-Truths Are Lies Too

Brigitte Reimann’s personal history of East Germany

On November 11, 1959, when she was twenty-six, the East German writer Brigitte Reimann threw eight years’ worth of old diaries—more than twenty volumes covering 1947 to 1952—into a lit stove. In another diary, she recorded what it was like to destroy them. “My heart aches as if I’ve destroyed a living thing,” she wrote. She hesitated for a moment before burning the notebooks from the next two years. These were “the dirtiest and unhappiest chapters,” she wrote. “My doubt and desperation about our cause, my first steps as a writer . . . my adultery and sickening, deceptive manoeuvrings, decadence and tedium, misplaced illusions.”

Reimann mistrusted keeping a journal. “How stupid it is to confide more than a few facts in a diary,” she wrote in a 1957 entry. And yet her work in that form was one of the great projects of her life. Between her adolescence and her death at thirty-nine, from cancer, in 1973, she filled notebook after notebook with uninhibited, acerbic, self-scrutinizing records. There are entries about marriages and love affairs, creative struggles and depressions; reflections on literature, urban planning, and current events; accounts of trips to Moscow and Siberia; expressions of fury at the German Democratic Republic (GDR) cultural establishment and shifting attachments to “our cause” of state socialism. The last three years of those notebooks have since been lost. The surviving ones cover fifteen years, from her twenty-second birthday to her thirty-seventh. Edited and abridged by Angela Drescher, they appeared in German across two volumes in the late 1990s. Seagull’s recent translations of those editions—the first by Lucy Jones; the second by Steph Morris—are Reimann’s belated English-language debuts.

The two preeminent subjects of the diaries are work and love, which for Reimann were less often mutually reinforcing than starkly opposed. Writing was the centripetal force holding her together and desire the centrifugal force pulling her apart. There was, she thought, a clear order of priority between them. “If I write two or three good books,” she reflected in 1963, “my personal life isn’t worth a scrap.” (In her lifetime, she published several novels and novellas, a pair of radio plays, and a Siberian travelogue.) It was on the side of her personal life, she seemed to decide, that the diaries fell. “If only,” she wrote when burning them, “my diaries had been a little more factual and objective (when will I finally become objective?), then at least they’d have some documentary value . . . But everything’s all mixed up with my endless love stories.”

And yet Reimann’s fiction blurs the distinction she draws in the diaries between the “objective” terrain of work and the subjective realm of what she later called “all that silly love stuff.” Her breakthrough novel, Arriving in Everyday Life (1961), reworked love triangles she had spent the previous year navigating, and in the same setting: the plant to which she and her second husband had moved in 1960 under a Party initiative—the Bitterfelder Weg—that relocated writers to industrial centers and promoted cultural production among factory workers. That novel’s follow-up, Brothers and Sisters (1963), was inspired by her brother Lutz’s flight to the West in 1960. She spent the last ten years of her life writing and rewriting what is now her best-known work, Franziska Linkerhand, an epic, semi-autobiographical novel that draws heavily on the personal and political crises her diaries record. It layers the memories, thoughts, and experiences of a young architect who, just as Reimann had, moves to a newly developed industrial town and sours on its promise.

The book toggles between third and first person, so that the narrator and the protagonist seem to keep merging and coming apart. “More a diary than a novel,” she said her editor Walter Lewerez called it. Neither the censored text of the novel that he saw into print after Reimann’s early death nor Drescher’s unexpurgated edition from 1998 has made it into English. (To research this piece, I found a copy of the out-of-print 2014 French translation by Bruno Meur and Claire Mercier.) The only voice of Reimann’s that has, thanks to these invaluable translations, is precisely the “personal” one whose authority she never quite trusted.

Culture Worker

The question of what it meant to “become objective” haunted the East German writers of Reimann’s generation. Having grown up in the shadow of the Third Reich (Reimann was born in 1933), they came of age during or just after the war and entered adulthood in the early years of the new East German state. “The most powerful ideological discourse” around which they oriented themselves, Julia Hell writes in her study Post-Fascist Fantasies: Psychoanalysis, History, and the Literature of East Germany (1997), “was that of anti-fascism.”

Writing was the centripetal force holding Brigitte Reimann together and desire the centrifugal force pulling her apart.

In fiction, that discourse gave a distinctive emphasis to the ambiguous, often contradictory versions of socialist realism that loomed large in early GDR culture. In an influential 1981 book, the scholar Katerina Clark argued that the “master plot” of Soviet socialist realism allegorized “the great historical drama of struggle between the forces of spontaneity and the forces of consciousness” using the figure of a “positive hero” who “mastered his willful self, became disciplined, and attained to an extrapersonal identity.” Hell shows how thoroughly writers like Reimann, Dieter Noll, and Reimann’s friend Christa Wolf reworked those conventions to make them narrate the GDR’s passage out of the sins of its recent past. Their generation had been given what seemed like “an attractive offer,” Wolf suggested in an interview from the late 1980s that Hell cites. “You can rid yourselves of your potential, not yet realized participation in this national guilt by actively participating in the construction of the new society, a society which represents the exact opposite of the criminal National Socialist system.”

Reimann’s first surviving diaries inventory the hopes and ambitions that offer could accommodate. “I want to write good things,” she wrote in a searching 1955 entry, “to work, to dedicate my whole life to this one aim; to help people through literature, and fulfil my duties, the duties we share towards the rest of humanity.” The entry dances between a “we” identified with the state—“the guidelines our society represent are unequivocal”—and an “I” that stands outside it. It shows her working out the prickly, candid voice that gives the diaries their idiom: “I might change my mind once in a while,” she writes. “In fact, I’m sure I will . . . If I’m wrong, I want to own up to my mistakes and do better in the future—but no one will be able to force me to say something if I’m not convinced.” Her reading from the next decade reflects a fondness for stubborn loners with a hunger for experience: Hemingway; Gide; “the insane diary of Countess zu Reventlow” (“my God, she really lived it up!”); Rousseau’s Confessions. She had a special love for Stendhal. “He’s an incredible egoist, and I feel very close to him: his vanity, his self-deception, his megalomania.”

Her career turned both on the cultural policies of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and on the powerful national Writers’ Union that mediated them. In 1959, the secretary of the SED, Walter Ulbricht, announced the Bitterfelder Weg at a widely publicized conference on cultural affairs. As the scholar Séan Allan has written, it was a policy geared at once towards urging workers “to become productive artists in their own right” and towards “reeducating established writers by seconding them to industrial plants.” Reimann and her second husband, Siegfried Pitschmann, volunteered. At the start of 1960, they moved northeast from her hometown of Burg to Hoyerswerda to work at the nearby brown coal plant, the Schwarze Pumpe. It overwhelmed her. “The refinery is so wonderful,” she wrote the first time she saw it, “that I walked around all day as if drunk.”

Reimann would live there for more than eight years. With Pitschmann, she set up a writing circle. On “production days,” she worked jobs like “grinding valves” and repairing furnaces. She joined a “brigade of socialist work,” a recently implemented unit of GDR labor organization meant to facilitate what scholar Andrew I. Port calls “participation in cultural and sociopolitical activities” off the factory floor. “The brigade is looking forward to seeing me with overalls and dirty hands,” she wrote. “They want to arrange for a photographer.” The foreman, Hanke, struck her as “the positive hero par excellence.” He built “a machine to make it easier for me,” she related, when he saw “how I suffered when I was sanding the valves.”

At the brigade’s first reading, she read from the work-in-progress that would become Arriving in Everyday Life to “thirty-five pipe-layers and welders.” The story of a young Jewish woman who chooses to love a virtuous student over a Westernized rebel, the book made her reputation when it appeared the following year. It lent its name to a genre, “the novel of arrival,” and helped her win the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1965. In Hell’s account, it crystallized the “fantasy of the post-fascist body” that underwrote GDR culture: a fantasy of transcending the Nazi past by mastering and rerouting one’s physical, sexual desires. One way to read the diaries, which make room for the mess of desire even while they strain to “finally become objective,” is as self-aware reflections on the fantasy Hell argues Reimann’s novel helped define.

Reimann speaking before the National Council of the GDR, 1963. | Wikimedia Commons

Unsociable Socialists

Many of the entries concern relationships. Reimann started having affairs in Burg while weathering the collapse of her first marriage. The men she dated tended to underrate her mind and overestimate her attachment to them. (One writer with whom she has a fling tells his wife he wants a divorce. “A divorce, for Christ’s sake! These poets are really way too over the top.”) She documented these upheavals with something close to boredom. It was as if she was determined not to let her prose reproduce the prurient, threatening attention men directed towards her. “A man who has just treated me like a colleague on an equal footing, talking to me like he would another man, who respects my work, suddenly discovers my breasts and hips: the writer suddenly becomes a woman he wants to possess,” she wrote in 1963. It infuriated her. What she needed was to hold on to her independence. “I don’t let anyone get to my deepest core,” she stressed in a 1956 entry. “No one should own me.”

A year after she arrived in Hoyerswerda, Reimann started a passionate affair with Hans Kerschek, a married writers’ circle member she referred to in the diaries as Jon: “the first man I’ve ever fought with, bitterly, to the point of hatred.” Once they meet, the entries seem to unlock a new tone: ecstatic, aching, violent. The pair had quarrels about Lenin and Freud that “ended up in long, wild embraces.” “I want to scream, tear him apart and cry with happiness at the same time,” she wrote in the summer of 1963. “His shoulders are covered with bite wounds, and afterwards I kiss the bloody marks.”

Her work, meanwhile, was approaching a crisis. She kept starting and restarting Franziska, looking for a form. At first, she wrote, “I found the story irrelevant, all love stories, not just socialist ones.” It took her more than a year to decide to proceed through, not around, the romance her diaries had been recording. She would shape the book’s first-person frame into a monologue from Franziska to her lover: “I’ll tell it as if I were telling it to Jon.” Over the next five years, the novel seems to have drawn ever closer to what she called “the silly stuff I scribble in my diary.” “I really do wonder if my experience of life doesn’t come mainly from novels,” she wrote in 1970. “Or do I turn real life into novels?” She worried in the diaries that she was living just to write it all down, that she had come to see her lovers and herself as characters in the novel of her mind. “I am Franziska,” she wrote.

This representational crisis deepened along with a political one. Reimann had long criticized the SED in private. “Intellect is illegal in our country,” she wrote after the philosopher Wolfgang Harich’s arrest in 1956. She vented in entry after entry at the state’s cultural officials: “boneheaded zealots” and “talentless imbeciles.” In 1957, she recorded a visit from a Stasi official who talked her into signing an informer’s agreement under strict secrecy, “a clause that I’m already violating by writing this diary entry.” The following year, as related in a series of nerve-wracked entries, she narrowly avoided arrest after refusing to cooperate with them after all. “God, they’re pigs,” she wrote when the Stasi tried to use her first husband’s imprisonment for punching a police officer against her. At the same, she doubted the West’s pretensions to moral superiority. “The West Germans think we’re primitive because all the wisdom and freedom and aesthetics of the Western world is stored in their heads alone,” she wrote in 1961.

But over the course of the 1960s, her faith in the East German state progressively soured. It was not that she was rejecting what she called “my sentimental socialism,” the socialism of “putting shoes on human feet.” (As late as 1970 she turned down a suitor’s offer to steal her a diamond necklace from the Green Vault, a museum in Dresden, though she was tempted—“art theft to me always demonstrates real love”—because “my socialist principles are stronger. All this museum stuff should belong to everyone.”) It was that she had ruled that “this isn’t the kind of socialism we wanted to write for.” By 1965 she was writing bitterly that “the state which once meant so much to us” had lost her confidence. “We once promised ourselves freedom, equality, and fraternity. Codswallop. You try to earn money, the more the better, make sure you have a nice life and keep your back to the wall.” The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 disgusted her; she earned more enemies by refusing to sign a group letter in support. It made her decide that her earlier novels had been “terrible, the language and the politics,” she wrote. “I was a gullible fool.”

She was, it seems clear, moving away from the aesthetic forms and political positions sanctioned by the state. Where was she going? Christa Wolf was working during these years on a method she called “subjective authenticity,” which Hell describes as juxtaposing “the ‘truth’ of the author’s subjective experience against the objective knowledge of (socialist) realism’s third-person narrator.” The method’s great showcase is Wolf’s novel The Quest for Christa T. (1968), in which the narrator tries to recover the life of a late friend through the haze of memory and the writing she left behind. But Hell stresses how reductive it would be to say that Wolf had simply graduated from the “premodern” voice of socialist realism to the “self-emancipating voice” of Western European modernism. The diaries suggest that Reimann, too, was straining less to shift her sympathies from East to West than to go her own way altogether. She used them not to resolve her competing attachments but to pick them apart. “I know,” she wrote in 1970, “some petty-bourgeoisie and some officials and corrupted writers and embittered writers and I’m a bit of all of that myself.”

Message in a Bottle

In 1968, soon after her cancer diagnosis, Reimann moved north to Neubrandenburg and fell in with a new circle of friends, there and in Berlin, who seemed to embody the independence she needed. Among them was Wolf, whom she admired precisely because “her nature is totally opposite to mine.” She endured a devastating breakup with Jon and underwent cancer treatments, working feverishly meanwhile on Franziska. Suitors pass in and out of the entries. Then she lingers on one, a doctor named Rudolf Burgatz, and sketches the moments of happiness they share—fleeting rapprochements with the “love stuff” she spent so much of the diaries trying to transcend.

The harder it got for her to imagine an audience in the present, the more she came to locate her potential readers in a distant horizon.

She was not the only member of her circle keeping a diary during these years. In 1960, a Moscow newspaper invited Wolf, among other “writers of the world,” to publish a journal entry for September 27. Each year, from then until her death in 2011, she carried on the tradition in private, writing in her diary on or around that day. It was a way of becoming belatedly objective. “Proceeding from a certain point in time that can no longer be identified after the fact,” she wrote when the entries appeared in print in 2003, “we begin to view ourselves historically, which means: embedded in, bound to our time. A distance is created, a stronger objectivity with respect to ourselves.”

Reimann, for her part, never waited for objectivity to ripen with distance and time. By then it would be too late: she wanted it now. Occasionally in the diaries, she gives up on finding it and throws herself into the judgment of an unknowable future. “The future will teach us whether this system is good and just,” she wrote after her first encounter with the Stasi. “I don’t understand the world any more,” she confessed at the height of the crisis that culminated in the building of the Berlin Wall. “Later generations—if there is such a thing—will look back on our times the way we do on the era of witch-burning and cannibalism. We are living anachronisms.” The harder it got for her to imagine an audience in the present, the more she came to locate her potential readers in a distant horizon. “I often reflect on the book in astonishment, horror even,” she wrote about the chance Franziska gave her to “escape from a world I’m truly at odds with” and express the “dissatisfaction and unease” it gave her. “And some day other people—some of them—will realize it too, those who read it.”

But it would not be quite right to see the diaries as a message in a bottle to “later generations.” If they documented the tensions and dilemmas Reimann’s generation struggled to resolve, they did so precisely by interrogating what good a journal could be in the first place. In her own entry from 1965, Wolf wondered whether the diary would become “the only art form in which a person can still remain honest, in which one can avoid the compromises that are otherwise necessary or becoming unavoidable everywhere.” Reimann never put such trust in the form. “In essence, everything that’s written in a diary is a lie—or it’s all just a half-truth,” she wrote in 1956. “And half-truths are lies too.”