Ideologies and dialogues

The Powers of Speech
October 4, 1996

This is a well-researched book from one of America's leading scholars of the German Democratic Republic. David Bathrick brings formidable knowledge of the cultural politics of the GDR to his examination of the role played by the literary intelligentsia in the country's initial search for cultural legitimation and its attempt in the late 1960s to define a public sphere of debate within, and increasingly against the official discourse.

The book neatly outlines the tensions inherent in the progressive stance of writers and intellectuals whose sense of solidarity - unique in countries behind the Iron Curtain - was defined and in many ways deformed by the antifascist record of the ruling elite. The emotional constraints imposed on them by such political pedigrees are well illustrated in the bitter debates provoked by their attempts to rescue expressionism, avant-garde poetry or the work of modernists such as Kafka and Nietzsche from the decadent bourgeois dustbin to which the party ideologues had consigned them. The account of the hesitant reception of German Romanticism is particularly illuminating. But a weakness of the analysis is the lack of concrete demonstration of how these controversies were reflected in language. The structures of the argument are laid bare, but telling details are frequently missing. Thus, when Bathrick discusses the rejection of the generation of Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym and Volker Braun by the young writers and artists of the Prenzlauer Berg, it is not immediately clear what the differences were at the level of discourse as opposed to attitude. Nevertheless, he makes a convincing case that, however compromised, these older writers did establish a significant alternative space to the monolithic cultural order imposed by the state before they were ironically overtaken in the late 1980s by more dynamic protest groups.

The central section of the book concentrates on theatre, in particular the changing fortunes of Brecht and his successor and antagonist Heiner Muller. These chapters are full of shrewd judgements although some readers might prefer a more rigorous examination of Muller's predilection for irrationality and violence.

The book is rounded off with a tantalisingly brief epilogue on "The Stasi and the poets". Here, too, one would have welcomed more documentation of the ambivalence of writers who, caught in a net of privilege, nevertheless sought to challenge a ruthlessly oppressive system "from within the interstices of official language and power relationships". But the value of Bathrick's study lies precisely in its capacity to provoke such demands for more detail to be added to a fascinating, if now rapidly fading canvas.

Michael Butler is professor of modern German literature, University of Birmingham.

The Powers of Speech: The Politics of Culture in the GDR

Author - David Bathrick
ISBN - 0 8032 1258 5
Publisher - University of Nebraska Press
Price - £38.00
Pages - 303

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