Borchert: Bringing freedom into focus for millions

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

On Aug. 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected, thereby dividing overnight a city, families and dueling ideologies for the next 28 years. On Nov. 9, 1989, the world watched as jubilant crowds gathered on both sides of that Wall to celebrate the opening of its crossings. Germany’s postwar division was over.

Next month, we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate that event, Western News asked five scholars to reflect on its meaning a quarter century out.

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 For many Germans, especially the older generations, freedom is not an abstract concept nor has it always been a given right. It is difficult for the younger generations in today’s Germany even to try and grasp that there was a time when you could not openly express your opinions, choose your career, travel everywhere or freely see your relatives or friends.

Federal President Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and civil rights activist in East Germany, responsible after the reunification for exposing the crimes of the communist secret police, helped shape the transformation of the ‘Wende.’ The German word ‘Wende’ means ‘turning point’ and refers to several processes and events: the ‘peaceful revolution’ in communist East Germany with its demonstrations, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the creation of a reunified German state a year later after democratic elections.

During his speech at the ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the peaceful revolution on Oct. 9, in Leipzig, Gauck characterized this time as “magical and worldly.” He said many dreams were fulfilled. For many it was simply chance and luck. The opening of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, which actually began with the dismantling of the border in Hungary in May 1989, is the basis for a European revolution as the Cold War started to come to an end.

Only a few days before Gauck’s speech, the most prestigious German book prize was presented to Lutz Seiler for a book about the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and a book about how to live freedom. Seiler won the prize for Kruso – like Robinson Crusoe, just with a German accent.

His book is an intentional play on the 1719 tale by Daniel Defoe, but rather than following the exploits of an adventurer shipwrecked in the Caribbean, the novel’s protagonist, Ed Bendler, flees from Leipzig to the island of Hiddensee in the Baltic Sea and in former communist East Germany. Before making the crossing, Ed contemplates how to “Hide-out in the sea, secret sea, Hiddensee. He knew the stories. A whispering forever washed about the island.”

He realizes, “it’d be almost impossible to find a place to stay, but any other destination within the borders was inconceivable. Sure, he had listened to experts who maintained that Hiddensee lay outside of them, that it was exterritorial, an island of the blessed, of dreamers and of dream dancers, of the washed-up and outcast. Others called it the Capri of the north, already booked for decades.”

Set in the summer of 1989, Ed’s new island home – where he meets Kruso – is in the process of irreversible change itself, with the impending collapse of the Soviet Union and German reunification.

The story is about the intensive friendship between two very different men. The older admires the ability of Ed to use literature to survive. Ed was a student of literature and an admirer of Austrian poet, Georg Trakl: “In their familiarity created through poetry, Kruso and Ed found each other.” Ed admires Kruso and eagerly absorbs his utopian ideals and ideas of individual freedom. Kruso attempts to try out different philosophies of freedom simultaneously, using the motto: “But don’t you ever forget one thing, ever: Freedom exists. It’s here, on the island, for this island exists, doesn’t it?”

Freedom is always intimately connected with failure: “The seed of freedom … grows in unfreedom.”

Seiler employs a distinct poetic language, which the prize jury called a “gateway to evanescence,” mixing romantic, expressionist ironic complex narration with religious allusions and a comical grotesque dream landscape. He has won several prizes for his poems, essays and short stories. Kruso is his full-length novel debut. The tradition-rich Suhrkamp publishing house will soon make the novel available in complete translation in English.

Seiler’s work falls into the genre concept of Wende literature which spans approaches from the fragmentary to the satiric in focusing on this historical time. An older generation of GDR authors lost their function as voices of alternative publics, like the critic of reunification, Christa Wolf with her modern retelling of Medea (1996). Her approach is very different from the ironic and distanced perspective that leads to a merciless satire of the GDR by a younger author, Thomas Brussig Heros like Us (1997) or the memoirs of Nobel-prize winner Günter Grass From Germany to Germany Journal of the Year 1990 (2012).

For many, the Wende still remains a very personal story.

I was born in West Berlin, and grew up with a family divided by the Berlin Wall. While my mother’s parents had, together with their daughters, moved to West Berlin, the rest of the family remained in the GDR. This meant important family events, such as weddings, christenings and even funerals, took place with only parts of the family present. In 1989, when the lifting of travel restrictions for East Germans was announced, I could not believe it. Even today, listening to Gauck, reading books or articles or watching films, like the ones in the film series presented by Modern Languages and Literatures, Fall of the Wall: 25 Years, is a very personal examination of freedom.

Gauck admonished that citizens must fill democracy with life. If it were not for the thousands who peacefully demonstrated in Leipzig, Dresden and many other cities, then maybe The Wall would not have come down.

The D.B. Weldon Library will host the exhibition Dictatorship and Democracy in the Age of Extremes: Spotlights on the History of Europe in the Twentieth Century in January and February 2015 and professor Stefan Creuzberger, University of Rostock, has been invited by professor Eli Nathans and myself as a Visiting University Scholar sponsored by Western International, Faculty of Social Science, Arts and Humanities and the Departments of History and Modern Languages and Literatures.

Literature is important and freedom is not an abstract concept.

Angela Borchert is an associate professor of German and Comparative Literature in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.