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Individuality and collectivism : the evolving theory and practice of socialist realism in East Germany reflected in three novels of the 1960’s Liddell, Peter Graham

Abstract

During the 1960's a distinct change of emphasis took place in the manner in which East German novels reflected the relationship between individual and collective. Using three of the best known works of the period (E.Strittmatter's Ole Bienkopp, H.Kant's Die Aula and Christa Wolf's Nachdenken über Christa T.), this study attempts to describe the change and to consider its implications for the theory of socialist realism. Because each of the novels represents an individual author's contribution to a body of literature which must serve a collective function, his position vis-a-vis society is revealed not only in the social content of his work but also by the form in which it is presented. The central concern of this discussion is the way in which both the content and the form of East German socialist realist literature increasingly, in the course of the 1960's, reflect the potential contradictions and creative tensions inherent in the relationship between individuality and collectivism. Having in the initial, formative stages emphasized the unity of individual and collective aspirations, socialist realist literature began in the 1960's to move away from the programmatic, normative view of social relationships which had first evolved under foreign (Soviet Russian) conditions and become entrenched during the ideological confrontations of the 1950's. The work of Erwin Strittmatter, whose earlier writing typifies the perspectives and style of the 1950's, serves to introduce these changes. His novel Ole Bienkopp is generally recognized to be the first major work to deal principally with relationships within the GDR, rather than the broader issues of internal or external threats to the social structure. The major innovation of Ole Bienkopp is that its narrative interest derives from so-called "non-antagonistic conflicts." This clearly requires much more realistic differentiation of the individual characters than the simplistic, black-white confrontations of earlier works. Strittmatter's characterization is examined both from the point of view of its realism and also to assess the social perspective which it reflects. In contrast to Strittmatter's relatively conservative style and aggressive argumentation, Hermann Kant's Die Aula consistently introduces to East German prose many of the techniques of modern bourgeois novels, corresponding to its more reflective, questioning approach to life. Like Strittmatter and the third author, Christa Wolf, Kant undertakes a retrospective reassessment of the formative years of the GDR, when individual and collective attitudes towards the new society were first established. Although he hints at the importance of this undertaking for finding a satisfactory role for the individual in contemporary society, one of the great flaws of the novel is that he fails to follow this point through. However, many of the literary techniques which made Die Aula so popular and the social attitudes it revealed reappeared to much greater effect in Christa Wolf's Nachdenken über Christa T. Because of its subtle use of style and language and very "open" form and highly reflective, introspective approach to life in the GDR, this novel represents in many ways the apotheosis of the changes in both the content and the form of socialist prose in East Germany during the 1960's. The history of the reception of the novel alone suggests that Wolf had reached hitherto undefined boundaries of socialist realism. Bearing in mind the innovations of perspective and form introduced by Ole Bienkopp and Die Aula, the final chapter examines Wolf's concern that each individual – whether author or ordinary citizen – find fulfilment in the collective.

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