Hans Joachim Schädlich

Hans Joachim Schädlich is one of Germany's most intriguing contemporary authors. His literary works as well as his essays and public talks, demonstrate his masterful use of the German language and show him to be a social critic and compassionate humanist. He is also a scholar, essayist, translator, and editor.

Schädlich was born in 1935 in Reichenbach, a small town in the southern part of East Germany. For two years, he studied German literature and linguistics at Humboldt University in East Berlin. Because literature was viewed there as an ideological weapon, he abandoned the study of literature and Berlin in 1956, to pursue the study of linguistics in Leipzig. After graduating, he worked as a linguist for the Akademie der Wissenschaften in East Berlin and published several scholarly books in the field of linguistics.

Schädlich started to write prose fiction in 1969, but because his texts were too critical for the East German regime, they could not be published in East Germany. His only literary public were East and West German authors, among them Günter Grass, who, as of 1974, met unofficially in East Berlin to discuss their works. His first literary publication, a collection of short prose texts, was published by the West German Rowohlt Verlag in 1977, under the title Versuchte Nähe. This publication and his signing of a petition protesting the expulsion of poet and singer Wolf Biermann from East Germany catapulted him into a new career as an "enemy of the state." Already under observation by the Stasi, the East German secret service, Schädlich had no prospect of having his works published or obtaining employment in the East. Upon being threatened with imprisonment, he applied to leave the country for the West. In 1977, when his application was granted, he and his family moved to West Berlin.

Although Schädlich has always considered himself a German writer rather than an East German writer, his life experience in a communist dictatorship has greatly influenced his work. For instance, his children's book, Der Sprachabschneider (1980), to be read by children and adults alike, addresses opportunism, censorship and self-censorship. In 1985, in a short text entitled Mechanik, he traces the life of a man who was murdered by the Nazi euthanasia program. His first novel, Tallhover (1986), depicts a secret police officer's fictitious career, which ranges from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th Century. By a stroke of history -- the opening of the Stasi archives after German unification -- it became apparent that Schädlich had created with his main figure, Tallhover, not only a composite of a police officer loyal to any dictatorial regime in power, but also, unknowingly, a character whose deeds resemble those of his brother, who for many years had informed on him and his circle of friends to the Stasi. He wrote about this discovery in a moving short text, "Die Sache mit B."(1992). That same year, his second novel, Schott, was greeted by many of Germany's critics as a masterpiece of German prose, which broke with the realistic style of most of his earlier works. It is an often subtly playful text about individual freedom and totalitarian power with a subtext on the art of writing. In 1996, he published two books: Der Kuckuck und die Nachtigall — a fairy tale about art and unequal partners and, in stark contrast to this delightful tale, two bitter short stories. One, "Mal hören, was noch kommt," is written from the standpoint of a dying man, and the other, "Jetzt, wo alles zu spät ist," from the perspective of a woman for whom a new beginning after a wasted life seems impossible.

The changes brought about by German unification propelled him to take part in the political discussions of the day and in the re-evaluation of East Germany's past. In addition to writing for newspapers and journals, he has published a number of essays under the title Über Dreck, Politik und Literatur (1992). He also edited or co-edited several books, among them Protokoll eines Tribunals (1991), which documents the expulsion of writers from the East German Writers Union in 1979, and Aktenkundig (1992), a book of essays written by various authors after viewing their Stasi files.

Because of his masterful use of the German language in his writings and his insistence on human dignity, self-determination, and liberty, Schädlich has become one of the most respected writers in Germany today. He has won several prestigious literary prizes, including the Marburger Literaturpreis in 1986, the Thomas Dehler Preis in 1989, and the Berliner Literaturpreis der Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung: Johannes Bobrowski-Medaille, the Heinrich Böll prize in 1992, and the Kleist prize in 1996.

Wolfgang Müller