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Unifying the Self: Günter de Bruyn’s Autobiographical Response to Post-Unification Germany
Rachel Halverson

One of the most prolific authors of post-unification Germany has been Günter de Bruyn. Since 1989 he has published two volumes of his autobiography, Zwischenbilanz: Eine Jugend in Berlin (1992) and Vierzig Jahre: Ein Lebensbericht (1996); a book on writing autobiographies, Das erzählte Ich: Über Wahrheit und Dichtung in der Autobiographie (1995); a collection of essays and speeches, Jubelschreie, Trauergesänge: Deutsche Befindlichkeiten (1991); and numerous newspaper articles, many of which appeared in major West German newspapers, such as Die Zeit and Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. De Bruyn’s solid publication record in the last ten years speaks strongly for including him among the eminent voices of post-unification Germany, a point Dennis Tate addresses in his 1997 article “Günter de Bruyn: The ‘gesamtdeutsche Konsensfigur’of Post-Unification Literature?.” Yet a closer examination of the relationship between de Bruyn’s statements on autobiographical writing and the issues of narrative and identity in his Zwischenbilanz, Vierzig Jahre, and Das erzählte Ich reveals a different positioning of de Bruyn and his work in the continuum of literary history and ultimately challenges our understanding of post-unification German literature by refuting the simplistic categorization of German literature into East and West.

When the two autobiographies and the theoretical work are read as a triad, Das erzählte Ich: Über Wahrheit und Dichtung in der Autobiographie provides the framework within which to understand Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre, including how de Bruyn chose to narrate his life story and how he constructed his identity. Furthermore, de Bruyn makes very clear in Das erzählte Ich that his autobiographies are significant for more than just the facts they provide about his life. Beginning with the book’s subtitle and its direct reference to Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, de Bruyn frames his thoughts on the autobiography explicitly within a long-standing European tradition of autobiographical writing. He cites as examples not only his own autobiographies but also autobiographical works by Augustine, Bismarck, Ulrich Bräker, de la Motte Fouqué, Fontane, Stefan Heym, Erich Loest, Goethe, General von der Marwitz, Karl Phillip Moritz, Nabokov, Jean Paul, Rousseau, Stifter, Christa Wolf, and the sole American representative, Benjamin Franklin.

Within the context of his current autobiographical projects, de Bruyn connects the writing of his early diaries with the autobiographical elements in his fictional works, thus drawing a creative line from his earliest writing, his diaries, through his fictional works to his autobiographies. With maturity, he now realizes that what earlier seemed too trivial to relate to others actually has the potential to represent a larger experience, and he now recognizes the potential his autobiographies have not only to tell his own individual life story, but also to allow that life story to communicate an experience significant to a larger group (Das erzählte Ich 15-16).

Yet de Bruyn does not allow his concept of individual autobiographies with larger significance to inhibit or limit the autobiographer. Instead he privileges the autobiographer with the task of constructing a desired identity from the multitude of “facts” which compose a life lived:

Das Besondere der Autobiographie besteht ja nicht darin, daß hier derjenige ein Leben beschreibt, der am meisten über es weiß, sondern darin, daß hier jemand sich so beschreibt, wie er sich selbst sieht und beurteilt. Interessanter als die mitgeteilten Fakten über eine Person ist die Art, wie sie von dieser Person mitgeteilt werden, Objektivität, die auch nicht möglich wäre, wird gar nicht verlangt. (62)

For de Bruyn, the true nature of autobiographies is self-evident. They are subjective versions of personal histories. It is, in fact, the inner workings of subjectivity which interests de Bruyn, for here, autobiographers make decisions about how they see themselves and about how they would like to be seen. Integral to this act of self-construction is the issue of identity with respect to the time period in which the autobiographer lived and in which the author is currently writing (61). What identity then has de Bruyn constructed for himself in the two volumes of his autobiography? How does he position his life vis-à-vis his childhood in Nazi Germany and his adult years in the GDR? Following the guidelines he lays out in Das erzählte Ich, the answers to these questions lie in how he narrates his life story and in the statements he makes directly on his identity in Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre.

De Bruyn entitles the first volume of his autobiography Zwischenbilanz, an interim statement. Instead of offering a final reckoning with life, which we expect from biographies and autobiographies, de Bruyn recounts only the early years of his life for his readers. A clue to the rationale behind the narration of Zwischenbilanz comes with de Bruyn's claim to be the "Historiker meiner selbst” (134). In this respect, de Bruyn not only tells his life story in Zwischenbilanz, but he also documents it, citing photos his father has taken, a family album, letters, postcards, and his diaries. These documents provide more than mere facts. They challenge de Bruyn's memories of his youth and, ultimately, the formation of the identity he presents to his postunification readership. They serve as "reality checks" and guideposts that mark de Bruyn's movement through the process of recounting his life story. Being his own historian also forces de Bruyn into other roles, other persona, and ultimately into other narrative voices. He must become an observer, evaluator, and scribe of his own life.

De Bruyn's authorial voice in the first person of the present heard on the opening page of Zwischenbilanz appears at other key points in his narration of the past. For example, in the chapter "Der Adjutant" in which he tells of his oldest brother's disappearance, de Bruyn's first-person narrative switches from the ich of the past to the ich of the present and speaks of his difficulties in reconstructing this event:

. . . um hier das kurze Leben meines Bruders Karlheinz zu beschreiben, bin ich mir des Fragmentarischen dieses Versuchs völlig bewußt. Zwar kann ich neben meinen Erinnerungen auch Briefe, seinen Nachlaß und Auskünfte Dritter benutzen, aber dem durch Verklärung unklaren Bild von ihm kann das alles keine klareren Umrisse geben; zu sehr wirkt die Verehrung aus Kindertagen noch nach. (220)

In spite of the fact that de Bruyn has sufficient documentation of Karlheinz' life and how he vanished into thin air during the war, de Bruyn's childhood adoration outweighs this factual information in his recollection of his brother’s persona and who he still is in de Bruyn’s mind. This split in memory resonates in de Bruyn's choice of a double referent to recount the loss of his brother: his present ich in the quote above, to reflect on his still existing difficulties in writing about the tragic loss of his oldest brother, and his return to the first-person narrative of the past to describe the actual notification that Karlheinz was missing in action, which he experienced as a young boy. De Bruyn's consciousness of his brother's role in his life remains firmly attached to memories of his childhood, untainted by the changing of sibling relationships through time. Given the discontinuity created by his brother's apparent death, de Bruyn's account of his life with respect to Karlheinz has an achronological character. Thus as de Bruyn writes of Karlheinz, he does not move chronologically through passing time, but rather must delve back to his childhood memories which remain frozen in the idealization of his oldest brother.

As the reality of war penetrates his youthful innocence, de Bruyn uses narrative voice to separate his present self from himself as a child. Quoting from his diaries, de Bruyn reconstructs his time in a Kinderlandverschickungslager in Kattowitz, a camp designed to protect city children from the dangers of urban bombing raids. These passages reflect the beginning of de Bruyn's later double identity stemming from his military service. Externally, he was forced to conform to the demands of Hitler's regime and begin paramilitary training under the guise of being sent to safety. Internally, he resisted the required conformity of pseudomilitary life and lived as much as possible in his private world of books and his obsessive love for the mysterious young girl "G." His comment in the present first-person narrative reveals an alienation that the narrator de Bruyn feels from the pubescent young man who wrote the diaries: "Der Tagebuchschreiber, in dem ich mich selbst kaum wiedererkenne, scheint damit genauso einverstanden zu sein wie mit der Kontrolle des Bettenbaus und der Schrankordnung . . . " (Zwischenbilanz 109). De Bruyn's use of the third-person singular reinforces the distance he feels from that period of his life. In fact, the fourteen-year-old who wrote the diaries is so foreign to de Bruyn's present identity that he must refer to him as er. He appears as another person to de Bruyn, even though he possesses concrete evidence that it was indeed he himself who wrote these comments.

In the closing chapters of Zwischenbilanz, de Bruyn is a young adult, closest in age and perspective to de Bruyn today. As if to mark the closing gap between his past and present identity, de Bruyn narrates this section exclusively in the first person. He does not switch from the first-person to the third-person narrative voice to emphasize his separation from himself both in the present and past. Instead, his past tense narration of and present tense commentary on expectations of the villagers and his deviation from these expectations articulate the roles he had to play following his education when he became a village school teacher in a small town in West Havelland. A variant of the double identity he has maintained in the military also appears in this phase of his life. As a village school teacher, he has his professional identity which is his public identity in the village. On the other hand, his private, inner self is attached to his world of writing and reading.

Upon completing his three obligatory years of teaching, de Bruyn returns to Berlin in the fall of 1949 to study library science. There his instructors vigorously indoctrinate him and the other students to accept the SED and its monopoly on leadership. He concludes his autobiography with the rebuilding of East Berlin, which he sarcastically refers to as "ein besseres, neues Berlin." Specifically, he mentions the demolition of the Stadtschloß which was replaced by the Palast des Volkes, which housed the SED government. In noting this event in the closing paragraph of his autobiography, de Bruyn symbolically marks the end of one era and the beginning of another, both in his life and in German history, thus setting the stage for the continuation of his autobiography which he hinted at in the beginning of Zwischenbilanz and again promises in the concluding chapter.

The second volume of Bruyn’s autobiography, Vierzig Jahre: ein Lebensbericht, spans the forty years from the German Democratic Republic’s founding on October 7, 1949, to November 9, 1989, the date which for de Bruyn is the official end of the GDR. Vierzig Jahre differs from the first volume of de Bruyn’s autobiography. Gone are the vacillations in narrative voice from the first person narrative to the more detached third person narrative, marking the distance which the wizened de Bruyn feels from his childhood self. Gone are de Bruyn’s accounts of his pubescent attempts at love, the colorful descriptions of his family life, and his impassioned adventures in reading. What remains is de Bruyn reporting on forty years of his life – ein Lebensbericht. As he states in Das erzählte Ich, his “report” serves a specific purpose: “Der Selberlebensbeschreiber, der ein gewisses, meist höheres Alter erreicht hat, kennt sich, oder glaubt sich zu kennen, hat jedenfalls ein Bild von seinem gegenwärtigen Selbst vor sich, und er stellt sich die Aufgabe zu zeigen, wie dieses entstand” (35). It is his opportunity to reveal to his readers how he has become the person he feels he is, and the mirror of West Germany is key to understanding de Bruyn’s identity in the German Democratic Republic.

Quite expectedly, de Bruyn includes several accounts of friends fleeing to the Federal Republic for political refuge. These stories of flight from East Germany in de Bruyn’s autobiography, however, contrast with his own personal struggle with the question to remain in East Germany rather than to leave. As he travels to West Berlin on June 17, 1953, he describes his decision to return to East Berlin as follows: “Wegzugehen hätte nicht nur freiwillige Aufgabe des Ererbten und Vertrauten bedeutet, sondern auch Anerkennung einer Grenzziehung, die meine nicht war” (de Bruyn 49). And furthermore:

“Acht Jahre später sollte sich auch hier die Mauer erheben, und von mir wurde verlangt, sie gut und richtig zu finden. Das konnte ich nie” (de Bruyn 49). Such statements also point out clearly that for de Bruyn politically driven border decisions are artificial. They violate his sense of locality and superimposed artificial constraints on his identity. Remaining in East Germany in essence allows de Bruyn to stay at home, but it also has meaning for him as an act of defiance. With this act of remaining, he passively asserts his opposition to the division of Germany and refuses to acknowledge a geographical reality which is not his own.

De Bruyn’s denial of Germany’s division is also evident in his description of Berlin as a symbolic geographical entity and its visible division with the construction of the Wall. Setting the stage for his account of the early years in East Germany and his study of library science in East Berlin, de Bruyn describes Berlin as a city of divided administrations and currencies, but also as a city of fluid movement between East and West, for both entertainment and work. The Berlin of 1949/1950 is a city of harmonious co-existence for de Bruyn, a city which retains some semblance of its former self and allows him to some degree to ignore the divisive acts of the Allies. The building of the Wall destroys Berlin’s semi-normality and tormented de Bruyn both in his dreams and in his daily life. In his dreams, it is the Wall with its uniformed guards and its barbed wire, bayonets and concrete, which prevents him from returning to his childhood home in Berlin-Britz. In his daily life, de Bruyn never comes to terms with the Wall: “Um sie als normal empfinden zu können, war ich zu sehr mit dem ganzen Berlin und dem ganzen Deutschland verbunden;. . . .” (de Bruyn 109). Again, de Bruyn’s concept of self and place is the inverse of the reality present in East Germany. He exists on one level in an illusion of totality in direct opposition to the actual division of his world into East and West.

Similar to his borderless geographical concept of Germany, de Bruyn also disregards Germany’s division in his intellectual world. He describes himself and his friend Herbert as voracious readers of Thomas Mann, Kafka, Musil and Joyce, and de Bruyn is an enthusiastic admirer of Heinrich Böll and his works. East German literature, on the other hand, appears barely worthy of his and Herbert’s precious reading time, before de Bruyn himself becomes a published East German author: “Hochmütig nahmen wir die DDR-Literatur zwar beruflich, aber nicht ernstlich zur Kenntnis, . . .” (56). Pre-Wall Berlin also provides most of de Bruyn’s entertainment in the bookstores, movie houses, and theaters of the West. He even works illegally in West Berlin folding pamphlets for one West German mark an hour to obtain valuable Western currency.

When de Bruyn becomes a published author in both East and West Germany, the Federal Republic presents itself as a tool of manipulation, leverage and defiance both for himself and for East Germany. In order to clarify his position, de Bruyn succinctly states the role of publication in West Germany for East German authors, their publishers and the state: “Wer im Westen beachtet wurde, hatte im Osten die besten Chancen berühmt zu werden” (246). The publication of de Bruyn’s Buridans Esel in both East and West Germany exemplifies the author’s dilemma. It serves both to improve his standing in East Germany and also serves the East German government in the West as evidence of their literary diversity and tolerance. Both of these consequences leave de Bruyn conflicted. As he notes, “Auch Erfolg wollte ich damit haben, nicht aber durch diesen von einem Staat anerkannt werden, der von mir nicht anerkannt war” (144). Again de Bruyn criticizes the manipulation of his identity by the SED and rejects the existence of East Germany which he is not willing to condone.

The publication of Neue Herrlichkeit, initially only in the West, gives de Bruyn the satisfaction of making his sentiments of opposition public. Given the mostly positive reception of the book in the West and the reviewers’ emphasis on de Bruyn’s statement on East Germany in the book, de Bruyn’s publisher asks him to denounce the reviewers assessment of his work. De Bruyn summarizes the orders given him as follows: “Ich, der ich die DDR liebe, protestiere aufs Schärfste gegen diese Fehldeutung meines Romans” (250). De Bruyn refuses to make this statement and is satisfied that his book was published in at least one half of Germany. In retrospect, de Bruyn views this as a turning point in his career, a political outing of himself, so to speak, as a writer not in agreement with the state. Ultimately, it is the publication of this book in the West that gives de Bruyn the freedom to openly profess his lack of respect for the rulers of East Germany. This allowed him to align his internal and external authorial identities and free himself at that point, at least internally, from the dictates of censorship. Interestingly enough, de Bruyn writes that he experienced no repercussions for his refusal to toe the party line. He was even still able to freely receive publications sent from the West and accept invitations to hold readings there. In retrospect, however, this is a bitter sweet victory for de Bruyn. As he reads in his Stasi file: “De Bruyn habe sich positiv über seine Reisemöglichkeiten ins westliche Ausland geäußert – was wohl bedeuten sollte, die Beruhigungstherapie hat gewirkt” (228-229).

De Bruyn’s success in the West and relative ease in traveling there present him with another dilemma of identity, that of serving as and being seen as a representative of East Germany, a country which he essentially does not want to exist. He presents this quite clearly as a concern when he, for example, was the sole Jean-Paul scholar from East Germany at the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Jean-Paul’s death in Bayreuth and feared that his lecture would be viewed as the party line. De Bruyn’s dilemma evidences once again the incongruity between de Bruyn’s internal and external identity. He perceives himself as a German author and scholar. Yet, both East and West Germany categorize him as an East German.

In the closing chapter of his autobiography, de Bruyn has written the sober subtext for the photos of the jubilant masses and the videos depicting the ecstasy of East and West Germans as they meet, many for the first time, at the now open Wall and on the teaming streets of West Berlin--tears flowing, champagne corks popping, incoherent statements of joy pouring forth. De Bruyn differentiates here between the experiences of his generation, which lived through the rule of two immoral regimes, and the generation of young people, who only know Berlin as a city divided by the Wall.

In retrospect, de Bruyn’s Das erzählte Ich, Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre embody a statement de Bruyn made in his essay “So viele Länder, Ströme, Sitten: Gedanken über die deutsche Kulturnation”:

Der angemaßten Omnipotenz des Staates wegen ist der Begriff Kulturnation in den letzten Zwei Jahrzehnten für mich wichtig geworden, denn er war Ausdruck der Tatsache, daß die Kultur im weitesten Sinne (von der 9. Symphonie bis zu der Art, Weihnachten zu feiern) die Bewohner der beiden deutschen Staaten noch immer verband. Ich hatte Verwandte, Freunde und Leser in beiden Teilen; meine lebenslange Beschäftigung mit deutscher Geschichte und Literaturgeschichte führte mir die Künstlichkeit der 1945 gezogenen Grenze ständig vor Augen, und da ich auf Reisen vergleichen konnte, fand ich die Richtigkeit des Begriffs durch Anschauung bestätigt: Das Gemeinsame der als gegensätzlich geltenden Staaten kam unter der unterschiedlichen Oberfläche immer wieder hervor.
(Jubelschreie 16)

De Bruyn’s emphasis on culture connecting the two German peoples and the artificiality of borders proclaim his commitment to the construct of one Germany, a commitment which has sustained his existence during forty years of German division. De Bruyn speaks here to culture and history and their significance for him today. His statement also illuminates what he has attempted to achieve with his autobiographies, his own personal life history.

In Das erzählte Ich, Zwischenbilanz and Vierzig Jahre, de Bruyn presents his life as a totality symbolic of the unity German culture offers a unified Germany today. In so doing, he defies attempts by literary scholars and critics to categorize his life and writings under the rubric of “East German Writer.” Instead, he propounds a model personal history in which his identity is defined by his family, his reading, and his proclivities and foibles, rather than by the dictates of government. Such a model speaks volumes in a united Germany once again grappling with the weight of its past identities and histories and removes another stone from the innere Mauer still separating Germans.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Dr. Susan McLeod and Dr. Lori Wiest for their critical readings of this manuscript.

Works Cited

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