Skip to main content Skip to navigation


Pia Deutsch (University of Warwick): The Losers: Young People in East Germany after 1989 and the Modern Time Regime

Since the 19th century, youth was interpreted as a transitional period in people’s life, which embodied change and carried hopes of a better future. Therefore, young people were supposed to guide societies towards a new age and stood for a clear cut with the past to pave the way for fresh thinking and innovation. Even today, these ideas are relevant as youth is still attributed with positive adjectives such as “dynamic”, “quick”, “new”, “modern” etc.. Against the backdrop of the demographic developments of the past decades youth has become a rare resource and at the same time the main target group of consumer culture. In the aging western societies being and staying young evolved to be the icon of popular culture. Everyone strives to be “dynamic”, “quick”, and “modern”. The concept of youth and modernity, including the underlying future-focussed paradigms of progress and improvement, are therefore inseparably interlinked.

In 1989, this changed drastically. After euphonious claims to “reunite what belongs together“, as Willy Brand put it, many Germans became sceptical as the financial and social costs of reunification were discussed. The dream of turning rundown industries into “blühende Lanschaften” did not come true and people in eastern Germany ended up being disillusioned and disappointed. They felt like being trapped in a paralysing “Zwischenzeit”. Unemployment rates raised and affected young people’s future perspectives in various ways. Many showed apathy and seemed to have lost orientation in the accelerated transformation process that changed their world. For some, violence against minorities, such as migrants, was the answer to the pressing question which role they played in reunited Germany. In the early 1990ies a whole society had lost its anchor in the safe harbour called socialism.

Feelings of disruption dominated the public discourse about youth at that time. Young Easterners were the real “losers” of unification: left behind and futureless. Unlike in the GDR, where only a few years earlier young people were to built the “new society” and were ideologically educated in order to execute this task. However, after 1989 young people did not represent a better future anymore because many people felt that there was no future at all.
This phenomenon can be interpreted as an indicator for a shift in the modern “time regime” – the way in which time as a seemingly neutral category was reflected and assessed. But it can also be understood as an exceptional case that does not correspond with the dominating narratives of modernity, which were then reinstalled in the course of the 1990ies. The paper seeks to explore these issues further.

Stephan Ehrig (University of Warwick): ‘The chained laurel’ – Re-negotiating socialist individuality through a Prussian trauma in Adolf Dresen’s Kleist-Projekt at the Deutsches Theater (1975-77)

Heinrich von Kleist enjoyed a mixed reception in the GDR, from cultural exclusion due to his nationalist reception under the Nazi regime to absolute identification and admiration from authors who saw their various crises paralleled in Kleist. Particularly in the 1970s, when the expatriation of Wolf Biermann (1976) coincided with the bicentenary celebrations of Kleist’s birth in 1977, a large group of authors and theatre directors used Kleist as a means to reposition and communicate their concept of authorship and artistic production within socialist society. In this context, my paper takes a closer look at Adolf Dresen’s Kleist-Projekt which included various productions of Kleist’s plays and performances based on his biography, and which took place at the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin between 1975-77. For Dresen, Kleist represents a symbolic figure through whom he attempts to thematise the conflicted relation between a free individual and the demands of the state that represents order and society. In his production of Prinz Friedrich von Homburg and Der Zerbrochne Krug, both performed back to back using the same actors, he attempted to combine both aspects, reading the – in GDR terms – canonic ‘realist’ classic The Broken Jug through the lens of the problematic and ‘decadent’ Prince of Homburg. As the central metaphor for Homburg – in contrast to the symbolic broken jug – Dresen designs ‘der gefesselte Lorbeer’, the chained laurel. Under Dresen, the laurel, symbol of Homburg’s desire for love and glory which features both at the beginning and the end of the play, becomes the central image of the artist under socialism. Making good use of the theatre’s revolving stage and using a Marxist/Hegelian/Benjaminian concept of history and historicity, the chained laurel stands for a cyclical recurrence of traumas of the past (Prussian militarism) that haunt the present and prevent society from progressing towards the utopian state of communism. As Dresen suggests, it is only when the individual is able to overcome the conflicted relationship between the boundless quest for individual emancipation, and the wrongful state oppression of these individuals in its own quest for an equal society, that utopia may eventually become reality when the two laurels meet like the two ends of the world in Kleist’s Marionettentheater.

Ultimately, my paper argues that the symbol of the chained laurel can be seen as a representation of the position of the artist in the GDR of the 1970s, facing increased observation and censorship, and attempting to constructively criticise GDR cultural policies out of the sincere concern that communism might remain a utopian concept if the rift between state and individual/artist cannot be overcome.

Michael Grass (University of Warwick): The EAST | WEST competition? Postwar rebuilding and shared narratives of memory, recovery, and reconciliation

After the Second World War, cities across Europe such as Berlin, Dresden, Kiel, Warsaw, Graz and Coventry, re-conceptualised their urban development through the implementation of formal twin city programmes (and other related collaborations). These exchanges were forged on progressive concepts of reconstruction and ideas regarding the visualisation of narratives of remembrance and reconciliation in newly transformed urban spaces. This resulted in the development of shared narratives and metaphors of rebuilding across the East-West political divide. However, the relationship between cities of eastern and western Europe has been looked at primarily in terms of Cold War rivalries. In the case of Germany, both existing and recent research has been limited to either emphasising stylistic differences or lost opportunities for an appreciating view of the GDR's post-war planning and rebuilding efforts. The importance of knowledge transfer and the role of key individuals in an exchange of ideas designed to facilitate the creation of transnational spaces of remembrance have been almost entirely ignored. In contrast, my thesis looks beyond East-West rivalry to focus on the process of transnational co-operation during the post-war period.

The presentation will outline the significance of such an approach for the development and function of a 'transcultural heritage' and spaces of transnational memory of the Second World War. Within this context it is also necessary to examine the transformation of national memory narratives and their implications for transnational heritage as a part of national historiography. With regard to the gradual site- and time-specific transformation of this transcultural heritage, East Germany after unification will serve as a telling example. As the symbolic character of important sites worked across national and ideological boundaries, these built East German spaces of memory became redundant after German unification in 1990. Using examples from Dresden and East Berlin, the re-localisation and re-nationalisation of its transcultural heritage sites such as the famous Frauenkirche in Dresden, will be scrutinized.

My presentation is based on my current PhD research at the University of Warwick, but also reflects on my lectureship at Humboldt University in Berlin through which I identified shared narratives, knowledge transfer, and the role of protagonists for the exchange and travel of concepts to create spaces for remembrance in both, East and West Berlin. The first part of the presentation outlines international patterns for rebuilding and replanning the war-torn city. This will connect architectural aesthetics to narratives of recovery and reconciliation, examining their metaphors and symbolism. Elaborating, the outline of this pattern provides for a review of the work of planners and architects by focussing mainly on connections established among them. In this second part I will offer insight into transnational networks of German and European city planners after 1945. Three examples emphasise the development of shared architectural visions and narratives and prove valuable for the application of the concepts of 'transnational remembrance' and 'transnational heritage' to the context of architectural heritage in Dresden, Berlin, and Coventry. (words: 481)

Christoph Pretzer (University of Cambridge): Concepts of History in the 12th-century Middle High German Kaiserchronik

For the last two years I have been working on my thesis on “Concepts of history in the 12th-century Middle High German Kaiserchronik”. The text offers a very peculiar arrangement of episodes centred on the rule of Roman and German emperors and kings from Julius Caesar to Konrad II in 1147. Because it draws from a wide selection of sources and traditions and does not seem to adhere to either modern nor medieval conventions of historiography a reappraisal of the question what kind of concepts of history informed the compilation of the chronicle and what kind of narrative dimensions of these concepts can be found in the text. As I am just about to embark on my final year as a PhD I am hoping to use the National Postgraduate Colloquium in German Studies to present what has been achieved so far, lay out the general scheme for the work yet to be done and to ask for thoughts and feedback on both findings and planned work.

What has been done so far

So far my thesis breaks down into two main bodies: in the first one I examine the scholarly literature relevant to my topic, evaluate some of the more influential approaches of analysis and interpretation of the Kaiserchronik’s historiography and then focus on the most prevalent approach which aimed to read the text as an exercise in salvation historical typology. By comparing the text to earlier and contemporary texts, both Latin and in the emerging European vernaculars of the time and by situating it in the broader tradition of salvific historiography going back to the early centuries of Christian writing I was able to show that salvation history is indeed not the key to a comprehensive understanding of the Kaiserchronik. This does not mean that religious thinking was not of the utmost importance to the text and that there are no salvation historical episodes in the chronicle, moreover I emphasise that salvation history does not have the overarching and structuring function it had been made out to have before. In fact I arrive at the conclusion that such a monistic approach might be misguided and there might not be the “magic key” which, upon correct insertion, miraculously unlocks the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the Kaiserchronik’s historical record.
The second part of my thesis moves on to look at the rhetorical dimensions of historiography which structure the text. In part this means going through the poetologically more reflexive passages of the Kaiserchronik and identifying, describing and analysing the rhetorical tropes employed there. Certain passages from the text’s prologue that appear to define and to delineate the Kaiserchronik from other contemporary texts are of special interest and allow a comparative look at similar prologues. This is were I start to develop a pluralistic approach to identify and analyse concepts of history.: how do didactic, entertaining, or forensic narratives interact with the more conventional religious and political patterns. Aetiological stories, which link phenomena from the chronicle’s present to the constructive past of its record by means of explanatory narratives are especially helpful to flesh out how the text connects itself to its audiences past.
I will present these contents with short, illustrative examples and hope for feedback on their argumentative conclusiveness and where there might be additional enquiry necessary.

What is left to be done

The third major part of the project yet remains to be realised. In it I will take a closer look at the political and ethnographic dimension of the Kaiserchronik’s record. In the beginning I will present what Rome, Romans, and Roman-ness signify in the text and how they relate to the Germans who become more prevalent in the later part of the chronicle. The interrelation of the political, religious and cultural conceptions attached to those two collectives lie at the core of the Kaiserchronik’s political backbone which determines the overall structure of the text and the main areas of narrative interest of how the pagan Roman empire became a Christian German empire.
I will present an outline of how I intent to structure this third chapter of my work and present some relevant passages and texts that might be interesting for comparison.
The essence of my thesis so far that the monolithic approaches to making sense of the Kaiserchronik's historical narrative have been misguided and limited in their insight because of their too broadly formulated claim at epistemological validity. I content that a pluralistic approach centered at the text's idiosyncrasies and its relation to its sources will be much more helpful to understand 12th-century concepts of history.

Joanna Raisbeck (University of Oxford): ‘In den Ozean der Welten’: Cosmic Voyages in the Long Eighteenth-Century

This paper aims to explore some figurations of the idea of the ‘cosmic voyage’, or voyage imaginaire in German literature of the long eighteenth-century. The origins of the genre lie in interpretations of Newtonian science, which introduced the concept of the boundless universe which did not exclude the possibility of the plurality of worlds. This idea was then taken up and popularised by astronomers and philosophers (Thomas Wright, Immanuel Kant) and in works such as Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1683).

Rather than giving a diachronic overview of the genre, this paper will examine how this popular theme is examined in texts by three authors – Christoph Martin Wieland, Carl Ignaz Geiger, and Karoline von Günderrode – to demonstrate how this imaginative expansion of the known universe could be used to challenge and re-think theology, constructions of the body politic, and philosophical reflections on the nature of the human self. The possibility of multiple worlds brought with it the possibility of a more perfect form of human life on other planets – and this, although never discussed by Leibniz, complicated the problem of theodicy. Christoph Martin Wieland’s early work, Briefe von Verstorbenen an Hinterlassene Freunde (1753), envisions just such a planet in which the residents exist in a prelapsarian state. I contend that Wieland re-writes the narrative of Genesis from an eighteenth-century perspective, where it is the female virtue of Zulma, the proxy for Eve, that prevents the Fall, and thus Wieland re-imagines Genesis in the image of eighteenth-century Lutheranism, in which the role of original sin was substantially diminished.

Carl Ignaz Geiger’s little-known Reise eines Erdbewohners in den Mars (1790) is a curious admixture of travel literature – very much a popular genre in the late eighteenth-century – and the fantastic. Geiger, this paper will argue, utilises the cosmic voyage as a vehicle for social critique and satirises states ruled by religious dogmatism and militarism. Geiger’s vision of a utopian state, I argue, amalgamates Masonic imagery, echoes of contemporary America, the rejection of absolutism and the monarchy as a whole, Rousseau’s ideas about the natural state of man and altruism as a foundational human inclination.
Karoline von Günderrode’s poems ‘Der Luftschiffer’ and ‘Einstens lebt’ ich süßes Leben’ are driven by both the Faustian Wissensdrang and by the individual desire to be assimilated back into the entirety of the cosmos – an idea inherited from Platonism. The paper will argue that the voyage into the cosmos is narrated from a double-perspective which assures the inevitable failure of any flight – even when imaginative – beyond earthly bounds; the poems are both animated by the tension that develops from the irrepressible desire precisely to exceed earthly limits.

Sina Stuhlert (University of Bristol): The Salome material in the German speaking culture and the impact of translation

German adaptations of the Salome material have not often been the subject of close interpretations, probably because the most influential works, apart from Wilde´s and Heine´s, were French, and the corpus of German writings is not easy to subsume to Salome´s established aesthetic image.

My project will identify the influences on German Salome adaptations and analyse the different traditions forming this theme. There is for one the biblical tradition, portraying the life of St John the Baptist. Departing from this is the folklore tradition, which for example Heinrich Heine picks up in his Herodias Episode in Atta Troll (1843). The two other huge influences where of course the French symbolists and Oscar Wilde´s Salomé. It is therefore important to look at the reception of Oscar Wilde´s Salomé in Germany. How did critics react to Wilde´s play and how was the text interpreted in theatre performances and finally in Richard Strauss´ opera. The interaction of writings, illustrations, pieces of art, translations and performances of the actresses/ actors will be a focus of my work.

In my presentation I will concentrate on the impact of translations on the reception of a text. One crucial role in Salomé’s reception was the translation by Hedwig Lachmann (1900). Wilde´s original version was the French text published in 1893, which was then translated into English 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas. The style of the language in the English Version differs from the French version. One main reason for writing his original in French was the musicality of the language, which obviously gets lost in the English translation. In addition, Douglas uses a historicised language, whereas Wilde used more present day language. Interestingly, Hedwig Lachmann now uses the English version for her translation into German, which has not been known for a long time, but can be proven by a close comparison of the versions (as shown, for example, by Rainer Kohlmayer). Lachmann herself changes the mode of language again by poeticising it. Through her translation, a slightly different interpretation of the characters results in the play, as Rainer Kohlmayer demonstrates in a close analysis. The most striking difference is Jochanaan’s declaration of the death of the sinful woman. Following Kohlmayers interpretation, Jochanaan is practically giving the order to execute Salome in the French and English version. In Lachmann´s version, however, this order is transformed into a prophecy. By saying “Die Kriegshauptleute werden sie mit ihren Schwertern durchbohren…” (Wilde, S. 34) he merely predicts what will happen. Through this change Jochanaan has no doing in Salome’s death and Herod becomes the character who gives the order to kill Salome in the end. If, however, Jochanaan does give the order to execute Salome, her own demand of his head gets a whole other meaning. This demonstrates how a translation can influence the interpretation and reception of a text. In this case it is particularly important to look closely into the translation because Lachmann’s version became the source text for Richard Strauss' libretto and therefore for the opera that made Wilde’s Salomé famous and ensured that it is staged until today.