How an East German Novelist Electrified Socialist Realism

In Sally Rooney’s “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” Marxism is demonstrated with a plastic-wrapped sandwich in a corner shop. In Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Mandarins,” it is used by argumentative newspaper editors at a Christmas party. But in Brigitte Reimann’s 1963 novel “Siblings” (Transit Books), newly translated into English by Lucy Jones after the uncensored manuscript was found by chance last spring, it is done in the coffee room of a coal-briquette factory. In 1959, the ruling Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic announced that its writers were to follow the “Bitterfeld Way,” and spend time in industrial plants—to rub off their élitism, while bringing culture to the working man. “Grab your pen, comrade, the German socialist national culture needs you!” the not so snappy slogan went.

Reimann, the daughter of a bank clerk from a family of Cologne burghers, had decided to become a writer at the age of fourteen, when she was recovering from polio. At seventeen, she published her first book of plays; at twenty, she married a machine fitter, gave birth to a child who died the same day, and attempted suicide not long afterward. By the age of twenty-seven, she’d been a member of the G.D.R. writers’ union for four years and had written some promising novellas while teaching to make ends meet. In 1960, she heeded the Party’s call. Having divorced her husband (the first of four), she moved to a remote town in Saxony in order to work at a coal-production plant. There, with her lover, a fellow-writer, she both worked on the factory floor and organized a cultural brigade among the other laborers, reading them her stories and teaching them to write their own. That was the Bitterfeld Way.

She went partly to solve her money troubles, and partly because it was an “adventure”: it wasn’t as if she believed that the state knew what it was doing when it came to literature. Hardly any good books, she wrote in her diary, had been published for years: “Opportunists and numbskulls everywhere. The only subject worth discussing in a novel, it seems, is the need to increase work productivity. . . . Human problems are not in vogue.” But the novels she conceived while attached to the factory—“Ankunft im Alltag” (1961), “Die Geschwister,” or “Siblings” (1963), and “Franziska Linkerhand” (1974)—are full of human beings with problems who just happen to work in factories or shipyards. She kept to the rules of what could be published in the G.D.R.: only “positive heroes,” no unhappy endings, some part set in a factory, and the whole vetted by the state’s publishing arm. Yet she managed to bring to life the intoxicating, impossible allure of living your ideals.

In her lifetime, Reimann won the Heinrich Mann Prize; her last, unfinished novel, “Franziska Linkerhand,” published after her death, from cancer, at thirty-nine, was a cult hit, charting the protagonist’s increasing disillusionment with love, work, and the G.D.R. itself, which mirrored Reimann’s own. (Its publication reflected the short-lived “no taboos” period of cultural permissiveness that Erich Honecker introduced after taking power.) But for years Reimann’s writing languished; it didn’t connect with feminist traditions, like that of her friend Christa Wolf, or form part of a postwar reckoning, like that of her idol Anna Seghers. In Germany, Reimann was until recently perhaps best known for being played by Martina Gedeck in “Hungry for Life,” a bio-pic based on her sex-filled, anguished diaries, which began appearing in increasingly complete editions, in both East and West Germany, starting in 1983. Among German readers, the diaries have become prized for their clear-eyed account of life in the G.D.R. and for their vivid portrait of a young woman artist as both seducer and seduced. This year, half a century after Reimann’s death, her books have been reissued in Germany in the kind of pastel colors that you might find on a recent Prada catwalk. Human problems are back in vogue.

“Siblings” is set just after Easter, 1960, when Reimann’s heroine, the twenty-four-year-old painter Elisabeth Arendt, is trying to persuade her brother Uli not to leave for the West. (The Berlin Wall didn’t officially go up until August 13, 1961, but it effectively existed, if only in the mind, well before then.) Two Easters before, Elisabeth’s elder brother, Konrad, had come into her room to say goodbye; on hearing the “unfamiliar, faltering” tone of her mother’s auf Wiedersehen she realized that her brother wouldn’t be back. Konrad confesses his “traitor complex” in letters from a transit camp in West Germany, but the extent of his ideological break with the family is made clear when Elisabeth and her mother go to see him after he is established in the West. He invites them to dine at the upscale hotel Kempinski’s. Konrad accuses Elisabeth of romanticism when she talks about her job leading a circle of worker-painters at the local factory; Elisabeth confronts him with the family’s view that he is a crook for letting East Germany pay for his studies only to take his engineering skills to the West. They can’t even agree on whether the G.D.R. is a state:

“Don’t call it ‘the Zone,’ ” I said. “It’s the GDR. I don’t say ‘West Zone.’ That’s the least level of respect for our state you can show.”

State,” hissed Konrad. “A few square kilometres of impoverished countryside. A government propped up by the Soviets.”

We looked at each other across the table, a fast, sharp, cold look that pierced the well-intentioned appearance of family harmony. “You lived here, didn’t you?” I shouted. “You should know better.”

In a disarmingly direct style, alive with dialogue and detail, Reimann connects the contradictions of the G.D.R. with the legacy of the Third Reich—those zones, or sectors, were created by the Allies in May, 1945—rather than whitewashing what it was like to forge a new society out of war-damaged shards.

When the siblings’ mother begs them to stop arguing, Elisabeth leaves the restaurant, crying “without tears” until she reaches the border: “It was then that I understood what ‘divided Germany’ meant.” So she wants no more division; she never wants to hear her mother’s faltering tone again, or to see another brother walk out of her life. Uli, who is twenty-five and a recently graduated engineer, has been blacklisted for having worked for a professor who fled to the West. What future can he have in the G.D.R.? When he tells Elisabeth of his decision to leave, she has two days to stop him. Her means of persuasion are limited, but she has resources: her closeness to her favorite brother; her knowledge of their childhood during the war and its aftermath; her boyfriend, Joachim Steinbrink, who, at twenty-eight, is the manager of the brown-coal plant where she works; and, not least, the evergreen ideal of a state that takes from each according to her ability and gives to each according to her need.

Reimann’s own brother Lutz, the closest to her in age, left for the West with his wife and child in April, 1960. “I am very sad,” she wrote in her diary, recently published in a two-volume abridged but unexpurgated English edition by Seagull Books, translated by Lucy Jones and Steph Morris. Lutz was a “muddle-head,” whose actions she condemned “in principle,” but he was her brother. “I love him, we have got on well for many years,” she wrote. She immediately saw the story’s potential as art: “Families torn apart, conflicts between brothers and sisters—what a literary subject! Why doesn’t anyone tackle it, why doesn’t anyone write a topical book? Fear? Inability? I don’t know.” She would do it, and the resulting novel would be “the way things should have gone but didn’t.” Reimann borrowed her remaining brother’s name, Uli, for Elisabeth’s wavering sibling, and put lines from her correspondence with Lutz—“And I have some traitor complexes, as they call them”—into Konrad’s letters. (Lutz was angry about the finished novel; Uli and Reimann’s youngest sister, Dorli, were enthusiastic.)

“For every writer, work is a self-examination,” Reimann wrote in her diary, in December, 1959, “and it seems that precisely therein lies the art: to make this self-examination universally interesting and accessible to the widest possible readership.” Reimann was not an apparatchik; she was as curious about capturing her own experience as any artist, but she did not have the freedom to write as she chose. She didn’t even get to choose her genre.

Socialist realism has long been considered kitschy, compromised both politically and aesthetically. Art made under these conditions invites mockery: can good novels be written under the scrutiny of a Suslov? But Reimann’s work shows that they can. As she noticed at the time, there was a compliment hidden in the state’s demand that its writers build a new canon of socialist literature. Party officials believed that it mattered who appeared in novels, how they were written, and how they ended. Reimann’s talent was identified and put to work: she was given a stipend from the writers’ union and book contracts from the state’s publishing houses, and asked to run the workers’ writing circle at the briquette factory. Still, she never joined the Party, and she grew ever more disaffected with the state. Even in the early nineteen-sixties, she wrote about the pressure exerted by the Stasi, the temptations of the neon-lit West, and life in a regime that valued loyalty above talent. Reading “Siblings,” one can feel nostalgic for a society that believed art mattered.

Within the three-day frame of “Siblings,” Reimann brings the past so close that it barely feels past. Elisabeth recalls the Meissen figurines that her mother sold to buy food after the war; the friend who attempted to lure her to the West with rare paperbacks and French lipstick; and the story, told to inspire her weary brother, of her tangle with an older painter, Ohm Heiners, who was also in residence at the coal plant. Elisabeth’s clash with an artist of the previous generation is the tour de force of the book, combining arguments about the value of art, what sort of restitution should be made for those who suffered under Hitler, and the ways in which the new state ought to care for its workers. The section worried the authorities, who attempted, without success, to cut it before publication. During the editing of “Siblings” in 1962, Reimann accepted some small excisions but fought fiercely against major ones. (In 1968, though, she revised the book herself.) For this 2023 publication, the German editors Angela Drescher and Nele Holdack used a draft of the first five chapters found during renovations to the apartment where Reimann lived when she worked at the coal factory, giving us an exceptionally complete version of the novel.

The dispute begins in the factory’s coffee room. Heiners asks Elisabeth what she thinks of a painting of his that hangs in the canteen, and she decides that it would be cowardly not to be honest. “It’s a bad painting,” she says. “You’ve painted some brainless factory worker . . . I know this man. But he looks nothing like your sinister robot.” Heiners explodes, attempting to discredit Elisabeth by calling her a low-life bourgeois whose father was a journalist under Hitler. When Heiners, who was banned from painting by the Nazis, visits her studio a few days later, apparently to smooth things over, the argument continues. A worker would laugh at the depiction of an acetylene flame in one of her paintings, Heiners maintains. “My eye isn’t a lens, and I’m not a camera,” she says. “I’m a person with feelings and a relationship to the people I paint, and they also have feelings and their own attitude to life, work and their families, and all of this has to come across in a portrait, all of the layers, not just a flat surface.” In response, Heiners tells her to get off her high horse.

One problem in the creation of a new East German canon was the lack of antecedents. History had started in 1949, when the G.D.R. was established, so there wasn’t much to work with. The eminent critic and Marxist theorist György Lukács found a way around this: he argued that the great bourgeois novelists—including Balzac, Stendhal, Fontane, and Zola—had captured the irresolvable contradictions in capitalist society, and so revealed that it must fall. Reimann’s favorite of these writers was Stendhal, whom she refers to over and over, and never stopped reading. In Elisabeth’s “I’ m not a camera” speech, there is a plea for a distinct sort of realism, one with a keen respect for the artist’s own way of looking at things, a realism with the freedom to come close to subjectivism.

Unable to win the aesthetic argument, Heiners employs dirtier tactics. He starts rumors that Elisabeth is sleeping with members of her painting circle; one worker sees an opportunity, turning up in her studio and grabbing her as if she’d asked for it. Heiners also tells his friends in the Party about Elisabeth’s views on painting, which prompts a visit from State Security. “It’s been alleged that you have formed a bourgeois faction within your circle,” the Stasi man says, offering her a cigarette and noticing her shaking hands. “We should have an official sit-down.” (The authorities had initially wanted to suppress this scene, too.) Elisabeth decides to fight back. The way to address the rumors, she thinks, is to speak with Bergemann, the local Party secretary. She goes to his apartment late at night to give her account of what happened and finds “Anna Karenina” and “The Magic Mountain” lying around and a self-portrait by Henri Rousseau on the wall. “Wonderfully encouraged” by Rousseau’s bearded face, she suddenly knows how she can persuade Bergemann. She shows him the portraits she’s made of the workers in the plant. “I don’t know enough about painting,” Bergemann says, looking at hers, “but I can say this: it is useful, it is beautiful, and I like it. . . . Art is about putting across the essence of things, in my opinion.” When Heiners is confronted with what he’s done, behind a leather-upholstered door in the Party secretary’s office, he throws his Party membership card across the desk and leaves his post at the factory.

That fictional leather-upholstered door is of a piece with other memorable objects from the G.D.R. At the offices of the Minister for State Security in Berlin, now preserved as a museum, you can see three telephones sitting on a wooden desk, as if still waiting to pass on rumors that could get a person killed. In Leipzig’s Runde Ecke, the Stasi’s East German HQ, you’ll find a machine designed to cross-shred files and mix them with glue, producing rough gray bricks that rendered their raw material forever unreadable. Among so many losses—a brother, a future, an ideology—Reimann’s “Siblings” has somehow survived, an unlikely patch of political, personal, and aesthetic freedom. ♦

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