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Cult East German novelist now published in English

  • February 02, 2023

The story is set months before the construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961. But even before the concrete barrier was erected, the border between the East and the West was already restricted, in an attempt to stop the “brain drain” from the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR).

“Siblings” by Brigitte Reimann is a cult classic of GDR literature that has now been translated into English, 50 years after the author’s death from cancer at the age of 39 in 1973.

The novel follows Elisabeth, a young painter, and her brother Uli, as he reveals that he is about to leave for the West.

Their older brother Konrad has already defected years ago, but Elisabeth’s disappointment is stronger in Uli’s case, since the two are very close. So she tries to convince her sibling to stay.

For Uli, there is no future in oppressive East Germany. The young engineer has apparently been blacklisted by the state for trivial reasons.

As an outspoken artist, Elisabeth has also faced difficulties with authorities, but she demonstrates through the story of her clash with her local party secretary that such matters can be sorted out with enough determination.

Book cover of
‘Siblings,’ translated by Lucy Jones, is published by Penguin Classics

Inspired by author’s personal story

Brigitte Reimann’s own brother had also left the GDR in 1960, and the author started writing “Siblings” shortly afterwards.

Like her novel’s character Elisabeth, Reimann lived on the grounds of an industrial plant — in the author’s case, in the new town of Hoyerswerda. Many artists and writers did this, following a state program called the Bitterfelder Weg, which encouraged them to engage first-hand with the working class instead of remaining secluded among a cultural elite.

Through her diaries, it is known that Reimann believed passionately in socialism, and Elisabeth’s arguments reflect her own.

Now that we know how the GDR turned into a totalitarian state, the views of the author, then in her 20s, appear politically naive. But as translator Lucy Jones points out, at the time, Germany was facing the aftermath of the Second World War and the Nazis’ legacy, and Reimann was driven by “a wish to be part of creating a state that is absolutely the opposite of fascism.”

When discussing the book, the translator hopes to avoid the usual Western cliches about the GDR. “The fact is that things were a lot messier than what any kind of films have conveyed so far,” she told DW.

Indeed, despite her idealism, Reimann was also critical of many aspects of the new state’s structures — which also comes through in Elisabeth’s reflections.

Reimann fictionalized her “deeply personal conflict, but at the same time the conflict of an entire generation” as they dealt with the division of these two Germanys, Nele Holdack told DW. The senior editor of modern classics at the publisher Aufbau Verlag is overseeing a new German-language edition of the book, which will be published on February 14. Holdack feels the author was “very courageous to tackle this topic in such a state of limbo.”

Black and white photo of different newspaper articles and typewritten texts.
Reimann’s original manuscript and various documents were found in a closet in 2022Image: Schloss und Stadtmuseum Hoyerswerda

Original manuscript found in 2022

The novel clearly exposes the doubts of the young generation, to a point that it’s even surprising from today’s perspective that “Siblings” managed to find its way past GDR censors.

The German publishers at Aufbau Verlag recently found out more about the backstory behind Reimann’s novel, after having realized it had not been properly documented when they started preparing material to mark the 50th anniversary of Reimann’s death on February 20.

By pure coincidence, the original manuscript of “Die Geschwister” was found last year in what is described by the publisher as a “Harry Potter closet under the staircase” in Reimann’s former apartment house in Hoyerswerda. This document now serves as the basis for the new German edition.

Bookcover of German version of
A revised version of ‘Die Geschwister,’ based on the original manuscript, will be published by Aufbau on February 20

As Reimann mentioned in a 1962 diary entry ahead of the original German publication of “Siblings,” different scenes were to be deleted — from Elisabeth’s heated discussion with an agent of the Stasi, the GDR’s notorious state security service, to references to her sexually liberated lifestyle — but the author “boxed her way” into convincing her publishers to keep them in the first print edition that came out a year later.

To get the book approved at the time, the publishers then found strategies to downplay the system-critical scenes of the book. They stated in their assessment of the work that Elisabeth’s arguments were so persuasive that the reader can hope that Uli “will find the right path.”

To obtain the Ministry of Culture’s permission to publish, an external report written by someone who did not belong to the literary scene was also required. The first external report, too negative, was never submitted by the publishers to the authorities. They rather commissioned a second one, that came to the conclusion that “by touching on real problems,” the story “could stimulate more significant discussions,” compared to the “harm that could be done through a simplified presentation of  [the GDR’s] problems.” 

Vocal against GDR bureaucrats

Censorship increased following the 11th plenum of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in 1965, and Reinmann became, like many other artists, politically disillusioned, but she kept fighting for writers’ freedom of expression. “She really believed that bureaucrats should have nothing to say about how writers should be able to express themselves,” says Jones. “She had this very vocal, angry presence at these meetings where she stood up for freedom of speech.”

As a free-spoken writer who pursued her artistic ambitions and led a sexually liberated lifestyle, Reimann still embodies today’s feminist values.

“She was such a vibrant woman,” says editor Holdack, and “was convinced that she had the right to a free, self-determined, happy life and was not at all willing to make compromises. She really bravely stood up for her own convictions and was able to assert herself very well in a hard-fought literary field, which in the GDR was also dominated by men.”

Another aspect Holdback finds topical in “Siblings” is that in times of political uncertainty, we all have the responsibility to determine our ideals and what we are prepared to give up to follow them. 

A handwritten text.
Reimann surprisingly managed to keep system-critical scenes in her novelImage: Schloss und Stadtmuseum Hoyerswerda

Finding a lost home in Reimann’s books

Reimann still manages to unite people with a certain kind of feeling, as Lucy Jones realized while attending a recent book launch.

The event to mark the publication of Carolin Würfel’s “Three Women Dreamed of Socialism,” a non-fiction work which explores Reimann’s friendship with fellow East German female writers, Christa Wolf and Maxie Wander, was packed with people who enthusiastically recalled reading the late author’s books in their youth, including Reimann’s most famous novel, “Franziska Linkerhand,” an incomplete work that was nevertheless published posthumously in 1974 and became a bestseller.  

As translator Jones points out, citizens of the former GDR “literally don’t have the country anymore in which they grew up in.” Without being nostalgic about a totalitarian state, she says, we can still acknowledge that these people have lost their country. And now “the books have become the country where they feel at home.”


Edited by: Louisa Schaefer

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