Mittman on Hensel, 'Zonenkinder' and Rusch, 'Meine freie deutsche Jugend'

Claudia Rusch
Elizabeth Mittman

Jana Hensel. Zonenkinder. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2002. 172 pp. (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-499-23532-0.Claudia Rusch. Meine freie deutsche Jugend. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2003. 156 pp. (gebunden), ISBN 978-3-10-066058-9.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Mittman (Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages, Michigan State University) Published on H-German (September, 2005)

Fantasies and Fetishes: Confessions of East German Adolescence/Adolescents

First, a couple of Stimmungsbilder from my own notebook: In the summer of 1984, I was living in Leipzig, finishing off a year of studies at the (since renamed) Karl-Marx-Universität. Like the best of study abroad experiences, this one consisted largely of lessons learned outside the seminar rooms, and the pivotal lesson of that summer for me was the stark, palpable recognition of geographic boundedness as a central defining element of East German experience. As I traveled around that small country, I kept bumping up against borders: playing chamber music with a group of medical students in Thüringen, some of our group who were hitchhiking to the next village of Sonneberg--itself a kind of island on a little tongue of land extending into Bavaria--for a church concert had a close shave with authorities when they unwittingly stumbled into the Grenzgebiet; borrowing a friend's bicycle to navigate the idyllic village of Kleinmachnow on the southern border of West Berlin, I turned a corner and was suddenly confronted with the sight of the Berlin Wall just feet away, literally cutting through people's already small backyards[1]; visiting friends who lived at the Baltic Sea and staring out at the same Schwedenfähre evoked by Claudia Rusch in her memoir, I recognized that for my friends the world both began and ended at the open sea.[2] "Unüberwindlich. Eisig. Ein tiefer, dunkler Wassergraben. Eine Wand aus tosenden Wellen. Ein Ort, an dem ich jeden Tag sah, wo meine Welt zu Ende war" (Rusch, pp. 14-15).

The Leipzig train station: a huge, hulking, rather dreary place, a grand old station no longer grand, but so definitely old, and in its dilapidation somehow reeking of history. This was my way in and out of Leipzig countless times during that year abroad, and on so many return trips in the years that followed. Then, one day in the late 1990s, I arrived at the same station, but without warning found that "my" Hauptbahnhof had vanished. In its place: a bright, shiny, multi-level shopping mall.[3] In one way, it had been restored to a state of grandeur; in another, wiped clean of history. After the initial shock, I felt a wave of sadness, an undeniably nostalgic yearning for the cruddy old station, the way it used to be. I found the ache associated with that loss for me echoed in Jana Hensel's words: "Unser Bahnhof aber war dieser Hauptbahnhof nicht mehr.... Diese übermalten Orte kennen wir nicht, sie sind uns nicht vertraut, und als Tor zur Ferne und Schlüssel zur Heimat taugen sie, anders als ihre Vorgänger, nicht mehr" (Hensel, p. 30).

One has to feel for Claudia Rusch and Jana Hensel. Born in 1971 and 1976 respectively, both have written bestsellers that could carry the same subtitle: "Memoirs of an East German Childhood." Published as the push to commodify GDR memories was swiftly rising--a tendency which one can only hope crested with the spate of Ostalgie-TV shows in 2003-2004--their stories have been discussed virtually exclusively within the context of that discourse.[4] Rusch, who grew up in a dissident household (her mother was close friends with Robert and Katja Havemann) and was 18 when the Wall fell, tells stories about growing up under Stasi surveillance and in oppositional circles. Hensel, by contrast, was raised in an apparently apolitical family and that fact, coupled with the significant difference in age--she was just 13 in 1989--steers her own narration of childhood memories toward the innocent and quotidian. Published within a year of each other, in each of these books the process of Identitätsfindung in the years after unification serves as both springboard and mirror for the reconstruction of two quite different childhoods. Constantly pitted against one another in the media, they are scanned for their cultural attitude--whether naively nostalgic (Hensel) or humorously ironic (Rusch)--and more specifically for statements that reveal their political Haltung toward (the idea of) the socialist German state. This significance accorded the author's presumed political position evokes the Cold War all too starkly, when a text was interesting primarily for its extratextuality, for what it could tell us about its author's position with respect to power. In a certain sense, it's the Literaturstreit all over again.[5] What is lost in such debates, of course, is careful attention to the text itself--to meanings constructed by textual imagery, the exploration of literary forms and tropes, narrative structure. In the following, I will try to shift the focus away from categories of political evaluation toward the more literary qualities of both works. I read both as genuine coming-of-age stories, books that share with their readers compelling memories and reflections upon this familiar developmental process. At first glance, Hensel's text stands apart in its merging of the "I" and the "we," and she has been roundly criticized for straying from her own singular experiences and attempting to speak for a generation. I would argue, however, that a comparison of both texts suggests that the figure of the post-Wende adolescent cannot help representing cultural formations larger than herself.

While the German media have turned the childhood memories of Claudia Rusch and Jana Hensel into object lessons in the ongoing debate about the meaning of the GDR--grotesque historical aberration or fundamentally more humane social order?--what strikes me about these texts again and again is how each one has the power to conjure up my own GDR experiences (two of which I have pointed to above), and how, in their focus on personal experience--on individual responses to large historical phenomena--they manifest at once confessional and archaeological character. Both are dominated by a set of intersecting tropes that I would argue are central markers of East German experience. Central among these, ideas of travel, mobility, boundedness, and home inform both the "dissident" text (Rusch) and the "ostalgic" one (Hensel).[6] Whether it is Rusch's constant evocation of physical borders and the resulting human limitations (13 of her 25 stories involve some rumination upon borders and the desire to transgress them), or Hensel's plaintive cry about the defamiliarization of her most intimate surroundings, at the heart of each volume lies a web of reflections upon the meaning(s) of space and place for individual and collective identities. And if fantasies of spatial freedom were central to the East German imagination (though kept closely under wraps in official culture), so too were specific sites of local identification, (unofficial) places in and around which people lived their lives and their dreams. Viewed thus, Hensel's elegy on the train station can be read not merely as an expression of knee-jerk nostalgia. The station was itself a liminal space, a border zone between the here and not-here, an everyday space whose simple presence evoked the desire for absence, and it is, in a sense, the erasure of this complex signifier, not just a GDR "brand," that Hensel mourns.

In both texts, a line is drawn from the fantasy of travel beyond boundaries directly to the fetishization of the foreign. The anecdotes about these things are more numerous in Rusch's memoir, as her biography pointed her in that direction from the start: most poignant perhaps is her obsession with a sweater given to her by Paul, a French teenager she met when he was vacationing one summer in the GDR. It was a passionate, adolescent love affair, with all the pathos provided by the ultimately insurmountable boundary of the Wall. The sweater he left her became the outward expression of her yearning for elsewhere. For her friends, who consumed the love story with gusto, it became a coveted object as well, one that was borrowed for special occasions. Hensel tells a strikingly similar story from the perspective of a somewhat younger girl who spied on French exchange students at a summer camp: "Auf den Schultern der anderen habe ich sie durchs Klofenster wie Außerirdische beobachtet und ihnen beim Tischtennis verzweifelte Liebesbotschaften zugeworfen ... Später dann, wenn alle schliefen, lag ich in meinem Ferienlagerbett und versuchte, mir Paris vorzustellen" (Hensel, pp. 124-125) Desire for freedom from all kinds of constraints courses through the stories Rusch and Hensel tell, and despite their divergent childhoods, both writers exhibit a remarkable lack of enthusiasm for things German. Not only the dissident child, but also the conformist one, sought and found a Wahlheimat of sorts in the larger idea of Europe, and after 1989, both women in fact gravitate toward France, seeking a site beyond Germany altogether for the fulfillment of their fantasies.

The transformation of the French sweater from a personal gift into a collective symbol is emblematic of another related trope running through both Rusch's and Hensel's texts: namely, the extreme psychic attachment to a specific subset of material objects. Here both women confront the power of the idea of consumption in a society in many ways defined by scarcity, and their own helpless enslavement to the fetishization of certain consumer products. The lust for import articles and the development of a peculiarly acquisitionist gaze was a significant aspect of both girls' early socialization. This is another place where I immediately felt both texts telling the truth of my own experiences. In the later 1980s, I spent another extended period in the GDR, this time in East Berlin, where proximity to the West heightened my sensory perceptions in ways that I found at once jarring and inescapable. Against any conscious volition, my eyes learned to ferret out who was wearing Western clothes, and who was not. I developed a creepy sensitivity for the little hierarchies that permeated East German society, roughly dividing those Easterners without access to Westgeld from those with such access. Walking down the street, I wanted at once to pass as a native and to be admired by others for my own cool "Wessi"-ness.

What I experienced and analyzed self-critically as perverse and petty, bourgeois in the bleakest sense, Rusch and Hensel explore forthrightly and unapologetically. Rusch describes the "Trauma" she experienced as one without Western connections and hence without access to the Intershops in the GDR, and the inordinate effort she has expended since 1989 in acquiring that special Intershop aroma (she claims to have found it in fabric softener, which she uses, against the protestations of her ecologically minded Western friends). The obsession with Western objects is finally distilled in an irrational love of Raider chocolate bars, a desire whose fulfillment structures a whole chapter. Hensel's ruminations on the topic go further than Rusch's, probably because of her book's stronger focus on the stuff of everyday life. In a chapter entitled "Die hässlichen Jahre: Über den guten Geschmack," she offers up the confessions of a conformist, beginning with the embarrassment at her parents' awkward assimilation into the post-Wende culture of excess. Eventually, she admits that the sense of shame really lies in her own insecurity about succeeding in the process of assimilation into a culture whose material aspect had long provided the standard by which good taste could (and should) be measured. (As children, she and her friends had believed the rumor that pink erasers--a Western product--were flavored, and licked them "heimlich und genussvoll" [Hensel, p. 51].)

I found it extremely painful to read Hensel's passages describing in grim detail the effortful mimicry of Western friends in those first years after unification, the strained relations with parents who are less agile in making the leap across systems of social meaning. So much of the post-1989 parts of both Rusch's and Hensel's memoirs ultimately revolves around the East German inferiority complex: the persistent sense of inadequacy, of not belonging, not reading the wider world correctly. In the end, it struck me as a stroke of poetic genius that both women cast the transition between systems through the frame of a coming-of-age narrative. The adolescent anxieties that each of them narrates casually, as a part of their literal lives, ultimately become a cipher for East-West relations as a whole. To regard the psychosocial dynamics between the GDR and the West not in gendered terms, as has so often been done in the past fifteen years, but rather in terms of age, sheds a different light on how it feels to be East German in unified Germany. Not as dominated, oppressed, or even metaphorically raped woman, but as insecure, gawky, naive adolescent. The path that both Rusch and Hensel describe as they and their stories move toward and through the millennium is both literally and metaphorically the path toward adulthood. Maturity is manifested, in the end, by the resolution of the combined fantasies and sorrows about travel and its restrictions, the sense of place and its loss. Each narrative closes with the image of its heroine seated self-assuredly behind the steering wheel of her own car--Rusch in search of a particular bar in Paris, Hensel simply crossing the Spree to visit her friend in Kreuzberg--navigating the new world without maps, and brimming with pride in the accomplishment. They're all grown up, and they will no longer be defined by East or West. Not, that is, until the reviewers get hold of their books.


[1]. This phenomenon provides the title for a valuable anthology of interviews with East German women in the period immediately after unification: Dinah Dodds and Pam Allen-Thompson, eds., The Wall in My Backyard: East German Women in Transition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994).

[2]. Helke Misselwitz's 1988 documentary film, Winter adé exploits the ocean as boundary as a powerful visual metaphor for the life experience of women--a metaphor that resonates differently in the East German imagination precisely because of the taboo on transgressing those borders.

[3]. The largest terminal station in Europe, its renovation was completed in November, 1997. Occupying 30,000 square meters on 3 levels, the Promenaden consist of some 140 specialty stores with a focus on fashion and textiles, a consumer electronics store, specialized groceries, service companies, restaurants and cafés.

[4]. Cf. Susan Boettcher's essay on H-German, "MfG 2: Boettcher on Ostdeutscher Herbst 2003--Zwischenbericht Ostalgie," Nov. 25, 2003. This posting can be found in the H-German discussion logs: < >.

[5]. I refer here of course to the debate around Christa Wolf's ill-fated 1990 publication of Was bleibt (Berlin: Aufbau, 1990), another kind of GDR memoir. On the debate, see Thomas Anz, ed., "Es geht nicht um Christa Wolf" : der Literaturstreit im vereinten Deutschland (München: Spangenberg, 1991) and Bernd Wittek, Der Literaturstreit im sich vereinigenden Deutschland : eine Analyse des Streits um Christa Wolf und die deutsch-deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur in Zeitungen und Zeitschriften (Marburg: Tectum, 1997).

[6]. Many GDR authors have grappled with the dual tensions of Heimat/freedom in the post-Wende period, e.g. Helga Königsdorf, Gleich neben Afrika (Berlin: Aufbau, 1992) and Angela Krauß, Die æberfliegerin (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1995). For a discussion of these texts, see Elizabeth Mittman, "On the Road to Nowhere: Utopian Geography in Post-Unification Literature" Seminar 37 (2001): pp. 335-354.

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Citation: Elizabeth Mittman. Review of Hensel, Jana, Zonenkinder and Rusch, Claudia, Meine freie deutsche Jugend. H-German, H-Net Reviews. September, 2005. URL:

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